During His manifest pastimes, Srila Prabhupada did not visit Korea, but reading from His letters in the Vedabase, we can learn that His disciple Trivikrama Swami was trying to obtain a preaching visa while residing in Japan (letter to Trivikrama – Honolulu 9 May, 1976), went there for three weeks and even managed to make a pamphlet in Korean which His Divine Grace greatly appreciated (letter to Trivikrama – Honolulu 15 May, 1976).
We can also see how He encouraged disciples stationing in the eastern part of the world to go there as well (letter to Sudama, 19. Sep 1971 and letter to Cyavana – London 1 August, 1972).
I did not have a chance yet to research into the subject so I don’t know whether a preaching centre was established or not in the early days, but I am sure that many nice devotees kept on going there to do sankirtana.
What I would like to share here are information and experiences of the last few years, which are very exciting and show how Lord Sri Krsna employs His devotees in many wonderful activities, and encourage all of you to consider Korea as a possible destination for preaching.
In 2004, following the order of his spiritual master a Korean devotee living in England, willingly left his comfortable position in order to go preach in Korea bringing along his family. The mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu manifested itself in many ways.
He was able to find very rapidly accommodation in the suburbs of Seoul, in a state-built flat compound for which usually there are extremely long waiting lists, to the very surprise of his Korean acquaintances and friends.
The flat was not too far from the newly opened Sri Sri Radha Krsna temple that a group of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent had just established and donated to ISKCON.
Bhakti Purusottama Swami went there to perform the installation ceremony, starting the beginning of a new era for South Korea.
A lot of preaching was taking place, especially in some yoga centres that were very eager to provide their facilities for classes on bhakti to an audience interested in spiritual topics. At the same time there were regular temple programs, Sunday feasts and also kirtans and public harinamas in the centre of the capital, to which the immigrant community joyfully took part along with the foreign devotees who would sometime come to do book distribution.
During the same time the Korean devotee was able to translate Sri Isopanisad and Bhagavad Gita into Korean and the printed copies were ready in the very Gita Jayanti day of 2006.
The inauguration ceremony took place with the presence of members of a big local radio and the news was given ample publicity. The Ambassador of Malaysia took interest in the matter and decided to provide his spacious home for regular Bhagavad Gita readings.
Clearly Sri Krsna was encouraging everyone to continue, but somehow not many Korean people were yet deep enough into Krsna Consciousness to dedicate their energies to the mission in a sustained way.
In 2008 the Korean devotee and his family had to go back to England so the running of the activities at the Sri Sri Radha Krsna temple was entrusted to the local immigrant community which has continued to carry on the programs up until present, albeit with no strong institutional guidance, and now they include a wonderful Rathayatra, approved by the local city council.
This summer of 2013 I had the opportunity to take part and directly witness Lord Jagannatha’s kindness. The monsoon season had been quite long and it was raining plentifully during that period, with as much as 150 mm of water per day, so that many people were suggesting to give up. The organizers decided to go on, and to everyone’s surprise ten minutes before the procession started, the rain stopped almost completely so that the devotees could pull the chart around the city and distribute prasadam to the passers-by. But as soon as the deities returned to the temple it started pouring again!
In 2008 an Indian Mataji going regularly to South Korea, was impressed by the activities of the devotees and was inspired to open a new centre in a very central area of Seoul, the Sri Sri Radha Syamasundara temple, with the help of a nice Nepalese devotee and his sister and the support of the local community.
Its location, in a multicultural, albeit a bit chaotic area of the city full of nightclubs, allowed for a more varied flow of people, from tourists just passing by, to local students, expats, exchange students and so on. There have been daily programs in English open to the public and regular Sunday feasts that attract a lot of people.
The Korean devotee has been visiting very often Korea in order to help with the activities of both temples and to give classes in Korean in many places. Furthermore a Japanese devotee decided to learn Korean on purpose in order to help with the preaching activities and she regularly visits the county and the devotees.
My wife is Korean, and thanks to Sri Caitanya’s mercy, she has the great opportunity to be able to dedicate herself fulltime to the translation of Srila Prabhupada’s books. Soon “The Perfection of Yoga” and “A Higher Taste” should be published in Korean for the devotees to distribute during sankirtana.
I myself are involved in Korean studies for work so I have the chance once a year to visit Korea and meet the devotees personally and I am always impressed by their selflessness, continuing to do service enthusiastically even if the environment is extremely difficult, in a very tamasic/rajasic city, with little Laksmi and few local guests.
Recently Sri Sri Radha Syamasundara have expressed their desire to be moved to another location so while this is being arranged (the housing market in Seoul is very complicated), they are taken care of in the home of the Indian Mataji.
This probably is the beginning of a new phase, and there is great need for a stronger presence and guidance, so please pray for the souls in Korea and if you get the chance, do travel there to do sankirtana since it is the key to making new devotees.
Korea, as the Far East in general, or better, the world altogether, and Seoul in particular, being a huge metropolis of more than 10 million people (1/5 of the total population), is very focused on material development, following the lead of the West, but luckily there is still a lot of interest in spirituality and religion.
Traditionally the country is Buddhist, with monks residing in mountain monasteries, focusing on meditative practices, a strict vegetarian diet, and sunyavada theology while the laypeople are keen on devotional practices to the Buddhas, approached in a personal way, usually for material concerns.
Interestingly the majority of the people are not Buddhist (roughly 23%) but rather Christian (30%), which shows a strong tendency towards monotheism. More and more people are turning to Catholicism as a reaction to the extremism of many Protestant denominations and because of its more accommodating attitude to the local religious practices and the ancestors’ rituals. Many people actually contact us through my wife’s blog to enquire more about Sri Krsna.
There is also great interest in vegetarianism, which is becoming almost a fashion in certain circles, but it is mainly limited to health concerns.
Gaudiya Vaisnava sublime philosophy and pure devotional approach one day will certainly capture the hearts of the Korean people. Nonetheless it is important that it does not get confused with a general “Hinduism” or worse “Neo-hinduism” since Korean people are very much identified with their race and tend to look down at anything that is not Korean or Western.
Limiting Krsna Consciousness to India and not to an universal Vedic culture, valid for all the people in the world, will risk hampering its diffusion and development and there is the great danger that it gets understood simply as an Indian cultural phenomenon of the local immigrant community, especially when ceremonies such as Durga puja and Ganesa arati are also performed.
This is somehow one of the problems at the moment because most of the many wonderful devotees in Korea actually come from the Indian subcontinent and the few Koreans visiting the temples often feel like outsiders and therefore still find it difficult to relate to Krsna Consciousness.
*NOTE Another important point worth mentioning is the fact that Korean people, because of their Confucianism centred society, expect impeccable behaviour and countenance from religious people, therefore harinama parties with women and men mixed together, very short cholis that show the belly, considered the most sensual part of the body by Koreans, and similar Indian (but non Vedic) things, would most probably be confused with folkloristic belly dancing groups so popular these days, as a Korean personally told me. On the other hand “old fashioned” harinama parties would greatly impress bystanders]
It is my hope that many of you devotees from all over the world reading this article can be inspired to go Korea to do sankirtana so that Korean people can get a first hand experience of the universality and greatness of the teachings of Srila Prabhupada.