Devotees of Krishna in Hungary

Istv�n Kamaras

This article examines the early days of the Hare Krishna movement in Hungary. It is an interesting view of the movement through the eyes of the government, the media, mainstream religious groups and the general public, all in a time of social and political upheaval. The author also looks at the motivation and attitudes of those who adopted Krishna consciousness despite open hostility towards the movement by certain portions of society. The article is based on surveys performed in 1995-7. It is of importance as it is one of a very few such studies to emerge from Eastern Europe.

How have the mostly new Hungarian devotees received, evaluated and interpreted this new religion? Why did they choose a religion apparently so alien to Christian culture? What is the impelling force behind their often unexpected conversion? How deep is the religious awareness of the devotees joining an unfamiliar tradition? To what extent is Krishna consciousness pervading the different dimensions of their lives?

How are the Hungarian Krishna devotees received (evaluated and interpreted) in their environment: by the people on the streets, followers of other religions (in this mainly Christian country), the media, the politicians and the devotees themselves? Is the cultural shock caused by the completely new lifestyle, culture and knowledge avoidable, or is it mitigated by the happiness and bliss of conversion and enlightenment? The Vedic Krishna religion simultaneously means knowledge, faith, sentiment, ceremony, lifestyle and community. Through which of these gates do new devotees enter this new world? In what order do they become initiated into these dimensions? I undertook the task of answering these questions when I started to research the world of the Hungarian Krishna devotees early in the autumn of 1995. This paper only includes the first steps and first partial results.

Hare Krishna and political change in Hungary

Krishna devotees first appeared in Hungary at the end of the 1970s, but only in the second wave of the mission, in the mid 1980s, did a viable community develop. Their reception in Hungary, as Zsuzsa Horvath[1] also found it, was filled with both sympathy and antipathy. Since 1989 the Community of the Hungarian Krishna conscious devotees (from now on HSKCON or Hare Krishnas[2]) is a registered religion[3] in our country. By 1993, half of the population had heard of them.

In September 1991, two years after the political changes and just after the second country-wide Hare Krishna Festival, Geza Nemeth, a reformed minister, started an attack against the Krishnas in many newspapers.[4] His main charges were that individuals are brainwashed, split from their families, have lost consciousness of being Hungarian, are treated like slaves. Other charges are psychological terror, aggressive psycho-technology, total control, cunningness, and perversion of personality. The president of the council of the Reformed Church declared that Nemeth was not an authorised representative of his church's views.

One month later, with the help of two Protestant ministers[5] he founded the Helping Friend Team, the Hungarian version of the anti-cult movement. Some of the goals of the Team are 'disclosing information', 'alerting the organs of criminal investigation', 'establishing an authority to receive complaints against destructive cults', 'to act against television and radio programmes that are propagating these cults', 'to deprogramme the victims of these cults', 'to neutralise the economic and political penetration that is endangering national security'.[6] In early 1993 Nemeth suggested to a committee of the representatives of 36 churches that they separate themselves from dangerous religious groups (he named HSKCON amongst these groups), but the committee rejected the suggestion. Not much later Albert Toth, reformed minister and a representative of the Hungarian Democratic Forum,[7] moved an amendment to the Committee of Human Rights of the Hungarian Parliament that the four churches which represent destructive ideology — among them HSKCON — should not get support.

On March 19, the Parliament resolved that HSKCON and three other religions,[8] being 'destructive sects', would not get government support. Later that month a motion was tabled which determined that to qualify as a church, there were two requirements: 10,000 Hungarian members or a 100-year Hungarian history. The Publicity Club collected 63,000 signatures against this, and international protest was also strong. In April 1993, HSKCON presented a petition signed by 140 well-known public figures to the Vice-President of the Parliament. In the summer of 1993, a court gave a judgement against Nemeth,[9] and in the beginning of 1994 it rejected his appeal. In September 1993, Nemeth organised a conference about cults but invited only those parents of 'cult-members' whom he chose to take part. He similarly selected the lectures. Zsuzsa Horvath, the most noted Hungarian religion sociologist studying the new religious movements and cults, requested leave to speak but her request was rejected. HSKCON performed a three-day-long, peaceful musical demonstration at the entrance of the meetings. In March 1994, the Parliament voted for governmental support of HSKCON and, by this, they withdrew the judgement of HSKCON as 'destructive' and recognised its religious life and charitable work.[10]

To evaluate these events is delicate because their key figure — G. Nemeth, who died in 1995 — 'was undoubtedly a well-intentioned person who had been deprived of his congregation for twenty years and was working as a travelling preacher who later helped the Transylvanian refugees and the neglected, drug-addicted young people.'[11] Furthermore, this minister, who urged unity of the Christian Churches, had Martin Luther King and Gandhi as his role models. Why was it him who began an anti-cult campaign? Could he have done it without expansive support? After the political change of regime he might have felt, like others, wary of the many new values, standards and traditions flowing into the country with the extended freedom. Often this was spearheaded by religious and spiritual movements. It is difficult for the ordinary person to distinguish between the valuable and the destructive, the real and the imitation, between those things that can be implanted and those that can only be hung upon us.

Many people might think, with more or less reason, that as the hamburger and Coca Cola have replaced the tastes of our country, the new spiritual-intellectual movements may have similar effects on our European, Christian and national values. Nemeth alerted the troops without proper political culture, sociological knowledge or psychological sense, in defence of a minority that was supposedly injured: the parents left by their children joining the religious movements. Besides the 'injured', but in many cases not at all perfect parents, many other people were standing behind and next to Nemeth: some of the ministers and the congregation of the historic churches, a lot of workers from the Christian parties (among them many members of Parliament), (temporarily) the majority of the mass media and the majority of the uninformed public who were without a tradition of tolerance.

What J. G. Melton[12] states in connection with the tragedy of the Davidian sect at Waco is true for Hungary — after the decay of communism a new enemy is needed for the maintenance of identity. In the eyes of Nemeth and his allies these enemies are the Western world (mainly the USA) and the liberalism and cults that are expanding from the West to the East. They are enemies because they suppress and weaken national values. As Laszlo Bartus mentions in a noted liberal newspaper: 'The exaggerated summer-long campaign of the Hare Krishnas played a great part in the explosion of the affair of the cults. Those little religious communities which demand acceptance by the society have to learn to have respect for the boundaries of the majority.'[13]

'Krishna drug', 'Krishna party', 'Krishna festival', 'Krishna dinner', 'Krishna-village': Krishnas in the Hungarian press

These typical article titles from 1991-5 describe well the Hungarian reception of the Krishnas. Apart from the occasional one-lined and captioned-pictures, fifty to seventy articles were published about the Krishnas in over seventy printed publications.

Half of the writings deal with the introduction of the Krishna religion, a quarter of them are profiles of individual members; six of them provide a thorough analysis. Mostly the Krishnas are portrayed as items of curiosity, and the main interest is about the dress-code, reincarnation, diet and sexual habits. The rest of the articles deal with events, mostly (15%) with festivals and, in due course, with HSKCON's food distribution programme, the conference organised by Geza Nemeth, the legal case, the parliamentary decision against the Krishnas, the Krishna village, the scientific conference organised by the Krishnas for introducing their religion and with a rock musician who became converted to the Krishna faith.

Between January 1991 and September 1995, 35% of the articles were published in national papers, 30% in regional and local daily papers, 9% in political weekly papers, 8% in entertaining weekly papers and 3% in art and scientific journals. There were very few articles published in youth and religious papers. In 1991, 51% of the articles made no value-judgement, but were mainly concerned with facts, 39% portrayed the Krishnas negatively and 11% in a positive light. In the next year the number of neutral articles grew to 66%, with the number of negative ones decreasing to 20%. In 1992, the number of articles dealing with curiosity increased from 9% to 21% (in other words, they took the place of the negative articles). By 1993, the number of negative articles had further decreased (to 9%) and the number favourable to the Krishnas had increased three times as compared to 1991. This is the year of the marked change, for the majority (82%) of the articles published in the next two years were neutral or objective. I estimate that at least 40% of the positive articles were written or inspired by Krishnas or their friends. 40% were published in left-wing papers and in the yellow press, 10% in right-wing and Christian-democratic papers that in 1991 had published negative articles. From 1992 there was an increase in articles that reported Krishna events having titles such as: 'Peace be with you', 'Meeting with the attractive superior being', 'Purifying the heart', 'Krishna's charitable children', 'Krishna village — opened to the world', 'Cart festival in the sign of tolerance'.

Ten prominent publicists wrote a dozen articles about the Krishnas. Eight of them wrote positively. Beside Nemeth, a dozen distinguished public figures (scientists, politicians, artists, priests) expressed their opinion. Seven of them were positive, three neutral and two negative.

What was the cause of this quick change in perception? Was it due to the publicity about democracy? If so, does that mean that Hungary is finally part of Europe? The answer is yes — partially. Freedom of religion (and the 'cults') is one of the tests of democracy. Few newspapers — after early uncertainty — failed this test.

Is it possible that we have to seek the explanation mostly in the socialist- and liberalist-orientated press? There may be some truth in this, but the fact that by 1992-3 the right wing and the Christian-democratic orientated press also seemed to be positive contradicts this. The Krishnas' more conscientious and skilful public-relation activity could have played a role in it. The other similarly important factor could be that the yellow papers quickly gave up their negative tone and focused more on curiosity since in the case of the exotic Krishnas the news itself or the simple description proved to be interesting, at least in the first years.

The early attacks brought grist to the Krishnas' mill, and public opinion about them changed very much. From being a public enemy, suspicious different people, a threat, they became seen as 'strange' and 'exotic', or a society not only worth smiling at or wondering at, but also worth respect. They are now depicted less and less as a cult and more often as an ancient, interesting culture that while difficult to fully understand and approach is still worth trying out.

'Fishing in the stew pond of Eastern Europe': Christian Churches about the Krishnas

The religion in which Bhagavad-gita is considered the 'Bible' is considered a Western cult by the editor of the widest circulation paper of the reformed church.[14] In a popular Catholic paper, a 'scholarly' monk writes about the Krishnas in the series: Web of Satan. He turns Christ, the redeemer who nevertheless behaved naturally, against the 'pretentious godhead' of Krishna consciousness. He says that Krishna consciousness is inspired by Satan, since Krishna not only forbids meat-eating for his followers but is also depicted as making love with his consort.[15]

After the parliamentary decision which labelled the Krishnas as destructive, Zoltan Endreffy established that the basis of this suggestion is distrust, which is contradictory to the spirit of the Second Vatican Synod. Tamas Majsai, a reformed minister and newspaper editor, holds: 'The big churches are enjoying hugely the field that was expanded for them from 1989-90 and they are afraid of the soul-fishing of the legalised little churches.'[16] There may be some truth in this, but there are broader issues. Bela Balas, a Catholic bishop and legendary figure of movements persecuted by the party government regime, thinks that the secularised world creates a market for the Krishnas since there is need in society for silent-thinking, self-control and higher meaning. The endeavours of the Catholics and the Krishnas are, in one sense, in competition in this regard. Though Bela Balas thinks that the Krishnas' 'way of life is too strict and hard for the Hungarian nation with its hurt soul'. At last he establishes, 'It would need incredible patience for the Catholics and the Hare Krishnas to understand each other and become closer'.[17] His opinion is significant because the developing Krishna village community is in his diocese.

Tamas Barabas (Trisa-hara Dasa), a leader of HSKCON, prepared a report at my request. He was in charge of approaching leading figures in the fields of theology, churches and monastic orders after the unfavourable parliamentary decision, asking for their support in protesting against discrimination. His experiences of the Catholic Church are typical and similar to my own. The majority of the theologians did not attend the meetings. Amongst seven bishops, one was prepared to sign that he found the attack against the Krishnas contrary to 'Christian ethics'. Many showed warm sympathy and maintained relations with the Krishnas while others showed polite or sincere interest. Two of the five monastic orders signed, though one of them perhaps only because they are very much afraid of the victory of the socialist party. In the monasteries the Krishna monk asking for help was accepted as a partner, colleague or brother and they managed to talk extensively. An Adventist leader and a Lutheran bishop also signed, and the rector of a Protestant academy offered to welcome Krishna students into his institute.

'In the drumfire of false doctrines': Krishna consciousness in the mirror of scientific and educational books

There are half a dozen Hungarian books dealing with cults and new religious movements. In most cases they misinform the reader. A slender brochure was published by the Society for Scientific Education, heralding the appearance of the Documentation and Information Centre for protection against dangerous cults.[18] This Centre was strongly influenced by Nemeth. According to their brochure, the Krishna religion is a pseudo-science and mass-brainwashing. The majority of the facts and figures are wrong, and the attitude is prejudiced. There are other publications from churches. Amongst those produced by the Catholics is a book by G. De Rosa, using key phrases such as 'magic', 'brainwashing' and 'dictatorship'.[19] A Hungarian author describes Krishna consciousness as part of the New Age movement, an 'aggressive and destructive cult'. He compares its stance on family and children to the communist and Hitlerian educational principles.[20] There is another book by a scholarly Benedictine who is critical of his own church and quite tolerant of the 'cults'. He deals with the Krishna religion by comparing it to other religious phenomena that are not yet present in Hungary.[21] Among two books produced by the Protestants, one is a short brochure that says that non-Christian cults and movements are 'traps' and our fellow-countrymen[22] should be most definitely warned against them. The other is a larger, more thorough work, and its author must have conducted his studies in America. He reports quite accurately the conference organised by the Krishnas to introduce their religion (although he chose not to attend it but only received its publicity material). He tries to refute the statements of Istv�n Tasi, the Hungarian writer of a book that compares Christianity and Krishna consciousness.[23]

I suggest that even someone who reads the yellow press is more informed about the Krishna religion than people who read those books. The more demanding readers, the interested intellectuals or the concerned relatives cannot really get complete and accurate information because the majority of the books published in Hungarian are written in a spirit of 'defence against an imagined enemy'.

'I received an answer for everything': meeting with Krishna consciousness

Through surveys, personal talks and interviews, I have learnt about the conversion, integration and transformation of the way of life of one hundred Krishna followers.[24] They represent one-tenth of the inner circle (estimated to number 900-1000 according HSKCON's leaders). This includes initiated monks, student-members aspiring for initiation, and all those who practise the religion seriously.[25]

The majority (70%) of those who completed the survey are from 21-30 years old. The proportion of men and women was about equal. Most members had completed at least secondary education. Half of them had been to specialised secondary schools or secondary grammar schools. One-tenth had some university education. 30% had undertaken vocational training[26]. Many discontinued their studies because of their conversion. The majority are from urban backgrounds, twice as many from other cities as from the capital. On this basis, Zsuzsa Horvath's statements about the members of the faith seems true:[27] 'They mostly recruit amongst those who have enough free time for taking part actively and those less socially integrated or in temporary, marginal positions. In other words, they recruit amongst those for whom it is relatively less risky to join a magical movement.'[28]

It is remarkable that most (65%) of the Krishnas whom I interviewed had not belonged to any church or religious group before their conversion. Some called themselves materialists and atheists. Others described themselves as believers in some higher power, and many had been familiar with the idea of reincarnation. The rest belonged mostly to the Catholic Church and, to a lesser degree, to the reformed church, but most of them were religious only in their childhood or only superficially, without active practice, real spiritual experience or deep religious values.

In 1995, two-thirds of the members had committed themselves to Krishna consciousness within the previous 4-7 years; the remainder within the previous 1-3 years. The majority were introduced to Krishna consciousness through receiving a book, others by attending public programmes at the temple or at festivals, generally having been invited by friends. Initially most of them found that the most attractive thing about Krishna consciousness was the behaviour and attitude (mainly the kindness and purity) of the Krishna followers (40%) and the Vedic philosophy (30%). The hardest things for most of them to come to terms with were the renunciation of sense gratification and the esoteric aspects of the philosophy (for example, Krsna's incarnations, the Sanskrit language, the habits (mainly the way of dressing) and the Vedic roles of men and women.

Initially many members' families (55%) reacted negatively to the conversion, 15% positively and the others with worry, as one would expect, or they found it strange or surprising. Subsequently, however, most became favourably inclined.

To find out about the changes in members' attitudes, convictions and values, and whether Krishna consciousness is just a stage in a person's search needs a more thorough research (including a study of those who leave the Krishna church). One fact, however, is unambiguous: there is no sign of brainwashing or some tricky forcing. Those who converted cannot be described as suffering from some deficiency or crisis, such as feeling life void and useless, a lack of self-confidence, anguish, an unsuccessful marriage, or fear of death. On the contrary, members generally showed positive characteristics, such as interests in Vedic and Indian culture, vegetarianism, yoga, mysticism, transcendence and reincarnation.

Living in Krishna consciousness in the world

I asked the question: 'What does Krishna consciousness mean for you?' The most frequent answers were: way of life (70%); knowledge (65%); faith (55%); security and community (40%). Only 15-35% chose enlightenment, certainty, mission and ritual. Notably, 40% found that Krishna consciousness represented the goal or meaning of life.

Naturally, we have to take into account that new followers portray their lives prior their conversion negatively (willingly or not), and they explain it through their new worldview. In this way they attempt to suppress the old way of life and justify the present one. Perhaps this explains why Krishna followers feel that Krishna consciousness has changed their life radically. Mostly they describe these changes as follows: their human relationships have become happier and more harmonised; they have found the goal of life and have become more spiritual. One-third changed their social status (they shifted from work of an intellectual nature to physical work, mundane studies to studies in the monastery). Most of them feel that their personality changed; becoming more open, sincere, patient, balanced, peaceful and determined. In spite of their living at a greater distance from their families (because they moved to the temple), they reported that their relationships with the members of their family had improved.

Members' interests have become simultaneously narrower and broader. Members are broader in their interests about the inner and transcendent world, but they are less interested in the events, institutions, entertainment, science and art of the mundane (they say 'material' or 'sensual') world. Most of them are not (60%) or hardly (20%) interested in politics, and they have the same attitude towards non-Vedic sciences that they consider atheistic, faithless, unnecessary and imperfect. Members regard the following as entertainment: associating with devotees (20%), reading, music and talking (15%), singing, festivals, kirtanas, reading the scriptures, hearing scriptural classes, accepting sanctified food, and dancing (5-15%). One-third of them do not read anything but scripture, only one-third read newspapers, 5-15% read educational books (e.g. natural healing, esoteric literature, training of children) and also fiction. For more than a year, two-thirds of them have not been to the theatre, four- fifths have not been to the cinema, and 45% have not watched television (and for those who have it is mostly news or wildlife or documentaries).

I have studied their scale of values using the Rokeach-test. This test lists eighteen goals and eighteen values. I had the opportunity to compare the Krishnas' results with (same aged but a little more educated) members of the Catholic community whose religion and level of commitment is most close to theirs. The 6-6 values that most of them chose or rejected were the following:

chosen by most: Krishnas chosen by most: Catholics
discipline (having self-control) salvation (redemption, eternal life)
obedience (dutiful, respectful) inner harmony (life without inner tension)
responsible (reliable) real love (intimate bodily and intellectual relationship)
intelligent (thoughtful) family security (taking care of our beloved)
wisdom helpful (working for others' welfare)
peace (world free from war and conflict) full of love (attached, tender)
most rejected: Krishnas most rejected: Catholics
pleasant life (enjoyment, pleasures, a lot of free time) material welfare (riches)
recognition by the society (honour) endeavour (hard-working)
material riches (wealth) pleasant life (free time)
logical thinking (rational) recognition by the society (honour)
love (intimate bodily and intellectual relationship) politeness (well behaved)
independence (strong personality) clean (neat, tidy)


The similarity is conspicuous: In both scales of values the spiritual values are prominent. The difference, however, is also sharp; in the life of the deeply Catholic people, human relationships and feelings are much more important, in the case of the Krishnas the emphasis is on transformation of the ego or, as they say, the 'devotion'.


Was it incidental that the growth of HSKCON happened at a time of political change, or was it due to this social upheaval that peoples' interest in something promising peace and a sense of meaning was awakened?

Even at the beginning of the study we see that the Krishnas get in connection with a culture which is more or less unfamiliar, but its many elements enchant them, although the conscious acceptance and realisation of values supposedly happens only slowly. The everyday thinking and the way of life of the Krishnas are strongly penetrated by their faith.

It is difficult to decide whether the world of the new Krishna followers has become narrower or broader. It needs more research to clarify whether the habits, standards and� values of the mundane world are completely rejected or if they are merely readjusted and re-evaluated. Or do they become secondary and suspicious? In any case, K. Mannheim's thoughts seem to be apt in describing them: 'The thoughts directed upwards from below are replaced by thoughts directed downwards from above.'[29]


[1] Zsuzsa Horvath. 'Plan for the study of the Society of Krishna Devotees in Hungary' in Hitek es Emberek (Faith and People), ELTE Institute of Sociology and Social Politics, 1995.

[2] Although this expression is sometimes used pejoratively, Krishna conscious devotees also accept this name.

[3] At their incorporation they registered 50 persons.

[4] Amongst them, papers of the government and against the government, yellow and authentic press.

[5] Gyozo Dobner, the Baptist founder, resigned from the organisation and stated that 'G. Nemeth was not fighting against the cultic symptoms but against the cults and has helped no parents.'

[6] From the declaration of intention (published on 16 November 1992) that came out in a leaflet with the title 'The Chronicle of the Hungarian Scandal of Cults'.

[7] The winning party of the 1991 elections. It is one of three parliamentary parties calling themselves Christian.

[8] Jehovah's Witnesses, The Hungarian Church of Scientology and the Unification Church.

[9] Justification: 'In the newspaper called Mai nap he infringed upon the plaintiff's rights in his article: "Crusade of Modern Times" with his false statements.'

[10] At the same time eleven churches, among them the three qualified as destructive, did not get support from the government.

[11] This is how B. Andras Balint, a publicist dealing with religion and sociology, describes him.

[12] Melton J. Gordon. 'A Fiery Ending' in From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco. (Ed. J. R. Lewis) pp. 253-60, Boston: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

[13] Laszlo Bartus . 'A szektauldozo szektak' (Cults persecuted by cults) in Beszelo, 16 January 1993, pp. 16-18.

[14] Laszlo Medgyesi. 'A Kelet-europai halasto' (The East-European stewpond) in Reformatusok Lapja, 9 September 1992, pp. 1-2.

[15] Ulrich Kiss. 'A Satan halojaban' (In the Web of Satan) in Uj Ember, 14 March 1995.

[16] Mariann Gyemant. 'A tortenelmi egyhazak mossak kezeiket' (The Historical Churches Wash Their Hands) in Magyar Nemzet, 14 April 1993.

[17] J. Attila. 'Ez itt nem Walt Disney-show' (This is Not a Walt Disney Show Here) in Magyar Nemzet, 2 September 1995.

[18] Gyozo Lugosi (Ed.). Szektak (Cults). p. 79, Budapest: TIT, 1994. The basis of this volume was the publication called Les Sectes en France, and two chapters were written by G. Nemeth.

[19] Guiseppe De Rosa. Religions, Cults and Christianity. p. 250, Budapest: Szent Istvan Tarsulat, 1991.

[20] Peter Gal Abaliget. A New Age - Kereszteny Szemmel (The New Age by the Vision of Christianity). p. 400,� Budapest: Lampas & Szegletko, 1994.

[21] Bruno Tarnay. Catholicism and Cults. p. 200, Pannonhalma: Bences Kiado, 1994.

[22] 'Protestants, Little Churches, Cults' in Okumenikus Tanulmanyi Kozpont, Budapest 1991, p. 32.

[23] Istv�n Tasi. Christianity and Krishna Consciousness, HSKCON, 1993.

[24] When writing this study I had 77 question forms. 25 students were non-initiated, 26 students initiated (13 had received first initiation, 13 had received second initiation), 11 were not initiated and 3 were initiated householders (grhasthas), two belonged to the renounced order of life (sannyasa), 5 were members of the national management, 8 were members of the temple councils.

[25] In some statements to the press, the leaders of HSKCON mention 8,000-12,000 devotees. According to Tamas Barabas (one of the leaders of the HSKCON), 190-200 live in temples, 700-900 practise their religion seriously, on the four festivals 9,000-10,000 persons gave their names, many of whom go to different Krishna programmes. Amongst them, the number of followers and non-followers, regular and less-regular practitioners is unknown.

[26] The number of those who, after secondary school, continue their studies in universities (6%) is half that of those who left university because of their conversion.

[27] A neo-protestant, charismatic congregation of Hungarian origin that was founded 15 years ago now has 25 members.

[28] Zsuzsa Horvath. 'The Sociological Qualities of the Congregation of Faith' in Hitek es Emberek (Faith and People). ELTE Institute of Sociology and Social Politics, 1995.

[29] Karoly Mannheim, Strukturen des Denkens. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1980.