The four regulative principles of the Hare Krishna faith include avoiding intoxicants, so it might seem like beer-saturated University of Michigan (U-M) football games and Hash Bash would be the last places you'd find local devotees chanting the names of God. But for local practitioner Makoto Takata, singing in the streets— or in the stadium — is an opportunity for members of Ypsilanti's The Harmony Collective to "help people develop spiritually."
"It's about wanting to serve people, as opposed to pushing a religion on them," Takata says.
In contrast to the firebrand preachers who also sometimes turn up at U-M football games using a megaphone to preach about people burning in Hell for eternity, Hare Krishna devotees aren't there to convert anyone. Instead, they only invite others to sing and dance with them.
"We get a lot of various reactions, but generally, people love it and are into it," Takata says. "Spreading music, happiness, and love is refreshing for people. To see smiles on their faces, the refreshment and rejuvenation they get from that, is really enough for us."
That spirit of coming together in service to community is what inspired the Harmony Collective founders to create a gathering space in Ypsilanti, with many weekly events open to the general public.
Building the Harmony Collective
Community director Deva Madhava Das says he felt called to move to Detroit after graduating from college in North Carolina but didn't know what his professional path would be. Only a few weeks after moving to Detroit, however, he met a group of Hare Krishnas and "realized right away that this is what I came here for."
"I had no religious background, no conception of God, but I felt like, yes, this is my thing, and that hasn't been refuted nine years later," Das says.
Devotees of the Hare Krishna faith sometimes also refer to their practice as "bhakti yoga," referring to a Hindu spiritual practice focused on loving devotion towards a personal god. Their four regulative principles are avoiding intoxication, gambling, illicit sex, and eating meat. Hare Krishna practices include kirtan, a musical event that includes chanting the Hare Krishna mantra; scripture reading and philosophical discussion; and meditation. Many Hare Krishna practitioners also distribute free vegetarian food to the public at large, as the Harmony Collective does at three weekly meals.
After Das had lived in Detroit for about a year and a half, leaders of the Hare Krishna group there suggested doing some outreach in Ann Arbor. Das says the local group began to "gain a little momentum" through 10-15 people coming regularly for meals, kirtan, and discussions of the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita. But the cost of renting a house for meetings was daunting.
One of the regulars was an Eastern Michigan University student who suggested Das and the group check out Ypsilanti, and that's where the group found its long-term home. The Harmony Collective started in a rental facility on Washtenaw Avenue in 2013, and bought its current location at 108 N. Adams in Ypsilanti in 2014.
Das says devotees called it the Krishna House "by default" at first, but found the name to be too sectarian.
"We wanted to convey the idea that this is something for everyone," Das says, explaining the origin of the collective's name. "You don't need to change who you are. Harmony is predicated on difference as much as it is on sameness."
Takata, who uses they/them pronouns, says appreciation of difference is the main thing that kept them coming to The Harmony Collective.
"They understand that … to serve people's needs, you need to listen to where they are coming from in order to facilitate their spiritual development," Takata says. "I came out as trans a couple of years ago, and through that transition, I have found acceptance in this community in a way that I might not have in other religious groups, both Hare Krishna and otherwise. They truly live out the principle that everyone has a place in Krishna consciousness."
Takata encourages anyone who is interested in the Harmony Collective to rethink any stereotypes they may have about the Hare Krishna faith.
"A lot of what people know about the Hare Krishnas is about them flagging you down in airports," Takata says.
Takata notes that younger people seem to be more open-minded about this spiritual tradition.
"The college kids are not like their parents who grew up with people making jokes about the Hare Krishnas on Saturday Night Live," Takata says. "Other people tend to give us weird looks or question what these people are about. But keep an open mind. We want to contribute positively to the community in Ypsilanti in the best way we know how."
Growing the outreach
Today, the Harmony Collective's community center offers a weekly scripture reading and philosophical discussion on Wednesday nights, kirtan on Thursday nights, and vegetarian and vegan meals on Wednesday and Thursday nights and at lunchtime on Sundays.
Members of the Harmony Collective are involved in a number of other outreach efforts as well, according to Uma Devi Dasi, the collective's communication manager. Unlike many other collective members who came to the Hare Krishna faith later in life, Dasi was raised in the tradition in Botswana before moving to the United States to go to U-M. She's excited about spreading the idea of communal chanting and music through an outreach effort she spearheads called Kirtan Detroit.
"Basically it's an initiative to take kirtan to the entire metro Detroit area and beyond," she says. "Kirtan Detroit helps us connect with various yoga studios, cafes, and corporations, and we go out and do kirtan. We've made some nice connections."
Several collective members are also involved in Ananta Wellness, a mobile wellness program that Dasi describes as "a meditation studio on wheels." A trailer is transformed into a meditation studio that can be taken to different locations, whether that's a corporate retreat or Veg Fest Michigan.
The Harmony Collective has also grown by adding a second location a few blocks away from the Adams Street location on Perrin Street in 2018 for those who want to live in community with other devotees. Das says the emphasis will be on housing those who are in recovery from substance abuse or other struggles in their life. The collective also recently purchased about 10 acres of farmland in Maybee.
Takata says a goal is to grow food for the collective and its vegetarian communal dinners, but also, eventually, to address food insecurity in the Ypsilanti community in general.
"There are so many people in need," Takata says. "I hope with this farm project, we can support our own community and give stuff to other (Hare Krishna) communities in Detroit and Farmington Hills, and also provide for the food needs of people in Ypsilanti."
Das says he hopes to use the farm to demonstrate a way of living that is "more organically connected with the larger system of life."
"That represents our vision for expanding into a more (holistic), relatable experience for people not that interested in the religious experience," Das says. "... It's part of our efforts to show how our philosophy can have practical and powerful real-world applications."
Dasi says all the outreach projects and weekly events are important, but the collective's most powerful draw seems to be community. One strain of modern thought suggests that relationships are difficult and require a lot of work, but Dasi says there is another way to look at them.
"As we learn to navigate the challenges that come with relationships or community, you actually get a lot of nourishment and happiness out of relationships," she says. "Being a part of this community, we learn to work with each other and cooperate with a higher focus in mind. There might be stumbling blocks, but they help us grow and it ultimately brings a lot of happiness when we go deeper."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos by Doug Coombe.