New Religious Movements and my personal experience

Most of those who know me know my history – I joined the Hare Krishnas when I was 19. I think it is time to talk a bit about that.

You might make jokes about growing up in East Germany and not being able to face too much personal freedom all at once after the system breakdown in ’89. In fact, I loved Eastern spiritualism long before the wall came down. I’ve somehow been raised on the Weimar Classicism period of Schiller and Hoelderlin – my mum was a teacher of German language and literature and passionate enough to take me and my sister to Weimar on several Summer holidays to see the sights, starting with where Goethe met Schiller. (My sister hated it btw and would have rather gone to the beach, not surprisingly. I just soaked it up.)

Der Weimarer Musenhof

Weimar’s Courtyard of the Muses (1860) by Theobald Freiherr von Oer. Schiller reads in Tiefurt, Weimar. Goethe can be seen amongst the audience.

Duchess Anna-Amalia hosted the salons that helped form so many of Germany’s literary and philosophical classics. Mystic Hinduism was very much part of discussions in those salons and has thus had a part in what fed my young, idealist mind. So in many ways it was inevitable that in my teens, the most radical time in anyone’s life, I’d take the most radical path available to me at the time and become a fully committed Hare Krishna nun.

Now last Sunday (28 June) we had the the Ratha Yatra, the London version of the annual chariot festival which gave rise to the word ‘Juggernaut’ – Jagannath is the name of one of the deities worshiped in the Indian state of Orissa, and he is taken on a chariot ride to the seaside down the road from his temple every year in a huge spectacle with millions of visitors. In London, the annual parade draws somewhere between 5 and 10 thousand visitors, mostly Hindus. It is a lovely, colourful occasion culminating with a street festival on Trafalgar Square.

Chariot arriving at Trafalgar Square

Chariot arriving at Trafalgar Square

It’s the one chance the Hare Krishnas have (apart from singing in the street every day) to *sell*. Well – that’s a loaded word. Showcase themselves. Represent. Be inspiring. Because the daily singing in the street by a group of ‘crazies’ is easily ignored, as is having a random guy in the street trying to shove a book about yoga in your face. But a whole day first parading through central London, then having Trafalgar Square to yourself – what an opportunity for showcasing an idea!

I know they do wonderful things. None of the ideas showed. The mindblowingly 21 century cruelty-free dairy farm, run without fossil fuels and fully sustainable, with oxen-powered grain mill, opening to the public this year? Didn’t feature. The fact the Hare Krishnas are hosting other groups of Hindus to talk about food standards and production in a UN project involving religious communities in long-term food sustainability? Not a word.

Can't get the respect these days. Dougald and I

Can't get the respect these days. Dougald and I

Anyways. We had a fun day at the festival, watching people and interactions. The parade was great, lovely kirtans – but most people would only join the festival on Trafalgar Square, and that’s when it keeps disappointing. The cultural programme? I don’t know who curated that. Who made Jayadev the cultural ambassador? John Richardson, who’s claim to fame is that he was the drummer in the Rubettes? A guy who once managed to take over a lovely community get-together with his ‘visualisations’ that ended up having people nauseous from the hypnotic effects, then apologising and admitting he didn’t have a clue what he was doing? Hilarious. The fact a different sect of Hare Krishnas tried to hitch a ride? Very nice.

Dougald made an interesting observation in the aftermath.

He said there were 3 kinds of religions. A very abridged description of the 3 kinds is here

1. The ones who let you get on with your life while adding something worthwhile
2. The evangelical ones who are focused on conversions and need a stream of new converts to sustain themselves
3. The ones who don’t convert but are discovered almost by accident, and encourage you to think long and hard before making any commitments.

and I shall post the link to his no doubt much more eloquent blog post when it’s up 🙂

Of course, the problem with the Hare Krishnas, as any “new” religious movement which fits broadly into the second category, is that while the philosophical basis might be profound and true, taken out of its cultural references (wider Hindu culture) it simply cannot work.

Vaishnavas, the worshippers of Vishnu, are meant to be the pillars of stability in Hindu society (as opposed to the Shaivites, worshippers of Siva, the proponents of ‘we are all god so let’s all be powerful and enjoy’ who are the drop-outs and known for doing strange things). No Hare Krishna devotee I’ve spoken to is aware of this, and obviously not – in order to convert to Vaishnavism and absorb its values, you must have dropped out, broken with your own upbringing and culture on a very deep level, so you can’t see yourself as maintainer of dharma, stability and status quo, not with any conviction anyways.

There is something else quite unhealthy about even attempting such a break with your own tradition. There might be, in some cases, perfectly sane, idealistic reasons for such a break (yes, I am speaking of myself, clearly) – but in the majority of new recruits, we can assume massive personality problems. (n.b. I’m not really saying I wasn’t broken. In the interest of honesty, I can quite clearly say that if I had been whole and healthy at the time, I’d have joined, looked at it, tried to change it into something beautiful, and if that hadn’t succeeded, taken my leave and tried something else.)

For a new religion still desperate for more members, it is just not wise to turn away potential new members. As a result, there are many very broken people who form the ranks and as they move up in the structure and move into managerial positions without proper training in how to look after people, and in the worst case children, it’s hardly surprising that there is a long list of cases of mismanagement – some more severe and resulting in suicides, drawn out court cases, some ‘only’ as severe as causing a lot of frustration.

However the problem is deeper than that and describes a movement being run by new converts.

I think the problems started at the point when the movement exploded back in the late 60s and decided outer expansion was more important than real (inner) growth. Prabhupada had to delegate power to his new deputies – and radical, immature new converts taking on responsibility for the direction of such a movement – that can’t go well. At the rate the Hare Krishnas grew, in the hippy days with everyone just coming out of one drug-induced haze or another, and with George Harrison being such a huge supporter, it was inevitable, especially when the achievement of 108 temples world-wide in 10 years was quickly becoming the main criteria of success.

Same story for the books – some of the editions were such extreme rush jobs that the quality of the editing is extremely poor, with the argument that they could be re-edited later when there was more time. But now, there is hardly anyone who manages to change a single word without the entire intelligentsia of the movement having a nervous breakdown, because They want to change Prabhupada’s words!! the Gospel!!!

As for me, I was used up in the name of expansion and discarded just like many others – I still hold the

A random pic of me and my guru Krishna-Kshetra Prabhu at another Ratha Yatra. I just discovered it on a random blog site.

A random pic of me and my guru Krishna-Kshetra Prabhu at another Ratha Yatra. I just discovered it on a random blog site.

philosophy and many of the movement’s activities (especially the food distribution in India) in high regard and have a lot of love for my guru, who, himself a very active seeker, is a wonderful and balanced person, is teaching in universities all over the world and is constantly introducing methods to encourage his disciples to think and feel for themselves, while remaining in good standing in the Hare Krishna organisation.

Which should be impossible but he manages just fine, for the sake of being able to keep looking after his disciples who at last count number somewhere between 800 and 1000.

Dougald and Vinay, discoursing on religion

Dougald and Vinay, discoursing on religion

However, here I was, seeing the Hare Krishna festival through my friends’ eyes who came along to Trafalgar Square. Starting with the books… people trying to sell scientific books on why Hinduism is in line with latest scientific discoveries – but no real value to the conversations, and books cheaply printed in India. My view on that? Better not try then, because that’s getting us in line with very fundamentalist Christian preaching. Basically, the feel my friends got – and they are all fairly well-versed in Hindu thinking – was of an organisation which had become so devoid of real spirit that it was more fundamentalist than the Salvation Army.

There was no real creativity either in the books, designs or performances. But on the other hand, it is what happens when all that matters is maintaining an impossible status quo – being a devotee means you follow the four regulative principles and chant your 16 rounds daily and spend all the remaining time doing practical service, as a result spending too much time cutting yourself off from your lower chakras to have any energy left for creative thinking.

And if that wasn’t enough, there were other groups of Hare Krishnas who were competing for the visitors on the day! The ultimate irony – not just were they members of the same niche sect of Hinduism, started by Sri Chaitanya some 500 years ago but sharing a guru great-grandfather, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, the guru of Srila Prabhupada who had come to the US to preach and had started the official Hare Krishna movement. And here they were, competing and pretty much ignoring each other, and then dismissing each other after the event.

And what happened to their sense of humour?

Radha-Krishna deities in the Krishna-Balaram Mandir, Vrindavan, UP, India

Radha-Krishna deities in the Krishna-Balaram Mandir, Vrindavan, UP, India

Essentially, they worship Radha and Krishna on the altar. In the stories we hear, Radha is married to somebody else and keeps running into Krishna while doing her domestic duties… Also, Krishna manages to dance with all the girls in one night (dance, mind you. Dance.) Another couple on the altar: Rama and Sita… again, Rama, what a man! I do think it’s nice to have a religion with proper males and females. I crack myself up every time I remember falling in love with the main actor while doing a spontaneous re-enactment of the story of Surparnaka meeting Rama from the Ramayana a few years ago – but that’s for another random religion post!

Somehow, the Hare Krishnas seemed to have lost their sense of humour a long time ago, along with the ability to really inspire. And that’s why this still affects me. How many people would benefit from adding a little drop of spiritual love into their lives? How would our interactions change if we realised we’re all part of some gigantic cosmic conscious joke? From realising we’re beautiful, joyful, powerful beyond matter? And how many people do get a drop of this, come to the temple and want to join, only to be sucked dry by the endless fundamentality of what they are being exposed to?

Have a look on twitter, or around blogs, or facebook and try to find inspirational Hare Krishna streams. Actually, don’t waste time unless you’re really keen on proving me wrong. I’ve looked and all I found was frustrated bickering or fundamentalist dry repetition of a proven formula, or vegetarian cooking recipes, or fundamentalists about to pick up a fight with the frustrated ones.


7 responses to “New Religious Movements and my personal experience

  1. This is not intended to be a spam comment, but I was just directed to this blog for the first time and I think you might find our relatively new website ( inspirational. I think your assessment here is quite accurate and well written

  2. I really liked your article a lot. It sheds a lot on the sad state of affairs of the hare krsna movement. If more people like your speak up, hopefully things will change.

  3. Good for you!

    Fundamentalist atheists are too quick to throw all religious/spiritual/mystical experience into one basket and call it nonsense.

    For this reason I tend to keep my (largely Buddhist) thoughts to myself and a few trusted friends.

  4. (nice comment

    thanks for the post…
    i’d like to hear more of what your experience was when you were 19
    and how long you were committed to the religion…

    like every other type of institution
    suffers from organisational crystallisation or inertia
    when numbers go beyond something like 150

    it kills spirit

    you are still alive
    well done!
    be well!

  5. Pingback: Greenbelt. It’s an evangelist festival. Deal with it. « Anke's·

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