This article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian on April 13th, 2019 - written by Mamta Chitnis Sen
It is summer in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and I am seated in one of the classrooms of the historic old building of Vilnius University listening to Professor Nijole Laurinkiene’s presentation on the Sun in traditional context. Mid-way through her lecture, I hear distinct chants of “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” filtering in through the large windows behind me. A group of young boys are singing praises of Lord Krishna outside the campus grounds. Looking at my surprised reaction, a musician who is also attending the lecture and is seated next to me says with a smile in his broken English laced with heavy Lithuanian accent, “That is Indian no? We have lot of Hindus here who follow Krishna and even Shiva.”
Intrigued, over the next few days of my stay in Vilnius while I did come across several Lithuanians confessing to be fans of India and its culture, I also had opportunities to interact with a select few who have immersed themselves completely into becoming followers of Hindu traditions. While some enrolled themselves with Hindu organisations like International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Shri Sathya Sai Baba and Brahma Kumari, there were others who were seeking the internet to seek information on what it takes to become a good Hindu. Students of Indology in Lithuania appeared to be at an advantage over others as their curriculum enabled them to undertake trips to India to understand and explore the country and its religions.
Located in Eastern Europe, Lithuania is called a gem of the Baltics as it shares borders with the Baltic Sea on one side and countries like Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Russia on the other. That Hinduism should have reached its shores seems to be an interesting thought in itself.
Indologist and social anthropologist Samanta Galinaityt, a first year Master’s student at the Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies at Vilnius University, who has travelled to India twice believes that though there are a lot of similarities between Lithuanian traditional Gods and Hindu Gods but it is hard to say that Hinduism as a concept exists in Lithuanian culture.
“In my strong opinion, different concepts of Hinduism are getting popular nowadays, but they are just concepts. For instance, we have a lot of different Yoga schools in Lithuania as well as a lot of houses related with Ayurveda. Of course, there are some individuals who practise or follow Hindu traditions but usually in small groups, communities or in private.” Samanta continues that she has met quite a lot of Lithuanians following the religion too. “I have seen a lot of Lithuanian devotees from ISKCON community, but there are also some individuals who follow the Hindu Gods as well. There are people who follow Hindu religion, but there is no data based on this,” she points out.
I meet one such follower a 50-year-old art collector, (he wishes to remain anonymous) who claims he makes it a point to visit his favourite temple in southern India twice every year, and has also given up meat to become a full time vegetarian.
In her paper “Strangers Among Ours: Contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania” written by Dr Milda Alisauskiene, Professor with the Vytautas Magnus University as part of a special volume on Hinduism in Europe, she analyses the phenomenon of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania from historical and sociological perspectives and discusses diverse forms of its expressions and public attitudes towards it. Her paper points out that Hinduism in Lithuania might be considered a new religious tradition.
Dr Alisauskiene writes that groups representing contemporary Hinduism are active in large cities and smaller towns of Lithuania. “The adherents of these groups are citizens, majority of them have higher education, usually within natural or technical sciences and have cosmopolitan worldviews. Majority of contemporary Hinduism communities in Lithuania have affiliates in smaller towns, they also organise meetings in the rural areas but these are allocated for mainly citizens. Women prevail among the followers of contemporary Hinduism and men make up around one third of the followers. With this aspect contemporary Hinduism does not distinguish among other religious phenomena as women religiosity and their active participation in religious activities is well known and widely discussed phenomenon among researchers of religion in Western and post-communist societies.”
The age of the members of contemporary Hinduism groups, she continues, varies; though around 35-50 year-old individuals prevail.
She further writes, “Two public surveys conducted in 2007 and 2014 showed the dynamics of Lithuanian population knowledge about religious groups existing in the country. Among groups of contemporary Hinduism best known was ISKCON (34% in 2007 and 48% in 2014). Public knowledge about other groups of contemporary Hinduism differed. In some cases like Osho community knowledge remained the same, in other cases like Sathya Sai Baba community, Sahadza Yoga and Brahma Kumaris public knowledge slightly increased.”
Dr Alisauskiene further states in the paper that historical analysis showed that interest in Orientalism and Hinduism might be traced to the sixteenth century, however the institutionalization of this interest took place in the nineteenth century with the establishment of study programmes in Vilnius and later other universities.
“During the Soviet times, religion was removed from public life, however private religious practices continued. ISKCON started its activities in the late 1970s and its adherents experienced persecutions from Soviet authorities. Since the 1990s, with new conditions for freedom of religion possibilities, groups of contemporary Hinduism became even more active. ISKCON and Osho were two organisations whose activities were mostly visible in the 1990s. Art of Living and other so called spirituality groups of Hindu origins were more active in Lithuania.”
She continues that groups of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania are mainly global organisations with centred management and controlled content of teaching, even more if the leader is still alive. “Despite global aspect these religious organisations in Lithuania have localised their activities in a new social context. The manifestation of such localisation is emphasis on the spirituality essence of these groups instead of going into the competitive field of religion with mainstream Roman Catholicism. An important feature of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania is the ethnicity of members who are Lithuanians and not Hindus. Contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania is a social phenomenon indicating and manifesting social and religious transformations from homogeneous field of religion to religious diversity and reflecting the trends of religious individualisation,” she states.
But Dr Audrius Beinorius, Professor of Indian and Buddhist Studies, Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies Vilnius University thinks otherwise.
“Dealing academically with India for more than 30 years I don’t believe there has been a rise in people following the Hindu religion in Lithuania, because many people are becoming more and more secular and not intended to replace one religion (local Catholic Christianity) with another (Hindu). They are searching mainly for practical spirituality, that would conduct a healthy way of life, help control stress and emotions, increase self-conscious attitude and so on,” he says.
ISKCON, he continues, is among the older Hindu religious organisations that was perhaps not most popular at the end of Soviet occupation period and was one of the spiritual alternatives of atheistic communist ideology.
“During last 10 years this movement is evidently decreasing in number of followers, perhaps it contradicts the local habits of social life.”
He points out that indigenous Baltic religion has many common elements with ancient Vedic religious culture and less with contemporary Hinduism.
“Lithuania was the last European country to accept Christianity. Baltic people have been fighting for almost 300 years against united European crusaders to project their own ancestral religion, language and culture. Thus similarities between Sanskrit and Lithuanian languages are tremendous, as the names of Gods namely Viešpatis (Višpati), Dievas (Devas), Vejas (Vayu), Ašvieniai (Ašvins), some mythological elements, fire rituals, polyphonic religious chanting etc.” He states that it’s a pity, not much is left during last 400 years of brutal Christianisation.
“The indigenous Baltic religion movement nowadays is mostly reconstructions. And thus these people are deeply interested in Vedic tradition and Hinduism, not because having intention to become Hindus, but because living examples of Hindu practices could help in reconstructing ancient Baltic religion. To my knowledge except ISKCON movement members there are almost no cases of Lithunians consciously and formally converting into Hinduism. Even followers of numerous yoga schools, among which Shivananda Yoga Center is the most popular, never consider themselves as a Hindu. Because chanting of mantras is considered to be auspicious and purifying your mind and soul, but that does not imply becoming a Hindu.”
Dr Beinorius believes that he does not see any sudden interest in Hinduism among Lithuanians. “Yes many people are visiting India, travelling to historical and archaeological sites, relaxing in beaches, claiming Himalayas. People are interested in the cultural heritage of India: Indian classical dances, classical music, Ayurvedic treatment, Jyotish predictions, meditations or even Bollywood cinema, but as I said before cultural interest has nothing to do with intentions for religious conversion. Lithuanians, like other Westerners are not entirely able to connect Indian gurus seriously and properly as Indians do, because too strong sense of individuality, pride and non-obeying that hinders their devotion. They are more interested in following a kind of ‘scientific raja yoga’ created by Swami Vivekanda, Advaitic perspective of Sri Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, or Intellectual Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo, than purely devotional bhakti of Sai Baba, Art of Living of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and similar. Perhaps our people trust themselves and their own efforts instead of waiting for blessings from gurus of divine anugraha,” he says.
Responding to the queries on whether ISKCON has seen a rise in Lithuanians seeking to follow the Hindu religion, Shatakula Das, of ISKCON Communications, Vilnius, Lithuania, said, “Yes, ISKCON has seen a rise in Lithuania for many years. ISKCON is part of the Gaudiya, or Chaitanya Vaishnava, tradition, which hails from the eastern regions of India. While we don’t have the exact number, an estimated 2,000 people are connected with ISKCON in Lithuanian through the Summer Vaishnava festival (which is hosted by the temple) and other program and events which are held regularly at the local centre. ISKCON Lithuanian’s facebook group Lietuvos Vaishnavai has 2,166 members. There is no exact statistics on the number of followers we have every year but approximately 10 new people appear yearly at the temple or festival,” he states continuing that ISKCON in Lithuania started in 1979.
“In December 1989, the first community of Krishna Consciousness was registered in Vilnius and after a few months in Kaunas. Now we have 5 communities registered and many legal public entities such as Vedic Centers, or Vaishnava Culture Centres around Lithuania.”
A journalist for over 15 years, Mamta Chitnis Sen has worked with several reputed publications.