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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

As part of their initiation ceremony marking them as Krishna Conscious devotees, individuals take two vows. First, they vow to chant sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mahamantra, a task that takes anywhere from forty-five minutes to two hours. But also, devotees vow to adhere to the four regulative principles of ISKCON, which are the prohibition against eating animal flesh or eggs, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sexual activities.

Many outside of the movement are aware of ISKCON's eating prohibitions through the several vegetarian Hare Krishna cookbooks that the group has published. Over the past thirty years non-devotees have used recipes from A Higher Taste, Lord Krishna's Cuisine, and The Hare Krishna Book of Vegetarian Cooking, all of which have been sold at health food stores, New Age shops, and even mainstream bookstores. Yet Hare Krishna devotees understand vegetarianism as far more than a health issue. The underlying logic behind ISKCON's prohibition against eating meat and eggs is that such activities would harm spiritual life, since the killing of animals displeases Krishna. In addition to following the will of Krishna, ISKCON devotees understand vegetarianism as in keeping with the laws of karma and a philosophical opposition to the taking of animal life.

The Bhagavata Purana describes Krishna as a protector of cows and a lover of wildlife, and therefore the Vaishnava tradition has taken this text as evidence to support a vegetarian diet. Because of the textual evidence supporting Krishna as enjoying dairy products, as well as Indian dietary norms, ISKCON does not extend its opposition to the eating of animal flesh to all animal products. The movement therefore encourages the protection of dairy cows and their humane treatment, and permits the use of dairy products. In keeping with the dietary norms of brahmanical Hinduism, the movement rejects the consumption of eggs, whether fertilized or not, which it considers a meat product, as well as garlic and onions, which are considered spiritually unsettling, though this latter proscription is less a matter of morality.

The second ISKCON regulative principle requires abstention from gambling. The movement defines gambling in the narrow sense to include card-playing, dice games, lotteries, casino games, wagers, and bets. A Hare Krishna devotee avoids all such activities. Though the movement offers numerous pragmatic reasons to refrain from gambling, the foundation of the group's opposition is theological. All gambling involves a player seeking to beat the odds. Yet "the odds," that is the natural laws and their repercussions, have been set by Krishna. To attempt to circumvent them or take advantage of them implies a willingness to challenge the natural order of the cosmos as defined by Krishna.