Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
While most congregational members perform their daily devotions at home, the majority also attends weekly communal worship, generally held at ISKCON temples on Sunday evenings. During its explosive phase of growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such Sunday gatherings served as one of the main ways of attracting converts. In addition to featuring a complete arti and a lecture from a senior ISKCON member, the Sunday gatherings also include a communal meal. Since a portion of such a meal, called prasadam, has been offered to Krishna, ISKCON considers the eating of this meal a sacred activity, and as such looks to it as both a religious duty and a social activity. In many cases, ISKCON temples call their Sunday programs "Sunday Feasts," indicating the value that they place on the meals as both religious activities, opportunities to attract new members, and solidify social cohesion within the community. In recent years, some ISKCON temples have begun to offer two Sunday programs and feasts, one intended for Indian Hindus and another for non-Indian members and potential converts.
While far less common than Sunday Feasts, numerous holy days, festivals, fasts, and feast days characterize the ISKCON sacred calendar. ISKCON generally follows normative Bengali Vaishnava traditions involving these celebrations. Most important of these are those that celebrate past avatar appearances of Krishna. Many Hare Krishna communities hold their largest gatherings at Janmastami, the birthday of Krishna that occurs in August or September of the Gregorian calendar. The day before Janmastami, devotees engage in a purifying fast, and celebrate the festival itself by worshipping an image of Krishna as an infant. Janmastami celebrations usually attract a sizable number of Indian Hindu attendees, many of which are not ISKCON members but wish to celebrate a holiday popular throughout South India.
Though far smaller than Janmastami, ISKCON also holds festivals to commemorate the appearance (birth) and disappearance (death) of its guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and his predecessors in the Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage. The specifics of each celebration vary depending on the guru, but all include veneration of their images as well as the study of their teachings.
A third major category of ISKCON festivals includes those drawn from the broader Hindu tradition, particularly those that celebrate the pastimes of Krishna or his avatars. One example is the Ratha-Yatra or chariot festival. As an institution, ISKCON owes much to Ratha-Yatra, since the chariot festival served as one of the group's most important public worship occasions during its early days of growth. Its San Francisco and Los Angeles Ratha-Yatra celebrations included massive chariots and hundreds of chanting devotees, and helped introduce Krishna Consciousness and ISKCON to thousands of Americans.
Scholars have noted that recent decades have witnessed Hare Krishna centers increasingly celebrating Hindu holidays outside the Vaishnava tradition. These include pan-Hindu holidays such as Holi, the festival of inversion similar to Mardi Gras or Carnival, and Shiva Ratri, the celebration of the Hindu God Shiva, whom ISKCON devotees consider a demi-god. In many cases, temples host such festivals in order to appeal to their Indian Hindu congregations, who expect such holidays to occur in accordance with Indian norms.
1. What is daily life like in an ISKCON temple?
2. How does ritual influence an ISKCON member's day?
3. Why are there specific rituals associated with the body?
4. Why are Sunday Feasts important to the ISKCON community?
5. What are the major holidays to the ISKCON community? How are they similar?