The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), also known as the Hare Krishna movement, was founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. While some classify the sect as a new religious movement, its core philosophy is based on scriptures such as the Bhagavadgita and Srimad Bhagavatam,* both of which date back thousands of years. The movement is a modern lineage of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a sect of Hinduism that has existed in India ever since the late 1400s. ISKCON represents Prabuphada's effort to transplant Gaudiya Vaishnavism to the Western world, and has now become the largest contemporary branch of this belief system. In accordance with the Gaudiya tradition, ISKCON attempts to promulgate the practice of Bhakti Yoga, a program of intense personal devotion wherein aspirant devotees dedicate their thoughts and actions towards pleasing the Supreme Lord, Krishna.
"Hare Krishna" devotees are easily identified in Western nations by their distinctive appearance consisting of shaved heads and orange saffron robes, as well as their proclivity for chanting and proselytizing in open public places throughout the Western world during the 1970s and 1980s. The popular nickname "Hare Krishnas" derives from their famous mantra (sacred utterance) that devotees sing aloud in praise of Lord Krishna.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), the founder of ISKCON, was born in Calcutta under the given name, Abhay Charan De. Young Prabhupada was largely inspired by his spiritual master Bhaktisidhanta Saraswati, founder of the Guadiya Math (an organization created with the prerogative of spreading Gaudiya Vaishnavism throughout India) whose teaching lineage Bhaktivedanta would carry on. Until his full initiation into this group in 1933, Prabhupada made a living as a moderately successful pharmaceutical salesperson. Upon initiation, Prabhupada began publishing prolifically on the topic of Vaishnavism. In 1959 he was given sanyassin (renunciate) status and began planning for a journey to America in order to spread Chaitanya's teachings. He arrived on the shores of New York City in 1965 at the age of 69, founding his first ISKCON center there in the summer of the following year. So began the widespread promulgation of Prabhupada's teachings, as well as building ISKCON temples in major cities throughout North America and Europe. After gaining a dedicated following throughout the remainder of the 1960s, Prabhupada returned to India in 1970 with a troupe of disciples from the west, and established further ISKCON temples in major Indian centers such as Bombay and Vrindavan, as well as an international headquarters in Mayapura. He died from illness on November 14, 1977.
In order to promulgate his translations of Vaishnava classics and thereby make Gaudiya Vaishnavism more accessible to the entire world, Prabhupada founded the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) in Los Angeles in 1972. At first, the BBT published translations of such classics as the Bhagavadgita, the Srimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana) and Caitanya's autobiography, the Caitanya Charitamrita, as well as Prabhupada's commentaries on these texts. As the movement gained converts, publications from other authors soon followed. The BBT publishes both introductory and advanced texts on theological topics such as bhakti yoga, meditation, karma, reincarnation, as well as practical topics such as vegetarianism. These works have been translated into more than 60 languages. In addition, the BBT also spreads such works through the mediums of audio and video cassettes, DVDs, and CDs.
The BBT also publishes Back to Godhead (BTG), a magazine created in order to further spread the teachings of Prabhupada and provide guidance for initiated members. Articles within the magazine deal with a variety of topics ranging from philosophical issues to instruction as to the proper practices of rituals. Since the audience is largely Western, the magazine is presented in such a way that it appeals to Western sensibilities. Prabhupada originally began publication of BTG from his home in Calcutta in 1944, although due to limitations in resources it was published irregularly. Soon after Prabuphada's arrival in New York City in 1966, he relaunched the magazine, petitioning the efforts of his earliest Western disciples in order to publish it periodically. This magazine is currently published bi-monthly in a wide variety of languages.
BBT books are renowned for the distinctive artwork they contain. Throughout the translated texts and original works, numerous illustrations appear depicting Lord Krishna and various important events from his life. These illustrations present Krishna and other important religious figures in such away that they appear lifelike, while also retaining the traditional Hindu aesthetic devices indicating transcendence (such as multiple limbs and heads). These pictures are presented in bright, vibrant colors in order to further articulate the immense spiritual beauty of Krishna and divinities associated with him.
ISKCON represents the transplantation of Vaishnavism (a major Hindu devotional school that worships Vishnu and his incarnations as the supreme divinity) to the world beyond India. Four Vaishnava lineages were formed by Hindu thinkers Ramanuja (1017–1137 C.E.), Madhva (1238-1317 C.E.), Vallabha (1479 - 1531 C.E.) and Caitanya (1486 - 1534 C.E.). Hare Krishna devotees specifically follow the line of Caitanya, a tradition which has been historically known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Gaudiya Vaisnavism has had a continuous following in India, especially in West Bengal and Orissa, for the past five hundred years. Srila Prabhupada popularized Gaudiya Vaishnava Theology in the Western world through his extensive writings and translations, most importantly the Bhagavadgita, Srimad Bhagavatam, and Caitanya Charitamrita. These works are now serve as the canon for ISKCON.
Hare Krishna's identify the deity Krishna as the supreme lord of the universe. They honor Krishna as the highest form of God, and often refer to him as "the Supreme Personality of Godhead," which was a phrase coined by Srila Prabhupada in his books on the subject. Krishna is seen as the ultimate source of all manifestations of the divine. While typical Hindu theology identifies Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu, Hare Krishna devotees believe that Krishna himself is the origin of Lord Vishnu, and is not limited to the avatar form. An important aspect of the Gaudiya and ISKCON philosophy is the belief that the individual soul is an eternal personal identity that does not ultimately merge into any formless light or void as suggested by the monistic schools of Hinduism.
When Srila Prabhupada first incorporated ISKCON in 1966, he gave it seven purposes:
Srila Prabhupada prescribed four regulative principles that all devotees must follow as the basis of the spiritual life. These comprise four behaviors that are seen as ways to overcome the lifestyle of karmis (or "materialists" who are ignorant of Krishna):
The popular nickname of "Hare Krishnas," bestowed upon ISKCON members is derived from the mantra they sing, often in public places, which is one of the most identifiable elements of their belief system. This mantra, known as the Maha Mantra, involves the repetition of the names of God: 'Hare', 'Krishna' and 'Rama'. ISKCON followers claim that it is the same mantra uttered by Caitanya at his initiation to Vaishnavism. The chant proceeds as follows:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
These names are said to connect both the practitioner and the listener to transcendental spiritual energy, as the sound vibrations created by their repetition gradually induce pure God-consciousness, or "Krishna consciousness." Hare Krishnas place emphasis on the loud, boisterous chanting of the mantra as opposed to muttering of the chant at a lower volume, since Caitanya is said to have espoused the former method due to its efficacy at inspiring both listener and chanter. It is commonly accepted in the ISKCON fold that one does not need to actually understand the language being used within the mantra, as it is meant to be efficacious in the spiritual rather than the intellectual realm. Thus, anyone, whether initiated as a member of ISKCON or not, can benefit from the public performance of the mantra, as the sound itself is sacred. Personal advancement through chanting is evident through a gradual disappearance of such vices as lust, greed and anger, leading to an eventual eschewing of all material desire.
Chanting of the mantra is said to be the most important duty of ISKCON followers, and its recitation is required of all initiates. It is the optimum means by which to achieve and maintain devotional bliss to Lord Krishna. Further, all disciples are required to perform a certain quota of chants on their own. Hare Krishnas practice these private chants by meditating upon beads called japa mala which resemble rosary beads. In addition, they take part in congregational chanting, referred to as kirtana. Commonly, this chant is set to music for performance in temples and public settings. The thrice weekly evening and daily morning classes held at ISKCON centres are marked in large part by congregational chants.
Following in the Gaudiya tradition, Prabuphada was greatly opposed to previous Hindu doctrines of impersonal-ism. These include the teachings of Shankara, which claim that all forms (including those of the divinities such as Krishna), are illusory when considered in relation to the ultimate principle Brahman. Prabuphada claimed that this rejection of the reality of the world, and ultimately the rejection of Krishna, is an irreconcilable spiritual offense. As an alternative, Prabhupada upheld Chaitanya's personalized vision of the divine, claiming that each human being or jiva, possessing limited power and will, represents consciousness derived from the Absolute. Although the physical world appears to be a multiplicity of jivas, there is actually no division in the context of Krishna, the monistic essence of the entire universe. Thus, all jivas are by nature pure. However, as jivas indulge in the pleasures of the physical world, they became slaves to the power of maya (illusion) and grow away from realization of god. In the tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Prabhupada held that the primary means to attaining true union with Krishna is through personal devotion, or bhakti. Here, devotees (or Bhaktas) cultivate genuine faith by dedicating their thoughts, actions, chants, and worship, towards Krishna are pleasing him. The desired end is said to be intimate experience of Krishna characterized by realization of pure, unmitigated love for the Supreme divinity.
ISKCON's strong roots in the bhakti tradition of devotional Hinduism have rendered worship activities particularly important in the tradition. During his lifetime, Prabhupada insisted that members of the group adhere to the practice of sadhana, or the service of three-dimensional images of Krishna based on Caitanya's earlier prescriptions for worship. Prabhupada emphasized two devotional activities: recitation of the maha mantra and regular reading of the Bhagavata Purana. Worship is not isolated to the temple, and ultimately, the better part of Hare Krishna worship takes place within the home. ISKCON members are instructed by their guru during their initiations as to the correct practices concerning deity worship in the home. ISKCON has outlined worship procedures in order to aid members in carrying out rituals. They have also utilized the Internet to make these procedures easily accessible, with numerous sites featuring daily postings dealing with questions and concerns related to deity worship.
In a number of Prabhupada's works, he emphasizes the absolute and virtually superhuman qualities of the guru, or spiritual master. A person without a guru, he explains, cannot truly know god. In the Bhagavad Gita As It Is he writes:
"For one who does not take personal training under the guide of a bona fide spiritual master, it is impossible to even begin to understand Krishna."
As could be expected, then, gurus in the ISKCON tradition are subject to intense spiritual standards. In order to be considered bona fide, they must be situated in the succession of disciples, or guru Parampara. For Prabhupada, the list of disciples' succession for gurus in the Gaudiya succession (given in his translation of the Bhagavad Gita) begins with Krishna and ends with himself. Following the Chaitanya Charitamrita, Bhaktivedanta established that the spiritual masters must exist for purposes of both initiating and instructing members of the ISKCON community. The guru must be an educator, heading the gurukula boarding schools ("house of the guru"), as well as overseeing initiations and advising men about proper relations with women.
Following the precepts of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Prabhupada stressed the importance of surrender to a genuine guru. An important part of this process the recitation of the Gurv-ashtaka, eight verses concerning the spiritual master that for years formed an indispensable element of daily morning programs at ISKCON establishments. Unquestioning obedience to the guru is held to be of utmost importance, with negative terms such as guru-tyagi ("renouncer of the guru") attached to all those who did not follow the guru's commands. Rejection of the spiritual master after accepting his instruction and authority is considered a serious offense worthy of expulsion from the sect.
Unlike many other branches of Hinduism, Caitanya held that one does not need to be born into a Hindu family to take up the practice of Vaishnavism. Similarly, Prabuphada encouraged ISKCON practitioners to be actively evangelistic. In 1968, he instituted the practice of Hare Nama, a process which had devotees venture into public places such as shopping malls and airports in order to chant and preach with a goal of soliciting donations in exchange for Prabuphada's translations. ISKCON members refer to this distribution of their books as sankirtana (meaning "communal singing and dancing in honor of God"). Sankirtana peaked in 1976, when devotees passed out as many as 6,000 publications per week during their public worship gatherings. This number declined gradually until 1979, when it dropped off drastically, due in part to the death of Prabhupada and decreased recruitment, as well as negative shift in public opinion toward Hare Krishnas. The public, it seemed, had come to perceive the movement as more concerned with financial matters than spiritual ones. Sankirtana was an important practice for bringing new members into the sect, as studies such as Rochford's (1980) attest, reporting that 42 percent of ISKCON devotees in the United States were recruited in public places.
Not only did these activities help to spread the teachings of Prabuphada, but they also aided the Hare Krishna movement financially. During the peak years of sankirtana, the average donation solicited was between four and five dollars, leading to prosperity within the movement at this time. However, as the urge to maximize profits increased among members, public opinion toward ISKCON soured. As a result, ISKCON members began to use deceptive strategies to regain the public's respect, often wearing wigs and civilian clothes in order to avoid being recognized in their traditional vestments. Eventually, devotees developed a practice called "picking," where members sold nonreligious products to people at shopping centers, rock music concerts and other public locations. This came to be the most favored form of sankirtana by the 1980s. ISKCON eventually pulled back on its sankirtana efforts due to public disfavor with these practices. Their tactics (such as "picking") came under particular criticism, and ISKCON lost First Amendment privileges. The general public began to avoid devotees, and airport managers lobbied to have them barred from public places. As a result, sankirtana was officially discontinued in the late 1980s.
As a charismatic leader, Prabhupada's personality and management were responsible for much of the growth of ISKCON and the reach of its mission. Thus, the choice of a successor was extremely crucial for the future viability of the sect. In the years leading up to his death, Prabuphada worked to create a different type of leadership structure in order to continue on after he died. This involved the creation of two groups: first, the Governing Body Commission (GBC), which was established in 1970 and the initiating gurus, who were appointed just before Prabuphada's death in 1977. The Governing Body is a corporate board of directors which was created by Prabhupada in 1970 for purposes of handling affairs in his absence. The eleven initiating gurus, meanwhile, were selected by Prabuphada among from his disciples to act as officiating priests, or ritvik, on his behalf after his earthly demise. These eleven (Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami, Jayapataka Swami, Hrdayananda Gosvami, Tamala Krishna Gosvami, Bhavananda Gosvami, Hamsaduta Swami, Ramesvara Swami, Harikesa Swami, Bhagavan dasa Adhikari, Kirtanananda Swami, and Jayatirtha dasa Adhikari) were taken from the 20 members who made up the GBC. Each ritvik also held jurisdiction over a particular geographical zone as a zonal acharya, or priest, thereby limiting disciples in a given region to their designated guru for purposes of initiation.
The eleven initiating gurus were understood by the GBC to be successors of Prabuphada. Immediately after Prabhupada's death, they were placed above even their GBC colleagues as the top leaders of the organization. Within the GBC, the gurus formed a subcommittee maintaining exclusive authority over all topics concerning gurus and initiation. The coexistence of these two leadership bodies quickly proved to be problematic, as the gurus continually claimed ceremonial supremacy over their non-guru colleagues when putting forth their opinions on various issues. Numerous disciples became discontent with the elevated position of the new gurus in ISKCON, feeling the eleven were unfit for filling Prabhupada's preeminent position.
By 1984 it became apparent that there was intense trepidations with the new gurus' status, and thus "guru reform movement" came into being. This movement persuaded the GBC to do away with the zonal acharya system, while still promoting commitment to gurus. Thus, as it stands today, there are over 50 initiating gurus who provide initiations and spiritual guidance, though they serve underneath the GBC. As well, disciples may now choose their initiating guru instead of having theirs chosen for them by way of their geographic region. Thus, ISKCON is currently operated by the GBC. Since its formation it has met on an annual basis and continues to do so. Devamrita Swami is the current Chairman. Those individuals who wanted the ritvik system to continue even after Prabhupada's death have started their own sect, dubbed the ISKCON Revival Movement or IRM. Members of this group claim that one needs to learn only from Prabhupada and that there should be no other gurus. Thus, the movement has dedicated itself to the reestablishment of Srila Prabhupada's role as the sole initiating spiritual master within ISKCON.
However, Prabhupada had also instructed that his godbrother Shridhara Goswami be approached by disciples for clarification in spiritual matters after his death. Not surprisingly, some disputation arose as to who would be the correct successor in Prabhupada's disciple lineage. Although ISKCON leaders were at first generally pleased with Shridhara Goswami, controversy stirred when some ISKCON leaders suggested that Goswami should be made accountable for internal problems which had developed after Prabuphada's death, such as those caused by the zonal acharya system (even though Goswami opposed it from the beginning). ISKCON leaders went on to ignore Goswami's advice and implement the system, which was largely unpopular among devotees and caused considerable dissension within the movement due to the fact that the new gurus fervently asserted superior status to nonguru devotees. Rather than admitting their faults, these ISKCON leaders blamed Goswami for the controversy caused by their own decisions. From then on, Goswami was consulted on certain issues but was largely ignored. With concern mounting due to further issues caused by reports of lecherous behavior among the gurus, ISKCON leaders ignored Goswami's attempts to mitigate the conflicts and in 1982 expelled him, declaring him to be an official enemy of their organization. Many members of ISKCON had come to support Goswami's dictates rather than those of the new gurus, and as such, Shridhara Goswami's expulsion lead to a major loss of devotees who left in order to follow him. Others who attempted to stay in ISKCON while continuing to understand Goswami's teachings as harmonious with Prabhupada were forcibly removed from the organization, as well.
After Prabhupada's death, a significant theological controversy arose concerning the origin of the soul. Devotees were largely unsatisfied with the society's position, which held that souls fall from Vaikuntha (the spirit world of Lord Vishnu) to this material world, and that the supreme objective of the human life is to return to this abode. Some devotees suggested this was inconsistent with the Sarasvata Gaudiya Vaisnava teaching that the soul apparently has always been in samsara, the cycle of rebirth. For several years leading up to 1994, this question was a priority of the GBC's Philosophical Committee. The debacle was created when Satyaranya and Kundali Das took the position that no one falls from the spiritual realm, and that souls were never a part of it. This was met with much resistance among ISKCON leaders, who claimed the teaching was opposed to Prabuphada's teachings. Satyaranya and Kundali Das eventually produced a book, In Vaikuntha, Not Even the Leaves Fall, which compiled evidence in Prabuphada's teachings where he had espoused the following points:
Thus, Satyaranya and Kundali Das reformulated the debate as one of epistemology, claiming that the Gaudiya tradition, Prabuphada included and allowed for the use of human reason in order to evaluate scripture, therefore defending their standpoint. Regardless, a nine-member subcommittee of the GBC voted to ban the book, and held to the traditional belief that souls do fall. This position was defended in the book Our Original Position, published by the GBC in 1996.
In 1998, ISKCON Communications Journal, the society's official publication, ran an article that detailed the physical, emotional, and sexual abuses of children that had taken place in ISKCON establishments throughout the world during the 1970s and 1980s. A number of former gurukulis (students of the gurukala) reported instances of abuse that were perpetrated by teachers, including serious sexual and physical violations.
As a whole, ISKCON received praise for its candor in dealing with the situation, but later was sued by 95 people who had attended the boarding schools. Facing the fiscal drain engendered by these legal actions, the ISKCON centers involved declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This allowed them to work out a settlement of US $9.5 million, meant to compensate any former students who had undergone abuse. ISKCON ran advertisements in newspapers in order to call forth these unidentified victims, and approximately 430 such people responded. Individual victims were expected to receive between $6,000 to $50,000, depending on the nature and duration of their abuse. To guard against further abuses, ISKCON has established a child protection office with teams located throughout the world, for three main purposes: 1) screening out actual or potential abusers, 2) educating children and adults about child abuse, and 3) to encourage due vigilance in situations of abuse. Generally, ISKCON administrators have made a considerable effort in order to apologize and compensate for the acts of abuse that took place. However, some of the abused have considered these efforts to be disingenuous, performed more for purposes of damage control than for expressing remorse. They have criticized those ISKCON leaders who have remained largely complacent and skeptical in regards to the allegations.
In response to the need to establish transparency and accountability, ISKCON members have petitioned for the establishment an ombudsman organization, "ISKCONResolve." Additionally, the Integrated Conflict Management System (ICMS) also provides facilitators, arbitrators, and conflict analysis experts for purposes of dealing with difficulties within the organization. ISKCON says that ICMS is designed to give all members of ISKCON a voice and to allow their leadership to become less opaque and more accessible to the public.
Women have also been exposed to mistreatment at the hands of ISKCON representatives. Female devotees have reported sexual assaults and beatings at the hands of male superiors during their membership in the Hare Krishna monastic orders, as well as general subordinate status relative to males. This second class status is undeniable in seminal Hare Krishna texts, where statistical analyses have revealed a decidedly negative sentiment towards women. Ekkehard Lorenz reports that 80 percent of all statements made by Prabhupada about women in his six most important works are negative. Most notably, 56 percent of these statements portray women as objects pertaining mainly to sex and/or temptation. Prabhupada frequently characterizes women as materialistic and lacking in intelligence, implicating their bodies in the corruption of men's minds and ultimately construing them as an impediment to men's self-realization. Eight percent of these statements concern women's lower class status, nine percent discuss the necessity for restrictions upon women's freedoms, and seven percent generally refer to women's qualities in a negative way. In addition, the majority of good qualities bestowed upon women in these works are presented as they relate to goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, whom women are expected to pattern their own actions after, thereby insinuating that earthly females have no positive qualities of their own. Despite these misogynist undertones, ISKCON has made concerted efforts to improve the status of women in their organization. For instance, the Governing Body Commission has recently agreed that members of ISKCON who are female may also become gurus, a role that they could not assume in previous years.
Membership in ISKCON has declined in recent years due largely to the schism created by the Shridhara Goswami controversy; before these events ISCKON had more than 5,000 members worldwide, but promptly lost 500 in the aftermath. As a result, many temples were closed, and the majority of ISKCON temples that remain are understaffed. Another corollary of the schism is the development of an alternative form of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the West, composed of those who accepted the teaching of Shridhara Goswami. Flagging membership has created a widespread climate of dissatisfaction within the movement.
Furthermore, since the discontinuation of sankirtana, ISKCON has lost its major source of revenue. As a result, the movement has been forced to do away with its sectarian structure and has become largely congregational. Members have moved out of monasteries and taken up jobs in the mainstream labor force and set up households outside the community. In order to maintain some communal contact with other members, many householders have formed enclave-like communities in proximity to temples. The sexual abuse controversies have encouraged Hare Krishnas to raise their children at home within nuclear families rather than with other children at the gurukala. Thus, conventional society now plays a considerably larger role in the lifestyle of ISKCON members. Despite the overwhelming challenges ISKCON faces, based on controversies and dwindling membership, the movement continues to live on in various centers throughout the world, albeit in smaller numbers.
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