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The Sankirtan Movement & Social Activism

Updated on November 13, 2017

Kirtan As Activism is Growing Strong in Kali Yuga

Several years ago I started chanting the Maha Mantra, known as the Hare Krishna/Rama Mantra. Before long my fears of heights and fear of walking on overpasses over highways completely disappeared. I wondered at the power of chanting when these two overwhelming fears disappeared from my life.

When I became a social work student, I studied several schools of social activism. Gandhi's model became a favorite among many activists, social workers and psychologists. Several movements were happening in the 1960's and 1970's, such as the Ecological Movement, Chipko Movement (Indian Ecological Movement), Women's Movement and Gay/Lesbian Movement. Gandhi's philosophy of social activism greatly influenced all these great movements.

Before Gandhi's great social activism, there were other social activist movements, including the Sankirtan Movement, promoted by Sri Caitanya (Shay-tanya) Mahaprabhu (Ma-ha-pro-boo). Lord Caitanya was born on February 27, 1486 and left the Earth plane in 1534. His birth was on a full moon night during a lunar eclipse in Navadvipa, Bengal, which is located in modern day Bangladesh. At the time this village was part of India. On the day of his appearance, people were bathing as a means of purification in the Ganges (Ganga) River. People chanted names of holy people and deities on the night he was born in this holy place in India. His parents were Jagannatha Misra and Sachidevi.

Astrologers predicted that he would be a savior and that he possessed extraordinary abilities. They certainly were right in their predictions. Later many declared that he was an incarnation of Radha/Krishna in one form. Some say he showed his complete form to them. He mastered Sanskrit and the Vedic philosophy and defeated local pandits in these subjects. He established the Vaishnava tradition in this area and became a great proponent of chanting the holy names. He was initiated into the Vaishnava tradition by Ishwara Puri. When he came to Navadvipa again, he became involved with the Sankirtan Movement of chanting the holy names. It is a form of congregational singing which uses the mantra as a springboard in connecting with the Divine Presence. He had a philosophy of love which was radical because it included everyone. He wasn't impressed with caste, class, position or high philosophy. He believed that the mantra had the power to change people's lives for the better. People of all groups came together and chanted the Holy Name of Krishna in the Maha Mantra.

Many sacred texts predicted his appearance, including the Athavara-Veda. It states that the Divine Presence will appear as a devotee: "I will descend as a sannyasi, a tall, fair and saintly brahmana devotee, after four to five thousand years of Kali Yuga have passed. I will appear near the Ganges (and) will always chant the holy names of God, and, thus, taste the sweetness of my devotional service." A sannyasi is one who renounces family ties to serve humanity.

He changed people by his very presence and by chanting the holy names. His activism was changing people within, so that they were inspired to do good in the world. Those communities where he chanted changed because of his activism among them. Social problems got solved because people started to love each other through their involvement in the movement. In the Antya-lila (4.126) he predicted that, "My name will be preached in every town and village on this earth." Now that we have the internet we know that this statement is very true. People chant all over the world.

In the 17th century Kalachand Vidyalanka, who was a disciple of Caitanya, promoted his philosophy in Bengal. He was, like Lord Caitanya, a social activist for good in the world. He preached against untouchability, promoted social justice and the establishment of public education. His disciples had a group called Kalachandi Sampraday. They initiated great social change where illiteracy and casteism were eliminated in Bengal.

Several individuals in the modern Hare Krishna and Yoga Studio movements have been involved in social activism. Some hold kirtans and donate the proceeds to various activists organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), environmental organizations, housing justice groups, food shelves and homeless shelters. Some are involved with taking part in protests against social injustices. The famous mantra chanter, Krishna Das, has chanted in prisons to help relieve their suffering, stress and to improve their lives. Local Hare Krishna groups serve vegetarian meals in homeless shelters. Public service and social service are two of the highest forms of kirtan and devotional service. In the Hindu traditions we call this seva. Many members of the faith communities have become activists in support of the poor and working class. Temple devotees, yoga studio members and even progressive politicians have joined forces together for progressive social change. When I was young you would never see such a coalition of people working on social justice causes. This has come to pass more in the last 10 years, but this activism has become even greater now that Trump has appeared on the scene.

In the past year I have been involved in a group which goes out in the streets and in the courts to protest and support tenants abused by landlords who do unjust actions. This group also documents poor housing conditions where landlords rarely make repairs or maintain apartment buildings properly. Their actions have made a difference in the world where the vacancy rates are so low that landlords think they can get away with not repairing apartments. Little other affordable housing is available, so tenants have little other options open to them to address the situation.

All this great action goes back to the Gita. Krishna states in the Gita: "It is better to act!" It all started with the Sankirtan Movement of 500 years ago and will continue until we all love each other.




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