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Spiritual Punks: New Book Looks at Hardcore Krishnas

By: for Chico News and Review on Dec. 18, 2007
Photo Credits: CN&R file photo

Chico State professor Sarah Pike's new book will be about youth activists, including the hardcore Hindu group known as Hare Krishna Straight Edge.

What images do you see when you think of hardcore punk music? Wild teenagers in ripped leather and mohawks, screaming out violent lyrics to aggressive music?

Would it surprise you to learn some punk musicians are devoutly religious, are opposed to abortion and abstain from drugs, alcohol and premarital sex?

For members of the movement known as Hare Krishna Straight Edge, this blend of conservative ideals and radical music is completely comfortable, which fascinates Sarah Pike, a professor of both American and religious studies at Chico State University.

Pike, whose previous book, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves, examined neo-paganism in America, is working on a new work titled Youth Culture and Radical Activism.

The book will examine several youth fringe groups in the United States, including anarchists, radical and environmental activists and, of course, the Hare Krishna Straight Edge movement.

That movement began in the 1980s and mixes the ideals of the Hindu sect of Hare Krishna with hardcore music and, in some cases, radical activism, particularly dealing with animal-rights.

"I'm really trying to encourage people to understand what's behind this kind of activism," Pike said. "I am interested in encouraging a broader understanding of things that might be seen as weird or demonic, so certainly there is an agenda in terms of religious freedom and civil liberties."

On Friday, Nov. 30, in a small campus lecture room, Pike gave a talk on this movement. Before she began, however, she put on a CD from the Hare Krishna Straight Edge band 108. Though the music sounded like any other punk band's and the lyrics were hard to make out, Pike said they are key to attracting new members.

One song, "Killer of the Soul," preached against consuming meat and alcohol: "Killer of the animal, only a demon could dine on the flesh of the dead. ... Self-killing ritual, set the bottle upon the table. ... kill the pain ... liquid poison to wash your brain."

The lecture began with a picture of what appeared to be a typical punk band performing on stage. Closer inspection revealed that some of the members had shaved their heads except for a small topknot, in the style of the Hare Krishna practitioners most people have seen wearing saffron robes and chanting and dancing, ankle bells jingling.

Pike also showed pictures of members of the band 108. One of them had become a Hare Krishna priest, and he was shown wrapped in his robes, sitting on stone steps with an electric guitar leaning against his leg. Another was holding a white rabbit against his face, and his arms were covered in tattoos of Hindu gods and the Hare Krishna mantra—the same one sung by George Harrison in his famous song "My Sweet Lord."

Hare Krishna teaches the value of all life, human and animal. Some of the more radical followers of Hare Krishna Straight Edge sometimes participate in illegal acts like setting free chickens, minks and other "farmed" animals. Pike said they liken the treatment of farm animals to the Holocaust.

One activist Pike interviewed, Peter Young, was just recently released from prison after serving time for illegally freeing minks from six fur farms.

In his final statement after being convicted, Young was unapologetic. "This is the customary time when the defendant expresses regret for the crimes they committed, so let me do that," he told the court. "I regret [the number of minks freed] was only 8,000. I have also heard that only two of those farms shut down, and I regret our restraint. If one mink was left behind, [the action] was not enough."

Young became a vegan at the age of 17. "Hardcore taught me urgency," he told Pike. "It taught me anger and taught me to point fingers."

Outlaw activists are naturally reluctant to go public. "My largest challenge has been finding people to talk to," Pike said. "It's really a challenge to find and interview people but not put them at risk."

She doesn't expect to be done with the book for another three years, but she has finished the chapter on the Hare Krishna Straight Edge.

"I think that with the more marginal groups there are interesting things going on that tell us a lot about the culture in general," Pike said. "They usually address issues that are really central to what our culture is doing right now."

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