Hare Krishna—Western style?

Faced with demographic realities within the movement and looking for new ways to reach Westerners and other people of non-Indian heritage, some members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) are promoting a project for communicating their spiritual message in a way more compatible with Western culture, explained Nicole Karapanagiotis (Rutgers University) at a session of the New Religious Movements Unit at the American Academy of Religion’s November meeting in Denver, which RW attended. Karapanagiotis explained that a number of devotees had become concerned with the demographic shift within ISKCON and the fact that primarily ethnic Indians were now visiting ISKCON temples, seen as a failure to fulfill the founder’s dream of going global. An original disciple of Swami Prabhupada, Hridayananda Das Goswami (Howard J. Resnick, born in 1948 and initiated in 1970), concluded that few Westerners have been joining ISKCON because they feel that they have to embrace an Indian ethnic identity. Thus he developed the idea of extracting the essence of the teachings and offering it in a Western cultural package, involving Western clothes, music (piano and guitar), and food (vegetarian pizzas and salads rather than Indian food). However, while these are considered as variable details, the fundamental precepts of ISKCON are to remain fully applicable—it is stressed that this approach does not in any way dilute the purity of its spiritual tradition. It is also a way of affirming that the essential principles of Krishna Consciousness are not Indian, but rather eternal principles.

The “spiritual project” Krishna West was established by H. D. Goswami in 2013. He is himself a member of the Governing Body Commission (GBC) of ISKCON, the ultimate managing authority for the society, and also one of the initiating gurus. Thus, Krishna West is not a separate group, but a project approved by ISKCON leadership, although there have been some debates about it within the movement. Karapanagiotis described it as a systematic rebranding of ISKCON aimed at attracting Westerners and adjusting to their perceived tastes and existential needs, noting that similar approaches have long since been adopted for other spiritual practices (e.g., various forms of yoga or mindfulness). Still, the funding for such ISKCON programs aimed at attracting Westerners comes from donors in the Indian community. Krishna West is present in different countries of the world, and Karapanagiotis said that it is enjoying a level of success in some places, for instance in Brazil.

(Krishna West website: http://krishnawest.com/; personal website of H. D. Goswami: https://www.hdgoswami.com/)