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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

The failure of the gurukulas coincided with wider financial problems within ISKCON in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As temples closed many devotees found themselves thrust into the outside world. This combined with the steady increase in the number of married couples, leading to a dramatic shift from a temple-based movement wherein members lived communally to a congregational one wherein devotees, whether single or married, tend to live independently away from the temples.

This transformation led ISKCON's leaders to radically rethink the nature of the movement, remaking what had been a communal, countercultural, radical new religion of the 1960s into a family-centered, congregational religious group that catered to people who lived in the broader society. Though the Hare Krishnas have retained a sectarian opposition to wider Western culture, the movement radically reduced tension with the outside world. Instead of Indian clothing such as saris and dotis, devotees began wearing clothing more typical of the mainstream culture in which they lived and worked. Members began consuming mainstream movies, television, and books, and their children attend public schools.

At the same time that ISKCON matured in North America and western Europe, an entirely new avenue for spreading Krishna Consciousness appeared with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the breakup of the Soviet Union, as well as increased globalization that has made travel and communication through the world more accessible and inexpensive. Consequently, although ISKCON numbers have remained relatively stable in North America and western Europe owing to the involvement of immigrant Indian-Hindus, the movement has experienced most of its growth in post-Soviet Russia and eastern Europe, Africa, and South America.

Because ISKCON has centralized authority in the Governing Body Commission and its many traveling gurus, the various regions demonstrate a remarkable degree of theological consistency. However, the arrival of many new foreign devotees into the temples of what had been the geographic center of the movement -- North America and western Europe -- led to dramatic shifts in the public face of ISKCON, especially when combined with the increased "Indianization" of the group.

Study Questions:
     1.    How did the age of ISKCON's participants influence its success?
     2.    What was the gurukula system? Why was it developed, and why did it fail?
     3.    What global developments led to the spread of ISKCON? Why was it able to have theological consistency within this spread?


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