delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998
The study of religious freedom is a study of contrasts and contradictions. Nelson Mandela, who is a regular visitor to our Hare Krishna temple in Durban, South Africa, spoke last summer at an ISKCON event that brought together 40,000 school children from various cultural and ethnic groups in South Africa. At the end of the day, Mandela commented to a reporter that seeing so diverse a group of children enjoying together made the event “the happiest day” of his life.
In France meanwhile, the government has labeled the Hare Krishna society a “destructive cult.” In Armenia, Krishna temples were attacked just three years ago and men and women were beaten, while government authorities—although notified of the atrocities—refused to intervene.
In India, Prime Minister Vajpayee, gave the inaugural address at the opening of an ISKCON temple in New Delhi in 1998. Here is an excerpt of his remarks:
“The ISKCON movement has few parallels in the world in terms of its rapid global spread; its transnational, transethnic, and transprofessional appeal; its outward simplicity; and the devotional energy of its followers. In the less than three and one half decades since its inception it has established temples in practically all parts of the world and many of them are marvels of beauty, such as the one that is being opened in Delhi today. If the Bhagavad Gita, the holy text of the Hindu traditions, is printed in millions of copies and scores of languages and distributed in all nooks and corners of the world, the credit for this great sacred service goes chiefly to ISKCON. For this accomplishment alone, Indians should be eternally grateful to the devoted spiritual army of Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, and to his followers. The arrival of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the United States in 1965 and the particular popularity his movement gained in a very short span of twelve years must be regarded as one of the greatest spiritual events of the century.”
A German reporter at the Delhi temple inauguration commented, “This is a marvelous event. Too bad, I can’t report on it in Germany. We don’t do positive stories about Hare Krishna in Germany.”
In some countries Hare Krishna is highly respected, while elsewhere it’s considered a cult. Obviously, both opinions can’t be correct.
What is the source of this dichotomy? For one thing, there is a tremendous lack of objective research about minority religions available to governments, policymakers, and the public. This is especially true in Russia and many European countries, where decisions are made that affect the religious lives of thousands, if not millions of people, often without the benefit of objective academic research. That lack of information serves to empower the voices of ignorance and prejudice. Too often, media professionals who simply don’t take time to do their own objective research repeat those prejudicial messages. This increase of misinformation then becomes the basis of ill-informed social analysis and government policy.
I would also like to reflect briefly on what Leonard Swidler said this morning regarding the need for dialogue. There is a tremendous need for increased dialogue and discussion between religious groups, especially between minority religions and the dominant church or churches. There is a need for two-way discussions involving the government, academics, religious groups, and the media. In advancing the cause of religious freedom, we need to work to develop a shared willingness to learn, and willingness for give and take on both sides.
Members of the Hare Krishna society are trying to do our part. We are meeting with scholars, members of the media, government, and the dominant churches wherever possible. We are not meeting simply to ask, “Will you stand up for us and protect our rights?” Equally important is to ask advice on how to improve what we do. What have we done wrong? What could we do better to minimize conflicts and misunderstandings that may exist?
I will close by relating a personal experience. About a year ago, I went to dinner with members of a prominent “anti-cult” organization. In the course of our discussion, they asked me about the status of a West Virginia Krishna splinter group that broke off fifteen years ago. The leader of the group was officially expelled and later ended up in serious legal trouble. I was uncomfortable when asked about this situation, but answered, “Actually, this particular person was expelled 10 years ago after violating the tenets of our tradition. He does not at all represent us.”
There was a moment or two of silence and then I asked, “What is Ted Patrick doing these days?” (For those of you who don’t know, Patrick was one of the founding fathers of the “anti-cult” movement, and is notorious for illegal kidnappings. He eventually ran into trouble with the law and became an embarrassment for most “anti-cult” organizations in the United States.) My dinner guests, notably uncomfortable with my question responded, “Well, he doesn’t represent our organization anymore. We don’t approve of his activities and we have moved beyond that.” On the basis of that honest exchange, we all found common ground for further discussion.
In conclusion, there is a great need for 1) objective academic research about legitimate minority religious expression, and 2) increased dialogue. If we move forward on these two fronts, and encourage others to do so, significant progress will be made in our quest for increased religious freedom for all.