Hare Krishna, also known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), is a new religious movement that emerged in New York City in 1965 after an Indian spiritual teacher, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), landed in the country to spread Krishna consciousness at the behest of his spiritual mentor Srila Bhaktisiddhanta (1874-1937) (1).
Swami Prabhupada had big goals and, having just disembarked a ship with little more in his possession than a handful of dollars (in rupees) and a suitcase full of Vedic Scriptures, he intended to create centers for spiritual development across the English speaking world. Swami Prabhupada believed that this was only possible through education and a strong recruitment of members from all nations and creeds to his religious cause.
Swami Prabhupada’s early experiences of America were tough because he was impoverished and often had to beg on the streets to make ends meet. He had to meet with followers in parks before saving enough money to purchase a small store-front in New York. Swami Prabhupada’s devotees grew and they soon became dedicated disciples he taught to preach, collect funds, and dance and chant on the city streets. What had begun as a tiny movement in a small store-front soon burgeoned into an international association. As the movement grew, Swami Prabhupada found himself no longer able to personally manage and maintain each center, which led him to establish a Governing Body Commission (GBC) with the purpose of managing ISKCON centers. By 1971 the movement had expanded to 600 disciples and 65 centers, and Swami Prabhupada spent much of this time touring the world, preaching, writing, and translating. His primary purpose for traveling between the East and the West was to unite both in Krishna consciousness.
The Seven Purposes of ISKCON
Swami Prabhupada had also given his movement seven primary goals or purposes (2). These range from evangelically oriented tasks of educating people on spiritual truths and on the religion’s sacred texts to teaching others how to go about living a simpler and more natural life. The seven purposes are:
1. To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples 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 Srimad Bhagwatam.
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 Sankirtan movement, congregational chanting of the holy name of god as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahabraphu.
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.
Central Beliefs and God Concept
ISKCON holds to three sacred texts: the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavat Purana, and Srimad Bhagavatam, which teach that the ultimate goal for human beings is to reawaken a love for Krishna, the Supreme Lord who lives in a spiritual kingdom. From this kingdom, Lord Krishna can descend into the physical world to re-establish the principles of the spiritual/religious life as he famously did in the famous story of his dialogue with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. ISKCON is located within the Vishnaivism Hindu tradition because they believe that Krishna, the “Highest Absolute, the Supreme personality of Godhead”, is an avatar (incarnation) of the god Vishnu (3). Krishna is, as as the Vedas teach, not only impersonal but also a personal and caring God, and all humanity’s problems ultimately lie in the forgetfulness of its relationship with God.
Hare Krishnas believe that human beings are trapped in a perpetual cycle of reincarnation that is determined by a person’s karma (4). According to this belief the human soul (atman), which is responsible for giving life to a person, is eternal and reincarnated upon death into a new body. Life is thus not reducible to merely material elements (see physicalism) but upon death leaves the body to enter into a new one. This process is governed by karma, which Hare Krishnas believe affirms that an individual’s actions in her previous body have produced her present body. Similarly, her current actions will determine her next body with respect to its health, intelligence, physical appearance, one’s social status, and more. Hare Krishnas believe that it is possible to escape this cycle of reincarnation and that this is also desirable because as long as one possesses a physical body she will always be susceptible to disease, old age, and death. However, this cycle can only be escaped through re-establishing a relationship with Krishna, which is possible through practicing rituals such as bhakti-yoga. The idea of “re-establishing” a relationship with Lord Krishna suggests that at some point human beings had a close connection with God before it was affected. Thus ISKCON teaches the need for Krishna consciousness, which means to become free from illusion, conscious of Krishna, and to understand one’s own true eternal nature.
Hare Krishna Rituals and Practices
There are a number of rituals performed by devotees (5). Important is chanting the names of Lord Vishnu in prayer: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” Some members spend several hours a day chanting this mantra and believe that doing this can awaken the soul to its original spiritual knowledge. Doing so will help one to live peacefully in this life and return to the spiritual realm where Lord Krishna himself lives.
Male devotees are required to shave their heads. This leaves a small tuft of hair called a sikha, which is a sign of surrender to one’s teacher. Each morning both male and female devotees are expected to mark their foreheads with clay to remind themselves that their bodies are temples of Lord Krishna.
Hare Krishnas practice bhakti-yoga in their homes and in temples. Yoga is not simply a physical exercise but a process through which one learns to control her body and mind, with the ultimate goal of using such practices to connect herself with God. Bhakti-yoga is an act of devotion with the goal of connecting to the Supreme.
Hare Krishna devotees are also vegetarians, which they base upon the principles of compassion and non-violence. Devotees avoid eating meat, fish, and eggs, and believe that such a diet helps sustain the Earth’s environment. Their view of nature and non-violence has led to a proliferation of eco-villages and free food distribution projects with the purpose of protecting the natural environment and its animals. Hare Krishnas also renounce the use of alcohol and drugs, and sex is allowed only for procreation within marriage.
ISKCON Global Statistics
According to researchers, ISKCON entered a period of decline and withdrawal in the 1980s in the face of second-generation problems (6). This included a series of financial and sexual scandals and the struggle to maintain legitimate leadership, financial stability, public legitimacy, relevance, and sustained membership commitment. However, although there are no reliable statistics on the total number of Hare Krishna across the world, ISKCON claims to have 500 major centers, temples, and rural communities, nearly 100 affiliated vegetarian restaurants, thousands of local meeting groups, various community projects, and millions of congregational members worldwide (7).
1. Rochford, E. Burke. 1982. “Recruitment Strategies, Ideology, and Organization in the Hare Krishna Movement.” Social Problems 29(4): 399-410. 402.
2. Rochford, E. Burke. 1982. Ibid.
3. Sooklal, Anil. 1987. “The Hare Krishna Movement in South Africa.” Religion in Southern Africa 8(2): 19-39.
4. ISKCON. Reincarnation. Available.
5. Ketola, Kimmo. 2004. “The Hare Krishna and the Counterculture in the Light of the Theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 16(3): 301-320. p. 304-305
6. Vande Berg, Travis., and Kniss, Fred. 2008 “ISKCON AND IMMIGRANTS: The Rise, Decline, and Rise Again of a New Religious Movement.” The Sociological Quarterly 49 (1): 79-104.
7. ISKCON. What is ISKCON? Available.