Ananda and Oakland’s Krishna Consciousness

In Uncategorized on August 18, 2009 at 12:00 am

Random Pittsburgh 020

This news story first appeared in Pulp in 2004. The photograph was taken two weeks ago, across the street from where I met Ananda.

“Would you like a book?” the man with the short-cropped hair says, holding out a small paperback with a picture of a stone temple on its cover. Once you accept it, he adds, “We are also accepting donations. Do you have a dollar? Anything? I can make change for a twenty…”

His name is Ananda, and he comes from the Palace of Gold, a colossal Hindu-style ashram located on a former dumping ground in rural West Virginia. Ananda stands in front of the 7-Eleven on Forbes Avenue, beneath the brick dormitories of Pitt’s campus, offering books to passersby and then asking, in a soothing, unthreatening voice, if they could spare some cash.

As the wisdom goes: Where there are students, there’s a Hare Krishna just itching to divinely inspire them. Based on the epic poem The Bhaggavad-Gita, a story about the warrior Arjuna and his selfless duty to the Lord Krishna in the field of battle, the Hare Krishna movement has been a college campus staple since the late 1960’s.

For the past eight years, Ananda says, he has been a follower of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupâda, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. His Divine Grace was born in Calcutta, India in 1894 and immigrated to the U.S. with the express purpose of “spread[ing] Krishna Consciousness in the English language,” a task set upon him by his own guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, back in 1922. Prabhudpâda died – or as his followers say, “left this mortal world” – in 1977, but not before traveling the globe, founding Back to Godhead magazine, and establishing the Palace of Gold – which is set on the 500-acre New Vrindaban Community. He also authored several books, including The Nectar of Instruction, which Ananda dutifully hands out on the Oakland streets.

While he wasn’t born with this name, Ananda – a 28-year-old with soft eyes and a clean-cut appearance – accepted his name from his guru as a spiritual coming-of-age. Like most converted devotees of ancient Indian faiths, he prefers not to discuss his life before enlightenment. His birth-name isn’t important, and neither are his origins. Ananda seems savvy enough to know that most of his encounters will likely raise suspicion – Pitt students are famously skeptical about street-preaching, and a young Caucasian with a Hindi-sounding name is likely to raise eyebrows. But this has hardly dissuaded him from advertising cosmic awareness.

Pitt’s campus hasn’t seen Hare Krishnas in large numbers since 1998, when drum-beating, brightly-robed acolytes were common on the sidewalks, especially in the well-trafficked square in front of Hillman Library. Lately Oakland has seen an explosion of Mormon missionaries – most of them smiley young men with ties and dress shirts tucked into their slacks, their sleeves rolled up. So are Krishna pilgrims the next wave of proselytizing?

Ananda is vague. “This weekend,” he says, his voice calm, “there are more coming.”

Well, a little Consciousness never hurt anybody, did it?


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