Ilona Nejkovova - inside Prague's Hare Krishnas
Prague's Hare Krishnas are a busy bunch. The group operates the Govinda restaurants, which are known for vegetarian meals and relatively cheap prices, and also runs an ecological farm just south of the city. Perhaps they are more known for their brightly colored robes and energetic chants in demonstrations three to four times a week on Wenceslas Square. In this week's One on One, Brian Sabin meets with Ilona Nejkovova, also known by her spiritual name as Rasabihari Devi. She found Krishna consciousness shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and has seen the group grow from an upstart to a religion officially recognized by the Czech government. First she was asked whether she felt it was difficult to reach the Czech people, who are mostly agnostic.
"Well, I think that after the initial interest in the 1990s, after the revolution, Western Culture with all of its good and bad aspects came to the Czech Republic. Maybe interest decreased a little bit then, but still I think Czechs are a quite intelligent and deep-thinking people.
We are actually not presenting Krishna Consciousness only as a religion, which it is actually not. This is a way of life, and especially it is a spiritual culture. Czech people, they really like culture.
We have lots to offer, be it dance or music, philosophy, cooking, anything. So there are many aspects of Krishna consciousness which are well accepted in society nowadays."
How did you learn about Krishna consciousness and why did you decide to pursue it further?
"It has been a long journey. I remember that even as a child I would ask questions about my existence, and I wanted to know: What comes after death? Is there some further life, or not? Who is God? What does he look like? Who are we, actually, and why did we come to this world? What is the goal of our existence here?
As far as I remember, my parents, my teachers and my friends - they didn't have answers, or they had answers which were not satisfying to me. Then I searched further for the answers to my questions and as I grew I came across different religious books and philosophical books.
In the 1990s I saw the first members of the Krishna consciousness who, at the time, could openly teach or propagate Krishna consciousness. I bought some books from them and attended a public program. I was mesmerized by reading those ancient texts because they are translated from ancient Sanskrit. They are very, very old texts, but they are not out of date. There I could find a very simple yet sublime philosophy that is very deep yet could be practiced by people in our time."
I understand that in the past ten years the Hare Krishnas have distributed 1.3 million books throughout the Czech Republic. What has been the response to that? Can you tell me how many members you have nowadays?
"Actually, we are not looking for quantity, but rather we are looking for quality, I would say. No one becomes a devotee of Krishna by signing something, or getting some kind of identification card or something. This is a question of heart. Nobody can force you to love anybody. This is true of loving even Krishna.
So we cannot really say how many members we have. We cannot say how many people in the Czech Republic are devotees of Krishna because we've had experiences where after many years we've come into contact with people who we've never heard of that are practicing Krishna consciousness at home. They were reading books and they were worshipping Krishna.
This is a difficult question, but if you ask like this, we know of about some 300 full-time, practicing devotees here in the Czech Republic. Of course there are thousands of people who feel sympathetic to our movement, who support us in any possible way and who really appreciate our activities."
To the best that you can describe it, what is Krishna consciousness?
"Krishna consciousness, as I said, is a whole way of life. The very basic point of our philosophy is that we are not this body. So you can understand that this is not a sectarian teaching. It doesn't apply to any particular nation, or to some caste or creed. And the basic teaching is that we are not this body.
We are neither American, nor Czech, nor Indian. We are not woman, we are not man. The soul, which is our true existence, is apart from this body. And we are changing our bodies according to our activities, and also according to our desires during our lifetime.
The next point comes when we are not this body, when we are the spirit-soul. What is the true business of the soul, or what is the real goal of the soul? The real goal is to love God, and to serve him. So you can find that this is the basis of every religious practice in the world."
You seem to be doing fairly well. You have, I believe, at least two buildings here in Prague, you own two restaurants and there's also the ranch outside of town. And you distribute all of those books. How do you pay for all of this?
"I would say that we are not that many in numbers but we have a lot of enthusiasm. You can see when someone is really enthusiastic about anything, that person can really achieve something extraordinary."
Why do some newspapers call you a "sect"?
"Well, you should ask them."
But what would bring that? Is it a matter of jealousy, in your opinion, or just a misunderstanding? What is it about the Krishna religion that would bring that kind of stereotype?
"By stereotype, you mean that sometimes people will call us a sect or something like that? If you look in the dictionary, "sect" doesn't mean something bad or negative. Even in the early days of Christianity some of their groups were called sects. Anything that is not a major stream in society may be called a sect, but it doesn't mean that it has to be something bad. Unfortunately, nowadays people understand it in this wrong connection.
I think there was a lot of bad propaganda in the '70s by some major religious organizations that didn't want the so called "new" religions to be spread in society. Because generally there is a decline in society, young people - they do not want to be come members or they are not interested in spiritual life.
So they saw this as a threat, but in fact Krishna consciousness is not a new religion. Actually it is one of the oldest religions in the world. It is at least 5,000 years old, so it is much older than Christianity. The only thing is that it hasn't been known in the West. That doesn't mean that it's new, that only means that we didn't know about it. In India, it has existed since time immemorial."
Where are the Krishnas going to go next? What are the plans for the future?
"Well, where we are going, I can't say. This, I think, only Krishna knows. We are continuing with our activities, but we are now working toward getting a proper temple for Krishna here in Prague. We would like to have, not only for ourselves but for everybody, a proper cultural center that would be built in the traditional Indian style. Like a nice, traditional Indian temple that could attract everybody for whatever reasons. So this is our dream, which we hope will come true soon."