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How two Co Down sisters left their Methodist church to become Hare Krishnas and live on an island in Fermanagh

Karuna and Sukhada attended Sunday school at their place of worship, while their mother sang in the choir. They tell Stephanie Bell why they turned their back on their Christian beliefs to embrace the Hindu religion, reincarnation, meditation and chanting

Sukhada Smith-Repass (left) with her sister Karuna on Inis Rath island in Fermanagh
Sukhada Smith-Repass (left) with her sister Karuna on Inis Rath island in Fermanagh

By Stephanie Bell

Two sisters from Northern Ireland who left their family and faith to live on an island in Fermanagh with the Hare Krishna community in the 1990s today share the story of their spiritual journey.

Originally from Bangor, sisters Karunesvari Smith-Ryan, known as Karuna and formerly Karen Smith, and her younger sister Sukhada Smith-Repass (formerly Suzann) grew up as active members of the Methodist Church.

The sisters were in their early 20s when they moved to live among the Hare Krishna community on Inis Rath in Lough Erne.

They both now live close to the island where they are active members of the Hare Krishna community.

An ancient Indian religion, the Hare Krishna movement came to the western world in 1966, and its members were best known in Ireland for their street singing and chanting, as well as vegetarian restaurants.

Since the 1990s the number of Hare Krishnas living on Inis Rath has dwindled to just 12 devotees, and there are around 200 followers of the faith in Northern Ireland.

The small community is presently fundraising to maintain the temple on their island, which is open for retreats.

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Hare Krishna followers worship the Hindu god Krishna as the one 'Supreme God'.

Followers are vegetarians and spend two hours every day in meditation, chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.

The Smith sisters raised their children in the Hare Krishna community, although they were educated in local schools in Fermanagh.

The women themselves grew up in Bangor, where they attended church every week.

Their mum Ann (78), who worked as a legal secretary, was also voluntary secretary of her local Methodist church and a member of the choir, while their dad Desmond, who passed away in 1993 aged just 54, was the church caretaker.

Karuna and Sukhada were raised to attend church every week as well as Sunday school and the Brownies.

Both say they began to question their faith when they were still very young and opted to stop attending church.

While their parents accepted that they had the right to their own beliefs, their mother has struggled to comprehend the choice her girls made.

The family have remained close over the last 20 years with Ann frequently visiting her girls in their homes in Fermanagh.

Sukhada with her niece Ekadasi, mum Ann Holmes, sister Karuna, and children Mukunda, Tusquasara and Balarma
Sukhada with her niece Ekadasi, mum Ann Holmes, sister Karuna, and children Mukunda, Tusquasara and Balarma

Karuna (51), who runs a vegetarian food business, is separated from her husband, who now lives in India, and has one daughter Ekadasi (25), who lives in London.

Her company, Karuna's Kitchen Catering, can be found every Saturday at the Temple Bar food market in Dublin and on Sundays at the People's Park market in Dun Laoghaire.

Sukhada (46) is divorced and her children Balarma (10), Tusquasara (13) and Mukunda (16), live with both her and their father, who is no longer a practising Hare Krishna.

Sukhada explains how she first came across the religion while questioning the Christian faith she grew up with: "I remember one particular sermon in our church when the minister was talking about if you do bad things you will go to Hell.

"I was about 12 or 13 and that really freaked me out. It was quite a strong sermon and it scared me and left me feeling that I didn't want to go back to church.

"It led me to question if it was real, and if there really was a Heaven and Hell.

"I met some Hare Krishna followers through my sister when I was 19 and joined when I was 21 (she was doing a pre-veterinary medicine course at the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, now Belfast Met, when she left and joined the temple in Fermanagh).

"My dad passed away when I was 21 so he didn't get to know me in that faith.

"Mum could see how much it had changed me for the better and she was very accepting of it.

"I started attending the temple in Belfast on a Sunday and I knew straight away it was what I had been looking for.

"Everything made sense to me and I loved the food, as I never enjoyed eating meat growing up. Karma and reincarnation made sense to me and it made me happy.

"I always felt I was searching for something and with Hare Krishna I didn't have to search any more. I moved to live in the Temple in Fermanagh when I was 22 and met my husband there."

Sukhada lived in the temple for two years and then moved to her own home close to the island.

Hare Krishna does involve some sacrifice and a fairly strict lifestyle. Followers don't believe in intoxicants, so coffee, tea, alcohol and smoking are banned.

Sex is for procreation within marriage only and gambling is not allowed.

Offspring: Karuna’s daughter Ekadasi
Offspring: Karuna’s daughter Ekadasi

Sukhada has completely devoted herself to following the rules, and for her it hasn't been a sacrifice.

She explains: "We believe in trying to live a spiritual life and that our bodies are a temple and we need to keep them clean.

"We do two hours of meditation and chanting every day. We chant the Hare Krishna mantra. I would try and do it early in the morning and do a little bit of work and then do it again in the evening.

"I don't find it strict. Women, especially after they have kids, just want companionship, friendship and support and to serve Krishna together.

"The physical side is fulfilled by the love and affection of your kids.

"For men it's just about having a strong spiritual practice that means they can dovetail their desires.

"I personally find it easier to follow being single. That's why we get married, so the desires and the physical side of a relationship are not completely denied, and as we get older that is given up."

While her children have been brought up in the Hare Krishna community, Sukhada is happy that they find their own path.

As she has separated from her husband, who has left the religion, the children have experience of life outside and within the community. Sukhada says: "Some of the children do chant and my youngest does. We are now two parents bringing them up in very different ways and my oldest son would challenge me a lot, but I want them to grow up and choose their own paths. I do, however, hope they stay vegetarian."

Sukhada is a holistic therapist who practises Reiki and runs yoga classes, sound healing and massage among other treatments at the Shambala Holistic Centre in Derrylin.

She adds: "I love what I do and I love helping people and my work goes hand in hand with my lifestyle, which is to live a cleaner, calmer life.

"To me, the spiritual and healing side of my life tie in and are a big part of who I am."

Sister Karuna was just 11 years old when she started to question the Christian faith she was brought up in.

She, too, was confused about what happens after death and continued to search for answers throughout her teens.

She was newly graduated from Queen's University in sociology and social anthropology and got a job in administration with a computer company when she discovered the Hare Krishna movement and joined.

Today she says that she finds the Krishna belief in reincarnation easier to accept than the Christian conviction of Heaven and Hell.

She says: "I discussed my doubts with my parents and it was a big thing for them but they were good enough to understand and they allowed me to stop going to church when I was 11.

"In my mid-teens I talked to mum and dad and the minister of our church and I had some quite deep questions which none of them could answer.

"I wanted to know if you go to Heaven what age you are when you get there, and are you still the same as you were before you died? But no one could answer these questions for me. I remember in my teens my gut telling me I should be religious but I didn't know how to do it. It was a big deal to me but I couldn't accept Heaven and Hell and that things were so black and white.

"In my early 20s I was still looking for answers when I came across a book on Hare Krishna in an ex-boyfriend's house. I borrowed it and that book gave me the answers I had been searching for.

"I remember very clearly when I was not far into the book having the impression that I knew all this before and it was not new to me. It felt so natural and it all made sense."

While she started to attend the Hare Krishna temple in Belfast it was over a year before Karuna felt she could totally commit to the religion and make the huge lifestyle change it demanded.

Fundamental to her was the question on what happens after death, which she now found peace with.

She says: "I could fully accept the notion of reincarnation and not as most people understand it, that if you are bad you will come back as something random like a plant or an animal.

"I believe that the desires we cultivate in this life is preparing us for what we will carry on in the next life.

"We are each on a journey and face a series of situations we learn from and we get the chance to carry that on in the next life.

"Our consciousness has evolved, so yes, we can go into animal or plant life but as we evolve we move to the higher reaches of human consciousness."

Her daughter, who now lives in England, attends a Hare Krishna temple in London and has friends from the community but has yet to fully commit to the religion.

Karuna says: "I always knew she would make her own mind up and she did grow up in the community here in Fermanagh, and while it is definitely her religion, she is not 100% practising it."

While the lifestyle is strict, she hopes that it is something which others won't be put off by.

She says: "I personally don't find it hard. There's a lot of satisfaction that comes from the chanting and the spiritual process.

"However, it may take some time for people who are new to the process to come to the point of being free of those things (coffee, alcohol, sex) without finding it tough.

"In that case, I would say that the most important thing is to concentrate on adding the positive things into our life, such as the chanting which is very powerful, rather than worrying about the things that we can't do or struggle with. Those things can come in time."

  • The sisters will be sharing their story in a 46-minute documentary produced and presented by Magi Scully. Peace And Love In A Time Of Trouble will be broadcast on Newstalk 106-108fm tomorrow at 9pm

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