History of the Hare Krishna Movement:
A Comprehensive Study on the Movement’s Roots as a Legitimate Religious System, and
on the Post-Samadhi Phase of Development
Lee, Woo Chan.
This is an attempt on my behalf to contribute an inkling of enlightenment to other students, especially those here in KMLA.
In the course of preparing a research paper as a high school senior, I’ve encountered several hindrances. The first was of the subject matter: initially, I wanted to examine the influence of Eastern religions and philosophies on the Hippies movement that had flourished during the 60’s and 70’s. Indeed, the prerequisite for such an ambitious project would be that the Hippies were indeed influenced by Eastern thought, a premise which has been ruthlessly slaughtered after a few books. Despite the Hippies’ affinity towards love, sex, and narcotics, and the seeming link between those three and Hindu scriptures, Hippies’ interest in Eastern thought were superficial (if they had any). I therefore had to switch my subject to a more tangible phenomenon reaching to the very roots of the Orientalism that seems to have flourished during that era. That is how I came upon the Hare Krishna movement. Although my thesis has been altered substantially from the starting point, this topic presented as much, if not more, intellectual stimulation and fulfillment.
Another major obstacle was the novelty of the subject material: not only as a high school research paper, but as a theme for sociological research. Although I have been able to attain a number of books regarding practices and policies, the last statistical study on the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (hereby the ISKCON) was one that had been published in 1985 by E. Burke Rochford, Jr. Conceivably this is a major weakness of my research. Still, I tried to present as objective and comprehensive a perspective I can by choosing a holistic approach; that is, by reading as much on-line and off-line resources as possible in order to compensate for the lack of academic accounts.
The unfamiliarity of the topic posed another problem that I thought would concern prospective readers of this research as well: How was I to discuss the development of a movement of which so little of the movement itself was known? The overall unfamiliarity of Hinduism proved to be particularly frustrating, and even some authors (most of whom were social scientists from the West and therefore also unfamiliar to Hindu traditions) were proven faulty in their knowledge. I sought to address this problem by first, studying myself, and second, including a concise introduction to the movement and its roots in my research paper.
The Bhagavad-Gita as it is, a translation including commentary of the Hindu holy text,is referenced just as any edition of the Christian Bible would have been referenced: instead of listing references as the usual (author page: e.g., Deadwyler 155) format, I used the (title verse: e.g., Bhagavad-Gita 3.14) format.
One of the most visible phenomenon during the 1960’s and 70’s in had been the Hare Krishna movement. Quite often one could spot groups of exotically dressed people dancing and chanting Sanskrit names. These people became known as the “Hare Krishnas,” after their eponymous mahamantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Since its conception in the , the Hare Krishna movement has elicited both enthusiastic and skeptical response from the international public. Particularly after the death of the founder, Srila Prabhupada, in 1977, the accumulation of misinformation and lack of understanding has unjustly degraded the reputation of the movement.
The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, to present the much ignored origins of the Hare Krishna movement; and second, to discuss the development of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (hereby the ISKCON) after its establishment. In doing the latter I focused on particularly the period after the founder’s death during which the ISKCON survived many controversies and underwent many reforms. By studying the movement’s trajectory, we can gain insights into the conflicts fledgling religious movements often face during the transitory process of establishing itself as a sturdy institution.
II. Origins of the Hare Krishna movement
For a religion credited for having the third most devotees on the globe, Hinduism is an extremely diverse, if not fragmented, religion. Unlike other major religions, Hinduism does not have a single founder and is based on centuries of accumulated religious texts. The most famous of these texts are the Vedas, the oldest scripture of which is believed to have been created sometime around 1500 B.C.
Many people who are unfamiliar with Hinduism think of it as a polytheistic religion, perhaps because the religion is known to us primarily through colorful paintings of numerous Gods of all shapes and sizes. More accurately, however, Hinduism can be described as a polymorphic monotheism - a theology that recognizes many forms of the one, single unitary divinity (Brahman). Polymorphic monotheism is, as the etymology implies, the belief in a single unitary deity who takes many forms and manifests at different levels of reality, and from whom come many minor divinities. For example; Shiva, the lord of annihilation; and Brahma, the lord of creation, are merely different manifestations of the supreme deity. It is deciding who this supreme deity is which leads to the numerous denominations of today.
Because of the copious number of authoritative religious texts and the lack of an institution with authoritative power over interpretation, infinite interpretations and practices of Hinduism abound. Therefore, it is rather difficult to classify practitioners into clearly defined categories. However, most scholars tend to classify Hinduism into three major groups, depending on the deity one worshipped as supreme: Shaivism, Shaktism, and Vaishnavism. Shaivism is a denomination which worships Shiva as the Brahman, while Shaktism decrees Mahadevi (the Great Goddess) as such. Vaishnavism, of which the Hare Krishna movement is a proponent, holds the deity Vishnu and his manifestations as the supreme lord.
It is noteworthy that while there are myriads of denominations, almost all Hindus acknowledge other denominations as legitimate alternatives to their own. Heresy, therefore, is not an issue for most Hindus.
Vaishnavism is distinct amongst Hindu denomination in that it emphasizes bhakti as both a means as an end; that is, compared to other denominations, Vaishnavism emphasized the intimate, individual relationship between a devotee and the god Vishnu.
In Hindu theology, Vishnu, like the supreme gods of other denominations, has several forms in which he manifests himself in the material world. These manifestations are called avatars. Well-known avatars of Vishnu, according to Hindu texts, include Guatama Buddha (founder of Buddhism), Rama, and .
The Hare Krishna Movement more specifically follows the doctrine of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, or Chaitanya Vaishnavism (after its founder, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu).
3. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu & Gaudiya Vaishnavism
Gaudiya Vaishnavism was founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who was born as VisvambharMishra in 1486 in Nadiya, . Although he had been initiated in the Madhvacharya tradition, Chaitanya’s beliefs were subtly different from those of his fellow followers. Instead of espousing a purely monistic or dualistic perspective like other Vaishnavas, Chaitanya developed a unique doctrine called Achintya Bheda-Abheda that sought to reconcile the two. This means that, unlike most Vaishnavas, Chaitanya believed that God was both a separate existence and a cosmic presence that exercised eternal connection through supreme control over Creation (termed ‘Cosmic manifestation’).
The primary religious texts are the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bhagavata Purana, both of in which is recognized as the supreme God. The Bhagavata Purana particularly advocates bhakti yoga. The Bhagavad-Gita is considered the most important text by many devotees, and Prabhupada published an acclaimed translation, Bhagavad-Gita as it is, which included commentary that emphasized bhakti yoga. This is the volume I had used in my study.
The following are beliefs that define Gaudiya Vaishnavism, followed by excerpts from the Bhagavad-Gita:
1. The belief in Achintya Bheda-Abheda, inconceivable oneness and difference. This belief implied that members of lower castes, since they were also connected to God as his manifestations, had an equal opportunity to attain the highest level of spiritual enlightenment.
i. “The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater [outcaste]. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 5.18)”
ii. “Although you  are one, You spread throughout the sky and the planets and all space between. O great one, seeing this wondrous and terrible form, all the planetary systems are perturbed. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 11.20)”
2. The belief that souls are eternal and manifest in various forms of life according to the laws of karma.
i. “As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 2.13)”
ii. “When one dies in the mode of passion, he takes birth among those engaged in fruitive [sic] activities; and when dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 14.15)”
iii. “The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 15.8)”
3. The belief that (meaning “He who is all attractive”) is the name that best fits God (for clarification on the theological relationship between Hindu deities,, see Figure 1.). In other words, , and not Brahma, Shiva, or Vishnu, is the supreme deity.
i. “Arjuna [Narrator of the Bhagavad-Gita] said: My dear Lord Krishna, I see assembled in Your body all the demigods and various other living entities. I see Brahma sitting on the lotus flower, as well as Lord Shiva and all the sages and divine serpents. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 11.16)”
ii. “Such a yogi, who engages in the worshipful service of the Supersoul [Vishnu], knowing that I and the Supersoul are one, remains always in Me in all circumstances. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 11.31)”
Figure 1. Chart depicting Gaudiya Vaishnava relationship of deities.
The Supreme, Intimate Deity
(Subdivinity of Creation)
(All Pervading Sustaining Deity)
The Omnipotent Cosmic Deity
(Subdivinity of Annihilation)
The Manifest Deity of This World
4. The belief that Bhakti Yoga is the practical process of devotional life. According to Prabhupada, there are five different ways in which a devotee can be in a relationship with . Amongst the five, the ultimate stage is when one is a devotee as a conjugal lover. A devotee in the ultimate stage of Bhakti Yoga feels both platonic and erotic love towards (BhagavadGita as it is, pg. 4).
i. Bhakti Yoga requires a devotee to abstain from material pleasures as he or she should only desire pleasure that derives from love for . “There are principles to regulate attachment and aversion pertaining to the senses and their objects. One should not come under the control of such attachment and aversion, because they are stumbling blocks on the path of self-realization. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 3.34)”
ii. “For one who always remembers Me without deviation, I am easy to obtain, O son of Prtha [Arjuna], because of his constant engagement in devotional service. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 8.14)”
Since Chaitanya didn’t himself initiate any disciples, the direct input into the religious society that developed around him was limited. However, his movement gained popularity on the basis of the belief in Achintya Bheda-Abheda and Bhakti Yoga, which taught that castes did not restrict a person’s quest towards God.
Chaitanya never appointed a single successor to continue his quest. Instead, when Chaitanya died, he delegated the responsibilities of continuing the movement in the hands of a group of followers. The four most important of these responsibilities were to preach, especially among the lower strata of Bengali society, to lead exemplary lives of spiritual dedication, to develop the town of as a pilgrimage center, and to write texts on Vaishnava theology and practice.
The last, especially, had a lasting influence on the lineage of Vaishnava gurus, as it legitimized and unified the movement, thus taking it beyond the level of a popular phenomenon to one of a religion that possessed innovative yet thorough theology that was coherent with mainstream Hindu tradition.
Following his orders, Chaitanya’s disciples endeavored to establish Gaudiya Vaishnavism as a sturdy tradition. Krishna Das, one of the movement’s earliest proponents, reproduced the principles and beliefs in the Bengali language in writing the Chaitanya Charitamrita, a book that is said to have consolidated the movement’s position within Vrindavan. But more defining was the festival of Kheturi, as it allowed for various leaders of the loose organization to converse and systemize Gaudiya Vaishnava theology.
4. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura and the Gaudiya Math
Many historians believe that the movement faced a gradual decline in popularity beginning from the 17th century, however, due to the fact that most of the leaders wrote texts in Sanskrit, hence restricting circulation amongst lower castes. Brahminical domination of a movement whose popularity was mostly based on teachings that anyone, even outcastes, can achieve intimate relationships with God was devastating.
In the 20th century, the movement’s popularity resurged mostly due to the efforts of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur (1838~1914). He was the disciple of a guru who belonged to the lineage of initiates descending from the wife of Nityananda, a companion of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He was an influential preacher who also had held the position of a deputy magistrate in the British government. Bhaktivinoda Thakur translated several Gaudiya Vaishnavism texts into English, and hence introduced the movement to the western world.
His son, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, however, was the one who would bring a full-fledged renaissance to the movement. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was also initiated into the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. In 1918, he organized the Gaudiya Math. By 1937, the Gaudiya Math had 64 centers in , , and the .
The Gaudiya Math was significant in that it was the first attempt to institutionalize the movement. Interestingly, though, several of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s writings reveal a very pessimistic attitude towards institutionalized religion. The following is an excerpt from the essay, Killing of Putana:
The idea of an organized church in an intelligible form, indeed, marks the close of the living spiritual movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dykes and the dams to retain the current that cannot be held by any such contrivances. They, indeed, indicate a desire on the part of the masses to exploit a spiritual movement for their own purpose. They also unmistakably indicate the end of the absolute and unconventional guidance of the bonafide [sic] spiritual teacher. (Bhaktisiddhanta, Killing of Purana)
In view of such opinion, it is not surprising that there had been disruptions in the organization following Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s death. It is not at all clear how he intended to resolve the lack of charisma within the movement. Perhaps, his view of a spiritual teacher as “absolute and unconventional” led him to hope for the emergence of a true spiritual leader from the ranks of his disciples. Instead, he designated three of his disciples as a triumvirate council that was meant to handle affairs of the organization. As Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had designated none of them as acharya, it indeed seems as if he intended the council to do no more than manage domestic affairs and continue publication of Vaishnava literature.
Nevertheless, each three gurus had followers of their own, and this ultimately led to feuds that damaged the movement direly. The conflict culminated in a 1948 court decision that split the Gaudiya Math in two: Sri Chaitanya Math and Gaudiya Mission. By this time, other prominent disciples of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had established numerous independent institutions. With frustrated gurus leaving the movement either to return to secular life or to seek religious alternatives, Gaudiya Math had lost much of its momentum. One of the strongest critics of this situation was AbhayCharanaravinda, through whom the Gaudiya Vaishnava movement will face a different direction.
III. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and the Hare Krishna movement
1. Early Life of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was born in 1896 as AbhayCharan De. AbhayCharan first met his future spiritual master when a friend insisted that AbhayCharan accompany him to visit Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati at the acharya’s headquarters in . As his father was also an influential Vaishnava author who had written books that exposed Guadiya Vaishnavism to a more educated Indian public, AbhayCharan may have thought it natural and fitting to join the movement. However, as much as he was impressed with Bhaktisiddhanta, AbhayCharan returned to his secular life until in 1933, when he finally received initiation from Bhaktisiddhanta himself, along with the name AbhayCharanaravinda. Bhaktisiddhanta was particularly fond of his disciple’s writing, and intimated that AbhayCharanaravinda should expand his devotional writing. Hence, it was by translating Vaishnava texts and messages into English that AbhayCharanaravinda contributed most to the Gaudiya Math during his involvement. Bhaktisiddhanta tried to use these translations as a means for his guru to spread Gaudiya Vaishnavism to the West.
Although a devoted practitioner, as AbhayCharanaravinda had been a householder, and not a sannyasi, he was a relative outsider during the heyday of the 1940’s. This probably allowed him to remain on friendly terms with most gurus who had created independent institutions of their own after the Gaudiya Math had been split. He was particularly close to Bhakti PrajnanKeshava, who founded the Guadiya Vedanta Samiti in 1940. Bhakti PrajnanKeshava in fact gave sannyasa to AbhayCharanaravinda in 1959, after AbhayCharanaravinda had been prompted by a dream of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati calling him to accept the renounced order. As a sannyasi, he was awarded the title “Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.” Prabhupada, in honor of his spiritual master, would usually prefix his initials “A.C.” to his sannyasa name. Thus, AbhayCharan came to be A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the name by which he would be known to posterity.
2. The Establishment of ISKCON
After his sannyasa, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada resumed writing, and published the first three volumes of his thirty volume translation and commentary of the Bhagavata Purana. He also began planning to fulfill his spiritual master’s desire for the promulgation of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the West.
It is more than worth noting that he was 71 years old when in 1965, he sailed to with “a suitcase, an umbrella, a supply of dry cereal, about seven dollars worth of Indian currency, and several boxes of books. (Wikipedia, Srila Prabhupada)” Adversities notwithstanding, Prabhupada managed to arrive at on at . The major problem, however, was that Prabhupada lacked the financial resources to secure a permanent residence in the : He had to move from place to place and improvise with makeshift accommodations.
Not only was he financially insecure, but also socially neglected. He recorded his experiences in his diary. The following excerpts are typical entrees of that period.
There was no response of the visitors invited to come and join Hare Kirtana this evening at But I alone executed the Kirtana ceremony with my T. R. [tape recorder] till (Prabhupada, The Beginnings 65)
According to Maya-pur-Panjika
The form of deviance being studied is cults, particularly the Hare Krishna. Krishna is a popular Hindu god and is the inspiration of many cults. Prabhupada came to America in the 1960's and founded the Hare Krishna movement. He was sent to America by his guru to spread the word of Krishna when he was 70 and attracted a following of young hippies disillusioned with material goods. But failed to attract a larger population because this behavior is viewed as deviant by most of society.
There are different varieties of cults, the Moonies, the Children of God, Eckankar and Scientology are but a few. Basically, there are two main types of cults, those with Christian based beliefs, and those with Eastern Religion based beliefs.
Typically, people who engage in the form of deviance are overwhelmingly Anglo-American, over 80% of those who join the Hare Krishna are white. Most are single when they enter, and at the time of their joining are not gainfully employed. Most have their high school diploma, are under the age of 30, come from middle and upper-middle class families, and most come from Protestant or Catholic backgrounds. As children, most attended church weekly with their families. Many may incorrectly assume that the people who join cults are in search of support of all kinds. The parents of these members, however, tend to be well off financially and able to properly support their children. Many members associate themselves with a highly authoritarian cult that emphasizes enthusiastic religious devotion. They are in search of group support and family values that lacked in their childhood. This is viewed as deviant behavior because they find conventional ways unsatisfactory to their lives, and instead find unorthodox means to fulfill their needs.
People engage in this form of deviance in temples. The temples are adorned with statues thought to be the incarnation of Krishna in a material form. Theses deities have to be dressed and dusted every morning and they are bathed in a liquid made of rose water, milk and cow urine. After the statue is bathed, it is considered to be an honor to drink the liquid. They engage in deviance in these temples because that is where the action is accepted and cannot be looked down upon by society; in the temples it is accepted and even honored to act accordingly.
People join the Hare Krishna because they may feel alienated, frustrated, or deprived in some way. Some may be in the search of meaning in their life and find the answer within the Hare Krishna organization. Others, such as George Harrison, may find the organization as a means to escape drug abuse. Many are attracted to the Hare Krishna because of their philosophy, which they say is logical and to a certain extent scientific. Members also join because of other members. The friendliness and accepting nature of the other members is another large reason why so many join the cult. Also, many earlier members were attracted by the charismatic leader, Srila Prabhupada.
The sixties and seventies were a time of social discontent among the young population in America. People began to redefine themselves and became unsatisfied with things about themselves. This left room open to explore other avenues of fulfillment, such as cults. The Krishna search for more meaning in institutions than America has to offer. People joined the Krishna because it was tied to the counterculture revolution in America, people thought that by joining the cult, they would obtain an increased knowledge of themselves and their environment.
The Hare Krishna is the most total institution of all other cults. With other cults, the members simply accept the belief and practice it. Members of the Hare Krishna, however, must proceed through four steps before they become a full follower. After these four steps are finished, the members are the same as everyone else in the cult who have gone through the steps. The first step is the pre-initiation stage where the member is taught the cult's philosophy over a six month period while taking part in temple life, at this point the member must prove him/herself. The second stage is initiation. Once the member is considered suitable, the temple president gives the new member a Sanskrit name during a fire ceremony. At this stage a string of beads is given to the member that he must wear until he dies. Brahmin is the third stage where members can receive a second rite where they are given a secret mantra to be chanted three times a day. At this stage the men may also receive a thread to wear across their chest. The final stage is the Sannyasa which is more special as only a few members achieve this stage. They must make a life long vow to celibacy, poverty, and preaching.
Access is restricted to visitors when they come to the temple. This prevents their friends and families from intruding on the grounds where this deviance is taking place. Denial of access prevents people form the outside from looking down on the deviant behavior. The members also live on different compounds, separated by sex, with the children separated from their parents when they are five years old to go live with their spiritual teacher. An example of how rigid a total institution the Hare Krishna organization is are eight basic rules that members of Hare Krishna must abide by, they are:
1. He must chant 16 rounds of prayers a day
2. He cannot eat meat, fish, eggs, onions or garlic
3. Sexual contact is only acceptable between married couples once a month for the purpose of reproduction, not enjoyment.
4. He cannot take part in any activities which promote the slaughter of animals.
5. He must at all times wear the sacred beaded necklace, paint his body with a mixture of clay and water, shave his head except for a top of section.
6. He must rise early every morning, take a cold shower and offer a ceremony which involves the burning of incense and recitation of a prayer.
7. He must not gamble.
8. He cannot smoke, drink, or take any drug.
The men also have to wear robes, called dhotis. The women wear robes which even cover their head called saris. Members also wear beaded necklaces to show their status in the faith. These articles identify them as different from the rest of society because they dress differently than others.
Another example of how rigid the Hare Krishna's are is the schedule of their day, although their days may vary, most days in the Hare Krishna faith go like this:
3:00A.M. Get up and have cold shower, get dressed.
4:00A.M. Go to temple, personal chant.
5:00A.M. Temple service
6:00A.M. Study hour to read their Scripture
7:30 A.M. Breakfast
8:00 A.M. Chores
10:00 A.M. Raise money in the community, with a break for lunch.
6:00 P.M. Meal
7:00 P.M. Study
8:15 P.M. Hot milk
9:00 P.M. Rest
Of Hare Krishna members, 80% are under the age of 25 upon entering the organization. Only 20% of members are of a visible minority. Less than 22% of members have a degree in school beyond their high school diploma. This may be due to the young age at which the members join the group, many may join before even going to college. The parents of members of the Hare Krishna on average make more than $30,000 dollars a year, so members come from financially stable backgrounds. Members are also overwhelmingly Protestant or Catholic by 68% compared to the other main religions.
The values of the Hare Krishna are expressed in their utter devotion to their god Krishna. The fact that they chant so often a day and even give their children to another member to watch them grow show their complete devotion to their god. The fact that they take so much care in preparing their sacred beaded necklaces and in washing the deities also shows how devoted they are. In their eyes, god comes before anything.
The belief system of the Krishna faith is different from other religions. The Krishna, for example, believe that Jesus was not God, but that he was a devotee of Krishna visiting form another planet. They also believe that Krishna is the highest of Hindu gods, the Lord and the Absolute Truth who has had many incarnations. They believe that the Bible and the Koran are genuine scriptures but have been distorted over the years in their many translations; instead it is the Hindu Scriptures which are authoritative. They also believe that the life that one leads in this life determined the form that your soul will take in reincarnation. They believe that salvation lies in complete devotion to Krishna, and that any actin done for Krishna is not bad as Krishna is above good and bad.