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Fieldwork in West Bengal

Dancing for Krishna (John Fahy, 2015)Food for Life (John Fahy, 2015)Wedding Yajna (John Fahy, 2015)My fieldwork was in the rural town of Mayapur, West Bengal, which since 1972 has been home to a multi-national community of Vaishnav devotees, popularly known as the Hare Krishnas. It is here in Mayapur that Srila Prabhupad, the founder of ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness), envisioned the development of what he referred to as an Ideal Vedic City. In the liminal space between an ideal Vedic past and a prophesied future, devotees in Mayapur engage in an affective economy of ethical and epistemological exchange, the explicit goal of which is to put Krishna at the centre of one’s life.

While devotees participate in ascetic practices of self-cultivation in order to ‘go back to Godhead’, they have also, as residents of the sacred land of Mayapur, inherited the rather ambiguous utopian project of building Prabhupad’s ‘spiritual city’. Devotees, then, are presented with two somewhat antagonistic ideals, one soteriological and the other social. On the one hand, devotees must actively endeavor to transcend mundane reality, and on the other they must engage in an ambitious project of urban development, in contributing to (or simply living in) this Ideal Vedic City. My research looks at how devotees in Mayapur negotiate these two distinct, but not wholly incompatible, ethical imperatives.

From top right:

Dancing for Krishna
Kirtan Mela is an annual week-long marathon of kirtan or devotional singing. Devotees from all over the world descend on Mayapur, West Bengal to participate in this and other celebrations around this time of the year.

Food for Life
Every week, organized by ISKCON’s Food for Life programme, a group of devotees travel to neighbouring villages to distribute prasadam (food that has been ritually offered to Krishna).

Wedding Yajna
The (soon to be) husband helps his (soon to be) wife with her ritual obligations during the wedding ceremony, scattering the grains into the fire, in a symbolic act of union.