Yesterday I went to the annual Ratha Yatra festival on Venice Beach. This is a parade that the LA chapter of the Hare Krishnas do every year. They decorate a bunch of floats, parade them through Santa Monica on to Venice Beach, park them there, and then have a big party on the beach with food and music and stuff. It’s fun. I’ve gone every year that I’ve been in LA at the time it was happening.
This year I went with my friend and fellow Suicide Girls writer Darrah Du Jour. I’ve been a fan and follower of the Hare Krishna movement for a long time. But Darrah didn’t know anything about them. She’s interested in all things religious so I found myself trying to explain my take on the Hare Krishnas to her.
I told her that the Krishnas are representatives of a very specific form of Hinduism that practices what they call Bhakti Yoga. They believe in conceiving of God as strictly external to themselves and worshiping that externalized God in the form of Krishna, who is said to be an earthly incarnation of the God Vishnu. The Hare Krishnas consider themselves to be monotheistic even though most people categorize Hinduism as polytheistic. They say that there are many demigods in the universe. But there is only one supreme God and that is Krishna. The Hare Krishna movement in America was founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, known to his followers by the highly honorific name Prabhupad (one who serves at the feet of God). Prabhupad came to America at the age of 69 with only a trunk of self-published translations of his favorite scripture and seven dollars to his name. But he came to the right place at the right time and soon had a huge international following.
I first got interested in the Hare Krishnas because George Harrison had championed them. I like their artwork and their food and their music. Their books look amazing from the outside. Unfortunately, their contents have never impressed me all that much. They are usually full of folk tales that remind me of a kind of ancient version of the stories you now find in comic books. I imagine that they served much the same function back in the day. But I find most of that stuff incredibly dull and kind of pointless. It’s a lot of wish-fulfillment fantasies in which good triumphs over evil through the use of supernatural force. When the good guy seems almost about to be defeated by the demons, he transforms into his true nature as a divine being and beats the crap out of them. Pretty much like in Spiderman. Although they make up bullshit “scientific explanations” for our superheroes’ powers these days.
The festivities on Sunday included a Krishna-ized version of The Wizard of Oz that must have violated a dozen copyright laws. I wonder if anyone from MGM’s legal department was on the beach that day. If so, the Krishnas could be in big trouble. Instead of “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” it was “aging, disease and death, oh my!” Darrah asked why the Krishnas were so obsessed with aging. I told her that I guessed this was the most frightening thing they could think of in life and therefore the most likely to get people to want to convert to a religion that promised a way out.
A lot of Hindu scriptures use the fear of aging, disease and death as the great terrifying monster with which to try and get you interested in converting. I suppose the fear of aging ought to play well in Los Angeles where so many people are obsessed with staying forever young. Look at Joan Rivers!
You don’t get quite that much emphasis on the fear of aging, disease and death in Buddhism, although it is present in some of the folk tales and scriptures. I don’t get the impression that Buddha was playing that much on his followers’ fears of aging and death to inspire them to practice. But he did like to say that this is what happens to all of us in case anyone was inclined to forget it. Buddha’s selling point was suffering in general and the idea that even those experiences we consider to be the best possible things that could happen to a person involve some degree of suffering, not just the obvious stuff like aging, disease and death.
Somewhere in our discussions I ended up telling Darrah my theory that most ancient religious scriptures date from a time when human beings were transitioning from being nomadic hunter-gatherers into living in settled areas and depending on agriculture. The various commandments and suchlike can thus be seen as rules for living in communal settings of mutual interdependence. Since we still live in communal settings of mutual interdependence, those ancient rules still apply to some degree to us today. Which is why they’re still studied and debated even now. I’m sure I’m not the first one who came up with this theory. But I think it explains a lot.
The Hare Krishnas are fascinating to me because they have somehow made the difficult transition from what was arguably a cult into a legitimate religion. They had some very rough times in the 80s just after Praphupada died (he “went back to Godhead” in 1977). Prabhupada was probably far too overambitious in his desire to see his movement grow as quickly as possible. He believed that the power of following his four monastic rules (no meat eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication and no gambling) as well as regular chanting of the holy names of God was sufficient to insure that his followers didn’t go wrong. He was mistaken.
After his death several of the people he appointed to important positions went spectacularly wrong. There were allegations of child abuse, drug abuse, sexual abuse and even murder. But the mainstream part of the movement appears to have purged itself of much of this stuff and is now on track to being regarded as just another slightly quirky minority religion on the American scene much like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christian Scientists and the Mormons rather than as a dangerous cult. Earlier this year I wrote a review of a book about part of this transition . The book is called Betrayal of the Spirit and it’s by Nori Muster. Muster argues that the movement has made some significant changes since the bad old days, but still has a long way to go.
Anyway, I had a good time and ate some delicious food. So I’m glad they’re still in business at least from that standpoint.