They were on Edward Street to hear the bells ring in the new year, chanting and dressed in robes, when the other revellers, hundreds of them, started to join in. The chant, made famous in songs by Boy George and George Harrison goes ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare’. Then it repeats with ‘Rama’ replacing Krishna, and then again a couple of hundred more times until the devotees get tired or hungry.
This participation is an oddly positive response from an Irish public which, a decade earlier, rated the Hare Krishna’s second only to drug addicts in groups that they try to avoid. By the way, The Hare Krishnas don’t call themselves ‘Hare Krishnas’. They don’t mind if you do though, they’re a pretty easy-going bunch. They’re organisation is officially called ISKCON and they often refer to each other as ‘followers of Krishna’.
They also don’t mind it when random strangers in the street join in and start chanting, because “even when said in a joking way, there’s still a power in the chant, it is the name of God.”
This is told to me by Syamananda who, 20 years ago when he’d first moved into ISKCON’s Fermanagh temple, was called Seamus. He had to work hard for his Sanskrit name – a solid year of study and devotional service until he earned the alias of Syamananda. It translates, roughly, to ‘blue-ish bliss’.
Described by themselves as a ‘kitchen religion’, Syamananda admits that one of the first things that attracted him – that attracts a lot of people to the Krishna’s – is their food. Syamananda worked in the kitchens himself for seven years, preparing ‘karma-free’ vegetarian food, and even now fills in at ’Govinda’s’ restaurant on Aungiers street. Strictly speaking monks aren’t supposed to work, but Syamananda doesn’t play by the rules.
He’s a bit of a badass.
You can tell because his head is shaved (except for a ponytail), though he assures me that this is just an optional aspect of the religion. “I chose to embrace the cultural features, the robes and that, but they’re not really required. Although what we do is based on Indian scriptures, what we believe is universal. It’s based on Philosophy, not culture. Though, obviously you don’t go to the pub anymore.”
Syamananda stills gets on well with those from his hometown in Cavan and has kept close to his family. He admits that at first there was some distance – they were worried about what he was committing to, as most families would be – but this soon stopped when they realised that his new life seemed to make him happy.
The Hare Krishnas are one of the better know minority religions in Ireland, probably disproportionately so due to them chanting about through the city centre every Saturday. There’s only around 30 monks in Ireland at any one time and about 150 people attended Krishna’s birthday, the biggest festival in ISKCON’s calendar.
Before joining the order Syamananda – then Seamus – went to confession to tell of his plans to become a monk. The only response from the local clergy was ‘We lost a good priest in Seamus there.’ See, Syamananda has always been a debater, it’s how he gets his kicks. When he lived on the Island monastery in Fermanagh his uncle ,a Monsignor in the Catholic church, would come to visit him, once bringing along other priests to get in on the discussion. The week before I interviewed him, Syamananda met up with a group of theology students and their professor to discus the similarities and differences of their respective religions.
In general the Hare Krishnas have a positive relationship with the larger religions of Ireland, a respect for another strongly held belief in an increasingly secular country. Some members specialise in inter-religious dialogue. At his mother’s funeral, Syamananda brought devotional gifts as an offering, an act respected by the priests present.
However he understands why the hare Krishna’s may have had a bad reputation in the past. “Most members do some time selling books and, sometimes, those with weak faith will lash out at the public. However the reception is usually good or, at least, not worse than any other group that’s on the streets. We are very careful to establish ourselves on a philosophical platform. In the past, religion had been about devotion without philosophy. The public don’t buy that nowadays.”.
On top of that, Syamananda tells me that in America some followers were “guilty of doing outrageous things” to fill the church coffers which contributed to the appearance that they might just be another money-grabbing hippy cult.
“It’s become hip and cool to rip religions apart, to say ‘religions cause all these problems’. Christian church scandals tarnish every religious institution but, largely, we’ve sort of managed to escape that”.
However, there’s been massive changes since Syamananda first joined. There was a huge crisis during the mid 80’s after their founder left the country and a lot of the followers became disillusioned with the new leadership and left the order. There was also a culture back then of monks looking down on the laity as not ‘really’ being followers of Krishna – as being half-assed pretenders.
It‘s different now. ISKCON is run by a committee, which is considered a very western idea compared to the traditional Indian system of Guru leadership. It has also become largely congregation based; they estimate that, worldwide, monks only make up 3 per cent of the adherents – though Syamananda admits that they tend to be pretty lax when it comes to keeping numbers.
The religion has also proved popular amongst Asian and Indian immigrants who identify their home religions in the worship of Krishna and practice of chanting. Everyone is welcome to join in the services, which is especially noticeable in the London Temple which sees seven or eight thousand visitors each Sunday.
On top of this they hold cookery courses and non-religious retreats, the ‘Woman’s relax and restore’ weekend of massages and discussion groups is, unsurprisingly, the most popular. All these seem to have helped improve ISCKON’s reputation.
But as good as things are for the Hare Krishnas in Ireland, England and America, their reception has been less positive elsewhere.
Syamananda used to live in a monastery in Belgium which received 25-30 thousand guests a year, however the government refused to grant them official tourist status because they consider ISCKON a cult. They attract a similarly cold reception in France and the near East.
“We wanted to open a centre in Turkey but weren’t allowed. The best we were able to do was to open a restaurant with a small reading room in the back.”
When asked why they receive such differing reactions in different countries, Syamananda theorizes “The vast amount of Irish people still believe in God. There’s a higher percentage of atheists in Belgium. People here are open to the idea that the universe is not the cold, empty, mechanical place that science likes to tell us it is”.