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Hare Krishna

The ecstasy and the curry


Forget the stereotypes of sect-indoctrinated, face-painted youngsters dressed in orange bedsheets, hopping up and down while pressing airport visitors to "Come buy my magazine." The Hare Krishna movement has come of institutional age in Idaho. A gold-domed, red brick temple on Martha Street offers regular religious services, serves as a community and study center for many Boise Hindus. It features an in-house store that sells saris and dotis, incense holders, books, decorative buttons and other paraphernalia.

There are no detached observers at a Hare Krishna service. Even the visiting students from Northwest Nazarene University, normally forbidden from dancing, go barefoot and get down as they join in the chanting and cymbal-and-tambourine driven percussion, while the soft, reedy drone of a baritone harmonium traces the repetitive melody line. It's as if old English plain song, with its modal minors and augmented fifths, had been doused in saffron and curry and ramped up to 78 r.p.m.

Regular devotees, as they prefer to be known, doff their shoes at the entrance, ring a nautical-sized bell and prostrate themselves on the incandescent white tile floor. From several oval panels on the aquamarine ceiling, Lord Krishna looks benignly down while statues of numerous deities supervise from the raised wooden shrine. The service begins with chanting and dancing, proceeds to chanting and dancing and ends with chanting and dancing. "Most of what we do is music. It purifies us," one worshipper explains. The famous Hare Krishna chant roughly translates as a plea to God to, "Please engage me in your service through your energy." Devotees say that singing the lyrics purifies the soul "even if you don't believe in it."

Congregants are drawn from the ranks of the 200-plus Hindu immigrant families in Idaho, many of them attracted by the high tech and computer industries. But about a quarter of those in attendance are non-Indians. Galina Samrina, born in central Siberia, travels from Twin Falls just to attend services. "It's a very logical religion, it explains a lot of things that I couldn't find in Christianity. It explains right away what is self, that we are not the body, that we are spiritual beings. That opened up my eyes to a lot of things in my life."

Gopal Gupta is a soft-spoken, articulate 20-year old who studies electrical engineering and foreign languages at Boise State. He explains that the basic practices of his religion involve avoidance of meat, intoxication, illicit sex and gambling. As far as theology goes, rather than providing "a pass to heaven, he says, "The purpose of life is to go back to God. What God is looking for in us is how much we love him with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul. We may call God by different names but because the world is one, all religions are one."