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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Symbolism

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

As any visitor to one of its temples knows, ISKCON is a very visual tradition. This follows the Hindu tradition of darshan ("seeing"), or observance of the divine. During darshan the devotee looks upon the divine, and the divine reciprocates by looking back onto the devotee. Traditionally darshan occurs in a temple, shrine, or home altar through the use of a murti, a physical manifestation of the divine. In the case of ISKCON, devotees attend temple to engage in darshan, but because they seek to surround themselves with images of Krishna, they seek to transform life into a prolonged experience of darshan.

Every temple features a central altar that includes images Krishna in one or more of his avatar forms, and probably his consort Radha as well. Such images, called murtis, function as embodiments of the divine on earth. In keeping with a broader Hindu understanding of divine immanence, Hare Krishna devotees believe that Krishna has become present in such images so that worshippers might gaze upon him, treat him with respect and love, and show other forms of devotion. Temple images follow very specific patterns of artistry and representation, always portraying Krishna in certain traditional manners. One common form is that of Krishna as flute-playing lad, attracting the gopis with his irresistible music. Such an image is often paired with Radha, the radiant cowherd girl who devotees understand as the energy (shakti) of Krishna as well as his most beloved consort.

Devotees often utilize such images outside of temples in the form of paintings, stickers, tattoos, and posters. Unlike temple images, which require a ceremony of "awakening" that requests the deity to become present in them, such images are not ritually equivalent to murtis. Yet they serve an important role in identifying a space (or body, in the case of tattoos) as marked by Krishna. Along similar lines, the words of the mahamantra serve a similar purpose, either written in Devanagari (the alphabet of Sanskrit), or transliterated into English. ISKCON's Bhaktivedanta Book Trust manufactures and sells a variety of such materials, including posters, postcards, and t-shirts.

Images of ISKCON founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta also serve as important symbols in the movement. Altars nearly always include photographs of Bhaktivedanta, but most temples also feature a life-size statue of the late founder seated in a short "guru throne," called a vyasasan, opposite the main altar. Devotees use this image, properly called a murti, during rituals celebrating the guru. Yet outside of such ceremonial use, the image of Prabhupada has come a common one representing ISKCON in print media, the Internet, and material culture.

Though images of the divine and the guru serve central theological roles in the Hare Krishna movement, the clothing and adornments of devotees exert a powerful influence on popular portrayals of ISKCON. Bhaktivedanta uniformly directed female devotees to wear saris and males to wear dhotis, the traditional clothing of Indian Gaudiya Vaishnavas. Additionally, he instructed them to carry cloth bags to hold their mala beads, the wooden rosary beads used to count repetitions of the mahamantra.

 
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