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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

When the International Society for Krishna Consciousness formed in 1966, it was one of several new and alternative religious groups sweeping through the American counterculture. Following the landmark 1965 Immigration Act signed by President Johnson, America opened its borders to a variety of religious teachers from Asia and the Middle East. In addition to Bhaktivedanta, Indian gurus Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008), Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990), and Swami Muktananda (1908-1982) all either arrived on American shores or dispatched disciples to bring their Hindu-inspired religious teachings to the West.  Sufi, Zen, Tibetan Buddhist, and Kabalist teachers followed as well.

At the same time, religious teachers offered alternative interpretations of Christianity, often fusing elements from the counterculture along the way. Many of these charismatic figures founded new religious groups based on their teachings, movements such as Transcendental Meditation, Children of God, and the Unification Church. By the mid 1970s, scholars Charles Y. Glock and Robert N. Bellah were able to write of what they called a "new religious consciousness" sweeping through America's youth culture. ISKCON, at this time usually called by both insiders and outsiders as the Hare Krishna movement -- or simply the Hare Krishnas -- was part of this new religious wave.

The first wave of scholarship on ISKCON sought to understand the movement within the context of new religious movements (NRMs), as such groups were called. For scholars taking this approach, the Hare Krishnas certainly fit within the paradigm: founded by a charismatic leader, the group appealed to members of the American (and subsequently international) counterculture, offered a new and sectarian vision of society, and eventually found itself at the receiving end of a great ‘cult scare' that envisioned such groups as snaring naïve youth in the nets of mind control.

Many of these early studies of ISKCON focused on the central elements of the NRM paradigm, namely questions of charisma and conversion. Scholars J. Stillson Judah, Thomas Robbins, E. Burke Rochford, Jr., and Larry D. Shinn authored articles and books on such themes, examining the manner in which Bhaktivedanta was able to exert charismatic control over the movement, attract and maintain converts, and manage tension with broader society. Most such studies focused on issues of conversion and defection, issues that cut across the divisions between the individual new religious movements and answered wider questions about the attraction of the new religions and the reasons for their rise. Although such studies provided excellent data on ISKCON's recruitment and retention efforts, these approaches often minimized the specifics of the group, including its theology and history, in order to fit it within the category of NRM.

The rise of the new religious movements also led to the birth of the anti-cult movement, a group of secular and religious critics of new religions. Many anti-cultists targeted the Hare Krishnas and other new religions because they perceived them to be brainwashing American youth to reject their cultural norms. Anti-cult scholarship, notably the work of Margaret Singer, focused on psychological issues of conversion to and defection from ISKCON, implying that the Hare Krishna movement preyed on vulnerable youth and entrapped them in an oppressive religious system. The wider sociological and psychological scholarly community eventually rejected anti-cult research as overtly biased, though such studies had impact in the realm of public opinion. Other anti-cultists attacked ISKCON for theological reasons, though because such approaches were always rooted in particular religious approaches -- generally conservative Protestant Christianity -- they found little traction outside those audiences.


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