I suppose it should have struck me as unusual for a bunch of people to call themselves each other’s servants. I also should have realised that it was a bit creepy to be encouraged to lie to my family and skip school to pay visits to a temple; all for the worship of none other than a five thousand year old blue guy that answers to the name of Krishna.
A bit of background…
The Hare Krishna movement was started in 1966 by Abhe Charan Bhaktivedanta Swami Praphupada. Just as Christian missionaries go to the East to preach The Word, he went to New York from India to spread the message of Bhakti Yoga, or devotional worship of Krishna/God. Although the movement describes itself as non-sectarian, its philosophical basis is primarily that of the Bhagavad Gita (which some have coined the Indian Bible) and other Puranic, or old Sanskrit scriptures. The movement has essentially come from the Vaishnavism denomination of Hinduism.
Put more bluntly however, Hare Krishna devotees are mostly white, middle class westerners who like to dress up in a lot of orange. They are often pale in appearance and wear an excess of clothing garments, even in hot weather, possibly due to a lack of iron in their food. They spread their teachings through sankirtan, or the singing of holy prayers, which they believe will lead them to enlightenment. Part of the philosophy that they follow is that the soul is eternal, goes through a cycle of many births and deaths, and is doomed to return to earth on the basis of previous karma. To escape this cycle of reincarnation we must realise ourselves as a spirit soul, become detached from the temptations of the physical world and fully devote ourselves to worshipping Krishna. They also believe that if you eat meat you will be sent to a special type of hell where you will come back as a cow or a rabbit and experience what they went through to die and end up on your dinner plate.
I am not going to explain all I know about the religion, as my perspective would probably offend a few well-meaning Hindus, and lord knows we don’t need any more fuzziness when it comes to deciphering religious texts. Find the facts out for yourself, if you are interested.
However I do want to tell a story of my experience in what I have now realised is a religious cult, full to bursting with propaganda, mistruths, and an unhealthy obsession with feeling unworthy. Hare Krishnas may be a very peaceful bunch, but they are a cult nonetheless.
For me, it all started when I was fourteen years old. I went with my family to a vegetarian restaurant in Newmarket called The Loft, run by Krishna devotees. With dinner, they also provided a seminar on their teachings and a chance to sing Hare Krishna with them at the end of the night. The food was great (it satisfied my vegetarianism) and the teachings intrigued me. Being a family that embraced different ideas and beliefs, we continued to go every week for a few months. The singing was the best bit, as it seemed to make me ecstatically happy. A psychologist could probably explain why this was, as would someone who regularly enjoys singing about Jesus in church.
Devotees have a strange practice of offering their food to Krishna first before eating it, in order to purify the food from bringing you bad karma; that carrot felt pain, you know. Food that cannot be offered to Krishna (and most other Hindu gods) includes meat, fish, eggs, anything (including chocolate) with caffeine in it, anything that touches your feet or the ground and, strangely enough, onions, garlic and mushrooms, which are considered ‘dirty.’ Eating Prasadam, or food that has been first offered to Krishna, is a big part of being a devotee, and can count as points towards your spiritual purification.
The devotees took a special interest in me – I was young, innocent, looking for ‘a reason’ and cringingly naïve. I was given presents for my birthday, and invitations to further Hare Krishna events. Eventually the women who ran the restaurant had to move to Wellington, which coincided with my mother becoming more and more reluctant to drive me to The Loft.
I began to sneak around my family’s back to visit Hare Krishna friends. Being without a driver’s license and monetary income, the devotees would pick me up themselves from designated meeting spots and drive me to meetings and festivals. I kept in touch with them through secret phone calls and email, where I would delete all correspondence, as my mother became increasingly curious and intrusive as to what I was up to.
I plastered my bedroom walls with pictures of Krishna (the blue guy) and made a type of ‘shrine’ to him. I woke at five every morning to chant sixteen rounds of the Maha Mantra on my string of Japa beads. There were 108 beads on the string, so that meant chanting,
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna1728 times each morning.
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Devotees stress the importance of constantly chanting Hare Krishna and being careful to only associate with other devotees. Reading Prabhupada’s texts all the time is also recommended. I think if I had chanted hamburgers all day long I would have developed an unhealthy obsession with hamburgers as well, to be honest. The word brainwashing comes to mind, but I’m sure devotees are well meaning.
Occasionally I would skip school (the first time I ever wagged) to be driven to the Hare Krishna temple out in Riverhead for the day. An Indian girl in my form class let me use her postal address to receive packages from Wellington. I was discouraged from spending time with ‘non devotees.’
Their plan was for me to move to the Ashram in Wellington when I turned 16, the legal age for leaving your parents. Hare Krishnas are very conservative – they are not allowed to drink alcohol, take drugs, smoke cigarettes, eat any of the ‘forbidden’ items, gamble or have sex unless for the propagation of children, and even then only once a month. I was given a set of Tulasi beads, which meant I was unable to engage in these things while wearing them - which I thought would be the rest of my life. When I reached the age of about eighteen I would be expected, (if desired) to consult an astrologer and have an arranged marriage with a male devotee. Tough luck if I happened to be a lesbian, of course.
One of the founders and spiritual leaders of the movement, Devamrita Swami, took me under his wing. He was definitely an interesting man – as well as having written several books, he used to preach in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, until his identity was disclosed to the KGB; although Hare Krishnas probably like the social control of communism, they are against it because of its stance against religion. Devamrita Swami and I exchanged many emails and he proclaimed me to be his spiritual daughter, planning to initiate me formally in the future, name change and all.
In one email he told me: “As long as you actively associate with materialists your consciousness will be coloured by their pollutions.” I replied:
Dear spiritual father,
I can’t express how much your words mean to me and how encouraging they are.
So I’m not associating with my school friends this weekend (mainly due to an overload of homework), but yes, I will reduce my association with them, especially the ones who are not supportive of me wanting to be a devotee!
When I went to Wellington to stay with a friend from school who had moved there, I ran away to the Ashram in Te Aro. My mum eventually found out and called the police. Apparently they couldn’t do anything. I was collected by my friend’s parents and taken home, where a much tighter reign was put on me.
I even went to the street and tried to sell books to the public on the occasional weekend, and when I could get out of the house I partook in a bit of song and dance on the streets with them.
One day I came across an article on the Hare Krishna website that referred to the inferior intelligence of women. The Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam also contain many references (at least, Prabhupada’s translations of them contain these references) to women being less intelligent, and not having the capacity to understand certain spiritual concepts. The article in question said that feminists were ‘polluting’ ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness) and that the movement’s philosophy should not be changed to suit modern feminists, homosexuals and ‘new-agers,’ whatever that means.
Devotees don’t often preach this particular aspect of their philosophy, but it is definitely there. Outraged, I replied to the post on this website and got a very interesting reply:
This philosophy is perfect and does not need to be changed for anyone. It says in dozens of places in Prabhupada’s books that women are inferior to men.
If you are disturbed by reading Prabhupada’s words then you either need to change your attitude or find another religion that suits your particular ideas. Srila Prabhupada is a liberated soul, and all his teachings are perfect. Therefore if we don’t accept his teachings as they are, we can’t claim to love him.
Your servant, Sudama Das
My reply (and an example of what a completely different planet I was on at the time) was:
Thank you so much for your reply. Yes, you are right about Prabhupada’s teachings – they are perfect. And whether I agree with them or not is irrelevant – he is a holy Sadhu. I can’t say that I agree with the idea that women are inferior to men yet. It will probably take me some time to understand that particular part of the philosophy, but I do accept it.
Thank you very much for reminding me of my position. Although it’s hard to accept because it brings my material status down, it is actually quite humbling, and that is very good in devotional service.
Then I received this response:
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.Soon after I discovered some of my correspondence on the website that Sudama administrated:
As far as the women being inferior goes, it’s really not that big a deal. Nor is it even a bad thing – if you read the books carefully Prabhupada says a lot of other things too, such as the fact that women are MORE powerful than men. In one purport he mentions that Julius Caesar was controlled by Cleopatra.
Srila Prabhupada didn’t hate women, he certainly saw everyone as a spirit soul. Real intelligent women (such as yourself) will see this and not take the comments about ladies being inferior seriously. My wife doesn’t care about it, she sees it as an advantage. Next time someone tells you you’re less intelligent you can just agree and let them think that – what difference does it make?
It’s like a child – just because they are less emotionally developed doesn’t mean that we abuse them. Women are similarly unstable at times, no one can argue this point.
We have talked about this a lot and I think that what it comes down to is whether the girl has a husband that she likes or not. Most of the women who complain the most have been hurt by men in the past so they don’t want to give up their independence and get hurt again. Makes sense doesn’t it? But deep down every girl wants to surrender to a man, that’s the female nature. So hang in there, keep your Krishna consciousness and when you’re 18 you can move into a temple or find a nice devotee husband and get married.
I love Srila Prabhupada – but I don’t want to follow his instructions!And on it went. In fact, now that I think about it the whole philosophy of Krishna consciousness is sexist in the way it teaches that God is male, and all souls are female in nature, in the way they all eventually flock back to Krishna. This concept is actually mentioned quite a lot.
The following text is an email I received from a young lady. This person claims to love Srila Prabhupada and in the same breath rejects his instructions as ‘non-Vedic.’ No wonder there are so many problems in ISKCON these days…
I think I came to a realisation at that point – I agreed with the teachings but I couldn’t agree with that. I was also finding it hard to accept that the one true God is in fact a blue guy who is fond of jewellery and lotuses, none other, no less. And I had been brought up to think that God came in many shapes and sizes; and genders, for that matter.
I surprised everyone by stopping my meditation, complicated mealtime prayers and temple attendance. My friends and family had begun to accept I was serious by then but I began to have a normal life again. I have since decided that the meaning of life is only what I make it to be, and that religion can be a good thing, but it should never make you compromise your family, your education or your fundamental beliefs of equality.
And by God, those saris are uncomfortable!