Pioneering faith

“We believe ultimately everyone will be ‘saved’ — everyone will come to the same conclusion.”

— Hare Krishna teacher Prithu Das

Maybe it’s the energy vortex that’s rumored to hover above downtown Asheville’s Flat Iron Building. Maybe it’s the odd intersection of three mountain ranges. Whatever the reason, pilgrims of every stripe are cropping up in and around Asheville.

Xpress checked in with five different locally represented spiritual traditions — all of ancient derivation, yet all practiced in the United States for less than four decades.

And despite these groups’ extraordinary diversity, all share one central tenet: the desire to experience spirituality in everyday life.

Forsaking all

In 1998, ABC’s Nightline program featured a collective known by many names: the Roberts Group, the Garbage Eaters and, most commonly, the Brethren. The nomadic religious movement, founded by Jim Roberts in 1971, asks its members to give away all possessions except the bare necessities. They routinely live in abandoned buildings and subsist on bakery and supermarket discards.

The Brethren are easily recognizable by their attire (knee-length tunics and long beards for the men; ankle-length dresses and long, unbraided hair for the women) and their ever-present bicycles and backpacks. These practices reflect the group’s main objective: to live simple lives in harmony with the teachings of the Old Testament. The Brethren have been widely criticized for abandoning family ties; many members have reportedly been out of contact with worried loved ones for years as they traveled from town to town.

A similar group — composed of former Brethren — has inhabited the streets of Asheville off and on for a couple of years. But members of the Traveling House Fellowship, as they call themselves, quickly point out that while they’re still friendly with the Brethren, they’re no longer formally associated with the controversial group.

Julian and Sara, a recently married couple, moved to Asheville last fall with the intention of fostering a new membership of brothers and sisters living by faith. The Traveling House Fellowship was the result.

This group adheres to New Testament teachings — which sets them solidly apart from the Brethren, who follow only Old Testament prescriptions — giving the scriptures authority over their lives. They practice communion, gathering wherever they’re living at the time to read from the Book of Acts, sing, worship and study the Bible. No preacher presides over the gatherings; instead, each brother has a chance to speak.

“Since the 1500s, this practice has been scorned as a threat to church authority,” Julian points out.

Following the New Testament, the sisters remain quiet in church and do not teach. “There are some women’s duties that are obvious, like sewing,” Sara says. “But we both witness, pray and seek God.”

Sara, whose hair reaches well past her waist, has lived by faith for more than 10 years. She keeps in touch with her family but says that traveling is a good life. “We believe a true Christian should have the knowledge of themselves as a pilgrim traveling through this world,” Julian explains, “but we don’t believe everyone has to travel to be a Christian.”

“Just as the spirit moves you,” adds Sara.

For Julian, it’s a matter of being willing to give up everything and follow God. Believers, he reasons, should do with their lives what nonbelievers can’t or won’t. “We want to be a light in the world,” he says. “Its not just about speaking to people; our lives should be a witness to Christ.”

Julian says he wants to live as an example of following Jesus. “The church world has become so sleepy,” he notes. “To someone really looking for the truth, this can be discouraging.”

He was converted four years ago. During a time of crisis, he met a brother named Jeremiah and was confronted with the Gospel. He gave away his dog, left his friends, and set out to seek Christ.

Since then, Julian says he’s found that his needs have been provided for. The Traveling House Fellowship, now 13 people strong, has been able to do work for friends and minimize expenses by sharing.

“We do believe in a poor life,” Julian emphasizes. Though he explains that he doesn’t perceive wealth as a sin, he asserts that once a person is converted, they should no longer work to make a lot of money.

For Sara, who was raised Christian, the group lives a lot closer to Jesus than anyone she witnessed in church.

“People should seek to be converted and to be taught by Christ,” she maintains. “It’s hard to follow your convictions when you don’t see anyone doing it. Maybe we can testify that it’s possible.”

“Christ is really the teacher,” adds Julian. “A true church should be a group of people who have all had their own revelation of God and have given up their lives to follow him.”

A science of social service

Dada Krsnananda, an Ananda Marga monk, greets a roomful of would-be students with the traditional “namaskar” (“the divine in me greets the divine in you”), hands folded at his heart. I mimic the others, returning the greeting with a slight bow, before beginning the Thursday-evening yoga forum.

Later, he explains the psychology of “kiirtan”: The core practice of Ananda Marga is meditation, and kiirtan is part of meditation. The word comes from the Sanskrit, meaning “to pronounce loudly so that the sound enters another’s ears,” or to sing enthusiastically. I find myself singing along with “Baba Nam Kevalam,” a devotional that translates as “love is all there is.”

P.R. Sarkar, born in Bengal in 1921, founded the social and spiritual organization known as Ananda Marga (“Path of Bliss”). In 1955, Sarkar, who came to be called Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, was a railway official leading a traditional family life. By then, however, he had begun training missionaries to spread his teaching of self-realization and service to humanity. Through most of the 1970s, Sarkar was imprisoned due to his political beliefs and demands for social justice. His moral stand against political corruption in his country reportedly incurred the wrath of the Communist Party of India; Ananda Marga practitioners were persecuted and often thrown in jail. Despite those setbacks, Anandamurti guided the expansion of his mission worldwide; he died in 1990.

Practitioners insist that the organization is not a religion but a science of social service. Affiliates of any faith are welcome and encouraged to associate with Ananda Marga.

Asheville resident Sid Jordan became involved with the organization in 1971 and has been president of the North American chapter for 12 years. “Ananda Marga has a very comprehensive and holistic approach to yoga,” he explains. “It combines yoga, meditation, morality and service to others.

Jordan attributes Ananda Marga’s appeal to the group’s environmental awareness, neo-humanism and, especially, its vision of service to others.

Locally, he’s involved with a Yoga For All program that reaches out to runaways, prisoners and cancer patients. Other Ananda Marga followers, notes Jordan, work on environmental and home-building projects, for example. “Individuals can really involve themselves in any way that reflects their talents,” he emphasizes.

Didi Ananda Usa — an orange-robed nun who lives in Asheville — opened the local Ananda Marga Quest Center on Ravenscroft Drive last November. She’s also responsible for Cosmic Vision, a Lexington Avenue import store that sells goods from Central America and Asia. “Cosmic Vision is more than great clothing,” avows Kristine Weber, a yoga instructor at the Quest Center. “The store is essential for funding projects in Central America, the Caribbean islands, and schools and children’s homes worldwide.” (A large portion of the store’s proceeds goes to support these programs.)

The “didis and dadas” (Bengali for “sisters and brothers”) are renunciates. They’re celibate, own few possessions, and have dedicated their lives to teaching, meditation and service. “At one time, the orange clothing scared people, but that’s changing,” says Weber.

Indeed, Dada Krsnananda radiates only a sense of peace as he guides a packed room through devotional chants. At the end of the Yoga Forum, he invites the participants to enjoy a vegetarian dinner.

Within the next few years, the Asheville Quest Center hopes to open an Ananda Marga primary school. The group’s educational system is similar to the Waldorf method, in that both focus on experiential education and the relationship between the self and the world, according to Weber.

The school will definitely incorporate meditation into its curriculum, says Weber. “You can’t only train the intellect,” she explains. “You have to train the intuition, as well. And teaching yoga to children is essential.”

In the meantime, yoga and meditation classes are held regularly at the Ravenscroft Drive center. Ananda Marga also has a geodesic-dome-shaped Quest Center in Marshall, which offers weekend programs and hosts monthly gatherings for anyone who’s interested. “A lot of people come,” Weber reports. “Last time, a dada was there playing sitar.”

A quest for truth

A common Friday-evening scene in Asheville: A young man unloads his family from their car in anticipation of a night out downtown. Not so common: The young man wears a white turban over his uncut hair.

Dave Hollister admits that some people in Asheville have reacted rather strongly to his covered head. “People are kind of curious,” he notes, adding, “Of course, we are in the Bible Belt.”

Sikh men let their beards grow long and wear white turbans. And though these outward symbols of his allegiance to the faith make him conspicuous, Hollister believes that the response he gets reflects his own feelings.

“When I was uncomfortable wearing a turban, I’d get an uncomfortable response,” he explains. As he became more sure of himself, the negative reactions disappeared, he reports.

The current anti-terrorist movement, says Hollister, has brought him surprisingly little negative attention. In fact, he believes that wearing a turban has been a positive experience for those around him.

“I don’t buy into the fear thing,” he declares. “This is me, and I’m a good person, so I just put out the good stuff and that’s what comes back to me.”

Hollister and his wife, Sierra, affiliated with Sikhism eight years ago when they attended a kundalini-yoga class in the D.C. area. The yoga helped Hollister through a transformational period in his life and introduced him to 3HO (the Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization), as the American Sikh movement founded by Yogi Bhajan is known.

Yogi Bhajan, an Indian national, arrived in the United States in 1969, declaring the fulfillment of the Sikh prophecy that the “sun shall also rise in the west.” In creating the 3HO, Yogi Bhajan oversaw Sikh “dharma” (meaning specific religious or spiritual practice) in the Western Hemisphere.

The multicultural, nondenominational organization spreads Yogi Bhajan’s teachings while supporting followers through the challenges of life. Yogi Bhajan continues to teach, guiding Sikhs through white tantric yoga, which Hollister describes as a powerful tool for cleansing one’s consciousness. The Hollisters travel to Florida each year to study this special yoga with Yogi Bhajan, the only teacher at this time who is allowed to pass on knowledge about the practice.

“Sikhism is a quest for personal truth,” Hollister explains. “It’s less about doctrine and more about the experience of finding God within.” Though Hollister has never taken Sikh vows, he feels he’s in alignment with this spiritual path, which acknowledges all other religions and incorporates yoga into daily life. “To be spiritual, you live it day to day, not just when you go to church on Sunday,” he says.

The Hollisters live and work in Mars Hill, occasionally meeting with fellow Sikhs in Knoxville and Atlanta. “We congregate and feel community at those times,” comments Hollister, “and Sierra and I support each other.”

He believes that world vision is changing, and that the Western idea of an external God is being superseded. “It’s now about being God and finding that within ourselves,” he explains.

Sierra has her own analogy. Religions, she says, are like flowers: They’re all out there reaching for the same thing. There can’t be just one type of flower on the planet.

Cooking with Krishna

Having no real plans for Easter, I decide to break with convention and spend it with the Hare Krishnas. I meet Prithu Das, the teacher of the Asheville center, in a small, sunny room. We sit beside a window crowded with lush, green sunflower sprouts.

Prithu Das is unassuming and warm, telling me about his Web page (www.omjesus.com), which delves into the relationship between the Hare Krishna and Christian faiths. A former student of comparative religion from Germany, he has no trouble finding links between the teachings of Christ and the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita. He’s been a Hare Krishna devotee for 30 years.

“We like Asheville,” he reveals. “It’s very alternative and user-friendly.”

According to devotees Gita and Casey, Prithu Das had his sights set on Asheville for some time. Last September, a Hare Krishna group came to town from their farm in Tennessee. They lived on a school bus while they settled the details of opening their center. The group moved into their temple — a small house on Annandale Avenue — in November.

The white bus, still parked out front, is decorated with a “We Still Chant” sticker. Two devotees live at the temple full time; others travel, stopping by at least once a month. Prithu Das himself divides his time between the Asheville center, the Tennessee farm and his home in India, where his wife and child live. As we talked, he showed me a photo album of his home in Uttar Pradesh, where the late George Harrison used to visit.

In 1965, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada left India with a trunkful of scriptures to bring the Hare Krishna movement to New York City. In less than 10 years, he’d developed a significant following and had opened temples in more than 100 cities. Krishna Consciousness, notes Prithu Das, has changed since those early years, when devotees used to crop up on street corners, dance and chant in parks, and maintain a seemingly constant presence in airport terminals.

Today ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness) spans six continents, with more than 1 million followers and more than 400 temples worldwide. Adherents still practice the devotional service to God known as bhakti yoga, and they still chant their mantra: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”

Krishna volunteers still maintain their worldwide Food for Life program, reportedly feeding a vegetarian meal to a hungry or undernourished person every two seconds.

“Many people are dissatisfied with rigid religion,” Prithu Das avows. “Spirituality should not teach by the means of anxiety. We believe, ultimately, everyone will be ‘saved’ — everyone will come to the same conclusion.”

Casey, a new recruit, approached Hare Krishna devotees on his own. After visiting temples around the country and reading the books, he decided to join. These days, he sports a shaved head and wears a monk’s robes during the evenings of communal chanting.

Gita, a California native, met the group at a Rainbow Gathering (one of the periodic assemblies of the traveling intentional community known as the Rainbow Family). The Hare Krishnas had set up a kitchen to provide spiritual guidance and dinner to the nomadic seekers following the Rainbow trail — a literal trail of Rainbow Gatherings held in state parks and forests across the country.

“Hare Krishnas have been to every Gathering since the first one,” Gita explains. “We’re still upholding the spiritual vibe.”

And though ISKCON members provide an option for those who are searching, Prithu Das points out that they don’t intend to push the faith on anyone. “We’re not allowed to coerce people into Krishna Consciousness,” he explains. “If people come to us, we offer them information, but anyone can leave at any time.”

ISKCON, too, has mellowed over the years. “We’re not in the phase of rugged individuals anymore; we’re in the phase of team players,” notes Prithu Das. “Now there’s a board of directors, rules of conduct and laws like any other spiritual organization.

As for the future, the Asheville group hopes to build a true community. Prithu Das envisions a day school and perhaps a restaurant or cafe. For the time being, though, the Annandale Temple opens its doors to whoever wishes to drop in, especially on Thursday and Sunday evenings.

As we talked, Gita harvested some sprouts to add to the evening meal. “They’re delicious,” Prithu Das enthused, grinning at his crop. A devout vegetarian, his diet consists mainly of raw foods. He suggested blending the sprouts with avocado, tomato, Tabasco(TM) sauce, lemon and miso. “It’s a nutrium bomb,” he says with a smile. “We call it cosmic soup.”

Prithu Das then rose and took his place in the crowded front room, leading a group of nine Hare Krishnas and 18 visitors in singing, accompanied by harmonium, drums and cymbals.

Peace through the arts

“All over the earth, people long for an alternative to the numbing effects of consumerism and to the fear of diversity that drives humanity apart. They long for an actual experience of reverence for the earth and all its forms,” states Saadi Neil Douglas-Klotz, founding director of the International Network for the Dances of Universal Peace.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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One thought on “Pioneering faith

  1. hp

    How fortunate the residents of Asheville are that they might enjoy so many spiritual people on their various and peaceful ways home.

    Personally, the Pancha Tattva Mantra is my joy!

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