ISKCON

International Society for Krishna Consciousness

 

Founder-Acharya

srila-prabhupadaFor millennia the teachings and the rich culture of bhakti-yoga, or Krishna Consciousness, had been hidden within the borders of India. Today, millions around the globe express their gratitude to Srila Prabhupada for revealing the timeless wisdom of bhakti to a world.

Born as Abhay Charan De on September 1, 1896, in Calcutta, as a young man he joined Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement. In 1922, a meeting with the prominent scholar and spiritual leader, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, proved to be most influential on young Abhay’s future calling.

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was a leader in the Gaudiya Vaishnava community, a monotheistic tradition within the broader Hindu culture. At their very first meeting, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta asked Abhay to bring the teachings of Lord Krishna to the English-speaking world. Deeply moved by his devotion and wisdom, Abhay became a disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta in 1933, and resolved to carry out his mentor’s request. Abhay, later known by the honorific A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, spent the next 32 years preparing for his journey west.

In 1965, at the age of sixty-nine, Srila Prabhupada begged a free passage and boarded a cargo ship, the Jaladhuta, to New York. The journey proved to be treacherous and he suffered two heart attacks aboard. After 35 days at sea, he first arrived at a lonely Brooklyn pier with just seven dollars in Indian rupees and a crate of his translations of sacred Sanskrit texts.

In New York, he faced great hardships and began his mission humbly by giving classes on the Bhagavad-gita in lofts on the Bowery and leading kirtan (traditional devotional chants) in Tompkins Square Park. His message of peace and goodwill resonated with many young people, some of whom came forward to become serious students of the Krishna-bhakti tradition. With the help of these students, Bhaktivedanta Swami rented a small storefront on New York’s Lower East Side to use as a temple.

In July of 1966, Bhaktivedanta Swami established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for the purpose he stated of “checking the imbalance of values in the world and working for real unity and peace”.

In the eleven years that followed, Srila Prabhupada circled the globe 14 times on lecture tours spreading the teachings of Lord Krishna. Men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life came forward to accept his message. With their help, Srila Prabhupada established temples, farm communities, a publishing house, and educational institutions around the world. And, he began what has now become the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program, Hare Krishna Food for Life.

With the desire to nourish the roots of Krishna consciousness in its home, Srila Prabhupada returned to India several times, where he sparked a revival in the Vaishnava tradition. In India, he opened dozens of temples, including large centers in the holy towns of Vrindavana and Mayapura.

Srila Prabhupada’s most significant contributions, perhaps, are his books. He authored over 70 volumes on the Krishna tradition, which are highly respected by scholars for their authority, depth, fidelity to the tradition, and clarity. Several of his works are used as textbooks in numerous college courses. His writings have been translated into 76 languages. His most prominent works include: Bhagavad-gita As It Is, the 30-volume Srimad-Bhagavatam, and the 17-volume Sri Caitanya-caritamrita.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada passed away on November 14, 1977, in the holy town of Vrindavana, surrounded by his loving disciples who carry on his mission today.

Timeline

 
International Society for Krishna Consciousness
Iskcon Dwarka.png

Iskcon Temple in Delhi, Dwarka, India
Abbreviation ISKCON
Formation 13 July 1966 (51 years ago)New York City, New York, U.S.
Founder A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Type Religious organisation
Legal status Foundation
Purpose Educational, PhilanthropicReligious studiesSpirituality
Headquarters MayapurWest Bengal, India
Location
  • 650 Temples and Centres around the globe
Coordinates 23.26°N 88.23°ECoordinates23.26°N 88.23°E
Area served
Worldwide
Main organ
Governing Body Commission
Affiliations Gaudiya Vaishnavism
Website iskcon.org

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), known colloquially as the Hare Krishna movement or Hare Krishnas, is a Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu religious organisation.[1] ISKCON was founded in 1966 in New York City by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada who is worshipped by followers as Guru and spiritual master.[2] Its core beliefs are based on select traditional Hindu scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad-gītā and the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. ISKCON is a direct descendant of Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya.[3] The appearance of the movement and its culture come from the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, which has had adherents in India since the late 15th century and American and European converts since the early 1900s in North America,[4] and in England in the 1930s.[5]

ISKCON was formed to spread the practice of bhakti yoga, in which those involved (bhaktas) dedicate their thoughts and actions towards pleasing the Supreme LordKrishna.[6][7] ISKCON as of 2009 is a worldwide confederation of more than 650 temples and centres, including 60 farm communities, some aiming for self-sufficiency, 50 schools, and 90 restaurants.[8] Its most rapid expansions as in membership as of 2007 have been within India and, especially after the collapse of the Soviet UnionEastern Europe.[9]

History and belief[edit]

 

Pancha-Tattva deities: Chaitanya MahaprabhuNityanandaAdvaita AcharyaGadadhara and Srivasa, installed in a Gaudiya Vaishnava temple

 

ISKCON’s Bhajan during NavratriGolu at Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India

For further information see: Achintya Bheda Abheda and Gaudiya Vaishnavism

ISKCON devotees follow a disciplic line of Gaudiya Bhagavata Vaishnavas and are the largest branch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.[10]Vaishnavism means ‘worship of Vishnu‘, and Gauḍa refers to the area where this particular branch of Vaishnavism originated, in the Gauda region of West Bengal. Gaudiya Vaishnavism has had a following in India, especially West Bengal and Odisha, for the past five hundred years. Bhaktivedanta Swami disseminated Gaudiya Vaishnava Theology in the Western world through extensive writings and translations,[11] including the Bhagavad GitaSrimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana), Chaitanya Charitamrita, and other scriptures. These works are now available in more than seventy languages and serve as the canon of ISKCON. Many are available online.[12]

Krishna is described as the source of all the avatars of God.[13] Thus ISKCON devotees worship Krishna as the highest form of God, svayam bhagavan, and often refer to Him as “the Supreme Personality of Godhead” in writing, which was a phrase coined by Prabhupada in his books on the subject. To devotees, Radha represents Krishna’s divine female counterpart, the original spiritual potency, and the embodiment of divine love. The individual soul is an eternal personal identity which does not ultimately merge into any formless light or void as suggested by the monistic (Advaita) schools of Hinduism. Prabhupada most frequently offers Sanatana-dharma and Varnashrama dharma as more accurate names for the religious system which accepts Vedic authority.[14] It is a monotheistic tradition which has its roots in the theistic Vedanta traditions.[15]

Hare Krishna mantra[edit]

 

Mahamantra in Bengali script

The popular nickname of “Hare Krishnas” for devotees of this movement comes from the mantra that devotees sing aloud (kirtan) or chant quietly (japa) on tulsi mala. This mantra, known also as the Maha Mantra, contains the names of God Krishna and Rama.

The Maha Mantra:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

Srila Prabhupada, in his book, Krsna Consciousness: the Topmost Yoga System, states, “The transcendental vibration established by the chanting of Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, is the sublime method for reviving our transcendental consciousness.”[16]

Seven purposes of ISKCON[edit]

 

Deities of KrishnaBalaram at ISKCON Bhubaneswar temple

 

Ratha Yatra festival in Moscow, Russia.

 

Prabhupada Samadhi, Vrindavan

 

ISKCON Vrindavan

 

Public street festivals are a significant part of ISKCONs outreach programmes. Seen here is a Ratha Yatra festival in central London.

When Srila Prabhupada first incorporated ISKCON in 1966, he gave it seven purposes:[17]

  1. To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all people in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.
  2. To propagate a consciousness of Krishna, as it is revealed in the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The principle of reincarnation is accepted.
  3. To bring the members of the Society together with each other and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, thus to develop the idea within the members, and humanity at large, that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krishna).
  4. To teach and encourage the sankirtana movement, congregational chanting of the holy names of God as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
  5. To erect for the members, and for society at large, a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated to the personality of Krishna.
  6. To bring the members closer together for the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.
  7. With a view towards achieving the aforementioned purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals, magazines, books and other writings.

Four regulative principles[edit]

Bhaktivedanta Swami prescribed four regulative principles, in relation to the four legs of dharma,[18] as the basis of the spiritual life:

  • No meat-eating, including fish or eggs;
  • No illicit sex (including that which, even within marriage, is not for the procreation of children);
  • No gambling;
  • No intoxicants.

The four legs of Dharma are:[18]

Preaching activities[edit]

ISKCON advocates preaching.[citation needed] Members try to spread Krishna consciousness, primarily by singing the Hare Krishna mantra in public places and by selling books written by Bhaktivedanta Swami.[19] Both of these activities are known within the movement as Sankirtan. Street preaching is one of the most visible activities of the movement. ISKCON street evangelists sometimes invite members of the public to educative activities, such as a meal with an accompanying talk.

A study conducted by E. Burke Rochford Jr. at the University of California found that there are four types of contact between those in ISKCON and prospective members. Those are: individually motivated contact, contact made with members in public arenas, contact made through personal connections, and contact with sympathizers of the movement who strongly encourage people to join.[20] According to the doctrine of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, one does not need to be born in a Hindu family to take up the practice of Vaishnavism.

There are ISKCON communities around the world with schools, restaurants and farms. In general, funds collected by ISKCON are treated as communal property and used to support the community as a whole and to promote the preaching mission.[21] Many temples also have programs (like Food for Life) to provide meals for the needy. In addition, ISKCON has recently brought the academic study of Krishna into eastern academia as Krishnology.

The ISKCON Ministry of Education regulates educational activities within ISKCON, and oversees the operation of primary, secondary, tertiary, and seminary schools and centres of education. The Ministry of Education also oversees education for religious and sastric study, developed and monitored by the UK-based Vaisnava Training and Education organisation.[citation needed]

Bhaktivedanta Institute[edit]

The Bhaktivedanta Institute (BI) is the scientific research branch of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Founded in 1976 by Bhaktivedanta Swami and Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami (Dr. T.D. Singh), it aims to advance the study of the nature and origin of life, utilising Vedic insights into consciousness, the self, and the origin of the universe. The institute’s motto, in the Sanskrit language, is “Athato brahma jijnasa,” which translates as “One should inquire into the Supreme.” Under the directorship of Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami, the Bhaktivedanta Institute organised four international conferences and hundreds of panel discussions and talks, and published over thirty books. Currently there are a number of branches of BI, with one of the main branches in MumbaiRavi Gomatam is the Director of BI Berkeley and BI Mumbai.[22] The director of BI Kolkata is Vrajapati Das.

Food for Life[edit]

 

Member of Food for Life Russia giving food

ISKCON has inspired, and sometimes sponsored, a project called Food for Life. The goal of the project is to “liberally distribute pure vegetarian meals (prasadam) throughout the world”, as inspired by Bhaktivedanta Swami’s instruction, given to his disciples in 1974, “No one within ten miles of a temple should go hungry … I want you to immediately begin serving food”.[23] The international headquarters known as Food for Life Global, established by Paul Rodney Turner and Mukunda Goswami,[24] coordinates the project. Food for Life is currently active in over sixty countries and serves up to 2 million free meals every day.[24] Its welfare achievements have been noted by The New York Timesand other media worldwide.[25][26][27][28]

Management structure[edit]

 

Hare Krishna Temple, Mysore

Bhaktivedanta Swami spent much of the last decade of his life setting up the institution of ISKCON. As a charismatic leader, Bhaktivedanta Swami’s personality and management had been responsible for much of the growth of ISKCON and the reach of his mission.[29][30]

The Governing Body Commission (or GBC) was created by Bhaktivedanta Swami in 1970.[31] In a document Direction of Managementwritten on 28 July 1970 Prabhupada appointed the following members to the commission, all of them non sannyasi:[29]

  1. Śrīmān Gopal Krishna Adhikari
  2. Śrīmān Bhagavandas Adhikari
  3. Śrīmān Syamsundar Das Adhikari
  4. Śrīmān Satsvarupa Das Adhikari
  5. Śrīmān Karandhar Das Adhikari
  6. Śrīmān Hansadutta Das Adhikari
  7. Śrīmān Tamala Kṛṣṇa Das Adhikari
  8. Śrīmān Sudama Das Adhikari
  9. Śrīmān Bali Mardan Das Brahmachari
  10. Śrīmān Jagadisa Das Adhikari
  11. Śrīmān Hayagriva Das Adhikari
  12. Śrīmān Kṛṣṇadas Adhikar

The letter outlined the following purposes of the commission: 1) improving the standard of temple management, 2) the spread of Krishna consciousness, 3) the distribution of books and literature, 4) the opening of new centers, 5) the education of the devotees. GBC has since grown in size to include 48 senior members from the movement who make decisions based on consensus of opinion rather than any one person having ultimate authority.[29][32] It has continued to manage affairs since Prabhupada’s death in 1977 although it is currently a self-elected organisation and does not follow Srila Prabhupada’s instruction that members are to be elected by temple presidents.

The Guru and the Parampara[edit]

ISKCON adheres to the traditional system of paramparā, or disciplic succession, in which teachings upheld by scriptures are handed down from master to disciple, generation after generation.[33]

Influential leaders since 1977[edit]

 

Rajiv Gandhi with Soviet Hare Krishna devotees in New Delhi (1989).

See also: Principal disciples of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.

Before his death, Prabhupada “deputed”[34] or appointed the following eleven of his disciples to serve as gurus[35][36] or to continue to direct the organisation:[37] Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami,[38][39] Jayapataka Swami,[40] Hridayananda Dasa GoswamiTamal Krishna Goswami,[41]Bhavananda Goswami, Hansadutta SwamiRamesvara SwamiHarikesa SwamiBhagavan DasaKirtanananda Swami, and Jayatirtha Dasa. These eleven “Western Gurus were selected as spiritual heads” of the ISKCON after 1977, however “many problems followed from their appointment and the movement had since veered away from investing absolute authority in a few, fallible, human teachers”,[42] however of these eleven, the first three have remained prominent leaders within the movement, as was Tamal Krishna Goswami until his death in a car accident in March 2002. Bhavananda no longer holds the post of an initiating guru. Ramesvara, Bhagavan and Harikesa resigned as spiritual leaders in 1985, 1987 and 1999 respectively and the remaining three were all expelled from the movement by the Governing Body Commission during the 1980s.[43] Of Prabhupada’s disciples, who number 4,734 in total,[44] approximately 70 are diksha gurus within ISKCON. As of April 2011, ISKCON had a total of 100 sannyasis, most of whom were acting as gurus.[citation needed]

Women in ISKCON[edit]

Krishna Mothers[edit]

Within ISKCON, women are renowned and regarded as completely equal in regards to spirituality.[45] Prabhupada in his original writings encouraged the complete equality of women in the eye of Krishna based on the teachings of Bhagavad Gita that soul does not have any gender [46] and everybody is eligible for spiritual liberation.[47] He also rebuked several of his male followers for discriminating against women. Since mother is the most respected position in Vedic culture, women within the Hare Krishna community are all viewed as mothers, especially for celibate male members Brahmacharis. “Mother is a term of respect for women in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and is often prefixed to the Sanskrit name they receive in initiation. Even unmarried women are referred to as mothers”.[48] The women are referred to in this way because it reduces the possibility of the women being seen in an sexual manner.

Procreation and Marriage[edit]

Within ISKCON, “… men advance spiritually through celibacy and nonattachment; women advance through motherhood and devotion to their husbands in the tradition of stridharma, the wifely duty of submission to the husband and the bearing of sons”.[48] Due to this ideology of men needing celibacy in order to be spiritual, sex is something that is not highly discussed within the community. Additionally, men are encouraged to keep women at arms length due to the effect it could have on their gender in their next life.

If a man becomes too attached to his wife, or too interested in women, he is in danger of coming back in the body of a woman. Women are often men who were attached to women in their last life. It is the opposite for woman, the more attached she is to her husband, the more devoted she is to him, the more likely she is to advance spiritually and be reborn as a man.[48]

Problems and controversies[edit]

Rasika-bhakti[edit]

The elder sannyasi Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Goswami was a disciple of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s sannyasa guru and was long a well-wisher of ISKCON. A small group of prominent ISKCON leaders were closer to his association and Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana made no effort to conceal his relationship with them, which as time went on became increasingly intimate. His emphasis on gopi-bhava, the mood of Krishna’s cowherd lovers, particularly disturbed his ISKCON audiences since Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami had stressed that the path of spontaneous devotion was only for liberated souls. At the annual GBC meeting in 1993, members questioned their affiliation with Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Goswami. Those involved minimized the seriousness of the relationship, though for some it had been going on for as long as five years. By the next annual meeting, the GBC forced the involved members to promise to greatly restrict further association with their new teacher. Though adhering externally, their sympathies for Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana’s teachings were unabated. In 1995 GBC position was firm and the controversy was first on the 1995 annual meeting’s agenda. A week of thorough investigation brought the implicated members in line. Asked to suggest what they might do to make amends, the leaders involved with the controversy tendered their resignations, which the GBC promptly refused. They further volunteered to refrain from initiating new disciples or visiting Vrindavana until their case could be reassessed the following year and at the March 1996 meeting GBC insisted on maintaining most of the restrictions.[49]

The capitulation of the GBC members previously following Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Maharaj did not prevent the departure of devotees who felt unable to repose full faith in the ISKCON Governing Body Commission authority.[49]

Other controversial issues within the society[edit]

ISKCON has experienced a number of significant internal problems, the majority of which occurred from the late seventies onwards, and especially within the decade following Prabhupada’s death.[50] ISKCON has also been scrutinised by some anti-cult movements.[51][52][53]

Litigation[edit]

Brainwashing cases[edit]

A brainwashing lawsuit filed by an Orange County mother and daughter Robin George in 1984 led to numerous appeals reaching the Supreme Court.

Robin George contended that the Hare Krishnas prey on minors; she was 14 at the time when she left her parents’ Cypress home to join the Hare Krishnas. At a civil trial later, jurors found that the Krishnas had brainwashed her and kept her hidden from her frantic parents. They even found that her father’s fatal heart attack was related to the stress from the months he spent searching in vain across the country for his daughter. The group was not protected by the Constitution for the emotional distress it caused in deceiving the parents by pretending not to know their daughter’s whereabouts, the court held.[54][55]

The court eventually reduced the original $32.5 million award to $500,000 plus interest, dismissing charges of brainwashing, intentional emotional distress and libel.[56][57][58][59]

Murder cases[edit]

Kirtanananda Swami, or Swami Bhaktipada, a leader of ISKCON expelled from the organisation in 1987 for various deviations,[60] pleaded guilty before his 1996 retrial to one count of racketeering and after serving 8 years of a 20-year prison sentence was subsequently released in 2004. Previously in 1991 the jury found him not guilty on charges of conspiracy to commit the murders-for-hire of two devotees, but found him guilty of racketeering and mail fraud. These convictions were later overturned on appeal, only to result in the later retrial.[61][62][63]

The case placed a spotlight on New Vrindaban, which by then had nearly 500 members, making it the largest and most famous Hare Krishna community in the United States at that time.[64]

Child abuse cases[edit]

A suit for $900 million was filed in Texas State Court by alleged victims of abuse in the temples’ schools in the 1970s and ’80s.[65][66] ISKCON had to later file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.[67] Known as the Turley Case, the eventual 2008 settlement was $15 million.[68]

In 1998, ISKCON published an unusually candid expose detailing widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children. Parents were often unaware of the abuse because they were traveling around soliciting donations for their guru’s books, in airports and on the streets, leaving their children in the care of Hare Krishna monks and young devotees who had no training in educating children and often resented the task, the report said.[66]

The Child Protection Policy and Procedure Guidelines was revised and ratified by the GBC in June 2012. This document is ecclesiastical in nature.[69]

In popular culture[edit]

The Hare Krishna mantra appears in a number of famous songs, notably in former Beatle George Harrison‘s 1970–71 hit “My Sweet Lord“.[70][71] John Lennon also included the phrase “Hare Krishna” in his lyrics to “Give Peace a Chance” and the Beatles’ 1967 track “I Am the Walrus“, as did Ringo Starr in his 1971 hit “It Don’t Come Easy“, written with the help of Harrison. Later Paul McCartney produced a single with a picture of Krishna riding on a swan on the cover, although there was no chanting of Krishna’s names inside.

Of the four Beatles, only Harrison fully embraced Krishna Consciousness; he also provided financial support for ISKCON’s UK branch[72] and enjoyed a warm friendship with Swami Prabhupada,[73][74] who provided the inspiration for Harrison songs such as “Living in the Material World“.[75] After he posthumously received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famein 2009, his son Dhani Harrison uttered the phrase “Hare Krishna” during the ceremony.[76] The contemporary Broadway musical Hair also included a song (credited as “Be-In”) that included the mantra.

One song from 1969 by Radha Krishna Temple (London), produced by Harrison and simply titled “Hare Krishna Mantra“, reached number 12 on the UK singles chart,[77] resulting in ISKCON devotees twice appearing on the music show Top of the Pops.[78] The single was similarly successful in Germany, Czechoslovakia and other countries.[77] Less well-known but equally relevant to fans of pop music culture are recordings of the Hare Krishna mantra by The Fugs on their 1968 album Tenderness Junction (featuring poet Allen Ginsberg) and by Nina Hagen.[79]