Where did the Hare Krishnas go?

The Toronto Star/October 24, 2010

So, whatever happened to the Hare Krishna movement?

Back in the 1970s, robed members of the sect were frequently seen on street corners, chanting the "Hare Krishna" mantra, with their hair shorn.

These days, you are more likely to see robed Anglican bishops occupying a corner of Bay and Front Sts. and passing out literature.

Krishna devotees haven't gone into hiding, but they have toned down the missionary zeal from those crazy days of counterculture movements.

As one senior devotee says, "we are now more interested in quality than quantity."

Formed by his Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1965, the Hare Krishnas of the time were full of brashness and ideals. Now, you see a gentler side, with mostly South Asians attending the temple with their young children.

This fresh injection of Hare Krishnas has brought to the temple the most affluent and educated members in the movement's history. They are young bankers, computer consultants, software developers, dentists, PhD students. They drive Mercedes, Audis, BMWs, wear Western clothes and live in opulent homes, some with altars built so they can worship at home.

The Hare Krishnas worship Krsna, thought to be the source of all incarnations of God. An offshoot of Hinduism, the movement teaches followers that through chanting and meditation they can achieve true bliss, a higher state of consciousness and self-realization through the instructions of the spiritual master.

Lifetime members not only chant a 16-word mantra to Hare Krishna, sometimes lasting hours a day, they agree to abstain from meat, gambling, alcohol and illicit sex.

The decline of the movement began in part with revelations of child-abuse scandals at boarding schools in the U.S. and India in the 1970s and 1980s. Money troubles followed, and their world changed.

Another setback came earlier this year with a California Supreme Court ruling that kicked the Hare Krishnas out of Los Angeles International Airport.

In Toronto, there are believed to be 300 to 500 hard-core members, although leaders say actual numbers around the GTA are much higher.

David Arthur Reed, professor emeritus at Wycliffe College who studies religions and spirituality, said he's not surprised the movement has shifted away from its highly evangelistic phase.

"Many such groups that were part of the idealism of the time have dwindled away," he said.

A big draw is the weekly Sunday feast at the temple in the tony Rosedale neighbourhood on Avenue and Roxborough Rds. The event includes a service, kirtan (chanting and dancing) and a heaping vegetarian meal.

This emphasis on good food, also served six days a week to the general public, prompts followers to quip that their movement is the "kitchen religion."

The Hare Krishna movement has long appealed to 58-year-old Bhaktimarga Swami, formerly John Peter Vis, who is among 15 monks living in the temple. In 1972, fresh off the farm in Blenheim, Ont., and repulsed by the slaughtering of animals, Vis came to Toronto expecting to see hippies but noticed something different on the street corners.

"At the time people had all this long hair, and there were these guys singing and dancing with no hair and I thought this was a bit odd, actually shocking," the monk recalls. The fine arts student at Cambrian College in Sudbury latched on and never looked back.

The higher education of new members is used to counter any argument that the membership is being brainwashed, or that this is a cult.

"These people are too smart to be brainwashed," a senior devotee says. "They're no dummies. They are graduates of universities."

And they are tech savvy as well. The have Facebook pages and their videos are posted on YouTube.

Bhaktimarga Swami maintains his own blog (www.thewalkingmonk.org) and the international temples compete to see which one can produce the more attractive website.

Wealth doesn't clash with the simplicity and austerity of the movement says another devotee, Dr. Haleh Ashkevari, a Markham cosmetic and implant dentist.

The faith teaches her "that if I'm good at what I do, I should keep doing it."

The members believe that only when you misuse your material wealth, or use it for only self-gratification, will you get bad karma.

The wealth effect - some would say the snobbery effect - has turned up as a small issue inside the temple's walls.

When a new devotee is introduced, the first question often asked is: "What do you do for a living?"

"Who cares what you do? It's the consciousness that counts," says a devotee, who did not want to be named. "It's not what you own, it's what you know."

Although the membership is rich in material wealth and the temple is ornate inside, there is still a reverence for simplicity and sacrifice.

Yet that doesn't always translate into life outside the temple.

"We haven't seen anybody give up their Rolls-Royces," the swami said with a wry grin.

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