Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) is a monotheistic branch of the Hindu tradition founded in 1966 by the A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1896-1977), also called Prabhupada by members of the group. The movement traces its roots to a 16th-century saint and religious reformer named Chaitanya (1486-1533), founder of the Gaudiya Vaishnava school. In keeping with the teachings of Chaitanya, ISKCON devotees exclusively worship the God Krishna, whom they consider the "Supreme Personality of Godhead." Chaitanya aimed to reform the worship of Vishnu, emphasizing devotional service and ecstatic worship, and deemphasizing brahmanic orthodoxy and caste restrictions. While Hindus broadly consider Chaitanya a saint, the Gaudiya tradition that he founded looks to him as a divine incarnation of Krishna.
A sannyasi, or monk, within the Gaudiya school, Bhaktivedanta traveled to the United States of America in 1965 in order to spread the worship of Krishna to an English-speaking audience. In doing so, Bhaktivedanta followed the instructions of his own guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati (1874-1937), who had directed Bhaktivedanta to engage in English-language preaching. A graduate of the colonial British educational system in India, Bhaktivedanta spoke and wrote fluent English. He left for the United States with almost no possessions save a trunk of books -- his self-published translations of a Gaudiya sacred scripture, the Bhagavata Purana (Bhagavatam).
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada arrived in New York City (after a brief stop in Boston, Massachusetts) on September 17, 1965, and immediately began acculturating himself to the United States. Though he had initially expected to reach out to the best-educated Americans of higher social status, instead Bhaktivedanta found a receptive audience in Manhattan of hippies, beatniks, dropouts, and other members of the American counterculture. A charismatic speaker, as well as the bearer of what seemed to the hippies as an exotic yet authentic spiritual tradition, over the next two years the swami attracted the attention of hundreds of these young men and women, some of whom became his disciples.
With the aid of several dozen young devotees, Bhaktivedanta was able to secure a storefront on the Lower East Side, near the heart of the thriving New York counterculture. There he lectured on the nature of Krishna and his worship, disseminated free Vaishnava literature, conducted worship, and worked on translating the sacred texts at the center of the Gaudiya school into English. On July 13, 1966, Bhaktivedanta incorporated the International Society for Krishna Consciousness as a non-profit organization in the State of New York.
Less than a year after his arrival in New York, Bhaktivedanta initiated his first disciples as devotees. These young men and women were the first Westerners to take formal initiation into the Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage on American soil. As initiated members of the lineage, they promised to engage in specific acts of worship, but also to assist their spiritual master, or guru, in spreading Krishna Consciousness throughout the world. Immediately, a group of these devotees left for San Francisco, the West Coast center of the American counterculture, while others departed for Montréal, Canada, and then for Europe -- beginning in Germany, France, and England -- to spread their movement overseas. Within five years of his penniless arrival in New York City, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada oversaw an international network of Krishna devotees, including a book-publishing wing, a magazine, a half dozen temples and worship centers, and a rural commune in West Virginia.