A group chants on the corner of University Avenue and Northwest 13th Street with smiles spread wide.
Energy flows through the gathering, as a simple three-word mantra is repeated: “Hare, Krishna, Rama.” Dressed in flowing, embroidered clothing imported from India and singing in Sanskrit, the Hare Krishna have an air of mystery about them.
Some of Gainesville’s residents may find them unusual, but others have become familiar with the Krishna devotees who have held a presence in the community for more than four decades.
The group frequently gives out literature and serves an all-vegetarian Krishna Lunch at the University of Florida’s Plaza of the Americas, yet some remain skeptical of the spirituality’s legitimacy.
Leah Robbins, a 21-year-old Jewish and women’s studies double major, eats the Krishna lunch once-a-month but believes the religion is based on commodifying trendy parts of Eastern culture.
“They engage in, and profit off of, cultural appropriation,” she said. “They’ve made a pseudo-religion out of the ‘culturally acceptable’ pieces of Hinduism that real Hindus get harassed for. But we eat their food because it’s cheap and we gotta eat.”
The Hare Krishna’s beliefs are based on the teachings of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who founded the movement and translated an ancient Hindu text called the Bhagavad Gita. The philosophy centers on devoting one’s life to God by doing good works and engaging in different forms of meditation.
Gainesville is a destination for the spiritual philosophy, and travelers come to live and work at the Krishna House at 214 NW 14th St. Young people come from all over, including Orlando and Virginia, to study there. The house, which currently has 28 members, also draws students who are given the option to live there for free while learning about and practicing the religion.
Lavanga Devi Dasi (formerly Lacie Rosser; Dasi is the surname all female devotees take, she said) is a 25-year-old single mother from Panama City Beach. She was a UF student when she became a devotee.
Lavanga recalls her difficult journey with alcohol-induced fun and working with the sole goal of achieving material gains.
She found her way to Krishna lunch after telling her roommate about her aching stomach and empty wallet. In September 2011, her friends encouraged her to eat the food on campus. The meal was safe, but many warned if she were to eat the food at the Krishna House, it may have additives that would influence her to agree with their belief system.
“I thought, even if they give me stuff that makes me super high, at least I’ll have a story to tell my friends,” she said.
After continued interactions, Lavanga felt there was something different about the devotees and spent more time with them. She was invited to move into the Krishna House when her lease ended, but her mother remained suspicious.
“She’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. That is a cult’,” Lavanga said.
Lavanga’s mother was referring to allegations of abuse in the 1980s after Prabhupada’s death, when many of his disciples became hungry for power and deviated from his instructions.
Reports of child abuse in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) boarding schools led anti-cult watchdogs to pounce on the organization, creating the controversy seen in documentary films, such as “The Krishna Calling” and BBC London’s 1980s program “The Hare Krishna Cult.”
“It happened, but those people aren’t around anymore,” she said. “That doesn’t take away how great this philosophy is.”
Lavanga moved into the house despite her mother’s disagreement and continues to practice today. She suffers from cerebral palsy and finds solace in the Hare Krishna philosophy that humans are benevolent souls, not just a body. The Krishna spend their lives working on the soul, rather than serving the material body’s needs and desires.
For others, like Christiana Ramirez, a 25-year-old former Air Force member for four years, the Krishna House allowed her to break free from everyday pressures. It helped her re-direct her love of dancing and time spent with lost souls in nightclubs toward creating a connection with God.
“The temple is my church now,” she said. “I dance with these people all the time, every Sunday.”
While some are drawn like magnets to the philosophy of the Hare Krishna, others question its validity.
Jeffrey Howell, a 24-year-old pre-physician assistant at North Florida Regional Medical Center, is a member of Gators for Christ at UF. Howell appreciates the concept of worshiping God by serving others but doesn’t necessarily believe the Hare Krishna are on the right path.
“I do believe that Hare Krishna, according to God’s standards, is definitely a false religion,” he said. “I believe that people can be drawn to these kind of religions because they can see certain elements that are truth.”
The Hare Krishna movement is shrouded by the fact that its devotees do not try to aggressively convert the Gainesville population. They prefer to allow people to inquire on their own, according to Lavanga.
“I’ve looked for happiness elsewhere, and there’s actually nothing more blissful than this process,” she said. “But you have to experience it yourself to understand it fully.”