Nova Religio


Sep 23, USA (SUN) — Review of "The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant"

Nova Religio is a quarterly journal published by the University of California's Caliber Press. In publication since late 1997, Nova Religio offers articles, original research, book reviews and conference updates on alternative religious movements. Readers of the journal include religious scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and others interested in philosophy and religion.

Nova Religio aims to present information on 'unconventional religions', exploring them contextually in the larger social environment. Over the last year, the journal has published articles on alternative Christian religions, new Jewish movements, religions based on Asian teachings, and those stemming from Middle Eastern, African and other Ancient traditions.

The Hare Krsna movement has been featured in a number of Nova Religio articles over the years, including the following:

  • Apr 2003 Obituary for Tamal Krishna Goswami

  • Apr 2000 "ISKCON's Extensive Reform Efforts" article by John M. Bozeman

  • Apr 1992 Book Review on "Betrayal of the Spirit" by Nori Muster

In the current issue (August 2005), a book review was published on "The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant" by Maria L. Ekstrand (Madhusudani devi dasi) and Edwin Bryant (Adwaita das). Madhusudani dasi is the well known Editor of, and a disciple of HH Jayapataka Swami.

The book reviewer, Tulasi Srinivas, has a Ph.D in Sociology/Anthropology from Boston University, where she is now a visiting professor. Her Bachelor studies were undertaken in Bangalore.

Dr. Srinivas offers a broad critique of the book from the viewpoint of an academic, but not that of a devotee. She acknowledges that the book will be useful to students of religious studies, sociologists and anthropologists, and scholars interested in a broad range of religio-social and cultural studies. At the same time, she levels fairly strong criticism of the book, citing both structural and content problems.

At the heart of Dr. Srinivas' critique is the structure of The Hare Krishna Movement, which is essentially a collection of essays written by a wide range of authors. The authors represent a host of different viewpoints and, as Srinivas characterizes them, the essays present "a dizzying array of topics". She notes that "there are significant differences in followers' interpretations of the Hare Krishna sampradaya's texts as well as differences in praxis and experience."

A review of the Table of Contents from The Hare Krishna Movement gives us a glimpse into the 'dizzying array' Dr. Srinivas faced in reviewing the book. Included, among many others, are the following essays:

  • The History of Indic Monotheism and Modern Chaitanya Vaishnavism: Some Reflections, by Neal Delmonico (Nitai Das)

  • Krishna in Mleccha desh: ISKCON Temple Worship in Historical Perspective, by Kenneth Valpey (Krishna Kshetra das)

  • Who Is Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu? by Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja das)

  • Charismatic Renewal and Institutionalization in the History of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the Gaudiya Math, by Jan Brzezinski (Jagatananda/Hiranyagarbha das)

  • The Guru, Mayavadins, and Women: Tracing the Origins of Selected Polemical Statements in the Work of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, by Ekkehard Lorenz (Ekanath das)

  • Cleaning House and Cleaning Hearts: Reform and Renewal in ISKCON, by William H. Deadwyler (Ravindra Svarupa das)

  • The Guardian of Devotion: Disappearance and Rejection of the Spiritual Master in ISKCON After 1977, by Swami Bhakti Bhavana Vishnu

  • The No Change in ISKCON Paradigm, by Krishnakant Desai , Sunil Awatramani (Adridharan das), and Madhu Pandit das

  • The "Routinization of Charisma" and the Charismatic: The Confrontation Between ISKCON and Narayana Maharaja, by Irvin H. Collins (Srila das)

  • Doctrinal Controversy and the Group Dynamic, by Conrad Joseph (Kundali das)

  • eresy and the Jiva Debate, by Howard Resnick (Hridayananda das Goswami)

  • Airports, Conflict, and Change in the Hare Krishna Movement, by E. Burke Rochford Jr.

  • Life as a Woman on Watseka Avenue: Personal Story I, by Nori J. Muster (Nandini dasi)

  • Child Abuse and the Hare Krishnas: History and Response, by David Wolf (Dhira Govinda das)

  • Re-Visioning ISKCON: Constructive Theologizing for Reform and Renewal, by Thomas Herzig (Tamal Krishna Goswami) and Kenneth Valpey (Krishna Kshetra das)

Those who are familiar with many of these personalities will agree that the prospect of engaging in a side-by-side comparison of their personal opinions on ISKCON is a daunting idea. One can hardly imagine getting them into the same room. Madhusudani devi and her co-author at least managed to sandwich their extremely divergent views between the covers of a single book. Unfortunately, in the mind of the reviewer (and many of the readers) this was not necessarily a 'good thing'.

Much has already been written about the incongruence of writers who present themselves as staunch defenders of Srila Prabhupada's movement, while at the same time lending their work to an academic compendium which includes essays by authors who are firmly against Srila Prabhupada. At the end of this article, the reader will find links to various reviews of the book including one by Braja Sevaki devi dasi, who takes these ISKCON personalities to task for their participation in the project.

It is interesting to note that some of the same criticisms offered by devotee readers are also made by non-devotee reviewers from the academic community, albeit from entirely different points of view. For example, Dr. Srinivas' review states: "the politics of the religious organization are not taken into account sufficiently in this discussion of sectarian change in an alien culture." She notes that with the exception of essays penned by Burke Rochford and Ravindra Svarupa das, some authors "seem rather na´ve when discussing the schisms within the movement, and the hopes for the regeneration of the religion in the postcharismatic phase after Srila Prabhupada's death."

This is an interesting observation on the part of Dr. Srinivas. Most devotees who have been studying ISKCON, as it has navigated its way through a host of critical issues over the years, would not characterize either Burke Rochford or Ravindra Svarupa das as being well known for their involvement in the grassroots "schisms". Those who are 'in the trenches' on the outside of the institution would certainly characterize these schisms, and the likelihood of regeneration, very differently than the essayists. Regardless, the reviewer considers these two contributors to have presented a more mature understanding of the conflicts than the other contributing essayists.

Dr. Srinivas' negative commentary on The Hare Krishna Movement also extends to her assessment that the book focuses more on ISKCON's internal struggles and controversies than it does on the "social-cultural issues related to the interactions between ISCKON and the larger society". The reviewer faults the authors for handling issues like the gurukula abuses and the treatment of women by presenting essays that offer personal, somewhat anecdotal treatments of the subjects. The reviewer found this less preferable than a study of the issues intended to expand one's understanding of Hinduism in general.

Dr. Srinivas' essential understanding of ISKCON is illustrated by several comments in the review wherein she labels Srila Prabhupada's movement as "a religion". This is not surprising, given that she writes with the voice of an academic, not a devotee. For example, she refers to "the regeneration of the religion in the postcharismatic phase after Srila Prabhupada's death", and writes, "the work contributes little to our knowledge of how a transnational religion functions in an alien culture". Nowhere in her review does she make a distinction between ISKCON as Srila Prabhupada's transcendental spiritual movement, and the religious institutional entity it has devolved into. To the degree that The Hare Krishna Movement itself does and does not deal with this all-important distinction, we would benefit from a review of that element of the book.

The reviewer states that, "A significant chapter in the book traces the early origins of the Hare Krishna movement in India from its roots in the Chaitanya Vaishnavite school of theology in India in the sixteenth century". The essay she refers to is one written by Jan Brzezinski. She notes that this historical background is presented as the context for our understanding of Srila Prabhupada, who came to the West "in order to transmit his version of Bengali Chaitanya Vaishnavism." This statement causes us to question the reviewer's understanding of parampara, given her suggestion that Srila Prabhupada was bringing "his version" of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. She may well have been influenced in this regard by Brzezinski's essay.

We find it most unfortunate that the authors of The Hare Krishna Movement relied on Jan Brzezinski to provide a historical background of Gaudiya Vaisnavism within which we are to understand Srila Prabhupada's mission, given the fact that he has personally renounced Srila Prabhupada, discredits his place in the Sampradaya, and goes so far as to call Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur an outright fraud.

Dr. Srinivas is undoubtedly correct in her assumption that The Hare Krishna Movement will be relied upon in the future by students, scholars and members of academia who will attempt to understand Srila Prabhupada's movement and its impact on the world. This is true simply by virtue of the fact that to date, relatively few books of its kind have made their way into the world of academia. Consequently, the book deserves to come under greater study and scrutiny by those brahminically-minded followers of Srila Prabhupada who can offer more philosophically based critiques of the book, giving future readers and researchers a more accurate understanding.

Related Information:

The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant. Edited by Edwin Bryant and Maria L. Ekstrand. Columbia University Press, 2004. 446 pages. $49.50 cloth.

Nova Religio

"The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant"

"This is Not A Book Review" by Braja Sevaki devi dasi

Book review by Columbia University Press


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