Of the colorful and exotic features of the American urban landscape during the hippie era in the late 1960s and 1970s, none, perhaps, was so striking as the small bands of men with shaved heads and saffron robes and women in saris gathering at love-ins or on street corners. Together they danced to the sound of Indian drums as they recited their mantra—"Hare Krishna, hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, hare hare; hare Rama, hare Rama, Rama Rama, hare hare"—and solicited alms.
The worldwide Krishna movement was founded by one elderly man from India who came to America with a vision, determination, and hardly a penny to his name. Born in 1896, Abhay Charan De had already studied economics and English at the University of Calcutta when he became a disciple and the eventual successor of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Swami, the tenth in a line of gurus beginning in the late fifteenth century with Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who had founded a religious system within Hinduism particularly devoted to the god Krishna.
A divinity with many of the attributes of the trickster archetype, Krishna appears in India's epic poem the Mahabharata as charioteer to his friend Arjuna. A great battle has begun in which, Arjuna realizes, he will have friends and relatives on both sides. He asks Krishna whether he ought to fight or not, and Krishna explains why he should do so, in a classic discourse about reality and illusion (the source of Ralph Waldo Emerson's lines "If the red slayer thinks he slays / And the slain thinks he is slain"). This interlude on the eve of the battle is also the setting for the Bhagavad-Gita, or "Song of God," a central text in Hindu religious literature.
Chaitanya and his successors revered Krishna as the essential manifestation of God and prescribed a way of life which eschewed earthly sensory pleasures in favor of meditative practice, study of the Bhagavad-Gita and other holy books, and the chanting of the "Hare Krishna" mantra. As such, the followers of Krishna might have been simply one of many Indian sects within Hinduism. The crucial difference came when Abhay Charan De, now called Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhuda, brought his teaching to America, arriving in New York on a freighter in 1965.
Starting with evening lectures on the Bhagavad-Gita, Bhaktivedanta Swami soon attracted a small but enthusiastic band of followers who became the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in 1966; two years later the group acquired a farm in West Virginia which they dubbed New Vrindavana (after the town in India which was believed to be Krishna's birthplace) and which later grew to 1,000 acres. In 1972, to educate the increasing number of Hare Krishna children, ISKCON started the Gurukula School and its enrollment grew to 150 over the next three years. By the time of Bhaktivedanta Swami's death in 1977, the Krishna movement boasted 10,000 full-time members worldwide, 5,000 of them in America alone, and could claim several million others who came to worship at ISKCON temples.
Those who joined the communities were expected to abstain from drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Sexual relations were permitted only for couples married by an ordained minister in Krishna Consciousness; there was to be no courtship or dating as such, either within the community or with outsiders. Also forbidden were gambling and "frivolous games and sports"; children, however, were encouraged to play games such as a Krishna version of hopscotch called "Hopping to the Spiritual World," "I Love Krishna," and "The Hanuman Hop." For adults, the everyday routine included six temple ceremonies, several hours of classes, work within the temple compound for three hours in the morning, and sankirtana —public chanting, preaching, and solicitation of alms—for another three hours each afternoon.
Many devotees saw in the Krishna communities a welcome refuge from a prior life of adolescent turmoil, insecurity, and drug use. But relatives and friends of converts, alarmed by the strictures of the temple regimen and the apparently hypnotic effect of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra 108 times a day, sometimes brought accusations of brainwashing and coercion, particularly when children were involved. The grandparents of one boy whose mother had joined the movement spent 16 months finding him and restoring him to his father, ultimately resorting to counter-demonstrations at Chicago's O'Hare airport, a favorite sankirtana site.
Such clashes of worldviews raised troublesome civil liberties issues for the courts and generated adverse publicity for the movement. The public backlash made it harder to raise money openly for Krishna Consciousness, so that sales of books and incense on the street came to be divorced from preaching (some males donned toupees to cover their shaved heads), seeming to defeat the purpose of sankirtana.
Anticipating his death, Bhaktivedanta Swami had designated 11 gurus to preside over districts within the worldwide organization, as well as a Governing Body Council (GBC), which was to be ISKCON's central administrative committee. A crisis of conflicting authority soon erupted between the GBC and several of the regional gurus, four of whom resigned during the next decade. There was also bad press from a California police raid which turned up a large cache of firearms on a ranch owned by the movement, and from the murder of a former member, turned vocal critic, at the New Vrindavana compound.
Nevertheless, ISKCON survived, making changes to accommodate members unable or unwilling to join the temple communities (including outreach to expatriate Indians), and broadening its product line to include vegetarian specialty foods and restaurants. A new generation has found the Krishna-Conscious lifestyle an appealing alternative to what one convert, a former heavy-metal musician, described as "fashion, cliques, sex, drugs, and loud music." As sociologist E. Burke Rochford put it, "ISKCON's ability to adapt to what have often been the most adverse circumstances points to the flexibility and ultimate resiliency of the movement. It is these qualities, combined with the deep faith and commitment of the devotees themselves, which will be the Krishna movement's greatest assets as it approaches the twenty-first century."
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhuda, A. C. Krsna Consciousness: The Topmost Yoga System. Boston, ISKCON Press, 1970.
——, editor. The Bhagavad-gita As It Is. New York, Macmillan, 1972.
Daner, Francine Jeanne. The American Children of Krsna: A Study of the Hare Krsna Movement. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
Hiltebeitel, Alf. The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1976.
Hubner, John, and Lindsey Gruson Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness and the Hare krishnas San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Muster, Nori J. Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life Behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Rochford, E. Burke. Hare Krishna in America. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1985.
Yanoff, Morris. Where Is Joey?: Lost among the Hare Krishnas. Chicago, Swallow Press, 1981.
The Hare Krishna movement, more formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), was founded in New York City in 1966, one year after the arrival of its charismatic leader, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, from India. The mission of ISKCON's founder was to gain recognition for his Hindu beliefs, which derived from a tradition originating in Bengal, India. While aligned with orthodox Hinduism, the Krishna Consciousness preached by Swami Prabhupada traces its roots to the Krishna bhakti movement founded by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in the 16th century. Their beliefs derive from scripture contained in the Vedas, but the movement's central religious text is the Bhagavad-Gita, in which the devotional activity of bhakti is first fully detailed. Swami Prabhupada preached to his young followers that love for and devotional service to Krishna (God)—the basis of the bhakti-yoga tradition—would lead to spiritual realization. To gain this spiritual fulfillment Krishna devotees are required to take part in a number of religious practices: chanting the Hare Krishna mantra and living an austere lifestyle which avoids meat, intoxicants, illicit sex, and gambling.
The initial growth of the Krishna movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s in America was sustained largely by the involvement of middle-class countercultural youth, who were protesting against the traditional values and socio-political structures of American society. Krishna members have joined ISKCON on the basis of a variety of social, psychological, and religious motivations: a search for spiritual enlightenment, the desire for meaningful primary relations, disenchantment with the materialism of contemporary culture, or an attraction to the Krishna lifestyle. The movement gained considerable notoriety during the 1970s as its members were often seen chanting and distributing religious literature in airports and other public settings. Hare Krishna, branded by the public and the media as one of the major "cults," was thought to subject its members to "mind control" and various forms of "exploitation."
Reorganization. As the counterculture faded from America and other Western countries, ISKCON's membership pattern changed. At its height in the mid-1970s, ISKCON claimed a membership of approximately 5,000 in North America and 10,000 worldwide. Since that time, ISKCON's full-time membership in North America has declined somewhat. However, it has grown worldwide due to an expanding congregation of as many as several million part-time members, many of whom are East Indians. In the mid-1980s, ISKCON had 200 centers and communities on every continent, with over 70 in North America alone.
Following Swami Prabhupada's death in November of 1977, ISKCON was reorganized politically and spiritually. Eleven of Bhaktivedanta's closest disciples were appointed to serve as gurus, responsible for initiating new members into Krishna Consciousness and for helping to oversee the affairs of the movement's communities worldwide. Within a year following the leader's death, however, ISKCON faced a series of succession problems as the authority and legitimacy of the gurus was challenged by many long-time members. In the 1980s ISKCON faced factionalism, schism, the expulsion or defection of four of the original eleven appointed gurus, and the departure of countless other long-time members from the movement. This stabilized somewhat in the 1990s, as the remaining leaders consolidated the movement.
See Also: new religious movements; cults; sect.
Bibliography: a. burr, I Am Not My Body: A Study of the International Hare Krishna Sect (New Delhi 1984). f. daner, The American Children of Krishna: A Study of the Hare Krishna Movement (New York 1976). s. j. gelberg, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna (New York 1983); "The Catholic Church and the Hare Krishna Movement: An Invitation to Dialogue," ISKCON Review 2 (1986) 1–63. s. d. goswami, Prabhupada (Los Angeles 1983). g. johnson, "The Hare Krishna in San Francisco," c. glock and r. bellah, eds., The New Religious Consciousness (Los Angeles 1976). j. s. judah, Hare Krishna and the Counterculture (New York 1974). t. h. polling and j. f. kenny, The Hare Krishna Character Type: A Study of Sensate Personality (Lewiston, N.Y. 1986). e. b. rochford, Hare Krishna in America (New Brunswick, N.J. 1985). "Dialectical Processes in the Development of Hare Krishna: Tension, Public Definition and Strategy," d. bromley and p. hammond, eds., The Future of New Religious Movements (Macon, Ga.1987). l. d. shinn, "The Many Faces of Krishna," j. fichter, ed., Alternatives to American Main-Line Churches (New York 1983).
[e. b. rochford, jr./eds.]