International Society for Krishna Consciousness

views updated May 29 2018


INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS (ISKCON) is the missionary form of devotional Hinduism brought to the United States in 1965 by a pious devotee of Ka who wanted to convert the English-speaking world to "God-consciousness." By 2003, ISKCON had become an international movement with more than 350 temples and centers worldwide (approximately fifty in the United States).

Established as Charismatic Movement

The founding guru of ISKCON, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, was born Abhay Charan De in 1896 in Calcutta. Educated in a Vaiava school and later in Scottish Church College, he was a sporadically successful businessman in the pharmaceutical industry. However, after he was initiated in 1922 by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, a Gauiya (Bengali) Vaiava, in the line of the sixteenth-century saint and reformer Caitanya, he began increasingly to invest time and money in his religious interests. In 1944 Prabhupada established the magazine Back to Godhead, and in 1952 he formed the Jhansi League of Devotees. He gave up his life as a householder (gihastha ) in 1954 and took the formal vows of an ascetic (sanyāsin ) in 1959.

In September 1965, at the age of sixty-nine, Prabhupada arrived in New York City with less than ten dollars in his pocket and a suitcase full of his translations of the Ka scripture, called the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. He lived with various Indian and American supporters in Manhattan, where he daily chanted and sang the praises of Ka. Prabhupada's lectures and devotional services initially attracted many counterculture youths, and preaching centers were established in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Boston, and Montreal. By the early 1970s, Los Angeles had become the headquarters of ISKCON and its publishing office, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, which has printed more than fifty different translations and original works by Prabhupada and hundreds of other ISKCON treatises since his death.

From the earliest years of the movement, Prabhupada's disciples have been known for their public chanting (sakīrtan ) of the Hare Ka mantra and their distribution of Back to Godhead magazine and Prabhupada's books. Like his Indian godbrothers, Prabhupada believed that the recitation of God's name was necessary for salvation. Further, his guru had instructed him to bring "Krishna consciousness" to the English-speaking world. Consequently, the "Hare Krishnas" have been both very visible and evangelical in India, America, and globally.

In July 1970, Prabhupada formed a Governing Body Commission (GBC) of twelve advanced devotees to administer an increasingly widespread and complex ISKCON and to allow him to spend his time preaching and translating. At this same time, he instituted a series of standardized religious practices that made ISKCON devotees more like their Indian counterparts. Male devotees who entered the temple had to wear the traditional saffron dress of the monastic novice and shave their heads, while women wore traditional Indian saris. All temples were to follow a daily regimen of rising at 4:00 am for morning devotional services (pūjā), chanting sixteen rounds of the Ka mantra on 108 prayer beads (jāpā), and attending a lecture on a scriptural passage. A clear distinction was made between brahmācarin, or "student," devotees who intended to take the four monastic regulative principles (no meat eating, no intoxicants of any kind, no sexual activity of any kind, and no gambling) and gihasta, or "householder," devotees who intended to live in marriage (often outside the temple) and who might also take a modified version of the four vows.

Expansion and External Opposition

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, ISKCON became more conscious of its Indian roots at the same time that it was expanding to every continent on the globe. Prabhupada frequently returned to India from 1970 until his death in Vndāvana, India, in November 1977. He received a hearty welcome from most Indians, who jokingly called his devotees "dancing white elephants." He established temples and preaching centers near Bombay, in Vndāvana (the birthplace of Ka), and in Māyāpur (the birthplace of Caitanya). By the early 1980s, the Bombay temple had more than six thousand Indian "lifetime" congregational members, and the Vndāvana temple was included on most Ka pilgrims' circuits. Back in America, Indian immigrants became members of ISKCON temples and were often strong supporters of this transplanted devotional Hindu movement.

Prabhupada circled the globe eleven times in his twelve years of missionary activity and established temples in England and continental Europe as well as in India, Australia, and South Africa. Just before his death, he appointed eleven disciples as initiating gurus to keep his Caitanya chain of discipleship unbroken and to missionize the rest of the world. By the mid-1980s his disciples had established forty-five temples or farms in Europe, ten in Africa, thirty-five in Asia, and forty in South America. Whereas the full-time membership of the American temples remained constant or declined in the decade after Prabhupada's death, ISKCON branches grew rapidly overseas, where they often found more welcoming environments.

During the 1990s, ISKCON's primary growth came in the former Soviet states with twenty temples formed in Russia alone. In April 1998, ISKCON's status as an accepted Hindu tradition was confirmed as the prime minister helped inaugurate a new temple and museum complex in New Delhi, India.

Throughout its history in America, ISKCON has encountered opposition from anticult groups such as the Citizens' Freedom Foundation, the Cult Awareness Network, and the American Family Foundation. The movement's methods of book distribution and fund-raising have most often been at the heart of both external and internal criticism. These questionable practices were often the result of the unbounded enthusiasm of devotees and organizational inconsistencies during the first two decades of ISKCON's development. The early decades of this charismatic movement also spawned several internal crises that fully emerged after the founder's death.

Internal Crises

Existing leadership problems were heightened after the founder's death. ISKCON began as a charasmatic movement founded on the strength of Prabhupada's pious faith and practices. While the administrative and religious authority of the founder could be transferred to his eleven appointed successors, his piety and depth of faith could not. The initial practice was for the eleven guru successors to provide spiritual and administrative leadership for a geographical "zone" and to act as though they were Prabhupada (i.e., they initiated disciples, accepted guru worship, and so on). Some of the new ISKCON gurus even claimed that their individual authority was superior to that of the GBC. But one by one, many of these young gurus succumbed to the temptations of sex or the abuse of their power. By the late 1980s, six of the original eleven had either voluntarily stepped down or had been removed by the GBC. By the mid-1980s the GBC authorized the inauguration of nearly two dozen new initiating gurus and assigned more than one guru to each geographical zone where devotees lived. Throughout the 1990s the guru and leadership debates continued with many Ka devotees (including some gurus) defecting to start their own movement or to become the disciple of one of the Indian godbrothers of Prabhupada. Several waves of reform during the 1980s and 1990s altered the power and scope of individual gurus. In 2003 the supreme court in India was asked to adjudicate leadership squabbles among temple leaders who quarreled over the powers of current ISKCON gurus in India. In the absence of the founding guru, the GBC and the appointed gurus together have tried to provide leadership for the worldwide movement in the face of economic and legal crises that have threatened the movement's very survival.

A second serious internal crisis for ISKCON has been the abuse of children. In the early 1970s the number of married devotees was rising, and some of the initial devotees accepted the life of the "renounced" sanyāsin. This shift of authority in the Ka temples to the celibate devotees created a lower social status for families (and especially women and children) than had been true in the 1960s. Schools for children called gurukulas (guru schools) were established in Dallas and Los Angeles in America and in Vrindaban, India. The schools were often run by sanyāsins who had no experience in child rearing, and initially parents were strongly discouraged from maintaining contact with their children. In 1974, stories of child abuse (e.g., harsh punishments and psychological depravations) arose surrounding the Dallas gurukula. Less than a year later the school was closed, and school reforms were put in place. Yet throughout the 1970s into the early 1980s, abuses ranging from overzealous corporeal punishment and food deprivation to sexual abuse occurred in some gurukulas with some children.

In 1990 the GBC established policies requiring abuse-prevention training and mandatory reporting of abuse allegations in Ka schools. In 1996, ten former gurukula students spoke at an annual North American GBC meeting about their abuse. As a result, the Children of Krishna organization was formed to provide counseling and educational resources for Ka youth. In 1997 a professionally staffed Child Protection Office was formed to investigate and adjudicate child abuse allegations. However, in June 2000, a $400 million lawsuit was filed on behalf of former gurukula students against two dozen Ka temples. The case was dismissed from federal court in 2002 but refiled on behalf of ninety-one former students in the Texas State Court. In 2003 the ISKCON temples named in the suit sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. All of the boarding gurukulas in the United States had closed their doors by the mid-1990s, but Ka day schools continue to educate many devotee children.

The third persistent internal issue of considerable magnitude concerns the role and status of women in ISKCON. Since the Middle Ages in India, Vaiava and other devotional traditions have afforded women greater spiritual status than traditional Vedic beliefs and practices had. However, it is still often assumed in India that a woman's material body requires her to be "protected" by her father in her youth, her husband in her middle years, and her sons in her old age. When Prabhupada first came to America, he treated women and men devotees with considerable equality. Women were permitted to lead worship services, to give lectures on the Ka scriptures, and even to hold offices in temples. He argued that spiritually there was no difference between men and women, which was a more liberal view than most of his Indian godbrothers. But with the ascendency of the sanyāsin, or "renounced," movement in the early 1970s, women found themselves to be second-class devotees in ISKCON. From the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, women devotees in most temples were forbidden to lead chanting, to give Bhāgavatam class, or to hold high offices in a temple or the GBC.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some women and men came forward to insist on the equal spiritual, social, political status that women had enjoyed earlier under Prabhupada. In the mid-1990s some temple leaders in Europe and the United States said that discrimination against women must cease and permitted women to engage in religious and leadership roles equal to men. In 1996 an American woman devotee was appointed to the GBC, which had previously been open only to men (i.e., gurus and laymen). This act signaled that women could be equal to men as "advanced devotees" and policymakers for ISKCONeven though men alone can be gurus. In 1997 ISKCON held its first conference for Women's Ministry and explored the pent-up issues that previously had been taboo. In 1998 a second woman was added to the international GBC, and in 2000, at the International GBC meeting in Mayapur, India, a resolution was passed that provided for the "equal facility, full encouragement, and genuine care and protection of women members of ISKCON." By 2000, several temples in Europe and the United States were led by women presidents. However, the role of women in ISKCON still depends to a considerable degree on whether they live in or outside India, and on whether the local temple practices derive from the notions of the equality of spirit or they insist on the differentness of gender. The role of women in ISKCON will always be lodged in the context of a Hindu and Indian view of women that will make full equality difficult to achieve. And yet ISKCON is constantly molded by global processes of institutionalization and accommodation that include pressure to give women a greater voice.

Institutionalization and Maturation

ISKCON is truly an international religious movement and, as such, is very diverse, depending on whether the locus is the Los Angeles temple, the Bhaktivedanta Manor in London, or the pilgrimage center in Māyāpur, India. Yet there are certain common trends toward the "Hinduization" of ISKCON that bring it into the sphere of other Vaiava traditions in India and have attracted many Indian members to its temples throughout the world. Likewise, there are trends toward institutional maturation in ISKCON that are revealed in an acadmic seriousness that has led more than a dozen leading devotees to earn Ph.D.s in the 1990s and the creation of several academic journals. ISKCON has created leadership classes for temple officials that range from economic and managerial lessons to instructions on the proper place and treatment of children and women in the movement. ISKCON has initiated interfaith conversations such as the "Vaishava-Christian Dialogue" and has established a European ministerial college in England. To be sure, its "Indianness" (e.g., circular concept of time, or sasāra ) and "Hinduness" (e.g., its focus on Ka rituals and scriptures) will always make ISKCON a minority religious tradition outside of India. Still, its capacity to accommodate its beliefs and practices globally according to the medieval Vaiava dictum of "time, place and circumstance" should serve it well into the future as it seeks an enduring place in the religious landscape of a twenty-first-century multicultural world.

See Also

Caitanya; Kaism; New Religions, overview article; New Religious Movements, articles on New Religious Movements in Europe, New Religious Movements in the United States; Vaiavism, overview article.


J. Stillson Judah's study of California devotees, Hare Krishna and the Counterculture (New York, 1974), is now dated, but its emphasis on ISKCON's origin as a religious alternative to and embodiment of countercultural values and attitudes is still instructive. An anthropological study that focuses on the Boston, New York, London, and Amsterdam temples is Francine Jeanne Daner's The American Children of Krishna (New York, 1976). Daner also places the rise of ISKCON in the context of "counterculture religions" as well as in the framework of Erik Erikson's identity theory of personality development. Larry D. Shinn's The Dark Lord : Cult Images and the Hare Krishnas in America (Philadelphia, 1987) is based on more than one hundred interviews of Krishna devotees conducted over two years in fourteen temples throughout America and India and presents the various aspects of the American Krishna faith in the framework of anticult criticisms and a history of religions perspective on this devotional Indian faith. For a good summary of the child abuse issue, see E. Burke Rochford. "Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement: 19711986," ISKCON Communications Journal 6 (1998): 4369. For a reflective essay concerning the role and status of women in ISKCON see Kim Knott, "Healing the Heart of ISKCON: The Place of Women," in The Hare Krishna Movement: The Post-Charismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant, edited by Edwin F. Bryant and Maria L. Ekstrand (New York, 2004). The Bryant and Ekstrand book is remarkable in the scope and coherence of its essays and for its inclusion of insiders' and outsiders' perspectives. For an insider's report on the way that ISKCON has responded to many of its growth pains and crises in the 1970s and 1980s, see Nori J. Muster, Betrayal of the Spirit (Chicago, 2001). For a good example of the institutionalization and "Hinduization" of ISKCON, see Malory Nye, Multiculturalism and Minority Religions in Britain: Krishna Consciousness, Religious Freedom, and the Politics of Location (Richmond, U.K., 2001).

Larry D. Shinn (1987 and 2005)

International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)

views updated May 21 2018

International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)

Hindu bhakti yoga religious group. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was founded in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), who migrated to the United States at the age of 70, soon after the passing of new immigration laws allowing the migration of Asians into America. During his adult life as a businessman, Prabhupada was initiated into Krishna Consciousness as a member of the Guadiya Matha Mission in Calcutta. Krishna Consciousness is a popular term given the revival movement founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534?), who taught intense devotion to the deity Krishna. Devotional activity was centered upon public dancing and chanting and temple worship before the statues of Krishna. Most characteristic of the movement was the repetition of the Hare Krishna mantra:

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

In traditional Hindu teachings, Krishna and Rama are avataras, or incarnations of the god Vishnu, and those who worship Vishnu as their primary deity are called Vaishnavas (one of the three large religious groups in India). Bhakti yoga is the name given to the practice of following a path to God primarily through devotional activity.

Prabhupada was told by his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Goswami, to prepare himself to take Krishna devotion to the West. Krishna Consciousness had actually been introduced into the United States soon after the beginning of the twentieth century by another teacher from Bengal, Baba Bharati, but his organization died out soon after he returned to India. Soon after his arrival, Prabhupada began anew the task of introducing Krishna Consciousness to Westerners. He settled in New York City and soon established a following among young people, many of whom had flocked to New York as part of the social upheaval of the sixties. He had already published translations of the first three volumes of the Bhagavad Purana, and soon after he developed a following he published other important books of the tradition, the Bhagavad-gita As-It-Is and the Caitanya-caritamrita.

The groups became well known in the early 1970s. Members adopted Indian garb and attracted attention on the street, dancing, chanting, and distributing literature. As the anticult movement developed in the mid-1970s, they became a major target of deprogrammings.

In the early 1970s Prabhupada appointed a governing body commission (GBC) to manage his growing international society and to oversee ISKCON after his death. The GBC was made up of the initiating gurus who had been installed in the various areas to which the movement had spread, as well as other prominent leaders. Through the 1980s it had to deal with attacks on the movement from outside as well as internal disputes over successorship. Several top leaders of the society, who were serving as gurus after Prabhupada's death, gave up their vows which caused significant turmoil within ISKCON as well as public embarrassment. The guru of a large Krishna community in West Virginia, Kirtananda Swami, was excommunicated from ISKCON for ethical and religious violations in 1986, and was later jailed for federal crimes.

In the early 1990s the community had a multimillion dollar judgment (awarded at the height of the anticult struggles) overturned and then settled out of court. The judgment in the Robin George case had threatened to close several temples in the US and Canada. In the meantime, the movement spread internationally and now has centers in more than eighty countries. In the United States it has three thousand core members, full-time Krishna devotees, but is also supported by many thousands of congregational members, approximately half of whom are within the Indian American community.

Nominal headquarters from what has become a decentralized movement is at the ISKCON International Communications Office, 10310 Oaklyn Dr., Potomac, Maryland, 20854. Its primary magazine, Back to Godhead, can be reached at P.O. Box 430, Alachua, Florida, 32616. Website:


Gelberg, Steven, ed. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. New York: Grove Press, 1983.

Knott, Kim. My Sweet Lord. Wellingsborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1986.

Prabhupada, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. New York: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972.

International Society for Krishna Consciousness

views updated May 11 2018

International Society for Krishna Consciousness

Standing at the forefront of the contemporary emergence of Eastern religions in North America, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness was the first of the Asian religious groups to form in the wake of the changes in 1965 in the U.S. immigration laws allowing more Asians to immigrate to the United States. The society was founded by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977), who in the mature stage of his life was responding to the admonition of his teacher to bring the popular Bengalee Vaiṣṇava Hinduism, as taught by the Guadiya Mission, to the West. His arrival coincided with the coming of age of the baby boom generation and the emergence of the psychedelic street people subculture in America. He spoke directly to the subculture participants, offering them a means of getting high through meditation and chanting rather than taking drugs, and the overwhelming majority of people who joined were former drug users.

Swami Prabhupada taught a form of Vaiṣṇava practice that had been spread through Bengal by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534) and that offered freedom from this world's situation through adoption of the renounced life as a sanyassin, devotional service in a temple setting, and the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. The mantra was repeated as a prayer to Krishna, the Supreme Deity conceived as a personal God. When done while dancing and accompanying music, chanting lifted the believer into a transcendent consciousness.

Youthful male believers shaved their heads and adopted the saffron robe identifying themselves as monks. Devotees lived communally in Krishna temples; and supported the work of translating, printing, and distributing the books of their teacher through begging on the streets and in airports. In the early 1970s their lifestyle became one of the major targets of parental criticism, and the society was branded as a "cult." During the 1980s the society was one of the groups facing multiple deprogrammings and a major court case that threatened to wipe out much of the movement when it resulted in a multimillion-dollar judgment for brainwashing a member (later overturned on appeal). In the midst of the anti-cult controversy, the movement suffered from the defection of one of its more conservative gurus, Swami Bhaktipada, who had oversight of the centers in West Virginia and Ohio. Swami Bhaktipada became involved in illegal activities and was eventually convicted for ordering the death of an ex-member.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, as the brainwashing controversy was laid to rest in the courts, the movement spread internationally under the guidance of the Governing Body Commission, which had assumed authority in the movement following Swami Prabhupada's death, and a set of new gurus who assumed spiritual authority in different parts of the globe. Their support in North America was greatly expanded by the adherence of thousands of first-generation Indian Americans who found in the Hare Krishna temples the best representation of their religion in the West.

With their first-generation problems behind them, and with centers in more than sixty countries, the Krishnas have found their place in America's multi-religious landscape.

See alsoAnti-Cult Movement; Belonging, Religious; Brainwashing; Chanting; Conversion; Cult; Cult Awareness Network; Freedomof Religion; Guru; Hinduism; Meditation; Music; New Religious Movements; Proselytizing; Religious Communities; Transcendence; Transcendental Meditation.


Bromley, David G., and Larry D. Shinn, eds. KrishnaConsciousness in the West. 1989.

Prabhupada, Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta. Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. 1972.

Shinn, Larry D. The Dark Lord:ImagesoftheHareKrishna in America. 1987.

J. Gordon Melton

International Society for Krishna Consciousness

views updated May 17 2018

International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). A Hindu devotional movement, commonly known as Hare Krishna, founded in the USA in 1965 by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977), a devotee of Kṛṣṇa. It is in the tradition of Caitanya. The movement's principal aim is to lead people, living in this demonic age, the age of Kaliyuga, to attain salvation in the form of permanent Krishna-consciousness by the Way of Bhakti-yoga, the highest of the three Ways of Knowledge, Works, and Devotion. The Mahāmantra is: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna; Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama; Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare. The devotees are vivid and obvious on the streets, in white or saffron robes (for men), and in coloured saris (for women), dancing and singing to traditional instruments.

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International Society for Krishna Consciousness