ISKCON fundamentally differs from other forms of Hinduism in its missionary zeal and hopes to create a worldwide culture predicated on Krishna Consciousness. Like other monotheistic religions, namely Christianity and Islam, Gaudiya Vaishnavism considers itself the best path to achieving and developing a relationship with the one true God who creates and maintains the cosmos. In India this philosophy has lead the tradition to adopt the practice of sankirtan, or public devotion and preaching, in an effort to spread the worship of Krishna. This missionizing approach led to great success. From its origins as only a handful of disciples of Sri Chaitanya in the 16th century, Gaudiya Vaishnavism had become a major religious force in Bengal by the 19th century.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada represented both a continuation and departure from that previous Gaudiya Vaishnava pattern. Following the lead of Chaitanya, Bhaktivedanta hoped to spread Krishna Consciousness and used public means to do so. After arriving in New York City, the swami chanted in public parks in order to attract attention, and frequently offered lectures designed to gain converts. Like his own guru Bhaktisiddhanta, Bhaktivedanta discounted caste and social status to do so. Yet in seeking a non-Hindu audience and traveling overseas, Bhaktivedanta rejected the religious norms of Hinduism, which had long frowned on missionizing and considered the West an impure land far removed from the sacred geography of India.
Though ISKCON admits the value of other monotheistic religions, it ultimately hopes to supplant them through the creation of a global culture of Krishna Consciousness. What such a culture would entail has varied throughout the history of the movement. All devotees look to the ancient texts of the Vedas and the teachings of Krishna as the best foundation for society, but since the Vedic corpus offers so many different perspectives, ISKCON devotees differ on the nature of a Krishna Conscious culture. But as the Hare Krishna movement generally reads it, Vedic culture emphasizes simple agrarian living aimed toward spiritual rather than material success.
As the Hare Krishna movement understands it, Vedic culture is also hierarchal. One contentious issue is of that of caste, or varna, to use the technical term employed in the movement. Since the varnas serve such a central role in the Vedic texts, ISKCON has had trouble separating itself from the notion of caste. Bhaktivedanta implied that an ideal Krishna Conscious society would include all four of the castes living in perfect hierarchal harmony: brahmins (religious leaders) overseeing the kshatriyas (administrators and warriors), who oversee the vaishyas (merchants and artisans), all of whom receive the support of the shudras (servants). Bhaktivedanta at times made impolitic statements about the nature of shudras, at times linking the concept to race and skin color. One notable Hare Krishna community attempted to put the varna system into practice, assigning devotees particular castes and services. This experiment ended in failure.
In its early decades ISKCON was fiercely sectarian. Like other sectarian groups, the Hare Krishna movement avoided unnecessary contact with the outside world and attempted to create its own parallel social structures. This meant that devotees avoided the culture of the nations in which they lived, including entertainment, literature, and politics. ISKCON devotees especially eschewed Western educational systems, with many dropping out of college after joining the movement. As devotees began families, they created alternative schools for their youth and discouraged their children from considering higher education. In recent years, the movement has recognized this approach as unsustainable. ISKCON's schools failed to provide adequate education to its youth, and their lack of marketable skills has led to many second-generation devotees being unable to find jobs.
During its first decades the Hare Krishna movement was also highly utopian, hoping to transform the world into a Krishna Conscious society within the lifetime of its founder. In efforts that devotees consider somewhat naïve in retrospect, Bhaktivedanta hoped to gain the support of the leaders of government, higher education, industry, and science in creating this Krishna Conscious global culture, even as he dismissed these social segments as harmful and irrelevant to Vedic living. ISKCON's sectarian character limited its utopian goals, since few social leaders outside the movement opted to ally themselves with a group that so clearly rejected the norms of Western society.
1. Why do ISKCON members engage in missionizing?
2. Does ISKCON recognize other religious traditions as legitimate? Why?
3. What was the rationale for the ISKCON sectarian lifestyle? Is it still practiced?