The Absolute Truth About Racism in Krsna Consciousness

By Srila Jiva Goswami dasa

This article presents practical experiences of a member of the racial minority community in Krsna Consciousness. Instead of revealing shocking narrations of racism and discrimination, you may see instead here documentation of the opposite. There is no actual racism in Krsna Consciousness because of the fundamental truth: We are not our bodies.

On one hand, as an African American, I’d read in Srila Prabhupada’s “The Bhagavada Gita As It Is,” how we are not our bodies. On the other, many times before, I’d come across both latent and overt racism in several large, ostensibly non-racial institutions. For example, the United States Military has been officially integrated since 1948, yet I found plenty of racism in our Air Force during the years I served there.

Another instance of racism where I’d not expected it had been witnessed before approaching the Hare Krsna Movement. Then I’d been Spiritual Shopping and I’d become interested in the Faith of the Mormons. Suddenly I learned their doctrine included discrimination against members of races other than white. On its face, that practice seemed un-religious to me. The fact that the Church of Latter Day Saints later modified this aspect of their philosophy did nothing to allay my trepidation about their professed belief system. The Absolute Truth is by definition, totally impervious to what ever and every political current; each temporal definition.

And from the other side, going to the temples of The Honorable Elijah Mohammed quickly showed me the religion of the Black Muslims in the late sixties, was more a political movement, based on race than True Religious practice.

What then, I wondered, would Hare Krsna Devotees, boys and girls raised in America, be like, with regard to race?

Here I offer you, Dear Reader, a few personal observations on race based incidents experienced by me, during my experience in the Krsna Conscious Movement.

Sometimes, in the fresh company of Devotees, I asked questions, already knowing the perfect answer. For example, I asked my friend Kuladri Prabhu one day, “Why, do you call a full grown man ‘boy?’” In the Air Force, if you called a Black Man “Boy,” there was a good chance your target of communication would square off and put up his hands.

Personally in those times, I’d preferred the lighter rejoinder: “Boy plays with Tarzan.” The point is no Black Man who is a black man accepts being called “boy.”

Key here to me is all that is implied by the embrace of the concept “I am a Black Man.” (Correct light of realization is founded on the Truth that we are not our bodies.) Kuladri kept it simple for me. “We call everyone ‘boy,’ or ‘girl,’” he explained. He let me have that serious smile of his. It was true. I’d known that. I’d heard so called “white people” referred to as “boys,” or “girls.” It was good to hear it nonetheless. Based on my ugly earlier State Side encounters, I’d just wanted the reassurance.

Indeed in Srila Prabhupada’s letters, it may be seen how often reference is made to followers as “girls” and “boys.”

Another, better example of racism in Krsna Consciousness occurred on my watch when early on, as a Bhakta in Columbus Ohio, I was packed in a van with a bunch of Devotees, and we sailed off West on a Sankirtan Marathon Party. Pixielike Sundakhar was among our number. Sundakhar Prabhu had every reason to empathize with the position of those who are physically different: years earlier, he’d been flipped head over heels in a disfiguring, horrendous biking accident. When he’d been Humpty Dumptied together again, there had been little attention paid to matching the edges of the sewn up planes and plates of his visage. It was freely said the heavy scars and stitching back and forth across the face of this young angel from New England resembled nothing more than what you see on an old baseball. Sundakhar typically reacted to that citation by giggling and waving his fingers back and forth in the air. He stated that he did not care, and that he was not this body.

As we rolled down the interstate away from Columbus, our vehicle passed through a squalid area. “Bahookaville,” Sundakhar said. Everyone chuckled.

“Bahookaville?” I didn’t get it. “What’s Bahookaville?”

Sundakhar got an “ulps” look on his disfigured face. He turned away, muttering “Nothing, nothing.” He waved his palms at me and sat in the Lotus position, but he seemed nervous. He avoided my gaze.

“No, what is it?” I wanted to know. I craved the openness.

Jai Mauari was leaning against the steel ribbed wall under the window of the driver’s side when he chimed in. “You said it,” he said with a laugh to Sundakhar. “Now you explain it.”

Sundakhar turned to me and related the past time in which Brahmins end up saying “Bahooka …” (Sit down) to the personification of impurities which appeared upon the churning of legs … this personification is referred to as the template for subsequent stereotypical black people. Of course, Sundakhar’s relating of the original incident was eloquent and fascinating. He included, as always, the chanting of the Maha Mantra, “Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare” and we all chanted rights along, as Devotees do.

So, he’d been referring to the black neighborhood as “Bahookaville” and laughing? I had to laugh too. It was funny. Among non devotees, the terms might be a lot worse. Here there was a meaning and a use, in a cosmic sense. And Sundakhar had brought humor to it.

I can not help but be struck by the fact that in addition to Everything Else, Krsna Himself is black. I once asked my Guru why Krsna is white on the altar at New Vrindabana. “That is an ecstatic symptom,” he explained before the assembled Devotees. “When He touches Radharani, He flushes white.”

“Racism in Krsna Consciousness” is an oxymoron. In Krsna Consciousness what is racism in the Karmi World is instead a revelation of love, a step towards understanding, a lesson. In the following instance, I see a combination of all those wonderful things, with the addition of me, practicing and learning how to impersonate what I could of the wholesome acts and behaviors of Devotees I admired.

It happened that once, at a Sunday feast in Columbus, I was serving out and a guest loudly inquired as to my race. To me, my ethnicity when I consider it was more than partially forged by my experiences in the South in the early sixties. I would be one of those Black Men, though a lot of people look at my light complexion and assume otherwise. There are those who assume that my body is of African American heritage. Others don’t give the matter a thought, and tend to disregard race perception. There is another flavor of interaction I am used to however. This one is based on a need to ask. If you are the target, you learn by experience to feel the question coming.

At this feast, I’d felt a guest’s inquisitive eyes, and recognized the flavor. I was not surprised when he finally and abruptly broadcast his loud question, “What race are you?” There was a general swing of focus upon me, like at tennis match.

“I am human,” I returned crisply. “I am a member of the human race.” To this, other guests clapped lightly. I heard mummers of “good for you.” To me, this was, however, not even an accurate reply: I’m not any race at all, of course, but purely, underneath it all, simply Spirit Soul.

Our guest was abashed by my reply. I’d been waiting for the chance to speak that one since I’d first heard it, back when I was about six. And Krsna had let me have that opportunity under the most optimal of circumstance. I went to our chagrined guest almost immediately and apologized. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve been waiting for the chance to say that since I was about six. To answer your question, I am a Black Man.” I saw surprise and gratitude in the look our guest gave me.

I was trying to emulate the open directness and kindness with which I’d been treated as a Bhakta.

There can only be racism when we identify with our bodies. To the extent that we embrace Krsna Consciousness, there is no racism.

Finally this one has to do with part of my daughter’s experience in the Girl’s Ashram at Old New Vrindabana. What stands out for me, in any of these incidents is the root of the problem; our environment while we developed, and the immediate dissipation of the issue when washed with the light of the Maha Mantra and Krsna Consciousness. Here Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare!

For me, hey that Maha Mantra represents the True Most Golden Philosophy, complete with fundamentals beyond the Ten Commandments. We are not our bodies. “Learn the difference between Spiritual and Material!” my Guru always says.

To relate what happened with my daughter, I should first report to you, Dear Reader, that as a kid growing up in New York City, I was totally shielded from aspects of racism. Then when I joined the military, the racism I encountered was a virtual brick wall.

My daughter, “Vimala,” at the time, told me she was receiving racial epithets in the Ashram. I believed her, of course. We bring so much luggage along with us when we come to Krsna Consciousness. Vimala told me how her fellow students referred to her as “Nigger.” “What do you expect? She’s just a Nigger,” some kids were saying, according to my daughter.

This seemed a problem to me. For myself, I did not care what anyone called me. For my daughter, I cared very much. I went to one of my dearmost friends, also a fellow ex-New Yorker, Advaita Prabhu, and I asked his advice and counsel.

Advaita told me that I should be grateful. I wondered about that. “You should be glad,” he advised me, “because you are getting this in a sheltered environment. You don’t want your daughter growing up thinking everything is more fluffy than it is.”

Because of my prior experience in the so called protected environment, stepping into the world of the Deep South in the early ‘60’s had been for me like walking into an airplane propeller. I absolutely understood and embraced Advaita’s counsel on that matter. I did not miss the dear fact that Advaita felt perfectly comfortable in sharing his view with me. Advaita did not spring at all from the same culture … but then, but now, and the point of this article is that we all actually absolutely are of the very same eternal culture. We need each other’s help to get back There.

In each of these matters, the source of the participant’s experiences mix with the ultimate reality which is Krsna Consciousness. Then those same flavors which under ordinary circumstances become places of conflict, in Krsna Consciousness very literally become pathways of love and understanding. This then is a matter of Absolute Truth about Racism in Krsna Consciousness.

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