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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Early Developments

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

ISKCON originated as a new religious movement centered on the preaching of its charismatic leader, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Prabhupada's death on November 14, 1977 shook the very nature of the movement, catapulting some of his disciples into the role of gurus. Some of these new gurus performed admirably, seeking to hold the group together and continue the work of ISKCON's founder. Others, however, lacked leadership skills or the strength of character to serve a lifetime as celibate monastics.

Already in his 70s by the time ISKCON had established itself as an international religious movement, Bhaktivedanta had prepared his disciples for their transition to becoming gurus by assigning them a variety of leadership roles. Even before his death, Bhaktivedanta's Western converts ran the group's book publishing arm, wrote and edited the movement's Back to Godhead magazine, served as temple presidents, and oversaw growth of the movement into new regions. Though few possessed any training in running a multinational institution, religious or otherwise, through on-the-job experience these disciples -- mostly young men whom Bhaktivedanta had attracted out of the hippie subculture -- slowly trained themselves as religious bureaucrats.

Prabhupada's passing left three distinct groups at the helm of the movement, each comprised almost exclusively of the Hare Krishna movement's elite:  male devotees who had taken the sannyasi vows of renunciation, eschewing family, friends, and wealth in order to focus exclusively on the work of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The first of these new leaders were the trustees of the movement's trusts and independently incorporated divisions. Foremost of these, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust owned the copyrights on Bhaktivedanta's translations and commentaries on the Bhagavadgita and Bhagavata Purana, and his many other writings. Because ISKCON's main revenue source derived from the sale of books, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust became one of the more powerful institutions in the post-Prabhupada era, and its trustees and editors exerted heightened influence over the movement.

Yet the most important institution to emerge to lead ISKCON was the Governing Body Commission (GBC), a group that Bhaktivedanta established before his death in order to oversee the worldly affairs of the movement, including its recruitment efforts, finances, and political decisions regarding the group's future. Comprised originally of twelve senior male devotees, by the time of Bhaktivedanta's death, the GBC had expanded to eighteen members, all of them male and most of them celibate. In his will, Bhaktivedanta charged the GBC to not only oversee ISKCON, but to serve as his successor and its leader.

During his protracted illness shortly before his death, Bhaktivedanta also appointed eleven senior male devotees -- all celibates who had taken the sannyasi vows of renunciation -- as what he called "ritviks," a technical Sanskrit term for officiating priests. The precise history and details are a matter of debate within ISKCON, with some schools of thought believing that Prabhupada meant for these ritviks to serve only in his stead during Prabhupada's illness, and others believing that the founder intended them to become full-fledged gurus after his death. The latter approach won the day, and after 1977, these eleven gurus assumed the religious leadership of the Hare Krishna movement.


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