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Hare Krishna in San Francisco

"ON A STREET BORDERING Golden Gate Park in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco stood the Krishna Consciousness temple... Above the entrance to the temple were the two-foot-high wooden letters 'Hare Krishna.' The large storefront windows were covered with red and orange patterned blankets.

"The sounds of chanting and music filled the street. Inside there were dozens of brightly-colored paintings on the wall, thick red rugs on the floor, and a smoky haze in the air. This smoke was incense, an element of the ceremony in progress. The people in the room were softly chanting barely audible Sanskrit words. The room was nearly full, with about fifty people who all appeared to be young sitting on the floor. Assembled in front were about twenty persons wearing long, loose-fitting orange and saffron robes, with white paint on their noses. Many of the men had shaved their heads except for a ponytail. The women with them also had white paint on their noses and small red marks on their foreheads. The other young persons in the room appeared no different from other denizens of the Haight-Ashbury, costumed in headbands, long hair, beards, and an assortment of rings, bells, and beads, and they were also enthusiastically participating in the ceremony. The ten or so persons sitting in the rear appeared to be first-time visitors.

"The chanting ceremony (mantra) increased in tempo and in volume. Two girls in long saffron robes were now dancing to the chant. The leader of the chant began to cry the words (of the chant in Sanskrit)... The entire group repeated the words, attempted to maintain the leader's intonation and rhythm. Many of the participants played musical instruments. The leader was beating a hand drum in time with his chanting. The two swaying dancing girls were playing finger cymbals. One young man was blowing a seashell; another was beating on a tambourine... On the walls of the temple were over a dozen paintings of scenes from the Bhagavad-Gita.

"The music and the chanting grew very loud and fast. The drum was ceaselessly pounding. Many of the devotees started personal shouts, hands upstretched, amidst the general chant. The leader knelt in front of a picture of the group's 'spiritual master' on a small shrine near the front of the room. The chanting culminated in a loud crescendo and the room became silent. The celebrants knelt with their heads to the floor as the leader said a short prayer in Sanskrit. Then he shouted five times, 'All glories to the assembled devotees,' which the others repeated before they sat up."

This is one of the typical worship services of the "Krishna Consciousness" movement, which was founded in America in 1966 by an Indian ex-businessman, A.C. Bhaktivedanta, in order to bring the Hindu discipline of bhakti yoga to the disoriented and searching young people of the West. The earlier phase of interest in Eastern religions (in the 1950's and early 1960's) had emphasized intellectual investigation without much personal involvement; this newer phase demands wholehearted participation. Bhakti yoga means uniting oneself to one's chosen "god" by loving and worshipping him, and changing one's whole life in order to make this one's central occupation. Through the non-rational means of worship (chanting, music, dance, devotion) the mind is "expanded" and "Krishna consciousness" is attained, which if enough people will do it is supposed to end the troubles of our disordered age and usher in a new age of peace, love, and unity.

The bright robes of the "Krishnas" became a familiar sight in San Francisco, especially on the day every year when the immense idol of their "god" was wheeled through Golden Gate Park to the ocean, attended by all the signs of Hindu devotion a typical scene of pagan India, but something new for "Christian" America. From San Francisco the movement has spread to the rest of America and to Western Europe; by 1974 there were 54 Krishna temples throughout the world, many of them near colleges and universities (members of the movement are almost all very young).

The recent death of the founder of the movement has raised questions about its future; and indeed its membership, although very visible, has been rather small in number. As a "sign of the times," however, the meaning of the movement is clear, and should be very disturbing to Christians: many young people today are looking for a "god" to worship, and the most blatant form of paganism is not too much for them to accept.

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