The Krishna: Those Who Endured the Difficulties

Last time they did Harenaam in the beginning of 1990s.
Last time they did Harenaam in the beginning of 1990s.

20 years later, in September of 2013, the Krishna again performed ‘Hare Naam’, when reciting the Hare Krishna Mantra, beating drums and cymbals, they walk in public places. They walked in Abovian street, went down to the square and walked beside the lake four times.  The procession was authorized by the Municipality.

Hare naam is one of the three public activities of the Krishna, the two others – word preaching (sankirtana) and distributing of food (prasadam), are not yet performed, still in fear of 1995, when upon the order of the Minister of Defence, Yerkrapahs (The Defenders of the Land) invaded the Krishna temple, beat the  believers and remained unpunished.

‘The second waive of spreading the Krishna consciousness starts, it has started in the world already, is still weakly expressed with us’, 59 year old Aghvan Harutyunian, the leader of Vanadzor small Krishna community says. He was sentenced to three years in prison for Krishna activities during the Soviet years (1986-1989), and served his sentence in Baku. After being released he moves from Yerevan to Vanadzor and creates the Krishna community that has been acting up to these days.

‘Freedom of Conscience’ correspondents visited the small house of Krishna community in Vanadzor, where Aghvan Harutyunyan (religious name – Anahata das), his wife Alvard, his wife’s sister Gayane and brother Levon Avetisyan (Lal Mohan das ) with his family live and perform their rituals in a separate tabernacle room.

Anahata  das: Aghvan Harutyunyan sees revival of Krishna in Armenia
Anahata das: Aghvan Harutyunyan sees revival of Krishna in Armenia

And a small group of the Krishna community operates in Yerevan; there are about 60 people in all Armenia.

‘Krishna consciousness’ (another name, bhakti yoga, fostering love in God) teaching (doctrine) is the modern interpretation of one of branches of Hinduism,

 Gaudiya – Vaishnavism, which Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, coming to the US from India in 1965, disseminated around the world and created the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York. The doctrine is mainly based on the comments from Vedic Books by Bhagavad Gita and the 16th century Hindu reformer Chaitanya.  

The Krishna beleive in supreme god – the Krishna.   According to Krishna, there exist illusionary (material) and true (spiritual) worlds. Man is a spiritual being and gets a material body in the material world. To achieve perfection he should be able to control his senses, the aim of bhakti yoga aims to restore the eternal  relationship of soul with the supreme person of God (this relationship in Sanskrit-race). 

Access of the Community
Access of the Community

The initial conditions for Krishna are: a) not to eat meat, fish, egg b) not to use drugs, hashish, alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea  c) not to engage in gambling, d) not to have unlawful sex life.

First Krishna literature penetrated to Armenia in 1981. Yerevan became one of the main USSR Centers of Krishna Consciousness. In 1984, in Yerevan, Bhagavad Gita gets self-published in 10 thousand copies and distributed all over the Union.

As in the whole Soviet Union, in Armenia in 1980s the Krishna consciousness community was suppressed more than other religious organizations; the believers were either sentenced to prison or closed in psychiatric hospitals.

In 1985 first Araik Hakobyan was convicted, a student of Yerevan State University Geology Department (one and a half year sentence to prison). 10 Krishna people were arrested in Armenia, and were sent to psychiatric clinics or were sentenced to prison for different terms. The KGB was proposing them to give up their religious convictions, promising to set them free, however the Krishna people remained faithful to their doctrine.  

Lal Mohan class –Levon Avetisyan. This room is the tabernacle for religious ceremonies
Lal Mohan class –Levon Avetisyan. This room is the tabernacle for religious ceremonies

Krishna consciousness organization was one of the first religious organizations registered in independent Armenia; however it also became the first victim of religious prejudice and was the first that felt the climate of growing religious intolerance. 

In 1994 Krishna people underwent unpunished violence from nationalist military forces and Armenian Church clergy for five times. The peak of these violence was in April of 1995 when the Yerkrapah (Defenders of the Land) invaded the gathering places of eight religious organizations, beat the believers and took away their property. They treated the Krishna with the most cruelty then.

 Yerkrapah (Defenders of the Land) unit of Yerevan Arabkir district, about 25 people, invade the Krishna temple on Sose street and cruelly beat the believers with metal bars, then rob the temple, tear off the gold jewelry from women. After this incident the large part of the 100 member Krishna community left the country and the temple building was sold.  Yerkrapah (Defenders of the Land) had threatened that they will beat them again if they gather in the temple (another person said that they threatened to kill). 

Ara Hakobyan now resides in Seattle
Ara Hakobyan now resides in Seattle

In 1997, after a change was made to the “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” , according to which in order to register a religious organization it was required to have not 50, as formerly, but 200 members, the Krishna also were deprived of their registration, because were not able to gather so many people.

In 1977, after the death of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the organization began splitting. In 1990 the splits become deeper; a lot of people leave the International Society for Krishna Consciousness Organization and follow other Indian gurus.   

The violence of 1995 on the one hand and the splits in International Society for Krishna consciousness organization (ISKCON) on the other, that reached Armenia in 1994-1996, were a double struck to the Armenian community, in the result of which the latter also got split.

Aghvan says – cat is also Krishna
Aghvan says – cat is also Krishna

‘All the hardships that we had are seen as fruits of fate – karma, namely a consequence of actions performed formerly and now, and we attribute the good and the bad that happens to us to Karma, to its inertia’, Levon Avetisyan says. ‘We take the difficulties and violence calmly and in any situation we remember the supreme personality of God, and do see the world and all the religions in harmony. We are not inclined to treat with hostility the other religions, because any religion exists upon the will of God and each rests on different spiritual levels. In other words, there are no bad religions; there are bad followers, our spiritual teacher Prabhupada said’.

However, the Vanadzor fragment of Krishna community endured this test of faith lead by Aghvan Harutyunyan, who did not leave the country and feeling himself in danger kept the Krishna hearth.  They are the followers of Guru Narayana Gosvami Maharaja (1921-2010). There are no members of ‘International Society for Krishna Consciousness Organization’ in the country. ‘Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was the representative of gaudiya vedanta school’, a representative of Vanadzor community 54 year-old Levon Avetisyan explains. ‘He also has had his teacher, the latter his teacher, the latter his teacher, and this teacher-student chain is coming from ages-from the Krishna to us.  Spiritual knowledge is spread through this teacher-student chain (parampara). One group of Krishna organization – ISKON- accepts only Prabhupada, they say ‘he has given us everything and we do not need another teacher’; they have put the traditional teacher-student chain on the second place.

One of the Krishna avatars - in the tabernacle
One of the Krishna avatars – in the tabernacle

‘But the connection that devotees take seriously into account could not be eliminated. Our spiritual teacher is from the same Bhaktivedanta School, he is considered the spiritual brother of Prabhupada, and before leaving his body Prabhupada had asked our Guru devil Narayana Gosvami Maharaja to take care of the western students’.  In 1995 the Vanadzor Krishna community did not suffer due to the links with the authorities.

‘Mayor Ashot Manukyan (currently an ANC opposition party member) was a friend of ours, he said, ‘don’t worry, no one will harm you’. I said, ‘but that’s of a public character, isn’t it’, and he again calmed me down, ‘there will be no problem’, Aghvan recalls.

However, the violence in Yerevan also affect the activities in Vanadzor, they stop the functioning of Soup kitchen, ‘There were days, when we fed 300 people, and we stopped after those days’, Alvard Avetisyan says.

The Christian environment in Armenia does not suppress them, on the contrary, they consider Jesus as a great teacher and see a lot of commonalities in their teaching and Christianity. ‘Christ has been in Krishna consciousness as a personality’, Aghvan says.

They see traces of reincarnation in the Bible, as they cite the words of Jesus about John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel ‘and if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who is to come’.

‘In our ideology it is called Reincarnation-reincarnation of the soul’, Levon says. In material world the living beings are doomed to four states: birth, disease, senility and death. No one can avoid these states, because the material body is not foreseen for something more, and the soul that reaches perfection when it grows, enters the spiritual world and gets a spiritual eternal body, that is not subject to these four things. Soul has three characteristics it is eternal, in knowledge and happiness, but in the material world all of this is covered with a material, illusion (Maya); due to false identification with the material body man, the living creature, does not feel those typical conditions of the soul – eternity, bliss, knowledge. Instead, not controlling his senses and following the illusion, finds himself is the cycle of birth and death with all its consequences – suffering, happiness, illness, fate, and so on’.

Jesus’s commandment ‘don’t kill’ they interpret as ‘not to kill any living being at all’. They believe that there is a soul in each animal.

Vanadzor. The Community that has had challenges
Vanadzor. The Community that has had challenges

Man must not exercise violence towards any living creature. Who is pious? Vedas tell in one sentence ‘the one who does not bother any living creature’. After hearing this statement they are often asked, ‘you don’t kill a mosquito too?’ ‘First of all we maintain cleanliness, cleanliness is very important for insects not to appear’, Alvard says, ‘we also put camphor and they run away from the smell. There are measures against mosquitos, it is not just to kill them’.

They don’t want to have problems with the State, and if needed the Krishna are ready to serve in the armed forces.

‘In case of war, if there is an aggression towards our country, we are obliged to defend the country where we are deemed to live, Levon says, the fight against aggressor right up to murder is not considered as a sin. And if our country becomes aggressor and attacks another country, we will remain neutral, will not participate. In Karabakh cause, according to Vedic teaching, Karabakh  has gained its freedom through battle, thus these lands are  also ours, people wanted to self-determine, were not allowed to, had to gain it through weapons, and the other territories are their contribution. If Azerbaijan attacks again, we shall defend our country’.

The main problem to serve in the Army is the problem of food, they feed with meat there, and eating meat is a terrible sin for them.

They are sure, that without eating meat, through vegetarian food and appropriate nutrition it is possible to have energy and working capability.

Levon brings his own example, who exercises a hard craft, demanding high energy, through a vegetarian diet, he is a blacksmith, bends metal in a traditional way, is the only person making damaskus swords in Armenia (from a mixture of several metals) and with his vegetarian diet.  His clients are wealthy people and authorities occupying ruling positions.

Religious activities are in a narrow circle, they have fear that in case of more active operation they will be subjected to violence again.

‘To tell the truth, fear has a quick ear, we do not know, what reaction they will give’, Alvard says.

They are also aware that the State security service knows about them, though have not yet bothered them.  Nevertheless, their religious activity does not include to preach their doctrine to everyone. ‘Preaching those who does not accept your word, giving holy names to a person who does not want to listen, is one of the ten insults to Krishna, Levon says, in Christianity it is called ‘to throw your pearls before pigs’.


Vahan Ishkhanyan

Vanadzor photos were made by Azniv Andreasyan  

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