Sunday, December 12, 2010

ISKCON Center’s Devotional Services vs. The Commercialized Western World


The three big C’s: Consumerism, Commercialism, and Capitalism. In the contemporary Western world, all three have had a significant affect on yoga, and, as a result, yoga has become as commercialized as any other aspect of mass culture. In a day in age where many prominent retail corporations, such as even Victoria’s Secret, advertise for the newest, hottest yoga ‘gear,’ it has become difficult to find a yoga class that does not have a single attendee sporting such expensive and unnecessary attire. Despite many yogic philosophies rejecting the ‘pleasures’ of the material world (according to the Bhakti philosophy, pain is often mistaken for pleasure), the Western world has played out its commercialized influence over many different types of yoga that has been adopted here, and has infiltrated its traditional, noncommercial ways. However, there are still some yoga centers that revert back to the non-commercial ways and deny the capitalist system of modern day American society. One of these centers is the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) Center of Boston. Many characteristics of this center contribute to its all-around natural and simplistic atmosphere, completely devoid of mass commercialism, but the characteristic of focus here is ISKCON’s chosen devotional service, “Sankirtana.”


Collectively, all of my visits to the ISKCON Center were very impressionable and left me feeling an assortment of emotions, as is typical of any new, profound experience. However, one of my most overriding emotional responses was how incredibly humbling the experience was in entirety. Looking around at all the master’s attire, I couldn’t help but feel that the attire and accessories I was donning were superfluous and had no real function or purpose; that of the master’s, however, was clearly symbolic of their function in the rituals, and each garment was necessary to their practices. I felt as if I, too, was guilty of indulgence in mass culture’s consumerism – the bracelets I wore held only an aesthetic value, no spiritual purpose – I simply like the way they looked.
Upon leaving the center, I took notice of the pedestrians I passed on my way home and thought about how many of them also appeared to be donning ‘unnecessary’ accessories, fashioned only for the purpose of fashion itself. I felt less self-critical after seeing this, for worrying about this would cause a mental modification. I believe this transcendence occurred as a result of the welcoming, nature of the ISKCON Center, for despite my awkwardness, I did not feel prematurely judged or unwanted.
Overall, it is an interesting realization to come to when you find that the world you thought you were in rejection of for so long has inevitably caught up to you in spite of that fight. I’ve felt this way twice as of late, and both times have been as a result of attending the center. However, I am grateful for this realization; in correlation with the ISKCON belief, I, too, believe that it is important to separate oneself from the material world in which we have become so accustomed, and to do this one really must be shocked into seeing what exactly it is they have become accustomed to. Moreover, the center as a whole had a very altogether non-commercial sense about it, an attribute I discovered through a key interaction with one female devotee.
This woman was one of the first attendees I really took notice of and fully focused on, for out of the whole chaotic and non-classifying atmosphere, she was the only one who appeared to be in some type of authoritative position. The only reason she really appeared this way to me was because she was seated at what seemed to be a very informal front desk – at least, it was the only thing I would liken at all to a front desk. It was very clear to me that the aesthetic of the center was nit to be formal and businesslike, but comforting and homey.
When I approached the woman to explain to her my situation (a first-time student on a field mission for my yoga class), I soon realized she spoke very little English, and so my long-winded speech was out of the picture. Instead of becoming frustrated or bothered by my shy and awkward attempts at a mutual understanding, the woman gestured toward a pile of prints, facedown, that appeared a bit yellowed with age and use. As I began sifting through them, I realized they were all prints of Krishna, ISKCON’s “divine grace,” or god. My interest must have been quite obvious, for the woman made another gesture, this time as if to offer me one of the prints.
Being completely accustomed to America’s capitalist system, I immediately asked how much one image would cost. As soon as I spoke, however, I regretted what I had inquired. The woman met mu question with a confused, almost offended gaze, as she hurriedly started shuffling the prints toward me, as if to clear the air of what I had said. It was in the moment that I really felt how non-commercialized the center was. I was also slightly surprised by how quickly I assumed the commercial end of the scope; however, though, frightening, thus has become the norm in contemporary society. The generosity and simplicity of this moment reflects largely on my entire experience at the center, for each time I attended I was warmly received and eagerly invited to join in on the Kirtan chanting and rituals.


One of the most personally appealing aspects of the ISKCON Center is the devotional service the devotees practice. Kirtan, or “Sankirtana,” which is Sanskrit for ‘repeat,’ is the call-and-response method of chanting performed in many of India’s devotional traditions (Johnsen, 8), including the Vaishnava tradition, which ISKCON follows. However, despite originating in India, kirtan is not denominational. “People from any religion, or no religion at all, can participate. Kirtan is the universal language of the spirit, the song of the soul.” (Johnsen, 8) This practice belongs to one of the principle branches of yoga known as ‘mantra-yoga.’ Mantras, “thought or intention expressed as sound,” (Feuerstein, 180) originated as magical tools used for attaining one’s desires, but later were thought to have acquired the ability to aid in the yogi’s spiritual maturation or growth. Ultimately, mantras were seen as “instruments of self-realization.” (Sullivan, 133)
The practice of Kirtan is intended to bring oneself closer to the one’s chosen deity, therefore, ISKCON devotees utilize the practice to bring them to Krishna consciousness, or unity with god. Because of this, kirtan, or Mantra-yoga, is a form of Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. There are three main schools within which Bhakti yoga is the main practice, and they are as follows: Sahivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism. (Hockings, 124) The ISKCON devotees follow the school of Vaishnavism because their “divine grace,” or lordship, is Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu. In the Hindu tradition, an “avatar” refers to an incarnated deity who is deliberately descended from heaven to earth. (Hockings, 124)
On a more intuitive note, the founder of ISKCON, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, stated in one of his many publications, Bhagavad Gita: As It Is, that “of the different processes for realization of the Absolute Truth, Bhakti yoga, devotional service, is the highest.” (Swami Prabhupada, 475) Because the goal of practicing kirtan is to achieve Krishna consciousness through chanting one’s deity’s names, it is easy to understand why the founder of such a movement as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness would hold this practice above all others. However, personally, I believe one would have to be fully dedicated to the practice of his or her choice in order to reach enlightenment – no single authority can be reached on such a matter of various opinion and diversity.
More specifically, the leading performer of the chants is commonly referred to as a Kirtankar. The practice itself involves chanting hymns or mantras; in ISKCON’s case, a mantra is used. The ‘Hare Krishna’ mantra, or the Maha Mantra (“Great Mantra”) is ISKCON’s chosen mantra. This is a sixteen-word Vaishnava mantra that is intended to bring the chanter closer to Krishna consciousness or unity, and is also commonly accompanied by instrumentals and ecstatic dancing and clapping. This practice, as Georg Feuerstein writes, “tends to lead more often to an emotionally charged ‘ecstasy’ with tears of joy, rather than the quietistic ‘ecstasy’ aspired to in other schools of yoga.” (Feuerstein, 156) It also envelops their desire to bring one another closer together for “the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life. (Brochure) Because the Hare Krishna’s also follow a Karma-yoga philosophy, they believe we are all pleasure-seekers, and that we are all indirectly or directly seeking Krishna; therefore, by chanting the mantra, it brings us closer to Krishna. “All mantras are regarded by those who use them as having meaning, but some have a clear and obvious meaning based on their grammar and syntax.” (Sullivan, 134) In accordance with this view, the ISKCON mantra seems clear in meaning and purpose. The mantra goes as follows:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Krishna
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

According to Feuerstein, mantra-yoga has sixteen “limbs,” or parts. The sixteen limbs are as follows: bhakti (devotional), shuddhi (purifcation), asana (posture), panca-anga-sevana (serving the five limbs/daily readings), acara (conduct), dharana (concentration), divya-deva-servana (serving the divine space), prana-kriya (breath-ritual), mudra (seal-hand gestures to focus the mind), tarpana (satisfaction), havana (invocation-calling upon one’s chosen diety by means of mantras), bali (offering), yaga (sacrifice-external or internal), japa (recitation), and dhyana (meditation). (Feuerstein, 181) It is evident from these sixteen limbs, or practices, that mantra-yoga is predominately ritualistic, which, “[reflects] not only its origins in the sacrificial cult of ancient India but also its Tantric provenance.” (Feuerstein, 182)


Kirtan is one of India’s many yogic traditions that has travelled to the United States and been adopted in Western yoga practices. Because kirtan relies completely on the participation of those chanting the mantra and does not require any material objects for sacrificial and ritual purposes, it is evidently one form of yoga that has remained true to its ancient roots in Indian tradition. Unlike many other forms of yoga that have been adopted by Western culture, mantra-yoga has seemed to remain non-capital based. Because it does not need anything other than strong voices and devoted hearts and minds, kirtan exemplifies a counter-point to the view expressed earlier: The predominance of commercialism and capitalism in Western society have had significant influence on Western yoga practices. In correlation, the ISKCON Center as a whole has also seemingly remained untouched by the infiltration of the commercialized Western world.
In contradiction to my own personal view of how consumerism has affected yogic practices in the West, Melanie Wilson states the following in the conclusion of one article:
What is certain is that for a variety of reasons – be it an abundance of readily available yoga classes, the relatively low cost of instruction, or the plethora of books and videos on the topic – yoga is enjoying unprecedented levels of popularity in the United States and other Western countries. (Wilson, 493)

While it is true that yoga in the West has become increasingly popular, I disagree with Wilson on the premise that the majority of yoga related aspects, albeit yoga classes or yoga gear, are easily affordable.

Having lived in North America all my life, it would be wrong to pretend I have not myself become a part of the consumerist world. In fact, it seems an utterly impossible thing to avoid, no matter the location. However, for me, the ISKCON Center will always be a comforting reminder of what is simply real. What seems like a completely human fabricated catastrophe, while juxtaposing a necessary means for financial and economic support and growth, the three ‘big C’s’ (Consumerism, Commercialism, and Capitalism) play a significant role in the development of Westernized yoga, as well as society as a whole.


A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Chant and Be Happy: the Power of Mantra Meditation. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983.

Coward, Harold. Human Rights and the World's Major Religions: The Hindu Tradition. Ed. William H. Brackney. Vol. 4. Westport: Praeger, 2005. Print.

Feuerstein, Georg. The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997. Xiii+. Print.

Hockings, Paul. "India." Countries And Their Cultures. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001. 1019-033. Print.

International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Prabhupada Centennial. Boston: Boston Ratha Yatra Committee, 1996. Print.

Johnsen, Linda. Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Path. Saint Paul: Yes International, 2007. Print.

Sullivan, Bruce M. "Mantra." Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. Lanham: Scarecrow, 1997. 133-34. Print.

Swami Muktibodhananda. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Bihar: Bihar School of Yoga, 1985. Print.

Swami Prabhupada, A. C. Bhaktivedanta. Bhagavad Gita: As It Is. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972. Print.

Wilson, Melanie. "Yoga." Encyclopedia of Religious and Spiritual Development. London: SAGE Publications, 2006. 492-93. Print.

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