What is ISKCON?
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness was formed in July, 1966, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda and a number of his American students. ISKCON is composed of devotees. Devotees are held together by mutual agreement to accept the principles of bhakti-yoga or devotional service as the goal of life. By mutual endeavor, the entire Society concentrates on Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Personality of Godhead, while engaged in various tasks, cooking, eating, working in an office or chanting the holy names in the city streets. His Divine Grace is a pure devotee, and those disciples who sincerely follow his instructions have every chance of becoming pure devotees themselves. The initiated devotees in each center live in urban commune settings (with the one exception of New Vṛndāvana, ISKCON’s āśrama of homes, temples, farm land and cows in the hills of West Virginia), and are freeing themselves from the conditions of birth, death, disease and old age by fixing their minds on the eternal joyful Personality of Godhead. To live in ISKCON as an initiated student, one agrees to accept four rules: no meateating, no illicit sex, no intoxicants and no gambling. The disciples perform devotional service, duties and chanting in a life-routine characterized by simple living and high-thinking.
Kṛṣṇa consciousness is experienced as a process of self-purification. Its means and ends are an open secret, and there is no financial charge for learning Kṛṣṇa consciousness or receiving initiation into the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa. The gist of devotional service to Kṛṣṇa is that one takes whatever capacity or talent he or she has and dovetails it with the transcendental interest of the Supreme Enjoyer, the Absolute Truth. The writer or poet writes articles and poems for Kṛṣṇa, and the Society publishes periodicals. The businessman does business in order to sell literature and establish many temples around the world. The householders raise children in the science of God, and husband and wife live in mutual cooperation for spiritual progress. And everyone in ISKCON goes on saṅkīrtana. Saṅkīrtana means chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra in the city streets for the benefit of all citizens. Śrīla Prabhupāda has said that the saṅkīrtana party is the heart and soul of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. Therefore, in each of the 30 ISKCON centers, saṅkīrtana is carried on several times daily, and all other activity is subsidiary. Our spiritual master stresses this, for we are in the line of Lord Caitanya. Caitanya Mahāprabhu is revealed by Vedic scriptures to be Kṛṣṇa Himself, come in the mood of a pure devotee. Five hundred years ago Lord Caitanya understood from scripture that in this present age of Kali (quarrel and disturbance), when mental distraction is high and almost no one is serious about spiritual perfection, chanting alone is the most effective means of God realization. Following the saṅkīrtana process chalked out by Lord Caitanya, the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement of today takes parties of from five to 30 devotees, men wearing saffron robes and women wearing colorful saris. And they celebrate the holy name with dancing and melodious chanting.
The saṅkīrtana singing is accompanied with mṛdaṅga drum and pairs of karatals (hand cymbals). The devotees experience that this joyous singing of the names of God produces immediate feelings of ecstasy coming from the spiritual stratum. The effect is a clearing away of the dirt from the mind engrossed in the gloom of material existence. Under the instruction of the spiritual master, they gladly spread this chanting, and in reciprocation Śrī Kṛṣṇa allows all to taste the nectar for which everyone is always anxious. Because the Personality of Godhead is Absolute, His name is nondifferent from Himself. Therefore the Supreme Person, Kṛṣṇa, the Reservoir of Pleasure, dances on the tongue of the chanter of His name; to chant and hear fixes the mind, in meditation, in direct contact with God. The mantra is not to be mistaken for an ordinary song or anything tinged with the mundane; it is a pure transcendental sound vibration of the Absolute and has been upheld as such since time immemorial by the great sages and Vedic scriptures. Lord Caitanja prays to the Supreme: “My dear Lord, You are so kind that You have invested all potency in Your Holy Name.” This Absolute Presence of God in His Name holds true not only for the members of the saṅkīrtana party, but for any living entity who hears the chanting; anyone will benefit if he simply likes the sound of the chanting, or he appreciates the presence of the saṅkīrtana party in any way. That is the mercy of the Absolute. The holy name is compared to a fire; whether one is scientifically conversant with all the properties of fire or knows nothing about it, if one puts his hand in fire he will be burnt. Sincere chanting and hearing of the mahāmantra will cleanse the mind and elevate one and all to the natural original position of spirit soul. Therefore there is no hesitancy on the devotees part in going to the largest and most public gatherings of people and broadcasting, wherever possible, the sound of the transcendental Names: Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare.
Chanting takes place regularly in the main streets of cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Berkeley, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Honolulu, London, Hamburg, Tokyo, etc., with new ISKCON centers being regularly established. The expansion of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is realization of the prediction made by Lord Caitanya: “The chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa will be heard in every town and village of the world.”
The Society is as famous for its Sunday feasts and festivals as for its chanting in the streets. Every Sunday, in each of the ISKCON centers, a grand feast of from 10 to 15 courses of Indian vegetarian food is prepared and distributed for guests. The feasts are arranged around festival days celebrating the Pastimes of Śrī Kṛṣṇa during His Appearance on the earth 5,000 years ago. Plays, puppet shows and chanting are regular items which invite guests to participate in the transcendental glorification of the Personality of Godhead. Kṛṣṇa consciousness is not a dry philosophy. Residents of San Francisco appreciate the yearly Ratha-yātrā Festival in which the large cart bearing the Jagannatha Deity is wheeled to the sea. During the Ratha-yātrā celebration of 1970 more than 20,000 people followed the regal 8,000 pound carts, and thousands were fed full plates of prasādam at the seaside.
The important aim of the festivals, chanting and philosophizing is to engage people in the service of the Personality of Godhead and in feeling His soothing contact. All miseries are caused by forgetfulness of God, and ISKCON, by reviving the lost memory of the Supreme Lord in the minds of the people, is—according to the Bhagavad-gītā—performing the greatest service and highest welfare work for suffering humanity. Moreover, it is performed in this sublime and easy way, by feasting, dancing, singing and philosophizing.
Sometimes in Lord Caitanya’s time, the devotees were accused by the impersonalists of being mere sentimentalists because they were always singing and dancing. The actual fact is that Kṛṣṇa consciousness is backed by a vast learned literature, the Vedic scriptures such as Bhagavad-gītā, Śrīmad-Bhagavatam, Vedānta-sūtra, the Upaniṣads, Mahābhārata, Rāmāyaṇa, etc., so that one could read 24 hours a day without exhausting the Source. All of this Kṛṣṇa consciousness information is understood by revelation. Simply by applying one’s energy in a devotional service attitude, the knowledge becomes known to the devotee through the heart. Classes in the transcendental science of God consciousness or bhakti-yoga are held three times daily at at ISKCON centers, and the public is freely invited to attend. The Brahma Sampradayā disciplic succession, in which Śrīla Prabhupāda is coming, is particularly noted for being a learned line. There is plenty of philosophy and logic in stock. There are many different religious philosophies and transcendental teachings, but the Kṛṣṇa conscious students and ministers are unique in that they are convinced of the Personality of Godhead. Not just that they have heard “God is great,” but they have heard from the spiritual master and continuously hearing from the scriptures just how great He is, how His energies are working and exactly how He is enjoying. There is no literature of theism as voluminous, exacting, consistent and clear as this Vedic literature of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. The conviction in service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is due to direct reciprocation with Him. Simply by chanting or hearing the pastimes of the Personality of Godhead, one is contacting the Absolute—and he can feel it. By engaging the senses, the will, words and energy, the devotees are receiving constant information from the spiritual world. Kṛṣṇa Himself describes such devotees as the topmost yogis and mystics, so it is no wonder that they are conversant with the nature of God and the way back to Godhead.
ISKCON provides formal education in the highest science, or what Bhagavad-gītā calls the “king of knowledge.” According to Vedic sources, education can only be valid when there is spiritual knowledge or self-realization, and a man is said to have no qualifications if he does not know who he is in terms of self-realization or God realization. Learning the texts requires living in accordance with the scriptural injunctions without the slightest deviation. The need for Kṛṣṇa conscious preachers is very great, and it is a full time vocation. The curriculum advances basically from student to minister; after studying and working in a temple for one year, the student may be awarded the title of bhakti-śāstri, or ordained minister, with further responsibilities and with advancement of service. He may finally take the renounced order, called sannyāsa, and receive the title svāmī.
As the philosophy of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is nonsectarian, any man—Hindu or Christian—will advance in his faith by chanting the Holy Name of God and hearing the Bhagavad-gītā. Without knowledge, realization and loving service to the One Supreme God, there can be no religion. Let the inhabitants of this planet rejoice in the saṅkīrtana movement and live to see the fulfillment of the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa carried to every town and village. Only in this way can real peace prevail in the world and mankind qualify to enter into the kingdom of God.
Pictured opposite is the scene of the 1970 Ratha-yātrā Festival held in San Francisco, California. Disciples of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda led a parade of 20,000 persons in honor of the Supreme Lord, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the cause of all causes. Three huge carts carried the Deity incarnations of Lord Jagannātha, His sister Subhadrā and His brother Lord Balarāma. By chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra, dancing, feasting on prasādam (spiritual food offered in love to God), and hearing the words of Śrīla Prabhupāda, who personally rode in the parade, thousands of people were able to feel natural transcendental emotions in glorification of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. At all ISKCON branches around the world, similar festivals are held for the spiritual upliftment of all humanity.
A Brief History of ISKCON
In discussing Kṛṣṇa consciousness there is no question of ancient or modern since these teachings are eternal. Because Kṛṣṇa consciousness is eternal it is impossible to trace an origin. This means that there never was a time when Kṛṣṇa consciousness did not exist, so it can be said that there is no point at which Kṛṣṇa consciousness has come into being from not being. For this reason, Kṛṣṇa consciousness is said to be beginningless, which does not mean that it does not yet exist, but that it has always existed, so a point of “beginning” cannot be traced.
In the Bhagavad-gītā, one of the principal scriptures, it is stated that Lord Kṛṣṇa (God) transmitted this teaching to Vivasvān, the god of the sun, many millions of years ago. Vivasvān passed the teachings on to Manu, the progenitor of all mankind, and Manu transmitted it to the royal sage, Iksvāku. In this manner the teaching of Kṛṣṇa consciousness was passed down by a process known as disciplic succession. The validity of the process of disciplic succession depends on the qualified master transmitting the teaching to the sincere student, without adding any personally motivated interpretations. The teaching must be presented to the student exactly as it was previously presented to the teacher. In this way the teaching is preserved intact and unadulterated. It may be compared to the job of the mailman who delivers the letter, but does not add to it or subtract from it. In the course of time, however, the disciplic succession was broken. In order to re-establish this disciplic succession, Kṛṣṇa again personally transmitted this teaching to the great devotee, Arjuna, 5,000 years ago in India. This transmission is recorded in the Bhagavad-gītā.
At the time of the creation of this present universe, Lord Kṛṣṇa personally gave this knowledge to Brahmā, the builder of the universe. Upon hearing the sound of Kṛṣṇa playing the flute, Brahmā awoke to eternal knowledge. Brahmā transmitted the knowledge to the sage Nārada, and Nārada, in turn, gave the knowledge to Vyāsa, who is the compiler of the Vedic scriptures. This disciplic succession was passed down through many great teachers and eventually to Lord Krṣṇa Caitanya in the fifteenth century. Actually Lord Caitanya is the Supreme Lord Himself, but He appeared as a devotee of the Lord. Because He appeared as a devotee, He accepted a spiritual master in this line of disciplic succession known as the Brahma-sampradāya because it has been handed down from Lord Brahmā. Lord Caitanya travelled through India teaching the chanting of the holy names of the Lord.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century Śrīla Ṭhākur Bhaktivinode, a great devotee in Brahma-sampradāya, began the work of making this knowledge available to the English-speaking world. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Gosvāmī, the son of Śrīla Ṭhākur Bhaktivinode, continued the work of making this knowledge available to the English-speaking world. In 1918 he established the Gauḍīya Math Institute for teaching Kṛṣṇa consciousness. He established sixty-four missions.
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Gosvāmī, a disciple of Śrī Śrī Śrīmad Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Gosvāmī, came to the United States in 1965 to continue the work of his spiritual master. In 1966 the International Society for Krishna Consciousness was established in New York City. As of May, 1970, there are thirty centers around the world.
The teaching being propagated in America and Europe today by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami and his disciples is exactly the same as that given by Lord Kṛṣṇa to Vivasvān, Arjuna and Brahmā. It is not a question of modifying ancient teachings to fit a modern world. The relevance of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is eternal and perfect for all people, regardless of culture, place or time. The advice given by Śrī Kṛṣṇa to Arjuna five thousand years ago in India is accepted without modification by modern Americans and Europeans.
Teachings of ISKCON
The teachings of Kṛṣṇa consciousness cannot properly be classified as belief. The teaching is true eternal knowledge. Belief may be either true or false, but it is still belief. Truth may be believed or disbelieved, but it is still truth. For example, a blind man might not believe in the existence of the sun, but the existence of the sun is still a fact. Similarly, the eternal, knowledgeable and blissful nature of God is a fact regardless of the belief or disbelief of anyone.
It is this fact which is the primary concern of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Kṛṣṇa consciousness is the revival of the original consciousness of the living being—the conscious awareness that one is eternally related to God, or Kṛṣṇa.
The true self or soul of the individual is eternal, ever-existent. Due to the ignorance of material contamination, the soul is forced to assume a continuous succession of material bodies. When one body dies, the soul immediately assumes another body and is born again. The individual forgets his past life and identifies with the present body, which is, in reality, simply a temporary covering for the soul. One must overcome this false identification with the temporary body and realize his true position. When an individual realizes that his true position is to be the loving servant of Kṛṣṇa, he is freed from the cycle of birth and death and can resume his spiritual life, an eternal life of knowledge and bliss in the loving service of the Supreme Lord.
This transcendental loving service, called bhakti, is the goal of all religion and philosophy; actually it is the goal of life itself. The process of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is bhakti, the ultimate goal. Kṛṣṇa Himself is the Absolute Truth, and the function of the living entity is to live in constant loving service to the Truth. This love is reciprocal. Whatever the devotee gives to the Lord is returned with love many times over.
All living beings are already accepting love from Kṛṣṇa in the form of their food and all material comforts, and, in fact, life itself. Kṛṣṇa consciousness is the process of becoming aware that all this is the gift of Kṛṣṇa and living accordingly. All facilities and abilities at our disposal should be used in service to Kṛṣṇa. In this way one’s consciousness will be raised to the transcendental platform because he will be thinking of Kṛṣṇa. Thus all the senses and faculties can be engaged in the transcendental loving service of the Lord. It is not necessary to wait for death to enter into the Kingdom of God, because one who is engaged in the transcendental loving service of the Lord is living in the Kingdom of God, even before death. He may still be on this earth, but because he is constantly serving Kṛṣṇa, by the grace of Kṛṣṇa he is constantly aware of Kṛṣṇa everywhere.
One cannot make up his own God and then claim to be constantly aware of God. Kṛṣṇa is a distinct individual with distinct characteristics. For example, if someone wants to meet the President of the United States, he cannot create a fictional president and then claim to know the President of the United States. The President is a specific person, not the creation of someone’s imagination. Unless one knows that specific person, with his specific form and characteristics, he cannot claim to know the President.
Similarly, unless one knows the specific form and personality of Kṛṣṇa, he cannot claim to know Kṛṣṇa just because he has created some fictional God in his mind.
Actually, no one can reach God by guesswork or by his own devices. In order to know Kṛṣṇa, one must follow the instructions of Kṛṣṇa. These instructions are given in the scriptures.
The prime instruction is that one must revive his dormant love for Kṛṣṇa. In the present age, known as the Kali-yuga, or the age of quarrel, the recommended method for reviving this dormant love for Kṛṣṇa is the process of constantly chanting the holy names of Kṛṣṇa. This was revealed by Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya, who said that in this age the easiest means of spiritual realization is the chanting of the holy names. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is dedicated to spreading the chanting of these holy names. By the mercy of Lord Caitanya, these holy names have been given to us in an easily learned and repeated form known as the mahāmantra or great chanting:
Hare Krṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa
Krṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare
Hare Rāma Hare Rāma
Rāma Rāma Hare Hare
Hare (pronounced Ha-ray) is the supreme pleasure potency of the Lord. Kṛṣṇa is the original name of the Lord, and it means the all-attractive. Rāma is another name of the Lord meaning the enjoyer because Kṛṣṇa is the supreme enjoyer; the function of the living being is to be enjoyed by Kṛṣṇa. Under the false impression that they are the enjoyers, the living beings are actually suffering in material existence. The living being cannot enjoy independently. It is impossible. Because the living entities are constantly trying to accomplish the impossible, they are constantly frustrated. Our limited senses do not have the capacity for independent enjoyment, but when we use our senses to please the senses of Kṛṣṇa, then we are automatically satisfied. In so doing, the senses of the individual become dovetailed with the supreme senses of Krṣṇa, and the living being attains the pleasure and happiness which is otherwise impossible to find. Kṛṣṇa consciousness is experienced as a process of self-purification. Its means and ends are an open secret, and there is no financial charge for learning Kṛṣṇa consciousness or receiving initiation into the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa. Therefore, saṅkīrtana, or the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra in the city streets for the benefit of all citizens, is one of the more important activities of ISKCON. Saṅkīrtana parties are frequently seen celebrating the holy name of Kṛṣṇa with dancing and melodious singing, accompanied with mṛdaṅga drums and pairs of karatālas (hand cymbals). The devotees experience that this joyous singing of the names of God produces immediate feelings of ecstasy. The effect is a clearing away of the dirt from the mind engrossed in the gloom of material existence. Because the Personality of Godhead is absolute, His name is nondifferent from Himself. Therefore the Supreme Person, Kṛṣṇa, the reservoir of pleasure, allows the chanter of His name to experience the nectar of association with Him. The Society is as famous for its Sunday feasts and festivals as for its chanting in the streets. Every Sunday, in each of the ISKCON centers, a grand feast of from ten to fifteen courses of Indian vegetarian food is prepared and distributed to the guests. The feasts are arranged around festival days celebrating the pastimes of Śrī Kṛṣṇa during His appearance on the earth 5,000 years ago. Plays, puppet shows and chanting are regular items which invite guests to participate in the transcendental glorification of the Personality of Godhead. Kṛṣṇa consciousness is not a dry philosophy. Residents of San Francisco appreciate the yearly Ratha-yātrā Festival in which the large cart bearing the Jagannātha Deity is wheeled to the sea. During the Ratha-yātrā celebration of 1969, more than 15,000 people followed the regal 8,000 pound cart, and thousands were fed full plates of prasādam at the seaside. In London, a similar procession is led to Trafalgar Square. The important aim of the festivals, chanting and philosophizing is to engage people in the service of the Personality of Godhead so they can feel His soothing contact. All miseries are caused by forgetfulness of God, and ISKCON, by reviving the lost memory of the Supreme Lord in the minds of the people, is—according to Bhagavad-gītā—performing the greatest service and highest welfare work for suffering humanity. Moreover, it is performed in this sublime and easy way, by feasting, dancing, singing and philosophizing.
In addition to chanting the holy names, one should study the scriptures thoroughly. The basic scripture of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is the Bhagavad-gītā, which was spoken by Kṛṣṇa to the great devotee Arjuna. Because it was spoken to a great devotee, the Bhagavad-gītā contains information which is not found in other scriptures. This is not to imply that the other scriptures are false, but in the Bible Lord Jesus Christ says, “I have more to tell, but ye cannot bear it now.” The Bhagavad-gītā and the Bible are in complete agreement because the knowledge revealed in both is that the only valid life is a life of loving service to the Lord. It may appear contradictory that in the Bible it is recommended that one worship Lord Jesus Christ and in the Bhagavad-gītā it is recommended that one worship Lord Kṛṣṇa. Actually there is only one God, but He can appear in different forms at different times and places. The form of Kṛṣṇa is the original form from whom the other forms emanate. So Lord Jesus is actually an incarnation of God, as the son of God. It is not the purpose of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to dissuade sincere devotees of Lord Jesus from worshiping Him. The purpose of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is to spread love of God to all people. Anyone can practice Kṛṣṇa consciousness by the process of chanting the holy names, but in order to teach and spread this knowledge it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the scriptures. Bhagavad-gitā is not the only scriptural text of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Other texts include Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Śrī Brahma-saṁhitā, Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, and many others. The texts that are studied are originally written in Sanskrit and Bengali and are presently being translated by the spiritual master and founder of the Society, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. To learn and understand all these texts requires an intense effort and much time. The scriptures must be thoroughly learned and understood without any personally motivated interpretation. In order to teach Kṛṣṇa consciousness one must live in exact accordance with the scriptural injunctions without the slightest deviation. Teachers of Kṛṣṇa consciousness are badly needed in the world today, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is engaged in training qualified teachers. One who wishes to study Kṛṣṇa consciousness and teach others must be completely dedicated without any outside interest whatsoever.
The students of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness lead completely regulated lives, according to the injunctions of the scriptures. They eat only foods that are specially prepared according to scriptural directions. They have no sex life outside of marriage; they take no intoxicants, and they do not indulge in gambling or idle amusements, such as movies, television, etc.