Behind the closed door: The religious community of Krishna in Vilnius

While setting up the interview with Krishna centre‘s representative to public relations Saulius Domarkas, I had many thoughts about this meeting.

Firstly, my environment was doubtful about this religious community in Vilnius, finding it highly extravagant and too detached from the material life going on in our society.

Let‘s be honest – many people in the modern world, which is permanently in rush, find Krishna‘s followers unrealistic, problematic and financially scarce people. And that opinion was based on the community‘s tradition for walking in the streets with their tiny parade, wearing bright, colourful dresses, announcing “Hare Krishna“.

Secondly, there is a popular opinion that Krishna‘s religious community is a sect.

And thirdly, that the members of the community are jobless and promote things that don‘t exist, admiring the world less in progress and technological advancement. Let me interrupt here with one fact – during our lunch, I have seen people gathering for a meal. They had a break from their works. These people, to my great amazement, were interior designers, architects, financiers, software developers and similar. Saulius, the representative of the community‘s centre, is a programmer himself.

The aim of this interview was to meet Krishna‘s followers face to face and learn their routines as well as motives of joining this community. I also dearly wanted to break the stereotypes sown by our society, which sometimes brings a light of intolerance on Lithuanian minorities.

An interview with representative Saulius went on in the private house of Krishna religious community‘s centre, in Vilnius old town, Raugyklos street. The house performs a function of the temple, place for ceremonies, community lunch, visits and dormitory for some Krishnaists, or as they call themselves – Vaishnavas.

To begin with – what is the reason and goal for singing in the streets of “Hare Krishna“?

Probably, there are a few possible answers. The first one – some time ago people in the World, including in Lithuania, were singing a lot.

We wish to restore this culture with people singing in the public. In the old times that did not look weird. In India, it is quite common even today. Usually, we sing our mantra “Hare Krishna“, which is also known as a liberation song.

What are you liberating from?

As I mentioned, we sing our mantra. In Sanskrit mantra is defined as something that sets your thinking and your mind free.

Mantra liberates you from any restraints, complexes, fears, anxiety and similar things. In Eastern cultures such practices are very common, for example, meditation – it fills you with tranquillity. Here, we promote the way of singing “Hare Krishna“, where the words “Hare“ – love, “Krishna“ – beauty and “Rama“ – happiness, set and repeated in certain order affect your brain intensively, calm it down and take the anxiety away. The most interesting fact to mention is that this mantra carries no ideological or religious weight.

One more thing is that our movement belongs to Bengal Vaishnava tradition. “Vaishnava“ means a follower, a devotee of Krishna. This movement, which was started 500 years ago, is present not only in Lithuania but all over the World and one of its expression is public singing.

How do you feel in the context of Vilnius society? Do you feel local people support or animosity?

Usually, it depends on a person. Sometimes we meet dissatisfied faces of the people who tell us to go to work. Once, we sang in the main square and observed these people watching us in a crowd. Then, our singing leader asked, “why you keep staring at us? Go to work!” (laughing). It’s funny, because almost all of our devotees have jobs or are studying.

Some people who live near those places, where we sing in public, ask us to be quieter in our singing and we always try to respect their needs and to not disturb them unnecessarily.

A modern person finds the progress of humanity in being an individual, aiming for a career, living under the influence of advertising and consumerism. What are your thoughts on that?

This looks like a damned life. Many philosophers have said that Western civilization is a metaphor to the race of rats. One person has compared the modern person‘s life to the life of a dog. He keeps running all over the place and marking the territory, stating he doesn‘t have time for other things.

People do exactly the same thing. They often try to leave their marks, like dogs marking their territory, but actually, do nothing worth of importance. And they call it a progress.

Of course, in regard of technological progress, in our community we use these advantages with no doubt: cellphones, Internet, laptop, television. So, we do use these achievements of modern society. The only difference is that we don‘t rush as we see no point in that.

If only each of us would stop for a moment and thought, why we keep running this way. And probably we would realize, we run because of the void open inside of us, because of the fear for death. Instead of that, I would suggest to have a break and understand, what‘s that void for. I do only see a point in running towards your realization, towards the understanding of your inner self.

We can see the increasing rate of depression and anxiety in society. By this we might conclude that modern culture does not only raises our welfare, but also our inner illness.

Is Vaishnavism a religion or a philosophy?

It‘s hard to say. The founder of our International Society for Krishna Consciousness – Prabhupada – has said that religion without philosophy is only a sentiment, and philosophy without religion is only a speculation.

One without another is something short, incomplete.

Earlier, religion was understood as a certain system, where you have to believe blindly without any reasoning. However, in India, where our movement was originated from, it‘s thought otherwise. Here we can ask anything and we have a right to receive the answer.

This is why in Krishna‘s community the discourse of philosophy is highly important. If you can‘t prove something, for example, our scripture, then what is it worth for?

How does your routine look like? How do you match your social life and the life of a Vaishnava?

Firstly, I shall separate the life of a Vaishnava who lives at his home and in the temple.

The ones who live in our temple start their day at 4 a.m. The first ceremony of worship at our temple starts at 4:30 am after which they have two hours of personal meditation. During this time, they keep on repeating the mantra of “Hare Krishna“, using the praying beads.

One round of mantra is made out of 108 beads. Usually, they repeat 16 rounds and it takes around 2 hours of prayer.

Then, around 7 a.m. they all sing and at 8 a.m. they have a lecture on Indian philosophy. After the lecture they have breakfast, and then – free time for whatever they need to do.

What we ask of our community members is to chant their daily morning mantra, offer their food on the altar and when it's possible – visit our temple. Otherwise, every person has their own individual routine.

Do you have any limitations or traditions, like, vegetarianism or frequent praying during the day?

Probably, you have heard that all Vaishnavas are vegetarians, they don‘t eat meat, fish, eggs. Yet, we do use dairy products.

We believe that eating meat is inevitably related to violence, and in Indian tradition, it is very important to avoid any violence.

Another thing is the limitation of gambling because it‘s strongly tied to cheating and getting a benefit at the expense of other people, and we find it unfair.

Then – cleanliness. We live by the principle of inner and outer hygiene, which is mostly disturbed by loose sexual life. For that reason, Vaishnavas shall abstain themselves from it.

Sexual life is recommended in a family, desirably, seeking to have children.

The last thing – intoxications. We seek to abstain ourselves from any of them: be it alcohol, drugs, tobacco. Sometimes we even stop using coffee or black or green tea, because it has a lot of caffeine and can cause certain addiction. Of course, even sugar can cause an addiction but it’s a different matter.

One of my friends has an addiction to black tea. He stopped using alcohol, but he can‘t stop taking tea. He thinks it came from his life before he joined Krishna Consciousness movement.

Do you separate the life into two parts – the one before and the one after becoming a Vaishnava?

Right. The life before Vaishnavism was indeed different. We have two types of people in our community.

One type of people, once they join us, immediately stop using alcohol, eating meat, etc. But we do also have people who refuse things step by step. For example, it took me one year to become a vegetarian. Initially, I stopped eating meat, later – fish, then – eggs. For some folks, it is really hard to refuse some of these things.

Christians have a saying that one should blame the sin, not the sinner. We have the same principle in our community.

Yet, I shall highlight, that we have principles, not prohibitions. If a person doesn‘t have principles, he simply doesn‘t play well with Krishna consciousness.

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