Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hare Krishna

I recently finished reading a book on the Hare Krishna movement that came out in the late 1980s called Monkey on a Stick (subtitled Murder, Madness and the Hare Krishna Movement). The book traces the history of the fundamentalist Hindu sect from its heady early days in the late 1960s, to the late 1980s when the movement was devastated by scandals including the possession of illegal guns, drug-running and child abuse at the New Vrindaban Krishna community in West Virginia.

This is one of 2 postings on the Hare Krishnas. The first will explain something of the history and philosophy of the movement while the second will be an analysis of how it all went so horribly wrong after the death of the movement's founder in 1977.

I have always been fascinated by the Krishnas because the essence of what they teach is so similar to fundamentalist Christianity, albeit without the saffron robes and vegetarian food, that it would seem to me to be completely unappealing to the counter-culture types that form the basis of its followers. Most initiated practitioners live according to strict rules taking vows to abstain from all forms of recreational drugs and intoxicants (including caffeine), from eating meat, fish and eggs, from gambling, and from all sexual relations except for purposes of procreation within marriage. For non-initiates how many of these rules to follow is left to one's own discretion, but these four 'regulative principles' remain as a standard. How this differs from main line fundamentalist protestantism is beyond me. Most Hindu Indians view the Hare Krishna movement with amusement and as a strictly American phenomenon, but the movement is based within Hinduism and takes a fundamentalist stance toward events in the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita, the text upon which the movement is based. The philosophy of the Krishnas can be summarized as follows (from the ISKCON web site):

“The Vedic scriptures state that spiritual life begins when one inquires into the nature of the absolute truth, the Supreme Godhead. Gaudiya Vaisnavas are monotheists and know the personality of Godhead as Krishna, the All-attractive. But it is also recognised that the Supreme has unlimited names such as Rama, Buddha, Vishnu, Jehovah, Allah, etc. The ultimate goal of Gaudiya Vaisnavism is to develop a loving relationship with the Supreme Godhead. The congregational chanting of the maha-mantra, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, as promoted by Sri Caitanya, is accepted by the Vedas as the most effective means of self-purification in this age. The Vedas describe the mantra as a prayer to the Lord, "Please Lord, engage me in Your service".

The movement began in the United States when a 69 year old Hindu renunciant named Abhay Charan De Bhaktivedanta (the title Swami Prabhupada was given later by his followers) showed up in the United States in 1966, knowing no one with 49 rupees in his pocket (“Not even enough spending money for one day”). He was by all accounts a charismatic teacher who immediately attracted numerous disciples on the lower east side of New York where the movement’s first temple was founded. The movement experienced rapid growth from 1966 to 1968, where temples were established in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Montreal, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The problems began to arise when Prabhupada elevated a group of his most senior disciples to leadership positions where they immediately started plotting against each other and became drunk on their power. The next posting will discuss the financial structure of the Krishnas and how they justified dealing heroin and coke for the benefit of Lord Krishna.

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