The Hare Krishnas
The Hare Krishnas are a Hindu-inspired spiritual group, a contemporary version of the Hindu devotional tradition of bhakti. By reviving bhakti, which means “worship,” the Krishnas are renewing a practice that goes as far back as the Vedas, to 1500
The Krishnas got a foothold in America in the 1960s, and were still making many converts through the 1970s. Their appearance was unmistakable: They wore saffron-colored robes, and shaved their heads — though the women modestly covered theirs — and they could usually be found in popular public places, including train stations, subways, airports, and even college campuses. They played finger cymbals and chanted devotional prayers such as “Hari Krishna, Hari Rama.” They usually carried copies of some religious text, such as a hardbound and colorfully illustrated Bhagavad Gita in the 1970s, in exchange for which they sought a donation.
The founder of the Hare Krishnas was Swami A. C. Prabhupada (1896– 1977). The swami was a saintly, scholarly man who played a major role in interpreting Vedanta for modern Western readers and spreading the worship of Krishna outside India.
Life of the Hare Krishna Founder
A native of Calcutta, Prabhupada was born Abhay Charan De, the son of a pious cloth merchant who visited the Radha-Govinda temple daily. When Abbay was four, his father gave him a small image of Krishna and taught him to worship the deity. He enrolled in Scottish Churches College in 1916 and entered into an arranged marriage with Padharani Sata in 1919, while he was still a student. Though he completed his college work, he refused his degree, heeding Mohandas Gandhi's call to boycott British goods.
While working as manager of a pharmaceutical company in 1922, he met his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, and became his disciple. Saraswati encouraged his pupil to spread the teaching of Krishna worship to the West, but the student put aside the suggestion. After his guru's death two decades later, he wrote several books, including Bhagavad Gita As It Is.For this and other publications, the Vaishnavites honored him with the title Bhaktivedanta, meaning “devotion to the knowledge of God.” In 1944, he began publishing Back to Godhead, a magazine which later became an invaluable periodical for promoting the movement in America.
At the age of fifty-nine, with his children grown, Prabhupada took the order of sannyasa, retiring from family life so he could spend his remaining years spreading Krishna consciousness. He left his home in 1959 to study under another teacher, Acharya Goswami, at the Radha Damodora temple in Brindavan (Krishna's birthplace), where he lived austerely in a small room. In 1965, the Bhaktivedanta, now seventy, set sail for the United States to fulfill his first guru's desire to bequeath Krishna awareness to the West. He founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (known as ISKCON) in the summer of 1966. With the help of a small group of disciples, he opened a storefront temple in New York's immigrant-laden East Village, which by the mid-1960s had morphed into a Hippie-Bohemian paradise. The Hare Krishnas would take root in the suddenly spiritually fertile soil of America.
Meanwhile, before leaving for Greece as a celebration of completing the Sergeant Pepper album, George Harrison had purchased an album of Sanskrit prayers. One prayer became the group's theme song on the boat. The back-cover notes summoned the reader's attention. “Attention all eternal wayfarers on the shores of Earth,” it read. “Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta leads his devotees in authentic rendition of the Vedic mantra Hare Krishna, better known in India as the maha-mantra, sung on the banks of the Ganges for more than five thousand years.”
While sailing on the Aegean Sea, John and George strummed ukulele banjos and chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” The two chanted for six hours, George recalled, “Because we couldn't stop once we got going. As soon as we stopped, it was like the lights went out. We felt exalted. It was a very happy time for us.”
At one point, John Lennon got to meet Swami Prabhupada and discuss the philosophy of the Maharishi with him. In the conversation, the Swami had criticized the secret mantras that the Maharishi had asked people to chant. Lennon objected, saying that, “Whether it is a secret mantra or not, it is all the word of God. So it doesn't really make much difference, does it, which one you are saying?” “Drugs are all medicines for killing diseases,” Prabhupada replied, “but still you have to take a doctor's prescription for taking a particular type of medicine.”
Lennon was not satisfied. “How can we tell one spiritual master from the other? The Maharishi is saying that his mantra is coming from the Vedas, with as much authority as you. And he is probably right. Why is the Hare Krishna[mantra] the best one? If we were buying flowers, someone might like roses, and someone else may like carnations better. Someone might find Hare Krishna is more beneficial to his spiritual progress, and yet someone else might find some other mantra more beneficial. Isn't it just a matter of taste?” The swami was quiet. Among his devotees he was not often challenged. But Lennon was not a devotee, he was a spiritual seeker raising questions.
The followers of ISKCON made bhakti yoga famous through their ubiquitous chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. In time, the movement became one of the most prominent of the alternative religions to emerge in the last forty years; it has now spread to every continent. Before his death in November, 1977, Srila Prabhupada (an honorific) saw the building of many temples, children's schools in rural communities, and major cultural centers around the world. Since his death, however, the movement has not drawn the same large number of committed devotees and its leadership has become fragmented.
In July of 1977, Bhaktivedanta appointed eleven of his senior assistants to act as officiating priests to initiate all future ISKCON members on his behalf, but after his death four months later, the eleven claimed they were chosen as successor gurus, causing significant confusion within the movement. Nonetheless, ISKCON members still accept the authority of Bhaktive-danta and believe that he still exerts his spiritual influence on anyone who follows his teachings. Effigies of Bhaktivedanta Swami are still installed in all ISKCON temples.