Printer Friendly

Hare Krishnas in Singapore: agency, state, and Hinduism.


Over the past forty years, there has been a proliferation of new religious movements all over the world (Glock and Bellah 1976; Tipton 1982; Wuthnow 1976; Robbins and Anthony 1982; Richardson 1983). Some of these, such as Transcendental Meditation, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Zen Buddhism and the Unification Church, had Asian roots before they established beachheads in the American religious market (Bainbridge 1997, p. 179). After having gained popularity in America and Europe, they expanded into other parts of Asia, where they were previously unknown or shunned. Asian converts to these movements often found themselves in a situation where they have to participate in contestation of physical, social and psychological space in the midst of their new found religion's tenets, the mainstream religious ethos which shares common roots with their new religion, and the rule of the state where they resided.

The paper is divided into two parts. The first addresses the state-agency nexus and then the Hinduism-agency nexus. For the latter nexus we begin with a section on local trends, continue with the Hindu--Hare Krishna interaction and end with a critical account of devotees' voices. In both parts we make extensive use of primary data. Primary data is sourced from archival research on publications produced by the global and local Hare Krishna movements, semi-structured interviews with devotees in Singapore, and observations of devotees' religious practices. Overall, the intent of the paper is to provide a fine-grained ethnographic account of the agency of Hare Krishna devotees within the constraining structures imposed on them by the State and mainstream Hinduism.

The State and Hare Krishna

To discuss the relationship between the Hare Krishna movement and the Singapore state it is important to give an account of the history of the former and policies of the latter. The Hare Krishna movement is more of a revitalization movement than a new religion (Judah 1974; Daner 1976). The precepts and practices of the Hare Krishnas were taught and codified in Bengal by the fifteenth century religious reformer Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and his principle associates, the Six Goswamis of Vrindavana. They were followed by a succession of gurus and disciples, one of whom was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada who established the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York in 1966. Soon the movement spread to European, African and Asian countries and Prabhupada established over a hundred temples in eleven years. However, since the departure of Prabhupada in 1977, the global composition of Hare Krishna has changed. Although membership has multiplied and the majority of Hare Krishna devotees in the world today can be identified with ISKCON, a large number of Prabhupada's disciples left ISKCON to form splinter organizations of their own or joined various branches of the Gaudiya Matha which was founded by Prabhupada's guru Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur. This was mainly due to frustration with the post Prabhupada leadership. Consequently, there are several ISKCON and Gaudiya Matha temples around the world and in Asian countries like India, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan. In Singapore, no official temple exists although programs are conducted in the houses of devotees and in Hindu temples.

Singapore's model of religion-state relations is one of neutrality in the sense that the state does not officially prefer one religion over others, but instead seeks to accommodate different religious beliefs as long as they are not perceived to threaten 'social order' (Straits Times, 30 October 2007). Although the state declares itself to be secular, it is not anti-religious, rather secularism is seen to be a practical approach to manage multi-religiousity in a neutral way (Sinha 1999, p. 81). The state has in fact promoted religion and religiousity directly through ways such as introducing a compulsory 'religious knowledge' programme in Singapore's National Education and indirectly through its encouragement of Singaporeans to preserve their cultural heritage which inevitably includes religion (Pereira 2005, p. 171). At the same time, because of the fragile ethno-religious makeup of Singaporean society, the state keeps a close watch on religious affairs. The Internal Security Department (ISD) in particular, monitors and investigates potential cases of religious and racial subversion. In 1991, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) was passed to monitor religious matters and to prevent religious organizations from being used for political purposes (Tong 2007, p. 246). Besides the politicization of religion, the government is also concerned with the implications of religious fundamentalism and the disruptive potential of conversion due to proselytizing (Hill 2003, p. 123). In a bid to impress upon its citizens the importance of the government's interventionist role, the state constantly reiterates the racial and religious violence that occurred in the country's early years. The media often reports instances the state arbitrates in cases where religious leaders are perceived to mix religion with politics and when they criticized other religions. In fact Hill asserts that the state in Singapore engineers 'moral panic' by constructing myths 'framed around the notion of the state's precariousness, in order to legitimate government policies and to mobilize social action, especially with the goal of creating consensuses' (Hill 2003, p. 125). Thus the Singapore State would be expected to be extra vigilant when new religious movements like the Hare Krishna movement take root in the city state.

The expansion of Hare Krishna in Singapore was first conceived of in 1970. Prabhupada wrote his disciple, Bali Mardan, that preaching in Singapore would be good for two reasons. The first was like Hong Kong, Singapore is an English speaking country and so it would not be difficult for his Western disciples to communicate. Second, there were many Indians in Singapore who would support the movement (Das 1996, pp. 6-7). Thus Bali Mardan and Amogha Das, the first Western disciples of Prabhupada, arrived in Singapore around January 1971. During their stay, they would go door to door selling books during the day, and in the evenings hold programmes in houses and temples. The Indians, especially the Sindhis, were receptive to the devotees. Their visit to places like the National University of Singapore, then known as Singapore University, was covered by the press and they thus achieved a measure of success (Das 1996, p. 12). However, they were not free to go out and perform the singing of the Hare Krishna mantra in public places as they did in other parts of the world (Das 1996, p. 11)

In March 1971, Prabhupada came to Singapore for a short stay when he was on his way to Australia (Das 1996, p. 15). A program was arranged for him at a local Hindu temple, the Srinivas Perumal Temple. However, Prabhupada and his entourage were barred from going beyond the customs checkpoint at the airport (Goswami 1983, p. 89). According to several biographies and accounts from devotees, this was the only such incident experienced by Prabhupada throughout his travels. The exact reasons for Prabhupada not being allowed entry into Singapore are unclear, but explanations such as "the Government suspected him of being a CIA agent" are common amongst devotee circles. Later, his Western devotees in Singapore were also barred from entering back into Singapore when they tried to re-enter on their way back from missionary trips to Malaysia (Das 1996, p. 20). After Prabhupada departed in 1977, Hare Krishna devotees continued to face obstacles in their missionary activities in Singapore.

All religious groups and organizations in Singapore must register with the Registrar of Societies under the Societies Act to function legitimately (Sinha 2005, p. 111). One respondent said that in 1979, some local ISKCON members tried to officially register the society but failed. In response to this, in the mid-eighties, different strategies were adopted to gain legitimate existence; for example, Hare Krishna societies tried operating under different names such as a company named 'Govindas' was registered in 1985 to sell Prabhupada's books. Then in 1987, a group of ISKCON devotees used an existing society called the 'Shiva Mandir' as a preaching platform and ran the place like a temple. For the next ten years, most of the Hare Krishna devotees who were identified with ISKCON served under the banner of this organization in Singapore. This period also saw a substantial increase in the number of devotees, especially Singaporean Indian Hindus. Over a period of ten years, the devotees shifted to four different locations as they struggled to find a suitable space and affordable rent. Mr S who was the temple president at that time recalls,
   We had a lot of people. Singapore is a cosmopolitan city. We had
   also had Oriyans and Bengalis because this tradition of worship is
   something familiar to them. There were Tamil people but not so
   many because they can't accept the chanting and dancing. Chinese
   people were also very few. Singapore Chinese look down on the
   Indians ... to break that we needed some white devotees. But the
   Government is not very favourable to having them.

A society known as the Prabhupada Yoga Meditation Centre was registered as a company under the leadership of a Malaysian Chinese devotee in 1985. This group attracted a few Chinese Singaporeans and even sold Prabhupada's books in Mandarin. According to a respondent from this group, like the Shiva Mandir devotees, they tried to keep as closely as possible to ISKCON's program by distributing books, renting a building, setting up an altar and worshipping deities. They also published a local magazine called "Every Town and Village". However, their Western Guru was barred from ISKCON because he had some disagreements with ISKCON's official governing body, the Governing Body Commission (GBC), and thus was unable to follow his spiritual vows. These issues sieved into the local environment and the group was soon disbanded.

As mentioned earlier, a number of Prabhupada's disciples had left ISKCON to join the Gaudiya Matha. This trend was also mirrored in Singapore as some of the pioneer devotees encouraged members of their sat-sanga (devotional congregations) to accept a guru from the Gaudiya Matha in India. Since Singapore already had a number of Indian based religious institutions and since the Gaudiya Matha was not officially linked to ISKCON, they were able to get registered without much difficulty. Presently three Gaudiya Matha societies are officially registered in Singapore. Including the Gaudiya Mathas, there are presently about seven Hare Krishna societies existing in Singapore. Some of the devotees interviewed were concerned that publishing the names of their societies might attract undue attention so we decided not to name them here.

Our respondents recounted incidents of how their foreign gurus were denied entry into Singapore at the airport. To circumvent this, many foreign devotees, including the monks, would change into casual civilian clothes instead of their saffron robes when visiting Singapore. Even then, entry is not guaranteed as one disciple recounted,
   When my Guru wanted to visit Singapore, he was wearing ordinary
   clothes. But the authorities in the airport noticed his neck beads
   and sikha (long tuft of hair left on top or on the back of the
   shaven head of an orthodox Hindu male or Hare Krishna devotee)
   and greeted him by saying "Hare Krishna." When he responded in
   turn, he was not allowed to pass through.

In another interesting case, an Australian Hare Krishna monk did not feel comfortable about changing his religious garb. He recounted:
   I wore my saffron robes but did not wear my tilak (traditional
   Vaishnava marking on the forehead). Usually I wear a cap to hide my
   sikha and for the past fifteen years I have passed through
   Singapore customs without any trouble, probably because they think
   I'm a Buddhist monk. My strategy is to not act suspicious and to
   look cool and calm. But this one time I did not wear my cap and for
   half an hour I was detained by the officials. They asked me "Are
   you a Hare Krishna?" I replied, "No." Then they asked "what are
   you" and I replied "I am a Gaudiya Vaishnava.". They just wanted me
   to say that I am a Hare Krishna and then they would blacklist and
   bar me from entering Singapore. So I was determined not to say it.
   Usually I don't lie and respect the law of the land but in this
   case I lied so that I may be able to carry out my service. I see it
   more as a temporary law due to their misunderstanding of thinking
   Hare Krishna to be something evil. They tried some tricky
   questioning like "what is your philosophy?". Then they asked me to
   sit in a room and wait while looking at a TV screen. Somehow I knew
   they were watching me so I just kept staring at the TV instead of
   chanting on my beads. Eventually they let me pass. The officers who
   interrogated me were not hostile; they were just doing their job.

Besides foreigners, local devotees also encountered problems with the authorities. Three Singaporean respondents recounted being interviewed by ISD officials in the mid-nineties. One of the ISD officials claimed "they have a list of all the names of Hare Krishnas in Singapore." Although our respondents did not want to share details of their experiences, they did mention that they were not harassed or told to stop their devotional practices. Nevertheless, a local Hare Krishna monk recounted that he was conducting weekly Bhagavad Gita classes in his rented apartment in 2000 when, a few months later, police officers searched his house. He was threatened with a fine of $10,000 if he continued to conduct the classes on the premise that it is illegal in Singapore to use residential spaces as public places of worship.

On a different note, Singapore has made an unusual but significant contribution to ISKCON in that several of Prabhupada's twenty-four volume Srimad Bhagavatam (one of the eighteen puranas) hardbound sets were printed here in 1987. They are still referred to as the "Singapore version" by devotees around the world today and are known for their compactness and durability.

At present, there are several devotional programs being conducted in devotees' houses and Hindu temples in Singapore. We counted eleven different sat-sangas (devotional congregations) of various sizes conducting programs in various parts of the island, but there are likely to be more. Since most of these groups comprise of ISKCON devotees, and because ISKCON as an institution or a temple does not exist in Singapore, they operate independently of one another. Some comprise disciples of particular gurus, while others are more cosmopolitan. Another reason for the significant number of programmes occurring in various venues is because of disagreements amongst the devotee. Due to the non-existence of a central authority, the devotees in Singapore are free to split from congregations if they disagree and start up their own groups. In other countries where an official ISKCON body exists, there would be a lesser chance of factionalization as the local GBC leader would mediate and try to resolve disputes. Although ISKCON had assigned Singapore a GBC leader, his powers are limited by the fact that there is no common space or temple where everyone congregates. The fragmentation of the devotees has resulted in many programmes being conducted in various temples and houses which interestingly contributed to an exponential rise in the total number of Hare Krishna devotees.

Besides temples, Hare Krishna in Singapore also gathered together in other social and physical spaces. One group of devotees successfully obtained a building and invited members of parliament as guests-of-honour during their major festivals. In 2006, they also were able to organize a chariot festival, akin to the famous chariot festival of Lord Jagannath in Puri, India, in a sports stadium. Other Hare Krishna groups also organize chariot festivals but in more secluded places such as farms and even homes. One of the largest groups would hold major religious festivals like the Krishna Janmastami (birthday festival of Krishna) in Indian associations such as the Gujarati Association.

An increase in congregations and the number of devotees has also helped to enhance the modes of propagation. Presently, Hare Krishnas operate two vegetarian restaurants and a catering service. Devotees visit prisons to reach out to the prisoners while other devotees who are scientists have given talks at the National University of Singapore on the synthesis of science and spirituality. Devotional classes in Tamil and Bengali are also being conducted to cater to members of those two ethnic communities. Not surprisingly, the composition of congregations has become more diverse, including labourers from Bangladesh, professionals from India, and Chinese Singaporeans. In particular, since the nineties, the influx of Indian professionals to Singapore has changed the demographics of Hare Krishnas drastically.

The following can be drawn from the analysis of the above account of State--Hare Krishna relationship in Singapore. First, given the state's efficient apparatus of collecting information and its watchful eye on religious affairs, it is highly unlikely that they are unaware of the expansion of Hare Krishna over the past decades in Singapore. Rather, it would seem the state's policy towards Hare Krishna is ambiguous. And unlike state-run moral panics in the media on some new religious movements such as the Jehovah's Witnesses (Straits Times, 9 September 1992; Straits Times, 12 August 1994; Straits Times, 26 February 1995; Straits Times, 27 January 1996), there have been virtually no reports on the Hare Krishnas in Singapore.

A reason for not conducting an all out persecution of Hare Krishnas in Singapore is that the Hare Krishna movement has been accepted and even endorsed in several cities around the world; thus an all-out ban may invite international criticism. For example, in 2006, when the Kazakhstan Government demolished eleven homes belonging to Hare Krishna devotees, several international Hindu organizations such as the Hindu American Foundation and Hindu Forum of Britain expressed their disapproval and equated the act to the persecution of Hindus. Another reason is that so far the members of the Hare Krishna movement have stayed out of political activity.

Nevertheless, the State remains cautious by not allowing free entry of Hare Krishna preachers into Singapore and not allowing the movement to be registered. The Hare Krishnas on their side have been cautious not to blatantly violate state laws by singing in the streets as they do in other cities or by selling their literature and collecting funds in airports and other public places (Rochford 1984, p. 110). However, they continue to push on their movement by constructing and expanding socio-religious spaces without raising alarm, albeit toeing state law by having house programs.

The interplay between Hare Krishna and State can be analysed using Giddens' (1984) theory of structuration. Giddens claims that structures are made up of rules and resources governing and available to agents. In this case, structure refers to the pattern of interaction between the State and Hare Krishna devotees. Agency is linked to structures in the sense that they interact to produce and reproduce society in a recursive manner (Giddens 1984, p. 66). Competing agents have knowledge of their society and this mutual knowledge therein produces structures. Hare Krishna devotees are aware of the rules of the state and the resources available to them and thus they register societies in names other than ISKCON, bypass immigration officials by not wearing their devotional clothes, and elude the authorities by having "carved out unlicensed and unregulated spaces beyond the state's reach" (Rudolph and Piscatori 1997, p. 247) through house programmes. In turn, the state agency is aware of the rights of individuals to practise their religion, and thus while suspicious of the Hare Krishna movement, the state has allowed its members to practice their religion within the confines of their homes and in Hindu temples. The end result is that there has been an unexpected mushrooming of several groups conducting programmes in various parts of Singapore. Giddens asserts that social structures are neither inviolable nor permanent such that agents do have transformative power (Giddens 1984, p. 88) and this has been demonstrated in the case of the Hare Krishnas in Singapore.

Hinduism and Hare Krishna

The relationship between Hinduism and Hare Krishna is a complex one. To understand it holistically, one must first start with the ideological differences. Prabhupada declares that the Hare Krishna movement is a revival of the principle of sanatana-dharma. In the introduction to his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, he says,
   Sanatana-dharma does not refer to any sectarian process of
   religion. It is the eternal function of the eternal living entities
   in relationship with the eternal Supreme Lord ... it refers to the
   eternal occupation of the living entity.... The English word
   religion is a little different from sanatana-dharma. Religion
   conveys the idea of faith, and faith may change. One may have faith
   in a particular process, and he may change this faith and adopt
   another, but sanatana-dharma refers to that activity which cannot
   be changed ... Those belonging to some sectarian faith will wrongly
   consider that sanatana-dharma is also sectarian, but if we go
   deeply into the matter and consider it in the light of modern
   science, it is possible for us to see that sanatana-dharma is the
   business of the people of the world--nay, of all the living
   entities in the universe." (Prabhupada 1995, p. 18)

According to Hindu philosophy, every living entity will experience the highest bliss by practicing sanatana-dharma which is to be situated in his or her original position as a servitor of God in any one of the relationships of servant, friend, parent or lover. Prabhupada often makes a distinction between the Hare Krishna movement and Hinduism. For example, he says:
   There is a misconception that the Krishna consciousness movement
   represents the Hindu religion. Sometimes Indians both inside and
   outside of India think that we are preaching the Hindu religion,
   but actually we are not (Prabhupada 1977, p. 105).

Michael Grant, one of the earliest members of ISKCON represents Prabhupada's viewpoint as follows:
   When attempting to place the Krishna consciousness movement within
   a historical-cultural context, many people identify the movement
   with Hinduism. But this is misleading. Srila Prabhupada disavows
   connection with the pantheism, polytheism, and caste consciousness
   that pervades modern Hinduism. Although Krishna consciousness and
   modern Hinduism share a common historical root--India's ancient
   Vedic culture--Hinduism has become, along with other "great
   religions," a sectarian establishment, whereas Krishna
   consciousness is universal and transcends relative, sectarian
   designations (Prabhupada 1977, p. 207).

Although this is the general message, on rare occasions, Prabhupada does make links with Hinduism. For example, he says:
   As far as the Hindu religion is concerned, there are millions of
   Krishna temples in India, and there is not a single Hindu who
   does not worship Krishna. Therefore this Krishna consciousness
   movement is not a concocted idea (Prabhupada 1977, p. 92).

Despite these occasional linkages and some similarities in worship, ideologically, Hare Krishna largely differs with popular Hinduism in Singapore.

In contemporary Singapore, Hinduism is a minority religion in terms of numbers but is conspicuously represented by public festivals, temples, and locales such as Little India. This public presence is complemented by a strong private display of Hinduism via "an array of daily and calendric rituals, events and ceremonies that occur in homes and temples across the island" (Sinha 2005, p. 3). Another feature of Hinduism in Singapore is the ritualistic veneration of local, village and household deities, termed as 'folk Hinduism' (Sinha 2006, p. 103). This is due to the arrival of low caste Indian labourers mainly from Tamil Nadu in the nineteenth century during colonial times. Rituals of self mortification such as thaipusam and thimithi are common. 'Official Hinduism' is dominated by Agamic, Shaivite precepts and practiced by the elite in Singapore (ibid., p. 104). In fact, Hindus in Singapore are predominantly South Indian Shaivities (worshippers of Lord Siva) and Shaktas (worshippers of Durga), and not Vaishnavites (worshippers of Krishna or Vishnu). A 2002 survey by Hindu Endowments Board lists twenty-four temples: thirteen Shaivite, six mother goddess and five Vaishnavite.

Several organizations are structured around guru worship such as the Sathya Sai Baba movement. Although the worship of the guru as a medium to God is central to the Hare Krishnas philosophy, unlike the Sai Baba movement a clear distinction is made between the guru and God. Moreover, due to related factors such as the multitude of Hare Krishna gurus in the world since the departure of Prabhupada, the fall from grace of many international movement leaders after a series of scandals, and the absence of consensus on a singular central leadership in Singapore, the overall development of the local Hare Krishna movement is not dependent on any particular individual.

Sinha has argued that a large number of Hindu reformist organizations have established a presence in Singapore since the 1970s and that many of the adherents of these organizations refer to themselves as Hindus but "redefine the category in doing so by assigning new meaning to it" (Sinha 1997). The Hare Krishnas are certainly a reformist organization and, as this and the next sections indicate, contest and renegotiate their relationship with the label Hindu.

According to our respondents, throughout the eighties, there was a tense relationship between the official body in charge of administering Hindu affairs in Singapore, the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB), and the Hare Krishna devotees. The devotees perceived the local Hindu leaders as ignorant of the philosophy and knowledge of the Vedas while the HEB regarded the devotees as fanatics. A contentious incident occurred in 1991 when Hare Krishna devotees staged a drama of the Ramayana where an effigy of the demon-king Ravana was burnt by an arrow shot by someone playing Rama. A number of Hindus perceived the scene to be offensive to Shaivites in Singapore as Ravana was a devotee of Lord Siva.

In 1992, the authorities of a prominent Hindu temple had allowed one of the Hare Krishna groups to have weekly devotional programmes on Saturday evenings. This marked the beginning of a new trend, where Hare Krishna devotees from ISKCON would gain acceptance among the Hindu community and in Hindu temples in Singapore. Today, there are at least six Hindu temples, the Srinivas Perumal temple, the Lakshmi-Narayana temple, Siva-Durga temple, the Balasubramaniam temple, the Vadapattra Kaliyamman temple and the Muneswaran temple which hosts Hare Krishna programmes on a weekly basis.

Concurrently, around this period, many of the Hindu temples in Singapore were expanding their compounds to construct rooms and halls to be used for conducting yoga, religious classes and weddings. A sense of insecurity emerged amongst the Hindu community as several Hindus were converting to Christianity (Sinha 1993, p. 838). The HEB and other bodies such as the Hindu Centre, took steps to disseminate the teachings of Hinduism to the Hindu population with a new zeal. There was also a growing textualisation of religion in Singapore, where there was a desire for the increasingly educated population to base their religious beliefs on religious texts rather than tradition (Sinha 1993, p. 838). Speakers of Hindu philosophy from India were invited for talks in the temples. Hindu students from the local universities were also invited to teach Hinduism to children in various temples. In the year 1998, several Hindu temple boards collaborated to organize an event called Gita Jayanti to commemorate the day devotees believe the Lord Krishna spoke the Bhagavad Gita. Significantly, the organization for the event was spearheaded by a Hare Krishna monk who also led thousands of Hindus in the recitation of the Gita.

Thus, it can be said that at a time when the Hindu community was heading towards increasing theologization, the Hare Krishna movement found a niche due to its text-rich culture and adherence to universally accepted scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita. In Singapore, this has taken place at an accelerated pace given that ISKCON was not allowed to exist as an institution and no temple premises are provided for the devotees to assemble. With few alternatives available, the continued existence and flourishing of Hare Krishnas in Singapore depended on their ability to negotiate their place within mainstream Hinduism.

Hare Krishna Voices

To examine the individual religious affiliations of Hare Krishna in Singapore we interviewed fifty-four devotees from four congregations. All of them were born in nominally mainstream Hindu families and adopted Krishna consciousness at a later stage in their life. They were from different occupations (such as students, civil servants, taxi drivers, accountants and doctors) and age groups from the mid-twenties to early sixties. We sought a maximum variation sample in order to get a wide range of responses. Interviews were informal and semi-structured, thus allowing the interviewees to recall their own experiences, develop their own ideas and speak on issues that affected their thoughts (Denscombe 1998, p. 112). We ensured confidentiality of the interviewees so that they would be less hesitant to reveal their innermost thoughts.

Some of the general questions asked were, "do you consider members of the Hare Krishna movement to be Hindus?", "what is your definition of Hinduism?", "do you consider devotees from non-Indian ethnic backgrounds such as White Americans, Chinese and Blacks to be Hindus?" and "what would your response be if a member of the general public asked you which religion you are from?". As a control group we also interviewed about ten devotees from non-Indian and non-Hindu backgrounds.

All respondents had similar philosophical interpretations of Krishna consciousness, but, however, they differed in their definition of Hinduism and consequently their response to whether a Hare Krishna is a Hindu. Their responses can be divided into four broad categories as follows: 39 per cent (21) identified Hare Krishna to be a part of Hinduism, 22 per cent (12) felt that they were 'real Hindus' as compared to other nominal Hindus, 17 per cent (9) said that although they feel Krishna consciousness is sanatana-dharma and something different from Hinduism they would still identify themselves as Hindus for convenience sake, and 22 per cent (12) felt that Hare Krishna was different from Hinduism thus did not identify themselves as Hindus. Hence a total of 78 per cent (42) respondents identified themselves with Hinduism. Each of the four categories will be discussed below.

Krishna Consciousness is a Part of Hinduism

The respondents in this category feel that Hinduism represents a collective identity of several sects which originated in India and that Hare Krishna is one of them. In an inter-religious seminar organized by a Buddhist Society, a Hare Krishna devotee, Mr J was invited to speak about Hinduism to a mainly Chinese Buddhist audience. He started off by discussing the origin of the word 'Hindu' as it was described by Prabhupada (that this word cannot be found in any of the Hindu scriptures and that it was the name given to a group of people living on one side of the Sindh river in India by invading Persians). Then he went on to say that in today's context, Hindus are referred to as people with faith in the Vedas. He divided Hinduism into three main branches--the Shaktas, Shaivites and Vaishnavas.
   I am a Gaudiya Vaishnava, popularly known as a Hare Krishna ...
   There are four Vaishnava schools known as the Madhva sampradaya,
   the Ramanuja Sampradaya, the Visnu Swami Sampradaya and
   the Nimbarka Sampradaya. We are connected to the Madhva
   Sampradaya through Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu who came in the
   fifteenth century.

Another example is that of Mr S, a polytechnic student:
   If Hindus who convert to Christianity are called Christians, then
   why can't other races and religions who take up Krishna
   consciousness be called Hindus? As what Prabhupada said, it is true
   that the word Hindu cannot be found in any of the Vedic scriptures
   and Hindus were used to classify a group of people. But that is the
   historic definition. We must look at the definition of it as it is
   used today. Now Hindu refers to people who believe in the Vedas.
   Therefore a Hare Krishna is a Hindu.

Mrs P believes that Krishna consciousness is part of Hinduism because of the similarities in worship:
   They (Hare Krishnas) are Hindus. But whatever practices they have
   are very much related to Hinduism and I guess even if you want to
   try to move away from it you can't. Say for example, our arati
   (method of worshipping the deity) ... it is very much similar to
   what is known as general practices of Hinduism ... Being a Hindu is
   not a religion by itself, it is an everyday portion of my life ...
   Hinduism is about faith in a particular god, even Krishna Himself.
   It is all about beliefs, rituals and customs.... A Chinese or
   Western devotee will probably not think he is a Hindu, but I
   consider him to be one.

All three respondents fall in the first category of identifying Hare Krishna as a part of Hinduism. These devotees would often be found worshipping in nominal Hindu temples alongside other Hindus. However, they do not compromise on the philosophy or principles unique to the Hare Krishna movement such as the abstinence of onions and garlic or the concept that Krishna is the Supreme God.

A Hare Krishna is a Real Hindu

Those in this category feel that Krishna consciousness and Hinduism are simultaneously one and different. They are one in the sense that they have common roots, the Vedic literature. However they are different because Krishna consciousness continues where mainstream Hinduism has left off, it re-establishes one in his or her eternal position and is therefore also applicable to non-Hindus. Mrs S, an accountant feels that she has become more of a Hindu since she became a devotee:
   Hare Krishnas are more Hindu than others. Previously I was
   Hindu only in name. I didn't know anything about the teachings
   of Bhagavad Gita. But Krishna consciousness is a way of life, it is
   a culture. So I think I am a better Hindu now.

Mr V makes a distinction between Hinduism and Krishna consciousness but he identifies himself and other devotees to be Hindus. He feels that Hinduism should be redefined in line with the Hare Krishna philosophy.
   Hare Krishna devotees are Hindus. In a broader sense they belong to
   santana-dharma, eternal religion. Hinduism is a term coined by
   Muslims for the people living along the Sindh river. The common
   people say it is Hinduism but the proper understanding is that it
   is sanatana-dharma. I feel Krishna consciousness is a more broader
   term as compared to Hinduism, or what people perceive as Hinduism
   because Krishna consciousness deals with the ultimate perfection of
   life whereas Hinduism is more like karma kanda (fruitive
   activities), going to the temple every Saturday, asking for some
   benediction, but it never teaches you to inquire about God, the
   principles of life, what is human birth for, who are we, who is
   God.... the definition of Hindu has to evolve to incorporate this.
   To the general public who has not been introduced to Krishna
   Consciousness, I'll say I'm a Hindu, but I'll try to broaden his
   view on Hinduism.

For the Sake of Convenience I Say I Am a Hindu

In this category, devotees feel a separate identity from Hinduism but externally call themselves Hindu for the sake of convenience or to avoid discrimination. Mr K, a doctor is an example of this:
   For convenience sake, or for filling up forms, I would say I am
   a Hindu. It's just to overcome administrative issues. One of my
   friends who applied for a job filled up "hare krishna" under the
   religion blank. He didn't get the job because of that. And it is
   difficult to explain to others.

Likewise, Mrs N identifies herself as a Hindu although she retains Prabhupada's definition of Hinduism:
   I won't consider Hare Krishna as Hindus. Hinduism is a name given
   to a race of people, it doesn't link to the definition of God. To
   members of the public I say I'm a Hindu, because it is an identity
   commonly known ... It doesn't really matter to me.

While internally recognizing themselves as servants of Krishna and Krishna consciousness as something separate from Hinduism, externally they identify with Hinduism because of having been born into a Hindu family, or because they do not want to face exclusion by identifying themselves as a separate religion. This would especially be true in a society like Singapore which is stratified in simple terms of race (Chinese, Malay, Indian and others) and religion (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Hindu). However a number of them mentioned that it also depends on who was asking. If someone who has no idea of Vaishnavism were to ask, they would say they are Hindu, but if another Hindu were to ask them, they would say they are Vaishnavas or devotees of Krishna.

'Krishna Consciousness is Not Hinduism and Hinduism is Not Krishna Consciousness'

Those in this category feel that Hinduism is a sectarian religion and that Krishna consciousness is a path which transcends sectarianism. They are the ones who most often quote Prabhupada's definition of Krishna consciousness as sanatana-dharma. All participants in our control group fell into this category. This implies that they are reluctant to identify with a particular mainstream religion and prefer to think of themselves as having transcended religion. Similarly, the devotees from Hindu backgrounds recognize that the Krishna consciousness movement has members from various religions and ethnicities and they make sense of this by applying the concept of sanatana-dharma. Mr A, a technician says,
   Westerners, Chinese, all religions are taking it up. Before I came
   to Krishna, I prayed to demigods because I was born as a Hindu. But
   Krishna is worshipped by all the other races and religions because
   He is the one common God, not divided by religion. Therefore you
   cannot say that a Hare Krishna is a Hindu.

Another example is Mrs L, a housewife who feels that it improper to think of herself as a Hindu:
   As Krishna conscious persons we don't think we are Hindu, Muslim or
   Christians. We are servants of God and our aim is to serve Krishna
   and people around us. I don't call myself as a Hindu, I just think
   I'm Krishna's servant. Although I was born in a Hindu family and my
   parents told me I'm Hindu, as I grow older I tend to learn that I
   cannot base on that, I have to come out of it and be a part of
   Krishna's family. As Prabhupada said, just because Krishna was born
   in India, it doesn't mean he only belongs to Hindu people. Krishna
   is universal. The actual fact is if I am a Hindu, I need not be a
   Hare Krishna. Or if I am a Hare Krishna, I need not be a Hindu ...
   from time immemorial Hindus have been worshipping Krishna. But
   people have the wrong concept that Hare Krishnas are Hindus. My
   view is that Hinduism is part of Krishna consciousness. Hinduism
   never teaches you love of God. Hinduism tells you it's a way it's a
   process of worship ... It teaches you how to live a pure life. So
   Hinduism is only up to that level. Above that is Krishna
   consciousness ... Krishna consciousness is global and Hinduism is
   like a state. Being a good Hindu helps to become a better devotee.

The distinction between those in this category and those in the former category is vague as both share similar identifications but only differ in their expression of it to others. In fact, it is likely that respondents from both categories switch over under different circumstances.

An example of how a member in this category would apply his identification is Mr C, one of the pioneers mentioned earlier, who has a building of his own. When we asked him what he thinks of holding programmes in Hindu temples, he replied boisterously:
   We are the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The
   founder is Prabhupada. He came to save the whole world. Why I
   should go and hide in somebody's backyard? ... and if I go to your
   backyard, I cannot preach openly. The priests are worshipping so
   many demigods ... can you tell people about demigod worship? You
   cannot. In fact you give the wrong impression. And once they look
   at our movement, they will think, "Oh, you all are little groups.
   You got no way of surviving. Therefore, you have come to us."
   Why should we give this impression?

Mr C disassociates himself with Hinduism and Hindus. He also makes an additional effort to interact with the Chinese community. In fact he adds that his temple is supported mainly by Chinese Singaporeans.


In Singapore, Hare Krishna devotees face constraints such as the non-availability of a Hare Krishna temple and the difficulty of hosting foreign monks for preaching. Promoting an image of a new religion would draw unwanted attention from the authorities who are eager to maintain religious and racial harmony. Nevertheless, the Hare Krishnas in Singapore are gaining increasing acceptance into public religious spaces. This has been particularly achieved by portraying themselves as a Hindu sect, termed as the 'Hinduization of ISKCON' by some devotees. This is not difficult to do given the similarity in practices such as worship of the deities and the singing of devotional songs. Moreover, defining themselves as Hindu would give them access to spaces for worship within Hindu temples and potential converts as well.

Besides this, the Hare Krishnas in Singapore have duplicated their movement's practices in other countries as far as possible by adopting methods that do not provoke state authorities. Instead of building a temple, house programmes have become a prominent feature amongst the local devotees. Instead of organizing chariot festivals in city areas as they do in other parts of the world, they do it in local farms and stadiums. Foreign monks discard their robes to wear casual clothing when coming through the airport. Once they are through, they revert to their religious attire. However, they and the local devotees do not register any official protest to the authorities.

The voices and strategies adopted by the agency of Hare Krishnas in Singapore have been documented in this paper. However, the agencies of the State and local Hindu bodies have been alluded to only by their actions. A possible avenue for further research would be a firstly, a study of the perceptions of the local Hindu bodies and the general Hindu population of the Hare Krishnas and secondly, the perceptions of State authorities of the Hare Krishna movement. This would complement the definition of the social structure in which Hare Krishnas, Hindus and the State interact and would enable us to predict changes in the structure that may occur in the future.


Bainbridge, William Sims, ed. "Asian Imports". In The Sociology of Religious Movements, pp. 179-207. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Daner, Francine Jeanne. The American Children of Krsna: A Study of the Hare Krsna Movement. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

Das, Janananda. Prabhupada in Malaysia. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1996.

Denscombe, Martyn. The Good Research Guide: For Small Scale Research Projects. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1998.

Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Glock, Charles, and Robert Bellah, eds. The New Religious Consciousness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Goswami, Satsvarupa Dasa. Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta Vol 5: Let There Be a Temple: India, Around the World 1971-1975. 6 vols. Mumbai: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983.

Hill, Michael. "Religion and State in Singapore." In Challenging Religion, edited by James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, pp. 114-27. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2003.

Judah, Stillson. Hare Krishna and the Counterculture. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974.

Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. The Science of Self-Realization. Mumbai: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1977.

--. Bhagavad Gita as It Is. Second Edition. Mumbai: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1995.

Pereira, Alexius A. "Religiosity and Economic Development in Singapore". Journal of Contemporary Religion 20, no. 2 (2005): 161-78.

Richardson, James. "New Religious Movements in the United States". Sociological Compass 30, no. 1 (1983): 85-110.

Robbins, Thomas, and Dick Anthony. "Cults, Culture, and Community". In Cults and the Family, edited by Florence Kaslow and Marvin B. Sussman, pp. 2737. Boston: Haworth, 1982.

Rochford, Burke E. "Movement and Public in Conflict: Values, Finances, and the Decline of Hare Krishna". Paper presented at the Southern Sociological Society, Knoxville, Tennessee, 1984.

Rudolph, Susan Hoeber, and James P. Piscatori. Transnational Religion and Fading States. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997.

Sinha, Vineeta. "Hinduism in Contemporary Singapore". In Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, edited by K.S. Sandhu and A. Mani. Singapore: ISEAS and Times Academic Press, 1993.

--. "Unpacking the Labels 'Hindu' and 'Hinduism' in Singapore". Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 25, no. 2 (1997): 139-60.

--. "Constituting and Re-Constituting the Religious Domain in the Modern Nation State of Singapore". In Our Place in Time: Exploring Heritage and Memory in Singapore, edited by Kwok Kian Woon, Lily Kong, Kwa Chong Guan and Brenda Yeoh. Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1999.

--. A New God in the Diaspora? Muneeswaran Worship in Contemporary Singapore. Singapore: Singapore University Press and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2005.

--. "Problematizing Received Categories: Revisiting 'Folk Hinduism', 'Popular Hinduism' and 'Sanskritization'." Current Sociology 54, no. 1 (Special Issue 2006): 98-111.

Straits Times. "Cult group Selling Books to Students". 9 September 1992, p. 23.

Straits Times. "4 Jehovah's Witnesses Lose 'Banned Publications' Appeal". 12 August 1994, p. 32.

Straits Times. "69 Arrested for Involvement with Banned Jehovah's Witnesses Sect". 26 February 1995, p. 1.

Straits Times. "Jehovah's Witness leader Chose Jail Instead of Fine". 27 January 1996, p. 47.

Straits Times. "Secularism, the Singapore Way". 30 October 2007.

Tipton, Steven M. Getting Saved from the Sixties: Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural Change. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Tong Chee Kiong. Rationalizing Religion. Leidon, Boston: Brill, 2007.

Wuthnow, Robert. The Consciousness Reformation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Rodney Sebastian is Research Assistant for the Research Cluster (Religion) at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore.

Ashvin Parameswaran is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for Asian Societies and Histories, at the Faculty of Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sebastian, Rodney; Parameswaran, Ashvin
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Apr 1, 2008
Previous Article:"Pirated" transnational broadcasting: the consumption of Thai soap operas among Shan Communities in Burma.
Next Article:Islamic microfinance in Indonesia: the challenge of institutional diversity, regulation, and supervision.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |