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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

This is not to say that the Hare Krishna movement does not value the other avatar forms of Vishnu. ISKCON follows the general contours of the broader Hindu tradition in accepting the ten central avatars of Vishnu: Matsya (the fish), Kurma (the tortoise), Varaha (the boar), Narasimha (the lion-man), Vamaha (the dwarf), Parashumara (Rama with an axe), Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and Kalki (the avatar to come). In addition to these ten, ISKCON accepts numerous additional avatars upheld by other Vaishnava traditions, such as Balarama, Nara, and Narayana.

One avatar belief distinguishes ISKCON from all other Vaishnava lineages, save that of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the movement's theological origin. The Hare Krishna movement recognizes the 16th-century reformer Chaitanya (1486-1533) as not only a saint, but a divine avatar. In fact, the movement recognizes Chaitanya as Krishna himself in physical form, taking appearance so as to demonstrate how to devote oneself to God. Since Chaitanya also founded the religious lineage from which ISKCON derived, this belief places Krishna himself at the origin point of the religious movement.

ISKCON devotees also believe that Krishna exists as a binary pairing, that of Krishna and Radha. The Bhagavata Purana and other devotional works portray Radha as the most radiant of the gopis, the cowherd girls who frolicked with Krishna, and his most intimate of companions. On a more cosmic sense, Hare Krishna devotees believe that Radha is both identical and different from Krishna. They are the same since the two together form the singular Krishna, the one God. Yet they are also different, since the two represent the male and female halves of the divine, incomplete without each other. Some ISKCON materials explain this distinction as that between matter and energy. In this reading, Radha represents the energy (shakti) of Krishna, which emanates throughout the universe. For these reasons, Hare Krishna practitioners often worship Krishna in his form as both Krishna and Radha.

Though all devotees place Krishna at the absolute center of their theology, the movement accepts the existence of numerous divine beings called demigods. ISKCON understands these superhuman beings as created by Krishna in order to serve him, and therefore they function as divine paragons of devotion. Generally, ISKCON equates these demigods with the other deities of Hinduism, such as Shiva, Ganesha, and Lakshmi. In its subordination of such deities to the role of devotees of Krishna, ISKCON differentiates from most other forms of the Hindu tradition.  

ISKCON devotees recognizes other monotheists as fellow worshippers of God, but believe that those outside their own lineage lack access to God in his Supreme Personhood of Krishna. As such, other understandings of the divine, e.g., Allah or Jehovah, lack the same transcendental quality as Krishna. Still, the Hare Krishna movement considers other forms of monotheistic religious devotion valid forms of spirituality, albeit lacking the advantages of knowledge of God in his most intimate form.

Study Questions:
     1.    How do avatars allow ISKCON to remain monotheistic?
     2.    How does Maha-Vishnu separate ISKCON from other forms of Hinduism?
     3.    Who is Radha? What is her relationship to Krishna within ISKCON?
     4.    How do ISKCON followers perceive individuals of other religious traditions?


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