IN 1966, WHEN THE Hare Krsna movement first got started in the West, it was something new and strange. People didn't know what to make of it. Now, for many people in their thirties and forties, it's something they grew up with. The man in the White House belongs to a generation that saw Hare Krsna become a regular part of American life. When Hare Krsna first came on the scene in London, Prince Charles was just turning twenty.
Kids who once bought Hare Krsna books on street corners are now college professors. Hare Krsna devotees once thought to be part of a "youth cult" are now raising grandchildren.
The influx of Asian Indians into North America over the last two decades has contributed to the growing sense that Hare Krsna is here to stay. Come to a Hare Krsna temple these days, and alongside the devotees who joined Hare Krsna in the West and their children and grandchildren you're likely to find Asian Indians whose families have been devotees of Lord Krsna for more generations than they can trace. Youth cult indeed.
Meanwhile, weird practices of the Hare Krsna cult have started to become mainstream. Back in the old days, when we told people we were vegetarians it was just another sign we were flaky. Nowadays? It's a sign that we're smart.
No cigarettes? Hare Krsna was ahead again. No drugs? Chalk up another one for Hare Krsna. How about chastity? Twenty years ago when we told people, "Sex only in marriage," they looked at us like we were cheerfully suggesting suicide. Now, in the Age of AIDS … Chalk up another one for Krsna's side.
Even our trademark "saffron bedsheets" seem to be catching on. What's been chic in this year's high fashion? Among other things, "the Hare Krsna look." Plunk down several thousand dollars, and a designer will wrap you up in flowing silk Hare Krsna saffron.
Our philosophy, too, has grown ever more familiar and accepted. Karma, reincarnation, the presence of a spiritual spark of consciousness in all forms of life. If that still seems "way out" to you well, maybe that's just your bad karma.
Trends and fads have arrived and faded, and Hare Krsna is still going strong. Why? I got some insight about it some time ago from a young woman at Kennedy Airport.
I was on my way to India. Head shaved, dressed in my usual Hare Krsna saffron (economy style cotton, not silk), I stopped off at a counter in the terminal to buy some travelers checks.
The woman counted out the checks for me and handed them over. "Here you go, hon," she said, addressing me with a standard New York endearment. "You know," she said, "I really like you people. You're not like those other groups. You're really what you pretend to be. Here you go."
Thank you. And Hare Krsna.