Behind the ornately carved dark-cherry doors of Yogamaya in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, shiny, happy, sinewy men adorned with head scarves, manicured scruff, and frayed-rope necklaces bend and breathe to the sounds of a harmonium and hand cymbals ringing from a room down the hall. In it, a swami is leading a discussion titled "Can God Be Blue? A Study of Krishna." "So many people just stumble into Hare Krishna, and it's almost always through yoga class," says studio director Bryn Chrisman. Glenn Riis, who opened Yogamaya after burning out on Wall Street in his forties, says that even if most of his students aren't proclaiming themselves Hare Krishna, they're definitely tuning in to its spiritual wavelength. "You see people discovering this ocean of new ideas," Riis says, "and then it's up to them to explore it further or not."
But while yoga and Hare Krishna—which demands devotees practice Bhakti yoga on a near-daily basis—might make obvious bedfellows, few would expect the corporate boardroom to open its doors to a religion built on selflessness and moderation. Rasanath Das, a Cornell University M.B.A., made headlines after he gave up his $170,000 salary at Bank of America to be a Hare Krishna monk. But far from being shunned by the financial community, Rasanath has become an in-demand lecturer for senior executives at banks from UBS to Citigroup. In a TEDxGotham talk, Rasanath echoed the message he brings to those "compulsive achievement machines": "Take a few deep breaths, place your hand on your chest, and really bring the sensation to your heart. See what you feel. . . . Remember, there is no right or wrong answer. Your experience is purely yours. . . . Feel the authenticity." Rasanath may be employing the stock language of modern self-help—fuzzy feel-goodery that could easily have been spoken by Joel Osteen or Tony Robbins or Oprah—but coming from someone who left behind a moneyed career to sleep on a monastery floor, it resonates at places like the Harvard Business School Club of New York.
That the wolves of Wall Street would one day be pawing at the temple door would have been unthinkable to Srila Prabhupada, whose initial foray into America was timed to capitalize on the rise of the counterculture. Propelled by hippie icons like Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles, Krishna had its first true "moment" in the late sixties, yet it failed to cross over into the mainstream. For every George who took up the sitar and recorded "My Sweet Lord," there was a John, a Paul, and a Ringo who just hung out at the temple for the chicks. (In Mad Men's recent nod to Hare Krishna, sad-sack Paul Kinsey turned to the religion only after bottoming out professionally, and even then mainly to get into a girl's robes.)
But a few generations of disillusionment and religious scandal later, almost one in five Americans identifies as "spiritual but not religious," leaving the window to our souls cracked just wide enough for something as user-friendly as Hare Krishna to slip through, unburdened of its baggage of airport proselytizing and scrubbed of its patchouli stink."Every single religion started out as a cult," says Douglas Atkin, the author of The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers. "There's a new idea, it gets some followers, and gradually it changes the culture in its own image. But you have to be different enough for people to buy into, while still managing to become slightly less different as you grow." Atkin cites Mormonism as the gold standard for a heretofore outsider sect that made the leap to the masses. Less than two centuries after being founded on sacred underwear, polygamy, and mysterious golden plates buried underground, Mormonism gave us a presidential candidate who won the votes of 61 million Americans. Considering Hare Krishna's relatively recent arrival in America, the extent of its infiltration is impressive. "Their religion hasn't succeeded yet," Atkin says, "but their ideas have."
"It can be a little off-putting to still be labeled a cult by some. But after nearly 50 years, the public perception of the Hare Krishnas has evolved," the ISKCON's Keshava Sharma says, "and we now have temples and communities which are flush with a wide variety of people of varying demographics." Alachua, Florida, is one such place. The tiny town of 10,000 is home to the New Ramen Reti, the largest Hare Krishna community in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 500 families—many of them white—call the 127-acre property home, but there's rarely any drama with the locals. Just down the road in Gainesville, at the University of Florida, the Krishna House sponsors a donation-based Krishna lunch on campus that attracts more than 4,000 students and locals a week.