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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)


Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

Though he passed away in 1977, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada continues to serve a symbolic leadership role. ISKCON devotees consider him "founder-archarya," meaning that he not only created the movement, but served as Vaishnava exemplar and a living saint during his tenure at its head. As the original Hare Krishna guru, all other gurus trace their leadership through him.

Following Bhaktivedanta's death, the GBC established the role of guru as an appointed position. In the language of the sociology of religion, this "institutionalization of charisma" permitted ISKCON to continue as a religious organization. Yet it is not without its problems, or critics. Many of the first generation of gurus demonstrated failures of leadership and morality, and their errors led to distrust of the institution of guru. According to surveys of ISKCON membership, a sizable minority of the movement distrusts both GBC and the current guru system. The persistence of the "ritvik controversy," the view of the gurus as merely stand-ins for the true guru Bhaktivedanta, demonstrates the complexity of the institutionalization of charisma.

Most gurus operate out of one of ISKCON's larger and more established temples as a home base, but they also travel to smaller communities to offer periodical instructions and initiations. This practice has opened the door for community members to exert leadership during the times in which the guru is not present. Temple presidents, which have always existed within the structure and are usually longtime congregational members, have often filled the void. Such individuals offer lectures, lead classes, and function as community leaders, and represent one of the most important manners in which women and non-celibate men can lead their communities.

Study Questions:
     1.    What is the GBC? How does it influence ISKCON?
     2.    Who has more influence upon ISKCON devotees: the GBC, or the gurus? Why?
     3.    How has ISKCON become institutionalized? Why has this been problematic?