Hare Krishnas in Singapore: Agency, State, and Hinduism
Sebastian, Rodney, Parameswaran, Ashvin, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Over the past forty years, there has been a proliferation of new religious movements all over the world (Glock and Bellah 1976; Tipton 1982; Wuthnow 1976; Robbins and Anthony 1982; Richardson 1983). Some of these, such as Transcendental Meditation, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Zen Buddhism and the Unification Church, had Asian roots before they established beachheads in the American religious market (Bainbridge 1997, p. 179). After having gained popularity in America and Europe, they expanded into other parts of Asia, where they were previously unknown or shunned. Asian converts to these movements often found themselves in a situation where they have to participate in contestation of physical, social and psychological space in the midst of their new found religion's tenets, the mainstream religious ethos which shares common roots with their new religion, and the rule of the state where they resided.
The paper is divided into two parts. The first addresses the state-agency nexus and then the Hinduism-agency nexus. For the latter nexus we begin with a section on local trends, continue with the Hindu--Hare Krishna interaction and end with a critical account of devotees' voices. In both parts we make extensive use of primary data. Primary data is sourced from archival research on publications produced by the global and local Hare Krishna movements, semi-structured interviews with devotees in Singapore, and observations of devotees' religious practices. Overall, the intent of the paper is to provide a fine-grained ethnographic account of the agency of Hare Krishna devotees within the constraining structures imposed on them by the State and mainstream Hinduism.
The State and Hare Krishna
To discuss the relationship between the Hare Krishna movement and the Singapore state it is important to give an account of the history of the former and policies of the latter. The Hare Krishna movement is more of a revitalization movement than a new religion (Judah 1974; Daner 1976). The precepts and practices of the Hare Krishnas were taught and codified in Bengal by the fifteenth century religious reformer Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and his principle associates, the Six Goswamis of Vrindavana. They were followed by a succession of gurus and disciples, one of whom was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada who established the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York in 1966. Soon the movement spread to European, African and Asian countries and Prabhupada established over a hundred temples in eleven years. However, since the departure of Prabhupada in 1977, the global composition of Hare Krishna has changed. Although membership has multiplied and the majority of Hare Krishna devotees in the world today can be identified with ISKCON, a large number of Prabhupada's disciples left ISKCON to form splinter organizations of their own or joined various branches of the Gaudiya Matha which was founded by Prabhupada's guru Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur. This was mainly due to frustration with the post Prabhupada leadership. Consequently, there are several ISKCON and Gaudiya Matha temples around the world and in Asian countries like India, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan. In Singapore, no official temple exists although programs are conducted in the houses of devotees and in Hindu temples.
Singapore's model of religion-state relations is one of neutrality in the sense that the state does not officially prefer one religion over others, but instead seeks to accommodate different religious beliefs as long as they are not perceived to threaten 'social order' (Straits Times, 30 October 2007). Although the state declares itself to be secular, it is not anti-religious, rather secularism is seen to be a practical approach to manage multi-religiousity in a neutral way (Sinha 1999, p. 81). The state has in fact promoted religion and religiousity directly through ways such as introducing a compulsory 'religious knowledge' programme in Singapore's National Education and indirectly through its encouragement of Singaporeans to preserve their cultural heritage which inevitably includes religion (Pereira 2005, p. …