by Jon Fasman
In 1971, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna faith, visited Moscow. Although he could neither practice nor preach his religion openly, he nevertheless managed to convert one interested young Russian, who began spreading the faith underground.
23 years later, Hare Krishnas now practice openly in Russia. Ironically for a pacifist faith, their main temple is an ornate pink gem set amidst military installations in the Begovaya section of Moscow. They estimate their adherents between 80,000 and 100,000, and they have charity missions in approximately 20 Russian cities, where they provide hot vegetarian food to whomever needs it, regardless of creed or religious belief.
Bhakti Vijnana Goswami currently heads the Centre of the Societies for Krishna Consciousness in Russia, an officially registered religious organization. Goswami first became attracted to Krishnaism in 1980, when he was a postgraduate student in molecular biology. A persistent friend — also a Hare Krishna — introduced him to the faith, thus bringing his scientific career to a halt and beginning his spiritual one.
He talked to the Moscow Times last week.
MT: When did the Hare Krishna religion first come to Russia?
BVG: Hare Krishna religion first came to Russian in 1971, when the founder of our movement, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupadha, first came to Moscow for a short, four-days visit. And at that time he met with Professor Kartovsky from the academy of sciences, and he met with few Russian people, and he converted, so to speak, one Russian to this faith. So from this one Russian the whole movement started, because at that time it was strictly prohibited, andhe came, not really in disguise, but he was not allowed to fully manifest his mission, so to speak, because at that time the government was strictly atheistic.
MT: How many Hare Krishnas are there in Russia?
BVG: We count approximately between 80,000 and 100,000.
MT: Have Russians been generally receptive to Krishnaism?
BVG: Yes. I have been all over the world, and I see that Russian people are, on average, more receptive. Partially because of the economic situations, partially for some other reasons, partially because of their nature which is very receptive. And of course 70 years of atheist rule also contributed very favorably to this effect.
MT: Why do you think Russians have been so receptive to the Hare Krishna faith?
BVG: Culturally, Russian people are something between Western people and Eastern people, because they are more emotional than Western people. Western people tend to be more cold and more rational. Russian people are not so rational. And our outlook and our religion is a philosophical one, but it’s also an emotional one. It’s a religion of bakhti, and bakhti means love, emotional love towards God. So, and our rituals are supposed to involve some spiritual or emotional feelings, so in this sense we’re not only addressing the intellectual needs of the people, but also the emotional needs, and this is one of the reasons why Russian people are more receptive than western people because they’re more emotional.
Another reason is that the society is, you know, upside down, more or less. For the last few years, very many Russian people suffered because of the lack of ideals, the lack of ideology, and also the severe atheistic rule made people more receptive and more searching for God. It’s human psychology, the forbidden fruit is always more sweet, and more attractive for people. That’s another reason.
Then of course another reason is that Russian people, they love India. Somehow or another this love toward India is in the blood of Russian people.
MT: Have you faced any special problems?
BVG: Oh yes. In 1971 when the first Russian Hare Krishna appeared in Russia, for some time the movement was growing underground. Then at the beginning of 80s, the Russian government declared war on the Hare Krishnas, so much so that in the magazine Communist, there was an article and the deputy chief of KGB chief at that time was that there were three major threats to Soviet rule: pop music, Coca Cola, and Hare Krishnas.
MT: Why Hare Krishnas in particular?
I was always wondering why. Probably because they saw how receptive people are, and how even people who have nothing to do with this religion, how they can be converted to this religion. I was one of those who encountered some problems during that period, and I was really wondering because I knew who Hare Krishnas were, I knew that it was just a bunch of kind of useless people, maybe100 people at that time, and I knew that we were not really dangerous, but at the same time I saw how seriously the government took us. They perhaps had some idea that there was a potential for this kind of religion or faith in Russia, and I think they were right.
MT: And have you faced problems recently?
BVG: We’re relatively small. Recently, we don’t have any particular problems, especially from the government. I think it would not be fair to complain now. We enjoy full rights here, and lots of different people have different opinions about us, and Russian Orthodox Church has a particular opinion about us, which they don’t hesitate to speak out. Still, as far as our situation here, we are more or less accepted.
MT: What sorts of charitable works are you involved in?
We are quite active in the field of charity. We have a mission which is called Hare Krishna Food For Life, and this mission is active all over the world, and in Russia it has been active since 1988. In 1988, even before any temples were built, we were just recognized by the government in ’88, so immediately when a huge earthquake took place in Armenia the first thing we did was food relief for the victims of this earthquake. Then of course there was the Abkhazian war, and then there was Sukhumi, where we were serving for 5 years, we were feeding people, basically millions and millions of plates of hot vegetarian food were distributed to people. Then we were the first non- governmental charitable organization to go into Chechnya, in March 1995. At that time we were there for one and a half years until the time when Chechens took Grozny, and at that time one of our volunteers was killed. Now in many cities we have branches of our organization, in Moscow perhaps it’s not so prominent because Moscow is such an opulent city.
MT: How did you yourself become involved with Hare Krishanism?
BVG: A long story, to make it short, I started getting interested in Krishnaism in 1980, when I was a postgraduate student. I was studying molecular biology; I was studying the nature of life, and basically I became convinced that life is not something accidental, or something that can just be produced by chance. That was quite obvious for me. It’s too complicated to be produced by chance.
So that was the beginning of my philosophical quest. I started reading different philosophers, and some religious books as well, though at that time it was very difficult to obtain them. I had a friend of mine who became Hare Krishna himself, and he introduced me to this religion, and for some time I was examining it, and finally I had to accept defeat. All my arguments were basically defeated by his theology. Being somewhat honest I had to admit it, and that was the end of my scientific career, and my spiritual career started.
MT: What is the Krishna response to the hostage-taking at Nord-Ost?
We are mourning for the victims of Nord-Ost tragedy in Moscow. In such occasions people often turn to God asking Him why this has happen. May He give us the wisdom to understand the root cause of it and uproot it.
We see that in the modern world so much violence performed on the name of religion. Nord-Ost tragedy is just another example of this pseudo religious rhetoric, a vicious crime committed under some «religious» pretext.
If we want peace we should understand that it starts in our own heart. If we really want peace, we should not be in illusion that it will come through the war and vengeance. Hatred bears only hatred, evil brings about only evil.