The Hare Krishna Movemen

An Illustration of the Interaction between NRM, Traditional Religion and Social Institutions

Aravind Sharma

Aravind Sharma tackles an interesting subject here, analysing and comparing the development of early Christianity, Buddhism and Islam with the development of ISKCON. He establishes that while an anthropological perspective is no doubt helpful in reviewing the patterns of interaction between New Religious Movements, Traditional Religion and Social Institutions, such a perspective needs to be supplemented by some other perspectives as well, if we are to avoid the danger of drawing partial and potentially misleading conclusions. He ends by suggesting some of the perspectives which may be considered useful in broadening the current approach to study of ISKCON.

Through the Looking Glass
Astronomers tell us that one is able to peer deeper into space with an averted gaze (which must be distinguished carefully from a sidelong glance, by the way) than by trying to peer into it straight, as it were. I realise that this observation is counter-intuitive, but I have been assured that the observation, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, is correct. This provides a new dimension to the question of methodology in the scientific study of religion. To the extent that the study of religion, and the study of New Religious Movements, tries to emulate the scientific method, the above-mentioned observation seems to suggest a remarkable epistemology: that it may be possible to gain a deeper insight into our topic of investigation by not looking at it at all! And that one should reach such a conclusion, not through post-modernism, but through a field of enquiry so quintessentially scientific as astronomy, does boggle the mind. But I digress.

I would like to examine the possibility today that we may learn more about the Hare Krishna movement as an example of the interaction between a New Religious Movement, Traditional Religion and Social Institutions by not talking about the Hare Krishna movement at all, but rather about cabbages and kings in the manner of Alice in Wonderland. So please bear with me awhile as I pursue this new hermeneutical path into the world of the sacred, a path which, to begin with, looks more like a detour than a path, or a royal path, or even the straight and narrow path, but we have it on good authority that it may well be the best path.

Old "New" Religious Movements
Let us begin by considering or treating the rise of early Buddhism as a New Religious Movement of the times within the overall context of Hinduism. Let us then also ask of it the question: What form of institutionalisation resulted within the social matrix as a result of the interplay of Hinduism as a Traditional Religion, with Buddhism as a New Religious Movement? I think the answer to this intriguing question has to be that the emergence of the Buddhist monastic order known as the Sangha, or at least the firm establishment thereof, may be attributed to the rise of Buddhism. It may be important to point out that eremetic, as distinguished from coenobitic monasticism, was already known to Hinduism; and that even coenobitic monasticism, in a somewhat rudimentary form, had probably made its appearance within Jainism by this point. With reference to Hinduism, then, the difference was one of form, while in reference to Jainism the difference was one of scale. In this case, then, the emergence of the Buddhist Sangha provides an illustration of the outcome that might result from the interaction between a New Religious Movement, a Traditional Religion and Social Institutions.

I would like to turn next to the emergence of Christianity as a New Religious Movement in the context of Judaism, and ask a similar question: What form of institutionalisation resulted within the social matrix as a result of the interplay of Judaism as a Traditional Religion with Christianity as a New Religious Movement? I think the answer to this question has to be that the interaction between Christianity as a New Religious Movement and Judaism as a Traditional Religion in the social context of the times gave rise to the Christian Ecclesia.

If we then turn our attention to Islam and consider it as a New Religious Movement which arose in the context of the Traditional Religion of Arabia, posing our question once more: What form of institutionalisation resulted within the social matrix as a result of the interplay of the Pre-Islamic Traditional Religion of Arabia with the New Religious Movement of Islam, I think the answer has to be that it was the formation of the Islamic Umma.

Comparisons with the Hare Krishna Movement
If the Sangha, the Ecclesia and the Umma are studied as three outcomes illustrative of the interaction between a New Religious Movement, Traditional Religion and Social Institutions, and then compared with the Hare Krishna movement, some interesting conclusions seem to emerge:

All these three institutions arose within the context of a missionary religion attempting to move away from the primarily ethnic orientation of the Traditional Religion. This is also true of the Hare Krishna movement.

Except for Christianity, the spiritual leadership of the community was left in the hands of the community, after the passing away of the founding figure. In this case, the Hare Krishna movement followed the Christian model.

The more developed the Traditional Religion (the parent religion in these cases), the more of a mark it left on the succeeding religion. Islam was perhaps the least influenced in this respect. The Hare Krishna movement is thus closer to Buddhism and Christianity in this respect.

Out of the three - the Sangha, the Ecclesia and the Umma - each was successively (and often progressively more successfully) involved with the state. In this respect the Hare Krishna movement represents a point of departure. Although, like the early Christian church, it may have arisen in opposition to the dominant state religion, it never succeeded in becoming the state religion either in India nor anywhere in the West. Opposition by the state in its initial phase, both in India and the West, seems to provide a curious parallel of sorts with Christianity.

It is also a point worth noting that the social unit associated with each religion - namely, the Buddhist Sangha, the Christian Ecclesia and the Islamic Umma - represented increasingly larger social organisations. At the same time, however, the largest (the Umma) dispensed with the more limited formal structures of governance that one finds within Buddhism, and especially Christianity. Thus, Islam does away with the institution of the priesthood altogether, although it has been persuasively suggested that the ulama may be looked upon as playing a somewhat analogous role.

These three religions, when viewed as New Religious Movements, were also initially viewed as counter-cultural in nature until becoming established religions. This happened when they either became recognised by the state, or themselves became state religions. This process took the least time in the case of Islam.

Counter-Cultural Setting
This might seem like a somewhat dissociated account, but I have tried to arrive by degrees at my point, which is that whether a New Religious Movement succeeds in becoming an established religion has a profound bearing on the issue of its social organisation. What I hope rescues this comment from being merely commonplace is the implication that so long as a New Religious Movement remains a counter-culture, its social organisation must respond to meet the needs of its members as members of a counter-culture. At this stage of the game this clearly is the case with the Hare Krishna movement, which, incidentally, has found itself in this counter-cultural setting in relation to both Islam and Christianity, and perhaps even in relation to Hinduism so far.

Revitalisation Movements
I will now like to factor the social dimension into the discussion more systematically, using as my point of entry the remarks made by Charles R. Brooks on Hare Krishna in the context of revitalisation movements. He writes:

Understanding ISKCON'S historical emergence from an anthropological viewpoint can be better achieved by observing how closely it fits Anthony Wallace's model of the "Revitalisation Movement". A Revitalisation movement is a conscious, organised effort by people who are so dissatisfied with their culture that they desire to create a more satisfying one. Such socio-cultural phenomena have appeared throughout history when cultures go through periods of disorganisation and failure. When a culture ceases to function for some people, those people begin to experience a high degree of distress and actively seek to find new ways of thinking and behaving. As more and more people experience this condition, a period of "cultural distortion" can be said to exist. Individuals begin to recognise others with similar problems, and a loose sense of community begins to form among them. (1995; 78-79)

Charles R. Brooks then proceeds to explain the Hare Krishna phenomenon in terms of this model as follows:

This was the situation in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a counter-culture formed in the United States and Western Europe. Such conditions are optimal for the formation of revitalisation movements, and they may or may not form depending on whether a charismatic leader or prophet appears. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami arrived in the United States at the time, although he was personally unaware of these conditions. And he provided the charismatic leadership and direction around which a new culture and society - ISKCON - formed. ISKCON is a classic revitalisation movement in the American context. So was the early Christian Church. as well as early forms of Buddhism and Islam. (1995; 79, my italics)

I apologise for this somewhat extended citation but it is a necessary preamble to my own conclusion. You doubtless noticed how Brooks has also made reference to the cases of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam in presenting his conclusion. While I am inclined to agree with what he has to say in a general way, I want to supplement his conclusion in two major ways. This may have the implication of modifying his conclusion somewhat.

Who Is Revitalising Whom?
The first point I would like to make is that the revitalisation thesis, as presented here, assigns too passive a role to the Hare Krishna movement itself. The image his remarks conjure is that of a ripe field into which the seed of Hare Krishna happened to fall and bear fruit. Instead of merely being a product of this counter-cultural ferment, the presence of the Hare Krishna movement should also be considered as a contributory factor. I dare suggest that this consideration might be even more significant in the context of early Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.

I would like to make my second point by posing the following question: Whose revitalisation are we talking about? Wallace seems to depict the ferment occurring within the culture under consideration. However, is not something important being overlooked here, such as ferment within the culture from which the Hare Krishna movement was transplanted to North America? Unlike Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, which emerged from within the very society in which they took root, Hare Krishna as a movement arose elsewhere, and then made its passage to its host society. This indicates that what revitalised it to make the journey to North America from India is as important an element in the equation as what enabled it to become a revitalisation movement upon arriving in North America.

My conclusion then is that while an anthropological perceptive is no doubt helpful in reviewing the patterns of interaction between New Religious Movements, Traditional Religion and Social Institutions, such a perspective needs to be supplemented by other perspectives as well if we are to avoid the danger of drawing partial (and potentially misleading) conclusions, especially in the case of the Hare Krishna movement. I would like extend the discussion to include the following considerations:

From a historical perspective, a distinction may perhaps be usefully drawn, in the light of the foregoing analysis between counter-culture and what I would like to call encounter-culture (or, more properly, cultural encounter). While for the Westerners the Hare Krishna movement may have appeared as a counter-culture, for the Indians it was also as much a case, if not more, of encounter-culture - that is to say, of encountering another culture in which they were spreading their own.

From a phenomenological perspective, it might be helpful to enquire about the attitude of the participants themselves. Would they not, for instance, explain their success differently, and more in terms of the traditional culture whose elements were still present in their culture? It could well be that at least part of their success is to be accounted for by the fact that they were perceived as a counter-culture. But did the members perceive it in the same way? Its appeal in terms of counter-culture is our way of explaining their success. But did they perceive it that way? Did Prabhup�da think in those terms? Would he not attribute his success to the will of Krishna, just as the Prophet attributed his to the will of God? This last point, I hope, helps make the point that historical analysis is a two-way street; the past helps us understand the present better, and it may also work the other way around.

From a sociological perspective, one might feel concerned about the danger of over aggregation, in using the counter-culture to explain more than it might reasonably be expected to. For instance, new social institutions may result from societal responses to needs other than merely counter-cultural. The social unit might be facing a different kind of need, such as that for social cohesion, or territorial expansion, for instance.

To conclude then, while the explanation in terms of counter-culture is important, it may also be incomplete.

This article was originally presented as a paper
at a CESNUR Conference in Montreal, August 1996.



Charles Brooks. 1995. "Understanding ISKCON". ISKCON Communications Journal. Volume 3. Number 2. pp.77-81.

J. Stillson Judah. 1974. Hare Krishna and the Counter-culture. New York: John Wiley & Sons.