Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dancing with the blue guy

For a change, I am not going to talk about fundamentalist Christians or talk at all, for that matter. Here is a guest article from a friend who has had experience of a different kind of fundamentalism:

Hare Krishna!! 

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 na├»ve. 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 Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
 1728 times each morning. 

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:
Dear Sudama, 

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.

Your servant,

Then I received this response:

Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada. 

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.

Good luck,  

Your servant 

Sudama Das
Soon after I discovered some of my correspondence on the website that Sudama administrated: 
I love Srila Prabhupada – but I don’t want to follow his instructions!

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…
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.   

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! 


Richard said...

Interesting, most interesting. Many a Friday or Saturday night on Queen St, I have watched intently the orange-robed chanting types, and have observed their bitter rivalry with (a) those yelling about how the unbelievers were going to hell; and (b) that notoriously creepy and musically inept busking family (does the ballet-dancing daughter even exist?).

All three want passersby to follow the chosen path - whether that involved living in a commune all the way out in fucking Riverhead (with breaks to hassle drunk teenagers in the CBD), devoting their life and earnings to Jesus (also with breaks to hassle drunk teenagers in the CBD) or just to disobey the fascist council and give thousands of dollars to a very disturbing family indeed.

I'm not worried about the Hare Krishnas and the Your-Going-To-Hell pamphlet hander-outers. It's that family (can't remember their name) that are the real cause for concern. Someday one or more of those home-schooled keyboard-torturing kids is going to flip out, and it won't be pretty. Can you imagine a Casio keyboard being used as a lethal weapon? I can.

However, I can't imagine what's it's like to be under the influence of a controlling religious organisation. My closest contact to religious nutjobbery occurred courtesy of a somewhat odd 3rd Form Social Science teacher, who extended an open invitation to his pupils to attend a 'cool' youth meeting. This was ten years ago, so my memory is a bit vague - it was either called 'Zone' or 'Physco' (sic). The religious aspect wasn't shoved down our throats. I guess they didn't want to scare us off.

The first time was terrible, and featured a night-time treasure hunt around Western Springs reserve for 'The Holy Grail'.
The second time was even worse. Sitting in a draughty school hall for hours, waiting for crappy food while listening to a crappy band called 'Lint', was even less fun than most of what else that occurred in high school. The blank newsprint and crayons we were given to pass the time failed to ameloriate my suffering. My friends and I vowed to never attend one of these shithouse events again.

My only other abiding memories of this fuckwit teacher are (1) telling the class that he had personally witnessed a man's serious injury being instantly healed through the power of prayer; and (2) saying to me that if Labour got elected the country would be taken over by homosexual communists.

I wonder where he is now. Probably holed up in a bunker somewhere near Twizel.

multisubj yb said...

I greatly appreciate that you have not fallen to the Hare Krisha Movement (or escaped from it.). In India, we are unable to escape the bible preaching converters. Kindly note: 1. Bhagavad Gita is not Hindu Bible. 2. The aim of Gita was to present Krishna as God. 3. It has numerous shortcomings. Of course, there are some good verses also. I do not know your age. If you are less than 35, please do not think of religion. Beyond that also, religion has limited utility, but our lives will not be spoiled, because we shall be setting SUNs.

I wrote a critical review of Gita, translating it verse by verse from Sanskrit to English. Original verses were given in English Roman script. There are numerous pitfalls of Gita which have escaped my attention. If you want to ask any criticising/drastic/pinching questions, you can write in my blog. I am giving the link.

Anonymous said...

One liberal Hindu friend of mine says that they call them 'born again Caitanya' due to their confessional similarity to born-again Christians.

Craig Y.

Katie said...

a very interesting post.
Your ability to think for yourself despite being under the influence of such "propaganda" impresses me. And my god I don't know how Sudama could write some of that "advice" with a straight face. Honestly!

Dim O Gwybl said...

The title should read "Dancing with the blue guy - and still I'm a moron"

Like marvin the robot, "this is sooo depressing". I now see how there's an endless supply of credulous gullible "idjits" who are actually willing to give such rubbish credence in the first place!

You say "as my perspective would probably offend a few well-meaning Hindus" - You still don't get it! There is no such thing! All this stuff, Hare Krishna, Hindu, any other religion, is garbage and you still haven't worked that out.

I used to enjoy the fundy post becasue is displayed thinking, but this is pure nonsense!

HK said...

Come on, Paul didn't write it, I did.

I'm entitled to my opinion - and I'm glad I have the experience to have made an informed decision.

dhyana said...

Hello Paul,

Could you forward to your friend (who wrote that article about her experience with the Hare Krishnas) an invitation to visit
It's a website for former ISKCON devotees and friends. She may find it interesting.


Paul said...

Thank you. I will do that.

mike said...

Congratulation to a strong and courageous woman. One that seems to have the indomitable strength of a child raised among loving people. And thankyou for showing me proof that Hindu/Hare Krishana is the same as all the others.
In my amateur thesis, the one common thread binding all religions/cults is alpha male domination of women and children. The pope and ranks of superior men lord it over millions of dutiful women and children. When the dali lama dies monks don't go searching for a female child he has been reborn into, she's not quite up to male stardard. Imams demand that women be beaten who show their face. And all we see of women in the synagogue is a line of shoes behind a curtain. Now you have shown us how your Hindu/Krishna 'servant' pointed out that, like children 'Women are similarly unstable at times, no one can argue this point.', and he means don't argue, just as the pope, the ayatolla, the dalilama, and the rabbi would mean.
At the looney end, sometimes called fundementalist, the obvious is even more pronounced. With them the ordinary sexual angst that any human feels at times, is twisted into a craving to dominate others to a point of fascist bullying. As in polygymus mormons, coralling women and girls together just like an alpha male ape. (The very men who won't accept evolution!!) Or David Koresh who took many young women and babies to a firey grave because of his own inadequacy expressed through domination of women and children. Or Bert Potter who abused young New Zealand girls and women when he took them on a spiritual quest. A thousand 'pastors' have eloped with the secretary, leaving a wife and eight children to fend for themselves. And Graham Capill took male domination to tiny girls.
In mainstream religions preists have terrified and raped boys and girls throughout catholic history. Rabbis have browbeaten and shamed their communities. Dali lamas have proved male superiority is innate. Moslems know that female ayatolla's are few and far between, and now we find that hindu women are 'unstable'.
In all cases women have taken care of all the other aspects of real life, while 'spiritual' men have wanked away and handed down dictates, which, if not followed, would lead to consequences unpleasant, including violence.
It's a sad fact of human existence that some men want to dominate and oppress other men, women and children; examine any religion/cult and male superiority is it's core message.
I tell them all to naff off, their cause is self-centred and their voodoos are meaningless.

john said...

Obviously there must have been something positive about the practice of Krishna Consciousness that you must have found attactive or you wouldn't have gotten involved to the extent that you did.
Why not just take what you like and leave the rest?
I think that any genuine desire to understand God is a good thing. It doesn't mean that we have to give up our free will and become mindless zombies. Spirituality is a good thing and the process of bhakti is powerful and works. You don't have to join a particular group to experience this.