Rituals and Worship

Sacred Time

ISKCON has created a sense of sacred time by developing a daily ritual cycle intended to ensure that devotees engage in acts of Krishna Consciousness throughout their everyday lives. Movement founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada designed the original schedule, modeling it on traditional practices in Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

An intensive system exists for residents of temples, renunciates, and students engaged in fulltime devotional practice. ISKCON temples follow a specific daily schedule, usually beginning at 4:30 a.m. with a morning arti. Each temple follows the same general pattern, though specific times vary by up to a half-hour between temples. Temples host eight different artis throughout the day, during which devotees offer different substances such as water, incense, and flowers; such actions are preceded by rituals of clothing, bathing, and fanning the deities. The last of these rituals ends at 9:00 p.m. Throughout the day, devotees living at temples also teach and attend classes, study ISKCON texts, and chant mantras.

While individual practices vary, Bhaktivedanta's original ritual cycle remains as the ideal for all Hare Krishna devotees. The movement has attempted to standardize ritual practice in 1995 by compiling and publishing a guide titled Devotional Practice, which explains the timing of devotion throughout the day. ISKCON intends this ritual cycle to pertain to congregational members, the majority of Hare Krishna devotees who do not live temples and who work in outside jobs.

For those worshipping at home, ISKCON days begin at 5:00 a.m., when the devotees awaken. The movement prescribes a specific morning hygienic ritual, intended to bring about a state of spiritual and material cleanliness. After brushing their teeth, using the toilet, shaving, and cutting their nails, devotees take a short shower. As they clean their bodies, they also chant the Hare Krishna mahamantra ("Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare") to spiritually purify themselves. Following the shower, devotees apply a mixture of sacred clay to their bodies in twelve predefined spots. These marks, called tilaka, identify the body as sacred and the individual as dedicated to the worship of Krishna. If at any point during the day the devotee engages in physical labor, passes stool, or takes a nap, they repeat the process of shower, chanting, and marking the tilaka.

At 5:30 a.m., devotees begin their morning chanting japa. To do so they employ a string of 108 beads called a mala. By chanting the mahamantra for each bead, a devotee completes a complete cycle or round of devotional chanting. Bhaktivedanta taught that such a single round of chanting should take between five and ten minutes, depending on the experience of the devotee. Ideally, devotees engage in such chanting until 7:00 a.m. At that time, devotees engage in arti (sometimes spelled "arati"), singing songs of praise to the images of Krishna and his consort Radha installed at the ISKCON temple. In keeping with Hindu tradition, devotees also offer the light of an oil lamp during arti as well. Hare Krishna members living far from a temple may perform arti in their homes, using small images of the deities. If attending a temple, devotees might chant another round of the mahamantra with the other worshippers, or engage in study of Vaishnava texts before eating breakfast and leaving for work.

While most congregational members perform their daily devotions at home, the majority also attends weekly communal worship, generally held at ISKCON temples on Sunday evenings. During its explosive phase of growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such Sunday gatherings served as one of the main ways of attracting converts. In addition to featuring a complete arti and a lecture from a senior ISKCON member, the Sunday gatherings also include a communal meal. Since a portion of such a meal, called prasadam, has been offered to Krishna, ISKCON considers the eating of this meal a sacred activity, and as such looks to it as both a religious duty and a social activity. In many cases, ISKCON temples call their Sunday programs "Sunday Feasts," indicating the value that they place on the meals as both religious activities, opportunities to attract new members, and solidify social cohesion within the community. In recent years, some ISKCON temples have begun to offer two Sunday programs and feasts, one intended for Indian Hindus and another for non-Indian members and potential converts.

While far less common than Sunday Feasts, numerous holy days, festivals, fasts, and feast days characterize the ISKCON sacred calendar. ISKCON generally follows normative Bengali Vaishnava traditions involving these celebrations. Most important of these are those that celebrate past avatar appearances of Krishna. Many Hare Krishna communities hold their largest gatherings at Janmastami, the birthday of Krishna that occurs in August or September of the Gregorian calendar. The day before Janmastami, devotees engage in a purifying fast, and celebrate the festival itself by worshipping an image of Krishna as an infant. Janmastami celebrations usually attract a sizable number of Indian Hindu attendees, many of which are not ISKCON members but wish to celebrate a holiday popular throughout South India.

Though far smaller than Janmastami, ISKCON also holds festivals to commemorate the appearance (birth) and disappearance (death) of its guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and his predecessors in the Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage. The specifics of each celebration vary depending on the guru, but all include veneration of their images as well as the study of their teachings.

A third major category of ISKCON festivals includes those drawn from the broader Hindu tradition, particularly those that celebrate the pastimes of Krishna or his avatars. One example is the Ratha-Yatra or chariot festival. As an institution, ISKCON owes much to Ratha-Yatra, since the chariot festival served as one of the group's most important public worship occasions during its early days of growth. Its San Francisco and Los Angeles Ratha-Yatra celebrations included massive chariots and hundreds of chanting devotees, and helped introduce Krishna Consciousness and ISKCON to thousands of Americans.

Scholars have noted that recent decades have witnessed Hare Krishna centers increasingly celebrating Hindu holidays outside the Vaishnava tradition. These include pan-Hindu holidays such as Holi, the festival of inversion similar to Mardi Gras or Carnival, and Shiva Ratri, the celebration of the Hindu God Shiva, whom ISKCON devotees consider a demi-god. In many cases, temples host such festivals in order to appeal to their Indian Hindu congregations, who expect such holidays to occur in accordance with Indian norms.

Study Questions:
     1.     What is daily life like in an ISKCON temple?
     2.     How does ritual influence an ISKCON member's day?
     3.     Why are there specific rituals associated with the body?
     4.     Why are Sunday Feasts important to the ISKCON community?
     5.     What are the major holidays to the ISKCON community? How are they similar?

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