It’s been interruption after interruption in trying to get through my blog entry on the first paragraph of the Book of Mormon. That should (hopefully) be coming soon, although at this rate it looks like I’ll have my complete study on the book finished by 2050.
This Sunday I had a chance to interact with two distinctly American cults: Mormons and Hare Krishnas. Neither is really so much a surprise, just walking the Venice boardwalk from my apartment to my car any day I could meet either of these missionaries. The Mormons weren’t as expected this weekend, however, since Sunday was the annual Festival of the Chariots, a millennia-old Hindu celebration that brings all of Krishna’s devotees to Venice, particularly the Hare Krishna movement, ISKCON. Once a year, the faithful push three gigantic, brighly colored carts (from which the English word “juggernaut” is derived) down the boardwalk and offer free food, literature, and music at the end of the parade. Of course, tacky evangelical protesters with professionally printed protest signs precede the parade (accompanied by some hilarious counter-protesters with make-shift banners like “God hates signs”), and other sects like the Mormons try to take advantage of the opportunity as well, albeit a bit more subtly.
At first glance the LDS and ISKCON may seem worlds apart, but they’re closer than you’d think. ISKCON is essentially Hinduism repackaged for the West. Like Mormonism, it was founded in New York, but eventually moved Westward where it found a following. Ironically, Mormonism is a polytheistic offshoot of monotheistic Christianity, whereas ISKCON jumps through hoops to make Hinduism appear monotheistic. Both have unmistakeable missionaries who could never be confused for each other, each trying to get anyone off guard to take a free book. While their messages are completely different, their methods are distinctly cultic.
The annoying thing about trying to learn about Mormonism is that eventually you may need to consult a Mormon if you have questions. Mormons are seemingly programmed to treat all inquirers as outsiders, so no matter how much you know about their religion, to them you’re a beginner. This is particularly frustrating when you’ve clearly outclassed the missionary in scholarly knowledge, and if you’re just trying to get information, all they want to talk about is their faith (not to be confused with their religion as a learnable theology) and converting to Mormonism. You will never be more than a prospective convert (unless, of course, you convert). In their minds, it’s unimaginable that anybody could really understand their religion unless they believe it.
My encounters with the Hare Krishnas was eerily similar. Despite approaching the book table with an advanced level question, inquiring whether ISKCON had an English translation of the impossible-to-find Bhavishya Purana, I could never seem to get them to respond to me as anything other than a novice. I told them politely that I already owned their edition of the Bhagavad Gita, as well as Gandhi’s translation (to which they visibly recoiled), but that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t truly understand their scriptures unless I engaged in their practice of bhakti yoga with a guru. Like the Mormons, they seemed to be reading off of a script, and I walked away wondering if I had actually talked to a real, live person at all. In the course of the conversation, the missionary even pointed me to the “prophecy” about the coming of Buddha in the first canto of the Srimad Bhavatam (aka the Bhagavata Purana) as proof that their scriptures were God’s truth. To me, that’s an obvious interpolation attempting to bring Buddhists back to the Hindu fold; after all, it appears in a list of Krishna’s supposed incarnations that changes to the future tense the moment it reaches Lord Buddha. The missionary wasn’t even open to this logical possibility; remember, I couldn’t possibly understand their scriptures anyway since I didn’t even chant Hare Krishna like he did.
While a part of me would love to get the rest of their 30-volume set of the Srimad Bhavatam translated by ISKCON’s founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the interaction with his adherents is enough of a deterrent (not to mention there just isn’t time in the world to read every single holy book in print). Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the cultic pressure of believing in a book or teaching before being able to understand it; a distinctive trademark of cults are its members who are unable to approach their book on the realistic, human level of literature. It’s a shame too, because I actually do wish I knew more about Krishna folklore, but but I have no desire to be a Hare Krishna.
At least I didn’t come away empty handed. Although Swami Prabhupada’s books can be tedious (Sanskrit, English translation, and then mostly his commentary), who am I to pass up free religious literature? There will definitely be ammunition for a future blog entry, although it’s also yet another distraction from the blog’s main focus on the Book of Mormon.