Jul 19, 2014

Hare Krishna Gets Evangelical

The fringe Hindu faith is rebranding itself in America — with evangelical techniques.

Rosalie Murphy
June 16, 2014

Howard Resnick lives in a second-floor apartment on a quiet Santa Monica side street. Images of Krishna, the supreme god of the Hare Krishna movement, adorn the walls, and an electric keyboard waits in a corner to play Kirtan chants. He helped lead Hare Krishna in its heyday in the United States. Forty years after his conversion, he still wants to share his faith with Americans.

But today’s Hare Krishna temples host mostly Indian congregations and sing mostly Indian music. Resnick thinks that drives Americans from other cultures away before they even start thinking about philosophy. He hopes to reverse that trend.

“We were trying to do something which could not be done, and that is trying to Indianize the world in the name of Krishna,” Resnick said. “When you want to give people not merely the pure, unadulterated spiritual science, but they need to accept all the [ethnic] trappings — it doesn’t work. It simply doesn’t work.”

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness arrived in the U.S. in 1966, and its first followers were hippies. By 1980, many Americans ostracized the faith as a cult, but Indian immigrants sustained the movement. Its teachings are based in Hinduism but stress a personal relationship with Lord Krishna, the supreme god.

Now, Westerners like Resnick want to bring founder Swami Pradhupada’s teachings to Americans again — and that requires removing Hare Krishna’s increasingly Indian overtones so Westerners can connect directly with Krishna.

“The music is Indian. The dress is Indian. The food is Indian,” said Emily Penney, a doctor of naturopathic medicine and Hare Krishna devotee. She gestured to her prasadam, the meal offered after every Sunday service after the food is offered to Krishna. Her plate held sambar, rice and lassi. “It’s as if something is Indian, it’s sacred.”

Penney learned about Hare Krishna through an old boyfriend and converted after a visit to the Culver City temple. “Krishna captured my heart. I had been searching, and I just knew,” she said.

But Penney, a white American from North Carolina, struggled to find a place in the community dominated by Indian immigrants. Seeing Penney’s loose white linen shirt with faintly floral patterns stitched in purple, she said another worshipper told her she looked “very devout today.”

She shook her head. “Krishna never told us to wear saris.”

When India Was Trendy

Swami Pradhupada’s early followers, including George Harrison of the Beatles, were young American hippies. Chanting “Hare Krishna,” believers passed out copies of the Baghavad Gita in airports and on street corners nationwide.

They did wear saris and ochre robes, but at that time, “India was cool,” said Shukvak Dasa, a Claremont School of Theology professor and former devotee. “The meditational side of Hinduism was cool, so was rejection of authority and experimenting with new things. Hare Krishna was never in the mainstream, but everybody knew about it.”

Today the Hare Krishna movement claims 250,000 U.S. devotees, primarily because of the Indian immigrant population, according to Dasa. Without them, Hare Krishna may not have survived in the U.S. But Pradhupada wanted to cleave Hare Krishna from traditional Indian Hinduism. Often he critiqued Hindu traditions often for describing Krishna as an impersonal god. He sought such a clean break that he created a specific translation of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy book, for his followers.

“[Prabhupada] didn’t want that normalization coming into his teachings,” Dasa said. “We gravitated that way because it was logical and it was necessary.”

Resnick and his organization, Krishna West, want to reverse that normalization. They imagine a temple without saris. Prasadam could be Italian, Brazilian or Chinese if correctly offered to Krishna. As long as they use the proper mantras, guitarists, drummers or jazz bands could lead chanting.

“Some temples are a little too attached to the traditions as they came,” said Sarvatma Das, a 34-year devotee and Hare Krishna priest. Das is not a member of Krishna West, but he recalls a follower who approached him once after he led chanting: he shouldn’t be playing chords, the devotee warned, because Pradhupada never played chords.

“I have a lot of friends who are still caught up in the details of the ethnicity instead of the broad philosophy. There are universal principles that are easily understood, and then there are local customs that I couldn’t care less about,” Das said.

While earning his Ph.D. in Religion at Harvard University, Resnick examined the historical roots of the Vedic texts Pradhupada taught. “I really couldn’t find anything to suggest that there is a standard Vedic ethnicity,” he said. “It looks like, throughout history, people have adapted it. People always adapt.”

What drives Krishna West, however, is not merely a desire to adapt, but a profound evangelical spirit. Resnick and Penney believe Hare Krishna can bring peace to American lives. Devotees believe chanting Hare Krishna, much like prayer, brings divine energy into the chanter, which she can then use to better her community.

“Pradhupada came because there was an emergency in our culture,” Penney said. “And it’s not better than it was 40 years ago, it’s worse.”

Penney left LA in February for Raleigh, N.C., where she and two other women are overseeing a new community of believers. They will tailor the movement’s traditions to the devotees they meet. For example, the public chanting that defined Hare Krishna for many Americans in the 1970s may need to evolve if it alienates potential devotees.

“It’s like a rite of passage, a test of your faith and love, that you don’t care what the public thinks,” Resnick said. “If we go out in the street, it’s like Vedic Cirque du Soleil. People love it. They take pictures. But how many Americans want to join the circus?”

Resnick joined Penney and her team in North Carolina this spring.

“I’m ready to devote my life fully to this,” he said. “We’re seeking intelligent people who want to help change the world. If Krishna wants it to work, it’ll work.”