The Hare Krishnas in India

The Hare Krishnas in India

by Charles R. Brooks

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Most Americans know about the "Hare Krishnas" only from encounters in airports or from tales of their activities in the East Village and Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. This entertaining and sensitive book deepens our knowledge by tracing the paths of those Western Hare Krishnas who eventually traveled to or lived in India. The charismatic leader of the sect, the


Most Americans know about the "Hare Krishnas" only from encounters in airports or from tales of their activities in the East Village and Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. This entertaining and sensitive book deepens our knowledge by tracing the paths of those Western Hare Krishnas who eventually traveled to or lived in India. The charismatic leader of the sect, the Indian monk Swami Bhaktivedanta, aimed to save Westerners from what he saw as materialism and atheism by converting them to worship of the Hindu god Krishna. In addition, he hoped that Western disciples would inspire Indians to rediscover their own religious heritage. Charles Brooks describes in full detail the work of the "reverse missionaries" in the town of Vrindaban—which, since it is traditionally considered to be identical with Krishna's spiritual world, is one of the holiest places in India and the site of some of its most engaging rituals.

Have the Western Hare Krishnas really become part of Indian culture? Can it be that Indians accept these foreigners as essentially Hindu and even Brahman? Brooks answers in a way that radically challenges our accepted images of Indian social dynamics. Analyzing the remarkable success of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and their temple complex in Vrindaban (where Bhaktivedanta was buried in 1977), Brooks describes the intricate social, economic, and religious relationships between Westerners and Indians. He demonstrates that social rank in the town is based not only on caste but also on religious competence: many Indians of Vrindaban believe, in Bhaktivedanta's words, that "Krishna is for all."

Originally published in 1989.

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The Hare Krishnas in India

By Charles R. Brooks


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03135-4



Every morning at 7:00 the Taj Express pulls out of the New Delhi railway station, its air-conditioned class compartments full of Indian and foreign tourists headed for Agra and a day of marveling at the Mughal splendor of the Taj Mahal. About forty-five minutes before arriving at the Agra Cant station, the Taj halts briefly at Mathura, and from the second-class cars disembarks a varied swarm of passengers: urban civil servants dressed in polyester shirts and pants; Punjabi men sporting colorful turbans and stately beards, their wives in traditional pants and long blouses; Rajasthani farmers with gold rings in each ear, accompanied by wives in saris of brilliant colors. Still others are sparsely clothed in coarse cotton and barefoot, having renounced all worldly possessions to become sadhus (religious ascetics), or to take up the life of mendicant widow after a husband's death. Here and there in the crowd can also be seen individuals slightly taller than the rest, with lighter skin — American or European — dressed in the saffron dhoti of a sannyasi (renunciate) or the dingy loincloth of a sadhu, hair closely cropped except for a lock in the back, a style ubiquitous among the Indian men that crowd the station platform.

This mass of humanity, however diverse, shares one motive as it pushes its way toward the station exit, and many shout out "Jai ho" ("Victory"), "Giri Raj ki jai" ("Glory to Krishna"), or "Hare Krishna" ("Oh Krishna"), raising hands above heads in exaltation as they spot the sign on platform number one that announces "Alight Here for Vrindaban Pilgrimage." Further on a more recent billboard extends a "Welcome to the Land of Sri Krishna Consciousness." They have all come to Braj (the linguistic and cultural area in the southwestern corner of present-day Uttar Pradesh) on pilgrimage — to walk in the same soft and clinging dust in which their god Krishna walked and to bathe at the same ghats (river landings) where he teased the gopis (village milk-maids) by stealing their saris while they swam. They will, during their pilgrimage, relive in ritual and imagination many of the scenes from Krishna's life which occurred, according to popular consensus, about five thousand years ago.

Leaving the dim station interior for the bright hot morning light, the pilgrims are confronted by a hoard of rickshaw and horse-cart drivers, all intent upon securing their business, each insisting that his vehicle is superior to the competition. Few in the crowd, however, will linger long in Mathura, for their destination is Vrindaban. Located some six miles to the north, Vrindaban is considered the "center of the lotus of Braj," and is renowned as the idyllic setting of Krishna's childhood and adolescence — the period in which his activities are the most esoteric and religiously significant for the bhakta (devotee). It is the events of Krishna's Vrindaban lila (sports, play) which symbolize for the pilgrims the highest ideal: an intimate personal relationship between deity and devotee. And it is in Vrindaban where this divine relationship can be most easily realized.

Today, however, is not an ordinary day, for it is the eve of the festival of Holi, and at every village along the tracks from Delhi, the train has been pelted with cow dung and colored water by jubilant children. Now as the pilgrims disembark at Mathura, the very town of Krishna's birth, everyone is drenched by the spray from large syringes filled with colored water, and the mood is one of intoxicated celebration. Many in the crowd wear clothing still colored from past Holis and put aside to be worn only at the next Holi. Others began the day clad in fresh white handwoven cotton clothing purchased just for the occasion, knowing that by day's end it would be colorfully dyed. There are no protests against this constant bombardment of colored water and powder which continues unabated from the first steps onto the railway platform, through the station, and into the yard, for as one elderly pilgrim shouted to half-frightened foreign tourists still on the train, "This is the joy of our civilization!"

Those who arrived on the Taj Express now find themselves on the road with many others of like mind who have come from all parts of India by bus, car, scooter, oxcart, horse cart, camel, or on foot. They share a mood which is simultaneously solemn and joyfully playful, for their Lord Krishna is a fun-loving trickster who is worshiped as much for his pranks as for his miracles. In spite of this playfulness, Krishna is still the full incarnation of Vishnu, highest of gods, and each person anticipates an awesome experience of direct contact with him — an experience possible not only because he resided in the earthly Vrindaban five thousand years ago, but also because (it is firmly believed) he is eternally present there.

The ride to Vrindaban normally takes about forty-five minutes by horse cart, but this day more than an hour is required, as at every turn in the road all are stopped and persuaded to step down so that they may receive the hospitality of Holi. These roadblocks are composed largely of young men who, filled with bhang (a drink made with Cannabis), embrace each person they encounter, spreading bright red or green powder across his or her forehead. It is Vrindaban and the surrounding Braj which are famous for having the best Holi in India, and the local residents are not about to jeopardize this reputation. After all, was not Holi Krishna's favorite celebration?

Finally, the families, groups of old friends, and solitary pilgrims reach the outskirts of Vrindaban where many prostrate themselves in the dust, rub it over their head and eyes, and perhaps even taste some of the Vrindaban soil, treating it as the most sacred prasad (literally, "grace," spiritualized food). Tears form in many eyes as emotions of a destination reached and expectations of extraordinary experiences to come overwhelm them. Now, before they disperse into various dharmshalas (pilgrim lodges) around town to avoid the midday heat, they are eager to visit some of the most important sites of the town.

Ram Gopal is a rickshaw-wala who travels between Mathura Cant station and Vrindaban several times on a good day, and today his business is very good. He explains to his clients that for over a week now, no accommodations have been available in either Mathura or Vrindaban. He is therefore "prayerful" that everyone has written ahead for lodging well in advance. But for most pilgrims, physical comfort is their last concern, and they are prepared to sleep by the river or on the steps of a temple; for it is simply being in the land of Krishna at this auspicious time that is the fulfillment of their most ardent desires. The reality that they are now in Vrindaban dham (holy land) floods their consciousness and overshadows any worry about food or shelter.

Volunteering to assist his riders on their initial tour of the sacred town, Ram explains, "There are four temples that you must visit immediately! It is now time for darshan (viewing of the sacred images), so it is a must that we hurry. Otherwise you will wait until evening for your first darshan." So it is agreed: hurriedly the rounds should be made.

Immediately past the toll gate on the Mathura-Vrindaban road, Ram makes a left and heads to the area of town called Raman-Reti. As he turns onto the old Chhatikara road (now officially Bhaktivedanta Marg), the flood of people slows traffic practically to a halt. This steady stream of humanity circulates from dharmshalas to shops to temples to tea stalls, with everyone heading generally in the same direction — two kilometers from the main intersection of Bhaktivedanta Marg and Mahatma Gandhi Marg, to the Krishna-Balaram temple. Over the noise of the crowd Ram explains that Krishna-Balaram is the first temple that should be seen (see appendix 1).

As slow progress is made toward the mandir (temple), Ram Gopal points to the spire of Madan-Mohan, the first in a series of temples whose construction began in the late 1400s when Vrindaban was changing from a wilderness retreat to a pilgrimage town. Built by the medieval saint Sanatan Goswami, and patronized by the tolerant Mughal emperor Akbar, this temple once housed the image of Krishna called Madan-Mohan which supposedly was commissioned by Krishna's own earthly great grandson, and rediscovered by Sanatan. Over the years many miracles were attributed to this deity, but the original image no longer resides beneath the tower which dominates Vrindaban's riverfront skyline. Today the image called Madan-Mohan is worshiped at Karauli in the state of Rajasthan, taken there in order to avoid the destructive wrath of Akbar's notorious grandson, Aurangzeb.

Further on is Fogal Ashram, a large dharmshala where many pilgrims stay and where a large entourage of sadhus and vairagis (Vaishnava sadhus) obtain free food and shelter throughout the year. Ram laughs that Vrindaban is "75 percent sadhu, 25 percent people." His comments, which are accurate and detailed, are given freely, he says, and he is quick to point out that there is no competition between himself and the hereditary Brahman pilgrim guides or pandas. These pandas claim a monopoly on this activity at most tirthas (pilgrimage site; literally, a ford, or place to "cross over" to the spiritual world), and often possess records indicating a client relationship with some families for generations. "However," Ram continues with a smile, "if you are happy with my services today, I can return this evening and tomorrow to be your escort without charge. Or you may also find your own panda and pay his fee."

Vrindaban town of ten years ago ended just past Fogal Ashram for all but the most stalwart pilgrims, the area still being forested — a retreat for sadhus who wished to conduct their spiritual practices in solitude. Since the opening of the Krishna-Balaram temple in 1975, however, Raman-Reti has become an integral part of the town. Now there are temples, ashrams, and dharmshalas extending to Bhaktivedanta Gate which marks the southwestern extremity of Vrindaban. "Today," Ram comments, "Brajbasis (residents of Braj) complain that you must go all the way to Krishna-Balaram to hire a rickshaw. If you need a ride to Mathura, you can always find one there."

As the temple is approached, pilgrims congest the dusty street. There is a gentle but steady pushing that begins a hundred meters from the temple itself, extends into the narrow alleyway leading up to its entrance gate, and into the courtyard. Once inside, all strain on tiptoes to catch their first glimpse, over the heads of the crowd, of the sacred images whose darshan they seek.

Everyone knows the proper ritual etiquette to receive the full effect of darshan. Having repeated the process before in many other temples, they are prepared to repeat it many times more during their Vrindaban yatra (pilgrimage journey). As each individual crosses the temple threshold, he rubs his hands or fingertips across the entrance floor, transferring the dust of all devotees who have gone before to his own forehead. This ritual both establishes his humility and transfers the shakti (energy) and blessing of all the great souls, or mahatmas, who have passed there before.

Once inside the temple courtyard, the pilgrims are swept into a clockwise movement, inching slowly toward the holy images in a flow which will allow them each a few seconds before the three altars. Toward the temple front, steps are confronted, taking the worshiper to an elevated stage area upon which he can meet the deities eye-to-eye. During this time, priests of the temple circulate as best they can, making their way through the crowd with good-natured shoves and spraying gallons of saffron-colored, rose-scented water over the hot congregation which receives it with enthusiastic cheers. Center front is located the samaj (a group of singers and musicians), singing rhythmic songs to the accompaniment of pakhawaj (a two-headed drum, same as mridanga), kartals (hand cymbals), tamboura (a droning stringed instrument), and harmonium, and many sing along, keeping time with their clapping hands. Throughout the dense crowd small groups of enthusiastic devotees also burst into spontaneous dancing to the encouraging shouts of the throng.

As the people climb the stairs to the elevated stage, they are faced with an image of the temple's founder, stage left and situated at a right angle to the altars. This lifelike figure is sitting on a marble throne and is covered with garlands of jasmine and rose blossoms. If living, he would have a commanding view of the crowd and an unobstructed view of all the murtis (images). Pilgrims gaze at the guru's form, some stopping to fully prostrate themselves before it, risking being trampled in the process. Money and flowers are tossed upon his throne, private mantras are muttered, and exclamations of "mahatma" and "sadhu" are heard.

In each of the three main shrines, marble statues about four feet tall stand, clothed in silks and jewels, with offerings of rich, expensive food placed before them. Priests attend each image as if it were living royalty and every pilgrim gazes intently into the deities' eyes to receive the transmission of sacred blessings. Upon the third altar stand Radha and Krishna, lavishly decorated for Holi. It is this divine couple that the pilgrims have especially come to see, and lovingly gaze upon the statues as if they were dear friends meeting after a long separation. The priests accept more offerings of sweets and flowers extended by the crowd, wave these items around the images, and return the now-consecrated objects back to eager hands. Some of the pujaris (priests) spray scented streams of colored water from hidden recesses behind the inner sanctum, to the crowd's surprise and delight.

Having received the darshan, some slowly merge with the crowd in the central courtyard for an extended view of the entire chaotic scene. Many join in the chanting which now and then erupts into more dancing. But most, now fully satisfied, hurry back outside to waiting tangas (horse carts) and rickshaws and on to other temples and sacred sites.

Similar scenes are enacted in most of Vrindaban's temples daily, but the events at Krishna-Balaram are unique in ways not revealed by a description of ritual and devotee enthusiasm. The distinction, however, is strikingly apparent to anyone present there, for the priests are unmistakably non-Indian. To be precise, the head pujari is French, the temple manager is American, the Brahman cook responsible for preparing the deities' food offerings is English, and the samaj is composed of all these nationalities plus German, Australian, Puerto Rican, and Japanese, along with a few Indians.


Members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), foreigners to India, yet Hindus by a complex process of conversion and culture change, have successfully established a temple in the traditional pilgrimage town of Vrindaban, and it has become a popular part of that town's sacred complex. This much was apparent from the scene witnessed my first day there, the day before Holi, 1982. Being previously aware of the ISKCON temple's existence, I had come to Vrindaban to discover whether or not significant interactions were occurring between these non-Indian devotees of Krishna and the Indians of the town.


Excerpted from The Hare Krishnas in India by Charles R. Brooks. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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