Mar 6, 2018

Hare Krishna abandoned street chanting in robes years ago

Worshipers at the Hare Krishna Temple on Avenue Rd. (Veronica Henri, Toronto)
Worshipers at the Hare Krishna Temple
Kevin Connor
Toronto SUN 
March 4, 2018

It has been decades since Toronto’s Hare Krishnas would routinely be seen chanting on Yonge St. — with shaved heads and orange robes — or handing out flowers at the airport.

During the 1970s, the Hare Krishna temple on Avenue Rd. was communal and occupied by white, counterculture hippies, generally no older than 22.

Today, members are mainstream. They could sit next to you at the office and drive luxury cars to their kid’s soccer game. They may have left the temple for the suburbs but kept the faith.

In the 1980s, the membership was boosted by Indian immigrants.

“At first, (North American Hare Krishnas) we were beatniks and viewed with suspicion. Indians couldn’t believe white boys and girls would convert to their old ways,” said Bhaktimarga Swami, 65, who came from a small farm outside Chatham and was one of the original members of the Toronto temple.

“Having westerners taking up yoga and vegetarianism was beyond imaginable.”

Members were radical-minded people or those on a spiritual quest.

“There was a generation of people interested in an alternative way of being. We were looking for a monastic life, living together like monks. It was a simple non-violent way of life,” Bhaktimarga Swami said.

“Our organization is designed to shape people’s lives in a more moralistic way. To take up a superior engagement to ensure a greater purpose in life.”

He admitted to missing the early days, and unlike some members, still has a shaved head and wears the orange robes.

“We were young and I loved making music on the streets. Now we do our chanting indoors,” he said.

The Krishnas have “absolutely transformed” themselves, said professor Irving Hexham, a member of University of Calgary’s classics and religion department.

“There were, at the beginning, some real flakes. The transformation started in the 1980s. When people started to look at what they believed in, they realized they weren’t a cult,” Hexham said.

“They were founded before the United Church. It’s a branch of Hindu tradition dating back to the 14th century,” Hexham said.

The Canada Revenue Agency gives the Hare Krishna religious tax exemptions as a charitable organization.

Bhaktimarga Swami is also know as the Walking Monk, having walked across Canada and many other countries.

“It’s a pilgrimage: An introspective walk for inner development,” he added. “I will meet folks and they will take an interest.”

A walk in the the southern U.S. proved interesting.

“I was walking through the United States in orange and a shaved head and people thought I was an escaped prisoner. I hardly get any red neck interaction,” he said.

In the 1970s, the Hare Krishna movement was represented in pop culture.

The Beatles’ George Harrison found Indian spirituality and in his song My Sweet Lord, the Hare Krishna mantra was used in the chorus. The Broadway musical Hair also incorporated the mantra.

These days, the Toronto temple is run and attended by second or third generation members and those who have come from India.

“We have a trickle of people who come from a punk rock background who are radical and have out-of-the-box thinking,” Bhaktimarga Swami said.

Billy Kubina, 31, a former rocker, is a member who manages the temple and met his wife when he was practicing as a monk.

“We are starting new programs (online) for millennials. We want the best of the content out there. We can share knowledge without having people out on the street corner,” Kubina said.

These days many people find out about Krishna through food as the temple has a vegan restaurant called Govinda’s.

“There is no spiritual implications to the food. No one will come and talk philosophy,” Bhaktimarga Swami said.

There are many weekly programs where a person doesn’t have to be Hare Krishna, such as the temple is the home of Bhakti yoga in the city. And a lot of people come to Hare Krishnas to beat bad habits.

“You can party without killing brain cells by chanting, drums, good food and being positive. Everyone hits bumps in the road but there is a higher purpose,” Bhaktimarga Swami said.

“We welcome anyone from any background … it’s the individual that counts.”

The Hare Krishna movement is a branch of Hinduism:

  • Through chanting and meditation, members believe they can achieve a higher state of consciousness, peace and self-realization. 
  • Bhakti yoga is a spiritual practice through which is suppose to allow practitioners to connect with God.
  • The movement allows equal opportunities for men and women to become priests in worship rituals.
  • Hare Krishnas are vegetarians or vegans. They believe animals have a soul and are children of Krishna.

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