I'm feeling a bit irritated. Yeah, I know that's not exactly a rarity, but at least the reason is interesting.
A Buddhist centre down the road from me is running a meditation class. To me, this sounded great - I've always wanted to learn meditation - and I've been gleefully anticipating the taster session for weeks.
This morning, though, I bothered to look up the group that's doing the lessons. It turns out that the New Kadampa Tradition is to Buddhism what ISKCON (aka Hare Krishna) is to Hinduism. It's a semi-cultish movement based loosely on the original tradition, nothing more.
Why do these groups seem to be so popular? Why do the Hare Krishnas have the manpower to canvass the high street? What's with the sudden growth of these rather imitative little cults?
My conjecture is that the situation is analogous to the phenomenon of invasive species. These traditions typically have their roots in rather minor subtraditions of age-old practice, and grow up fighting their corner against equally sophisticated, often quite similar competitors.
But then the tradition gets exported from its native habitat, into the midst of a population that's never been exposed to it before. This population has no basis for comparing the new tradition with its rivals, and no culture of criticism to provide resistance to its spread. Like bulfrogs in Australia, the tradition grows and spreads. For some reason, there's normally a personality-cult aspect to this phenomenon, although that could just be selection bias on my part.
I like this way of thinking about the formation of religions. As with language, the analogy to biology is not precise - species have no feature corresponding to patois or to combined traditions. But it's easy to visualise, which helps me to spot further examples.
And, of course, there's one very obvious example. A strain of Judaism that was inspired by a charismatic personality, transmitted to a large population of non-Jews, and as a result quickly morphed into a new religion that had little in common with its ancestor.
What would have happened if Srila Prabhupada had been killed off when his movement was just becoming popular, murdered by a government intent on removing the disturbance he caused? What would the backlash have looked like, as his followers fought to spread their truth before it could be obliterated? What would the world have looked like three centuries later, after the Hare Krishnas had become the dominant religious force? What about five centuries later, when "heretical" works had started to be purged? What about two millennia later, when all the newspapers and books that would have placed ISKCON's beliefs in context had long ago rotted away?
What stories would be told of his life? Would we think of him as a Messiah?
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