The enduring self : exploring the identity of the Hare Krishna devotees beyond race, language and culture.
Ramson, S. M.
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In this study I indicate that the variety of psychological and social research perspectives that continue to interrogate the question "Who am I" has generated profuse and ambiguous definitions of identity, and that particular global trends are producing a corresponding flux in identity construction. In this thesis I argue that although such trends are emerging, for those with a spiritual proclivity there is an experience of the self as "enduring", an essence that may not be able to be immediately concretized by the individual, but a sense of continuity of self regardless of the external binaries of race, culture and language, that gives impetus for such individuals to enter into common dialogue as Hare Krishna devotees. The enquiry, which is located within the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) Temple of Understanding, Durban, South Africa, as a context, examines the influence of institutional, physical and cultural dynamics, and self-reflexivity in identity formation of the Hare Krishna devotees. In relation to the "enduring" sense of self the following critical questions are asked in the study, viz. what is the institutional identity of ISKCON and how is it derived; what are the physical, religious, social and educational features of the context within which these identities are formed; how and why are the resident devotees of the who are variegated in term of race, culture and language, able to create their identities as devotees; what are the possible changes in the lifestyle and value-systems of these resident devotees since they first joined; and how do the devotees understand and experience notions of self and Truth? To place the devotee identity in perspective, a brief description of the historical background of ISKCON is undertaken, its position in relation to Hinduism, and various research issues about ISKCON and within ISKCON is discussed. Through the use of prevalent identity construction theories and perspectives, I review the academic trends challenging sets of value that are exclusionary, and trends of globalization, easternization, and multiculturalism and new religious movements, detraditionalization, and de-institutionalization with a view to understanding identity construction. To understand the ISKCON devotee identity, I examine its theological perspective that derives from its Gaudiya Vaisnava heritage, consisting of several scriptures that describe the nature and characteristics of the self. Arguing for the use of descriptive and interpretive validity through the lens of an ethnographic scientist, I position myself as a deep-insider, discussing the benefits and difficulties of this stance. In arguing for understanding as a major component of validity, I address the issues of what constitutes Truth in social science research and introduce a contemporary use ofphronesis as a methodological technique to extend the argument that expert evaluation based judgements, intuition and practical wisdom play a highly significant role in research, and should not be surpassed in favour of only analytical, scientific and technical knowledge. It is suggested that the institutional identity of ISKCON is a disseminated process occurring at many sites, framed by various activities, and manifest particularly in its organizational structures, and the physical context and cultural contexts. Using current theorizing about how Truth is generated in the academic arena, the spiritual Truths as understood by the devotees are juxtaposed, as well as intersections between Truth and the notions of identity are examined. Several insights emerge from the data that confirm the existence of a more internal, "enduring" sense of self, beyond external binaries of race, language and culture. For the devotees this sense of self emerges as a spiritual identity, a distinction being made between the conditioned self, i.e. that "self as socially constructed, or reflexively determined, on one hand, and the individual or possessor of the self, called atma, a premise that frames his identity as a "servant" of Krishna.