Article Info

published: 11/17/06
updated: 6/26/13

Hare Krishna (ISKCON)



Hare Krishna
Hare Krishna dancing and chanting in
Soho, London. Photo: Aaron Morton.


Hare Krishna temple in West Virginia. Photo: Taylor Davidson.

Hare Krishna chant
The Maha-Mantra of the Hare Krishna.

What is Hare Krishna?

Hare Krishna is the popular name for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (or ISKCON), a new religious movement based in Hinduism.

Established in America in 1965, the Hare Krishna worship the Hindu god Krishna as the one Supreme God. Their goal is "Krishna consciousness" and their central practice is chanting the Hare Krishna mantra for which they are named.

Fast Facts

Founded: 1965 in New York and San Francisco, USA
Founder: His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Adherents: 250,000 devotees plus 10,000 full members [according to ISKCON]; other sources say there are 1 million total
Texts: Bhagavad Gita as translated by the founder
Theism: Monotheistic (based in Hindu theism) belief in Krishna
Practices: Asceticism, celibacy, vegetarianism, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, chanting, evangelism




History

ISKCON has its historical roots in the Caitanya (or Gaudiya) movement of Hinduism, which began around 1510 with an ascetic who took the name Sri Krishna Caitanya. This devotee of Krishna became renowned for his ecstatic devotion, expressed in dance and song. His disciples believed Caitanya to be manifestation of Krishna himself, and established a movement based on his inspiration.

The International Society for Krishna Conciousness (ISKCON) is a modern movement within this tradition. It was founded by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), a devotee of Krishna, upon his arrival to America from India in 1965. Prabhupada was born in Calcutta and was 70 years old when he arrived in New York City. Prabhupada moved to the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967, where he soon gained many followers.

Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Photo © Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

The movement spread quickly, and became one of the most visible of the new religious movements that came from the East in the 1960s and 70s. ISKCON gained further publicity (and financial support) through the interest of the Beatle George Harrison. The first Hare Krishna commune was established by Prabhupada as "New Vrindavan" in West Virginia in 1968.

In 1970, Prabhupada established the Governing Board Commission (GBC) to help him administer the movement. After Prabhupada's death in 1977, 11 of his disciples became initiating gurus. Three of these are still active Hare Krishna teachers.

The Hare Krishna came under criticism during the anti-cult movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and still remains under the watchful eye of anti-cult organizations today. The identification of ISKCON as a cult is usually based on the abuses committed by some of its leaders and allegations by some former members of brainwashing and isolation from family and friends.

In 1998, the organization published an official report detailing abuse of children in ISKCON boarding schools in the US and India in the 70s and 80s. The movement was sued by a number of former students and actively sought to identify victims who had not sued in order to compensate them as well.

To prevent future abuses, ISKCON has established a worldwide child protection office to screen out actual or potential abusers and educate children and adults on child abuse, and has made other organizational changes to increase the transparency and accountability of ISKCON leadership.


Hare Krishna sacred text

Texts

The most important sacred text for the Hare Krishna is the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita, the "Song of the Lord," written around 250 BC. Beloved also by Gandhi and nearly all Hindus, the Gita tells the story of the warrior Arjuna and his encounter with Krishna. This text is regarded as literal truth by Hare Krishnas.

Specifically, Hare Krishnas use and distribute the translation by Prabhupada, The Bhagavad Gita As It Is, which includes an extensive commentary by the founder.

Beliefs

ISKCON identifies itself with Hindu Vedic philsophy and Vaishanvism (devotion to Vishnu). Its beliefs are especially rooted in the Bhagavad Gita (see Texts, above) and the teachings of the founder, Prabhupada. Most mainstream Hindus accept the Hare Krishna as an authentic sect within Hinduism.

Hare Krishnas teach that we are living in an evil age, the age of Kali, but can attain salvation and a "return to Godhead" by means of permanent Krishna-consciousness. Krishna-consciousness can be accomplished through ethical living and the "Hare Krishna" chant (see Practices, below).

Krishna
Krishna. Image © Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

This salvation is accomplished by Bhakti-yoga, the "way of devotion." The object of ISKCON devotion is Krishna, a manifestation of Vishnu and a beloved deity in mainstream Hinduism as well. As seen above, the Hare Krishna describe themselves as monotheists, who worship the Supreme Godhead in the personality of Krishna. They also believe that the Supreme God is known by other names, such as Yahweh and Allah.

According to ISKCON's official website:

The mission of this nonsectarian, monotheistic movement is to promote the well being of society by teaching the science of Krishna consciousness according to Bhagavad-gita and other ancient scriptures. [1]

More specifically, Prabhupada identified the following Seven Purposes of ISKCON:

  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 (God), as it is revealed in the great scriptures of India, Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam.
  3. To bring the members of the Society together with each other and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, thus developing the idea within the members, and humanity at large, that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krishna).
  4. Hare Krishna dancing
    Hare Krishna dancing in Soho, London. Photo: Aaron Morton.
  5. To teach and encourage the sankirtana movement, congregational chanting of the holy name of God, as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
  6. To erect for the members and for society at large a holy place of transcendental pastimes dedicated to the personality of Krishna.
  7. To bring the members closer together for the purpose of teaching a simpler, more natural way of life.
  8. With a view towards achieving the aforementioned purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals, magazines, books and other writings. [1]

Practices

"Congregational members" of ISKCON put the movement's teachings about Krishna consciousness into practice while living a normal home and work life. They attend temples for congregational worship.

"Temple-based" or full members of the Hare Krishna movement live in temples and are expected to lead austere and ascetic lifestyles in which they follow these four regulative principles:

  • eat no meat, fish, or eggs;
  • drink no alcohol and take no drugs (including caffeine);
  • do not gamble, and
  • remain celibate except for purposes of procreation within marriage.

The reason for these prohibitions is that "indulgence in the aforementioned activities disrupts physical, mental and spiritual well-being, and increases anxiety and conflict in society." [1]

The central religious ritual of the Hare Krishna is the chanting of mantras. Their main mantra (maha-mantra) for which they are named is:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare,
Hare Rama, Hare Rama,
Rama Rama, Hare Hare

This mantra expresses devotion to the gods Hare, Krishna and Rama and is believed to bring about a higher state of consciousness when it is chanted, sung, or meditated upon. It is thought to be the most effective means of self-purification. Hare Krishnas are expected to chant the mantra for 16 rounds of a rosary of 108 beads (i.e. 1,728 times) every day.

Hare Krishna dancing in London
Hare Krishna singing and dancing in London. Photo: Esther Simpson.

Hare Krishnas are also known for their public singing and dancing and distribution of materials including their magazine, Back to Godhead. ISKCON is actively evangelistic, with the goal of spreading God-consciousness throughout the world.

Male Hare Krishnas dress in white or saffron robes and shave their head except for a topknot. Women wear brightly colored saris.

The movement's leaders are gurus in a successive lineage that is traced back to Caitanya himself. The job of the guru is to pass on the teachings unchanged to a disciple, who then carries on the line to others.

References & Sources

  1. Official Website of ISKCON
  2. International Society of Krishna Conciousness - Religious Movements Homepage
  3. John Hinnels, ed., "Hare Krishna Movement." Penguin Dictionary of Religions (1997).
  4. John Bowker, ed., "International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)." Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (2000).

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