Getting off the C-train on Hoyt-Schermerhorn Streets in Brooklyn, the first thing one might notice is the quiet surroundings. The hustle and bustle of New York City is not present here, except near the train stop where mostly African American men and women can be found. On the corner of Schermerhorn and Nevins St. stands a building not so different from the surrounding buildings except for the fact that it is the home to a Hindu temple. This temple, Radha Govinda Mandir, is an International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple. Inside the building, there are different spaces. A room that resembles a school auditorium is used as the temple space.
The front of the room is dedicated to Krishna and Radha. The altar consists of a large golden gate behind which drawn curtains reveal two large, highly decorated statues of Krishna and Radha. The side walls in the temple space are lined with pictures of Krishna, showing him in moments that span the time between when he was a baby and when he became fully an adult. The back of the room used as temple space is dedicated to Srila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON. Centered at the back of the temple is a large statue of Srila Prabhupada, and the wall behind him is lined with his pictures.
The most unexpected characteristic of the temple is the frequent sounds and slight vibration of the trains passing below– a constant reminder that the temple is located in a busy city. Another important space in the building is the kitchen and dining area in the basement. A huge component of the Radha Govinda Mandir is the restaurant/catering service. Vegetarian lunch is available for sale to the public from Monday to Friday. A quick search on the internet will show that the temple is very well known for its delicious food.
Upon entering the building, one is met with greetings of “Hare Krishna!” In the hallway adjacent to the dedicated temple space, shoes can be found scattered, indicating that there are devotees inside the temple space. As devotees enter, they each take a moment to revere both the altar with Radha and Krishna and the statue of Srila Prabhupada–either by touching the floor with their foreheads while on their knees or by lying face down in front of both revered spaces for a few seconds. If a devotee is physically incapable of doing either of these things, he or she at least touches Prabhupada’s feet or bows to Radha and Krishna.
The temple offers two time for communal worship–on Wednesday and Sunday nights. The temple, however, is open every day. Every Wednesday night, kirtans are performed. During kirtan, musical devotion is prominent. Songs with repetitive words or verses are sung to the beat of tablas (hand played drums), manjiras (small hand cymbals), and a harmonium. Toward the end of the kirtan, the curtains on the altar are opened to reveal Radha and Krishna, and a conch shell is blown to announce the beginning of aarti. During this procession, devotees stand. Some dance or sway to the music in an almost trance-like way. The excitement of laying eyes upon Krishna and Radha is evident during aarti as all the devotees move closer to the altar to get a better look at them and many pull out their phones or cameras to take pictures. When aarti is completed, the curtains are closed once more and the kirtan is finished. Prasad is then offered to the devotees in the dining area located in the basement of the building.
Based on my Wednesday visits, I can see that the Radha Govinda Mandir is very welcoming, perhaps as a result of the principles that ISKCON was based upon. These principles are focused on the spirituality of Krishna Consciousness rather than on the carnal differences–differences of skin color or social class–that so often occupy human beings. The four basic principles of cleanliness, mercy, austerity, and truthfulness (as per the mandir’s website) are “tool[s] for advancing personal character development & spiritual consciousness”. These principles make one aware that “we are not this temporary material body, but an eternal spirit soul (http://www.radhagovindanyc.com/philosophy/principles/). Devotees of various races and ethnicities are found at the Radha Govinda Mandir. There are African Americans, Caucasians, East Asians, and South Asians. This diversity is something that is not often found within a Hindu temple. Despite their diversity, the devotees who attend the Wednesday night services compose a close-knit community. A few of these devotees are related; others are friends. Everyone is made to feel welcome at the Radha Govinda Mandir, and for some it is like a second home. One devotee said that she grew up in an ISKCON family in another state, but she “felt at home” at the Radha Govinda Mandir. This “at home” feeling could be a result of the friendliness of the devotees at the temple, but that, in turn, seems to be an expression of a shared goal of developing spiritual consciousness on the basis of non-discriminatory principles in the ISKCON community as a whole.