History of ISKCON

International Society for Krishna Consciousness

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), known colloquially as the Hare Krishna movement or Hare Krishnas, is a Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu religious organisation. ISKCON was founded in 1966 in New York City by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada known to his followers as Guru and spiritual master. Its core beliefs are said to be based on select Hindu scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana, and 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. In West Virginia, the Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold is now a shrine for the founder, who died in 1977.

The movement has been the subject of controversies. It is labelled a sect by many anti-cult organizations, but the New York State Supreme Court considers it as a “bonafide religion”. ISKON also faced multiple accusations of child abuse, that its leaders acknowledged.

The organization was formed to spread the practice of Bhakti yoga, in which those involved (bhaktas) dedicate their thoughts and actions towards pleasing Krishna, their Supreme Lord. Its most rapid expansions in membership as of 2007 have been within India and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the ex-Soviet aligned states of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. 

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 the Gauda 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 scriptures of ISKCON.

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 a monotheistic tradition which has its roots in the theistic Vedanta traditions.

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 the founder. Both of these activities are known within the movement as Sankirtan. 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 areas, 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. 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.

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.