Hare Krishnas spread message of peace, love and meat-free living--in Poland

May 22, 1991|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Special to The Sun

WARSAW, Poland -- The East has sneaked in through post-Communist Poland's opening to the West.

Over the last week, Hare Krishna "bhakti" in saffron dhotis and woolly cardigans made a determined onslaught on this bastion of conservative Roman Catholicism.

Vegetarian, teetotal and ostentatiously unworldly, the Hare Krishnas faced convinced carnivores and hard drinkers, 90 percent of them adherents at least in name to a church that for centuries has wielded political power.

"If we were just another religion competing for converts, our situation would be hopeless here," said Sacinandana Swami, 43, leader of the Poland mission. "But Krishna does not want to compete with Christianity, with Islam, with other religions. We just hope to strengthen the vital fiber of these religions, which is sometimes extinct in this age."

Nevertheless, the episcopate has more than 25,000 priests, not to mention nuns and monks, to promote its cause. Hare Krishna has about 100.

"We have about a hundred to 140 Polish devotees, the initiated, living in temples in Warsaw, Wroclaw and the provinces," said Sacinandana Swami. But, he said, congregations run into millions.

"We don't keep membership lists," he added, sounding rather like the old Communist Patriotic Front. "Everyone is a member. Everyone is a devotee of God."

About 2,000 of these millions turned up to tune their vital fiber at a Krishna cult concert in a Warsaw sports stadium. Saffron flashed and cymbals clashed on a mildly psychedelic stage.

Lay workers in white dhotis, or loincloths, served exotic, overcooked vegetable curry with coconut, thin, crisp bread and pastries, on paper plates.

"I used to eat meat," said Magda Salmonowicz, 16, a student. "But they are right. It is killing."

Not all Poles are so flexible. Police patrolled the improvised concert hall, and their vans rolled to and fro outside.

"It's just routine protection," one policeman said, the standard police response for anything short of civil war. "But we know that there are some intolerant groups in Poland."

Ms. Salmonowicz doubted that the Hare Krishnas would make much of a dent in Polish consciousness, but businessman Wlodzimierz M. Zabojszcz, 43, disagreed.

"Look at all the young people here," Mr. Zabojszcz said.

"I think it's like in America where the youngsters want to be Communists. Here young Catholics can be interested in Hare Krishna. It's the novelty value."

Indeed. In the lobby of the sports hall, three burly young policemen, undoubtedly raised on kielbasa and ham, scraped their paper plates clean of soy curry.

In Poland, where climate and communism have prompted extreme culinary conservatism, that's a real cultural conquest.

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