Unassumingly nestled in one of Boston’s most affluent parts of town, the ISKCON brownstone located at 72 Commonwealth Avenue didn’t look like a place of worship. With Newbury Street as its backdrop and the Ritz Carlton a few blocks down, the ISKCON temple seemed to be out of place. That was just how I thought it would be; a temple that didn’t belong. As a Hindu, I was aware of ISKCON and its practices. But my impression of the organization was not a positive one. After reading Nori Muster’s Betrayal of the Spirit I was convinced as ever that my opinion of ISKCON was right on the money. But that was soon to change. What began as a visit to the temple for the purpose of writing a paper, turned into an eye opening revelation about ISKCON and its members.
The temple was modestly decorated, a striking contrast to a typically ornate Hindu temple. There were only three murthis, (statues) the central one being of Lord Krishna and his female counterpart Radha. Lord Krishna is the central god for ISKCON devotees. One of the goals of ISKCON is to practice Krishna consciousness, as it is taught in the Bhagavad Gita. Members hold the Bhagavad Gita to be a source of information about how to conduct life. It is thought that the Gita is the word of Lord Krishna, and because of that fact, the devotees use the Gita as one of their main texts for spiritual advancement and understanding.
Ironically, it was over the Bhagavad Gita and its teachings that I had a dislike for the Hare Krishnas. I felt that the Hare Krishnas did not have a clear understanding about the philosophy of the Gita. And because they had established that the Bhagavad Gita was their main text, it seemed that ISKCON was some type of authority on the subject. I felt that this was simply untrue. Just because ISKCON said they believed in the Gita, didn’t necessarily mean that they had the right concept of it. The Hare Krishnas were too close to Hinduism, and they were walking a fine line between understanding the tradition and grossly misinterpreting it. In the process, ISKCON was being lumped together with the rest of Hinduism, and I saw nothing Hindu about the Hare Krishna movement.
After visiting the ISKCON temple and speaking with some of the devotees, my view that the Hare Krishnas “had it all wrong,” changed a little. I realized how much growing up in a house that took a jnana yoga (Path of Knowledge) approach to Hinduism had affected the way in which I viewed people who did not take a similar approach. The Hare Krishnas fell into that category because their mode of spirituality was through bhakti yoga (Path of Devotion). Many of the misconceptions I had about the Hare Krishnas were rooted in the fact that I did not understand how someone could look at Hinduism solely through “bhakti eyes.”
This applied even to the Bhagavad Gita. When I took an Eastern World religions class, the Bhagavad Gita had been presented as a jnana based text. Though the professor had mentioned that the text could be seen from a bhakti standpoint, we did not discuss it, and once again I was left with a stronger understanding of the jnana approach, and a modest understanding of bhakti. I took this limited view when I went to visit the temple. I wanted to know how the devotees could overlook the obvious philosophical ideas expounded by the Gita and how they could only extrapolate a bhakti vision from the text. One of the devotees, summed it all up in one statement, “one needs jnana (knowledge) to practice the correct bhakti (devotion).” I thought about that statement for awhile. What did he mean by that? And then a light went off in my mind. The reason why the Hare Krishnas place so much emphasis on bhakti is because they understand the philosophy that the Brahman and the atman are in the end one. Understanding this concept, they have an unyielding love for Lord Krishna. We as human beings are a part of him, and through devotion and chant the Hare Krishnas are acknowledging that homology.
I saw the vigor with which the devotees sang the chants. I heard how they had all read the Gita numerous times. I listened when they spoke of their love for Krishna. When I put all these pieces together, I was shown a new picture. The Hare Krishnas were not necessarily rooted in something “un-Hindu.” They were just rooted in a different vein of Hinduism than I had been exposed too. The temple visit was successful in altering my philosophical view of the Hare Krishnas. But my social impression of the Hare Krishnas remained unchanged.
While it may be true that the Hare Krishnas have the right idea about Hinduism, there is still something about the movement that makes me feel that it is less than religious. The movement attracts a certain type of follower. In the case of the Boston temple, the majority of the devotees were young males under the age of twenty-five. They had one thing in common however, and it was that they were previously part of a social scene called “straight edge.” The straight edge scene was characterized by the cliché “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, but without the sex and the drugs. They liked punk music, but refrained from drugs and sex. Most of the young men who were now living in the ashram, had been members of the straight edge scene. Another commonality between these young members was that many of them had previously been addicted to drugs. One devotee mentioned how he had almost overdosed, but then he found Krishna.
It is the air around the Hare Krishnas that is still unsettling to me. ISKCON seems to attract the wandering and lost. The devotees have an idealized version of India, and instantly thought that I was pure just because I was Indian. They were fascinated with my heritage and instantly felt a bond to me because I was from India. They believe that Americans are crazy, money hungry, and have lost the true purpose of life. These generalizations make me feel that the Hare Krishnas are living in a deluded world.
Though their temple may be amidst the hustle and bustle of Commonwealth Avenue, their being is somewhere in the depths of an Indian forest. They are out of touch with reality, and do not make any attempts to correct that. They are content with endlessly chanting to Lord Krishna. They are content with ridiculing the Western mindset and wishing that they lived in India. They use religion to seal themselves off from the rest of the world. Yet that is not what religion ought to be used for. It should be used to make sense of a senseless world. It gives people a guidebook to life.
My experience at the ISKCON temple did open my eyes to a few things. I understand Hinduism from a bhakti yoga lens. I don’t feel that the Hare Krishnas are practicing some strange strain of Hinduism. My only dislike of the movement now is with its devotees. They are lost souls desperately seeking structure, spirituality, and belonging. When there is a balance between living life and being spiritual, then religion can be comforting and worthwhile. But when someone has an inherently distorted view of life and religion, then movements such as ISCKON, no matter how rooted in a religious tradition they may be, become tainted because their followers are blind and like puppets on a string.