How I joined a cult – Chapter Four: Köln

The building we move into is on the wrong side of the river. There is a Turkish family in one of the flats below. I feel bad for them, but they all have to move out. There is a lot of bad feeling against us, that’s par for the course when you’re a Hare Krishna in Germany. Those who started it didn’t have much sense so those who came later followed that example.

At first, life doesn’t change that much for us. We get up, shower, chant, have a programme of singing prayers to the gurus, read together or one of us gives a lecture from the books, have breakfast, and go out to sell paintings. I take the fast train to Düsseldorf and systematically work off street by street. It’s a rich city and I have good results.

I don’t get 10 percent for the guru anymore. I sent 5,000 Deutschmarks and they got him a van, after that I was allowed to take 5 percent, but then it stopped. I don’t negotiate well. I now sometimes write letters that I send him, and he sends letters back. They are typed on yellow paper. I meet a lot of shop keepers and one interior designer lets me have bits of remnants. I sew a book cover as a present for the guru. At the next festival I see him use it. I’m so happy.

The house changes. The next flat is ready on the floor below ours and it is designated as a men’s ashram. A carpenter moves in to work on the ground floor. There is a restaurant and industrial kitchen planned. Other boys and women move in too. We’re getting a bookkeeper from Bavaria.

We slowly get more luxuries – thicker mattresses and desks to write on. We start learning how to drive. We go shopping for clothes once a year and if we need something small, we use the money from the paintings. We don’t need much.

I get into ‘science preaching’ – the founder considered modern science demonic and wanted his disciples to be able to prove his theories scientifically. So there is a Bhaktivedanta Institute and one of their people comes to visit us. He is American and very nice to listen to. I take one of their publications, Origins, where they disprove evolution and other theories, and start translating it into German.

It’s now early 1992 and we are preparing for a trip to India. The headquarters are there and devotees go for the annual festival in March, as they can afford it. We do everything together so I don’t make any decisions for myself. We get visas and buy things from a list. We have saris already so we don’t need clothes.

In India, we are freaked out by the cities and just move on quickly to Mayapur, about 3 hours taxi ride north of Calcutta. I just follow what everyone else is doing. There is a walking tour of the places some saints in the tradition have visited and I sign up to it. My guru is there too.

There are about 800 devotees from all over the world on this walking tour. We have our bags, a bucket and water jug, which gets taken on a lorry from one place to the next. There are tents built for us where we sleep. We shower at wells with canvas walls put around us. We leave underskirts on. I don’t sleep well because the generator is loud and stinks.

We walk barefoot and there is a senior god sister of mine (disciple of the same guru) that I stick with. At this time there are only about ten of us worldwide, about 5 of them initiated. There are other gurus on this tour that have thousands of disciples. We feel a bit more connected. We sometimes literally walk in his footsteps. It’s all very spiritual and purifying.

There is a male disciple who is the personal servant of the guru. He’s Polish and seems to me a bit of a wet blanket. I mention that to Alakananda who I’m walking with and she admonishes me about Vaishnava-aparadha, saying bad things about devotees, the most dangerous thing in spiritual life. I feel guilty.

The facilities are laughable and most devotees have some stomach problems by now. I also get a cold because I don’t sleep and the mornings are chilly. But it’s all considered tapasyam, spiritual austerity, which strengthens and purifies. The souls of my feet are growing thick.

There are rousing kirtans everywhere we stop and the gurus take turns to tell stories. There is a tree where somebody surrendered to someone, there is someone else’s birthplace. I just want to be near my guru because it’s so peaceful there.

When we are back at HQ, I get a little lost. The guru isn’t always there but I try to run some errands for him. I spend time with the other girls but they have their own things going on. I have some problem and go back to Asanga and her friend comments that I am like a child because I’m in tears. They laugh. I’m confused. I don’t enjoy India much.

We go to the other big ISKCON temple in Vrindavan near Delhi. We buy lots of sarees and other things for the new temple. We take rickshaws, and the place is not very human. The water is terrible and the river has dried up. The temple is very opulent with white marble. We travel around a little and do more walking, it’s the festival of Holi and all inhabitants have strict instructions to leave the Westerners alone with the dyes. They mostly do but outside in a small village someone gets me with some sprays of purple. I have those spots on my bead bag for ages afterwards and am very proud of them.

We come back with our various bugs and I lose a lot of weight. It’s now April 1992. In May we go to the festival on the farm. I get my initiation the day after the big festival. Three gurus sit side by side on their thrones with their flower garlands, two Germans and my American, and the aspiring disciples sit on the floor around a fire pit decorated with fruits, flowers and coconuts. One by one we are called by name and go up to the guru, the guys prostrate themselves, we bow down on the floor from a kneeling position. We get asked a set of questions and answer with vows: no eat meat, fish or eggs, no gambling, no illicit sex and no intoxication. We vow to chant sixteen rounds a day. Then we get given our new names, there’s a rousing applause, and we take our seats around the fire. Then there is a fire sacrifice with a lot of mantra chanting, and at the end we all walk around the fire and get a little ash mixed with oil on our forehead.

I wear a horrible saree with silver and stripes, I can hardly make it stick around my body and over my head, and I definitely can’t walk in it. Style isn’t my thing. My hair is always just long enough to wear in a low pony tail and I don’t wear any make-up. Sometimes I have my eyelashes dyed black, because they are so light, but that’s the extend of my beauty routine. We all wear wooden bead necklaces, now that I’m initiated I get to wear three strands. Mine is messy, I don’t give it much attention. Once in a meeting with a customer I get asked straight out if I’m in a cult. Often people tell me I have to be more confident in my approach. But it all somehow works so I keep doing it.

I develop back pains because I’m carrying about 10 kgs under one arm for hours every day. There is a chiropractor in Düsseldorf who helps. I also meet a nice dentist who bought a painting. My teeth are bad because I wasn’t looked after well as a child. But it’s all much better now.

The temple is slowly coming together. The loft is converted into a temporary temple room and we have deities of our own now. They are the same kind as in Heidelberg. I learn to do the deity worship and bathe them once a week. There is a big ritual around this and I need to concentrate. I also learn to play the harmonium and lead the chanting more often. We start having our own Sunday programmes for new visitors. I don’t easily give lectures but I am happy to play and sing. I learn all the melodies from tapes of my guru, he is a very skilled musician.

Later that year I get my driver’s license. I pass the theory easily but the practical test takes two attempts. Hanna – now Harakanti – gives up and tries again later. I get given a car from our business man’s company and start driving rather than taking the train.

I am pushed into going on the road with my own party of girls. I don’t want to. I have no interest in becoming someone else’s boss. My guru gave me the name Anuradha and said that its a name of someone in the spiritual world who manages all the other girls. I’m thinking yes, maybe when I’m ready.

Not doing this is not an option so I take a van and some girls and go. It doesn’t go well. I get my period and just want to curl up and die. One of the girls leaves in the middle of the week, she’s phoned her brother to pick her up. I feel bad. They don’t try to make me move up the ranks again. I go back to paintings for a while.

Early in 93 the paintings stop working. I’m a little burned out, and the German economy is taking a turn for the worse. The temple now has a restaurant and I get involved there. There’s a cook and his wife and little boy. We have new people joining from around Köln and Harakanti now takes the role of their teacher. They are all boys and they hang on her every word. She’s beautiful and a little kooky.

A guy joined and brought his Clavinova with him. It’s in the cellar and I go play it sometimes. Then there is a guy called Michael joining. He takes me out to visit his friends sometimes. I must be very boring. I develop a crush on him.

I don’t realise how cool this all is. We have a temple that is quite naturally run by women. This in an organisation where women don’t get to become gurus or have any other say. Asanga still takes care of everything, with help from the Heidelberg president. She has bad migraines and sometimes can’t talk or do anything for days and just lies in her blackened out room. She takes strong caffeine tablets for it. Our relationship is a little more frazzled. She’s still the authority but we’re also good friends. Sometimes that doesn’t work.

I try selling candles instead of paintings. They are dipped in a variety of colours and carved while still warm. The devotees make them outside Heidelberg. They are too garish for people in our part of Germany so we try it down south in the mountains. I have a couple of weeks where I travel on my own in the Black Forest. I stay on camp grounds and have the van to myself. It’s the best time I’ve had in years. The candles are fragile and don’t travel well, so it doesn’t work.

I start working in the restaurant. An Indian vegetarian menu is still a novelty and we get a lot of interest, even though we are in a bad location and there’s hardly any parking. I also bake bread, grow herbs, have ideas for other things we can be doing, and sometimes I deliver food. I clean the kitchen floor every night. The kitchen is a work of art.

The last flats are empty and there is work on a temple room and a guru ashram for visitors. We pick out wallpaper and I get catalogues of furniture from people I now know. We get golden taps for the en suite bathroom. It’s all so beautiful.

My guru comes to visit. I’m so nervous. We cook for him and I run back to the shop about eight times to get things I forgot. I’m exploding with excitement. And when he’s finally there it’s such a high, because this is at I’ve been working towards all this time. I don’t actually remember anything he said but he must have liked it. Lots of other people come to visit and it becomes a part of the Krishna scenery in Germany.

We now have lots more girls. Linda from Denmark works in the kitchen and Shyama-Sakhi is out and about with us. There’s a lot of life. I don’t take the change from being outside to staying indoors too well. I also eat the leftover food from last night for breakfast which is never a good idea. I go quite sluggish quite fast.

One quiet evening I’m standing behind the counter in the restaurant when a party of eight or nine young American guys bursts in, hungry and excited. They are from a straight edge band called Shelter, all devotees, all vegetarians. I have no idea what just happened. We manage to find enough food for all of them. They stick around for a while and are quite an impressive presence. I quite like their drummer (Ekanath or Ekachakra?) but don’t let on – I don’t actually have the ability to flirt, I just have crushes. Shyama-Sakhi however takes a shine to a gorgeous Italian New Yorker called Vince, who used to be in a band with Zac, now of Rage against the Machine fame. She later goes to America and marries him, they have three kids and are lovely people.

A few months later some of us travel to some of their gigs. They are brilliant and it’s all fully bona fide because its about Krishna. I get some new energy from listening to them. I almost end up in trouble when we inadvertently cross the border into Switzerland and one of the girls in the van doesn’t have a visa. I manage to convince the border guard to just let us go back into Germany. That could have ended badly.
I’m back in the restaurant and the injection of energy doesn’t last. It becomes obvious that this is not going anywhere, the restaurant isn’t doing a lot of business either. I am not able to consider that I could just do something entirely different, even though on some of my sales trips I have met people running printing businesses where I could easily have gotten work. There is a call from Brahma-Muhurta, the Bavarian who runs the North European arm of the Hare Krishna publisher, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. He already wanted me to come to Sweden and work for them back in 1990 when I first joined, but it was decided to let me go on the road with Asanga first. Now in late ’93 I am burned out and a bit useless, the Germans don’t tell him that and let me go to Sweden.

I pack my suitcase and a box of my belongings, ask for travel money, stay long enough for the new year festival at our business man friend’s house, and in January I travel up to the frozen north.


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