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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)


Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

In the 1960s and 1970s, ISKCON fused Chaitanya Vaishnavism with the countercultural spirit of the West, creating an alternative religious culture. When A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami arrived in New York City in 1965, he had no access to the elite social networks of New York and thus he preached in public parks, attracting the attention of the many youth.  A year later when he relocated his movement to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, scores of young people flocked to the newly established ISKCON temple in rejection of what they perceived as the hegemony of materialistic American culture.

Bhaktivedanta's "Hare Krishna movement" -- as it was dubbed even before the official founding of ISKCON -- appealed to these countercultural youth because it simultaneously represented the exotic and the authentic. With his saffron robe and Indian accent, the elderly Prabhupada represented the ideal spiritual guru, and he offered a religious teaching that involved Sanskrit mantras and sacred texts, the cooking of Bengali cuisine, and the use of Indian music in worship. For the hippies who had rejected mainstream American culture, ISKCON offered a new religious path rooted in ancient Indian spirituality rather than the West.

It was among this counterculture youth that Bhaktivedanta's movement took root, and from it the group drew inspiration. Though Bhaktivedanta was quick to reject most of the central practices of the counterculture, namely free love and drug use, the oppositional nature of the counterculture filtered into early ISKCON. The movement understood itself as a rejection of mainstream American culture, specifically the materialism of suburbia and what most people considered the ideal American life of job, family, and home. Though ISKCON would reappraise its position on these concepts in later decades, even today the movement understands itself as apart from mainstream American culture.

Study Questions:
     1.    Who was Chaitanya?
     2.    How is Krishna perceived within the ISKCON tradition?
     3.    Why is it appropriate to call ISKCON a monotheistic religion?
     4.    How did ISKCON receive its informal name?
     5.    Do you think ISKCON would have experienced the same success (in the West) if it were introduced in another decade? Why or why not?


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