CharlotteObserver: Uptown Charlotte has long served as an open-air church for Christian street preachers, waving their Bibles and preaching the Gospel to busy passersby.
In what may be a testament to the city’s increasingly diverse religious landscape, add a chanting family of Hare Krishnas to the mix.
Most days, you’ll find Devaprastha Dasa and Jennifer Rawson at Trade and Tryon streets, playing drums and hand cymbals, and chanting nonstop praises to Krishna, or God. Their children, Anuradha, 12, and Govinda, 13 months, are at their side.
As Hare Krishnas, they are members of what’s considered a sect of Hinduism.
But unlike most Hindus, Dasa and Rawson are not from India.
He grew up as David Willard in Cincinnati, where his father was the rector of a black Episcopal church. She was raised in Seattle, where her mother was an agnostic and her father “a proud atheist.”
Their separate spiritual journeys led them both to become Hare Krishna followers, or “devotees,” in the 1990s.
And 18 months ago, the family relocated to Charlotte from Austin, Texas, with hopes of starting a temple here.
“We looked on the map, and Charlotte was the largest city without a Hare Krishna temple,” said Dasa, 42. “We also were looking for a city that was growing. … We really like it here. We’ve met a lot of nice people. And the city has a low-key, mellow vibe to it.”
Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions, and its third largest. But Hare Krishnas are relatively new to the U.S. religion scene. It was 1966, in New York City, when the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
A familiar image from the late 1960s and early ’70s: Bead-wearing Hare Krishnas, their heads shaved, chanting and asking for cash donations at American airports.
While Hindus celebrate God’s various attributes through different representations and different names, Hare Krishnas focus on the worship and understanding of God as Krishna – one of the most popular representations of God in Hinduism.
“Hare Krishna” is also a Sanskrit term referring to the ancient mantra to Krishna. Ex-Beatle George Harrison included the words of the first half of this “Maha Mantra,” or Great Mantra, in his1970 hit, “My Sweet Lord.”
In uptown, Dasa, Rawson and their older child chant the entire mantra, over and over:
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/
Hare Rama, Hara Rama/
Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
Dasa’s translation: “O God, O Energy of God, please engage me in your service.”
“We do it for our edification. And it’s what Krishna wants,” Dasa said of the chanting.
Spending this time uptown also offers opportunities to preach their faith and pass along books to curious Charlotteans who stop and ask questions, Rawson said.
“We meet so many people by doing this,” she said. “You have to get out and advertise.”
‘Saved,’ but still …
As David Willard, the name he got at birth, Dasa spent his growing-up years attending and helping out at church – specifically, St. Andrew Episcopal, led by his father.
“I’d been baptized, confirmed and ‘saved,’ but I didn’t feel any different from my friends,” he said. “I’d go to the same parties, drink the same beer, and chase the same girls. … I just went with the flow because I didn’t have a sense of ‘How does one take God seriously?’”
His quest for answers continued when he went off to Stanford University. He joined political movements, became an African-American studies major, and, during summers, interned at Cincinnati-based Proctor & Gamble.
But none of it – the rush toward graduation, the sampling of the corporate life, his various studies – got him any closer to answering a key question for him: How does one get to be happy?
He left school in 1993. Two years later, he began studying martial arts. His instructor was a Hare Krishna adherent.
“I was impressed by how he held himself: He didn’t do drugs. He was a vegetarian. He was married and wasn’t having affairs,” Dasa said. “One night … we had this two hour discussion about Krishna consciousness. A lot of things resonated. Here was a very coherent philosophy of God.”
That night, Dasa stopped eating meat – Hare Krishnas believe all creatures have souls. And in 1996, Dasa, about to turn 25, moved into the Hare Krishna temple in Berkeley, Calif.
His family’s reaction? Acceptance, said Dasa, though the Indian way he dressed threw them a bit. His father read a book about Hare Krishna, Dasa said, “and concluded that this is a serious religion.”
A search for happiness
Rawson, 37, had always had a basic belief in God. Her parents didn’t, so she sometimes went to Sunday school with her grandfather.
“When I was a teenager, I looked around and saw that no one in my life was happy – not my parents, not my friends, not my teachers,” she said.
In her search for more, Rawson read a lot of spiritual books. She liked many of their ideas, but found it hard to apply them in a practical way.
Then she learned about Hare Krishna from her brother, who had moved into a temple near Seattle. Before long, she spent a month in a temple in Vancouver. She found peace and happiness in the chanting and in a schedule that began at 4 a.m.
Also attractive to her was “Prasadam” – the way Hare Krishnas make food an offering to God.
Dasa and Rawson have been a couple since 2006. When they met, she was a single mom. Her daughter’s name, Anuradha Rawson, means “follower of Radha,” the female aspect of God.
Their baby, Govinda dasi Willard, got her name from Sanskrit, where it means “servant of God.”
$5 to $50 a day
Dasa, Rawson and their children rise at 3 a.m. in their northwest Charlotte home.
They chant, have a morning service before their deities, sing, read from their Scriptures. Then, most days, after applying “tilaka” – mud from a holy river in India – to their faces and 11 other places on their bodies, they head for uptown. With no car, they walk or take the bus.
Anuradha, who is home-schooled, goes with them to the square.
Dasa said the family lives simply, dresses simply and eats simply to save their energies for praising Krishna. “Simple living, higher thinking” was a mantra of the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, whose members believe that existence is a continuous cycle of life, death and rebirth until they reach God-conciousness.
“This is all temporary. We are traveling through different bodies. Our job is to be a servant,” said Dasa, who got his spiritual name in 1997, when he vowed not to eat meat, fish or eggs; not to drink alcohol, coffee or tea; to have sex only within marriage and for procreation; and to chant his 108 “japa beads” 16 times a day.
In Texas, Rawson worked as a Web developer; Dasa was a benefits analyst and retirement counselor. But in Charlotte, they said, their job is to chant – and to get ready to start a temple.
They live on money provided by Das’ father and by a friend from his Stanford days who may join the family in Charlotte when they open a temple.
They envision a building with space for gathering, for cooking and for living.
In North Carolina, ISKCON – International Society for Krishna Consciousness – has a temple in Hillsborough.
Dasa once lived in an ISKCON temple, and was initiated by an ISKCON guru, but he and Rawson are no longer affiliated with the group.
“We wanted to avoid the organizational politics and splinter groups,” he said. Plus, he added, they want to welcome people who aren’t willing or able to give up everything and move into a temple.
ISKCON also has had a checkered history, with at least one of its past leaders going to prison.
Most days, Rawson said, uptown passersby drop between $5 and $50 in the family’s wicker basket, which is placed in front of them as they chant.
It’s money, Das said, that they use to pay for worship materials or to feed poor children in their neighborhood.
As for raising money to buy or build a temple, they said it’s up to Krishna, not them, to make it happen.
“It’s on Krishna’s timetable,” Dasa said.
Added Rawson: “We’re very, very happy what we’re doing now.”