Tom Ognibene did not go to O’Hare Airport to change planes.
He went there to change lives.
Ognibene, who uses the Sanskrit name Trana Karta Das, was a member of the Evanston Hare Krishna temple, which was officially established in June 1973 in building on Emerson Street that formerly housed a branch of the YMCA.
Members of the Evanston temple just held a 50th anniversary reunion. While the temple moved to Rogers Park in 1979 (and is still there), those who were at the beginning in Evanston will never forget it.
“I was a seeker. I wanted to know the truth,” Trana Karta Das told Evanston Now.
And after visiting the Evanston temple, “where I met the devotees,” he said, “I just wanted to surrender my life.”
He moved in.
At its peak, as many as 50 people lived in the temple.
“We were stunned,” recalled Robert Lindberg (Bhakti Vigrah Nyasi), at how perfect the YMCA building, with residential rooms, a kitchen, and a gym that became a worship center, was for their needs.
Officially known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the Hare Krishna movement, a Hindu religious organization, was founded in New York City in 1966, and spread west from there.
In 1972, Bhakti Vigrah Nyasi was at a Hare Krishna meeting in Detroit, where it was mentioned that the group’s temple in Chicago had closed.
“I said we need one,” he recalled.
A leader said “you go.”
“So we got a van and went,” and ended up renting the old Emerson Y.
The image of a vanload of hippies zooming down the highway from Detroit is not far from wrong.
“The whole ethos of the time was seeking that consciousness to bring about a change in the world,” Bhakti Vigrah Nyasi said.
In some ways, the counter-culture became the culture, with the Hare Krishna chant appearing in the Broadway musical “Hair,” and in popular songs such as “My Sweet Lord,” by George Harrison of the Beatles.
Anuttama Das, international ISKCON spokesperson and Commissioner for the Chicago region, explained that Hare Krishna was “an ancient tradition, but its exoticness to Americans was attractive to young people,” who were “asking really deep questions about the meaning of life” at the time.
Anyone who lived through that era probably remembers the Hare Krishnas in their colorful saffron robes, dancing, playing tambourines and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra at airports and in downtown areas, trying to sell or give away their holy books, the Bhagavad Gita.
Ognibene (Trana Karta Das) was among those at O’Hare, chanting:
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.
“Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
While many airport passengers either looked the other way or were annoyed, Trana Karta Das, who wrote a book about the airport experiences, said the reaction was always “more positive, from people who appreciated those beautiful” religious volumes.
And the Hare Krishnas themselves, he said, “were experiencing something from within — Krishna consciousness.”
But airport authorities, and many passengers, were not so welcoming.
A 1976 headline in the New York Times stated bluntly that “Religious Panhandlers are Provoking Anger at Airports.”
There were a variety of court cases around the nation, including Chicago, which ultimately ended up in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1992 banning solicitation or asking for money at airports, but allowing free distribution of materials.
But nowadays, you don’t see Hare Krishnas at the airport any more, for a variety of reasons.
First of all, it’s a whole different world. The 60s and 70s are long gone.
Those who sang “Hair” back then are now worried about their hair falling out.
And, said Anuttama Das, while the Hare Krishnas are “not as visible” publicly as before, they are still very much here, and the movement, he said, is growing.
There are at least 800 temples worldwide, with 10 million followers, he added. The Chicago temple regularly draws 200-300 worshippers per week.
Chanting is still an important part of spiritual involvement.
Krishna, Anuttama Das explained, is the “supreme all-attractive nature of God,” while Hare (also called Radha), is “the feminine aspect of God.”
The Hare Krishna chant, he said, can be interpreted as “Oh energy of the Lord, please engage me in your service.”
While the Evanston Hare Krishna Temple/Emerson Y was torn down and is now the site of an apartment building, the Chicago temple, on West Lunt Avenue, lives on.
Growth now comes not from counter-culture hippies, but from those leading what many would consider a “normal,” day-to-day urban or suburban family life, including a large number with roots in India.
As Anuttama Das puts it, back in the 60s and 70s, the question was “how do I drop out and become God-conscious?”
Now, it’s “how to I stay in and get God-conscious, at work and in real life?”