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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

Following Bhaktivedanta's death and under the direction of the GBC, these eleven ritviks transitioned into the role of actual gurus, and began initiating disciples under their own names, taking students who considered them their spiritual masters rather than Bhaktivedanta. They also established what became known as the zonal archarya system wherein each guru managed a geographic region as sole religious and temporal leader. After the termination of the zonal archarya system in the 1980s, another system of multiple independent gurus replaced it.

The ritvik controversy emerged when a significant number of ISKCON devotees rejected the authority of the eleven men to serve as gurus, and instead believed them to be ritviks, capable of preaching and teaching Krishna Consciousness, but serving only as intermediaries to the ultimate guru authority, Bhaktivedanta. Each side of the ritvik controversy was able to offer scriptural, theological, and historical evidence to support its contentions, and though the ISKCON governance rejected ritvikism, a significant number of devotees embraced it.

In the late 1990s, ritvik supporters formed the ISKCON Revival Movement, a group that seeks to replace ISKCON's current guru model with a ritvik-based one. The group has attracted the interest of substantial numbers of ISKCON devotees. According to some recent surveys, about one quarter of ISKCON's full-time adherents and half of its congregational members agree that Prabhupada wanted the appointed ritvik gurus to continue as ritviks after his death.  Many devotees who support ritvikism remain within ISKCON, but significant numbers have left the International Society and now practice their Krishna Consciousness at home or in small gatherings of like-minded disciples. The ISKCON Revival Movement currently publishes an alternative magazine, entitled Back to Prabhupada, a name that reveals their attachment to the historical origin of ISKCON, even while rejecting the institution.

Though far fewer in numbers than either the divisions over other Gaudiya gurus or ritvikism, ISKCON has also experienced schisms when its gurus have formed alternative sectarian groups. Most notable of these is the City of God movement formed by Kirtanananda Swami, also known as Bhaktipada (1937-). One of the original eleven gurus named by Bhaktivedanta, Kirtanananda led the largest ISKCON residential center in North America, the rural West Virginia agricultural commune of New Vrindaban. In 1986, Kirtanananda declared that the community would henceforth be called New Vrindaban City of God, which he dedicated to interfaith religious work. Introducing Christian worship and icons into his religious community, Kirtanananda attempted to fuse Vaishnava and Christian practices. ISKCON expelled the swami and his followers, and his movement subsequently collapsed under accusations of racketeering, conspiracy to murder, and child molestation. Kirtanananda's movement still exists, though with only a handful of members in India and Pakistan. New Vrindaban reverted to normative ISKCON worship and theology in 1994 and was formally re-admitted to ISKCON in 1998.

Study Questions:
     1.    Describe the relationship between Bhaktivedanta's death and the schisms of ISKCON.
     2.    Who was Goswami, and how did he contribute to ISCKON's first official schism?
     3.    What was the ritvik controversy about?
     4.    What sect did Kirtanananda Swami create? Why did it fail?


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