By Lisa Chastain
A lifelong search for God ends in the most unexpected of places.
Last year I found myself at the doorstep of Govinda’s Center of Vedic India and Radha-Govinda Mandir, Las Vegas. A dear friend of mine had invited me to hear him speak. I wasn’t entirely sure about what, but I hadn’t seen him in years and was bubbling with excitement to see him again. I highly value diversity and culture and embrace new experiences, so even though I knew little about where I was going and what I’d hear, I was eager to experience something new that night.
I was raised Southern Baptist and prayed to God every night when I was a little girl. Despite my best efforts throughout the years, however, I always felt distant from Him. At about fifteen years old I stopped attending church after my parents gave me a choice, and at eighteen I found myself searching to fill a void within. I sought refuge with my best friend, and she encouraged me to learn more about her life with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Just a month before my first day in college, I was planning to be baptized into the Mormon faith. Only after radical protest from my mother and father was I convinced it wasn’t the path for me. After that, I felt disappointed and defeated, and I closed myself off to God for many years.
I’ve been vegetarian now for nearly fifteen years, and my personal mantra since I can remember has been “Take care of Mother Earth and respect all living beings.” My college years were a blend of partying, studying, working, and intense and deep conversations with friends about the meaning of life. After being religiously dormant and generally turned off by organized religion, my search for God was rekindled in the post-9/11 world. Along with the rest of the country, the word jihad meant little to me before that time. I grew eager to understand the Middle East and how religion played a role in the terrorist activity around the world. And I looked closer at America’s relationships with the rest of the world.
I studied world religions and philosophies. I spent a semester reading the Koran and investigating its relationship with Christianity and Judaism. I also read the Tao and took interest in Eastern philosophies as well as religious authors such as Khalil Gibran.
After nearly two years of conversation, study, and inquiry, I had a much vaster understanding of the major religions of the world, but had not found the one I could identify with. Ten years later I was still looking. Though hopeful, I didn’t know when, where, or if I would ever meet God in this lifetime. Little did I know that everything would change during my first visit to Govinda’s/ISKCON Las Vegas.
My First Temple Visit
As I entered the 1970’s Las Vegas home converted into Govinda’s Center of Vedic India, the aroma of incense filled the air and lightened my senses. The casual yet organized ambiance of the temple felt familiar and inviting. A surge of memories flooded my mind, and I compared this setting to those of other religious institutions I had been exposed to. I remember saying, “Wow, this is so comfortable and inviting!”
When I saw my friend Ben (Pyari Charana Dasa), we embraced and I secretly held back tears of joy brought on by our reunion. The setting was so different from our haphazard college days, but what remained was our deep and profound intellectual and loving connection to one another. After we took a few minutes to briefly catch up, Pyari introduced me to the temple president, Surapala, and his humble and lovely wife, Krishna-mayi. I eagerly worked on pronouncing both names (which took me several weeks), but it felt as though I had known them my entire life.
I had arrived about fifteen minutes early for the program, and while Pyari and my new friends were preparing for the evening’s service, I soaked in my surroundings. My heart pounded and my mind reeled. I was sitting just five minutes’ drive from the Las Vegas strip, but I felt I had been transported to another world.
I was anxious to know just what I would be taking part in. Several people arrived, and Pyari asked me to sit with him close to the front. Looking around, I noticed the panoramic juxtaposition of the vibrant view of the Las Vegas strip out of the front window of the temple and, with a turn of my head, another world, with a beautiful shrine of deities and photographs of gurus. The words Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare were printed in a golden frame just below the shrine. Several minutes into the program, the intimate congregation of about fifteen people began to sing the mantra, accompanied by a joyous man playing what looked like a stationary accordion. Pyari played small cymbals, and Surapala played a double-sided drum. I felt as though I had traveled back in time many years to India, but my mind and heart had not been so present anywhere else in a long time. The melody soothed my soul, and tears welled in my eyes.
Feeling a bit awkward, I stuttered my way through my first kirtana. As we sang, I looked around, and as I made eye contact with Krishna-mayi and Pyari, they gave me reassuring nods I interpreted as, “Yes, you are home, and you are safe in our company.”
It took much fortitude for me not to break down into tears right then and there. It was if the music and lyrics were speaking directly to my soul-soothing my worries and embracing my aching heart.
I wanted to stay in that sweet and peaceful moment forever. But after thirty minutes the kirtana ended and the program transitioned to Pyari’s talk. This was the first time I had ever heard of Krishna, or “the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” Although the lexicon was new to me, the talk made so much sense. Pyari poignantly discussed how we all have contaminated and conditioned material egos. Krishna wants us to develop a relationship with Him and to have eternal knowledge and bliss (sat-chit-ananda ), but no one in the material world knows how to do that. We all try so hard to be happy through material means, but only Krishna can bring true and complete love.
The conversation wasn’t just about having faith and believing blindly, as most faiths ask you to do. Pyari conveyed that in order to build a relationship with Krishna, we must accept responsibility for the life we live in this material world. For this purpose Krishna has mercifully given us the Vedic spiritual science of self-realization, or bhakti-yoga. Essentially, by using our senses, mind, and intelligence we can verify His omnipotence and omniscience. Furthermore, Pyari impressed upon us that by invoking the various methods of bhakti-yoga we can taste Krishna’s kind and loving reciprocation with His devotees.
The words had a profound and positive impact on me. I was captivated and intrigued. Pyari’s talk ended that night, but my conversation about Krishna continues today.
After spending nearly three hours at the temple, I had to relieve my babysitter and return to my life as a housewife. I bid adieu to Pyari and my new friends Surapala and Krishna-mayi. With brochures about karma, peace, ISKCON, vegetarianism, and Govinda’s Center, I jumped into my car and headed home.
The car ride was outwardly silent, but my mind replayed the evening’s events over and over again. I could not stop smiling. I was overwhelmed with joy from seeing my college friend, and grateful to have the opportunity to be in the company of such loving and pious people. I knew that night meant the beginning of something serious and special for me.
Making Gradual Progress
Eager to know more, I returned to meet with Krishna-mayi and Surapala a few days later, and I have been attending temple activities, engaging in devotional service, and chanting for close to a year now. The struggle to balance my spiritual desires and needs with my material commitments of being a mother to a three-and-a-half-year-old son, as well as a wife, sister, friend, mentor, and daughter, have been overwhelming. In the never-ending seaof material entanglement, my sweet escape has been to Govinda’s. Through my weekly Bhagavad-gita classes, devotional service, kirtana, and japa, I am slowly building a relationship with Krishna.
Progress has been slow, and the transition has taken an emotional and physical toll on me. My husband has not been on this spiritual journey with me, and living in “Maya’s playground” of Las Vegas means temptation is everywhere. Some days I feel I’m living a dual life; learning how to balance spiritual and material life has been difficult. But I chant with faith and commitment, and each day I ask Krishna for His mercy. I am sincere in my attempt to build a relationship with Him.
Two Inspiring Festivals
A turning point for me came when I attended the India Independence Day parade and the Janmashtami festival, which overwhelmingly reassured me I was on the right path.
Appreciating the influence of ISKCON in preserving India’s spiritual culture and traditions, Friends of India invited ISKCON Las Vegas to take part in the inaugural India Independence Day parade and celebration on historic Water Street in downtown Henderson, Nevada. This would be the first time I would display my budding love for Krishna in public. I was very nervous. But in the presence of my new spiritual friends, I became calm, and then I was elated to have the opportunity to take part in my first harinama, as the devotees call public chanting. Dressed in a beautiful donated sari, I arrived with few expectations but much curiosity.
As we unloaded and prepared to take part in the parade, I looked around to see the blend of American and Indian customs. To my left were my friends and devotees of ISKCON Las Vegas; to my right was a small petting zoo of animals that would be in the parade. In front of me were beautiful floats designedby various Indian organizations, and walking toward me were two people dressed up as Woody and Jessie from the American blockbuster Toy Story 2.
“Okay,” I said to myself, “here we go!”
The parade lasted just under forty-five minutes. I was blissful from the first “Hare” to the last “Hare.” As I sang the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, surrounded by new dear friends, my discomfort with public expression diminished and for the first time since being introduced to bhakti-yoga, I let my guard down and just enjoyed the moment in devotional service.
The parade ended on a high note with our harinama. The crowd liked it, everyone smiling, clapping, and dancing along with us. As we turned the street to end the parade, Surapala and Krishna-mayi kept playing, and we kept singing. For twenty minutes as we walked back to our cars, we remained in sweet concert with one another. Krishna-mayi’s beautiful voice led the group, and step by step I felt my heart fall deeper and deeper for this new way of life. We all said good night and left in separate directions for our homes. We were all in for a very busy day the next day- Krishna’s birthday party, my first Janmashtami.
Besides planning and managing the children’s activity for the evening, I had a lead role as Mother Yashoda in the drama “Krishna the Butter Thief,” and I took part in decorating and cleaning the temple prior to the evening’s events. The weekend had already been packed full of devotional service, and as I arrived at the temple an hour early, it was already buzzing with the most wonderful energy. Many people had arrived early. The kitchen was full of women preparing fresh flowers and aromatic prasada, and by 7:00 P.M. seventy people were taking part in the kirtana.
As I tended to the children making paper flowers with jewels to offer Krishna during arati, I was intoxicated by the smells of incense, fresh flowers, and cooking, and the sounds of kirtana, children laughing, and old and new friends greeting one another. The traditional Indian dance and drama enlivened everyone, and the program closed with a loving, inspiring, and auspicious arati.
The time had come for me to say goodnight to my new loving spiritual family. Soaking in every last drop of palpable energy from the temple, I walked slowly to my car, got in, and sat for a few minutes. I wanted the feeling to last forever.
We are all looking for something to give us happiness. I spent thirty-one years trying to be happy by material means. I know now that no material happiness can compare with that of lasting and genuine love of Krishna. My weekend spent in devotional service to Krishna was euphoric, and the months since then, although full of material complications and challenges, have been the most spiritually meaningful of my life.
With each day and experience, I grow closer to God. I have Surapala, Krishna-mayi, Pyari Charana, and above all Krishna to thank for bringing Govinda’s Las Vegas into my life. I know that the road ahead will be challenging and I have so much to learn. But as Pyari reassured me on one of those difficult nights, Krishna is always with us; He is our best friend. Knowing that gives me the confidence and strength to continue on this path back to Godhead, and Govinda’s Center of Vedic India is making it possible, even in a place like Las Vegas.