"I'm spending a day with Hare Krishnas next week."
"Oh, you be careful Leanne."
"They all take drugs."
"Have you been reading that Daily Mail again Dad?!"
To be fair, my Dad was not the only one who voiced concern or raised an eyebrow when I told him I was spending a day with a relatively unfamiliar religious group. And everyone begged the question, 'Why?'
To be honest, I couldn't say exactly. I knew nothing of the faith, bar that when I worked in an office in Soho many years ago, every evening the ring of bells, drums, singing and chanting would chime through my office windows, as the Tottenham Court Road Hare Krishna group passed by. My colleagues would often make comments, not always approving. I however was envious. There I was, sat in a sterile air-conditioned box, staring numbly at a spreadsheet and battling yet another computer-screen induced headache. And there they were, having the time of their lives, singing and dancing, looking deliriously happy and free of such Western imprisonment. I wanted in.
Six years and a lot of life experience later, I found my opportunity. On one of my other adventures I was told about an all female Hare Krishna Temple in Walthamstow, run by a lady called Kamala. A few texts between Kamala and I were exchanged and it was set that one week later I would visit the house and stay overnight. At first I was ecstatically excited but as the days passed I grew nervous.
"They're all on drugs Leanne."
"Isn't it a cult?"
"What if they try and brain wash you?"
Flippant comments stirred my brain and I began to wonder what I was doing. Bar a recommendation from a near stranger, I knew nothing of these people, the place or the faith. I didn't even have the address! I turned to Google. As I typed in Hare Krishna, the first suggestion came up: 'Hare Krishna CULT'. Oh crap.
I started to worry. Should I be going? I had a talk with my gut - a very good friend of late. Surprisingly, Gut seemed ok about the situation; it was Head that was spinning out of control. So I told Head to bog off and find something else to worry about.
But when Friday came, Head was still there. Rain poured down as I walked the completely unfamiliar streets of Walthamstow and I again began to feel uneasy. That week's insanely horrific incident, which had occurred in Woolwich in the name of religion, had stirred my fears of unknown streets, people and beliefs. What was I doing? It was bank holiday Friday. Why wasn't I hanging out with my mates instead? Gut told me to carry on walking.
As I reached 631 Forrest Road, I read the brightly painted sign that read 'Bhakti Yoga'. As I looked for the way in, I noticed two men standing outside the shop next door, eyeing me suspiciously. I eyed them suspiciously back. The front door to the temple was ajar so I nervously pushed it open and walked in.
Immediately my fears dissipated. From the grey skies of the outside world, I was hit with a wash of colour; pastel pink and purple walls and a warmth that felt uncannily like home. An attractive and unexpectedly conventional looking lady from Manchester bounded towards me smiling. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting but ignorance suggested someone far more alternative. "You must be Leanne?' she beamed, "I'm Kamala. I'm so pleased you made it."
Kamala showed me around the house, which was filled with the aromas of incense and home cooking. "And here is the lounge. If you find it a bit too much for you, feel free to just come up here and take time out. Make the place your home."
She explained that today the devotees were celebrating the birth of Lord Nrsimhadeva, who is half man, half lion. Devotees pray to Lord Nrsimhadeva for protection and to eradicate their material desires. We discussed the fact we were both brought up as devout Catholics but as adults have abandoned the faith, finding it rather negative and guilt ridden. It was comforting to have something so primary in common.
After a few introductions to several ladies creating an enormous feast in the kitchen, I was led, mint tea in hand, into the main prayer room. Singing and chanting was well under way and Kamala sat me down on a prayer mat. When the song finished she introduced me to the group and stated that I was a comedian. I winced, fretting that now everyone would be nervous of me, assuming me to be the woman who has come to mock their faith. They didn't judge however, simply smiled and welcomed me in.
Kamala opened a hymn book, from which people were taking turns to lead sung prayers. She pointed to a foreign text and highlighted the English translation below. I couldn't even follow the lyrics never mind sing them. I felt a little awkward being at the front with Kamala and everyone watching me not join in, so after reading the English text I closed my eyes and simply listened. I was astounded by how beautiful their voices were. When the next song ended I whispered to Kamala, "Are you only allowed in if you can sing?" She laughed and repeated this to the whole group. I felt embarrassed but they accepted the compliment graciously.
Towards the end of each song, the group became more jubilant and ecstatic, banging drums and clanging tiny cymbals. Without looking at them, I could 'hear' the smile on their faces. It made me smile too.
About two hours in I slipped away to the kitchen for some water, parched from the hard work of listening to people sing. Little did I know that all the devotees had been fasting from both water and food for the last 24 hours. And there I'd been, heedlessly swigging mint tea in front of the entire congregation.
Whilst in the kitchen I assisted one of the devotees in cooking the vegetarian feast. As I 'helpfully' watched her toil away, she told me of the faiths core beliefs. We discussed karma and reincarnation and the notion that past sins affect our current lives, no matter how well we live our lives today. It was a concept I found hard to accept. Regardless, she neither preached nor tried to convert me. She also said that whilst it is almost impossible to be perfect, as long as we are always striving to be better people, we are heading in the right direction.
At around 9pm we were invited into the prayer room to give an offering to Lord Nrsimhadeva. There were now around 50 people singing and chanting. We took it in turns to pour a concoction of what I believe was ghee, sugar, yogurt, guda and honey over a statue of Lord Nrsimhadeva. I had a childlike excitement of doing something so unusual.
The energy was electric as people swung joyfully up and down the room, singing, clapping, beating and clanging. I joined them in the dancing and clapping and I looked around the room to see everyone's faces beaming with delight.
When the singing finally came to a close, we sat and ate a delicious feast. Devotees came and sat with me, keen to find out more about the 'comedian' who had come to write about them. Everyone was kind and open and most interestingly, not a great deal different from myself. A lovely lady, again a former Catholic, sat with me for an hour. She reiterated something that many others had also stated, that there was no pressure for me to convert or to come regularly. She said I was welcome any time, whether next week or in a year. She even encouraged me to bring friends. I'm sure those vehemently against religion (which seems to be increasingly the norm these days) will see this as a cunning ploy to reel me in. But I can quite honestly say that I would happily return and enjoy all that the temple and the devotees have to offer without feeling any pressure to become a devotee myself.
In the past, I have heard the derisory term 'Happy Clappers' used to describe Hare Krishnas but I now see this as a rather ironic affront. They do clap and they are indeed very happy but not because of any drugs, brainwashing or cult-like behaviour. From what I witnessed, Hare Krishnas simply relish in the unity of being together, believing in something that to me seems inherently pure. Of all faiths, this seems like one of the most joyous. And with the world being the way it is today, who doesn't need a little more joy in their lives?
Find out more about Leanne here