The cult of Krishna is growing in officially atheist China.
Numbers are difficult to compile and often anecdotal in nature, but the philosophy of love and devotion as symbolised by Krishna, one of Hinduism’s popular deities, is evidently attracting many Chinese in urban areas.
Last week, a large number of devotees celebrated Krishna Janmashtami, the day that marks his birth, across China in big and small groups, at yoga centres and among family members.
Celebrations were mostly marked by chanting of “Hare Krishna”, singing devotional songs, readings from the Bhagavad Gita and distribution of sweets including laddoos.
One of the larger celebrations was held at the International Buddhist Items and Crafts Fair in Dongguan city in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. “At the Dongguan fair, we presented the idols of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra as three international angels of auspiciousness and distributed 3,000 packages of sweets,” a devotee who identified himself as Gaudiya Das told HT.
“There were congregational chanting and we took the three idols on a vehicle around the entire fair, distributing foods like laddoos, chapatis, sweet rice and even (traditional Chinese food) moon cakes,” he said.
The day was also celebrated in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Harbin and the province of Wuhan, said Das, a trained practitioner of Bhakti yoga.
Das was careful not to describe the Krishna following as a “movement” because of the sensitivity of the word in Communist China. “We do not want any trouble with the government. The programmes were unofficial.”
“It is not about any religion. You do not have to believe in Hinduism to celebrate Krishna’s birthday. It is like Christmas: the whole world celebrates, everyone is happy.”
Some of the organisers were from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) group.
The Chinese like traditional culture and that’s why Krishna and his teachings are gaining in popularity, he added.
Tradition, however, is not the only reason for this, said Yang Fenggang, director, Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the US, adding that the Krishna following in China began with yoga.
“They started with encouraging the practice of yoga. They might not have realised about the religious dimension or nature of the ‘cultural’ practices. Given the prevailing dominance of militant atheism in religious affairs, I think it's more likely than not that the authorities may try to block further such developments.”
At the same time, more Chinese will be attracted to religion.
“Socially speaking, spirituality/religion is the glue of society and provides norms for a functional society. After many decades of religious suppression until the end of the Cultural Revolution, China is returning to the normal pattern of spirituality/religion in society. Therefore, I as a sociologist of religion anticipate continuous increase of spiritual pursuers and religious believers in China in the coming years,” Yang said.
On China’s “atheism”, he said: “In the last three to four decades, many religions have revived and grown. It is no longer accurate to say ‘atheist China’ even though atheism continues to be the official orthodoxy of the Communist Party of China and indoctrinated in schools and universities.”
He said there are CPC officials who are more “open towards religion and want to follow the constitutional principle of religious freedom. But such individuals are in weaker positions.”
Sarah Cook from the Washington-based Freedom House said the CPC “has been fairly consistent about crackdown on religious or spiritual groups that garner a large following seemingly outside party control.”
“The largest and most severe such example is the eradication campaign launched against Falun Gong in 1999 after it grew to have 100 million followers, which was more than the number of CPC members,” said Cook, whose US government-funded NGO works on democracy and political freedom.