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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Worship and Devotion in Daily Life

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

While the pattern differed during the first decades of the movement's history, during recent years the majority of ISKCON's members are congregation members, meaning that they live as parts of families away from temples and work in jobs unrelated to ISKCON. Although some congregational devotees visit ISKCON temples daily, most do not. Home devotional worship therefore serves as the most common form of daily devotion for Hare Krishna devotees. This excludes fulltime residents in temples, monastics, and students, for whom the rites of temple worship function as their daily worship as well.

Home devotion follows the same patterns as temple worship, though on a smaller scale. Congregational ISKCON devotees utilize a small home altar as part of their daily devotion. Some Hare Krishna members install a small statue of Krishna (or, alternatively, Krishna and his consort Radha) at the center of this altar, but the majority use easily-acquired photographs, prints, or paintings. Altars typically also include images of the ISKCON / Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage, always ISKCON founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and Gaudiya founder Sri Chaitanya, but generally also Bhaktvedanta's guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, and his grand-guru, Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Hare Krishna members typically also include an image of their own spiritual master, the guru who instructed and initiated them into the movement. For the older first generation leaders this is Bhaktivedanta, but obviously this is not the case for new ISKCON converts and second-generation members.

Home devotions follow the same ritual cycle as temple worship, beginning with awakening the deities, cleaning and preparing them, feeding them, and finally putting them to sleep.  Fully engaging in these rites requires a variety of ritual accoutrements, including bells, platters, incense, water, lamps, and other materials. Like temple worship, each activity requires the use of particular mantras (prayers) and calls for specific bhajans (songs) to praise Krishna. While ISKCON upholds the complete ritual cycle as an ideal, many Hare Krishna members engage in more limited worship. Even without access to the complete array of items necessary for deity worship, devotees can engage in the chanting of mantras and singing of bhajans, or songs of praise.

ISKCON has transformed eating, one of the necessary functions of human life and therefore a required daily practice for all people, into a sacred act. After preparing a meal, devotees offer a small portion of it to Krishna, making use of an image at their home altar, either a statue or a two-dimensional image. Devotees believe that the deity then consumes the essence of the food, leaving only the material matter behind as a leftover. These "leftovers," called prasadam, are highly valued as food, since they represent a shared meal with the divine. Since the devotee has prepared the entire meal as an offering, even the foodstuffs not directly placed in front of the image become prasadam, meaning that the meal becomes a sacred communion with Krishna. ISKCON members who work outside of their home often bring a small amount of prasadam with them to work, so as to enjoy communion with Krishna even when not in their home.