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The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON),
otherwise known as the Hare Krishna movement, includes
five hundred major centers, temples and rural communities, nearly
one hundred affilated vegetarian restaurants, thousands of namahattas or
local meeting groups, a wide variety of community projects,
and millions of congregational members worldwide. Although less than
fifty years on the global stage, ISKCON has expanded widely since its
founding by His Divine Grace A. C.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda in New York City in 1966.
ISKCON belongs to the Gaudiya-Vaishnava sampradāya, a monotheistic
tradition within the Vedic or Hindu culture.
Philosophically it is based on the Sanskrit texts Bhagavad-gītā and
the Bhagavat Purana, or Srimad Bhagavatam. These are the historic
texts of the devotional bhakti yoga tradition, which teaches that the
ultimate goal for all living beings is to reawaken their love for
God, or Lord Krishna, the “all-attractive one”.
God is known across the world by many names including Allah,
Jehovah, Yahweh, Rama, etc. ISKCON devotees chant
God’s names in the form of the maha-mantra, or the great prayer for
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Many leading academics have highlighted ISKCON’s authenticity.
Diana 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 the 1980s Dr. A. L. Basham, one of the world’s authorities
on Indian history and culture, wrote of ISKCON that, "
It arose out of next to nothing in less than twenty years and has become
known all over the West. This, I feel, is a sign of the times and an
important fact in the history of the Western world."
What is ISKCONISKCON’s founder, Srila Prabhupada, has drawn
appreciation from scholars and religious leaders
alike for his remarkable achievement in presenting India’s Vaishnava
spiritual culture in a relevant manner to contemporary Western and worldwide audiences.
Members of ISKCON practice bhakti-yoga in their homes
and also worship in temples. They also promote bhakti-yoga,
or Krishna Consciousness, through festivals, the performing arts,
yoga seminars, public chanting, and the distribution of the society’s literatures.
ISKCON members have also opened hospitals, schools,
colleges, eco-villages, free food distribution projects, and other
institutions as a practical application of the path of devotional yoga.
Vaishnavism is one of the major traditions within the broader
Vedic, or Hindu, spiritual culture. Unlike some Vedic
traditions, Vaishnavas believe that the ultimate reality is personal.
Thus, they understand that God is the Supreme all-attractive person,
or Krishna. They acknowledge that all living beings are eternal
persons, and that all life’s problems are rooted in the
individual soul’s forgetfulness of his or her relationship with God.
Vaishnavas teach that by chanting God’s names the soul can
reawaken his original spiritual knowledge, live peacefully in
this life and return to the spiritual realm, or Vaikuntha,
the place of no anxiety, at the time of death.
There are four main sampradayas or Vaishnava lineages all
based originally in India. Vaishnavas worship Lord Vishnu, Lord Rama,
and Lord Krishna as different manifestations of the same
Supreme Lord or one supreme divinity, although the styles
of worship and emphasis differ.
The Vaishnava tradition has widely influenced South Asian
culture through music, dance, theater and art. Vaishnavism’s
heartfelt philosophy and poetic sacred texts integrate
a profound theology with astute social discourse. The key Vaishnava sastras,
or scriptures, are Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavad-gita, included
in the longer work, the Mahabharata), the Srimad Bhagavatam
(one of the eighteen Puranas), the Ramayana, and the more recent
16th Century Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita.
ISKCON is part of the Gaudiya, or Chaitanya Vaishnava,
tradition, which hails from the eastern regions of India.
Gaudiyas place special emphasis on the teachings of 16th Century saint and avatar,
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Gaudiya Vaishnavism in turn gave rise
to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which was
founded by Srila Prabhupada in 1966. His organization, ISKCON, has
increased the awareness and growth of Vaishnavism worldwide
since the late 1960s. Today Vaishnava teachings have crossed
all geographic borders and proven relevant in addressing humanity’s essential needs.
Srila Prabhupada founded ISKCON in July of 1966. The
incorporation document states Seven Purposes of ISKCON:
(1) To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to
society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of
spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life
and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.
(2) To propagate a consciousness of Krishna as
it is revealed in the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam.
(3) To bring the members of the Society together with
each other and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, and thus
to develop the idea, within the members, and humanity, at large, that
each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krishna).
(4) To teach and encourage the Sankirtan movement
of congregational chanting of the holy name of God as revealed
in the teachings of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
(5) To erect for the members, and for society at
large, a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated
to the personality of Krishna.
(6) To bring the members closer together for
the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.
(7) With a view towards achieving the aforementioned
purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals,
magazines, books and other writings.
For millennia the teachings and the rich culture of bhakti-yoga,
or Krishna Consciousness, had been hidden within
the borders of India. Today, millions around the globe
express their gratitude to Srila Prabhupada for revealing
the timeless wisdom of bhakti to a world.
Born as Abhay Charan De on September 1, 1896, in Calcutta,
as a young man he joined Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement.
In 1922, a meeting with the prominent scholar and
spiritual leader, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, proved to be most
influential on young Abhay’s future calling.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was a leader in the Gaudiya Vaishnava
community, a monotheistic tradition within the broader
Hindu culture. At their very first meeting, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta
asked Abhay to bring the teachings of Lord Krishna to the English-speaking
world. Deeply moved by his devotion and wisdom, Abhay became a
disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta in 1933, and resolved to carry out his
mentor’s request. Abhay, later known by the honorific A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,
spent the next 32 years preparing for his journey west.
In 1965, at the age of sixty-nine, Srila Prabhupada begged
a free passage and boarded a cargo ship, the Jaladhuta,
to New York. The journey proved to be treacherous and he suffered two
heart attacks aboard. After 35 days at sea, he first arrived at a
lonely Brooklyn pier with just seven dollars in Indian rupees and a
crate of his translations of sacred Sanskrit texts.
In New York, he faced great hardships and began his
mission humbly by giving classes on the Bhagavad-gita in lofts on the
Bowery and leading kirtan (traditional devotional chants) in
Tompkins Square Park. His message of peace and goodwill resonated with
many young people, some of whom came forward to become serious students of the
Krishna-bhakti tradition. With the help of these students, Bhaktivedanta Swami
rented a small storefront on New York’s Lower East Side to use as a temple.
In July of 1966, Bhaktivedanta Swami established the
International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for
the purpose he stated of "checking the imbalance of values
in the world and working for real unity and peace".
In the eleven years that followed, Srila Prabhupada
circled the globe 14 times on lecture tours spreading the teachings
of Lord Krishna. Men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life
came forward to accept his message. With their help, Srila Prabhupada
established temples, farm communities, a publishing house, and educational
institutions around the world. And, he began what has now
become the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program, Hare Krishna Food for Life.
With the desire to nourish the roots of Krishna consciousness
in its home, Srila Prabhupada returned to India several
times, where he sparked a revival in the Vaishnava tradition.
In India, he opened dozens of temples, including large centers
in the holy towns of Vrindavana and Mayapura.
Srila Prabhupada’s most significant contributions, perhaps,
are his books. He authored over 70 volumes on the Krishna
tradition, which are highly respected by scholars for their authority,
depth, fidelity to the tradition, and clarity. Several of his works
are used as textbooks in numerous college courses. His writings
have been translated into 76 languages. His most prominent works include:
Bhagavad-gita As It Is, the 30-volume Srimad-Bhagavatam, and the 17-volume
Sri Caitanya-caritamrita. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada
passed away on November 14, 1977, in the holy town of Vrindavana,
surrounded by his loving disciples who carry on his mission today.