If you think that Hare Krishnas disappeared when the Age of Aquarius ended, look in the next cubicle--one may be working in your office, wearing a suit, with a full head of hair. This week the Hare Krishnas celebrate their 40th anniversary, and they've joined the American mainstream. "A Hare Krishna could be living next door to you and you wouldn't know it," says Burke Rochford, a Middlebury College professor and author of the forthcoming book "Hare Krishna Transformed." "They're now part of the culture in ways that the average person couldn't have imagined some 20 or 25 years ago."
Founded in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the movement--formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)--became known largely for proselytizing in airports and for its influence on Beatle George Harrison. Critics called it a cult, and a sex-abuse scandal also cost it both money and members. Using the teachings of 15th-century philosopher Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Hare Krishnas worship by repeatedly chanting God's name. They believe in simple living and are prohibited from eating meat, gambling, intoxication and sex outside marriage. Many former ISKCON members are now living what they call "Krishna conscious" lifestyles while only loosely affiliating with the organization. Meanwhile, at today's temples, young people in jeans and T shirts worship alongside middle-aged men in saffron robes and Indian immigrants in flowing saris. ISKCON communities offer premarital counseling, interfaith activities, social-service programs and baby-sitting--just the kind of institutional structure that many early converts were fleeing. Take Paul Swinford. He took the name Premananda Dasa and spent a decade living in Boston's Hare Krishna temple. Two years ago, at 40, he got married, moved to New Hampshire--where his wife works for a financial-services company--and recently took an outside job, the first paycheck he's drawn in years.
And while Hare Krishnas have changed, so has American culture. The spiritual mainstream embraces yoga, vegetarianism and concepts like karma and reincarnation. "A lot of people on the streets now believe in those things," says Anuttama Dasa, ISKCON spokesman. "A lot of things that were considered outlandish or threatening are now taking place in the basements of Christian churches."