AFTER WRITING ABOUT THE RESURGENCE OF BHAKTI and the rediscovery of Vrindavan in the 16th century, the reported attack on an ISKCON temple in Noakhali was shocking and distressing. ISKCON, which stands for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, was founded by AC Vedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) in New York in 1966.There is believed to be a direct line of spiritual and ideological descent from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534) to Prabhupada. The rasas of bhakti flow uninterrupted in this lineage of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. At the heart of what has come to be called the Hare Krishna movement is ecstatic love and devotion to Krishna.
“It is with great grief that we share the news of a [sic] ISKCON member, Partha Das, who was brutally killed yesterday by a mob of over 200 people. His body was found in a pond next to the temple.We call on the Govt of Bangladesh for immediate action in this regard,” the official Twitter handle of ISKCON said on October 16th. The temple was severely damaged and other devotees were injured, one of them seriously.
Attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh are not new. During the partition of Pakistan in 1971 and the creation of the country of Bangladesh, there were genocidal attacks on Hindus in the region. Subsequently, there has been a steady exodus of Hindus from that country. Those who write about this history are themselves attacked and banished.
The prime example is Taslima Nasreen, whose Lajja (1993) brought the plight of Hindus of Bangladesh into international limelight. Nasreen’s novel was banned in there. She fled her native country after death threats from radical Islamist organisations. It is another matter, of course, that after Nasreen sought shelter in India, she was driven out of Kolkata, then ruled by the communists, under pressure from Indian Islamist groups.
Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a well-known Bangladeshi human rights body, has documented over 3,700 attacks against Hindus in the last 10 years. Desecrating temples, burning shops, ransacking home, grabbing land, all this is par for the course. Buddhist shrines in Bangladesh have also suffered a similar fate. In fact, temples were attacked in Bangladesh soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited earlier this year in March to mark the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence. In Cox’s Bazar, one of the sites where the recent violence broke out, thousands of members of Hefazat-e-Islam marched with sticks and flags after Modi’s visit (“Bangladesh violence spreads after PM Modi’s visit, attacks on Hindu temples, train”, March 28th, 2021, The Times of India).
But this time round, the response to Hindu hatred in Bangladesh was different. Seven hundred ISKCON temples across 150 countries on October 22nd demonstrated against the violence. The protests, from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, included day-long prayers, kirtan, chanting and lighting of lamps. ISKCON member Radharam Das said, “From Tokyo to Toronto, we are conducting prayers and protests about whatever happened in Bangladesh. We hope the Bangladeshi government should take strict steps. We are disheartened over what happened” (“700 ISKCON temples across world hold protests over temple vandalisation in Bangladesh”, October 23rd, 2021, India Today).
Do bhakti, devotion and self-purification through chanting kirtan help in such situations?
[ II ]
MANY YEARS AGO, I CAME ACROSS A GROUP OF tonsured and tufted ISKCON devotees clapping and dancing in a street. Their shaved heads bobbed up and down as they chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare!” One of them, with a large lock of hair, beat on the drum. Three others weaved back and forth, raising their hands, swaying from side to side. The chant went on to the beat of the clanging cymbals.
Such a scene wouldn’t be surprising in Vrindavan or Mathura. Elsewhere in India, in small temples and shrines, the devotees of the Lord express themselves in a variety of ways. The modes of devotion may vary, but there is similar fervour and faith. But this wasn’t India. It was Melbourne and the Krishna devotees were white.
This was my last day in the city. As if to say goodbye, I wandered all over the south bank of Yarra. It being a sunny Sunday, the streets were thronging. The flea market was full of small shops and stalls with food, handicraft and other knick-knacks. There were street performers and jugglers. It was heartening to see families, mostly with younger children. Teenagers on skateboards, showing off their tricks, spent the whole afternoon in the city square opposite the Melbourne town hall. Tucked away in this urban jungle of tall buildings was the small Lutheran St John’s Southgate Church. An organist was playing Handel and Bach inside, in the echoing emptiness.
This time round, the response to Hindu hatred in Bangladesh was different. Seven hundred ISKCON temples across 150 countries on October 22nd demonstrated against the violence. The protests included day-long prayers, kirtan, chanting and lighting of lamps
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After all this walking, I got very hungry. How to get a vegetarian meal? My host, the late great Professor Vin D’Cruz, who knew every street, lane and alley of the city, “invited” me to the local Hare Krishna temple. But he added a caveat, “You’ll also have to listen to a sermon! Unless you wish to avoid that and eat pizza instead.”
I opted for the sermon-cum-meal. Turned out it was delivered by a young Australian called Prana Dasa. He spoke on the 16th chapter of the Gita, the difference between the demonic and the divine qualities. “We had to enhance the divine qualities in us,” he said, “build the faculties of discrimination, friendship, compassion and the love of God.” Often, he quoted from the scriptures, in Australian-accented Sanskrit!
After the talk, the promised feast followed. The food was delicious and entirely lacto-vegetarian. Served in cardboard trays, it included rice, veg noodles, rice pudding, barfi and, of all things, a pakoda with chatni. There were paneer chunks in the cardamom-flavoured rice.“Have more,” Vin urged. But I discovered that what I thought was my tremendous appetite was satisfied with just one helping and, of course, the dessert, kheer. Man does not live by bread alone, as the good book sayeth.
We went down to the temple again for the aarti. The crowd, both Indian and Australian, was engrossed in the ritual. I began to clap and sing too. There were three alcoves of deities: Gaurang and Nitai on the left; Radha-Krishna in the middle; and Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra on the right. All of them seemed to glow as the kirtan reached a crescendo.
Upstairs was the remarkably well-preserved room in which Prabhupada had once stayed for a few days. There was a lifesize statue where he used to sit. All his things, including the plate on which he had his prasad during his visit, were preserved. There were also some of his other relics, including his wooden slippers and tulsi necklaces.
Nearly 70, he had stepped out of India at the command of his Guru to spread the message of bhakti to the world. Landing in New York, nearly penniless, he’d set a huge wave of devotion in motion. Before he died about 10 years later, there were more than a 100 ISKCON temples worldwide. Today, there is perhaps no continent or major country in which the ministry hasn’t reached.
I felt deep gratitude in my heart for my host, Vin D’Cruz, a well-known educationist and academic in Melbourne, and for ISKCON, for the Krishna temple of Melbourne. An immaculate mansion, with a soundproof temple so as not to disturb the neighbours, the sacred basil growing in two special hot houses, and hundreds of Indian and Australian devotees, it was definitely a place of spiritual succour in the Antipodes.
Returning to the anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh, I remembered Prana Dasa’s sermon: “Each soul is divine and indestructible. We can plunge into the worst hells for the sins we commit.” But what about the here and the now? Protests, laws, international attention, diplomatic pressure, strictures from UN and human rights groups—all this is needed.
They belong to rasas of bhakti as ISKCON has demonstrated by internationalising the issue. Violence against Hindus is real. Hinduphobia, Hindumisia and Hinducide are real. They cannot be denied, brushed aside or swept under the carpet. But the issue must not be “communalised”—retaliatory violence against innocents elsewhere will only plunge us into the darkest hells of our own making, as Prana Dasa reminded us.
Bhakti yoga in today’s times is not merely an individual affair, a devotee’s personal relationship to the Divine. It has to be collective and international. Bhakti is not passive, but articulates its resistance in a different idiom of power from the dominant. In religious wars, as we have seen in the recent Indo-Pak T20 tie, the team that plays better beats the other. Zealots can be worsted by better teamwork across multiple domains with real capacity and competence that work in the material world. This both Chaitanya and Prabhupada knew. The question is whether today’s ISKCON, other devotional traditions and interested bhakts remember these lessons.