Few of the people sipping hot drinks at the cafés lining the beautiful medieval streets turned their gaze from their Saturday newspapers to look at the monks marching under the shadow of Saint Olaf’s church — its 159 metre tower once the highest building in the world, rising up to god.
In the centuries since Tallinn was built by the knights of the Teutonic Order, rising to the centre of a great trading federation called the Hanseatic League between the 13CE and 16CE, processions not unlike this must often have traversed the town, as Lutherans and Catholics battled for the souls of the faithful.
But these these monks marched to the beats of manjira finger cymbals, wore saffron, and shouted out the name of Krishna.
The fact that seemed not to to pique anyone’s curiosity shows just how ordinary the dark god’s presence has become in Estonia — where nine of 10 of the country’s citizens are estimated to be atheists, and the economy is powered by high-technology internet firms.
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness’ Sri Sri Harinama Temple, on Luise Street in Tallinn’s Harjumaa neighbourhood, now boasts of a congregation of some 200 people. Every weekend, the congregation gathers before authentic Karol Bagh temple kitsch, cooks khichdi, and belts out devotional songs. This Saturday, there were just four Indian-looking faces in the crowd — two of them journalists.
Leela Shukla Das — born Leonard Ahlstrøm — discovered Krishna Consciousness more than a decade ago, while studying Spanish at Tartu, the Baltic region’s top university. “It was actually a quest for happiness. I was feeling a lot of suffering in my life and I wanted to understand how to be happy and love everyone”.
For the last four years, Ahlstrøm has been living the life of a monk, first renouncing cigarettes, then sex, and spending his days teaching the Bhagvada Gita.
“I was looking for the formula, and I found it—it’s wonderful, and it works”.
Mathureshwari Devi Das, who appeared reticent to disclose that she had, in another life, been called Maria Jakutiene, voiced simpler views. “I felt a lack of god in my life”, she says. “Now I have found god. I am at peace”.
For at least some, growing up with Krishna wasn’t an unmixed blessing. Baltic Film School administrator Anna Silem’s mother discovered Krishna some ten years ago, in the midst of a personal crisis. “It was a bit crazy,” Silem recalls. “She cut herself off from her friends and the community. I wasn’t allowed to cook, since I wasn’t vegetarian, and she made me eat on the floor”.
Silem moved out of home as soon as she could — and her mother’s passion for her new god was tempered by the experience of being fleeced by a guru while on a visit to India.
“My mother’s taken up yoga and loves it”, Silem says. “She’s repaired her friendships, and leads a reasonably normal life”.
The Krishna Consciousness movement in Estonia has had its share of scandal. Early in the last decade, congregation leader, Janek Rozalka, who joined the movement as a 13-year-old, fled to the US with two million Estonian crowns donated to build a temple.
In a documentary, Estonian television station ETV said prosecutors found that chaotic paperwork and legal documentation made arrests impossible, and decided “that it wasn’t illegal to take money off idiots”.
That harsh appraisal isn’t shared by all. The Krishna Consciousness movement, speculates a tour operator who brings hundreds of Estonians to India each year, taps a broader currents in a rapidly-modernising society that made the journey from Soviet socialism to liberal capitalism in less than two decades.
“Following independence in 1988”, she said, “my generation of Estonians saw the world stand on its head. People had to negotiate their relationship with their communities and themselves anew-and this interest in an exotic religion was just a part of that. Some people have found solace in Islam, too”.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines