Hidden Toronto: the Hare Krishna temple

In its heyday, orange-robed, ponytailed adherents of the Church of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness were a popular sight on Yonge and in Yorkville


What

Hare Krishna Temple

Where

243 Avenue, north of Davenport

Why you should check it out

The Kingston limestone of the Hare Krishna temple gives off a shiny white glow in the evening sun. 

Built in 1899, it served as the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant until 1925 and the Church of the Nazarene starting in 1941 before it was gutted by fire in 1944. It went on to be used for various purposes until 1974 when it was purchased by the Church of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and converted into a temple.

At the time, Hinduism was in its heyday globally helped by its growing popularity among some notable rock stars, in particular former Beatle George Harrison. Every Saturday, adherents of the church in their signature orange robes and ponytails would make a pilgrimage down Yonge to the current location of Dundas Square, joining random street vendors and preachers in the cacophony that’s been a hallmark of Toronto’s most recognizable corner. Yorkville was another popular destination for Hare Krishna disciples.

The founder of the Toronto temple, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (who would later become known as Srila Prabhupada), was a follower of Gandhi during India’s struggle for independence from the British in the 1920s. He studied Hinduism in India for four decades before arriving in New York City by boat to spread its teachings in 1965, turning a storefront shop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side into a North America-wide phenomenon.

Prabhupada was already in his 60s by then, but the search for meaning prevalent among young people at the time attracted many to Prabhupada’s brand of Hinduism, which preached veganism and the practice of Bhakti yoga. The temple grew in popularity, opening branches in major cities across Canada. Prabhupada would author more than 70 books. His works would be translated into 76 languages.

But his untimely death just a year after the establishment of the Toronto temple signalled the beginning of internal problems for the international arm of ISKCON, which became mired in a number of lawsuits after it became the target of a number of anti-cult groups. One of its leaders would be expelled over racketeering charges. In the 90s, ISKCON leaders faced allegations of child abuse. The group’s offices abroad have also been the target of terrorist groups. 

Today, the temple in Toronto has a few hundred adherents. It continues to operate as a temple, offering online services during the pandemic and vegan meals. The movement also continues to operate temples in most major cities in Canada. But the idealism that marked the faith’s rise in the 70s has been replaced by more mainstream consciousness. Gone are the robed, ponytailed adherents beating drums down Yonge Street.   

Read all of NOW’s Hidden Toronto stories here

Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks. Read it online each Sunday.

@enzodimatteo

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