What You Need to Know About Hare Krishnas

Have you ever wondered why Hare Krishnas don't eat meat, or how the movement differs from other strains of Hinduism? Read a primer on the Hare Krishna movement and its practices and beliefs.

What is Hare Krishna?

The Hare Krishna movement is a branch of Hinduism, formally known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Its name comes from its chant — Hare Krishna — which devotees repeat over and over. It was started in the 16th century by Sri Chaitanya of Bengal (1486-1533). He emphasized the worship of Krishna and believed that chanting the names of God was so powerful that in addition to one's own meditation on them, they should also be chanted in the streets for the benefit of all.

Swami Prabhupada brought the movement — formally called the International Society of Krishna Consciousness — to the U.S. in 1966. Public dancing and chanting became its trademark.

How does the Hare Krishna movement differ from other strains of Hinduism?

Devotees of the Hare Krishna movement consider themselves monotheistic. According to the sacred texts, Bhagavad Gita and Bhagavat Purana, Krishna is the supreme God, who oversees millions of demigods — who are seen as administrators of the universal affairs. These demigods are needed to run creation. They have certain roles, but — just as the secretary of state reports to the president — these demigods serve at the pleasure of Krishna.

Krishna is often accompanied by Radharani, the female aspect or counterpart of Krishna.

The Hare Krishna understanding is that when Hindus pray to Krishna, or when members of the Abrahamic faith pray to Allah or Yahweh, we are all praying to one and the same person.

In addition, the Hare Krishna movement has adapted itself to the West. For example, Swami Prabhupada provided an equal opportunity to both men and women to become priests in the worship rituals — a privilege reserved only for men in traditional Hinduism. Perhaps because of its sensitivity to Western ethos, the Hare Krishna movement has been more successful than more traditional Hindu branches in attracting non-Indians into its culture, philosophy and practices.

What is the Hare Krishna mantra?

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare

Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare

The word "mantra" means to deliver or free the mind. The word "Hare" refers to the divine feminine potency of God. "Krishna" means the all-attractive one, and "Rama" is the reservoir of all pleasure.

Hare Krishnas believe that the sound vibration of the mantra has a direct impact on the soul. According to a philosophy of ancient India, the soul is spiritually asleep. Just as an alarm clock awakes a sleeping person, the Hare Krishna mantra awakens the soul to its spiritual reality — whereby it can experience its eternal connection with Krishna or God. And devotees believe that a person need not understand the language of the mantra, because the sound vibration transcends the sensual, mental and intellectual levels of consciousness and puts one directly in touch with the spiritual.

Reincarnation and karma — what are those about?

In Hinduism, karma — what a person deserves for his past acts — proceeds not only from what he has done in the present life but from past lives as well. According to Hindu philosophy, human beings are not always reborn as human beings. Some are, but others are promoted to still higher forms, forms beyond our present experience, and others are degraded to lower species. One's future status depends on whether one lives in harmony with nature's laws or violates them. Only human beings can gain freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, whatever a person thinks about at the time of death determines what sort of body he or she will take in the next life. Those death-bed thoughts shape the next body — what sort of eyes, nose, ears and tongue, as well as what sort of hands and legs and other bodily features one will have.

And what one thinks about at death depends largely on one's thoughts and actions during life.

Why don't Hare Krishnas eat meat?

Hindus believe that animals are children of Krishna, created by God with a soul. Therefore, to eat an animal is an affront to God. Moreover, it's bad for your consciousness: Because the slaughter of animals is violent, when you eat meat, fish or fowl, you are subjecting yourself to more violent thoughts and, perhaps, violent behavior.

In Hinduism, cooking is intertwined with spirituality. Hare Krishnas believe they are cooking for the pleasure of God. They never sample the food they are cooking, since it must be offered to Krishna first. Moreover, Hindus believe that food absorbs the consciousness of the cook.

If you are angry and elbow deep in the lentils or kneading dough for chapattis (unleavened bread), Hindu philosophy claims that your emotions are transferred to the food — and then to the person who eats the meal. It is one reason monks don't go to restaurants, because it raises the question, "Whose consciousness are you eating today?"

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