Sunday, September 16, 2018

A postcharismatic cult

The Hare Krishna movement, officially the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), was founded in the United States in 1966 by A C Bhaktivedanta Swami (alias Shrila Prabhupada). The Hare Krishnas soon became a fixture of urban street life all over the Western world, recruited both countercultural youth and celebrities, created their fair share of cult panics, and then slowly drifted into oblivion. Yet, the movement still exists, although split in many different factions. Prabhupada died already in 1977. Unknown to most casual observers, the ISKCON is actually an offshoot of a genuine Hindu tradition, known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the roots of which go back to the 16th century revivalist Sri Chaitanya in north-eastern India, who was regarded as a dual incarnation of the god Krishna and his heavenly consort Radha.

This is a part-scholarly collection of articles on the Hare Krishna movement. I say “part-scholarly”, since many of the articles are actually written by former or current ISKCON devotees, including some who are affiliated with splinter groups claiming to be the “real” successors of the late ISKCON founder. Thus, some of the articles are partisan pitches and are apologetic rather than scholarly in tone. As usual in collections of this type, the quality of the material is varied. Cult-busters will have to sift through a lot of contributions to find what they are looking for, but sure, it's all there: ISKCON's devious ways of soliciting money from outsiders, the abuse suffered by women and children in the group, the high membership turnover, the perennial sexual improprieties in a group whose members are supposedly celibate or chaste, and the constant denials of the authoritarian leadership that something is wrong. The editors never say it, but it's perfectly obvious that the Hare Krishna movement is a cult. Some of the concrete mechanisms describes are virtually identical to that of other cults I happen to be familiar with.

ISKCON founder A C Bhaktivedanta Swami's views were even more bizarre than I expected: rape victims asked for it, Blacks are inferior and should be enslaved, Aryans are the supreme race, Hitler was right when attacking the Jews, and the “non-Aryan” majority of the human race are useless eaters no better than dogs. The preferred form of government is an absolutist monarchy. Racism is apparently an integral part of the ideal Vedic society, since “shudra” (the designation of the worker-caste) means “black”, which in turn literally refers to Blacks, a category which also includes Dravidians from southern India. (As a side point, I've actually seen a Black Hare Krishna devotee once, but all other devotees in Sweden are Swedish and hence “Aryan”.)

A large portion of this volume deals with questions of authority and transfer of such authority. ISKCON has suffered a number of splits after the death of its “Founder-Acharya” in 1977. Strangely, Prabhupada never appointed a single successor. After his death, the movement was taken over by a collective leadership, the members of which fell from grace one after another. Two old associates of Prabhupada who were never members of ISKCON, Sridhara Goswami and Narayana Maharaja, nevertheless commanded sufficient authority within the group to peel off substantial portions of its membership to their own respective organizations. Many ordinary members just dropped out, disgusted by the power-struggles or demoralized by the whole cult experience. I admit that it was fascinating to read the various factional pitches included in this book. I'm actually familiar with a few more splits than the ones mentioned!

One interesting thing I gleaned from “The Hare Krishna Movement” is that A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada feared imparting the more esoteric aspects of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition to his Western devotees. The original teachings include an erotic mysticism centered on the “transcendental pastimes” of Krishna and Radha, the latter interpreted as the god's illicit lover. This overtly sexual form of mysticism (obviously problematic in a celibate setting) was deemed too advanced for the American hippies joining the ISKCON, but apparently Narayana Maharaja won over some devotees after Prabhupada's death by promising them instruction in the secret mysteries…

It seems Krishna really is eternally attractive!

Not sure how to rate this material, which is probably too dense for the general reader, but in the end I give it the OK rating (three stars).
Mostly suitable for university libraries.

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