Is it time for the return of the counterculture?

I spent quite a bit of time over the past few days wandering more or less aimlessly on the Internet. As usual, when one does this kind of thing, disparate streams coalesce and one is left with certain impressions that carry a greater significance than one might have expected.

I started out by looking up the "reptilian" brain and ended up on a website connected to a rather well-known conspiracy theorist from England, but of whom I had never heard, David Icke. Icke describes what those on the left have become rather well aware of, such as increasing concentrations of power in the hands of a few, the global financial crisis and the opportunism of elites to exploit the situation in their own favor at the cost of common people (the "shock doctrine"), mass manipulation through media and education, and the increasingly repressive surveillance state.

Icke's summary of the situation is mostly cogent and frighteningly familiar, but totally marred by his fantastical talk of Illuminati and alien reptilian hybrid bloodlines, which no matter how supported with Zulu shaman accounts, pictures of deities from ancient Sumer and Egypt and appeals to various mystical traditions, including those of India, relegates him to the realm of derangement and paranoia.

As one skeptic says, "[Icke] strives painfully hard to connect every conspiracy trope ever conceived into a sort of Grand Unified Theory of Crazy so complicated and implausible that it defies all attempts at concise summary."

Not altogether lacking self-awareness, Icke himself talks of a "global spiritual awakening", by which he means that he is finding an increasing audience for his incredible theories, customers for his books and videos. And clearly, the main reason for the increasing interest is that more and more people are feeling a malaise at the general direction the world seems to be headed. Though some, mostly on the right, seem to be flailing at straws and taking refuge in wild conspiracy theories, others are seeking ways to respond.

Though I am living in Vrindavan, I keep an eye on the world, mostly through the lense of leftist websites in the United States. These sites also daily document many of the same symptoms that Icke points to, mostly with a worried and often hopeless attitude. In the last year, there are some stirrings of the torpid masses with the so-called "Occupy" movement, which started with "Occupy Wall Street." Though many of the Occupy activities were infiltrated by agents provocateurs who tried to instigate disruptions that would legitimize repressive tactics from the authorities, on the whole, they succeeded to some extent in spreading the idea of a counterculture.

In fact, for the first time since the 60's and 70's there seems to be a reaction taking place in opposition to the dominant culture of conspicuous and competitive consumption. The great burst of sense-gratification and materialism that followed in the wake of the counterculture activities of those decades pretty much assimilated everyone from Abbie Hoffman to the Hare Krishna Movement. It is time for a comeback, only this time it needs to be a change that is resilient. More than anything, global climate change is putting a date limit on the consumerist way of life that is intoxicating the entire world.

One of the left's more strident voices, Chris Hedges was not so long ago summarizing the historical developments of the 60's and the failure of the counterculture, in the course of which he mentioned Hare Krishna as one of the "self-indulgent schemes for inner peace and fulfillment," a self-absorbed obscurantism that sought to escape the categorical imperative to act politically, i.e., to do something to bring about fundamental change in society. What one writer even then called "the awareness trap."

To my recollection, in the counterculture, there were already spiritual and political wings with somewhat different agendas. Certainly, the call to "turn on, tune in, drop out" was one of the principal mantras of the time, along with "make love not war" and "flower power", etc. But the argument then, as now, is that there can be no anti-Establishment movement with any hope for success if there is no  program that offers a meaningful alternative.  The Occupy Mayday protest website seems to have the idea:
On May 1st, 2012, we are creating a new kind of holiday—A People's Holiday—One that's not just yet another flavor of consumerism, but is explicitly about imagining a world beyond consumerism.
On a recent blog, someone commented in response to Henry Giroux's impressive summary of the prevailing dangers as American and indeed Western liberal societies slowly trundle towards repressive fascism in the wake of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. His succinct summary of what is needed went as follows:
This is going to keep getting worse and more extreme until and unless there is some kind of very real counterculture, a new culture that runs in opposition to the prevailing tide and somehow manages to turn it around.

What that will look like includes the embrace of sustainability, empathy for others, and a ferocious commitment to fairness, with an emotional narrative drawn from the most progressive threads of both religion and secular philosophy, a foundation of science, and a willingness to face facts courageously and act upon them boldly.
This is the crux of the matter. The Hare Krishnas were about "imagining a world beyond consumerism." As such they were a living part of the counterculture of the 60's. What is needed now is for the Hare Krishnas to find that role again. The great power of Sankirtan is still there to give energy to that effort, but the Hare Krishnas as they are today are a dim light indeed. Hedges' accusation of obscurantism is not entirely without merit; it means irrelevance.

The author of the above statement has summarized impressively what is needed. On how many of these points can the Hare Krishnas, in their current, dwindling, incarnation, make a contribution?

As a part of my web wanderings, I found myself listening to Radhanath Swami, one of ISKCON's great current hopes for a revival, lecturing on the Essense (sic) of Religions at a Unitarian Church in the USA. From what I can see, Radhanath Swami seems to be using the tactics of media manipulation to establish his credentials as a legitimate "saintly" person, guru and authority. To do so, he appears to be dissimulating, playing down the dogmatic aspects of Vaishnavism and advocating a kind of generic religiosity and spirituality in the New Age mould.

As such, his lecture stands as almost a polar opposite to David Icke. Whereas the latter brazenly and unapologetically harps on the clear and imminent dangers of the reptilian Illuminati's quest for world domination and the absolute imperative to respond to it, Radhanath pleads for acceptance of Krishna consciousness into the community of staid, intelligent, liberal religion preaching love and brotherhood and against the fundamentalist literalism of certain powerful Islamic and Christian societies. "Why can't we all just get along?"

This made it somewhat striking when in one place he mentions how, as a "child of the 60's" he sought justice when a Christian preacher prompted a university to cancel his vegetarian cooking classes because he was using it to preach dangerous ideas.

But it will take more than asking for acceptance. As long as ISKCON or the Hare Krishnas are somewhere in the same league of credibility with David Icke, they will be relegated to cult status, handfuls of followers somehow dissociated from the grand currents of the time. I already wrote about Hare Krishna's becoming a mere footnote in 20th century history if it cannot find a way to speak to the times.

What is needed is the courage to reinterpret the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition in a way that truly keeps its spiritual essence while firmly supporting the new counterculture in its reinvention of society in the current pivotal age marred by increasing spiritual poverty, massive economic inequality on the one hand and global warming on the other. But that cannot be done in its present form.

There comes a time, I am afraid to say, when adherence to a tradition and idolization of its saints and masters, holds us back. If Icke can find enough of a place in the world, then why not literal belief in Hindu mythology and its outdated social doctrines, and ISKCON's own conspiracies of Hidden Archaeology and moon-landing hoaxes? Sure, it may find a place on the margins of society, but these limitations will never allow it mainstream acceptance. In today's multi-polar and pluralistic world, this may not be altogether bad. But it is not leadership. Leadership comes from clear forward vision, not backward.


Steve Bohlert said…
Excellent article Jagat. In Puna Hawaii, the counterculture remains strong. There are many communal and individual attempts at alternative sustainable living. The area is full of hippies, new agers, Rastas, surfers, HKs, Hawaiians, and others who reject mainland consumer culture. Universalist Radha-Krishnaism is a politically engaged alternative. My wife Jahnava is the organizer of Occupy Pahoa. Aloha.
Anonymous said…
Not sure if it would be of any interest to you, but i was raised in the awful Chris Butler Siddhaswarupananda"Science Of Identity" group, total cult, and am currently working hard to do my part to expose them.

I lost my entire family to Chris' cult and they fanatically applied his commands to me when I was 3 years old refusing to give me Asthma medication on his order, risking my life and causing me years of needless suffering.

my mainstream article part 1:

part 2:

(note Allan "Acharya Das" Tibby current face of the Science Of Identity and one of Butler's main commanders is denying involvement with SoI, claiming to be head of the seemingly defunctional World Vaishnava Association to get a 40 building compound built for Chris Butler in Twizel, New Zealand)

My article about the abuse I suffered :

I have more content on that SoI dedicated Flashlight On Roaches blog.

Cheers, Hare Krishna

Rama Ranson

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