RELIGION LIBRARY

ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Origins

Beginnings

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) is a monotheistic branch of the Hindu tradition founded in 1966 by the A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1896-1977), also called Prabhupada by members of the group. The movement traces its roots to a 16th-century saint and religious reformer named Chaitanya (1486-1533), founder of the Gaudiya Vaishnava school. In keeping with the teachings of Chaitanya, ISKCON devotees exclusively worship the God Krishna, whom they consider the "Supreme Personality of Godhead." Chaitanya aimed to reform the worship of Vishnu, emphasizing devotional service and ecstatic worship, and deemphasizing brahmanic orthodoxy and caste restrictions. While Hindus broadly consider Chaitanya a saint, the Gaudiya tradition that he founded looks to him as a divine incarnation of Krishna.

A sannyasi, or monk, within the Gaudiya school, Bhaktivedanta traveled to the United States of America in 1965 in order to spread the worship of Krishna to an English-speaking audience. In doing so, Bhaktivedanta followed the instructions of his own guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati (1874-1937), who had directed Bhaktivedanta to engage in English-language preaching. A graduate of the colonial British educational system in India, Bhaktivedanta spoke and wrote fluent English. He left for the United States with almost no possessions save a trunk of books -- his self-published translations of a Gaudiya sacred scripture, the Bhagavata Purana (Bhagavatam).

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada arrived in New York City (after a brief stop in Boston, Massachusetts) on September 17, 1965, and immediately began acculturating himself to the United States. Though he had initially expected to reach out to the best-educated Americans of higher social status, instead Bhaktivedanta found a receptive audience in Manhattan of hippies, beatniks, dropouts, and other members of the American counterculture. A charismatic speaker, as well as the bearer of what seemed to the hippies as an exotic yet authentic spiritual tradition, over the next two years the swami attracted the attention of hundreds of these young men and women, some of whom became his disciples.

With the aid of several dozen young devotees, Bhaktivedanta was able to secure a storefront on the Lower East Side, near the heart of the thriving New York counterculture. There he lectured on the nature of Krishna and his worship, disseminated free Vaishnava literature, conducted worship, and worked on translating the sacred texts at the center of the Gaudiya school into English. On July 13, 1966, Bhaktivedanta incorporated the International Society for Krishna Consciousness as a non-profit organization in the State of New York.

Less than a year after his arrival in New York, Bhaktivedanta initiated his first disciples as devotees. These young men and women were the first Westerners to take formal initiation into the Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage on American soil. As initiated members of the lineage, they promised to engage in specific acts of worship, but also to assist their spiritual master, or guru, in spreading Krishna Consciousness throughout the world. Immediately, a group of these devotees left for San Francisco, the West Coast center of the American counterculture, while others departed for Montréal, Canada, and then for Europe -- beginning in Germany, France, and England -- to spread their movement overseas. Within five years of his penniless arrival in New York City, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada oversaw an international network of Krishna devotees, including a book-publishing wing, a magazine, a half dozen temples and worship centers, and a rural commune in West Virginia.

With the guidance of their guru Prabhupada, the ISKCON devotees created an entire alternative culture, complete with its own styles of dress, food, and ethical requirements. At first, most devotees lived as celibates within ISKCON temples and dedicated themselves exclusively to preaching, fund raising (often through selling books or flowers), running ISKCON's institutional bureaucracy, and founding new centers. In keeping with Indian social norms, Bhaktivedanta arranged marriages for his devotees who did not want to remain celibate, and over time many devotees did marry. By the time of the founder's death in 1977, ISKCON was becoming increasingly split between full-time resident celibate members and householder members, who by the early 1980s generally lived apart from the temple.

As ISKCON grew, Bhaktivedanta arranged for its institutional leadership, creating a Governing Body Commission (GBC) of twelve male disciples in July 1970. (This later expanded to eighteen male members during the guru's life.) Bhaktivedanta endowed the GBC with full institutional control of the International Society, meaning that the Commission was to maintain the financial and bureaucratic oversight of the movement. Shortly before Bhaktivedanta died he appointed eleven of the GBC's members as ritviks, officiating priests, who after the guru's death became the next generation of spiritual leaders of the movement, and eventually gurus themselves.


Study Questions:
     1.     What is ISKCON an acronym for, and when was it founded?
     2.     Who was Bhaktivedanta?
     3.     Describe the role between the dominant culture and the spread of ISKCON.
     4.     How did ISKCON spread in the West?

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