Hare Krishnas continue shift to mainstream

On Monday, while he's celebrating Janmastami, the holiest day of the year for Hare Krishnas, Murari Caitanya das will be thankful for warm showers.

As part of the ongoing change from the austerity and cloistered life Krishnas had been known for, devotees no longer are required to shave their head, wear saffron robes or take cold showers.

"That's probably why I didn't join before," said Caitanya, 62, a South Sider whose name was Charles Cannon before he joined the faith, was given his devotee name and moved into the Krishna temple in the Rogers Park neighborhood eight years ago. "I just can't take cold showers."

That small change is just one part of the transformation under way in the Krishna following, which has been stereotyped as a religion of hippies dancing in airports and street corners, singing the Hare Krishna mantra, banging on cymbals and handing out flowers.

"We still do chanting in public places," said Romatada Swami, the commissioner in the New York City-based Krishna governing body who oversees the Chicago temple. "That would be the stereotype in a certain generation's mind.

"But we have changed. It's a combination of the times and maturing of the faith," he said. "Those young people [the original devotees in the 1960s and 1970s] got married and had children, and then they wanted a place of their own."

The result is that there are just 10 Krishna devotees living in the Chicago temple, a former Masonic Lodge at 1716 W. Lunt Ave., and many more with outside jobs who drive in from other parts of the city and suburbs for Sunday services.

The founder of the movement is A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an Indian who brought the original Krishna message to the United States in 1965. It caught on with young, white middle-class adults, and Chicago's first temple was established in a Halsted Street storefront in 1970.

The temple moved for several years to Evanston before settling in 1979 at its home in Rogers Park, where up to 200 people regularly worship on Sundays at what is the only Krishna temple in the Chicago region.

The faith has been attracting more Asian devotees, particularly Indian immigrants, as it is seen more and more as a branch of Hinduism.

Regularly referred to as a cult until the 1990s, the changes are "part of the attempt of the Hare Krishna movement to really attempt to belong to the lineage back in India," said Joanne Waghorne, a professor of religion at Syracuse University in New York. "And that's part of a larger attempt to achieve real legitimacy as a religion."

That will be on display Monday, when Chicago temple leaders expect up to 1,000 people to take part in their Janmastami festivities, which begin at 6 p.m. and celebrate the birth of Krishna more than 5,000 years ago.

Hare Krishnas believe Krishna is one incarnation of the Lord, and they follow his moral and ethical instructions laid out in the Bhagavad-Gita, the holy book believed to be more than 5,000 years old.

To Hindus, Krishna is one of 10 incarnations of the god Vishnu, the Preserver. Krishna is considered the source of unwavering love and is esteemed as a hero of Hinduism.

During Monday's celebration, devotees will sing traditional chants, and colorful dancers will portray Krishna's life through dance. A group of children from Naperville will re-enact a drama from Krishna's life.

The celebration culminates with a midnight feast of vegetarian food--Krishnas do not eat meat as one of their four regulated principles. (The others are no gambling, no drugs and no sex except for procreation.)

Most attendees will be Indian, said Abhimanyu das, the temple's administrator, and most of them would probably consider themselves to be Hindu, not Krishna.

That's fine, Abhimanyu das said, because "in the Hindu tradition, Janmastami is the most important holiday of the year too.

"Like there are different denominations of Christianity, there's different denominations of Hinduism. We don't consider ourselves Hindu; we're devotees of Krishna. But we consider it orthodox Hinduism."

That in and of itself is a change, Waghorne said, for a religion that has become more mainstream in just a decade.

"If you look at the cults that arose in the 1960s, most of them are gone," she said. "It is interesting that the Krishnas have now gone into a second generation, and maybe that's because of this process of moving from a cult to a recognized sect."

She credits part of the change to a new openness, seen through self-criticism in the faith's International Society for Krishna Consciousness journal, which over the years has delved into some of its scandals--including child abuse cases.

"It's been very soul searching," Waghorne said.

Caitanya, a former high school special education teacher who now is an assistant administrator at the temple, breaks some of the Krishna stereotypes. He's African-American. He has short hair, and he generally dons a saffron robe only for Artika ceremonies.

Having tried transcendental meditation, tarot cards and other New Age spiritual ventures, he was still soul searching when he stumbled onto Krishna.

"I was at the library looking to take out the Koran, because it was one of the only main religious books I had never read," said Caitanya, who was raised in a Lutheran family. "And I found Bhagavad-Gita. It answered all the questions I've been asking all my life."