Before we can discuss to what extent the Hare Krishna movement can be described as a cult, it is important to understand that the word ‘cult’ can be defined in different categories. One of the obstacles to an understanding of cult mania is a lack of adequate definitions. Many words either have a single meaning or their meaning can be determined by their context. Some words, such as ‘cult’, have so many different, but similar, meanings that they need to be defined in advance of any further discussion. In the context of this essay the word cult can be defined as follows1:
* In a theological sense, the traditional use of the term describes a cult as away of life or style of worship.
* Sociologically the term is commonly used to describe a religious group that exists outside a nation’s dominant religion. The Buddhist community in England might be considered a cult by some, while Christianity might equally be seen as a cult in Tibet.
* For a Fundamentalist Christian any religious group which does not adhere strictly to historical Christian doctrine (the Creation, Immaculate Conception and so on) is termed, usually negatively, a cult. This effectively dismisses the beliefs of some 70 per cent of humankind.
* Like the fundamentalists, the evangelical church regards historically accurate Christianity as the only path to salvation. However, it confines its use of the term cult to other Christian collectives (such as Mormons), not to such groups as Hindus, Pagans or Buddhists.
* An Open Religious view of the word cult defines any small religious group that does not derive from an established religion, whilst the Popular definition is particularly applicable in the context of this essay, describing cults as being, in the main, small, occasionally malevolent collections of disciples, often led by a charismatic ‘messiah’. This leader is frequently accused of ensnaring converts and then subjecting them to a form of coercive mind control in order to manipulate them both spiritually and financially. Violence, or the threat of violence, is often endemic to this cult’s rationale.
Although it is hard to provide a single definition of a cult, it generally refers to many non-traditional religious movements. Scholars sometimes separate cults from sects on the grounds that cults are more alienated from traditional religions. Some characteristics that cults have been likened to are that they attach importance to the search for mystical experience, are weakly structured, small, led by a charismatic leader, and participants feel that they are final arbiters of what is or isn’t the truth. Recently, however, the term has been employed in a different way as a part of the polemic against new religious movements in the West. One anti-cult organisation describes these movements as ‘systematically employing sophisticated techniques designed to effect ego-destruction, thought reform, and dependence.’2
Some of the common characteristics of cults can be found through extensive travel and research. Below are examples are of the distinctive marks that flag cultism today:
Authoritative Differences: The role of cultic leaders as new prophets, apostles, messiahs or the sole channel of truth creates a difference in the emphasis on authority. The authoritative leadership is supported by new revelation that is either equal or superior to the Bible. If the Bible impedes leadership it is often altered with the consequence that the message is diminished of its original significance. Cults cause this to happen by retranslating the Bible into an unscholarly translation, or by redefining biblical words in such a way that cult members are unable to discern the truth.
Isolated Leadership: Cults are usually characterised by central leader figures that consider themselves messengers of God with unique access to the Almighty. Since the leader has such a special relationship with God, he can dictate the theology and behaviour of the cult. Consequently, he exercises enormous influence over the group. This strong leadership leads the cult follower into total dependence upon the cult for belief, behaviour, and lifestyle. When this falls into the hands of a particularly corrupt leader, the results can be tragic, as with the mass suicide of 912 people under Jim Jones and the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. The more dramatic the claims of a cult leader, the more possibility of a tragic conclusion.
The cult leaders isolate their authority from historic Christianity. They set their stage with an open frontal attack of historic Christianity. Their argument is that the church has departed from true faith, and that they alone provide God’s true direction. Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, said all the churches are wrong and he alone was to restore true faith. The founders of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and other cults claim the same thing: Christianity is wrong and they are right. Each one isolates himself from biblical teachings and his group from Christianity.
Additional Scripture: Many cults promote the false idea that God has revealed something special to them. Sometimes it is in the form of a vision, at other times they have a special written message. The cults thrive on new revelation that supersedes the Bible because they have an innate desire for modern man to have modern revelation. What they fail to realise, however, is that the Bible does speak to modern man: “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation” (Psalm 33:11). Rather than obeying God’s Word, cults always contradict it with their new message.
Joseph Smith added three works, The Book of Mormonism, The Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants. Thus, the Bible is not truly their final source of authority.
Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, claimed that her writings were inspired from God and she was only the scribe. The Bible is demeaned as having no more value “than the history of Europe and America”.
The Unification Church believes the Bible to be incomplete, while Rev. Moon’s Divine Principle is the true authoritative source. Within its writings, the Divine Principle is labelled the “complete Testament” in opposition to the Old and New Testaments. Regardless of whether other works supersedes the Bible or a cult leader reinterprets the Bible, a sure mark of a cult is that the final authority on spiritual matters rests on something other than the plain teachings of Holy Scripture.
Altering the Bible: Another mark of the cults is how they change what is actually written within the Bible. This is a different category from their new revelation. It is one thing to claim additional Scripture, but it is another to change the words God spoke.
The cults do this in one of two ways: They retranslate the Bible by inferior and unreliable scholarship (making it say what they want it to say), or they redefine the terms of the Bible, clouding its message.
Only a few of the cults publish their own Bible. The Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, and The Way International are among the few. The other cults are satisfied with redefining the terms of the Bible, which, in effect, destroys the valid translation.
There are many examples of how cults redefine terms. When a Christian Scientist reads the Bible, it is only through the filter of Mary Baker Eddy’s definitions (i.e., God is Mind, Jesus is not the Christ, Baptism is submergence in truth, etc.)
These and other cults justify their existence by claiming they have something more than just the Bible and its “inadequate message”. The cults have no objective, independent way to test their teachings and practices. Contrary to this, the Bible warns us about those who would attempt to alter or add to the Word of God (Proverbs 30:5,6; Galatians 1:6-9). As members of the universal Christian church, we can and should test all of our teachings and practices objectively and independently by God’s infallible Word, the Bible (Acts 17:11).
Prophecy, Signs, and Wonders: Christians believe in a supernatural God who works within a natural world. The Bible attests to God’s demonstration of His anointing upon an individual by giving special knowledge of future events (prophecy) or by accompanying his message with signs and wonders (miracles). Since the leaders of cults wish to place themselves in a similar position as the prophets of the Bible, it is not surprising that they will attempt to prove their anointing with prophecies of future events or special signs, such as healings, or wonders, such as miraculous events.
The prophets and apostles of the Mormon Church have made several dated predictions of future occurrences. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, beginning with their founder Charles Taze Russell, has predicted the date of Christ’s return and the battle of Armageddon with specific dates. Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God, has made several predictions of world events. The Church of Christ, Scientist boldly published A Century of Christian Science Healings, announcing the healings of hundreds of people through Mary Baker Eddy’s methodology. The Way International boasted of signs and wonders, including people raised from the dead. The followers of Sun Myung Moon are immersed in visions of the “True Parents” (Moon and his wife) during prayer, and often spirits are manifested in their presence. The New Age cults and Unity School of Christianity speak of astounding healings that defy common explanation. An advanced class of Transcendental Meditation devotees, Siddhis, claim the miraculous events of walking through walls and levitation.
Are these people really giving accurate predictions and prophecies? Are these events miraculous? What is a Christian to make of this and how do we explain what seems to be paranormal phenomena? These events hold a tight grip on the lives of many cult members who believe that these signs are proof of God’s blessing.
God’s message is clear-stay away from false prophets. No prophet of the Bible ever predicted an event that failed in one degree. This is not true of the prophets and leaders of the cults. None have ever had complete accuracy. Joseph Smith gave at least 10 well-documented false prophecies. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has fourteen false predictions. Mr. Armstrong has given at least ten false predictions. How does the Bible tell us to detect a false prophet? If even one of their predictions fail, then we know they were not sent by God.
The authoritative difference between the cults and Christianity forms a wide chasm. They supplant the biblical structure of the church with isolated unaccountable leadership. They reduce the effectiveness of the written Word of God through new translations and redefining terms. They minimise the authority of the Bible by adding new scriptures that have a superior position. 3
Eastern-inspired religions, like the Hare Krishna, often involve strict discipline and obedience, hardship, giving up all possessions, rising before dawn, wearing very distinctive clothing and regular chanting of mantras. This is one of the attractions to many of the devotees. They want to give up control of their lives and have someone else take charge and make their decisions for them. Hare Krishna devotees, like Christian monks and nuns, find peace in submission.
Another appeal of eastern cults is that they are derived from old eastern religions. Members of these cults are searching for the Truth and new religious movements provide them with an accessible way of getting it combined with the knowledge and wisdom taken from some of the oldest surviving religions.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), who was born in Calcutta, founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), also known as the Hare Krishna. He became a follower of the Gaudiya Mission, a Hindu revivalist group, and in 1933 was ordered by the leader, Bhakti Siddhanta, to take Krishna consciousness to the West. ISKCON was founded in America in 1966. Over the next few years the movement spread rapidly through America, England and across the West.
Unlike many other forms of Hinduism, Krishna Consciousness teaches a relationship between individuals and a personal god, Krishna, who was the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, though ISKCON sees Krishna as the original form of Vishnu. There is Truth in all the great scriptures, but the oldest surviving scripture, the Vedic Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, is the literal words of Krishna.
Krishna is regarded as the supreme Godhead; this in effect is a monotheistic form of Hinduism, known as Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu). Krishna is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and eternal, and the sustaining energy of all creation. He is also personal, rather than unknowable, which the more mystical Hindu movements teach. Krishna cares individually about every jiva, every living entity. Unlike the teaching of Shankara, for example, which is that atman, or higher soul, of every person is the same, ISKCON teaches that every person is an individual.4
Full-time devotees of the Hare Krishna movement can be seen dancing and chanting in the streets dressed in traditional Indian robes. The vast majority of followers, however, live and work within a general community, practising Krishna consciousness in their homes and attending temples on a regular basis.
There are about 5,000 full-time devotees throughout the world and 200,000 community members outside India. The movement is presently compromised of 267 temples, 40 rural communities, 26 schools, and 45 restaurants in 71 countries. The basic principle of the Hare Krishna lifestyle is “simple living and high thinking”. A devotee of Krishna is encouraged to use his time, energy, talents, and resources in devotional service to God, and not to yearn for selfish ambitions or pleasures, which result in frustration and anxiety.
Devotees try to encourage humanity’s innate spiritual qualities of compassion, honesty, cleanliness and austerity. There are four regulative principles which devotees adopt to assist them to develop those qualities and also to help control the insatiable urges of the mind and senses.