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Religion & Culture | Defending the faith - Hare Krishnas make comeback

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2016 | 8:54 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Caesar Bisono at Union Square in New York.
Members of the Hare Krishna movement at Union Square in New York City.
Stella Montoya, a Hare Krishna devotee, evangelises in Union Square.
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“People condemn what they don’t understand. This is what you call blind non-belief.’’ Caesar Bisono’s words are emphatic and irrefutable.

Dressed in traditional Indian wear, Bisono is only 22 years old but speaks with an authority and assurance that can be disarming.

He sees himself as an old soul, familiar with matters of the spirit and is unmoved by the avalanche of criticisms levelled at the million-member strong Hare Krishna Movement, also known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The religious order is celebrating 50 years as an incorporated body in the United States.

“Whatever shortcomings and failures we experienced in the past have been addressed with greater oversight and a system of checks and balances within our communal structure,” said Bisono.

He was referring to the many documented cases of sexual abuse and other excesses in communes throughout the world. Enjoying a new lease on life, he believes that the movement, founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, is here to stay, and is more relevant today despite a sharp drop in devotees in the last two decades.

REGIMENTED SCHEDULE

Bisono lives in the movement’s self-sustaining 20-member Brooklyn commune. It is a lifestyle that is intolerant of indolence. It demands maturity, conviction, and zeal. His commentary on daily activities reveals a regimented schedule that few would dare undertake.

Service begins at 3 a.m. with purification (showers), then chanting of the popular 16 word Maha Mantra (Great Mantra) that is extolled inKali-Santarana Upanishad, a sacred text.

This is followed by a series of rituals and obeisance to deities, and more japa (chanting). Additional readings and prayers are performed before the 8 a.m. breakfast. Daily chores follow.

Bisono is responsible for book sales; other members work in an adjoining bakery owned by the group, while cooking and laundry detail are assumed by a handful of devotees.

“No one task is greater than the other,” explained Bisono. He likens communal living to an antidote against greed and unbridled competitiveness that “create unhappiness, jealously, and enmity”.

Soon, the group will be moving to a 300-acre farm, courtesy of a magnanimous donor. Bisono is anticipatory. “We will live off the land – a barter system. Every one performs an indispensable function. This is the only way to preserve peace and genuine respect.”

Responding to the politics of communal living and the imminent clash of personalities, he cited the group’s eminent founder: “Show love for me by cooperation.” Later, Bisono added, “When your goal is to serve God communally, you have to bend, maybe surrender some of your personality.”

Still, many have left because their views have changed over time. Bisono is hardly surprised. “Our founder has always said: ‘Don’t be surprised by who leaves, but rather who stays.’ Some members slack, lowering their guard after a couple of years.”

He acknowledged the stringency and dedication required to bind members who are brahmacharis or celibate, with sannyasis (those who renounce secular life).

“It is important that prospective members of the commune understand the rules and responsibilities involved. This is an area that we stress over and over again. We know that there is a constant battle within. This is natural. And we are constantly struggling against the lure of the outside world.”

This explains the probationary period for aspirants. Bisono elaborated: “Before you are initiated, we must be sure that you are serious. This means that you must attend services regularly because the temple is a spiritual hospital.

“During this assessment alcohol is prohibited, so is caffeine, drugs, gambling, meats, fish, eggs, milk, and illicit sex. Sex between married couples is solely for the purpose of procreation.”

Even if one waltzes through this austerity, a recommendation by a member is still required before membership is granted. “The process must be followed,” reiterated Bisono.

Bisono’s journey to Krishna Consciousness is littered with the footprints of Providence. He recalls his quest to be a successful salesman and reading Robert’s Greene’s 48 Laws of Power and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.

“I am pretty sure mention was made of the Bhagavad Gita in these books,” he stated.

“I ordered the book and I distinctly remember it arriving on October 2014. I soon shelved it but on December 18, I began reading it again. It then struck me. There was an indescribable connection.”

During that period, Bisono’s younger sister suffered a stroke. Understandably, he was moved by that experience. Questions arose concerning life’s purpose ad unpredictability. He wrestled with related subjects: death, the hereafter, God, and the destiny of the humankind.

But the answers were forthcoming, clearly detailed in the Gita, the book that has become his constant companion and that of every devotee.

“I realised that no amount of success in this world can prevent death or illnesses; that despite my youth I could succumb to the unthinkable. Reading the Gita gave me comfort and contentment regardless of the pain and chaos around me and in all corners of the world. For the first time, I understood death, embraced reincarnation, and became aware of the soul’s immortality.”

Bisono decried the profligate behaviour that marred his past.

“I became fully aware of the spiritual realms and lasting peace, as opposed to the fleeting, temporal, and deceptive happiness that I once experienced. For the first time I understood truth.”

Despite his new-found awakening, his mother, a devout Catholic, baulked at his conversion. “Of course, you will expect that kind of reaction. I am my mother’s boy, but deep down she knows that I have never been happier.”

- Dr Glenville Ashby is an academic member of Religion Newswriters Association and author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @glenvilleashby.