by Dragana Stojmenovska
About two years ago I embarked on ethnographic research on the Hare Krishna community in a city I prefer to keep anonymous. Being a hardheaded (sorry if I put Presley’s Hard Headed Woman on your minds now) atheist, I saw the ethnography as a wonderful opportunity to reassure myself that my rationality is sufficient to keep me away from getting involved in any religious communities, or cults, for that matter. Apart from, of course, as a researcher. The first encounter with the priest at the temple was extremely positive. My first two hours of discussions about Krishna were followed by learning the Hare Krishna chant, and finally, singing the chant and going through the practicalities of praising Lord Krishna and his (yes, he also is a male) spiritual followers. The priest informed me that when you sing the mantra, Krishna appears in your mouth and then spreads through your whole body. Aaalright, I thought. I preferred to call what I was doing participant observation anyway.
As I spent more time within the community, interviewed several members and went to a few Sunday feasts, I got close to some of the Hare Krishnas, especially the priest. The priest started referring to me as ‘an almost Hare Krishna’ and at times as a ‘very successful Hare Krishna’. I would just smile and give an inner nod to myself, thinking how I should not worry about these statements because I am just a researcher. Of course, at the beginning of the research I had explicitly stated that I wanted to do research for class purposes. However, I started finding it very difficult to say that I am not a Hare Krisha member, but have semi-joined the community only as a researcher. ‘Rationally’, of course, I knew that I was a researcher, but I felt like if I said that out loud, I would hurt the priest’s feelings or might make the members of the community feel betrayed. It was then when I started thinking about the limits of being a researcher, and the extent to which an ethnographer can remain merely an ethnographer. I had read about other ethnographers’ difficulties with nurturing the acquired friendships with respondents, while at the same time trying to maintain a detached perspective, but I rarely thought about how it would feel if the same happened to me. Well, it did.
Doing my literature review on the topic, I came across research that had found that around 11 percent of the Hare Krishnas in the LA community, I believe, joined through school projects. Now, this was when fear struck in. I knew that there was no way I could join the community, as in, me? becoming a Hare Krishna? Then again, each time I went to the temple, hearing the chanting and dancing and chanting … and dancing..and then the smell of the candles..background noise of people talking..honestly, there were days when I was truly relieved to be out of the temple. Put simply, I knew that I cannot be a Hare Krisha, but at the same time was afraid of becoming one. This made me think about what it is that is so bad about becoming what I have chosen not to be. I do not, of course, have a definite answer to that, but I believe that it has to do a lot with the way we choose to define ourselves. Define ourselves as friends, political and religious (non) believers, students, researchers, women, men, parents, academics. And by define I mean impose boundaries on how much that human container of flesh and bones and emotions can extend and mould. Wait, did I actually write emotions?
Reflecting on this experience, I reckon that my fear originated in my decision to present myself as a consistent, well-defined, impenetrable persona. Not only did I not want others to see me as a bipolar wait-she’s-doubting-her-atheist-convictions type of person, but also I myself did not want to recognize, or allow for the possibility that I might become something that I have not chosen to be. I have figured myself out, have I not? The story ended up happily, with me finishing my research and staying out of the Hare Krishna community. The realizations that one of my first ethnographic works brought forth, however, were truly precious and long-lasting.
Now, picture me sitting in front of my computer, and ‘accidentally’ playing a Hare Krishna YouTube video. Three seconds after the start of the video, I hear the mantra and start singing along. “Shush!” I think to myself. “Damn it, I really can’t unlearn that catchy Hare Krishna mantra, can I?” “Lord Krishna in my mouth and body? Hell no.”
Still, a poster saying “Atheism: Knowing that suns/gods do not play peekaboo with you.” hangs on the wall of my room.
Picture credit: creative commons/wikipedia