Meet a Guru: Srila Prabhupada

Srila Prabhupada is the founder of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, also known as either ISKCON or Hare Krishnas.  Srila Prabhupada came to New York in 1965 to bring  Gaudiya Vaishnavism to America. Vaishnava is a branch of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma (the eternal truth) as many prefer to call Hinduism. It focuses on Vishnu (i.e., Rama and Krishna, who were avatars of Vishnu) as the supreme God. Apparently Gaudiya Vaishnavism was founded “around 1510 with an ascetic who took the name Sri Krishna Caitanya. This devotee of Krishna became renowned for his ecstatic devotion, expressed in dance and song. His disciples believed Caitanya to be manifestation of Krishna himself, and established a movement based on his inspiration.” -Religionfacts.com

ISKCON is very devotional (bhakti), known for the chanting of the mantra from which they get their nickname:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare

This is repeated 108 times on a string of beads very similar to a rosary in Catholicism. The word “hare” is an expression of praise kind of like “hallelujah.”

Background

Born in Calcutta in 1896 to devout Vaishnava parents, Srila Prabhupada was given a western-based education at the Scottish Church College, apparently well respected among Bengalis. He later rejected his diploma in protest of the British and was a supporter of Gandhi.

His spiritual teacher was  Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who asked him to spread the teaching of Sri Krishna Caitanya (I think Caitanya is to Vaishnava what Shankara is to Advaitans, if I understand correctly) in English. After he took the vows of a sanyasin, Prabhupada eventually moved to the West and founded ISKCON.

Teaching

There is a lot of singing and dancing, sometimes in the streets, and giving one’s self over to the ecstasy of worship.

They believe that even though we are currently in the last age, the Kali Yuga, a time of evil and ignorance, it is still possible to become part of the Krishna-consciousness through devotion and ethical living.

From their website:

ISKCON belongs to the Gaudiya-Vaishnava sampradaya, a monotheistic tradition within the Vedic and Hindu cultural traditions.

The basic Hare Krishna beliefs can be summarized as follows:

1. By sincerely cultivating true spiritual science, we can be free from anxiety and come to a state of pure, unending, blissful consciousness in this lifetime.

2. We are not our bodies but eternal, spirit souls, parts and parcels of God (Krishna). As such, we are all brothers, and Krishna is ultimately our common father. We accept the process of transmigration of the soul (reincarnation).

3. Krishna is eternal, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-powerful, and all-attractive. He is the seed-giving father of all living beings, and He is the sustaining energy of the entire cosmic creation. He is the same God as The Father Allah, Buddha and Jehovah.

4. The Absolute Truth is contained in the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in the world. The essence of the Vedas is found in theBhagavad-gita, a literal record of Krishna’s words.

5. One can learn the Vedic knowledge from a genuine spiritual master — one who has no selfish motives and whose mind is firmly fixed on Krishna.

6. Before one eats, one offers to the Lord (Krishna) the food that sustains all humans; then Krishna becomes the offering and purifies the offered.

7. One performs all actions as offerings to Krishna and does nothing for one’s own sense gratification.

8. The recommended means for achieving the mature stage of love of God in this age of Kali, or quarrel, is to chant the holy names of the Lord. The easiest method for most people is to chant the Hare Krishna mantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.

My Experience

My first experience with ISKCON was pretty funny and I think I may have told you this story before. I was at LAX, the airport in Los Angeles, when I was approached by a young man in a suit, but with a shaved head. He offered me a copy of the Gita (a very large one, apparently mostly commentary by Prabhupada). I told him that I already had Gitas at home. He insisted that I should have this particular copy, since it had all those teachings of his guru in it. I accepted and then he asked for a donation. I never carry cash on me, but I pulled out everything I had in my pockets, which was a few coins. I remembered that in the Gita, Krishna says that he accepts any gift offered with devotion to him, so I gave the young man my change. He informed me that there was an ATM just inside the door.

***

I go to the ISKCON temple for many of the big holidays. They are a great crowd and they put on wonderful events. I often wish that I fit into their philosophy better because it would be nice to be part of their community, I think.

But I am uncomfortable with schools that focus too much on devotion. I don’t like any place where I’m expected to listen to and believe the guru only because he is the guru. That, as I’ve said before, might be my own failing, but I have some real trust issues from my past.

This may not be fair, but I’ve always felt like ISKCON is too similar to Christianity for me. It appears to just substitute “Jesus” with “Krishna” and just about everything about Christianity that makes me squeamish is present in ISKCON too.

Some absolutely gorgeous artwork and poetry has come out of this movement. I do love to read poetry adoring Sri Krishna. I’ve also purchased jewelry and puja items from their store at Krishna.com

It used to be that you’d see them a lot at airports in their orange robes, passing out flowers (Airplaneand The Muppet Movieboth use them for comic effect, both being made in the 1970s when ISKCON was in its hey day). These days it seems like they do less recruiting:

Whereas devotees formerly were discouraged from maintaining ties with the outside world, including their own families, Hare Krishnas today mix and mingle like anyone else and don robes and Sanskrit names only while at temple for services. And they don’t do airports much anymore. -Beliefnet

Learn More

* I am not endorsing any of the teachers highlighted in this feature

{Featured image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srila_Prabhupada}

And a bit of humor ;)

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About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Jan

    Someone who was raised a Vaishnavite, Chaitanya is NOT to Vaishnavism as Shankara is to Advaita. Vaishnavites follow Visishta Advaitam. I am not a fan of ISKCON and I am appalled that you would link that to Vaishnavism. Also Hindu rosary beads are usually used by Saivaites (people who follow Advaita philosophy) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudraksha

    Also reading about thr Bhakthi movement will give you some answers about ISCKON.

    I do apologize if I am coming off rude in this comment. It’s just that Vaishnanvism is a very old and respected philosophy in Hinduism and I don’t want people to think ISCKON has something to do with it.

    • Yajnavalkya dasa

      There are many schools of Vaishnavism, and ISKCON is in the line of Gaudiya-Vaishnavism, the line of bhakti coming directly from Sri Caitanya, and Sri Caitanya is in the line from Madhavendra Puri and Madvacarya. Scholars worldwide have appreciated the rich theology of this tradition.

      Your referring to japa beads as “rosary beads” makes me wonder how much you really know about Vaishnavism. Just as I know many people raised Christian, yet know only superficial information about Christianity.

      • Ambaa

        Since these posts tend to be intros for westeners who don’t know that much about Hinduism, I sometimes use language that I think will be easier to understand. Perhaps I am wrong who my audience is. I certainly know exactly what japa beads are.

        I am not a Vaishnava. I am an Advaitan.

    • Ambaa

      Thank you for the info! It seemed from my research that the Chaitanya figure was a revivalist as Shankara was. I am sorry if I was mistaken. I do know that ISKCON are Vaishnavas, but they certainly don’t represent all that Vaishnavism is.

    • Jason13

      Jan thats very interesting and ive heard the same for years from many Vaishnavas who are also upset that Iskcon trying to hijack Vaishnavism and trying to be the spokespersons for it.Can you give me more sources on them not being vaishnavas ect thanks

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  • Jason13

    Aamba, Prabhupada and his guru did reinvent their belief system in a christian template when they had failed to take off in india then focused on going west.Also their views on women are very controversial along with attacks on other hindu beliefs and gurus.

    • Ambaa

      Interesting. As I said in the post, I have told my friends before that ISKCON feels very Christian to me. The way the beliefs are structured and the set up of things just feels like a Baptist church in so many ways.

    • Prafulla Acharya

      Who do you think you are Mr. Baloney? Prabhupada’s message is respected by millions all over the world. Of course, Prabhupada rightly slammed erroneous beliefs and self centered Gurus. He however, praised and appreciated the righteous ones.

  • Prafulla Acharya

    Keep on Doing your good work of following Srila Prabhupada, Mataji Ambaa. Do not get misled by jealous and half-witted fault finders.


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