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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Sacred Texts

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

The Bhagavatam holds an equally important place for members of ISKCON, since this multi-volume text describes the pastimes in which Krishna engaged during his earthly incarnations. The text chronicles the avatar forms that Vishnu has taken throughout time, with special attention to that of Krishna, whom ISKCON devotees understand as the ultimate name and personality of Vishnu. The tenth book details the life of Krishna himself, particularly his playful pastimes (lila), which include his childhood and relationship with his mother, his youthful adventures of fighting demons and saving innocents, his playful games with friends and companions, and his loving play with the gopis, the cowherd girls who most commentators interpret as representing the ideal devotees.

ISKCON devotees utilize the Bhagavatam as a source of inspirational stories about Krishna, particularly as a guide in how to relate to God. Since the text describes Krishna's various relationships, it offers multiple examples of how a person might show devotion to him. For example, devotees seek to follow the example of the gopis, who followed Krishna's every move and request, sometimes ignoring social strictures to do so. This intense devotionalism provides one basis for ISKCON's willingness to ignore Western social and religious conventions.

Though numerous translations and editions of these texts exist, ISKCON members exclusively utilize those produced by their movement's founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, which they consider the most accurate and edifying versions. Bhaktivedanta's translations of the two texts also contain extensive commentary, material that is almost as valuable to ISKCON members as the ancient text itself, since they understand Bhaktivedanta's commentary as offering the means by which modern people can understand these ancient writings.

Bhaktivedanta's translation and commentary of the Bhagavadgita, published as The Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, is the single book that nearly every ISKCON devotee has read, and in many cases it has served as an entrée into the movement. During the late 1960s and 1970s, ISKCON devotees often distributed the text on college campuses, at airports, and in public parks. They engaged in this practice as a form of sankirtan, or public spreading of Krishna Consciousness, as well as a means of gaining donations to support their cause. Printings of Bhaktivedanta's translations of Bhagavatam, including Krsna (an excerpt of the longer work) and the complete Srimad-Bhagavatam also served the same function.

Though ISKCON devotees do not consider them sacred texts per say, the collected writings, lectures, and notes produced by Prabhupada and his direct disciples serve as guides to the practice of Krishna Consciousness. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust has published several hundred editions in numerous languages of these texts in paper and digital formats, and the study of them -- along with Bhaktivedanta's translations of the Gaudiya sacred texts -- occupies an important part of the lives of many devotees.

Study Questions:
     1.    What scriptures have authority to the followers of ISKCON?
     2.    Describe the plot of the Bhagavadgita and the Mahabharata. Why are they important to ISKCON followers?
     3.    What is the Bhagavatam? How is it used?
     4.    What was Bhaktivedanta's role in the spreading of these texts?


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