What Is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness?
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement, is a worldwide association of devotees of Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. God is known by many names, according to His different qualities and activities. In the Bible he is known as Jehovah (“the almighty one”), in the Koran as Allah (“the great one”), and in the Bhagavad-gītā as Kṛṣṇa, a Sanskrit name meaning “the all-attractive one.”
The movement’s main purpose is to promote the well-being of human society by teaching the science of God consciousness (Kṛṣṇa consciousness) according to the timeless Vedic scriptures of India.
Many leading figures in the international religious and academic community have affirmed the movement’s authenticity. Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, describes the movement as “a tradition that commands a respected place in the religious life of humankind.”
In 1965, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, known to his followers as Śrīla Prabhupāda, brought Kṛṣṇa consciousness to America. On the day he landed in Boston, on his way to New York City, he penned these words in his diary: “My dear Lord Kṛṣṇa, I am sure that when this transcendental message penetrates [the hearts of the Westerners], they will certainly feel gladdened and thus become liberated from all unhappy conditions of life.” He was sixty-nine years old, alone and with few resources, but the wealth of spiritual knowledge and devotion he possessed was an unwavering source of strength and inspiration.
“At a very advanced age, when most people would be resting on their laurels,” writes Harvey Cox, Harvard University theologian and author, “Śrīla Prabhupāda harkened to the mandate of his own spiritual teacher and set out on the difficult and demanding voyage to America. Śrīla Prabhupāda is, of course, only one of thousands of teachers. But in another sense, he is one in a thousand, maybe one in a million.”
In 1966, Śrīla Prabhupāda founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which became the formal name for the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement.
In the years that followed, Śrīla Prabhupāda gradually attracted tens of thousands of followers, started more than a hundred temples and ashrams, and published scores of books. His achievement is remarkable in that he transplanted India’s ancient spiritual culture to the twentieth-century Western world.
New devotees of Kṛṣṇa soon became highly visible in all the major cities around the world by their public chanting and their distribution of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books of Vedic knowledge. They began staging joyous cultural festivals throughout the year and serving millions of plates of delicious vegetarian food offered to Kṛṣṇa (known as prasādam). As a result, ISKCON has significantly influenced the lives of millions of people. In the early 1980’s the late A. L. Basham, one of the world’s leading authorities on Indian history and culture, wrote, “The Hare Kṛṣṇa movement arose out of next to nothing in less than twenty years and has become known all over the West. This is an important fact in the history of the Western world.”
Five Thousand Years of Spiritual Wisdom
Scholars worldwide have acclaimed Śrīla Prabhupāda’s translations of Vedic literature. Garry Gelade, a professor at Oxford University’s Department of Philosophy, wrote of them: “These texts are to be treasured. No one of whatever faith or philosophical persuasion who reads these books with an open mind can fail to be moved and impressed.” And Dr. Larry Shinn, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell University, wrote, “Prabhupāda’s personal piety gave him real authority. He exhibited complete command of the scriptures, an unusual depth of realization, and an outstanding personal example, because he actually lived what he taught.”
The best known of the Vedic texts, the Bhagavad-gītā (“Song of God”), is the philosophical basis for the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. Dating back 5,000 years, it is sacred to nearly a billion people today. This exalted work has been praised by scholars and leaders the world over. Mahatma Gandhi said, “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face and I see not one ray of hope, I turn to the Bhagavad-gītā and find a verse to comfort me.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.” It is not surprising to anyone familiar with the Gītā that Henry David Thoreau said, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gītā.”
As Dr. Shinn pointed out, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Bhagavad-gītā (titled Bhagavad-gītā As It Is) possesses unique authority not only because of his erudition but because he lived what he taught. Thus unlike the many other English translations of the Gītā that preceded his, which is replete with extensive commentary, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s has sparked a spiritual revolution throughout the world.
Lord Kṛṣṇa teaches in the Bhagavad-gītā that we are not these temporary material bodies but spirit souls, or conscious entities, and that we can find genuine peace and happiness only in spiritual devotion to God. The Gītā and other well-known world scriptures recommend that people joyfully chant God’s holy names, such as Kṛṣṇa, Allah, and Jehovah.
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Lord Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, a sixteenth-century full incarnation of Kṛṣṇa, popularized the chanting of God’s names all over India. He constantly sang these names of God, as prescribed in the Vedic literatures: Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. This Hare Kṛṣṇa chant, or mantra, is a transcendental sound vibration. It purifies the mind and awakens the dormant love of God that resides in the hearts of all living beings. Lord Caitanya requested His followers to spread the chanting to every town and village of the world.
Anyone can take part in the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa and learn the science of spiritual devotion by studying the Bhagavad-gītā As It Is. This easy and practical process of self-realization will awaken our natural state of peace and happiness.
Hare Kṛṣṇa Lifestyles
The devotees seen dancing and chanting in the streets, dressed in traditional Indian robes, are for the most part full-time students of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. The vast majority of followers, however, live and work in the general community, practicing Kṛṣṇa consciousness in their homes and attending temples on a regular basis.
Full-time devotees throughout the world number about 15,000, with 500,000 congregational members. The movement comprises 300 temples, 50 rural communities, 40 schools, and 75 restaurants in 85 countries.
In order to revive their own and humanity’s inherent natural spiritual principles of compassion, truthfulness, cleanliness, and austerity, and to master the mind and the material senses, devotees also follow these four regulations:
1. No eating of meat, fish, or eggs.
2. No gambling.
3. No illicit sex.
4. No intoxication of any kind, including tobacco, coffee, and tea.
According to the Bhagavad-gītā and other Vedic literatures, indulgence in the above activities disrupts our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being and increases anxiety and conflict in society.
A Philosophy for Everyone
The philosophy of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement (a monotheistic tradition) is summarized in the following eight points:
1. By sincerely cultivating the authentic spiritual science presented in the Bhagavad-gītā and other Vedic scriptures, we can become free from anxiety and achieve a state of pure, unending, blissful consciousness.
2. Each of us is not the material body but an eternal spirit soul, part and parcel of God (Kṛṣṇa). As such, we are all the eternal servants of Kṛṣṇa and are interrelated through Him, our common father.
3. Kṛṣṇa is the eternal, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-powerful, and all-attractive Personality of Godhead. He is the seed-giving father of all living beings and the sustaining energy of the universe. He is the source of all incarnations of God, including Lord Buddha and Lord Jesus Christ.
4. The Vedas are the oldest scriptures in the world. The essence of the Vedas is found in the Bhagavad-gītā, a literal record of Kṛṣṇa’s words spoken five thousands years ago in India. The goal of Vedic knowledge—and of all religions—is to achieve love of God.
5. We can perfectly understand the knowledge of self-realization through the instructions of a genuine spiritual master—one who is free from selfish motives, who teaches the science of God explained in the Bhagavad-gītā, and whose mind is firmly fixed in meditation on Kṛṣṇa.
6. All that we eat should first be offered to Lord Kṛṣṇa with a prayer. In this way Kṛṣṇa accepts the offering and blesses it for our purification.
7. Rather than living in a self-centered way, we should act for the pleasure of Lord Kṛṣṇa. This is known as bhakti-yoga, the science of devotional service.
8. The most effective means for achieving God consciousness in this Age of Kali, or quarrel, is to chant the holy names of the Lord: Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare.