Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hare Krishna devotees adopt lower-profile style

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TORONTO -- Whatever happened to the Hare Krishna movement?

Back in the 1970s, robed members of the sect were frequently seen on street corners, chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, with their hair shorn.

These days, you are more likely to see robed Anglican bishops occupying a street corner in the financial district and passing out literature.

Krishna devotees haven't gone into hiding, but they have toned down the missionary zeal from those crazy days of counterculture movements.

As one senior devotee says, "We are now more interested in quality than quantity."

Formed by his Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1965, the Hare Krishnas of the time were full of brashness and ideals.

Now, you see a gentler side, with mostly South Asians attending temple with their young children.

This fresh injection of Hare Krishnas has brought to the temple the most affluent and educated members in the movement's history. They are young bankers, computer consultants, software developers, dentists, PhD students. They drive Mercedes, Audis, BMWs, wear western clothes and live in opulent homes, some with altars built so they can worship at home.

The Hare Krishnas worship Krsna, thought to be the source of all incarnations of God. An offshoot of Hinduism, the movement teaches followers that through chanting and meditation they can achieve true bliss, a higher state of consciousness and self-realization through the instructions of the spiritual master.

Lifetime members not only chant a 16-word mantra to Hare Krishna, sometimes lasting hours a day, but they also agree to abstain from meat, gambling, alcohol and illicit sex.

The decline of the movement began in part with revelations of child-abuse scandals at boarding schools in the U.S. and India in the 1970s and 1980s. Money troubles followed, and their world changed.

Another setback came earlier this year with a California Supreme Court ruling that kicked the Hare Krishnas out of Los Angeles International Airport.

In Toronto, there are believed to be 300 to 500 hard-core members, although leaders say actual numbers around the greater Toronto area are much higher.

David Arthur Reed, professor emeritus at Wycliffe College in Toronto, who studies religions and spirituality, said he's not surprised the movement has shifted away from its highly evangelistic phase.

"Many such groups that were part of the idealism of the time have dwindled away," he said.

A big draw is the weekly Sunday feast at the temple in the tony Rosedale neighbourhood. The event includes a service, kirtan (chanting and dancing) and a heaping vegetarian meal.

This emphasis on good food, also served six days a week to the general public, prompts followers to quip that their movement is the "kitchen religion."

The Hare Krishna movement has long appealed to 58-year-old Bhaktimarga Swami, formerly John Peter Vis, who is among 15 monks living in the temple.

In 1972, fresh off the farm in Blenheim, Ont., and repulsed by the slaughtering of animals, Vis came to Toronto expecting to see hippies but noticed something different on the street corners.

"At the time people had all this long hair, and there were these guys singing and dancing with no hair and I thought this was a bit odd, actually shocking," the monk recalls.

The fine arts student at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont., latched on and never looked back.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2010 H12

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