Cult or Culture?

I vividly remember the first time I saw Hare Krishna devotees chanting on the streets. “You’ll never catch me doing that” I thought. My first impression was that the devotees were frustrated with life and couldn’t make it in the ‘real’ world. What really stunned me was that they would give up their study, their careers, their social life, and even their family life, in order to practice this religion. “That’s a bit drastic” I felt, “maybe even a little bit cultish!”
Now, nearly 15 years later, I look at myself as I write this article – orange robes, shaven head, tuft of hair, chanting beads… did I just get brainwashed into the cult as well? It’s a common doubt that many may have. Doesn’t this lifestyle isolate you from society? Aren’t these ‘spiritual’ practices simply different forms of hypnosis and mental control? Haven’t you lost your individuality?

Let’s look at some history. The Hare Krishna tradition has its roots in one of the oldest, most respected religious traditions of India. In the body of literature known as the Vedas, ancient teachers have documented a spiritual understanding of the self, the cosmos and our deeper purpose in the journey of life. They elucidate essential spiritual truths which underpin universal reality. Knowledge of these principles can help one to excel physically, emotionally, socially, and most importantly, spiritually.

You may be amazed to hear that most Hare Krishna practitioners are not full-time temple devotees, but are people who have families, jobs, and social responsibilities. Furthermore, a large proportion of full-time renunciates often decide to again live and work in the ‘normal’ society after a period of monastic training. The process is one of living in the world, but simultaneously remaining untouched by materialistic influence. Devotees enthusiastically work within society, but rather than becoming just another ‘face in the crowd’, they work for the spiritual enrichment of the world.

The dress, the lifestyle rules, the body markings – these are all elements of culture. Becoming a Hare Krishna devotee does not signify a termination of individual identity, and introduction into the life of a mechanical chanting robot. The individuality of a devotee goes deeper than blindly following socially and artificially imposed goals about what they should wear, how they should speak and what they should do. Krishna devotees have colourful personalities, unique character traits, and most importantly their own unique relationship with God. This is the real expression of individuality.

The core practice of all devotees is chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. ‘Man’ means mind, and ‘Tra’ means to free – essentially a sound vibration which frees the mind from all material impurity. Far from controlling and hypnotising the individual, mantra meditation helps one to make informed decisions about life and go beyond mindless materialism. It enables the individual to break free of social pressures, and do what is progressive for themselves and the world around them. Far from being a dangerous cult, the Hare Krishna movement teaches people how live a life of high morals and ethics and to respect the integrity of all beings.

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