Understand what being a Hare Krishna means for your Mental Health

Disclaimer: was not personally involved or connected with the production of this post.
Post transcribed, edited and produced by Alexander Shenkar.

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Today I want to talk about something that I know really well which is the environment of the Hare Krishnas and why I think involving yourself in that environment is a really bad idea for your mental health. I know this subject very well because I’ve been there. I spent about ten years of my life being deeply immersed in the Hare Krishna movement and I’ve spent time in different temples in Germany and Sweden. So, I want to talk about why it’s a really harmful environment for a person.

First, I’ll talk about the philosophy underpinning everything they’re doing, and then I want to talk about how this philosophy is being implanted in a person through the programs in the temples. Then I want to talk about what practicing this philosophy does to a person’s mental health, and I’ll also talk a bit about the importance of once you have removed yourself physically from that environment on working really really hard and being aware of the need to work really really hard on removing that structure from your thinking. Of course that is much more difficult than removing yourself physically.

The philosophy is basically Hindu philosophy. It’s very much based on the idea that this material world is an illusion and we are spirit soul. Now, it goes very much into detail; it goes very much into saying that in our natural state we are servants of God and we just want to love God and be part of God – a tiny tiny part, but a part of God – and we don’t have any other desires than to serve and love God in our natural state. And the reason that this material world exists is that we have at some point had the desire to enjoy independently from God and to have some control. So this material world exists. We are dealing with the material world through layers of contamination. What is closest to our real being (the soul) is the false ego. The false ego tells us that we are this material thing, the next layer down is the intelligence, next the mind, and the mind works with the world through the senses; and the senses are both taste and touch and sight and other things that we experience and interact with the world.

In this state, being in the material world, we are not having any experience of our real self. We are so covered and so much in illusion because life after life we have lived in this world that we have no idea what we really want. And so the logical next step is that we need to remove the contaminations so that we can have some glimpse of our real self as lovers of God. Because we don’t really have any experience of what we really want, the logical next step is to find out about what we really want. The Hare Krishnas will say you need to surrender. You need to surrender all your independent thought and you need to find association of devotees. You need to surrender to the program the guru has given for your purification, and you need to do this with all your heart and not hold anything back. This is the basic philosophy.

Anke Holst at London, UK Ratha Yatra, June, 2008.
Anke Holst at London, UK Ratha Yatra, June, 2008.

The next step is you want to find out where is the nearest temple. You will then be told whenever you spend time at a temple that you need to do more. So you need to spend more times with devotees. And anything else means you are a demon because you’re holding back. And you’re bad because you’re not doing what the soul really wants. You see what is going on already? Very black and white. The most black and white thing you could ever imagine. And so if you listen to them, you will then start chanting regularly which means you have like a rosary set of 108 beads and you will chant the mantra which consists of three words. So one round means 108 repetitions of the mantra. And they will tell you that you need to start doing that. And you need to eat only food that is being offered to Krishna which is pure vegetarian. And you need to spend more time with devotees and you need to stop associating with non-devotees because that’s very very bad.

So the logical next step is that you join the temple if you really want to surrender. Ok, so now you have surrendered. Well, unless you keep your possessions with your parent or something, you have not really surrendered unless you have surrendered all of your material possessions, of course – that’s the first step. So obviously you’re going to surrender all of your material possessions. And then you have to surrender all your mind, and the way that you do that – now we’re coming to the temple program structure. So you get up at 4 o’clock in the morning because sleep is obviously ignorance, very bad. The first temple program starts at 4:15 AM. You take a shower and you go to the temple program. There is communal singing. There is prayers. There are various things you do to clear your karma. And from 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM is japa time which means you chant 16 rounds which is the daily minimum of these 108 mantras. It’s audible, so you chant loudly but not too loudly because it’s personal. And you are in a room with other people who are also chanting. But it’s personal, so it’s a very strange environment and it softens you up like anything. Like, if you told anyone that you are repeating the same three words in two hours they will probably have concerns. Then the next step after 7:00 AM is the communal program which is more singing and more prayers, and a bit of dancing in front of Krishna on the altar. And then there is a lecture for 45 minutes about this philosophy. And then after 9:00 AM there is breakfast. Now by 9:00 AM you would have already spent five hours in the program that is more immersive than anything. And then you go ahead and spend the day doing your service.

This environment is very hierarchical. You have the temple president and the department heads. You will be told what to do. So there is always strict controls – no spacing out at all. “Spacing out” is a lingo from that world. So yeah, there is lunch and another program in the evening which is more communal chanting and then by 9:00 PM you’re falling back into your sleeping bag. Because obviously you do not have a bed. OMG! That is such an illusion (bed)! You roll up your mat on the floor. You know!? I mean, again, much of this stuff won’t actually be happening these days because hardly anyone joins a temple. But, on the other hand everyone would have gone and spent a week or at least like a retreat which works, even the week will soften you up so much that you will become suggestible so that the structure of who you are and how you are completely in illusion about anything and how you have no idea what you really want and how you are not this body and how you should remove yourself from anything that makes you comfortable because thats your material senses. This structure would have been implanted in your setup, in your emotional setup. And there is a really strange way that you can tell with people if this has happened or not. Even now when I listen to them talk on the internet I can tell: Ok, this person has not actually done that. They might think – you know, they haven’t.

Now, the next step, why I think this is so harmful: I kind of mentioned it already that if we move to from anything that gives you comfort. The main thing for me is that your emotional well being depends on you doing the things that you emotionally stand behind – and not doing the things that hurt you. And this environment makes you do the complete opposite. The more you get into it the more you immerse yourself; the more you believe that whatever you really feel is wrong. (It’s not true of course.) And whatever you thought and whoever you know, that is all wrong. So you need to completely remove yourself. Now, if you don’t believe that any of your decisions that you make based on what you feel are right, then what are you going to base your decisions on? I’m not talking about daily life. I’m talking about very simple things, how you deal with other people. And that’s why some people are like, “Ok, you’ve joined a cult. You’ve become a completely different person.” This happens! This actually happens. Really quickly.

So, if you really believe that none of what you experience is right and you start believing that you are completely useless and you shouldn’t listen to your emotions. You have boundaries, things you don’t do; but in that environment these things that you don’t do become the things you don’t do because you don’t surrender enough. You see what I mean!? So your whole emotional being becomes disturbed. Everything that protects you, everything that makes you say no to stuff that hurts you, gone! And again, you think: “This can’t happen. People have a natural self preservation mechanism.” Imagine, you spend five hours in the morning getting rid of this self-preservation – that’s basically what this process does. It softens you up so much that your entire emotional setup gets corroded and you become more and more suggestible to these things like: “You have to surrender. Of course you can do this because Krishna wants you to do this.” Of course you have to go and do things which are not within your comfort zone because the “the guru has said that what we do, so doing that means you get the mercy and the guru and Krishna…” Again, all this lingo is coming back to me. So you really start believing that.

And to my last point, all this stuff is good and fine if you are in there, if you are in that organization and you work with other people. It’s fine. Do whatever you want. What my problem is that these structures that they have installed in people remain when you remove yourself because you have softened your mind; you’ve accepted this structure as being truth in yourself. You go away because the organization is obviously terrible as you can imagine – everybody in there needs therapy. Plus it’s completely corrupt. Plus… So anyways, there are tens of thousands of people who have been in there for a few years, gone through this and have left physically. All these people kept this structure and it’s causing massive depression; and although this structure kind of serves you well in that environment, it does nothing for you when you come out. Because however you look at, it’s all bad.

You think you have left because on some level you couldn't manage to surrender so you have "fallen back into material world and you are now a demon."
You think you have left because on some level you couldn’t manage to surrender so you have “fallen back into material world and you are now a demon.”

You think you have left because on some level you couldn’t manage to surrender so you have “fallen back into material world and you are now a demon.” And so because you’re not working to remove these structures from your head, you keep believing them for years and years and years after. And you still hang out with the fringies… where the only thing you can think of doing is more communal singing of the Hare Krishna mantra; which sounds hilarious, but it actually does happens. And it’s the only way that they can feel comfortable, because they think, “Oh, well, at least we’re doing something. At least we’re not all bad.” But what you need to do when you remove yourself physically what you really should be doing in order to regain your mental health is also work on removing those structures from your head. And nobody talks about that. Lot’s of people talk about how the Hare Krishnas are bad but they mostly focus on how the organization has gone off the rails because of something or another of how it’s being corrupted, how some of the people believe in this part of the philosophy and not the other part. It’s almost like the Hare Krishnas are splitting up into different cults.

These are my main issues and things I want to tell people. I might do more focused bits that I feel are important. But yes, understand what this means for your mental health. If you hadn’t gone through it, question. If you meet a Hare Krishna, ask them, “How is your mental health? How are you dealing with all this stuff? Do you feel removed? How do you make decisions?” You know, I need to talk about this stuff, because obviously it’s important to me. I’ve gone through this and I would also like for more people to understand this. Thank you!