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"The Hare Krishna Movement" chants on in the 21st century, despite a few bumps in the road

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"The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change" was published in 2007.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change / Edited by Graham Dwyer and Richard J. Cole (I.B. Tauris) 2007

In popular culture, at least in the years after Beatle George Harrison scored a big hit (1970-71) with his devotional pop song “My Sweet Lord” and the Harrison-produced Radha Krsna Temple London album was a hit LP around that same time, the Hare Krishna movement has largely been presented as fringy and cult-like, with their chanting, saffron-robe-wearing devotees dancing in the streets, praising and worshiping a Hindu deity unfamiliar to many in the West.

And yet, this “new” religious movement, brought to the West from India by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was launched in 1966, a year after the elderly swami arrived in New York City and founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON.

The Radha Krsna Temple London album from 1971. (Apple Records)

The book notes that Prabhupada knew that even in his later years that it had been prophesied that he would spread the “name of Krishna” over “ever town and village of the world,” as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had predicted in the 16th century.

As Chaitanya began chanting the Maha-Mantra way back in 1486, during a full moon there in his West Bengal, India homeland, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare.

That “loving devotion” to Lord Krishna would be carried by someone from South India and then to Lord Krishna’s home city of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh and then to the West. Prabhupada did just that. A fulfillment of Chaitanya’s prophecy some 400 years earlier.

And, as we have seen since the late 1960’s, up until now (or at least to the mid-2000’s, when the book was published), the Hare Krishna movement has grown and evolved. No longer about just selling books at the airport, ISKCON’s goals and methods are more sophisticated than in those early days as the book notes. And the writers make clear that the movement, while eschewing the caste system associated with Hinduism, it has had its share of trials, travails, accusations of misogyny and some truly shocking scandals. But somehow, the movement has persevered.

So, in The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change, originally published in 2007 and edited by Graham Dwyer and Richard J. Cole (aka Radha Mohan Das), includes a number of essays written by devotees and religious scholars includes coverage of Prabhupada’s arrival in the U.S. at a time when young people in the counterculture were receptive to new ideas and religious faith structures. Hare Krishna scratched an itch that interested many not just in America, but around the world in the intervening four decades.

And as we have noted here at Red Dirt Report, from writer Rachael LeValley’s in-depth coverage of the movement, which she is involved with, to my recent review of former Krishnacore punk rocker Vic DiCara’s memoirs Train Wrecks & Transcendence, the Hare Krishna movement is nowhere near dead but alive and seeming to thrive, particularly back in its Indian homeland and in Europe.

One of the popular Hare Krishna books published by ISKCON in the 1980's. (The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust)

And despite the seemingly “out there” nature of the movement, at least in the eyes of most Westerners unfamiliar with ISKCON’s history and so forth, it is a fairly conservative movement particularly on sex, alcohol and drugs – all of which were a major part of the Sixties youth movement seeking to shake off the shackles of 1950’s conformity. Still, as one essayist notes, “the youthful rebels of the 1960s embodied the condition of Arjuna, who lovingly submitted to Krishna on the battlefield as depicted in Bhagavad Gita … some sought refuge, solace, and instruction from Prabahupada, Krishna’s representative; others did not.

But the essayists also delve into the membership issues, ISKCON’s struggles after Prabhupada’s death in 1977 and leadership problems that came with it.

Still, there is much to explore with the Hare Krishna movement, as this book makes clear.

For someone interested in synchronicity and dream interpretation, the chapter by editor Graham Dwyer, titled "The Dreams of Prabhupada," was particularly interesting. And Dwyer clearly feels the same way, noting it is an area of the movement that has been discounted, neglected and ignored. And yet devotees have reported dreams of Srila Prabhupada and attached meanings to these dreams.

For instance, some believe the dreams are a form of spiritual guidance on the part of teacher to student or spiritual master to disciple. In fact, Dwyer points out that despite official downplaying of dream significance amongst ISKCON's members, "(t)he belief that a disciple may receive guidance from a spiritual master by means of dreams is widespread within ISKCON ..." That, in fact, the spiritual master is aiding the disciple - through dreams - to help counteract the disciples sins or karma.

One example offered by Dwyer is of a woman named Shalini, who lived in Tamil Nadu in south India. While Krishna was a focal deity in her home, she was not particularly serious until she married and moved to England. It was there that she met a Hare Krishna devotee who gave her some literature and renewed her interest to the point to where she was chanting the mahamantra on a daily basis - up to 16 mala rounds, which is 1,728 recitations. Very intense. Very serious.

It was after Shalini made this a daily practice that she had a dream involving both Prabhupada and her guru back in India. She saw them both but could not hear what they were saying. She interpreted this as a sign to be even more committed to Krishna. More dreams followed and it was clear to Shalini that she needed to get over her concerns and anxieties about her spiritual life and simply be devoted in the best way she could. And this helped her.

Other chapters in the book address ISKCON's efforts to fit into Western communities, while figuring out how this movement, which flourished in the West with an increase and broadening of references to Krishna in more New Age, inclusive terminolgy (as "God" or "the white light," for instance) while also becoming more catholic and ecumenical. Also, pages noted the efforts being made to get the Krishna Consciousness movement to work in its native land of India, a sort of reverse missionary project as it expands on the subcontinent.

Interestingly, the book closes out with Anna S. King's essay on Lord Krishna's love interest - Radha, the feminine divine - and how she fits in ISKCON, while noting the "paradoxes she embodies for aspiring devotees." This is because of the male-centric nature of Krishna Consciousness movement. And while Radha, who is essentially considered equal to Krishna in many ways, is female, the female devotees offer their thoughts on the sense of belonging and connectedness in the sacramental life of the ISKCON community. 

Additionally Radha offers a strong example for the female devotees by the strength she showed and the devotion she demonstrated. Also, it shows how Krishna and Radha worked together, while being celebratory about life, one filled with desire and joy. This, in itself, has helped ISKCON, in these years, become more broadminded and inclusive, shedding much of the misogynistic baggage ISKCON has been accused of in the past.

I will admit to being interested in new religious movements like Hare Krishna and I feel this book offers a fairly contemporary perspective on different aspects of the movement as it grows and changes with time. A really interesting book for those looking to learn more.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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