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


Anonymous said...

Nice writing. I appreciate that you don't cast us in a completely horrible light, but it's unfortunate that you didn't check all of your details before the book was published. there are a number of details that are incorrect in this article. ISKCON was founded in 1966, though Prabhupada did sail from India to America in 1965, he didn't incorporate ISKCON until 1966. Devotees do wear neck beads, but there is not a set number, and they don't chant on the beads they wear, that is a separate set of 108 beads, and that is carried in a small bag. Prabhupada started publishing Back to Godhead in the late 1940's in India, long before he came to the US.

these are just a few of the inaccuracies. you would do well to have contact with an actual member of the organization if you ever plan on updating your book. There is a comprehensive list of Hare Krishna temples at, as well as several articles about our religious practices.

Sam Jordison said...

Many thanks for the comments - all gratefully received and read with interest.

I think the quibbling over the year of the foundation is a small matter, since to all intents and purposes the society was born in 1965 even if not officially incorporated. (In the book I put the foundation of Christianity at 0 AD rather than 321 for similar reasons). Similarly whether carrying or wearing a set of beads is really that different I'm not sure, but you're right that my description could be viewed as inaccurate.

I stand corrected about when Prabhupada started publishing Back To Godhead. I should have specified that I meant in the USA.

I'd be grateful if you could alert me to any other factual errors, just in case I do get a chance to republish.

I'd also be interested to hear the counter arguments about the general direction of the article and the problems withing ISKCON. If you have the time to provide them, I'd be happy to publish them here.

Incidentally, I have visited the krishna temple in Soho Square in London on several occasions - and Govinda's restaurant beneath (which I have to admit does very tasty food even if I don't agree with the ideology behind it.)

best wishes


Anonymous said...

well, regarding the beads, the beads we chant on are significantly larger than most people would wear, and there is also a matter that there is a special bead that marks the beginning/endpoint, and the beads gradually decrease in size from one endpoint to the other, so there is a pretty significant difference in the way these beads appear than the beads we wear, which are made of Tulasi, a sacred plant.

other details: Prabhupada didn't leave his family because his wife burned his books. his wife sold a translation he'd been working on for a tin of biscuits, but never burned any books. Prabhupada left his family because this is something that men of a certain age do in Vedic culture. Pious men retire from family life (first being certain that everyone is materially situated-- Prabhupada set up finances to take care of his wife and adult children, and made sure his adult children would look after his wife before he made his decision to leave to take sanyas (which is a renounced order of life. you give up pretty much everything.) he also knew it was his life's work to spread Krishna Consciousness long before 1965-- he had been asked by his spiritual master to do so when he was a young man in 1933.

Krishna consciousness is thousands of years old, but the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha mantra was emphasized by Caitanya Mahaprabhu in the sixteenth century. Caitanya Mahaprabhu was an incarnation of Krishna himself.

adherents are encouraged to become detached from the material world, not reliquish family ties. it's a subtle differece, but an important one. it's ok to have family, but we have to realize that this relationship is only temporary, that when we die, we must give up attachments to family (and any other things or relationships in the material world) or we will be reborn in the material world to fulfill our desires regarding these things.

The quotes regarding women are taken from the Bhagavad Gita, which is thousands of years old, and have been taken out of context. Ditto the comment about hospital building being a waste of time-- Prabhupada was discussing the Bhagavad Gita, and he was saying that it says that simply performing welfare work for the material body is useless if you don't also perform welfare work for the soul.

as for the historical problems, i'm not qualified to speak to all of them, as i wasn't born yet when most of them happened. i can tell you that Keith Ham (known as Kirtanananda) is out of prison now, (released because of illness, i hear. he has post-polio syndrome and some lingering effects from a head injury, which may have contributed to his crazy behavior.) but is not welcome in any ISKCON temples. New Vrindaban (the Hare Krishna farm he had been in charge of) was for a time also not part of ISKCON, because he had very significantly strayed from the core values of the religion, even before you get into the illegal activities. New Vrindaban was allowed back into ISKCON in either the late 90's or early 2000's.

regarding us all being part of Krishna, this is also a subtle point, but we are small sparks, spirit souls, who are the same in quality as Krishna but different in quantity (a good analogy being that if Krishna is the ocean, we are drops of ocean water-- we have the same properties, like being wet or salty, etc. but we are infinitessimal compared to Krishna. we are by nature his servants.

The food tastes so good because it is first offered to Krishna, who spiritualizes it-- we believe that you can make spiritual advancement just by eating food offered to Krishna.

if i can, i may have someone more well-versed in ISKCON history comment at some point. i think i'v given you a bit to chew on for the moment.

Sam Jordison said...

Thank you -very interesting. Please do get somone else to comment too. Will reply soon...

Sam Jordison said...

Apologies for the delay in replying. All interesting material again - thanks...

Here's a few sources for Prabhupada's wife's objection to his religious leanings:

(Both pro-iskcon sites)

The story about the tin of biscuits is even more tragic than her burning the books.

Here's a source (pro-Iskcon) that has this as the main motive for leaving his family:

As far as leaving her goes, I can't comment too much on what was, after all, a personal choice - although just because it's traditional that doesn't mean it's morally justifiable - and the following quote from Prabhupada himself suggests it wasn't an ideal decision :

"The bride and groom should exchange their garlands, and the groom should promise never to forsake his wife, and the wife should promise to serve the husband for all her days..."

(From collected letters, August 22 1967)

Meanwhile, the above comments about service seems fairly typical to me of his unhealthy attitude towards women.

I'd be interested to know the real context of the women are: "'prone to degradation, of little intelligence and untrustworthy" quote - and why Prabhupada felt compelled to use it - and what his real attitude to women was...

Funnily enough, although the wife may not have burned the books, there do appear to have been several instances of book burning within ISKCON groups:

yoyo said...

FYI-Krishna has two arms, not 4. And no, the neckbeads worn are not the same as chanted on. Yes, there is a big difference. There are many more errors in this writing. Please get all your facts straight.Thanks.

Blue_Ocean said...

You were very much interested to know about Prabhupada’s views on women. All human beings are marginal energy of the lord, who can decide his way to either spiritual/higher energy or material/inferior energy. Women are also the marginal energy of the lord like men. We respect all living entities from an ant to Brahma – the creator of the universe. Women by nature are less intelligent than men. This can be exemplified by very few numbers of women scientists or philosophers; you will be able to find very few women scientists like Marie Curie, but the list will be long in case of male scientists/philosophers. Women are not servant, but they must live under the care and supervision of men. e.g., before marriage women should be under the supervision of her father; after marriage under the supervision of her husband; and in her older age under the care of her elder sons. Women have much more lusty desires than men, and that must be kept under control by engaging them in the service of lord Krishna. A person, who has taken the renounced order of life, must not unnecessarily mingle with women. Prabhupada has always given the example of butter and fire. No matter how long the butter is kept in the freezer, it will melt once it comes in contact with fire.
It seemed after reading your blog that you are very much interested to know where Prabhupada was wrong, actually he was not. He was the ambassador of God, like Jesus Christ, who took all our sufferings to free us from our sins. Once we become free from our sins, then only we can see the lord. If you try to spit on the sky, it will ultimately fall upon you. Please excuse my harsh writing. The leader must be spiritual to enable him to do inner engineering. You know very much about the philosophy of the Hare Krishna movement. I would request you to visit your nearest ISKCON center, purchase the beads and chant Hare Krishna mahamantra – Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare; Hare Ram Hare Ram, Ram Ram Hare Hare. To enrich one’s culture, he must be flexible enough to learn and accept what is good from others and reject bad. Stop speculating through mental concoction and hearing from unauthorized sources. Do it yourself and feel the paradigm shift within you.
Hare Krishna