Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Hare Krishna Leader in the Age of Lululemon -- NYMag

The Hare Krishna movement was founded here in New York. The legend goes that, in 1966, the Indian immigrant guru Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (but you can call him Prabhupada) sat under a tree in Tompkins Square Park chanting daily. Then one day some young people brought over some instruments. Eventually the drum circle turned to guru-talk about Krishna, and within a few years, troupes of chanting saffron-robed youths were set loose across the land. Celebrity devotee-dabblers included Allen Ginsberg and George Harrison, who gave them a mansion in London. (It’s where Radhanath met Brand, who had just gotten sober.)

Prabhupada’s movement is a variation on the Hindu sect of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It recommends no sex outside marriage, no alcohol, no caffeine. But the theology plays well with Western reference points: Hare Krishna believe all gods are manifestations of the same god, Krishna, sidestepping the more pantheistic Hindu traditions and reworking Vedic texts to sound a bit more allegorical, like the New Testament.

And in fact, Radhanath, who grew up Jewish in suburban Chicago, continuously switches between the Bible’s lessons and parallel ones from his adopted tradition. One thing he deftly elides in our conversation is the group’s post-Aquarian hangover period: By 2000, the Hare Krishna’s numbers had massively dwindled to fewer than a thousand in the U.S. In 2001, a class-action lawsuit was filed alleging institutionally overlooked sexual abuse, among other charges, in the church’s schools in the ’70s and ’80s. (The group went bankrupt the following year.) These days, the airport chanting has been curtailed — hard to say what the TSA would think of that, anyway — although you can still come upon disciples proselytizing in Union Square.

But the real change in the movement is demographic: The hippies have grown old, and their values have suffused our entire culture. Meanwhile, the movement’s numbers in this country have been supplemented by the rise in South Asian immigrants (whom the group reportedly has courted aggressively). Many Krishna Consciousness temples have been transformed by this diaspora from hippie relics into melting pots. Back in Mumbai, Radhanath’s congregation, he says, includes 10,000 people and runs an orphanage, a hospital, and an “eco-village” to teach sustainable farming.

The Hare Krishna Leader in the Age of Lululemon -- NYMag

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