The slender young man in saffron robes, head shaven down to a tuft in back, blows the conch shell. Incense is lit in a dim temple sanctuary. It's time for evening prayer at Rupanuga Vedic College, the first and only degree-granting seminary of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Nine men in robes and bare feet dance and spin about, chanting rhythmically to the beat of a drum and the gentle tingling of tiny cymbals.
The smell of incense thickens. A small organ called a harmonium moans. The drum beat accelerates, and the men begin the mantra familiar around the world: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare."
Rupanuga, which takes its name from a Hindu spiritual leader, opened in January at 52nd Street and the Paseo in an old brick and stone church formerly used by Presbyterians and Nazarenes.
The college has no sports teams - the Hare Krishnas consider sports a frivolous diversion from worship - and no women, another bothersome distraction from spiritual pursuits.
Rupanuga's 15 students have come here from around the world for rigorous monastic training. It begins with chanting at 4:30 every morning and doesn't end until after a final evening class at 7:30.
Their study focuses on the Hindu sacred texts called the Vedas, designed to prepare them to become spiritual teachers and administrators of the Hare Krishna movement.
A sedate Midwestern town like Kansas City with relatively few believers outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream may seem an unlikely place for a Hindu sect to open a college. But the Hare Krishnas see Kansas City as a congenial and convenient location for their students.
"We wanted a place centrally located in the United States, a reasonable size city that didn't already have one of our centers, a city with a not too extreme climate, where people are open-minded," said Danavir Swami, president of the college and the International Society's global director of ministerial education.
Danavir has years of experience as a swami, or religious teacher, at International Society for Krishna Consciousness centers in the United States and in several foreign countries.
He arrived in Kansas City with a few of his students about two years ago, set up an outpost in a tiny Brookside bungalow and began the search for a permanent home for the seminary.
The Hare Krishnas soon began their well-known sidewalk chanting, something not seen in Kansas City for nearly two decades.
They now make regular Saturday evening trips to the Plaza to chant and dance. On Sundays at 4 p.m., they open the college to the public for chanting, a discussion of their religion and a free, 11- course vegetarian meal of traditional Indian food.
The Hare Krishnas' food is far tastier and more plentiful than their austere living conditions might suggest: Heaping servings of savory rice and potatoes, Indian flat bread, sweet and spicy chutney, rich desserts.
Krishna Consciousness is one of the many branches of Hinduism, an ancient Indian religion with more than 700 million followers worldwide.
The Hare Krishnas are devoted to Krishna, a heroic figure in Hindu literature who is seen as a human incarnation of God. Krishna Consciousness is a monotheistic faith, just as Western religions are, Danavir said.
"Our scriptures (of different faiths) all reveal the same things," he said. "The essence of them all is God is supreme."
A key belief is reincarnation, that upon death, the souls of living things enter new bodies. What kind of body a soul acquires depends upon karma, the accumulation of good and bad actions the soul has taken in prior lives. "That explains why one person is born deformed and demented and in a poor family and another is born beautiful and in a wealthy family," Danavir said. "Otherwise (injustices) are hard to reconcile."
Krishna followers have to give up sports and gambling, abstain from illicit sex, swear off drugs, alcohol and caffeine, and banish meat, fish and eggs from their diet.
"We give up the pleasurable to give pleasure to Krishna, and in return get pleasure," Danavir said.
"The soul becomes completely satisfied spiritually and physically. A Krishna Consciousness person doesn't feel he's losing out on anything. Rather, he feels he has gained."
Danavir Swami was born Dane Holtzman, a California beach boy who grew up blithely indifferent to things spiritual. His conversion to Krishna Consciousness 30 years ago, however, was swift and unequivocal. Holtzman was studying economics and sociology at the University of California-Los Angeles, playing on the school's championship volleyball team, singing in a rock band, and smoking a little marijuana.
"I wasn't looking for anything. I wasn't dissatisfied with anything," he said.
Then he met up with a friend who had recently joined the Hare Krishnas. He tried to talk him out of it, he said, "bring him back to sanity."
"I asked 'What kind of life are you living?' I had seen them in Hollywood burning incense and chanting. They looked like they were high on something." For more than an hour they talked.
His friend seemed happier than anyone he knew. The philosophy was so compelling, he couldn't reject it.
"It may have been impulsive, impetuous, but I was genuinely moved. I decided to become a Hare Krishna."
His friend invited him to a chanting party that evening. He joined in the dancing without a trace of self-consciousness. When he went home that night, he flushed his marijuana down the toilet and stayed up late reading a Hindu spiritual text, the Bhagavad-Gita.
The next morning, he reported to a volleyball game.
"I froze. I couldn't hit the ball," he said. "I felt I had to devote myself to Krishna and this (sport) wasn't the best thing to do. I walked off the court."
Rupanuga students tell similar stories of spiritual drift and conversion. Jnana Caksus Dasa Brahmacari, 23, born John Griffin, graduated from high school in Philadelphia and bummed around the country for three years, emulating Jack Kerouac.
He supported himself taking odd jobs, selling artwork he made from junk. He hitchhiked with hippies, went to Grateful Dead concerts, hung out at the counterculture Rainbow Gathering in the Missouri Ozarks.
"At the time, I had no conception of God," he said.
In his travels, he visited a Hare Krishna temple in Miami.
"I encountered higher consciousness," he said. "I knew it was higher consciousness because I was envious. I wanted that intellect." Danavir was there at the time, and Griffin's training as a Krishna devotee began.
"I hope to become more purified in consciousness," he said. "First, helping myself, I'll be able to help others. If I could make one person more God conscious, that's the highest benefit."
Rupanuga students live in one of the three neighboring houses the college owns. The college can accommodate up to 45 students. Students receive their education tuition-free. The college's expenses are covered through donations and by the sale of books and literature.
Students, though, are expected to work at the college, doing computer publishing, accounting, gardening, cleaning or cooking.
Most of their time is taken up with spiritual and educational duties.
They attend chanting ceremonies three times each day. They are expected to pray the Hare Krishna mantra on prayer beads, similar to a rosary, for two hours daily. And every day there are five classes.
The classes concentrate on philosophy. But as the school grows, Danavir, who now is one of just two faculty members, plans to expand course offerings to include sociology, Vedic art, drama, psychology and science.
On a recent evening, eight students sat in a chilly basement classroom. Some wore sweaters or sweatshirts over their thin robes. The room used to be the church nursery. A benevolent Jesus painted on the wall looked down on them tranquilly.
Danavir taught a class on the book Nectar of Devotion by Rupa Goswami, for whom the college is named. He read to them from a story about Krishna playing a flute and frolicking with a group of maids who tend the cows. "Every living entity has a capacity to enjoy and that capacity comes from Krishna," he told the students. "His pastimes are so blissful and enjoyable, if one hears about them they become spiritually purified."
There may have been a serene logic to Danavir's discussion, but to an outsider, it seemed to ricochet from Krishna and the maids to explanations of Sanskrit terminology to tidbits of Hindu theology.
There are 330 million demigods who administer the universe for Krishna, Danavir said.
"You think the sun rises by chance on time every morning?" he asked rhetorically. "That's the view of science. It's very well- arranged by God and his 330 million assistants. He has a management structure."
Such skepticism about western science is a regular part of Danavir's instruction. Last October he told the Kansas Board of Education he supported its controversial decision to de-emphasize the teaching of evolution.
After Danavir dismissed the class, they all headed for the temple in the old church sanctuary. Before the chant began, they prostrated themselves before a golden altar to Krishna.
Danavir rocked back and forth with his hands stretched overhead. At 50, he looks athletic. It isn't hard to imagine him back on a California beach poised to spike a volleyball over the net.
But that was in another life.
"God consciousness is what we are here for," Danavir Swami said earlier that day. "It's the unfinished business we have left."