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The Bhakti Center of New York City is in East Village, within a three block radius of a funeral home, a nail salon, two housing projects, a cemetery, three gay bars, and a Jewish deli. Their ashram, or spiritual place of residence, is tucked away in a quiet five-story walk-up on First Avenue, above The Bhakti Cafe, a vegetarian and raw food luncheonette run by the center’s practitioners. It is almost 10 a.m. when Dave buzzes me into the building.
As I walk up the stairs, I pass a framed print of a toddler Krishna with big eyes and slightly blue skin. I pass a water cooler. I pass an empty stroller on the fourth landing. I pass a twenty-something monk sitting on the steps, deep in prayer. As I take off my sneakers, hoping that the smell from my earlier cigarette isn’t stuck to my jacket, Dave pops his head out of the kitchen doorway. There is something about the way he smiles, the way he moves, the enthusiastic manner in which he speaks that exudes what appears to be an authentic kind of happiness.
Enthusiasm is not necessarily a quality you find in a city of millions who try their hardest to avoid eye contact on the subway while purposely numbing their face to any kind of emotional expression. Isn’t the archetypal New Yorker supposed to be clad in black, downing a double espresso while angrily marching to work? That is not the case with Dave. He appears to love everyone around him, truly and genuinely, and that is evident to even the hardest New York heart.
Dave welcomes me in and shows me the ashram, which is next to the kitchen. The devotees are on the floor of the bright yellow room, finishing up their breakfast and morning prayers. Like Dave, some are donning saffron-colored robes to designate the monastic life, while others simply wear white. Most have shaven heads. An iPod is plugged into a set of speakers just off the ashram, in the kitchen, playing one of many musical versions of the Hare Krishna chant.
An ashram is a spiritual place of residence perhaps best known to literary New Yorkers from the book-to-movie powerhouse Eat, Pray, Love. In the movie, Julia Roberts’s character eats in Italy, prays in an ashram in India, and finds love in Bali. In this case, the word ‘ashram’ can refer to the monastery building, or to the specific room within the building on the fifth floor. As the practitioners leave to go back to their rooms, one of the white-clad followers sweeps the ashram. It is similar to an all-purpose room: there are sleeping bags, a set of 10 lockers, a desk, multiple bookshelves containing hardcover volumes upon volumes of Conversations With Srila Prabhupada and tiny, soft cover pamphlets titled ‘Meditación y Superconciencia,’ various small pictures of Krishna, and three very large framed portraits of Prabhupada, the man who brought the Hare Krishna movement to The States in 1966. A man no older than 21 curls up in a sleeping bag on the floor. The man in white sweeps around the room, which noticeably lacks chairs, and then places the broom next to a multi-gallon tub of creamy peanut butter.
Today, Dave is preparing food for Columbia’s Bhakti Club, which meets in Lerner for a cooking class every Tuesday night. He pulls out a bottle of sunflower oil ordered from Bulgaria and tells me that we will be preparing rice, potatoes, fried plantains and a salad. “I like to think of a potato as a white sheet of paper,” he says while gathering the black pepper, salt, tumeric power, paprika and oil. “I’ve never heard of home fries, but someone once said these are like home fries.”
If I did my math correctly, Dave is 26 years old. He is a California native, and was studying psychology in his second semester at UC Irvine when he “found [his] spiritual path” and joined a monastery in Laguna Beach. He lived there for three years before finally coming to New York. He has been here for five years. He explains to me that the food he’s preparing is vegan because he wants to cater to all the dietary needs of Columbia students. But followers of Krishna do not necessarily believe in veganism because cows and humans have a symbiotic relationship. “If you take care of the cow,” Dave says, “it will be happy to share its milk.” He did add, however, that they disagree with the manner in which milk is extracted in the American dairy industry.
As Dave shreds carrots in the food processor, we are joined by a practitioner who calls himself Jagannath, which directly translates to “lord of the universe.” He is around the same age as Dave, and wears white garb, a necklace of wooden beads, and Prada glasses. “The name is a little self-aggrandizing, but we let him get away with it,” Dave says with a smile.
Jagannath is originally from Canada, and studied economics and philosophy at the University of British Columbia. As I slice the plantains, he tells me that he first found his spiritual path when his sister brought home a book by Prabhupada from the library. The librarian was going to throw it away but his sister took it home with her and gave it to him, and he says it answered a lot of questions he had about life that weren’t answered by the Western philosophers he had been exposed to in school.
I empty out bags of triple-washed lettuce and pour them in three metal trays as Jagannath sings “Hare Krishna” to himself. As I mix in shredded carrots, apple chunks and raisins, Dave tells me that Krishna is a god from Vedic literature who appears in different ways and forms. “An infinite variety of ways,” he says. He is charming, he is beautiful, he is sweet, he is a great dancer, he plays the flute, he is loving, he has a great sense of humor. “We believe that when Muslims, Jews and Christians pray, we’re all praying to the same person.”
“Our job is to do good work in the world,” Jagannath says, “and to please Krishna and help all his children.”
When the salad is finished, Dave prepares dried chiles and cumin seed powder to add to the tomato sauce that will eventually be poured on the fried plantains. The boy who was napping in the ashram walks into the kitchen and Dave introduces me. His name is Peter, he is from Maine and has been here for a year. As I take notes in my notebook, Peter stares at me and, in a monotone, reminds me that I am very lucky to be here cooking with Dave. He then walks back into the ashram to retrieve his iPod.
As I stir the vat of tomato sauce, Dave adds in the chiles and the cumin powder, and I can feel my sinuses start to burn. He grinds coriander seeds and explains the meaning of ‘bhakti.’ It is the means of connecting through devotion. And I learn that there are many ways that such a connection can be made. Jagannath, for example, shares that he practices bhakti yoga to control his mind, to train it to always think of Krishna. With this connection in mind, as the food is finished cooking, a small portion of everything we made is prepared as an offering to Krishna. The idea is that before Columbia students can enjoy the food later that night, it must be presented to Krishna. In fact, everything that the monks cook is first shown to Krishna.
The devotees fill small silver bowls with food, place the silver bowls on a round, silver platter, and cover everything with a blue cloth so that Krishna can be the first person to fully see and appreciate the food-as-offering. I take an elevator down three floors with a man named Joey, who is in charge of placing the platter before Krishna. We enter the prayer room and Joey instructs me to stand in the middle of the room as he goes into a back room with the food. I notice that Peter is also in the room. He is pacing, looking at the floor, clutching prayer beads, rapidly chanting under his breath: hare krishna hare krishna, krishna krishna hare hare, hare rama hare rama, rama rama hare hare. The ceiling is painted like a blue sky with clouds. There is an altar with flowers and small dolls that takes up the entire width of the room. The Krishna doll is about a foot high, standing mid-dance while playing the flute in the center of the altar.
I am slightly startled when I realize that the man sitting in the corner is not actually a man, but a life-sized sculpture of the founder, Srila Prabhupada. As I study the sculpture, the curtains in front of the altar mechanically close so no one can see the offering taking place. As the curtains shut, Peter belly-flops onto the floor as if a rug has been pulled from under his feet. The offering is being made at this very moment, behind a curtain, to a one-foot-tall, anthropomorphized elephant Krishna. Peter is on the ground, chanting even more rapidly under his breath.
I walk out of the room and back upstairs to the kitchen where Dave leaves me with one final bit of advice. He says that we will always know frustration as long as we realize that selfish motivations guide us. “I think Jimi Hendrix said that,” he says.
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