“This man continued giving us biscuits and bananas every day for close to two weeks. So it’s like he used that way to drag so many people. And we loved the man, so every day he [saw] us there singing and dancing, chanting “Hare Krishna” until he left my village and he told us he was going back to India.”
ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness): they base their teachings on ancient texts of Hinduism (traditional scriptures such as the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita). I’ve seen them on the streets of Montreal and New York chanting “Hare Krishna!” George Harrison was a member, and the mantras are heard in some of his music. This was, until recently, the extent of my knowledge about the movement.
On July 7, ISKCON celebrated Lord Jagannath’s Ratha Yatra. Hundreds of believers from all around West Africa met in Kumasi to honor deities, pray, feed the hungry and show the public their interpretation of ancient traditions as defined by their leader, the late Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Matilda is one of these believers. She hails from Nigeria, which has a similar religious demography to Ghana (Christian and Muslim majorities). Hare Krishna missionaries visited her village when she was ten years old.
After that man left, she found another member of the movement who welcomed her to the temple. When Matilda told her Christian family that she wanted to join the Hare Krishna, she faced resistance.
“I told my mother, she got mad. ‘If you go to that place again, I will stop taking you to school. In fact, you will no longer stay with me in this house, I will chase you away,’” she recollected. My ears perked again: is that a human rights abuse? Everyone should be able to practice religion with freedom and mobility.
Eventually, her mother accepted her beliefs. Matilda finished school, became a journalist and is now dedicated devotee.
“I’m more free in the Hare Krishna movement,” she said. “Even right now, if I go to Church, I won’t be free there… I don’t want to criticize or condemn, but I won’t be free there.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
I initially set out to understand religious minority experiences (which I will do in a longer documentary form) with the expectation that they are subjugated by some members of the Christian and Muslim majorities. In my four days with the Hare Krishna devotees, I spoke to members, gurus and other spiritual leaders. I saw firsthand that religious rights aren’t black and white; even calling it a gray area is an oversimplification.
It is the same conundrum posed by religious schools and missionaries: what begins as an expression of human rights can sometimes violate the very principles that protect it, and it is difficult – but important – to define the boundary, particularly in secular states.
So where do we draw the line? I don’t know. I don’t expect to answer this question. If anything, I will likely have more questions, but an open discourse is critical to preventing human rights abuses.
I do have one answer: she never did find the man with biscuits. She is, however, continuing his work. As they chanted and danced through the streets, Matilda told me it brought back happy memories of the mystery man.
Matilda reminiscing at the Ratha Yatra Festival on July 7.