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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Krishna's Followers Throw Colorful Birthday Bash

Moscow's Hare Krishna community threw a birthday party, and the guest of honor appeared in his finest, bluest form.

The holiday of Janmastami marks the appearance, or birth, of Lord Krishna in human form in Brindavin, India, 5,000 years ago. The celebrations at the Palace of Youth on Komsomolsky Prospekt last Friday included a ballet of dance and song, reenactments of scenes from Krishna's life, in which the blue-skinned god naturally took center stage.

Jointly organized by the Russian chapter of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, and the cultural section of the Indian Embassy, Janmastami attracted more than 2,000 Russian and Indian Krishnite devotees. Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen lit a lamp to officially open the holiday, and ambassadors of Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also attended.

A monotheistic sect of Hinduism, the Hare Krishna movement seeks to promote both the teachings of Krishna and Indian culture on a worldwide level.

The Indian Embassy's Ashok Sajjanhar, director of Moscow's Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Center, said such public rites were vital for Moscow's Krishna community. "For people like us who are outside the country, things like this help us enormously to keep in touch with our traditions, to keep in touch with our customs, our festivals, our culture."

The festival had more of a festive than strictly religious feel to it. ISKCON spokesman Vitaly Yakovlev -- better known in the community by his Sanskrit, spiritual name Vapina Purandera, or Proprietor of the Forest -- described Janmastami as "the Christmas for Krishnites."

Children played with balloons outside the auditorium while their parents socialized and feasted on vegetarian fare such as sabdosi curried potatoes, spicy pakoras and sweet ginger halava with raisins. The bazaar-like atmosphere in the central hall was heightened by the range of goods for sale: posters, sculptures, incense, music and lecture cassettes, and religious and philosophical writings.

Most girls and women wore brightly patterned saris and sarongs, while the men sported traditional pale orange shirts and pants. Sergei Zuyev, director of ISKCON in Russia, looked strangely out of place in a crisp gray business suit among the devotees.

A Krishnite from the Soviet era, when the movement was both illegal and underground, Zuyev now oversees a community of 100,000 believers in major cities across Russia, where many temples are being built. The Krishna movement is not included in the list of official religions under the federal government's new law regulating religion, Zuyev said, and Krishnites must continually watch their step. He said records on new members are not strictly kept, as a burgeoning membership might draw unwanted attention from the authorities.

In Moscow, the Krishna community is comprised of approximately 70 percent Russians and 30 percent Indians, who congregate in a temple near Begovaya Metro Station and maintain a rural temple northwest of the city. The Krishnites also run two Hare Krishna schools, which are approved by the Education Ministry.

On Friday, Prakti Bringa Govinda Swami said he'd made the trip from Almaty, Kazakhstan, especially for Janmastami. Born as Sean Hobgood 47 years ago in Nashville, Tennessee, the swami, or monk, was initiated into the movement in 1971, joined the Hare Krishna community in Toronto, living there for six years before settling in Brindavin. He now travels between northern India and Central Asia.

Hobgood said Hare Krishna's mixture of religion and science first attracted him to the faith as he sought to answer questions about the meaning of life, the role of the individual and the relationship between consciousness and the body.

"I think that during [the 1960s] you had a lot of young people trying to find a lot of alternatives," he said. "But a lot of times they weren't going in the right direction -- you had the hippie revolution and you had so many people who lost their lives in drugs. ... But Krishna consciousness was a very positive alternative."

As Hobgood spoke, the Janmastami ballet began. Against the backdrop of a life-size temple glowing with color, a starry sky and rose petals falling to the stage, Indian and Russian girls performed an elaborate program of dances. Then the blue-skinned Krishna himself made an appearance: first as an infant with his foster parents; then as a boy, when he was known as "The Butter Thief"; then as a grown man -- played by the Jawaharlal Nehru center's Ashwany Nigam -- with his girlfriend, Radha.

Wearing a gold crown with a peacock feather, a carnation garland, a jeweled belt and green and gold silk pants, the bluish, plumpish Krishna looked the part of the good-humored divinity as he courted Radha. He then turned nasty, assuming the role of the angry God, battling witches and vanquishing Khaliev, a three-headed serpent who had been poisoning Brindavin's water supply.

As the show drew to a close, Hobgood said his life of devotion to Hare Krishna has been full of peace -- as well as a few surprises. Several years after joining the movement, he was shocked to run into a U.S. schoolmate on the streets of Brindavin.

"I thought I was the only guy from Nashville that ever became a Hare Krishna devotee."