Underground Hare Krishnas and the KGB: ISKCON in Late Soviet Lithuania
The ideas of Krishna Consciousness in Lithuania came from Moscow (Russia) through Tallinn (Estonia) and Riga (Latvia) in 1979 and spread among students in Šiauliai who were interested in yoga, and soon also to similar circles in Kaunas and Vilnius. Unlike the current community, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in Lithuania existed without any organizational structure until 1989. Up to that point, it was an informal circle of friends who exchanged ideas and experiences. The community developed inside the underground, while constantly at risk of being exposed to the KGB, where it existed until the beginning of the Sąjūdis (the Reform Movement of Lithuania), when public community activities became possible, such as public programs, book distributing, and founding of official temples. The Lithuanian ISKCON community played a significant role in the development of ISKCON throughout the Soviet Union, because after the imprisonment of Armenian activists, Lithuanian members organized secret printing and distribution of ISKCON literature throughout the Soviet region (Pranskevičiūtė and Juras 2014).
The Hare Krishna philosophy and ideas arrived and were integrated into the existing unofficial cultural field coexisting with official Soviet culture, which was connected with the Communist Party’s aim to control all aspects of the public sphere. The “unofficial culture emerged as an autonomous field from inside Soviet society as a result of its own tensions” (Komaromi 2007, 610). There was “a wide range of heterodox reactions to the prescribed ‘religion of rationality’ and ‘scientific atheism’ in late Soviet Russia” where diverse groups “pursued both quests for esoteric knowledge and occult practices and explored aspects of artistic creativity, sensuality and healing” (Menzel 2013, 284). Herewith, a rise of interest in Hinduism and other eastern religious traditions and practices such as yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, and various psychotechniques which were supposed to encourage personality growth and develop one’s own human potential became apparent among Soviet citizens. Naturally, such a socio-cultural milieu facilitated the introduction of ISKCON ideas into the USSR as well as Lithuania.
The Krishna community existed under the threat of the KGB’s repressive structures. Group activities were a form of resistance against the Soviet regime and communist ideology, and members were constantly suppressed from 1980 until 1989. Although the perpetual menace posed by the KGB arguably had a negative impact on the existence of the community, it did not break down their enthusiasm. First of all, the devotees did not intend to abandon their ideas because of the intimidation and recommendations on the part of the KGB. Their arguments and attempts at intimidation – as well as communist ideology in general – seemed “blunt and primitive”, compared to the philosophy of Hare Krishna. The second reason has a transcendental character: the practice of bhakti yoga in such hostile conditions endowed them with extraordinary spiritual experiences. Thirdly, the illegal activity of the Hare Krishnas was in itself attractive and strengthened their faith that they were walking the right path (Pranskevičiūtė and Juras 2014).
 In Lithuania, the interest in eastern religions and oriental philosophy among certain individuals (e.g. philosopher Vydūnas, artist M. K. Čiurlionis, etc.) and institutions for academic studies of oriental languages and cultures can be traced back to the 19th century (Strmiska 2013, 51–53). During the long-lasting foreign domination of Lithuania, philosophy, religions and the art of the eastern nations filled an imaginary need outside the European reality, especially for intellectuals and artists, “serving as an idealized, exoticized zone of cultural refinement and spirituality” (Strmiska 2013, 52).
Photographs acquired from the personal archive of the ISKCON historian in Lithuania, David Strashunskij (Bhavananda).
Komaromi, Ann. “The Unofficial Field of Late Soviet Culture”. Slavic Review 66, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 605–629.
Menzel, Birgit. “The Occult Underground of Late Soviet Russia”. Aries 13, no. 2 (2013): 269–288.
Pranskevičiūtė, Rasa and Tadas Juras. “Acting in the Underground: Life as a Hare Krishna Devotee in the Soviet Republic of Lithuania”. Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe 7, no. 1 (2014): 3–22.
Strmiska, M. “Eastern Religions in Eastern Europe: Three Cases from Lithuania”. Journal of Baltic Studies 44, no. 1 (2013): 49–82.
This blog post in Russian
Cite this article as: Rasa Pranskevičiūtė-Amoson, “Underground Hare Krishnas and the KGB: ISKCON in Late Soviet Lithuania”, in New Age in Russia, 29/06/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/4660