A Short History of the Hare Krishnas

The International Society for Krishna Coconsciousness was founded in July 1966. The Hare Krishnas or ISKCON, follow the teachings of their spiritual leader, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada. Though he died in 1977, the movement still maintains a small devoted membership base, however the actual number of members is unknown . The Hare Krishnas are a sect of the Bengalio Gaudiya-Vaisnaya tradition of Hinduism. Prabhupada dedicated his life to the English translation of and in his opinion, the most important of the Vedic scriptures: The Srimad-Bhagavatam. This translation began in 1962. An early follower of the guru Prabhupada paid his publisher for the printing of 1100 copies. The printer gave 100 copies to the guru so he could distribute them to gather followers and monetary donations.

When Prabhupada was 75 years old, an affluent follower paid for his ticket to America. He rode on a large boat and suffered two heart attacks during his voyage to America, as a result he was very ill . When he arrived in New York he began outside chanting sessions and musical worship in Tompkins Square Park. The unique style of worship and worldview attracted the counter-culture generation of the sixties. The ISKCON was officially established in July of 1966. Between 1967 and Prabhupada’s death in 1977 he created temples in New York, San Francisco, West Virginia, as well as ten other communal farm communities in different states. Since his death there are 52 rural communities or temples in North America . Large numbers of temples are spread out through the entire inhabited world.

The Hare Krishna NRM hasn’t had the most pleasant interactions with the mainstream secular part of society. In fact, the Untied States Supreme Court has had ISKCON members and the organization in the chambers on more than one occasion. In 1981 the court ruled that restrictions on how and where the Krishnas can distribute and sell their literature were permissible . A large source of income came from members selling literature at non-public forums, mainly ports of entry and exit, an example would include an airport. In 1992 the Supreme Court maintains the prohibition of selling religious leaflets on government owned land was not protected by the 1st amendment . The Hare Krishna challenge of soliciting at airports continues to the present day. The most recent challenge to the airport distributions has taken place in Miami, Florida. The court of appeals for the eleventh district has ruled against the selling and solicitation of ISKCON related material in the Miami International airport . The Supreme Court seems content on this issue, wishing not to revisit their past decision when they denied certiorari .

The Supreme Court rarely invades into the realm of limiting monetary damages awarded in jury trials. The most recent example is the proportionality test on punitive damages from jury awards created on Gore vs. BMW 1996. However, in 1983 the court stepped in after a jury awarded $32.5 million to an apostate member, Robin George, that claimed she was brainwashed by the group. Without the money to pay the fine, the court ordered ISKCON to sell its property in order to pay the fine. This method of repayment was taken to court and ruled to be an illegitimate way for the group to pay and was struck down in the Supreme Court . Throughout this legal battle, ISKCON appealed the award amount to the Supreme Court. The court reduced the fine to $75,000.00 .

The most public and damning of all of groups allegations are those of child abuse. The ISKCON established ashrams or communal boarding school houses for children . Certain locations had higher levels of child abuse reported than others, examples include Dallas and India. Since the last gurukulas, or boarding schools, closed in 1986 the claims of child abuse have almost vanished. However that didn’t satisfy the publics demand for justice, “On June 12, 2000, a federal lawsuit was filed in Dallas on behalf of forty-four ‘Children of ISKCON’ alleged physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the gurukulasâÂ?¦ ” This lawsuit has yet to be ruled on. Currently, members are involved in enriching the community in which the temple surrounds. Most members have secular jobs and live close to the temple, a local Brahman we spoke to worked the typical nine to five day job (he is a real estate agent) and was responsible for the worship services on Tuesday evenings, his nickname was Kala.

Despite such persecution in the secular world, the belief structure has attracted celebrity members. Beatle George Harrison, poet Allen Ginsberg and members form the Grateful Dead were (are) followers . Boy George, a celebrated eighties musician, thanks the Hare Krishnas for the spiritual guidance in ridding himself of drugs . The belief system is rather simple and holistic. There is only one supreme godhead. Many forms of Krishna are seen throughout history, Allah and Buddha for example. They are, however, manifestations of the same all mighty Krishna, “the All-attractive.” The Vedic scriptures are numerous in volumes, but the ones that Prabhupada translated are the most definitive in structuring the Hare Krishnas lifestyle. The Vedic scriptures, recorded originally over 5,000 years ago are literally God’s words. There are two extremely key defining characteristics to an ISKCON member’s belief system. That is the maha-mantra and regulatory principles. The mantra, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, as promoted by Sri Caitanya, is accepted by the Vedas as the most effective means of self-purification in this age.” This is chanted over and over during the worship service.

The Hare Krishnas do not engage in the following behaviors: The consumption of fish, meat or eggs, the use of physically intoxicating chemicals, non-martial sex and the participation in gambling. Kala, are guide in the temple, elaborated on the reasons for these restrictions, space permitting, I will simply state that these have foundations in the Vedic scriptures that Prabhupada translated. A vital component to the ISKCON system is that of Karma. Kala, claims that to become a spiritually pure form of the soul, one must be free from Karma and can only attain the “Krishna conciseness” after this spiritual transformation occurs. Karma keeps the soul trapped in a life form here on Earth, whether it be a plant or a human. Depending on one’s positive or negative actions, one’s soul will remain here until it is spiritual free. The guidelines for attaining this are found in the Vedic scriptures and were taught by Prabhupada. Finally, Kala reminds us that the soul never dies, the soul has a characteristic of the eternal, much like the water has the intrinsic quality of being wet.
The Hare Krishnas have four main restrictions that govern their behavior. They cannot eat fish or meat products, they cannot gamble, the cannot engage in pre-marital sex or become intoxicated from drugs or alcohol. These rules are taken from the Vedic scriptures. Most members practice worship in their local temple or own home. The community gathers on Sunday to engage in three our long worship ceremony. ISKCON is highly organized, consisting of many institutions that reinforce the teachings of Prabhupada. Before he died, he set of the GBC, or governing body council. They are responsible for democratically selecting the temple leader from the pool of gurus.

After talking with Kala, it is clear were the focus of a Hare Krishna member is pointed: To the spiritual realm. The concept of Karma reinforces this. Their doctrine relies heavily on the notion of acting as virtuous and be as helpful as possible during one’s lifetime. They say that because a human is the highest life form that a spirit can inhabit. They are only steps away from gaining the Krishna consciousness. They ground their behavior in the Vedic scriptures, which is a verbatim record of God’s word. ISKCON members constantly wonder if they are living up to the standards of life that God has dictated to them. Kala maintains that his purpose in life is to “âÂ?¦get out”. We asked him to explain and he claimed that all Hare Krishna members want to be Karma free so their spirit can leave the empirical realm and live eternally alongside Krishna in the spiritual world. They are clearly focused on being able to remove their soul from their current vessel then attaining the Krishna Consciousness in a non-empirical world.

The Hare Krishnas have many commitment mechanisms and using Rosabeth Kanter’s commitment model one can separate, then classify them. There is an element of sacrifice highly utilized with in the group, “âÂ?¦the attitude of the Hare Krishna: ‘The devotee must be ready to relinquish anything material for the satisfaction of Krishna.'” Before the member eats, he or she must make an offering to Krishna first, only after that is the member allowed to eat. The belief is that what Krishna does not take is returned to the empirical realm for consumption and if Krishna had kept the food, the member would not have eaten. This was an example of Kanter’s instrumental commitment. The Roberts text, Religion in the Sociological Perspective, quotes research done on the Hare Krishnas from 1974. The conclusion drawn in those studies are not necessarily valid today. Consider the following, “âÂ?¦progress depends on willingness to give up the company of anyone who is not a devotee.” This is true today only on the most extreme levels. Perhaps if the study was discussing the progress one must make to become a guru, but Roberts structures the use of the 1974 Judah study as if it was engaging all Hare Krishna members. The assertion that one must cut all ties to their past is simply not true. However, sacrifices are made, which fall under Kanter’s instrumental commitment branch. The clearest example are the restrictions on the members diet and sexual behavior.

There is element of emotional solidarity that is created at a temple gathering. This is encompassed under the affective commitment mechanism that Kanter theorizes. Roberts reminds the reader that, “The second affective mechanism is communion-emotional solidarity with others.” While participating in the temple worship ceremony it is very clear that such highly energetic worship styles increase member participation and enjoyment. When the service began, the maha-mantra was slowly chanted. After sixty minutes of worship almost every member was out of breath and sweating. The entire congregation was dancing emphatically and singing at the top of their lungs. The energy of the room was very high and the looks on the member’s faces were positive. During the chanting they always looked happy and were encouraged by everyone else in the room. When that exhausting physical activity was over, the group then sat down to a large, cafeteria style dinner. They reflected on the days worship and other events in their life, further tightening social bonds between members.

The moral commitment of a group member reflects the values and beliefs of the group they belong to. The belief system of the ISKCON caters to the notion of transcendence, which is the ultimate meaning and purpose of an individual. Hare Krishnas denounce the empirical world and are concerned with attains the Krishna conciseness, which is a level of being outside the normal world. The group offers the final victory and purpose of existence to its members, furthering a moral, cognitive desire to remain a member. ISKCON members are expected to commit on all three levels of Kanter’ commitment mechanisms, this further identifies the group as one that focuses on the ‘other worldly’, “âÂ?¦non conventional religious groups normally are very intense about demanding commitment at all three levels. This is especially true of groups that are opposed to ‘this-world'”.

A plausibility structure protects and maintains the sacred and shared meanings that a religious group has. There are a variety of mechanisms for perpetuating the group’s worldview. Distinct characteristics that Hare Krishnas exhibit include the following, “âÂ?¦rituals that elicit a sense of awe, music that evokes strong emotions, emotionally laden symbolsâÂ?¦”. Emotion is required to permeate religious life, if it is to remain plausible. The brisk rituals that ISKCON members engage in enhance the emotion of their experience. The music (which members are allowed to bring in their own instruments and join in) supplements the intensity of emotion in the service. Within the temple there is a large curtain that covers the three deities, or incarnation of Krishna. When the service begins, the curtain is pulled away to reveal beautifully detailed life size statues of the deities. A sense of awe is created by the unveiling of the curtain and the presentation of the deities.

Plausibility can be attained through sacred texts. In the case of the Krishnas, this is clear. The members operate within the mandates that were laid out in the Vedic scriptures, which were recorded over 5,000 years ago. Because they are claimed to be verbatim of God’s will, then members have a reference is which to guide their life. The text becomes the authority and all of life’s answers can be found if one understands the text. Furthermore, “âÂ?¦the sense of sacredness that surrounds that scripture makes anything seem plausible.” The authority of the scriptures becomes self-validating when the forces of sacralazation around it are immense.

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