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Cover Story : International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)


The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), known colloquially as the Hare Krishna movement or Hare Krishnas, is a Gaudiya Vaishnava religious organisation. 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. Its core beliefs are based on select traditional Hindu scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad-gītā and the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. ISKCON says it is a direct descendant of Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya. 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, and in England in the 1930s.

ISKCON was formed to spread the practice of bhakti yoga, in which those involved (bhaktas) dedicate their thoughts and actions towards pleasing the Supreme Lord, Krishna. ISKCON today is a worldwide confederation of more than 550 centres, including 60 farm communities, some aiming for self-sufficiency, 50 schools, and 90 restaurants. In recent decades the most rapid expansions in membership have been within Eastern Europe (especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union) and India.

History and belief

ISKCON devotees follow a disciplic line of Gaudiya Bhagavata Vaishnavas and are the largest branch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.Vaishnavism means ‘worship of Vishnu’, and Gauḍa refers to the area where this particular branch of Vaishnavism originated, in theGauda 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, 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.

Lord krishna , subhadra and balrama

Krishna is described as the source of all the avatars of God. 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. It is amonotheistic tradition which has its roots in the theistic Vedanta traditions.

Hare Krishna mantra

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”

Seven purposes of ISKCON

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

  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 theBhagavad-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

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

  • No meat-eating, including fish or eggs;
  • No illicit sex: only between married couples and only for the procreation of children;
  • No gambling;
  • No intoxicants (including alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and other recreational drugs).

The four legs of Dharma are:

  • Daya: Mercy
  • Tapas: Self-Control or Austerity
  • Satyam: Truthfulness (playing any games keeping/for money and/or things)
  • Śaucam: Cleanliness of body and mind

Preaching activities

ISKCON advocates preaching. Members try to spread Krishna consciousness, primarily by singing the Hare Krishna mantra in public places and by selling books written by Bhaktivedanta Swami. Both of these activities are known within the movement asSankirtan. 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. 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. 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.

Educational activities and youth

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.

A move away from boarding schools or asrama / education in ISKCON has given way to an increase in community-run primary schools and home education. These ventures have had mixed results and some have been short-lived. However the ISKCON temples in Alachua, Florida and in Hertfordshire, England have established, successful primary schools on-site which form an important part of the community and are often spoken of positively by youth who attended them. A shift in emphasis has been seen in ISKCON schools with less focus on scriptural study and more emphasis placed on following the national curriculum, although worship of Krishna, celebrating devotional festivals and learning to play devotional instruments are still an important part of school life. The creation of free schools in the UK also meant that government funding allowed the UK’s first Hindu primary school to be opened by the I-Foundation in the north London borough of Harrow. Avanti House, a Hindu secondary school with free school status, founded by the I-Foundation was opened in September 2012 in Harrow.

Early unsuccessful attempts at education within ISKCON led to some of the youth becoming disengaged, having completed their education with few or no formal qualifications. Education is now generally seen as more important within the community, and participation rates in formal education, including at university level, have significantly increased. It is not uncommon for children to attend a community-run primary school attached to a temple, before progressing to a state school for their post-primary education.

bhajan kirtan

Gaudiya Vaisnava teachings state that being born into a Vaisnava family is a privilege or blessing and an indication of good karma, or having completed good deeds in a previous life. This belief has at times caused friction between children and their parents, who may be disappointed by a lack of interest in Krishna-related activities on the part of their children. Many parents prefer that their children be educated at a community-run temple school, and in the absence thereof, may opt for home education. Enrollment in a state school is an undesirable but not uncommon last resort. Although parents from many different faiths would prefer their children to attend a faith school, Hare Krishna parents express concerns about their children being given non-vegetarian food or being exposed to ideas threatening their religious beliefs. Some may fear attack of beliefs from both peers and teachers. This may in part be due to a lack of awareness of a clear agenda to promote equality and inclusion, celebrate cultural diversity and show sensitivity toward different faiths which is present in English schools.

Activities by iskcon

Huge variety in degrees of belief and devotional practice exist among Hare Krishna youth. Few live in temples as their parents did. This is likely to be due to a general shift in ISKCON from a largely monastic tradition to a family-oriented, congregational one where people live in their own houses and visit the temple. Many youth take up employment outside of ISKCON but a significant number prefer to socialise within ISKCON circles, even those for whom religion is a minor part of their lives. This preference to socialise within ISKCON may be due to feeling understood by people who share a similar experience of growing up. Many ISKCON youth retain their belief in Krsna, karma and reincarnation and remain vegetarian regardless of how small or large a part religion plays in their daily lives. Many report having felt or feeling like a misfit outside of ISKCON circles and struggling to integrate into mainstream society. This may be due to sharing very few common cultural references with peers outside ISKCON. Other reasons include differing customs and practices in day-to-day life. For example, it was previously the norm to sleep on a mattress on the floor, to eat from metal plates with a spoon while sitting cross-legged on the floor, shower from a bucket and wear traditional Indian clothes. Owning a television or listening to secular music was frowned upon. Most members of the community have reverted to Western norms with regards to sleeping, eating, showering and dress. Few now choose to raise their children without access to the media.

A humorous view is often taken of difficulties experienced in navigating the outside world; many accept feeling like an outsider as they view the religious beliefs they were raised with as the truth which will result in salvation. Greater levels of resentment and rejection of beliefs may be seen among youth who grew up in smaller communities, with fewer children, limited positive cultural experiences and a less vibrant atmosphere. These youth may feel that they grew up with all the disadvantages and few of the benefits of a Hare Krishna upbringing. They may also feel they have little choice but to abandon much of their cultural identity; doing so may be the only way to fit in with their peers and form meaningful friendships due to the absence of a sizable community.

The vast majority of ISKCON youth, even those for whom ISKCON is primarily a social rather than religious setting, seek a spouse from within the Hare Krishna community, often travelling to festivals in America, Poland or India attended by devotees from all over the world to meet a potential partner. It is not uncommon to maintain a long-distance relationship before one person re-locates, before getting married in a traditional Vedic ceremony. All but very few of the youth remain vegetarian even if they see little value in following the other three regulative principles (see section above). Most report that they believe in God, karma and reincarnation and will give their own children Sanskrit names. Another common feature of the youth is their enthusiasm for ‘bhajans’ or ‘kirtan ‘, even amongst those who show little interest in other forms of worship such as chanting or scriptural study. A strong focus exists on reaching a high level of musical proficiency in kirtan and mastering complex melodies and rhythms. Older members of the movement have been known to criticise youth for turning kirtan into a performance as opposed to focussing on its primary purpose as shared worship experience. In spite of this many people enjoy youth kirtans at events within and outside temples.

Bhaktivedanta Institute

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” “One should inquire into the Supreme.” Under the directorship of Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami, the Bhaktivedanta Institute organized 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 Kolkata. The director of BI Kolkata is Vrajapati Das. Currently Ravi Gomatam is the Director of BI Berkeley.

Food for Life

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”. The international headquarters known as Food for Life Global, established by Paul Rodney Turner (ref) and Mukunda Goswami, coordinates the project. Food for Life is currently active in over sixty countries and serves up to 2 million free meals every day. Its welfare achievements have been noted by The New York Times and other media worldwide.

Management structure

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.

The Governing Body Commission (or GBC) was created by Bhaktivedanta Swami in 1970. In a document Direction of Management written on 28 July 1970 Prabhupadaappointed the following members to the commission, all of them non sannyasi:

  1. Sriman Rupanuga Das Adhikary
  2. Sriman Bhagavan Das Adhikary
  3. Sriman Syamsundar Das Adhikary
  4. Sriman Satsvarupa Das Adhikary
  5. Sriman Karandhar Das Adhikary
  6. Sriman Hansadutta Das Adhikary
  7. Sriman Tamala Krsna Das Adhikary
  8. Sriman Sudama Das Adhikary
  9. Sriman Bali Mardan Das Brahmacary
  10. Sriman Jagadisa Das Adhikary
  11. Sriman Hayagriva Das Adhikary
  12. Sriman Kṛṣṇadas Adhikary

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. 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

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.

Influential leaders since 1977

Before his death, Prabhupada “deputed” or appointed the following eleven of his disciples to serve as gurus or to continue to direct the organisation: Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, Jayapataka Swami, Hridayananda Dasa Goswami, Tamal Krishna Goswami, Bhavananda Goswami, Hansadutta Swami, Ramesvara Swami, Harikesa Swami, Bhagavan Dasa, Kirtanananda Swami, andJayatirtha 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”, 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. Of Prabhupada’s disciples, who number 4,734 in total, approximately 70 are now acting as diksha gurus within ISKCON. As of April 2011, ISKCON had a total of 100 sannyasis, most of whom were acting as gurus (see List of International Society for Krishna Consciousness sannyasis).

In popular culture

The Hare Krishna mantra appears in a number of famous songs, notably in former Beatle George Harrison’s 1970–71 hit “My Sweet Lord”. 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 and enjoyed a warm friendship with Swami Prabhupada, who provided the inspiration for Harrison songs such as “Living in the Material World”. After he posthumously received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2009, his son Dhani Harrison uttered the phrase “Hare Krishna” during the ceremony. 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, resulting in ISKCON devotees twice appearing on the music show Top of the Pops. The single was similarly successful in Germany, Czechoslovakia and other countries. 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.

Source : wikipedia