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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Sacred Space

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

Chief among those sites, Vrindaban, the birthplace of Krishna and location of his childhood adventures, serves as the most important pilgrimage site in the ISKCON movement. Approximately eighty miles south of Delhi, Vrindaban has benefited from several decades of ISKCON development. It holds the religious retreat where Swami Prabhupada lived before journeying to America, as well as a museum dedicated to his life. In addition to an ISKCON temple itself, Vrindaban features six other temples maintained by other Vaishnava lineages. Devotees visit the temples and worship Krishna by venerating the images installed there.

Of nearly equal value to Vrindaban, the Indian city of Mayapur holds numerous sites associated with Sri Chaitanya, the 16th-century Indian saint who founded the Gaudiya Vaishnava school, and whom ISKCON recognizes as an avatar of Krishna. Eighty miles north of Calcutta, Hare Krishna pilgrims visit Mayapur in order to experience the locations where Chaitanya was born and preached, and those places associated with his disciples. In addition to the temples dedicated to Chaintanya, Mayapur holds shrines to Bhaktivedanta, who is buried here, and his predecessors in the Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage. Hare Krishna pilgrims visiting Mayapur often follow a predetermined pilgrimage route to the sacred sites utilized by other Vaishnava pilgrims, in addition to visiting the shrines specific to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. ISKCON has built its world headquarters in Mayapur and is currently planning a massive temple complex that the movement claims will be the largest Indian temple built in the past two centuries when it is completed.

Hare Krishna pilgrims visiting India often also visit a third site, the city of Puri along India's East Coast. Puri is the center of the worship of Lord Jagannath, an alternative form of Krishna, and holds the most important temple dedicated to the worship of Jagannath. Puri hosts the original Ratha-Yatra or chariot festival, and devotees seek to visit during this festival, held in midsummer, and worship at the major Puri temples. Additionally, ISKCON devotees visit sites associated with Chaitanya, who spent much of his lifetime in Puri.

Though ISKCON generally looks to the geography of India in its marking of sacred space, in their daily lives devotees also signify their own bodies as sacred through the use of tilaka, marks made of sacred clay that members apply to their bodies. As part of their morning purifying rituals, and sometimes also before attending communal worship, both male and female devotees apply twelve tilaka marks to their bodies. As they do so, they repeat holy mantras, marking the body part as sacred and dedicated to the worship of Krishna. These twelve sites -- the forehead, stomach, chest, throat, side (right and left), arm (right and left), shoulder (right and left), and back (upper and lower) -- create a sacred space within the body, and helps individual ISKCON devotees understand themselves as sacred beings.

Study Questions:
     1.    What are the sacred centers for ISKCON followers?
     2.    Do ISKCON temples encourage idolatry? Why or why not?
     3.    How are pilgrimage sites determined? Which spaces are most important?
     4.    How does the body engage the sacred?