KRSNA CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE WEST
Perhaps the most colorful of all the new religious movements is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), whose shaven-headed, saffron - robed members can be seen chanting the Hare Krishna Mantra on the streetcorners of New York, London, Amsterdam, Paris and many other important cities of the world. ISKCON's obviously unique addition to Western religious culture has provoked a great deal of comment from the mainstream in the brief 12 years of its existance in the West. As would be expected, opinions range from pro to con, but are generally based on the reviewer's own outlook as a spokesman for Western culture upon the current phenomenal success of Oriental world-views in the staid garden of traditional Occidental pragmatism. Those favoring religious and philosophical dialogues between East and West as mutually refreshing will generally look kindly upon the young ISKCON adherents, whereas those who fear that an excess of Oriental other-worldliness will undermine the values upon which our materially successful culture has been built will tend to cast them in an unfavorable light.
Historically speaking, the modern Krsna Consciousness Movement is but a new fruit born on the ancient tree of India's Krsna-bhakti tradition, which even by Western chronological• standards can be said to hark back to at least 3oo B.C., the time when the Greek traveller and historian Megasthenes first noted the cult's existance. Classical Indian historical accounts in the form of the Sanskrit Itihasa litterature would have us date the rise of Krsnabhakti to the time of universal creation, when Brahma (the first-born) appeared from the navel of Visnu to establish the Brahma-sampradaya, or line of spiritual masters down which through the ages the wisdom of Krsna consciousness was passed. At any rate, it must be first of all conceded that the tradition is very, very old.
The basic scriptural text of the Krsna religion is the Bhagavad-gita, which appears in chapters 25-45 of the Bhisma Parva of the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata (circa 3l00 B.C., according to Indian historicans). The gita is a poem of 650 verses which contains the spiritual instructions of Bhagavan Sri Krsna to His disciple Arjuna prior to the Battle of Kuruksetra Plain. Arjuna, fearful of the outcome of the fight, turned to Krsna for solance, Who then compared this military struggle to the struggle of life. "Mama maya duratyaya", The Lord spoke, "this maya (worldly illusion) is very difficult to overcome", but "mam eva ye prapadyante mayam etam taranti te", "those who surrender unto Me can easily cross beyond it."(B.g.VII - 14) Krsna summarizes the Upanishadic doctrines of eternality and transmigration (metempsychosis) of the soul, karma, yoga, and liberation, and then concludes that the best course for Arjuna, or for that matter, anyone, is to seek the complete safety of personal devotion to Him. He reveals Himself to Arjuna as the Supreme Deity in the stunningly vivid 11th chapter.
In the 15th century A.D. the Brahma-sampradaya was host to the appearance of Sri Krsna Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who was formally initiated into the cult by Iswara Puri, a spiritual master in the line from Madhya. Caitanya, certainly the most revered religious teacher even today in the state of Bengal, is considered by devotees to be the Kali-yuga avatar, or full manifestation of Lord Krsna in this Caitanya also taught the philospphy of prema-bhakti - the ecstacy of love of God. He maintained that the thirst for pleasure experienced by all entities in this world, which is the very driving force of all material activity, is originally spiritual. This spiritual hunger can only be requited upon the soul's return to Lord Krsna, Who's transcendental personal form is the embodiment of all bliss, knowledge and eternity. Sri Krsna Caitanya stated in his Siksamrta that by giving up all connection with worldly delights and totally absorbing oneself in the name of God one can taste ecstasies which are undreamed of in this world, ecstasies of the soul's loving revelation of the form and activities of Lord Krsna in the spiritual realm.
The teachings of Caitanya Mahaprabhu were compiled into many, many volumes of Sanskrit and Bengaly works by his intimate disciples, most notably Rupa and Sanatana Goswami and Swarupa Damodara Goswami. This knowledge was handed in turn
Before his leaving this world in 1936, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati established 64 Caitanya-vaisnava temples across the length and breadth of India. His final dream was to spread Krsna conciousness to the Western world in the same missionary spirit which had brought Christianity to world for the present age of Kali, symptomized by quarrel and confusion. It was the teachings and example of Sri Krsna Caitanya that gave direct rise to the Krsna consciousness movement visible in the Western countries today.
Caitanya rejected completely the artificial caste-ism and ritualistic formalities of so-called Hinduism which had to some extend even fettered the followers of Madhya, and rejuvenated the Vaisnava cult by stressing nam-sankirtana, or the spreading of the holy name of God to every town and village of India and the world at large. Caitanya maintained that the chanting of the name of God was a religious right free to any man, regardless of race, creed or caste, and that once it was taken up it could elevate any man to spiritual perfection. He was therefore very liberal in his acceptance of deciples, and would even initiate Moslem untouchables into the chanting of the Hare Krsna Mantra - Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. Actually it should be noted. in the ancient Kalisantaranya Upanishad it is stated that this mantra comprises the essential teachings of the Vedas and is the prime means of salvation in the age of Iron (Kali-Yuga). Also in the Puranas, especially the Padma and Bhagavata Puranas, there are many statements which confirm that the chanting of the name of Krsna elevates even a chandala (untouchable dog-eater) far beyond an orthodox brahmin who does not chant Hare Krsna.
India. He expressed this desire in a letter just before his departure to one of his deciples, Abhay Charan Dey, later to be known after his initiation into the order of sannyas (renounced preacher of Vedic dharma) as A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.
Swami Bhaktivedanta left India for America to carry out his order in 1965, at the age of 7o. In 1966 he established the Western World's first ISKCON center in the East Village section of New York City, where it immediately became the spiritual. focal point of the growing hippie community there. The next year saw a similar center open in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, the legendary birthplace of the West Coast psychedelic counterculture. Though the idealism of the American hippie movement was soon to fade, Krsna consciousness grew by leaps and bounds into a vast world-wide spiritual network, with over Ioo centers in North and South America, Europe, Africa, India, Japan and Australia. As a result, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami is known by Vaisnavas all over the world as "Srila Prabhupada" (the Master at who's feet all other masters sit) in recognition of his success in 'carrying out the order of his Guru Maharaj. He has been officially recognized in India as the present acarya of the Brahmasampradaya.
The books of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada are accepted by scolars from all over the world as containing the most authoritative presentation of traditional Vaisnava philosophi of any book in print. This may seem like an exaggeration, but ISKCON has on public record reviews from such world-famous Sanskritists and Indologists as Dr. Alex Wayman of Columbia University, Professor Daniel H.H. Ingalls of Harvard University, Professor Edward C. Dimock of the University of Chicago, Dr. Jean Varenne of the Universitie Provence, Dr. T.M.P. Mahadevan of the University of Madras and many, many more, all of whom extoll the richness and clarity of Srila Prabhupada's presentations.
Adherents of the Hare Krishna movement consider themselves non-sectarian, in that they believe that the message of God is one but has been revealed in various places and times by authorized and specific representatives of the Godhead. In his commentary to the Srimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavatapurana) Prabhupada makes references to Jesus and Mohammed as "powerful devotees of the Lord" who spread the basic science of God consciousness in very sinful climes. The Buddha is mentioned as an avatar of Visnu. Yet it must be noted that Srila Prabhupada and his followers show little kinship for modern "so-called" followers of these great preceptors, nor with followers of the numerous recent "incarnations" of God exported from India to the West, but adamantly maintain that true-religion is a science, and that there is no meaning to science unless the object is the Absolute Truth. The Absolute Truth is revealed to man only in the bonafide scriptures of the world, and to understand these scriptures, one must accept a genuine guru.
Though such a lifestyle seems rigorous and even puritanical to our Western sensibilities, it should be noted that those devotees who seriously prosecute the path testify to a great improvement both in consciousness and physical well-being. An independent research into the Hare Krishna Movement in America by Dr. J. Stillson Judah of the Graduate Theological Union (Berkely, California) also confirms the clams of the deciples of Srila Prabhupada. Dr. Juda's findings are presently available in his book, "The Hare Krishna Counterculture" (John Wiley & Sons, 1974). He points out in his summary that one of Srila Prabhupada's greatest contributions to American society is that he has given a positive alternetive to thousands of turned-off, drug-ridden young people. Leaders of the movement in America also point with pride to similar written testimonials by the mayors of many important cities, including New York and San Francisco.
Of course, as with many minority religious movements which have appeared suddenly upon the face of an alien culture, the Hare Krishna Movement is not its critics. Within the past three years the group has been the target of enterprising "deprogrammers", who solicit money from parents of devotees who are unsure of their children's involvement in the cult. The deprogrammers then detain the young devotee, usually by force, and attempt to psychologically wear away his allegiance to the group. The questionable methods adopted by the deprogrammers have resulted in legal action in America by the Society. A recent decision in the District Court of New York resulted in a "dire" warning by the justice to all who would infringe on the rights of ISKCON members to worship as they choose. He concluded that such action by the deprogrammers was against the Constitution of the United States and should be punished accordingly. A similar court case is now pending in Germany.
On the question of Krishna Consciousness in the West, Dr. Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School, in a paper given on the subject before a panel of eminent American scholars, pointed out that casual Western observers of the ISKCON movement would do well to remember their own Judeo-Christian cultural origins which they may now be taking for granted. Before accusing the Krishna society of ruining homes and encouraging children to stray from the accepted social norms, one might reflect on Jesus Christ's admonition to "let the dead bury the dead", and consider the impact such a teaching must have had on the closely-knit Jewish society of His time. Dare we insist that religion be relegated to tame, insular social gatherings of no importance or consequence in the outside world?
List of books by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada