Hare Krishnas cater for growing spiritual appetite

  • 2001-08-02
  • Tim Ocuser
RIGA - Take a stroll along Krisjana Barona Street in the morning and you will see a long queue of despondent-looking elderly people outside the Hare Krishna Center. It's plain to see from their disheveled appearance and long faces that they're not there to sing religious praises. They are there for the Food For Life program, which the Krishna devotees run from the center.

There is a principle in their religion, as Indranuja Das, an eight-year devotee of the temple told me, that states nobody within a 10 kilometer radius of a temple should go hungry. About 1,000 portions of food are served up every day, to a mixture of pensioners and homeless people, thus providing a lifeline to some of Riga's most vulnerable citizens.

But who and exactly what are the Krishnas? Are they just a religious "cult," as some people suggest, or are they a "valid" religion, with a coherent theological basis? I put these questions to Indranuja.

"We are a legal and authentic religion in every way," he explained. "The Hare Krishnas first arrived in Latvia in 1977, when it was very much an underground movement during the Soviet period. But we were registered as an official religion with the Latvian government in 1989, and everything we do is fully in line with the law."

Less readily explained, however, is the theological framework of the religion, which is supposed to be an offshoot of Hinduism.

Krishna ("all-attractive" in Sanskrit) is the Supreme Being and all knowledge of Him is taken from the Veda Scriptures, which the Krishnas believe date back some 5,000 years. The ultimate aim of the Hare Krishnas is to break the cycle of reincarnation that they believe is determined by your final thought in life. So if your last thought is, say, of a fish, then a fish is what you will transmutate into in the next life.

They therefore devote themselves to obtaining a pure love of God and a place in the spiritual world by following four principles: no eating meat or dairy products (except milk, because cows are sacred), no intoxication, no gambling, and no illicit sex (sex is only procreational).

The idea is, that by following these principles, and by daily studying the scriptures and worshipping Krishna in ritual song, they will be prepared for the moment of death by their total consciousness of Krishna, and so will enter into the spiritual world and achieve oneness with Him.

There are an estimated 1 million Krishna devotees in the world, with around 3,000 in Latvia. The religion's global center is in America, at the intriguingly named International Society for Krishna Consciousness. It has recently been reported that they are facing a glut of lawsuits in the U.S. from ex-devotees claiming to have been sexually and mentally exploited by their "gurus." But the devotees I spoke with refused to comment on this, claiming they knew nothing about it.

They did point out, however, that every religious body is open to abuse of power, and none more so than the immensely powerful Catholic Church. I asked the devotees what they might say to people who accused them of "brainwashing" their followers.

"We don't convert people under the age of 16," Indranuja said. "Unless they have parental consent. We don't coerce anybody to do anything against their will. We enjoy good relations with both the government and the community, and we want to be as open as possible in both our beliefs and how we practice them."

It does seem that the Krishnas have been, on the whole, accepted in Riga. No one seems to bat an eyelid as they dance around the city to their own music and chants in their colorful saris. I asked Shaktee, a non-resident devotee of six years, what she thought about Latvian attitudes towards them.

"Mostly we are accepted,"she said. "And many people are interested in what we do while not becoming full devotees." And what do her parents think of her religion? "My mother doesn't like it at all. She doesn't understand. It's very hard for her to accept my beliefs."

Much of the money needed to run the temple and the Food for Life program is raised by the Rama restaurant at the center. Food is a very important aspect of their religion, as it is a means of achieving both physical and spiritual health. Indeed, they are sometimes referred to as the "kitchen religion."

The restaurant is certainly popular with local people and is constantly busy throughout the day with an intriguing mixture of business types, students, and nearby shop and office workers. In the basement there's a shop that sells "spiritual" artifacts like crystals, beads, incense and the like.

Whatever your opinion of the Hare Krishna followers is, they are certainly an interesting bunch. There seems to have been an explosion of interest in Riga in Eastern religion and mysticism. Just look at the huge interest the Dalai Lama's visit generated during his visit in June. Or the vast array of related books that are suddenly on display in most book stores. Could it be that the Hare Krishna followers are merely answering some people's need for a more fulfilling spiritual life in an increasingly rationalized world? Or are they merely an eccentric group of marginalized people finding a sense of belonging in numbers? It will certainly be interesting to see whether religion, by whatever name, can meet the needs of Latvians in this fast and ever-changing society.