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Malika Tamim

04/04/2013
Ethnography Project: Essay
The Interrelation of the Physical and the Spiritual in Religion
Hinduism is such a religion that did not have a certain beginning or a certain
person who began this religion (1). It is a mixture of traditional and cultural
practices along with the myths of Gods and Godesses that formed this
religion over centuries. Hinduism began in India (1). In the beginning of
Hinduism the worshippers of different Hindu Gods and Goddesses were
separated by the different regions of India (1). Each region had their own
primary God or Goddess that they worshipped with their own beliefs and
practices. Over the years as the communication between different regions of
India increased, there began to form a more unified and more communal
religion called Hinduism. This religion developed through the cultural
practices, through the celebration of various religious festivals dedicated to
various Gods and Goddesses and through study and distribution of the Hindu
religious scriptures. Among these Gods, the Hindu God of love and joy,
Krishna was first most popularly worshipped in the Manipur region of India
(3). He is seen as the reincarnation of the Supreme God Lord Vishnu among
the worshippers (4). He is seen as the God who is the protector from evil (4).
At the same time the young Krishna is seen as playful, an ideal lover and a
leader of the people (4). The name Krishna means black or one who attracts

all (4). In Indian culture the color black is associated with mystery or enigma
(4). Therefore Krishna is seen as a mystery that is attractive to all (4).
Currently, Krishna is one of the most popular Hindu deities that are
worshipped and celebrated in India as well as in the Hindu communities of
the world.
In this ethnographic project I chose to observe a variation of Hinduism known
as Krishna Consciousness at a temple under the organization called ISKCON
(International Society of Krishna Consciousness) here in Montreal. I planned
to observe the worshippers during the regular prayer sessions known as
aarti which means Love for God (6).

My thesis was to focus on how

embodied experiences or the physical induce and translate to spiritual and


emotional changes in the minds of the worshippers. This form of Hinduism
was founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the 16 th century in eastern India
(2). He was believed by some to be the reincarnation of Lord Krishna himself
(2). He taught and promoted the worship of Lord Krishna and also composed
verses in the Hindu scriptures himself (2). This form of Hinduism was first
brought to the western world by the preacher of Krishna Consciousness,
Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (2). He was the
founder of the organization ISKCON also known as the Hare Krishna
Movement (2). Krishna Consciousness was first brought to North America in
New York in 1965 in the form of ISKCON (2). The purpose of this form of
Hinduism was to worship Lord Krishna and follow his teachings in order to
achieve the pure love of Lord Krishna (2). This represented the ultimate

purity of the body and the soul. Since then the Hare Krishna Movement
spread all across North America and Europe. The field site for my
ethnographic project was the ISKCON Krishna temple of Montreal.
The ISKCON Montreal temple was quite an old fashioned yet ordinary looking
structure from the distance. As I approached it, the large arched windows
with painted glass became more prominent. The temple had a large entrance
with a heavy wooden door and seemed to be sitting in the quietest of
neighbourhoods. It was located a little farther out from the city in a mainly
residential area. This area was mostly populated by new immigrant families
as

well

as

some

quebecoise

families.

It

was

one

of

the

poorer

neighbourhoods of Montreal. I visited the temple three times over the span of
two weeks as field work for my ethnographic project.
In my visits I made notes of several factors that I will be describing in the
following parts of the essay. I had called and asked about the timings of the
prayer sessions or aarti of the temple from before and had been told that
they were held every day around 6:00pm. The prayer room was a large, highceiling rectangular room with two stages on each end. On one stage there
were the idols of the deities and on the other one was the statue of the
founder of Krishna Consciousness, Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta
Swami Prabhupada. Upon arrival I noticed that there were people from many
different ages and ethnicities at the temple. There were families as well as
individual people. Children were running about the prayer room while senior

devotees were sitting on benches on the edge of the room chanting. There
were people of Indian background as well as people of American and
European background. There were as many men present as women. This
showed that this was a very diverse community where everyone was
welcome to join. As soon as I had entered, a woman asked me if I was new to
this temple. The fact that she noticed that I was new, showed that the
worshippers at this temple knew each other well and it was rare that
someone unknown attended the aarti. Throughout the aarti while
observing the worshippers I came to notice by their interactions that most of
the people at the temple actually knew each other quite well and were a
close community. This reminded me of Emile Durkheims idea that religion is
a communal and social entity. His idea that no religion could exist without
the formation of a community of people who felt and experienced a certain
religious perception or event collectively reflected in this community of
devotees. This in turn acts as evidence in support of my argument that the
physical gathering of people together at this temple causes a strong spiritual
experience to take place within the members of this group.
While observing the activities and rituals of Krishna Consciousness, I noticed
that this religion was based on a lot of symbols. The first symbol I noticed
was the string of beads that men and women were using to chant. When I
was offered to join in chanting, I discovered that this objects was not to be
touched to the floor or with ones index finger which supposedly had
negative energy as it was used to point at things. This showed that these

beads, which were physical objects and symbols of prayer, induced spiritual
changes in the devotees, such as it was rude or wrong to point at or criticize
others. At the same time it induced in the devotees a feeling of respect
towards not only the act of chanting but also the words that were being
chanted. It increased the rank of chanting from being a simple act of saying
a few words to being a sacred prayer to the divine. This idea of symbolism
strongly reflected Clifford Geertzs definition of religion as being a system of
symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long- lasting moods
and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of
existence(1966: 57) (5).
This idea of the physical translating into the spiritual was established
prominently in my field work at this temple of Krishna worship. I noticed that
most of the women that had come to the prayer session were dressed well
for this occasion. Most of the women had worn saris or long pleated skirts
and the most men had worn dhotis, which were a form of loin cloth worn by
Hindu men. This diligence to traditional religious clothing and looks which
was a very physical aspect of life was spiritually important to the
worshippers in several ways. It acted as a constant visible reminder of the
fact they were performing a somewhat sacred act. It also enforced the idea
in the minds of the worshippers that they were in the presence of or being
literally seen by the deities and therefore must act and appear their very
best during the aarti.

Most of the worshippers at the temple had drawn a symbol on the upper part
of their noses and forehead with some kind of white paint. This symbol
seemed to signify that the worshippers were all followers of Krishna
Consciousness and bring more unity among the community of followers. This
symbol on ones forehead created a connection between him and others who
had the same marks on their foreheads as well.
During the aarti, several physical elements were seen which seemed to bring
some immaterial feelings and conceptions in the devotees. As part of the
aarti, the man conducting the ritual had lighted candles for the idols of the
deities which had been passed among the followers to feel the heat from.
This act of feeling the heat of the candles was meant to be the blessings of
the deities that were physically and spiritually transformed from the idols to
the people. This seemed to increase the joy of the people and make them
more relaxed. The act of smelling the flowers that were given to the deities
during the aarti seemed to have the same effect on the worshippers. These
were very striking examples of how symbols and physical acts in this religion
brought emotional changes in people.
It was not just physical objects that were inducing these feelings but actual
actions as well. The acts of everyone taking their shoes off before entering
the prayer room and bowing down on the floor in front of the idols and
Swami Prabhupada as soon as they entered the prayer room, were embodied
representations of the respect, devotion and submission that they had

towards the Lord Krishna. At the same time these actions were increasing
these emotions.
One of the biggest and most prominent parts of the ritual of aarti was the
singing and the dancing. Nearly every devotee had partaken in either singing
or dancing or at the least simply clapping their hands to the beat of the
music throughout the whole ritual. There had even been a large board with
the lyrics of the Sanskrit songs written in English for the worshippers to sing
along. A man in a dhoti was the one leading the songs while everyone else
repeated after him. Surprisingly, it was only the women who were dancing
with the music and not the men. All the women seemed to be dancing the
exact same steps in quite a synchronized fashion, but it seemed to be very
natural to them and not at all like they had practised dancing together in this
way. This was very interesting to me. I had joined in the dancing and the
singing as well and while I was doing it, without quite knowing it, I felt a sort
of power in each movement of the dance that we danced together and each
word that we sang together. It was like everyone had started to concentrate
on this one act together and this caused them to kind of fall into a meditative
state where we were all as one. This was strong evidence to me that showed
how physical acts caused people to experience feelings and emotions
without consciously trying to do so.
I noticed that the ritual of aarti was not being led by one specific person who
could be considered the priest but rather a few men together. There were a

few men who were taking turns in leading the songs and there was only one
man who was on the stage of the dieties carrying out the procedures while
everyone sang. I came to know that not everyone was allowed on the stage
and that one needed to have a truly pure mind and soul to be allowed on the
stage. The main text that was followed thoroughly by this religion was the
Bhagavad Gita. In my observations this book had been constantly mentioned
among the devotees and the superior men who were leading the prayer.
During the teaching session after the prayer, stories and text from this book
was referred to several times by the speaker. This book symbolized the whole
teachings of Krishna and was the ultimate guide to gaining the pure love of
God to this group of followers. This book and its texts which was an object as
well, strongly induced emotions of morality and piety in the minds of the
worshippers.
The most defining symbol of Krishna Consciousness that I discovered
seemed to be the words Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare
Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. These sixteen words
held a lot of meaning to the people of this religion. These words were what
seemed to be the summarizing symbol of this religion, as it was defined by
Sherry Ortner. These were the words that I was asked to chant using the
beads. It was with the first two of these words that everyone had greeted me
and each other with when I had first arrived at the temple. Finally, it was
these words that were sung over and over during the aarti or the prayer
session. The words Hare Krishna meant the love or power of God while

Rama was simply another name for Krishna. This act of constantly chanting
the name of God and regularly using it to greet each other caused people to
be reminded of the presence of Krishna and the constant struggle to achieve
His love every moment. These words were the summary of this religion.
In conclusion, I would like to state that my initial thesis which was that
embodied experience or physical acts induce a spiritual and emotional
change in the minds of the worshippers of this religion was shown to be true.
Throughout my study of Krishna Consciousness I have come to find that
there is a very strong connection between worldly acts and spiritual purity in
this religion. In this essay, I have discussed several symbols and objects and
what they represent. This study therefore shows that Krishna Consciousness
is both a ritualistic and a communal religion of this world.
References :
1. Patheos, 2008-2013, http://www.patheos.com/Library/Hinduism.html
2. ISKCON Montreal, 2013, http://iskconmontreal.ca/iskcon/
3.

Jayadvaita

Swami,

http://www.jswami.info/Manipur/Krishna_conscious_state
4. Sanatan Society, 2006,
http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/krishna.htm
5. Clifford Geertz, 1966, Religion as a Cultural System

2006,

6. Anamika S., 2013, http://anamikas.hubpages.com/hub/Significance-of-Aarti