One of my good friends and past housemates in San Francisco, Ashanya Indralingam, happens to be Malaysian. When I told her I was going to spend some time in Thailand, she insisted I visited her parents in Kuala Lumpur. I was skeptical going to hang out with two “old people” I’d never met before, but it turns out that side trip was one of highlights during my two months in Asia.
Asha’s parents Ronni and Indra were fantastic hosts and gave me a really local experience of the city. I tagged along to a high society party they attended on Saturday night, where I met the rich and powerful of Kuala Lumpur and danced 80’s music with them. But I digress in this post’s subject… Ronnie and Indra mentioned in passing of an ashram down the street from their house. Although they do not attend there, they said it would probably be ok to stop by. From various books I’ve read about Hinduism, I was very curious to actually experience an ashram, though I had no idea what to expect.
The ashram was a gated compound that is easy to miss amid a regular neighborhood in the suburbs on Kuala Lumpur. A service was apparently just ended when I wandered in around noon on a Sunday. Turns out they have hours similar to Protestant churches.
Despite being the only westerner there the entire day, no one was particularly fazed by my presence. I received some smiles of acknowledgment and greetings, so I cautiously walked into the main room. There in the middle of the room was a holy dude meditating.
The room was empty except for me and him. I starred at him, waiting for him to acknowledge me. It seemed like his eyes were following me as I cautiously walked across the other side of the room. His eyes were just barely open, where you couldn’t tell if he was meditating or not. I was convinced for at least an hour that this guy was real, until someone later mentioned he was just a wax model of the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
I went back outside and was offered to join them in their Sunday lunch. I had some amazing Indian food and talked to various followers. I was surprised everyone spoke good English. Until that point I had never heard of the “International Society for Krishna Consciousness” but it was really cool to hear their stories about how they try to “dedicate their thoughts and actions towards pleasing the Supreme Lord, Krishna.” Everyone was super friendly.
Most people were going home so I went back inside to try meditating on my own. My only experience with meditation has been Buddhist, where for beginners it is suggested you sit in a straight up posture, eyes open, and focus on deep steady breathing. As it was explained to me, the Hare Krishnas meditate by chanting/singing the Hare Krishna mantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
I wasn’t sure about the matra deal, so didn’t try it myself. While sitting there, an old man in an orange guru-like robe sat down and began asking me about my life journey and beliefs. Janananda Gosvami was very knowledgable about the world’s religions, very grounded in agnostic western society, and was an all around friendly guy. He cracked some jokes but also asked serious, deep questions. I learned a lot from him about Hinduism, and he recommended I read their main book of teachings.
It turns out, Janananda is one of the world leaders of the ISKCon Krishna movement! As he was talking to me one of his assistants informed him it was time for him to go to the airport. He thanked the guy and continued talking to me for another 20 minutes! Finally, his assistant returned and insisted it was time for him to go. Janananda gave me his email address and wished me luck.
As the afternoon wore on, I sat and read the book recommended to me – the Bhagavad Gita. Its essentially their Bible, originating from sometime around the 2nd century BC. Another, much younger ISKCon follower joined me and starting retelling the many past stories of Hinduism. He was fully of energy and excitement as he told the tales; his eyes widened in enthusiasm and he never stopped smiling. I was starting to somewhat understand the history and duality of Krishna and the miracles performed by him while on earth in human form. I was surprised at the many parallels of their monotheistic interpretation of Hinduism with the Christian views I was brought up with.
Finally, it was evening and I realized I’d been at the ashram for over 5 hours without checking in with my hosts I was staying with. Right as I was saying my good byes Asha’s Dad arrived, looking for me. They had started to get worried me about me, it was so kind of them.
Despite having no plans on becoming Hindu, I’m extremely fascinated by their beliefs, outward happiness, and kind hearts. I have since read some criticisms about some “cult-like” aspects of the movement, and it is surprising to note that it started in New York and is now headquartered in LA. They have ashrams around the world but have made great inroads into western culture, for instance being mentioned in several Beatles songs back in the 70s.
Still, cult fears aside, I really enjoyed my experience at a Malaysian ashram for a day.