Pictured: The temple’s plaque and the vegetarian restaurant attached to the temple.
The ISKCON Radha-Krishna Temple at 10 Soho Street appears unremarkable from the outside. It seems to be a small storefront with a restaurant and a plaque demarcating where the temple entrance is. However, as I followed my classmates through the small entrance lobby to the actual temple, I realized that the site was more elaborate than I had assumed. There was a ceremonial room made of light stone with a large altar, or stage, at the front. Multiple floors were built above us, one of which we went to as one of the Hare Krishna devotees received us with a presentation about the temple and the movement.
The Hare Krishna movement came to the United States in the 1960’s by Bhaktivedanta Swami, more commonly known as Swami Prabhupada, and was further popularized in the 1970’s. The Swami promoted a Vaishnavite branch of Hinduism, which focused on Vishnu and his incarnation as Lord Krishna. According to Thomas J. Hopkins in his work “ISKCON’s Search for Self-Identity: Reflections by a Historian of Religions,” Prabhupada’s goal was to inspire disciples to follow him and he worked to translate devotional texts so that people in the U.S. would be able to understand what was expected of them as a devotee and would have the texts in a language they could learn from (175).
The Hare Krishna whom we met at the temple gave us a synopsis of the origins of the movement and the attraction which certain Western people felt toward this movement. He was candid about the fact that Prahbupada did draw in a certain hippie crowd and explained why the Swami’s teachings were fascinating to them. He also drew upon pop culture references, such as the interaction between the Beatles and the Hare Krishna’s in order to impress upon us how the movement interacted with culture at the time. On one hand, this was a positive thing because we learned how exactly the movement took hold and achieved its first supporters. The downside to how he presented the material was that he seemed to (unintentionally) propagate the idea of India as a mystical, spiritual place where people go to in order to find themselves. While historically this did happen with the Beatles and specifically George Harrison, I was perturbed that this manufactured idea of a fantastical culture was not addressed.
After our presentation, my class ventured to the ceremony room to take part in a service. It was a lively service, different than a Hindu temple I visited in my youth, and very different from the many Christian services I have attended. The people participating were lively, dancing, jumping, and pronouncing their love for God. The Maha Mantra was repeated infinitely, and we were all encouraged to take part if we so desired. A life-sized figure of Prabhupada sat facing the altar at the back of the room. Thomas J. Hopkins focuses on all of the textual work that Prabhupada did in order to leave his followers with ample material after his death. Therefore, he left a great legacy behind for his disciples (Hopkins 179). This is a visual representation of how the Hare Krishna’s in London honor their leader who brought Vaishna Hindu tradition to the Western world.
Overall, the experience in the temple was informative and interesting. The devotees were all extremely welcoming and I felt uplifted being in their presence. This was also a chance to see a Hare Krishna temple for myself, especially because the reputation of the ISKCON temple portrays it as a cult by which white westerners partake in cultural appropriation. It was not as cult-ish as I imagined, though there was a variety of race among the participants which differed from my experience at a Hindu temple. Additionally, the enthusiastic and vibrant nature of the service was relaxing compared to other religions based in repentance, and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to witness people who have kept this movement alive since the 1960’s.