How I joined a cult – Chapter Two: Heidelberg

After a long drive in a van with the same people I went to Zurich with I arrive in Heidelberg. The temple occupies rented furniture showrooms above the bus garage. The women’s quarters are a row of rooms with bunk beds built out of chipboard.The beds have no mattresses. Devotees sleep in sleeping bags on thin camping mats. They can be rolled up and wiped underneath every morning.

I learn about the mode of ignorance, the enemy of devotional service. Sleep, mess, dirt, time spent on your own not chanting, not showering every time you slept, or had a bowel movement – all the mode of ignorance and bad. The temple programme starts at 4.15am and everyone is showered and wearing clean clothes by then. I am a little shell-shocked. The programme is held before the altar. On the altar are two ‘deities’ – dressed up metal figures about 25cm high – and lots of pictures of saints and gurus. The women stand in the back, behind the men, with their heads covered. During the first part of the singing, everyone stands and sort of swings in one place from side to side, during the second bit everyone sits on the floor.

There is puja, a plate of things offered to the deities with circular movements – incense, flower, water, a handkerchief, a fan made out of the tail of a yak. There is singing and bowing down to the floor. Then there is a small plant, with a sequinned skirt around the pot, brought in and everyone sings a song to it. There is walking around the plant three times and everyone watering the plant with a tiny spoon, and more bowing down and saying things in Sanskrit. There is a prayer to ask forgiveness for any offenses one might have committed against the devotees.

At five, the end of the first communal part of the programme, everyone starts their individual chanting of the mantra on beads. This is supposed to be loud enough so ones own ears can hear it. The men stay in the temple room while the women go into the vestibule. The chanting is hard work while tired. Sleeping is really frowned upon.

The next bit of the programme starts at 7 with the puja to the living gurus. The song is in Bengali and more energetic than the earlier ones. Everyone stands and sort of rocks in front of a small row of pictures, someone in front is offering that plate full of things again. A drum is played and some cymbals. At 7.15, the deities are greeted. Everyone files into the temple room, the curtain to the altar is opened and a song from the album produced by George Harrison is played. The deities have been dressed in their day clothes in the meantime and are wearing fresh flower garlands. There is a huge operation involved in keeping them dressed and fed every day. (yes we are still talking about the two small metal figures.)

This is all going on for a couple of weeks and I somehow manage to survive it. I take one or two walks on the Philosophenweg and take in some of the beauty of Heidelberg.

The temple is run by a ‘temple president’ and his wife. There are department heads and everything is very well organised. I again meet many beautiful women. I am shy and not very good with interpersonal skills. There is a lady responsible for all the new joiners. I never could get a grip on how I was seen by other people. I don’t remember talking a lot. I later find out there weren’t many who thought I’d make it.

People accept that I’ve made a decision re. the guru. I start collecting his lectures on tapes – there is a guy in the temple who sells them, so I get a few at a time. He has a nice voice and way of talking. I am encouraged to listen to his lectures – listening is a higher form of association than actually seeing him.

I help in the kitchen and am not very good at it. I wash a lot of pots. I meet a devotee called Padmanabha who takes my pulse and tells me to eat spices and honey because I feel sluggish. I liked Padmanabha, he had some good sense. He has passed away since. I have a massive cold. I go swimming once or twice.

There is a structured 3 months ‘bhakta programme’ I’m enrolled in so I can learn the basics. There are some other girls who joined at the same time. Another one from East Germany. I later learn she regularly has ‘meetings’ in the cellar with the guy who sells the tapes, and who is married. He is also slightly repulsive. There are some male devotees from Argentina I try to practice my Spanish on. It’s not going very well. I don’t remember falling for anyone.

I am accepted as older devotee by people who join after me. I remember a girl from Croatia talking to me in English about how puffed up and in ignorance she is. I have no idea what she is talking about. She likes me because we have the same guru. I still haven’t written to my guru.

We go to a different place deep in the Odenwald for a week or so. It’s a nice house with a Steiner feel to it. There are some other people but it’s much quieter than the central temple. There is some structured learning but also free time. I am so hungry that I eat all the nuts out of the breakfast müsli.

There is Tribhanga, one of the older devotees, and we watch him go up a hill. He picks up an apple from under a tree and eats it. We are shocked. We only just learned that everything we eat needs to be offered to Krishna. And here is this guy just eating an apple? Shocking.

Back in the temple in Heidelberg I am asked to design new stationery for the temple. Which I do, with a nice stylised lotus flower. It’s nice to have my own space to work in and peace for a few hours. I almost get respected.

I go to the Mitfahrzentrale to arrange a lift share. I need to go home to see my dying nan for the last time. She is conscious and I manage to say good-bye. The devotees said she was bad and will go to hell because she ate meat all her life, I think this is bullshit. I love my nan and she’s had a shit life but she took care of 7 children, on her own, after having lost everything during the war. All her children ‘made something of themselves’. I can’t even imagine how she managed.

I go home to my mum’s and try to live the devotee life. It’s not going well. I’m running around visiting friends with my hand inside a bead bag and people think I’ve hurt myself. I go back to the temple.

Later I find out people thought I had left. I wished I had.

The 3 months of bhakta programme are ending. I meet other disciples of my guru. There’s Vainateya, a tall dark artist from somewhere in Yugoslavia. I could fall for him but now there is the guru to direct all my love and passion to. I hear from Vainateya that he needs a van to travel and preach in. I set my mind on collecting money for him. I develop all sorts of ideas with making sweets and selling them.

Visvadeva, the very nice temple president, listens to me. I go back to normal temple life and a few days later there is another conversation. I am told that another devotee just had exactly that idea, only on a much bigger scale.

I am introduced to Asanga, a very senior devotee. She was traveling and selling books with her friend Rohini and had the feeling that wasn’t going anywhere. So she wants to start collecting money to open a new temple. I’m going to travel and sell stuff with her. I cut a deal that I get to keep 10 percent for the guru, I think I can do it. The love for my guru is very much encouraged. It will get me through everything. Maybe it will give them the chance to get me to do everything. But it’s love so it can’t be bad?

I finish my 3 months of training and get ready to go traveling.

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