How I joined a cult – Chapter Three: Traveling

Continued from Chapter Two

Asanga is about 39, tall, sporty, blonde, very German. She got her first initiation from the founder, so she’s definitely very senior. In fact, she’s married, on paper, to my guru, an American, and shares his last name. It’s a purely transactional relationship. She tells me the story of how they physically got married – she was taken to the registry office in the back of a van like a dangerous creature, and the happy couple didn’t look at each other once. It must have looked funny. I guess sham marriages to Americans weren’t a concern back then. They’re divorced now. He sent her flowers to thank her.

She now becomes my authority, so we are not friends. Surrendering to Krishna now means doing what she says. She has been on the road selling books many years, she knows the business. She is from a village in the mountains outside Cologne, so she decides that her next mission is to open a new temple in Cologne. At the time, there are permanent temples in Berlin, Heidelberg, a community in Hamburg and a farm in the Bavarian Forest near Passau. Germans consider the Hare Krishnas a cult and don’t ever warm to them. There was a well-publicised scandal when the first people the guru sent to preach in Germany had a castle as a temple, and when it was raided by police, weapons were found. Since then, the Hare Krishnas are in the same category as Scientology, no matter how many nice Indian cultural events they put on.

We are joined by two other new girls, Hanna from Lüneburg and Ivana from Serbia. We pack our belongings into a red Toyota Hiace fitted with a high roof, storage space and a hob. We have sleeping bags and our mats. We get year planners and sturdy shoulder bags and set out to learn the business of selling paintings.

The paintings are ordered straight from Hong Kong where they are painted en masse. We carry them in a big roll under the arm and go door to door in offices and small industrial areas. The sell is that we are a struggling community of artists trying to open a gallery in Munich. I’ve never been to Munich but somehow I get by with this.

We all sleep in the van, two up, two down. We get up at five, shower at motorway rest stops. We chant for two hours, sometimes walking back and forth near the van, sometimes exploring the area. If I sit down I fall asleep so I don’t. When we are done with our sixteen rounds, we go back to the van and Asanga drives us to the place we are going work at that day. We’re in the Rhine area around Köln and Düsseldorf, so there is a lot of business.

While we drive, we sing the daily programme of prayers and when we arrive, we read from the books while Asanga cooks in the back. I usually fall asleep at some stage, sometimes in the middle of reading out loud. (Still, this kind of programme ends up working for me. I never do get used to the full temple programme in the end.) When we’re done, we have a massive plate of food. Asanga is a good cook and it suits me to eat like this. I take some nuts, dry fruits during the day, and buy juice. I don’t feel hungry.

Nine in the morning is an excellent time to start going door-to-door. The chanting is supposed to clear the mind. It shuts down something. I lose my skepticism but I also lose the voice telling me I can’t do things. So I learn to sell and communicate, and I learn it really fast. Asanga is a good teacher.

I do this for my guru. I get a catalogue from Fiat and decorate my planner with pictures of Ducato vans which is what he wants to get. There is dialogue with him in my head during the day. I have a walkman and listen to lecture tapes during breaks. Once a day I sit down to write to him into a diary. I am told that all this is perfectly spiritual and purifying. I do the paintings as my personal devotional service and because I don’t know Krishna, and sentimental love is not encouraged (of course not, it’s Germany), it is seen as perfect to learn to love Krishna by loving the spiritual master, and this love is practical. I am happy that I have found a situation where I can function and everyone seems to be happy that I am being useful. So I finally actually write to the guru and officially ask to become his disciple.

We go back to Heidelberg for the weekends to wash the van and do our laundry, and to visit the temple. We’ve been out and about all week, so we feel boisterous and elated now that we’re back. We get taken aside and told that we must be quiet and chaste and cover up else we might disturb the brahmacaris (monks). I don’t see that I might disturb anyone in such a way but I comply. Hanna is far more beautiful and intriguing, and Ivana is fiery and powerful. I still haven’t got a clue how I’m perceived. It’s probably changing from the sluggish person I was at first. There’s a big feast on Sunday and loud kirtans in the temple room in the evenings. The boys are back from the road too, the genders are still very nicely separated.

On Saturdays we sometimes go and sell books instead of paintings. Selling paintings for Krishna is just as much devotional service, but selling books is one step up, because it was the founder’s central and most important wish. We take a pile of books from the car and shove them into people’s chests in quiet areas of shopping streets, tell them about yoga and the self, and they buy them or not. I’m not good at it. For one thing I don’t think the books are very good, even as a full time completely committed member. They are cobbled together from transcribed lectures and are not very well edited. The devotees don’t care, because the main thing is that the poor lost souls hear the name of Krishna and read the words of the pure devotee. Another thing is that I am reserved. I learn to overcome my shyness and to use body language to change the dynamics between me an another person, touching shoulders or elbow, building trust.

It’s Asanga’s 40th birthday. I bake her a cake and we have a party. We prepare a play for her. I saw a display in a pharmacy that gave me the idea. It was a little man being inflated and deflated through hidden valves, I don’t remember what it was supposed to illustrate, some cough medicine I think.

So we play ourselves, as we get inflated and more confident in our ability to sell and Asanga ‘giving us the Keule’ (club) frequently, deflating us, then building us up again. There is some plot to it and a lot of physical comedy. The actual ‘getting the Keule’ isn’t that much fun. I’m less tough than the other two.

I make marzipan and nougat for the cake and build it up to resemble the building we just bought for the new temple.

Twice a year we go to the festivals on the farm. Everyone comes there from all of Europe and again we sleep in big rooms on our mats. Some of the other people in the room are Hungarians. They seem to talk to each other a lot.

The farm has more intricate worship. There are two altars, two sets of morning greetings. There are hours of singing and dancing. By now the three of us have gravitated to our various gurus and they are sometimes there. Hanna’s guru is a pujari (doing the worship) on one altar, mine is on the other. We do a lot of service, sometimes through the night. There is fasting and then feasting.

Festivals are always a high, Asanga brings us back down quickly. We don’t waste time being happy, instead we stay humble and get straight back to work.

There is a Slovenian devotee with a flooring business near Köln. He becomes the practical uncle for us and helps with the renovation of the apartment building. I and the other girls don’t get involved, we just make the money. Asanga manages everything and he is at her side. They would have made a good couple but the practicalities of that didn’t work out.

A few months later, the two top floor flats are ready and we move in.

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