Thursday, May 25, 2006

Hare Krishna

Taken from The Joy Of Sects

The International Society of Krishna Consciousness, AKA Iskcon, AKA Hare Krishna

Founded: 1965
Country of origin: India
Gods and guiding voices: Hare Krishna
Famous associates past and present: George Harrison, Allen Ginsberg (briefly)
Texts: The Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, translated by His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanata Swami Prabhupada
Membership: 5,000 worldwide
Basic beliefs: By sincerely cultivating an authentic spiritual science, devotees are told they can become free from anxiety and achieve a state of pure, unending bliss. Each one of us is part of the all-powerful, all-attractive God Krishna. The most effective way for achieving God consciousness is to chant: Hare Krishna.

If nothing else His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanata Swami Prabhupada was a master of timing. Had he started a daily routine of ritual chanting in a New York park at any other time than the mid-1960s he would probably have been ignored as a harmless, if unusually ugly, eccentric. As it was, he quickly became a worldwide phenomenon.

Prabhupada was 69 when he first arrived in America. He’d already had a successful career working as a manager in a Calcutta chemical plant and raised a family (which he’d abandoned when his wife burned some of his holy books). In 1965 he became convinced it was his life’s task to spread Krishna Consciousness, a religion dating back to the sixteenth century when a Bengali saint, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, founded an ascetic monastic order based on repeatedly chanting the name of the god Krishna.

Prabhupada set off in a boat for the most spiritually dark place on Earth – America – carrying little more than a pair of kartal cymbals, a suitcase and eight dollars. His fortunes began to improve when a group of well-educated hippies spotted him chanting away in the Tomkins Park in New York’s Lower East Side and adopted him as their guru. Within a year he’d opened the first ISKCON centre, started publishing a magazine called Back To Godhead, was feted by countercultural icons like Allen Ginsberg, and had appeared at fashionable events in Haight Ashbury alongside acid Messiah Timothy Leary and the rock group the Fugs – writers of the song ‘Group Grope’. Over in England George Harrison helped produce a single called ‘Hare Krishna Mantra’, which reached number 12 in the UK charts, and when Prabhupada visited the country he was driven from Heathrow airport in John Lennon’s white Rolls-Royce.

Soon Prabhupada’s Hare Krishna monks were a common sight in the West’s larger cities; easy to spot with their flowing robes, beatific expressions and shaved heads (with just a small lock of hair left to grow at the back in case the god Krishna ever wants to grab it and carry them off to heaven). Their distinctive chanting was heard from Oxford Street to Montreal: ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare’ (O energy of the Lord, O all-attractive Lord, O Supreme Enjoyer, please engage me in your service). They touted books at international airports. Motorway bridges were adorned with the legend: ‘Say Gouranga – Be Happy’.

All those smiling faces and that exuberant dancing belie a strict lifestyle, however. Adherents are forbidden to eat meat, fish or eggs. There is no gambling, no sex other than for procreation within marriage and strictly no intoxication. All recreational drugs, alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee are prohibited. Members also wear a necklace with 108 beads, each representing the Hare Krishna mantra, which must be chanted in full. The complete set must be repeated a minimum of sixteen times a day (that’s 1,728 Hare Krishnas – about two hours’ solid chanting). Monks who live in the temples rarely manage more than six hours’ sleep on hard floors. Women (described by Prabhupada as ‘prone to degradation, of little intelligence and untrustworthy’) are subservient to men. Adherents are encouraged to relinquish close family ties.

Still, until Prabhupada’s death in 1977, the movement went from strength to strength. But soon after, it was engulfed in scandal. Eleven devotees were appointed to act as successors to the old guru, and put in charge of various international regions. Several of them proved to be wholly unsuitable. In West Virginia, for instance, Keith Ham was given a thirty-year jail sentence in 1987 for racketeering, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit murder after two bodies, partially dissolved in acid, were discovered in the creek near his commune. Handsadutta Swami, the man in charge of the northwest of the US and parts of Southeast Asia, hit the press after developing a taste for fast cars and hoarding weapons. The leader in London, James Immel, was dismissed from his post in 1986 amid accusations of drug abuse and sleeping with female disciples. His headless body was discovered not long afterwards in a shop called Knobs and Knockers on Regent’s Park Road. Next to it, the police discovered one of his former disciples, sitting with Immel’s severed head in his lap and muttering, ‘The beast is dead.’

More recently the organisers have tried to concentrate on ascetic saintliness and put the mistakes of what they call ‘the bad old days’ behind them. Fortunately, they’re nowadays far more likely to be seen spreading Krishna’s love by feeding homeless people, selling books (by the year 2000, they claimed to have sold more than 450 million) or banging tom-toms than to be caught stabbing each other (yes, that happened too).

Cult Hero

The God Krishna

Unlike the monks who so fervently chant his name, the Hindu God Krishna was not into self-denial. The Vedic legends portray him rather as a blue-skinned, four-armed flute-playing trickster. He hides the clothes of women bathing, he encourages married women to play around with him in the moonlight, he expands himself into 16,000 different forms so he can marry 16,000 princesses at once – and fathers ten children with each of them. One of his many incarnations also spends its whole time snoozing.

Words of wisdom:

‘The word “guru” means heavy.’

His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanata Swami Prabhupada

‘Philanthropists who build churches and hospitals are wasting their time.’

His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanata Swami Prabhupada

Taken from The Joy Of Sects