Review: Sing, Dance and Pray by Hindol Sengupta
This biography of Srila Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON, provides an insight into the history of the Hare Krishna movement, which grew out of the interface between Gaudiya Vaishnavism and American counterculture
This is an engrossing introduction to the life of Abhay Charan De, better known by names like Bhaktivedanta Swami and Srila Prabhupada. De was the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York in 1966. Apart from being an excellent biography, this is a must-read for people interested in the history of the Hare Krishna movement, which grew out of the interface between Gaudiya Vaishnavism and American counterculture.
While drawing attention to De’s influence as a preacher and institution builder, the book also shows us that he drew inspiration from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. A skilled writer, translator and publisher, he firmly believed in the power of books to spread Krishna bhakti all over the world.
The urgency to make translations and commentaries of the Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charanamrita widely available was anchored in De’s view that political freedom from British rule was not enough. Sengupta writes, “The question to ask was: What were the people who were receiving such political freedom likely to do with this liberty? Where would their ethics and morals be grounded? What would lie at the heart of their lives?” De was convinced that the path would be illuminated by Krishna.
One of the biggest takeaways from this book is that De did not discriminate between people. He did not go out looking for Indians, Hindus or Brahmins when he stepped on American soil. He embraced whoever showed interest in Krishna bhakti. In doing so, he was honouring his guru Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati who believed that “traditional societal caste rules barring lower castes from entering temples should be abolished” because everyone ought to be “welcome to bathe in the love of Krishna”.
This openness enabled him to create safe spaces for Americans who were disillusioned and restless, who were questioning capitalism and protesting war, who were looking for answers to existential questions outside the religion and culture they were raised in. His earliest followers were hippies who were curious about Eastern spirituality, drawn to vegetarianism, and enchanted by his incense-perfumed prayer meetings. He cooked lovingly for them, recognising that “the bhakti of Krishna was impossible to imagine without the solace of a full stomach and the sound of music.”
Sengupta creates this vivid backdrop to help us understand the context in which De encountered Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet who became an ardent supporter of the Hare Krishna movement and lent credibility through public endorsement. It is not surprising that Ginsberg was drawn to De, a teacher who did not mind showing up as a messenger of Krishna anywhere and everywhere including “rooms suffused with the smoke of marijuana and cannabis”, public parks, rock concerts, peace vigils, and a nudist colony. De advocated abstinence from meat, intoxication, gambling and “illicit sex” meaning sex outside marriage. He found a language to connect with drug addicts. He told them that the high from LSD would be followed by a low but the high of Krishna consciousness was one that would last.
How did De, who did not have even tea and coffee because he considered them stimulants, prepare himself to work in this environment? Did he see these followers merely as clientele, or was he deeply invested in helping them be free of their misery? Why did a preacher who cared so much for the misfits and the destitute hobnob with the elite? Sengupta has some fairly convincing answers.
ISKCON faced a significant backlash from older Americans who felt that De was brainwashing their sons and daughters into joining a cult and picking up alien practices. De had to negotiate this criticism tactfully. While he was departing from many established customs, he also needed the legitimacy of tradition. He had to build alliances with other religious leaders, and clarify that he was not interested in converting people or turning them against their religion. He accepted Jesus Christ as the son of God and also proclaimed that “each soul is part and parcel of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
Sengupta writes about singer-songwriter George Harrison’s entry into De’s life, and the transformations that came about for both. Like Ginsberg’s poetry, Harrison’s music too became a vehicle to take Krishna bhakti to new audiences. De went on to set up over 100 centres across the world in the last few decades of his life. Whether it was the UK or Australia, Germany or Russia, Kenya or Yugoslavia, he found a way to move forward despite logistical challenges.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t easy to establish ISKCON centres in Bombay, Vrindavan and Mayapur either. Rivalries and jealousies posed impediments at every step. One of the reasons behind De’s departure to the US was his frustration with fellow disciples of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati who felt threatened and refused to co-operate with him. De also found that many followers assigned tasks related to property and financial matters were being duped and had to step in and take care of these matters when he could have been writing, translating or resting. The incessant work took a toll on him and he grew very sick towards the end.
Sing, Dance and Pray offers a thoughtful commentary on the struggles involved in protecting institutions from crumbling once they become massive and difficult to manage. De was aware that feuds might break out among his followers after his death, so he set up a governing body to guide the running of the institutions. Even before his last breath, he saw people getting high on the power they wielded in the movement rather than on Krishna bhakti.
Unfortunately, Sengupta does not provide any insight into the reports about alleged tax evasion and child molestation at certain ISKCON centres, or the formal steps taken to address these issues. The book refrains from exploring why there have been frequent attacks on ISKCON centres in Bangladesh. The reader also wonders why De’s wife Radharani Devi only makes a cameo appearance in this book and why, when she does, she is presented mainly as an obstacle in De’s spiritual path. The author does not acquaint us with what happened to her when De was travelling all over the world and preaching. The book would have been stronger without these absences but it deserves to be read despite these limitations.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.