This was the most readily recognizable and controversial New Religious Movement some twenty years back. Nowadays, it adopts a lower profile and seems to be somewhat more open to dialogue.
WYB documentary on the Hare Krishnas
[L. Hughes op, Lecture 4 - 18/3/1999]
BHAKTI YOGA AND THE HARE KRISHNAS
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness was founded in 1966 by a seventy year-old Indian Swami, Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. He had left India and arrived in New York penniless less than twelve months previously. Prabhupada was born Abhay Charan De in 1896 in Calcutta, India. His family were devout members of the Gaudiya Vaisnava sect, a group that worships Krishna in the tradition of Mahaprabhu Chaitanya (1485 - 1533). Chaitanya taught that bhakti was the only way to spiritual liberation. He understood bhakti as the "affectionate service of God for his sake alone" or "to love God as one's lover".
Prabhupada arrived virtually penniless in New York in September 1965, having only the names of a few people who might offer him hospitality. By February 1966 he had his own tiny rented room in Manhattan, in which he offered three lectures weekly and continued working on the Shrimad Bhagavatam. A few young people, mainly from the 1960s "counter-culture" started coming to see him, often out of curiosity that an elderly Indian swami should be living in a rundown area of New York. He spoke to them and introduced them to mantra chanting. This in turn drew more followers and the "Hare Krishna" movement - named after the chant - began to spread. Within a few months the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was born.
The price Prabhupada paid for the establishment of his movement was disimproved health. He returned to India in 1967. Though he did make a number of foreign trips thereafter, from 1970 onwards Vrindaban - where Krishna is believed to haved lived - was the base from which he continued to build up the Krishna Consciousness movement. At the time of his death on November 14, 1977, ISKCON had grown into an international organization with more than 100 ashrams, schools, temples, institutes and farm communities mainly in North America, Europe and India. Its membership included more than 4,000 whom Prabhupada had personally initiated and a total following which it was claimed numbered several millions. Probably the best-known of these was one of the 'Beatles', George Harrison, who donated his country estate outside London to the movement. He also gave his musical talents to publicizing Krishna Consciousness. In 1969 George and a group of devotees produced a hit single, "The Hare Krishna Mantra" which reached number 12 in the charts.
HARE KRISHNA PHILOSOPHY
Members of ISKCON - called 'devotees' - are required to live a strict life. Rising each morning at around 4 am, they take a cold shower and immediately enter into a programme of chanting, prayers, scripture lessons and offerings to the gods before having breakfast around 7.30. Much of the day is spent chanting in the streets, handing out literature or other work. The evening is usually given over to meditation, spiritual reading and more chanting. Devotees are strict vegetarians. Alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee are out and though some members marry, all must observe a very strict code of sexual behaviour.
The Hare Krishnas, along with Hindus generally, believe in reincarnation. One can observe, for example, that as the human body ages and changes, the individual remains the same. They conclude from this that when the body dies, the spirit-soul, unless it qualifies to "go back home, back to Godhead", continues in the world by taking on another body. This new body can be any one of the "8,400,000 bodily forms" of plants, insects, fish, birds, beasts - as well as human beings - which are found in the world. The particular outcome is determined by the manner in which one has lived the life just ended.
The single most revered scriptural authority for Krishna devotees is the Bhagavad-Gita, which is a small section within the massive Mahabharata epic. The Gita exemplifies the guiding and consoling presence of Krishna in human affairs, specifically in the moral anguish of Prince Arjuna prior to and during the great battle of Kurukshetra. Unlike Prabhupada modern indologists interpret the Mahabharata symbolically and regard Kurukshetra as a mythological rather than a historical event. These scholars generally assign a date to the Bhagavad-Gita either a little before or a little after the time of Christ. In contrast, the Hare Krishnas hold that the Gita "is said to date back 5,000 years to the time when Krishna incarnated on earth to teach this sacred message". Hare Krishnas and Hindus generally, revere the Gita as a sacred text, and accord it a status not unlike that held by the Gospels for Christians. Daily meditation on selected portions of the Gita and of Prabhupada's massive commentary on it, is expected of all members of ISKCON. It is believed that this practice keeps a person spiritually in tune with God and helps one to become more whole-hearted in serving Krishna.
Chaitanya identified Krishna with vishnu and the Absolute or Supreme Being. Chaitanya's followers, including members of ISKCON, believe that Krishna is God himself and not merely one of his incarnations. But they go further than this. They regard Chaitanya as much more than a teacher and source of inspiration. For them he is an avatar or incarnation of Krishna disguised as his own devotee. As such there can be "no higher principle of truth than Chaitanya-Krishna" who is "the supreme ultimate principle". Hence the title Mahaprabhu or "Great Lord" by which they address Chaitanya.
Does ISKCON regard Mahaprabhu Chaitanya as the founder of the Krishna consciousness movement? Prabhupada says: "...actually the original founder of this movement is Lord Krishna himself, since it was founded a very long time ago, but is coming down to human society by disciplic succession". "Disciplic succession" is frequently referred to in Prabhupada's writings. He insists that those who would become Krishna conscious must enter into a relationship of unquestioning obedience to a human swami or teacher. In this regard the Hare Krisha movement is no different from many other traditional Indian guru movements.
SANKIRTANA AND THE MAHAMANTRA
Sankirtana or 'group singing' as practised by members of ISKCON, is very similar to what Chaitanya and his followers practised in the villages of Bengal in the early sixteenth century. It involves loud chanting of the names of Krishna and Rama, usually to the accompaniment of drums, cymbals and other instruments. It is an emotionally charged exercise and participants usually break into spontaneous dancing or jumping movements. Prabhupada and the Hare Krishnas consider Mahaprabhu Chaitanya to be the originator of sankirtana. However, it was almost certainly practised long before his time. Sankirtana is an age-old and highly effective bhaktiyoga technique. Like energetic devotional singing within other religious traditions including Christianity, it releases tension and can greatly help to focus awareness on the object of veneration.
Prabhupada made extraordinary claims about the power of chanting the name of Krishna and Rama in the mahamantra. He saw it as much more than a method of prayer or meditation. The mahamantra is the vehicle whereby one is set free from the slavery of material nature and brought to a spiritual stage of super-consciousness or Krishna-consciousness. It cleanses the heart and brings about self-realization or God-realization. It is the panacea for every social and human evil. If enough people practise it, it will lead infallibly to world peace. Death and suffering will lose their terrors once it is realized that man's real nature is spiritual, and profound and lasting happiness will result. To explain why this particular form of chanting God's names is so powerful, Prabhupada said that it is because "this transcendental sound vibration is non-different from Him".
The benefits of the mahamantra are believed to result not just when it is performed as sankirtana or in group singing, but also when it is recited individually and quietly by all Krishna devotees. The japa beads which each one carries around with him in a cloth bag has 108 beads and is used rather like the Catholic rosary to count the mahamantras in private recitation. Each member of ISKCON is required at the very least to do sixteen rounds of the beads daily - that is in addition to group singing in public or before temple idols.
For ISKCON the practice of sankirtana is a powerful instrument of evangelization. Very many of those who join the Hare Krishnas first encounter the movement through its public singing of the mahamantra. For some, the experience of *sankirtana, both on the street and indoors, is overwhelming. One observer who hesitated to join in the singing in the street, later went on to embrace Krishna consciousness. He reported: "I saw the devotees chanting, and those magic words, magic words, 'Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare!' So I finally gave in and joined them, repeating over and over again. It certainly felt good afterwards. Two days later I went to kirtana at the devotee's private house. This time it hit me! I was lost in bliss, divine bliss!...I was overwhelmed! Now Krishna Consciousness really had a hold on me, and I can't believe it's all happened so fast!".
Hindus and orientals in general agree that sound itself has creative power and that the recitation of certain sacred words and names puts one in contact with or even makes present what or who the mantra signifies. The heart is believed to be purified and one's life centred on the deity who is the object of the mantra. However, these spiritual effects come about only if one's mantra recitation is accompanied by meditation on the meaning of the mantra. With practice the element of meditation will tend to predominate and the recitation become quieter, more interior and eventually perhaps cease altogether. Sankirtana according to the Hare Krishnas is quite different from this.. One simply chants and the beneficial results come about automatically and directly from the particular set of sound vibrations produced in the chanting. All this is possible because - it is claimed - the mahamantra functions on a "spiritual platform" and therefore "surpasses all lower strata of consciousness - namely sensual, mental and intellectual."
CHANTING AND HEALTH
What Prabhupada called the "lower strata" of the emotions, senses and the entire body are very much involved in ISKCON's congregational celebrations. Prabhupada lists some of their more extreme manifestations: "(1) being stopped as though dumb, (2) perspiration, (3) standing up of hairs on the body, (4) dislocation of voice, (5) trembling, (6) fading of the body, (7) crying in ecstasy and (8) trance".
Chaitanya himself practised sankirtana in a very intense form. The question of the psychological soundness of this practice was raised long before the International Society of Krishna Consciousness was established. During his lifetime there were those who questioned Chaitanya's sanity. The distinguished historian of Indian Philosophy, S.N. Dasgupta, writing in the 1940s stated: "The religious life of Chaitanya unfolds unique pathological symptoms of devotion which are perhaps unparalleled in the history of any other saints that we know of....His intoxication and his love for Krishna gradually so increased that he developed symptoms almost of madness and epilepsy. Blood came out of the pores of his hair, his teeth chattered, his body shrank in a moment and at the next appeared to swell up....Without the life of Chaitanya our storehouse of pathological religious experience would have been wanting in one of the most fruitful harvests of pure emotionalism in religion".
A former member of ISKCON described the long-term effects that membership and in particular chanting had on the mental health of some devotees. Whereas most devotees would spend about two hours a day chanting their rounds to Krishna, a number would require four or five hours to get through them: "There's not a whole lot of work to do around the temple, so we would just let them chant all day. Eventually these people deteriorated to the point where they couldn't get their chanting done. They would become slower, and we couldn't get them to work or do anything. They were basket cases." Research on the effects of prolonged chanting within ISKCON as well as corresponding practices within some other religious groupings point to a phenomenon that investigators Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman have termed "information disease".
Conway and Siegelman completed a survey in 1981 of 400 former members from 48 different new religious groups . In it they tabulated the psychological effects of membership on former members. These included "floating" in and out of altered states of consciousness, nightmares, amnesia and inability to break rhythms of chanting. The Hare Krishnas were found to have higher instances of all of the above than occurred in former members of the Unification Church, the Divine Light Mission, The Way International and the Church of Scientology. The authors also detected a correlation between the severity of these effects and the numbers of hours spent each week on ritual and indoctrination. Here the Krishnas, at around 70 hours weekly, were well ahead of the others. The research of Conway and Siegelman points to some link between excessively prolonged chanting of the mahamantra - whether in group sankirtana or as individual practice - and psychological disturbance.
SCHISM AND REFORM
Prior to his death Prabhupada had appointed a 22-man Governing Body Commission (GBC) to administer ISKCON. At the core of the GBC were eleven "initiating gurus" authorized to initiate new members in different regions of the world. Since then the Hare Krishnas have rarely been out of the spotlight of controversy. Six of Prabhupada's chosen eleven have had to relinquish their posts - some of them in spectacular circumstances.
James Immel or Jayatirthadas had responsibility for over-seeing the development of Krishna Consciousness in Britain, Ireland and South Africa. In April 1982 he was expelled from ISKCON because of persistent addiction to the drug LSD and also because of sexual indiscretions. Following his expulsion, Immel changed his name to Tirthapada and founded a breakaway group which he called the "Peace Krishnas". This group was characterized by particularly ecstatic group chanting sessions. In 1987 he was hacked to death in London by one of his most devoted but mentally unstable followers, who was upset at the news that the guru he had identified with Krishna had deserted his wife for another woman.
Keith Ham aka Kirtananda, with Prabhupada's backing had established a large rural commune in West Virginia called New Vrindaban. It included a luxuriously constructed temple named Prabhupada's Palace of Gold. The problems at New Vrindaban included the murders in 1983 of a commune member, Chuck St. Denis and in 1986 of Steve Bryant, a former devotee turned critic of Kirtananda. At a meeting of the Governing Body Committee at Mayapur, India in 1987 Kirtananda was expelled from ISKCON. In 1993 he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment (reduced to 12) following his conviction as an accessory to these murders. ISKCON has appropriated the West Virginia property, as well as most of Kirtananda's supporters. However, despite his imprisonment Kirtananda still retains some support, most notably that of his disciple Bhaktiyogi Swamy Maharaj, who presides over a developing Hare Krishna temple complex on the banks of the Ganges at Rishikesh.
Hansadutta or Hans Kary, another of the eleven 'initiating' gurus appointed by Prabhupada before his death, parted company with ISKCON in 1984. He set up a small independent Krishna Consciousness community near San Francisco entitled the Nam Hatta World Sankirtan Party.
In the wake of intense theological and organizational debate within ISKCON, some members sought guidance from Prabhupada's "god-brother", Bhakti Rakshak Sridhara Maharaj (1895 - 1988). By "god-brother" is meant that both had been initiated by the same guru, Bhaktisiddhanta. These moves have so far led to the establishment of two further independent Krishna Consciousness movements with branches in the West: the Sri Chaitanya Mandal based in San Jose, California and the Gaudiya Vaishnava Society with head-quarters in San Francisco. These groups are at one with ISKCON in beliefs and practice. The Krishna Consciousness movement generally is now smaller and leaner. It appears to have entered a more mature and stable phase in its development and also one that is less dogged by controversy.
As long as Prabhupada was personally able to supervise the spread of the movement, it remained broadly faithful to his form of bhaktiyoga or "devotional union" with Krishna. The devotional practices of the bhakti yoga tradition are highly regarded by large numbers of Indian Hindus. The technique of energetic emotional group singing and dancing are psychologically powerful. A parallel Western example of these practices is to be found within the Pentecostal or Charismatic movement. As an instrument of spiritual growth these practices do presuppose authentic and competent spiritual guidance. When properly supervised, sankirtana like its Western Christian counterparts, allows for the "unfreezing" of a disciple's personality and for the putting in place of a new spiritually and a morally reformed persona.
Where leadership is deficient, the power of bhakti yoga techniques may allow the very opposite to take place. Many of ISKCON's American disciples - particularly the earliest recruits who rose rapidly through the movement's ranks - were drawn from the hippie culture of the 1960s and were drug addicted when they joined. Prabhupada's ill-health necessitated his departure from the scene in July 1967, less than two years after his arrival in the United States. There had been too little time for him to adequately form the movement's American leadership and thus the stage was set for the subsequent decline in ISKCON's fortunes. The rise and decline of the Hare Krishnas is a graphic illustration of what can go wrong when a powerful spiritual practice - in this case bhakti yoga, the "yoga of devotion" - is transplanted into a context where ethical training cannot keep pace with spiritual and mystical aspiration.