Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
ISKCON's community organization is best understood as a series of concentric circles, with the temple at the absolute center. Radiating out from the temple with increasing metaphoric distance are full-time residents of temples, ISKCON-initiated congregational members, non-initiated congregational members, and frequent visitors.
Though ISKCON's temples undoubtedly serve as ceremonial and ritual centers for the movement, they also function as the center of community organization. With few exceptions, members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness live within easy driving distance of a temple, and have chosen to do so intentionally. The movement operates over three hundred temples, spread over every continent except Antarctica, and in most major cities around the globe. It also operates several dozen farming communities and rural communes, which generally function as temple equivalents for purposes of community organization.
In addition to their unmistakable place at the heart of ISKCON's deity worship ceremonies, temples host reading groups, lectures, workshops, and presentations on issues pertinent to Krishna Consciousness. Often they host regular weekly community programs. The most common such programs are lectures, discussions, and classes on the sacred texts of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, notably the Bhagavadgita and Bhagavata Purana. Classes always use the translations and commentaries prepared by founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, which ISKCON devotees consider more reliable and accessible than all other translations. In some cases classes take the form of lectures by gurus (spiritual teachers), and in other cases leading members of the community offer the classes. Depending on the style of the teacher and the norms of a particular temple, sessions might also take the form of discussion. In the United States, temples also host programs on Krishna Conscious parenting, finance, and other topics of relevance to the mostly-congregational members of the community.
The Hare Krishna devotees who live in temple communities serve as the metaphoric center of ISKCON communities. Such individuals are always initiated devotees who have vowed to obey ISKCON's regulatory principles and engage in acts of religious devotion to Krishna. They generally fall into one of two categories: celibate students (brahmacharis [male] or bramacharinis [female]), or celibate renunciates (sannyasis). Sannyasis, or monks, serve as the highest leaders of ISKCON, both of individual communities and the broader movement. They are the spiritual teachers, or gurus, who offer instruction on Krishna Consciousness, initiate new devotees, and in many cases make the central decisions for the organization. In keeping with the Bengali Hindu norms with which Bhaktivedanta was familiar, all sannyasis are male. In the early days of ISKCON, most males endeavored to become sannyasis, and often did so after only a few years in the movement. Many, however, proved unable to maintain their vows and fell from their positions. Today, the sannyasi role is reserved for fewer individuals with longer histories in the movement who understand the ramifications of a life-long vow of celibacy and religious devotion.