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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

The sacred narrative of ISKCON is best encapsulated in the name of the movement's official magazine: Back to Godhead. Hare Krishna devotees believe that Krishna created all life, and that human beings innately desire to return to Krishna, to return to God. ISKCON members believe that the world's religions all attempt to do this, but they maintain that their own Vaishnava tradition offers the best method to do so, since only it teaches the supreme personality of God.

In keeping with its origin within Hinduism, the Hare Krishna movement accepts the general contours of Hinduism's sacred narrative. Like the broader tradition, ISKCON understands the universe as created and destroyed over infinite cyclical of vast cosmic time, called yugas. The present age is that of Kali Yuga, the era of degeneration that marks the end of the current cycle of the cosmos. During this time the human species and human civilization have devolved to such an extent that fewer options exist to return to Godhead. During this age, Hare Krishna devotees believe, the best option is that of devotional service (bhakti) to God, particularly in his true supreme form as Krishna.

ISKCON understands itself as a Vedic movement, in that it places the ancient Indian corpus known as the Vedas at the center of its sacred narrative. Hare Krishna devotees take a slightly broader view of the contents of the Vedic canon than do many other Hindus, including both the Bhagavadgita and Bhagavata Purana as Vedic. Hare Krishnas believe that the Vedas exist in order to help human beings understand the material and spiritual world, to learn about the nature of God, and to discover how to return to Godhead. As such, the Vedas not only contain the sacred narratives of ISKCON, they are part of the sacred narrative itself.

ISKCON holds that Krishna revealed the Vedas to a series of ancient sages (rishis) hundreds of millions of years ago, who then recorded them in the form of the Vedas. Though ISKCON does not consider the Vedas to be word-for-word revelations, it does consider the texts absolutely true and derived from the divine. Devotees focus on the stories and teachings that involve Krishna, or in the case of the earlier Vedic material, Vishnu.

The most important narratives within ISKCON's religious worldview are those found in the Bhagavadgita and Bhagavata Purana. While scholars ascribe a post-Vedic dating for these texts, the texts themselves claim to be ancient, and on this evidence ISKCON has considered both to be Vedic as well. The Bhagavadgita, part of a much longer tale called the Mahabharata, narrates the story of Krishna and his friend and disciple Arjuna. For Hare Krishna devotees it models the manner in which the human being (Arjuna in the text) takes Krishna as his guru and learns transcendental truths from him. Though ISKCON devotees take human beings as their gurus, they understand Arjuna as the originator of the broader Vaishnava sampradaya (lineage of teachers), making Krishna himself the founder of their lineage.