Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why Not Krishna?

After repeated visits to New Vrindaban (and despite learning some disturbing tales about the community) I was compelled to find out more about Hinduism. There are a lot of ideas in Vedic philosophy that either appeal to me personally, or make a lot of sense regardless of the way I feel about them. Even though I am an avowed meat eater, I can see the wisdom in eschewing the flesh of animals and focusing a diet on the nutrients of vegetables. After a long discussion with N.V. chief agriculturalist Tapahpunja, I came away resolved to limit my intake of beef. While the eating habits of Krishnas may initially seem unappetizing (no meat, caffeine, alcohol, onions, garlic, mushrooms, etc.), there is no doubt that following their restrictions would lead to an extremely healthy lifestyle.

The Hindu concept of offering every action up to God is intriguing, if very demanding. In contrast, many Western religions seem to ask little of adherents. Hinduism requires a constant awareness of the quality of one's actions, no matter how routine. It is a highly structured religion with rigid strictures for everyday living. The belief that Krishna is physically present on our lips when we chant His name sounds foreign until one considers the Eucharist in Christianity. It's easy to critique other religions from a perspective confined by the blinders of one's faith. Only by stepping back from one's own position can a measure of objectivity be attained. If the practices of devotees at New Vrindaban seem "weird", it is mostly because of the spiritual homogeneity throughout the United States . Additionally, most citizens are conditioned to subjugate their religious identity in order to fully enter consumerist society.

In this nation, materialism is elevated to a holy pursuit. It's not difficult to understand why so many within the counterculture turned to Eastern philosophies and religions in the 60's and early 70's. Those years constituted a short concentrated era in which people questioned the assumptions that they had been conditioned to accept without reflection. I don't think the Krishna Consciousness Movement could have arrived in the West during a more auspicious time. It capitalized on the general disillusion that people had with modern capitalism and traditional authority. No doubt many of those who found themselves at New Vrindaban were bringing personal instabilities along with them. But at the same time, I'm certain that there were plenty of folks who were genuine in their search to embrace something deeper and more meaningful than conventional society had offered them.

According to Hinduism, the stakes are high. We are trapped in a cycle of material existence, whereby we accumulate "karma"for all the suffering we cause in our lives. This baggage is carried over when we are reincarnated into subsequent lives. If we don't surrender to Krishna and devote our efforts to Him, we will never transcend to the Godhead. For many rationalists, this is a major stumbling block. Personally I think this formulation is poetic and resonant. In some strange way, it mirrors my understanding of evolution itself. According to this world view, spiritual progression leads to salvation. This is what Krishnas mean when they suggest that you can "Stay High All the Time". If nothing else, this admonition demonstrated an adept approach to marketing during the Hippie Era.

There are a few principles in Krishna Consciousness that simply prohibit me from embracing it wholesale. The main precept that I have difficulty with is the characterization of the divine as "essentialist". The attribution of definite and absolute qualities to the Godhead seems extraordinarily limited to me. I've never been able to accept the personification of God. The consequences of this belief lead to (at least) two troubling aspects in Hinduism. One I've mentioned in a recent post- it creates a master-disciple relationship that is ripe for exploitation. In this setup, the guru is to be followed as an infallible representative of God. I simply don't believe that is possible. Secondly, Krishna is irrefutably male and thus Hindus accept a hierarchy in which women are absolutely subjugated to men. This is irreconcilable with my perspective, and prohibits me from considering Krishna Consciousness (or Hinduism) a viable option.

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