42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
- Mark 10, New Testament
As any seeker should, I maintain a cadre of friends of various religions, ones who respect and appreciate sincere and respectful interfaith dialog. And in that cadre, one of the ways to really annoy my Brahmin Hindu friend would be to mention the Hare Krishnas. Hinduism is a rich, old, well developed religion - and I know of it, and some of its rules, but not enough to follow any reasoned argument against it. So he summarised his objections by simply saying "there's more to Hinduism than spinning around like a Dervish while repeating a Sanskrit limerick."
That may or may not be a fair assessment, but it does show the perils and dangers of trying to transplant a faith from one culture to another. It's a problem many face - a Christian evangelist who mentions being born again to a Buddhist would be stating something not wonderful (a metaphor for a new creation) but horrifying (being trapped, like a fly in amber, in the cycle of death and rebirth).
From what anyone can gather, the first Hare Krishnas had none but the best intentions at heart. Howard Wheeler, a Ph.D from New York University, was a bohemian in some ratty tenements in New York City - actually looking for a swami - when one appeared. Up until then him and his small gang of artist/thinker types would go to hear a lecture or presentation and then happily watch Wheeler take it apart, exposing flaws in logic or raising points that the speaker hadn't mentioned. When the swami arrived on the scene, picking gingerly through the Bowery in his saffron robes, they all went, half to check it out, and half to rack up another victim if he turned out to be a phony.
But Prabupadha, the thin man with the clunky English and the aura about him that attracted so many, was not a phony. A genuine sannyasi (ascetic), he had travelled to America from India as an older man with the genuine intention of spreading his religion. He found himself in New York City, casually asking Wheeler (who he had just met) if a garbage-choked ex hippie gift store was a suitable place to give lectures. The guru was strengthened by having literally survived a heart attack, alone in a cabin in steerage, convinced that it was his destiny to bring Krishna Consciousness to the West.
You would think that his message - no intoxicants, including tobacco, coffee and tea - no meat or eggs, no spices, no sexual contact except a procreative act with a spouse once a month, no mixing with people in the outside world, no idle conversation, no sports, etc. would be a hard sell at a time when people were expanding their consciousness with drugs, seeking the easy sex that followed the sexual revolution, and so forth. But fundamentalism and discipline have always held their appeal, and the poor Prabhupada had landed in an area where drugs did not mean a groovy joint on a Friday night but seeing the results of crippling addiction. The fire was also kindled at a time when many sought refuge from what they saw as a warmongering, materialist society in other thing and other places. Yoga. Transcendental Meditation. Flower Power. Tune in, turn on, drop out. And there was no other way to completely divorce oneself from life as you knew it than to take on the life of a Hindu ascetic, complete with a new name.
Because the movement started at a time when the world was far less tolerant: when Wheeler's roommate, Keith Ham, now known as Kirtenananda, applied at the welfare office in robes with a shaved head, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital, and only intervention by Allen Ginsberg - who found a Jungian psychologist willing to testify that he was not crazy but a genuine follower of an Eastern religion - got him out. Wearing dhotis made the first few converts: Hans Kary, now Hansdautta, Kirtenananda, and Wheeler, now called Hayagriva - targets for abuse as they led kirtans in New York. At first this discouraged them, but they grew strength from it.
But to Prabhupada, this was auspicious. The Americans were converting. From what I have read about him, he was genuine. He was recently honored by India for spreading Hinduism around the world. He understook translations and commentaries on the Baghavad Gita and taught enough Americans Sanskrit to build up a body of work in English to study it. In fact, you can go to many used book stores and find tons of copies of "The Baghavad Gita As It Is" and other works in used bookstores and the Goodwill. He was a kind man who radiated an aura about him of genuine conviction. And the teaching he had, which he referred to as bhakti yoga, incorporated the vegetarianism and health of hatha yoga with service to mankind. He was happy when his devotees raised money, because with it temples were built, soup kitchens were established. People were fed, minds were liberated, converts were saved.
The movement took off. Temples started up just about everywhere, and the Hare Krishnas became famous, and soon notorious, showing up eventually as a joke in movies like Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke" and Airplane!. His first converts went off to lead these temples. They got celebrity endorsements: George Harrison saw them as reversing some of the mistakes that he felt guilt about bringing about. They'd popularized grass and sang about LSD and set off the psychedelic era - and walking through the remnants of humanity suffering from the trap of drugs, saw the Krishnas as genuine and a way out. He eventually gave them property to start a temple.
However, though the devotees were chanting the maha-mantra, and were abstaining from meat, many of them had not abandoned the ego. One of the core ideas in many Eastern religions is the concept of a soul that is trapped, mired in the murk of humanity. Buddhism tries to escape this by becoming mindful, the Hindus by obtaining merit and chanting the sacred name. Noting that their charismatic and beloved leader was overjoyed when collections were high, they sought his approval by obtaining money in far more sinister ways. They were jockeying for position and being more cut-throat about it than any executive trying to make his way up the pyramid. Expectations and quotas were high. As a result, women's kirtan groups were managed, almost literally, like pimps - with forced sex and performance expectations in the field, with the supervisor ruling with an iron hand. Hansadutta bought a warehouse of bargain bin records and had his devotees, in wigs, simply hand them out to passersby, then guilt them for a donation in exchange. It often worked, and often resulted in more money than a simple donation to a group of chanting women would bring. Others ran drugs. Others ran weapons. Prabhupada was almost certainly unaware of this, although he was overjoyed his ministry seemed to be so blessed by Krishna.
There was a naivete that got exploited. Who wanted to look after the children? Oh, an enthusiastic volunteer? Wonderful. A very enthusiastic volunteer? Even better. An ecstatically enthusiastic volunteer with a special interest in little boys? Prabhupada had unfortunately never considered that what worked for him and his culture would not, without some cultural explanation and conditioning work for others. He paired off men and women in the communes like they would in India. You seem a nice boy, she seems a nice girl. Let's marry you.
Some of these characters had had a darker past. Keith Ham and Howard Wheeler were homosexuals (at the time when such was considered an aberration and a crime). There's nothing inherently wrong with that - but they carried with it a certain contempt of women and gave a spin on sannyasi (avoiding the contact from women to free the soul from being attached to the world) that went beyond bordering on misogyny. Hans Kary battled crippling depression and soon found himself using an Indian cough syrup that just conincidentally contained 70% alcohol, and sleeping with female devotees. Women who weren't being literally hustled or raped by male devotees were shunned and spat on as some kind of snare of the material world. Other adherents had criminal pasts and were lured in seeking redemption and instead found themselves back in their old habits - to raise money, excused for it (by their superiors) and excusing themselves by saying anything they did was touched by Krishna, in the same way that eating food blessed first to Krishna carried no karmic debt.
And then, in 1978, Prabhupada died.
He'd been a septuagenarian at the time he arrived in America and had almost died on the journey. By the time he died there were book publishers, tract publishers, incense sellers, temples all over North America and Eastern Europe, and by any stretch of the imagination he'd succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
And yet, though he was probably unaware of the drug running and such, he'd rooted out some corruptions here and there - expelling a temple president who had a secret room with oysters, champagne and a waterbed. And though he'd tried to tell these earnest young American men their goal in life was to kill their ego and give it all to Krishna, they fought like siblings for his approval, they were in competition. Kirtenananda, at one point, dressed like a priest and tried to westernize Krishna Consciousness, starting a breakaway movement. When it failed, he returned to the fold and was greeted with happy tears. But he wanted to be the new guru on his death. They all did. But to his mind they were the best he had, and he'd decided before his death to appoint them as the equivalent of bishops.
Because part of the whole Hare Krishna trip was the adoration of the guru. You couldn't show love and affection directly to God, but you could feed and dress and show devotion to the twin statues of Krishna and Radha. And you could show honor and prostrate yourself before your teacher, who was expected to humbly deal with it, without ego, to help the devotee find a reverent, honoring path.
And had he appointed a successor as such, that person would have had the full attention of the entire movement bowing to him. Which is why they all wanted it. And he knew they weren't ready to handle that kind of rock star attention, and quite probably feared putting that on any of them. So he shared it amongst them.
Unfortuantely, they took it as being eight successors. Eight popes, as it were. Because they could learn Sanskrit, they could assert and assent to Krishna being God, and they could eat vegetarian food. But the notion of sannyasi, the notion of being ego-less and accepting the devotion of others as a way to make them more humble, not to elevate yourself - that was too far removed from their experience. You got attention, you were a rock star, you were a celebrity by your own merit, and you were supposed to revel in it.
That's when things got strange. Because they started jockeying for position. They hadn't seen the territories they were to oversee as parishes, but as competing territories in the sense of a franchise. Poaching devotees, poaching resources - common. They stopped seeing their religion as something to spread, but as the wheel turned into the materialistic, feel-good, future's so bright you gotta wear shades 1980s, as a zero-sum game. What devotees they had left - whether still committed, still sincere worshippers of Krishna, or people disconnected from their families and friends, their resources sold to build the Palace of Gold in New Vrindaban, what have you - were seen as gold was in medieval economics. A zero-sum game in which one's status increased at the expense of another.
Hansadutta was addicted to percocet. Kirtenananda was rumored to be molesting children. Back room deals were made, position was jockeyed for. However, at the helm was no longer the saintly Prabhupada, who referred all questions to the Gita and who refused to take personal credit or discuss his own personal life much - but gurus who recorded albums, trying to be rock stars. Gurus who had their members steal checkbooks, and more disturbingly, who built up personal arsenals. Arrests were made. ISKCON, the governing body that was in theory a check and balance to the guru system, could not overcome the fact that the gurus were in theory divinely appointed successors. The less their powers were ever checked, the more disillusioned they became.
Eventually, Hansadutta was removed - something about shooting out the windows of a liquor store and being arrested, after an all points bulletin was put out seeking his Bronco after he was seen shooting through the windows of a Cadillac dealership. It had not been his first arrest either: he'd been wired to the gills on percocet, arguing by use of the Krishna expression "a pure devotee does no wrong" that because he was a pure devotee he could do no wrong, as opposed to the mark of a pure devotee being he does no wrong, and started enough of a commotion on a flight that he'd been hauled out before his startled devotees in handcuffs. For a while he sought readmission, penitent, understanding he'd done incredible wrong. Eventually he went back to his old ways and demanded his guruship back, arguing the equivalent of apostolic succession. Kirtenananda survived, literally, a movement against the guru system. A devotee put him in a coma by sneak-attacking him with a bricklayer's implement. But he could not survive a 1990s incident where he was caught in the back of a van with a Malaysian boy. He relocated to India to serve out the rest of his life, with some choice words for the movement he says betrayed him.
If you travel through West Virginia, it's possible to take a side road and visit the community of New Vrindaban, modelled after the Vrindaban in India. Complete with a Palace of Gold and several stunningly beautiful buildings, it's a testament to how something, somehow can take a group of lost children, a couple of talented volunteers, the collected resources of the assembly, and the sincere desire to create something lasting to make something beautiful. The men and women that built that compound started out freezing in shacks and knowing nothing about construction, and ended up as able builders having created a beautiful monument to their guru and their Gods.
However, there's at least 14 bodies in New Vrindaban, many of which have never been identified. Evidence of foul play certainly exists. A man who apparently fell from a rope bridge suffered no corporeal damage except for a very targeted impact to the back of his head. We know the gurus had some people killed: Sulocana, a disillusioned man who started a personal vendetta against the guru system and against Kirtenananda in particular - was shot multiple times in the head and chest at close range as he prayed in his van, ironically after giving up his fight and simply carrying on with his life. Another man was butchered because he'd withheld money from his father's will instead of giving it all to the gurus.
The original followers at the original lectures at "Matchless Gifts" in New York City - many of them have been marginalized or thrown out, disgraced. One of the contract killers for the Hare Krishnas was inducted (in prison) as a swami in the tradition, in part because he was an able minister in the prison system, and in part in thanks. Hare Krishnas tend not to be so visible these days, and their influence has waned. Gone are the days when watching a group of chanting, cymbal-pinging guys and girls in dhotis and choti haircuts was a streetside sight.
And yet traffic does stop in some cities on at least one day in the year, when the temple has a parade to honor a religious festival. Earnest workers serve vegetarian food and offer, as opposed to pushing, people to come find out what Krishna is all about. Soon they'll shed whatever "cult" or flower power connotations they've had and be seen by all as another religious tradition, like any other.
Hare krsna, hare krsna, krsna krsna, hare hare.