A case of Krishna consciousness

As Anjli Raval begins to questions her faith, she finds herself at Bhaktivedanta Manor, discovering her spiritual side through the ancient teachings of Hare Krishna.

“Namaste.” I said tentatively to the tall, white-robed man who had been sent to greet me and who knew more about my religion than my entire family put together. Being brought up as a Hindu has meant that religion has always played an inescapable part in my life, and the fact that my grandparents live with me has meant that certain traditions and customs from generations ago have been practised year after year unquestioned. It was only recently, however, that I started to question my faith and examine my religion, with its various sects and affiliations, a little closer.

This is what led me to Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire, the UK headquarters of The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), more commonly known as the Hare Krishna movement. I expected tambourine-banging, arm-waving, enthusiastic groups of people chanting the fairly well-known chant of “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare”, so I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted warmly by a priest called Radha Mohan Das. All holy men in this sect receive a Sanskrit name (one of the many names of God) plus the suffix ‘Das’ (‘Dasi’ for women) which means ‘servant of’. Incidentally, ‘Hare’’ addresses the energy of God, and ‘Krishna’ means ‘all attractive’, a reference to one of the many Hindu Gods.

This is how Hare Krishna differs from the mainstream polytheistic Hindu religion, as it teaches that Krishna alone is the Supreme Being. Krishna Consciousness propagates the teachings of ancient scriptures known as ‘The Vedas’, which were written in Sanskrit in about 3000 BC. The Vedas describe ‘Sanatana-Dharma’, the eternal and natural inclination of mankind towards spiritual activity. The two main sections of The Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam, form the foundation of the Hare Krishna philosophy.

The Manor, donated in 1973 by The Beatles’ George Harrison, is not simply a retreat for those wanting to get away from the stresses of daily life; it is also a theological college with a school for the children of its followers. I met three girls who were students at the Gurukul (the school) – Narayani Koyle, 15, Shari Macnamara, 17, and Nadia Mani, 19 – and asked them what life was like growing up within the confines of the temple. All three agreed that although they live relatively sheltered lives, the opportunities they have to meet new people and travel the world were second to none and they would never consider changing their lifestyle.

ISKCON itself has two divisions: an order of monks and priests who live at the temple (who number 35) and those that live offsite. Radha Mohan Das had been a devotee for 14 years, and although he currently resides at the Manor, his upcoming marriage to another devotee will mean he has to move to a house outside to carry on his devotional work.

The most devoted Hare Krishna followers live at the Manor. Male monks must shave their heads leaving a central patch of hair called a ‘sikha’, and wear saffron-coloured robes called ‘dhotis’ to signify celibacy. Married monks, or those to be married, wear white robes, whilst female devotees wear simple, traditional saris. All monks take an oath wherein they vow to abandon mind-altering substances such as cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, reject activities like gambling, and follow a peaceful vegetarian diet. Illicit sex is prohibited, and sexual activity for married couples is solely for procreation.

I was invited to attend the 12.30pm ‘aarti’, an opportunity for the public to come and worship the deities of Krishna. As the room slowly began to fill up with people, I realised how unbelievably ignorant I had been. I had expected a sea of brown faces, but there was a variety of nationalities and backgrounds, all worshipping together.

Despite Hare Krishna’s association with mainstream Hindu philosophy, ISKCON do not describe themselves as being affiliated solely to this one faith.

The priest offered food, water, incense, an oil lamp and even flowers to the deities. The Hare Krishnas put emphasis on ‘bhakti’, which is yoga and meditation through the repetition of the infamous Hare Krishna chant. Whilst I was admittedly hesitant to join them by closing my eyes and waving my arms about, the aura in the room was astounding; I felt like I was in a trance.

I think what appeals to people the most is that the Hare Krishna movement is about spirituality rather than religion; it’s about your own personal connection with God. Kripamoya Das, another priest at the temple, said: “Real religion is the esoteric practises – the mystical realisations – that permeate and sustain any spiritual tradition, not their external forms and terminologies”.

For me, the appeal of the Hare Krishna movement lies in the fact that the philosophy is accessible and understandable (it’s in English, at least). Although I won’t be giving up booze and hair-straighteners any time soon, I do feel I’m one step closer to getting some answers.

A spiritual brand? Hare Krishna in popular culture

The Hare Krishna movement has begun to penetrate popular culture, as evidenced by Russell Brand’s “Hare Krishna” sign off at the end of every episode of Big Brother’s Big Mouth, and the devotees’ appearances as pedestrians in videogames such as Grand Theft Auto. Its rise in prominence in the UK has clearly been helped by celebrity endorsements (like that of Brand, a regular at Bhaktivedanta Manor whose ‘faith’ reportedly helped him ditch heroin), and the inclusion of the Hare Krishna mantra in songs by the Beatles, Boy George, Stevie Wonder and Tenacious D have helped to boost the practitioners’ profile. Today, aspects of the Hare Krishna lifestyle, such as yoga, meditation and vegetarianism, have been incorporated into the mainstream.

12 comments

  1. For An in depth comparison of the Hare Krsna’s (Hindu’s)and Jews Please visit
    http://www.equalsouls.org

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  2. A nicely written article Anjili. It’s good to see the myth of the Hare Krishna devotees as brainwashed cultists being dispelled by some one brought up as a Hindu.
    There is a Hare Krishna radio programme that might interest your readers called Nectar of Devotion. It goes out on an Asian station in East London, NuSound Radio 92fm. It can also be found on line at http://www.nectarofdevotion.co.uk

    The presenter is a devotee from Bhaktivedanta Manor who lives with his wife and family in Watford named Dwarakadisa das.

    And in response to the comment from William Glick that Hare Krishna’s are Hindu’s I suggest he read your article again and take some time to speak to a Krishna devotee. The Krishna’s are definitely NOT Hindu’s despite it seeming so.

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  3. Hare Krishna.

    My name is Dwarakadisa das, I am the presenter of the radio programme Nectar of Devotion mentioned by David Fogg. First may I say well done Anjili for your article and how glad I am you had a pleasing experience at Bhaktivedanta Manor.

    I hope you don’t mind but I would like to post your article in the news section of the Nectar of Devotion website. I feel you give a valuable insight into the strong connection between Asian’s who have been brought up as Hindu’s and the Westerners now practicing Sanatan Dharma as members of the Hare Krishna movement. Together these communities are finding spritual and social harmony that is most certainly beyond the label of Hindu.

    I invite all your readers to do the same as yourself and visit the Manor. The devotees there are most welcoming and able to explain and demonstrate through their lifesyle the essence of of ALL spiritual paths is one of Devotion to God through action and love.

    Regards

    Dwarakadisa das
    http://www.nectarofdevotion.co.uk

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  4. Dear Amjli.

    Just in case you were curious. David Fogg is a friend of mine and e.mailed me about your article and included a copy of his comment.

    I thinks I spelt your name incorrectly in my own mail to you earlier, I do apologise, I looked at David’s spelling, (also incorrect).
    I’m sure he would appreciate you correcting that if you print his comment.

    Please do not feel oblidged to print my comment to you, it was more of a request to allow me to publish your article and a link to this page.
    Yours Dwarakadisa

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  5. Personally I feel Krishna consciousness in general is about spirituality rather than religion and that is why you see a variety of souls all in various stages of consciousness. Just getting rid of any silly habit could be a step towards spirituality.

    As you have rightly pointed the aarti or arathi aids in identifying oneself. I have lost myself several times while in aarti. Here is just small clip of aarti http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZpAjUBlX-0 for you to enjoy

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  6. I would just like to say thank you to everyone that has taken the time to post comments. It’s great to see that the article has had some impact.

    I felt it was important that people found out what was really behind the Hare Krishna movement. Although I would not define myself as being a Hare Krishna it did annoy me slightly when i was met with comments from individuals such as “oh yeah, the Hare Krishnas are those people that sell books on Oxford St in London and brainwash people”; is that what people really believe?

    Although i don’t see myself becoming a overly devout Krishna devotee anytime soon, spending the day at the temple was a truly humbling experience. I really did learn a lot about my faith and i do have a newfound respect for the devotees at the temple.

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  7. Each coin has two sides,
    You should try to disclose other.
    It is main religion of devoted journalist.

    Nicely covered artical with all things related to the topic which is on the floor.

    All the best.

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  8. 24 May ’07 at 7:52 am

    Chaitanya-Shakti Dasi

    Thank you very much for writing this article, Anjli Raval! As a young person having been brought up in the Hare Krishna movement and living the lifestyle my entire life, I am very pleased to find that your article genuinely seeks to find out things about Krsna consciousness through personal exploration, rather than just assuming.

    In school I sometimes find myself being asked questions about my religion and what it means, what is it’s purpose. It is easy to explain Krishna consciousness away as a sect of Hinduism, but that’s not really what it is – as you note in your article.

    I think you are very lucky to have visited Bhaktivedanta Manor, and I wish myself to visit that temple some day. Thank you for being so kind in your article; we are not part of some terrible brainwashing cult, and your article is proof of that. :) I wish you the best in your further explorations of Krishna consciousness.

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  9. Very interesting. I like the aspect of spirituality rather than religion that was emphasized. Hare Krishna.

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  10. I used to be an ISKCON devotee but got discouraged by some of the inner politics and also negativity toward other Hindu sects and other religions. I have found my true peace with Vedanta Philosophy, which considers Krishna as ONE important avatar, but not more important than other avatars, like the Buddha.
    Namaste & OM Shanti, Keith Johnson

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  11. and what do KC do to guide those young, vulnerable devotees who prematurely and naively get drawn into the movement with complete disregard to their education, career and family? Their health deteriorating and a growing coldness and heartlessness towards loving parents and siblings. Refusing to compromise on a balanced lifestyle, becoming further withdrawn from society outside of Hare Krishna, being sleep and intelligence deprived and increasing their dependence on the temple. I agree the Watford temple is a peaceful place and I used to enjoy my time there, but since a close family member that has taken the belief too far at a young and stubborn age, breaking the hearts of their parents, I ask the temple what are they going to do to help bring my family together again and give us back the fun, compassionate, lively brother it seems we’ve all lost to the movement?

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