Business

On the streets where you give

Ian Brown November 27 1978
Business

On the streets where you give

Ian Brown November 27 1978

On the streets where you give

All that you do .. . should be done as an offering unto me.—Bhagavad-Gîtâ

The sun jigs through the window to the mesmerizing sound of recorded chanting, and a devotee is heard to ask where one can buy “really good dress pants.” Visvakarma (alias Robert Hebert, a Hamilton Roman Catholic), 31, president of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Ontario) for the last three years and a devotee for the last eight, glances at his gold Rolex watch. He has two hours left to fulfil the daily task of repeating his mantra 1,728 times. But how does a devotee of Krishna, the all-attractive personality of godhead for whom one tries to be possessively selfless, come by the

material burden of a watch? “A devotee gave it to me,” Visvakarma/Hebert shrugs. “He would be insulted if I didn’t wear it. Besides, I have four others.” Ascetic, clad in saffron cotton, shorn but for a pigtail (by which Krishna can yank them up to heaven) and reviled for dancing and chanting at streetcorners across Canada, the Hare Krishna squat on what many Westerners consider the farthest edge of religious weirdness. Maybe. Canada’s 500 devotees also sit on a Canadian property empire worth (by their own estimate) $2 million: six temples, 100 acres of land near Montreal, and a spate of businesses. Least willing of capitalists, they forgo meat, eggs, fish, gambling, dirt, intoxicants, and all sex save the procreational variety. But their spare, highly regimented lifestyle, filled mainly by prayer, still generates bills of $6,500 a month in Toronto alone for food, upkeep and the mortgage payments on a $400,000 downtown temple. So devotees peddle books and magazines, solicit donations, run a health food restaurant and an incense factory, as well as profitable Gopinath Candles Ltd., with annual sales of $250,000.

But the largest chunk of Krishna’s^ earthly Canadian riches comes from donations and the distribution of the writings and translations of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivendanta Swami Prabhupada, purportedly a direct descendant of Krishna and the man who inspired all the noise from a small storefront in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1965 after emigrating from India with $7 in his dhoti. His Divine Grace “left this planet” last year, but

left behind 60 volumes—distribution of which will gross Krishna $350,000 this year in Canada and $20 million worldwide. Book distribution is Visvakarma’s

main aim in his current life, and he sends the money he collects directly to Krishna publishing headquarters in Los Angeles to cover the invoices for the cost of production. He would like to distribute more books, but the public doesn’t react well even to bewigged devotees in civilian dress, and the shortfall comes from the donations of devotees and the 2,000 Hindus they service in their temples.

Subhash Batra is such a devotee. The 36-year-old Hindu was, until two weeks ago, a manager at Home Insurance Co.’s Toronto office, but has quit to manage the candle factory and thereby devote more time to Krishna. As Krishna suggests—there is no coercion—Batra donates half his salary to the movement. At His Divine Grace’s personal request in 1975, he also guaranteed the $310,000 first mortgage and the $60,000 second mortgage on the Toronto temple, held by the Bank of Montreal. With temples in Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton still not self-supporting, and the number of new devotees reportedly on the decline, could mortgage payments on the exchurch worth (by some estimates) $750,000 be missed? Batra says no. “If

they needed the money, I would pay off the rest of the mortgage.” As for Visvakarma, waiting in his temporal form to be whisked by the hair to meet Krishna, the prospect doesn’t worry him. “Money always comes in from Krishna,” he insists. “He provides everything. It all belongs to him anyway.”

Ian Brown