Bhrihat Mridanga Das, a 26-year-old man, used to be called ‘Rory Strydom’. Growing up in a stringent Afrikaans Christian family, he is now a practicing Hare Krishna monk and temple commander. Anthony Molyneaux met with Bhrihat at his Ashram in Cape Town.
The Vermicelli crackles in the shallow oiled pot while milk boils and bubbles in the larger pot beside it. A weathered Hare Krishna cookbook lies open on the cold steel counter.
Brihat adjusts his thick lensed spectacles as he stirs the thin pasta into the spitting oil. He is preparing Kheer, a vermicelli pudding, for the mantra meditation being held at the Ashram later in the evening.
“There’s a term we use, Swadharma, which basically means ‘own duty’. This duty is your calling, you could say. You need to do what you’re good at and what you enjoy; otherwise you create too much strain on yourself. Finding your swadharma is essential for a happy life.” states Brihat.
When asked what his ‘swadharma’ is, he smiles while looking down at the sizzling pot.
“I like cooking. It’s a good meditation, but really, I’m a jack of all trades. I’ve never been number one at anything but I’m good at most things.
“I like doing outreach programs, socializing, and networking. I guess I enjoy anything humanitarian. I want to help people when they are unhappy and I believe that’s the most important principle of spiritual life: to develop compassion.”
Brihat’s duties as temple commander are maintaining the vegetarian cooking standards, training the new devotees in Krishna consciousness, leading meditations and instilling the principles of ‘spiritual communism’ in the ashram.
“Communism means that everything belongs to the government but we believe everything belongs to Krishna. Everything is utilized for him and he provides everything we need. So when we are serving each other, we are serving Krishna.”
Brihat is sporting pink croc footwear, the traditional orange robe and a tired brown sweater. His head is closely shaved except for the strand of long hair sprouting from his crown, bundled together in a messy pony tail. His appearance hardly goes unnoticed in the small farming communities where he grew up.
“In the Afrikaner community there’s always this weird vibe toward us [Hare Krishnas]. Afrikaans people tend to be polite, unless they are intoxicated. But you can still feel them thinking, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”
Before taking on Krishna Consciousness, when Brihat was still known as Rory, he spent most of his time in clubs and trance venues. He was studying a B.Sc in Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University, which took him five years to complete.
“My first year of university didn’t count, as I never attended class. I was working at Tollies Nightclub as a barman and I was making a lot of money. When I was working there it was quite a zef place, it’s not like it is now.”
“Before I began with the Hare Krishnas in 2010, I was also practicing shamanism. Intuitively I know how to heal with my hands as I had already learnt this in my previous life,” states Brihat.
“I used to guide people through chambers of their own mind to help heal them. But after I joined the Hare Krishnas, I started to become more focused on my studies and left that trance phase behind.”
Upon completing his degree in 2012 he moved to the Ashram in Cape Town, where he is now cooking this sweet dish.
“I was always attracted to a very simple lifestyle. In movies and games, I liked the monk and the sorcerer, the guy with the magic. So I had a natural attraction to this life and when I found out it was possible to live like this, it was my calling.”
Sandra Troskie, a previous lecturer of world religions at Stellenbosch University, believes Krishna consciousness and Christianity have many similarities that perhaps make the transition easier.
“Hare Krishna is a paradigm that is comfortable for some Afrikaans youth. They all think it’s strange but it’s not really. It’s exotic without being too different,” states Troskie.
“Hare Krishna is not very far off from Christianity. Krishnas also have three gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. This is more or less the trinity of Christian beliefs and it’s easier to extrapolate for them. Even Jesus and Krishna share many similarities.”
Troskie proposes that the recent surge to Krishna consciousness and other eastern religions, may extend deeper into the Afrikaner youth upbringing.
“One of the greatest identity shocks to the Afrikaans people arrived with the ending of Apartheid and the letting go of concepts they were taught by the church.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Council brought all this to light and there was an enormous outflow [of people] from the reformed churches,” states Troskie.
“The youth felt especially betrayed and didn’t trust the reformed church anymore. The Hare Krishna devotees are a small part of this exodus.”
Old vs. New
Brihat’s parents remain committed to the reformed church but what do these older generations think of new age religions?
Kavi Karnapura Dasi, who was previously known as Jacobus Breda du Toit, is now a senior monk in the Stellenbosch ashram. He found Krishna consciousness on the streets of London but grew up in a small Afrikaans farming community called Vereeniging,
“My parents are members of the Reformed church and the first time I told them I was a practicing Krishna monk, they weren’t very optimistic,” says a laughing Kavi. “But I think in time they saw it was nothing malicious. It took four years for them to come around though.”
Brihat didn’t have it much easier.
“My mom is a fundamental Christian. She is a pious lady and helps others but she is very set in her ways. In her heart she feels if you’re not with Jesus, then you’re going to hell,” states Brihat.
“From her perspective, it’s quite hectic to see her son going to hell so I can understand that.”
“When I graduated in 2012, I told them I was moving to Cape Town to live in an Ashram and become a Hare Krishna Monk. My mom just got up and left. She didn’t say a word.
“Up until a few months ago, she never said a thing about it. She denied it for years,” states Brihat.
Brihat now has a working relationship with his mother. She is still apprehensive of the new age religions.
“My mom has opened up more, but she is more critical of my beliefs now. She questions my actions and reasoning all the time which I don’t mind because it keeps me on my toes.
“I think she sees that I’m happy with this path. I am becoming who I believe I am meant to be.”
The thick milky pudding is poured into a wooden bowl and left to cool. Brihat rings a tiny bell repeatedly and gives thanks to Krishna for the sweets he has just made.
An incense stick burns away in the corner of the kitchen and chanting voices drift through the warm air. Brihat grabs his guitar and glides up the stairs to the temple to begin the weekly mantra meditation.