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The Hare Krishna Elm

John Laxmi posted this article on the S.A.J.A. discussion forum along with a fascinating question, "Is Hare Krishna a religion, sect, or cult?" Surely, the best place to start is to consider how Hare Krishna believers view themselves. According to I.S.K.C.O.N., Hare Krishna believers describe themselves as "devotees" of a "movement" that accepts "everyone from any race, religion, economic situation." However, the term "movement" seems clearly inadequate when describing a group that adheres to such stringent devotional requirements as "Srila Prabhupada should be worshiped daily by every I.S.K.C.O.N. member." Indisputably, the movement's roots lie well within Hinduism, a religion that defines orthodoxy too loosely to ever warrant use of the term cult for any of its offshoots. Therefore, given that the movement appears uninterested in laying any serious claim to being an independent religion, it seems reasonable to classify it as a sect within Hinduism.

The New York Times, Apr. 20, 2003

"[T]here is an old elm tree in the center of the East Village park, near a semicircle of benches, that marks the birthplace of the Hare Krishna religion in the Western Hemisphere. To Krishnas the tree is sacred. In 1965, after a difficult month on a steamship, a spiritual leader named Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada arrived in New York convinced that if Americans would embrace his conception of Krishna consciousness, the other countries in the world would follow. In 1966 he founded the International Society of Krishna Consciousness [I.S.K.C.O.N.] at 26 Second Avenue, near Second Street. On Oct. 9, 1966, Swami Prabhupada led a group of followers to the nearby Tompkins Square Park, between Seventh and Tenth Streets and Avenues A and B. Under the leafy canopy of an American elm tree they began to chant a distinctive 16-word mantra: 'Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.' "
"It was Swami Prabhupada's first outdoor chanting ceremony outside of India and it was the birth of the Hare Krishna religion. Attending the ceremony was the poet Allan Ginsberg, who later said, 'The ecstasy of chant or mantra has replaced L.S.D. and other drugs for many of the swami's followers.' The tree has become a focal point for the chanting, dancing, robed adherents of Hare Krishna. The sect claims to have followers in 90 countries, 800,000 in the United States. Swami Prabhupada died in 1977, but 26 Second Avenue remains a Krishna center, and in 2001 the city's Parks Department recognized the historical significance of the Hare Krishna Elm tree with a plaque."