Conversion and Ritualisation: an analysis of how westerners enter the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and assimilate its values and practices

Backer, Luc de (2016) Conversion and Ritualisation: an analysis of how westerners enter the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and assimilate its values and practices. Doctoral thesis, University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

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The central aim of my thesis is to examine the processes by which individuals from a Western background enter the International Society for Krishna Consciousnes (ISKCON), a transnational religious movement with its roots in Chaitanya Vaishnavism, a Hindu tradition originating in India. The central argument of my research is that extant models of conversion do not do justice to the process by which individuals enter ISKCON and assimilate its values, beliefs, and practices. This thesis thus critically examines conversion models/theories and seeks to refine our understanding of conversion, especially in relation to groups in which everyday ritual practice plays a central role. My research is based on the analysis of in-depth interviews with ISKCON entrants and engagement with theories on ritual and literature on conversion. The tradition’s essential practices involve chanting God’s holy names: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare and making food offerings to the Hindu deity Krishna (these are referred to as prasadam rites). Ritual is both a doorway for coming in contact with ISKCON and a crucial practice for entrants to make progress from the status of neophyte to novice and to qualify for successive initiation rituals. I draw mainly upon Catherine Bell’s theory of ritualisation to explore entry into ISKCON in relation to ritual practices. Ritualisation, in the ISKCON context, is a strategy that facilitates the internalisation of ISKCON’s central values and worldviews. This is made possible through the entrant’s initial exposure to its rituals, his/her search for the meaning behind these rituals, gradual acceptance of ISKCON’s 5 schemes of ritualisation, and, over the long-term, acquisition of ritual mastery. From a sociological perspective, entry into ISKCON is a three-staged process involving separation, transition, and incorporation. The stage of separation is a phase of accepting sets of oppositions concerned with polarities of purity and pollution, causing alienation from previous social circles and encouraging group-integration within ISKCON. The transitional stage is characterized by the internalisation of beliefs, worldviews and values. The stage of incorporation is marked by successive stages of seekership (searching for, and finding, meaning using ISKCON frameworks) and commitment (not just to ISKCON’s values and ritual practices, but also to its missionary agenda). To determine how ritual practice constructs power relationships and creates boundaries for the development of active agency and passivity, I look at four dimensions of ritualisation. These are (following Bell): (1) the effects of ritual practice on socialisation and vice versa; (2) the role of ritual specialists; (3) the forms of misrecognition and blindness resulting from ritual practice; and (4) the influence of ritualisation on the agency of entrants. My work demonstrates that “conversion” in the ISKCON context is marked by three crucial features. First, it is a process of gradual “drifting” into ISKCON’s fold, not a sudden change. Second, conversion to ISKCON’s belief system is facilitated by the adoption of the ritual practices central to ISKCON. Hence belief and practice are closely intertwined in the conversion process, with ritual practice serving, in most cases, as the entry point. And finally, my work demonstrates that this “conversion” does not entail a radical break with previously held religious beliefs and values. Instead, “converts” to ISKCON continue to profess their former faith, but now filter this through the lens of ISKCON’s Vaishnava devotionalism.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: International Society for Krishna Consciousness Chaitanya Vaishnavism Vaishnavism
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BL Religion
Divisions: Theses and Dissertations > Doctoral Theses
Depositing User: Users 10 not found.
Date Deposited: 12 Aug 2016 09:53
Last Modified: 27 Jul 2023 13:49

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