Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness represents a case study in the transition of a new religious movement from a highly sectarian group -- what sociologists of religion call a sect -- to one in far less tension with both its mother tradition and broader society, namely a church or denomination, as sociologists call it. ISKCON has partially undergone this transition because of its shift toward congregational members and its aging demographic, but the greatest force has been the slow drift within the movement toward identifying with Indians and Hinduism. As scholar of ISKCON E. Burke Rochford Jr. noted in his 2007 book on the movement, in many of its North American and British centers, ISKCON has become "a Hindu denomination."
Because of its heritage in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, ISKCON has always possessed a natural affinity for Hinduism. In India, most Hindus consider ISKCON a subtradition of the broader Hindu religion. Hindus of all stripes accept Krishna as a deity, and Gaudiya Vaishnavism's sacred texts are recognized as sacred by other Hindus as well. Yet even in India, Gaudiya Vaishnavas demonstrate a sectarian tendency to focus exclusively on the worship of Krishna. ISKCON's founder Bhaktivedanta was notorious for his rejection of the worship of what he called the "demigods" -- namely the other gods worshipped by Hindus -- and for arguing for the primacy of Gaudiya philosophy, texts, and rituals.
In its worldwide diaspora, ISKCON initially followed its founder's lead in identifying itself as something other than Hinduism. Bhaktivedanta strongly differentiated Krishna Consciousness from Hinduism, arguing that ISKCON represented an ultimate truth that transcended its origin. Most of Prabhupada's initial converts adopted this perspective, and it its first decade ISKCON officially distanced itself from the label of Hinduism, despite the group's clear origin in Hinduism and identity in India as a Hindu sect.
ISKCON made tentative outreach to other Hindus beginning in the mid 1970s, primarily in response to persecution. When faced by hostile critics accusing ISKCON of being a cult, and its devotees as brainwashed, the Hare Krishnas looked to Indian Hindus to garner support in defending the movement as a real religion. Such outreach was sporadic and always limited to particular instances of persecution, but it did lay the groundwork for the later engagement with broader Hinduism.
Beginning in the 1980s, two factors led to the movement's shift toward identifying itself as a Hindu denomination. The first resulted from a series of financial woes experienced by the organization as many of its fulltime members started families and shifted toward congregational living. This resulted in fewer devotees dedicated exclusively to fundraising, preaching, and maintaining the institutional bureaucracy. Upkeep on the movement's aging infrastructure, costs associated with a series of court battles, and declining revenues from book sales led ISKCON to seek financial resources from Indian Hindus. In doing so, ISKCON permitted these Indian Hindus greater say in the workings of the movement. In 1991, these Hindu donors created the ISKCON Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing Indian Hindus engagement with ISKCON and providing financial support to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.