Finding Spiritual Connection
Bhakti Communities Foster Kindness and Love
Many people start their search for spiritual community at a young age, when they may start asking questions like: Why am I here? What is the purpose of suffering? What will happen to me when I die, and how should I live my life? One of the books that addresses these questions is Bhagavad-Gita As It Is by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Srila Prabhupada came to the U.S. in 1966, bringing with him only his love of God and religious texts that outline the path to God through “Bhakti”, or devotion. With no money or backers, on the strength of his devotion he managed to establish a worldwide movement in Bhakti Yoga, establishing temples, centers and restaurants worldwide.
What do these temples and centers look like today, and where are they? One such example exists in Glastonbury in an old church, relocated from East Hartford where it began. When one enters any of the temples associated with Srila Prabhupada’s movement, they will experience a feast for the senses. Contrary to Buddhist traditions, Bhakti teaches that rather than detaching from the world and withdrawing from sense gratification, one can get closer to Krishna or God by engaging the senses in His Service. Accordingly, incense fill the air, and there are brightly colored altars with statues of Radha and Krishna and other ornately decorated deities. The altars are regularly covered with flowers and during worship time, or “arati”. One may see a woman or man dressed in traditional Indian garments offering various items to the deities such as candles, essential oils—or even waving a large fan made out of peacock feathers in the warmer weather. During arati, a group of musicians will play lively music featuring drums, a small pump piano and cymbals, while the congregation chants back in the call-and-response fashion that is typical of “kirtan”.
Cooking and preparing meals for Krishna is central to the Bhakti community. After meals are offered at the altar, the congregation takes part in receiving the remnants, which they call prashadam. Prashadam is typically vegetarian Indian cuisine, but can be any vegetarian dish that is prepared with love and for the divine.
One of the core principles of Bhakti is that one can get to know God through developing an intimate relationship with Him. That relationship can be like any of the relationships we experience as humans—as a lover, a parent, a friend or a child. The idea is that by engaging God in a relationship that feels natural for us, we will be better able to serve Him. For instance, if a person has a strong maternal inclination, they can worship the form of Krishna as a toddler, who is called Gopal, and in doing so it will come easily and naturally to them. Since God is limitless, he can manifest in countless forms, has countless names and possesses all of the qualities that make him attractive. The word Krishna actually means “all-attractive”.
Another component of practicing Bhakti that is helpful for newcomers is the idea that Krishna, similar to a human, appreciates it when people are kind to his followers, or devotees. So when practicing Bhakti, one actually receives the most benefit from being kind to or “serving” Krishna’s devotees. This becomes an especially important principle when one accepts a guru as their primary teacher, because by learning to serve that teacher or guru, one is able to make progress on the path of Bhakti even if he or she is not very experienced in the traditions, etiquette or methods of pleasing Krishna.
As with most religious traditions, it might be daunting at first trying to understand the extent of all of the various rituals and etiquette, but if a practitioner is sincere, there is no reason to feel discouraged. There is a quote early in the Bhagavad-Gita, chapter 2 verse 40, which is the main text of the Bhakti tradition that speaks to this: “In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.”
Locally, there are many places to learn about and experience Bhakti, both within an ISKCON temple and without. The temple in Glastonbury is run by disciples of Srila Prabhupada, and a new center is opening in Willimantic within the same tradition. To learn more before visiting a temple, a great place to start is the documentary released in 2017 called Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All.
Lisa Day-Lewis joined ISCKON in 1998 at The Boston Temple on Commonwealth Ave. In February, she and a partner will be opening The Bhakti Center CT, in Willimantic. The Bhakti Center will offer classes and training in Bhakti as well as yoga and Ayurveda. Connect at AhimsaAyurveda.co, Facebook.com/AhimsaAyurveda or