Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
The sacred centers of ISKCON are the temples, of which more than three hundred exist. In addition to the temples, ISKCON operates over fifty farms and rural retreats. Of these religious centers, those in global capitals and major cities serve the most important institutional roles. The movement's major gurus, many of whom also serve on the movement's Governing Body Commission, hold "pulpits" at these temples.
Hare Krishna temples serve the central function of holding images of the deities, always Krishna but nearly always Radha as well. Like other Hindus, ISKCON devotees believe that the gods show grace to humanity by allowing them to worship material images crafted in their forms. As such the images are more than representations or symbols; they are actually Krishna or Radha and are treated as such. Such images, which in ISKCON are normally anthropomorphic sculptures, permit devotees to look upon the physical form of the divine as they make offerings and perform other forms of worship, such as song and dance. They also allow devotees to engage in higher rasas (modes of devotion), such as bathing, cleaning, fanning, and clothing the deities. While some ISKCON devotees might install smaller shrines for Krishna at their homes, generally they seek temples in order to engage in group worship alongside other devotees.
In addition to temples, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness also operates several rural communes and farms. The most famous of these, New Vrindaban in West Virginia (USA), serves as a retreat center for ISKCON devotees, as well as a location for festivals, conferences, and meetings. Since Hare Krishna theology considers cows to be sacred animals, and highly values the keeping of dairy cows, many of these rural centers operate as farms as well. Often they adopt older dairy cows from non-ISKCON facilities so as to provide a humane life to the animals.
Though most of ISKCON membership lives in the Americas and Europe, in keeping with its Hindu origin the movement looks to India as its spiritual center. ISKCON holds the ancient Vedic texts in high regard, and because such texts assume Indian geography and culture, even non-Indian devotees consider India an ideal spiritual location. Additionally, since all of Krishna's avatars appeared in India, the subcontinent represents the sacred space on which God walked. Of all of India, devotees believe that the sites associated with Krishna's pastimes hold special sacredness. Many Hare Krishna devotees try to go on pilgrimage to these sites to experience them directly. It is believed that Krishna rewards devotional acts performed there with special merit.