Missions and Expansion

In the three decades since its founder's death, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has faced a number of significant challenges, and undergone multiple changes and adaptations. The most important of these came with the end of the era of unbridled growth during the late 1960s and 1970s, the aging of its members, and the transition toward a more congregational-style institution of families rather than celibate young people living in the temple.

It is a basic fact of demography that a movement founded by young men and women will age with time. The Hare Krishna movement emerged from the youth counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, attracting thousands of young men and women who had left their birth traditions in search of deeper spiritual meaning. During the first decade of ISKCON's existence, the group upheld a vision of its members as celibate students devoted to the study of Krishna, brahmacharis (male) and brahmacharins (female), living in ISKCON temples and solely-focused on the Society's mission of spreading Krishna Consciousness throughout the world. Such an approach assumed that these devotees would spend most of their days either in worship, preaching, or selling books to provide financial support for the movement.

Even in the first years of ISKCON's existence, many of Bhaktivedanta's devotees found prolonged celibacy difficult, and the guru therefore offered an alternative rooted in the Indian culture that he knew best: arranged marriage. With time, most of the devotees sought partners and eventually had children, and ISKCON transformed from an institution comprised of single youth to one of families. This radical change required major adaptation from the leadership and institution.

ISKCON's first attempt to adapt to the changed demographics of its members resulted in the creation of the gurukula system. Religious boarding schools, gurukula centralized devotees' children in a single location where a caregiver could educate them apart from their parents. The movement's leaders at the time viewed the attachment of children to parents and parents to children as harmful to spiritual development, so this approach minimized that harm, freed parents to engage in full-time service to the Society, and provided education for its children.

The gurukula system failed. As recent self-studies as well as scholarly research has revealed, ISKCON's leadership approached the gurukulas as a means of enabling parents to serve the institution rather than a method of acculturating or educating the youth. Teachers lacked training, schools lacked resources, and children felt abandoned. In many cases, children suffered emotional, spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of incompetent, overworked, or predatory teachers. (Different studies have indicated that between 20 and 70% of all children at gurukulas experienced some form of abuse.)

The failure of the gurukulas coincided with wider financial problems within ISKCON in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As temples closed many devotees found themselves thrust into the outside world. This combined with the steady increase in the number of married couples, leading to a dramatic shift from a temple-based movement wherein members lived communally to a congregational one wherein devotees, whether single or married, tend to live independently away from the temples.

This transformation led ISKCON's leaders to radically rethink the nature of the movement, remaking what had been a communal, countercultural, radical new religion of the 1960s into a family-centered, congregational religious group that catered to people who lived in the broader society. Though the Hare Krishnas have retained a sectarian opposition to wider Western culture, the movement radically reduced tension with the outside world. Instead of Indian clothing such as saris and dotis, devotees began wearing clothing more typical of the mainstream culture in which they lived and worked. Members began consuming mainstream movies, television, and books, and their children attend public schools.

At the same time that ISKCON matured in North America and western Europe, an entirely new avenue for spreading Krishna Consciousness appeared with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the breakup of the Soviet Union, as well as increased globalization that has made travel and communication through the world more accessible and inexpensive. Consequently, although ISKCON numbers have remained relatively stable in North America and western Europe owing to the involvement of immigrant Indian-Hindus, the movement has experienced most of its growth in post-Soviet Russia and eastern Europe, Africa, and South America.

Because ISKCON has centralized authority in the Governing Body Commission and its many traveling gurus, the various regions demonstrate a remarkable degree of theological consistency. However, the arrival of many new foreign devotees into the temples of what had been the geographic center of the movement -- North America and western Europe -- led to dramatic shifts in the public face of ISKCON, especially when combined with the increased "Indianization" of the group.

Study Questions:
     1.     How did the age of ISKCON's participants influence its success?
     2.     What was the gurukula system? Why was it developed, and why did it fail?
     3.     What global developments led to the spread of ISKCON? Why was it able to have theological consistency within this spread?

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