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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

By the 1980s, academic studies of ISKCON began to focus more in the specific issues within the movement. E. Burke Rochford, Jr., Kim Knott, and Larry D. Shinn each authored books on the Hare Krishna movement, and while fitting the movement within the rubric of new religious movement, these scholars paid greater attention to the details of the group, including its history and theology, as well as broader sociological issues. Since Bhaktivedanta died in 1977, many such studies considered the radical changes that the passing of leadership effected, while others paid greater attention to the tension between ISKCON and society.  Still others focused on the emergence of family life and related transformations as ISKCON increasingly became a congregationally-based movement.

By the turn of the century, scholars had recognized that the Hare Krishna movement was no longer only a NRM. It had attracted a sizable number of members from the Indian diasporic community as well as developed a notable presence in India, where the group's theology was hardly considered novel, and its attraction had little to do with the counterculture. New scholarship considered the "Indianization" of ISKCON, and focused on the group as a religious transplant rather than a new religious movement. Edwin F. Bryant and Maria L. Ekstrand's 2004 anthology, The Hare Krishna Movement: the Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant made this approach explicit, and E. Burke Rochford, Jr.'s newest work on ISKCON, Hare Krishna Transformed (2007) also focuses on such themes. This new wave of scholarship emphasizes ISKCON's continuity with Gaudiya Vaishnavism rather than the innovative work of Bhaktivedanta and his disciples in appealing to a Western audience.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why was ISKCON one of several new religious movements to spread simultaneously within the West?
     2.    How was ISKCON similar to the other new religious movements?
     3.    Why was ISKCON perceived as a cult?
     4.    How did the “Indianization” of ISKCON change its discourse amongst scholars?


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