History of the Hare Krishna Movement:

A Comprehensive Study on the Movementí»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, Ií»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 60í»s and 70í»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 Hippiesí» affinity towards love, sex, and narcotics, and the seeming link between those three and Hindu scriptures, Hippiesí» 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[1]. 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.


I.         Introduction


One of the most visible phenomenon during the 1960í»s and 70í»s in America 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 í░Hare Krishnas,í▒ after their eponymous mahamantra:


Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare


Since its conception in the United States of America, 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 founderí»s death during which the ISKCON survived many controversies and underwent many reforms. By studying the movementí»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


1.       Hinduism

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.


2.       Vaishnavism


Vaishnavism is distinct amongst Hindu denomination in that it emphasizes bhakti[2] 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 Krishna.

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 Visvambhar Mishra in 1486 in Nadiya, West Bengal. Although he had been initiated in the Madhvacharya[3] tradition, Chaitanyaí»s beliefs were subtly different from those of his fellow followers. Instead of espousing a purely monistic[4] or dualistic[5] perspective like other Vaishnavas, Chaitanya developed a unique doctrine called Achintya Bheda-Abheda[6] 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 í«Cosmic manifestationí»).

The primary religious texts are the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bhagavata Purana, both of in which Krishna is recognized as the supreme God. The Bhagavata Purana particularly advocates bhakti yoga. The Bhagavad-Gita is considered the most important text by many Krishna 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[7], 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.              í░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)í▒

                                        ii.              í░Although you [Krishna] 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)í▒

2.                     The belief that souls are eternal and manifest in various forms of life according to the laws of karma[8].

                                          i.              í░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)í▒

                                        ii.              í░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)í▒

                                       iii.              í░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)í▒

3.                     The belief that Krishna (meaning í░He who is all attractiveí▒) is the name that best fits God[9] (for clarification on the theological relationship between Hindu deities,, see Figure 1.). In other words, Krishna, and not Brahma, Shiva, or Vishnu, is the supreme deity.

                                          i.              í░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)í▒

                                        ii.              í░Such a yogi, who engages in the worshipful service of the Supersoul [Vishnu][10], knowing that I and the Supersoul are one, remains always in Me in all circumstances. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 11.31)í▒


Figure 1. Chart depicting Gaudiya Vaishnava relationship of deities.[11]





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 Krishna. 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 Krishna (Bhagavad Gita 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 Krishna. í░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)í▒

                                        ii.              í░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)í▒


Since Chaitanya didní»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 personí»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 Vrindavan 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, Chaitanyaí»s disciples endeavored to establish Gaudiya Vaishnavism as a sturdy tradition. Krishna Das, one of the movementí»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 movementí»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[12]. 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 movementí»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 India, Burma, and the United Kingdom.

The Gaudiya Math was significant in that it was the first attempt to institutionalize the movement. Interestingly, though, several of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswatií»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 Saraswatií»s death[13]. 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 í░absolute and unconventionalí▒ 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[14], 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[15]. One of the strongest critics of this situation was Abhay Charanaravinda, 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 Abhay Charan De. Abhay Charan first met his future spiritual master when a friend insisted that Abhay Charan accompany him to visit Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati at the acharyaí»s headquarters in Calcutta. As his father was also an influential Vaishnava author who had written books that exposed Guadiya Vaishnavism to a more educated Indian public, Abhay Charan may have thought it natural and fitting to join the movement. However, as much as he was impressed with Bhaktisiddhanta, Abhay Charan returned to his secular life until in 1933, when he finally received initiation from Bhaktisiddhanta himself, along with the name Abhay Charanaravinda. Bhaktisiddhanta was particularly fond of his discipleí»s writing, and intimated that Abhay Charanaravinda should expand his devotional writing. Hence, it was by translating Vaishnava texts and messages into English that Abhay Charanaravinda 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 Abhay Charanaravinda had been a householder, and not a sannyasi[16], he was a relative outsider during the heyday of the 1940í»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 Prajnan Keshava, who founded the Guadiya Vedanta Samiti in 1940. Bhakti Prajnan Keshava in fact gave sannyasa to Abhay Charanaravinda in 1959, after Abhay Charanaravinda had been prompted by a dream of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati calling him to accept the renounced order. As a sannyasi, he was awarded the title í░Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.í▒ Prabhupada, in honor of his spiritual master, would usually prefix his initials í░A.C.í▒ to his sannyasa name. Thus, Abhay Charan 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 masterí»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 America with í░a suitcase, an umbrella, a supply of dry cereal, about seven dollars worth of Indian currency, and several boxes of books. (Wikipedia, Srila Prabhupada)í▒ Adversities notwithstanding, Prabhupada managed to arrive at New York on September 17th, 1965 at 5:30 AM. The major problem, however, was that Prabhupada lacked the financial resources to secure a permanent residence in the United States of America: 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[17] this evening at 7:30 p.m. But I alone executed the Kirtana ceremony with my T. R. [tape recorder] till 10 p.m. (Prabhupada, The Beginnings 65)


According to Maya-pur-Panjika[18], today is Adhivas day of Gour Purnima[19]. Devotees at Vrindavan and Nabadwipa are enjoying the celebration. I am here alone without any devotee companion. But I have come here to serve the Lord and not for personal happiness. I am prepared to live in hell even if I am able to serve the Lord. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu wanted that His mission should be propagated all over the world and that is my objective. I do not mind the inconvenience personally felt. (Prabhupada, The Beginnings 82)


Fortunately, Prabhupadaí»s big break came not much later on Sunday, June 12th[20], 1966, when he prepared a feast of traditional Bengali dishes for 16 teenagers. The young people loved the food and overall convivial atmosphere so much that Sunday feasts became a regular preaching tool for Prabhupada[21]. Within a month, with the help of his newly recruited teenagers, Prabhupada had managed to rent a small shop where he began to lecture on the Bhagavad-Gita to a growing audience. On July 13th, 1966, he had submitted legal documents to register the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, popularly known as the í░Hare Krishna movementí▒), and in the following month, initiated eleven disciples. These disciples in turn traveled to other cities to open new centers and recruit more members. Prabhupada and his disciplesí» exploits are well-summarized in the following excerpt:


As the movement flourished in the United States, Bhaktivedanta dispatched three couples on July 1968 to export the religion to London, marking the beginning of ISKCONí»s world-wide expansion. In the space of just a few years, Bhaktivedanta would be propelled from the organizer of the first local activities in New York City to an ever-increasing itinerary of world-wide preaching tours. Even when facing health problems from 1967 to 1972, he still traveled and preached. In July 1967 he returned to India; two years later he visited Europe to preach in England and Germany; he went to India again in 1970; traveled the next year to Australia, Kenya, Russia, and Hawaii; and returned to Honolulu to preach again in 1972.

íŽFrom 1975 to 1977, the Swamií»s activities became even more intense. In addition to the demanding work of translation and his correspondence load, he took up the task of visiting the growing communities (seventy-six in 1975) around the world in order to inspire followers with his message of devotion to Krishna. (Squarcini and Fizzotti 10-12)


By the 1977, the year of his death, Prabhupada had established more than seventy ISKCON centers world wide, including thirty in the United States and eight in India. There was no continent save Antarctica on which there werení»t at least four ISKCON communities. A steady stream of devotees entered the movement, and the future for ISKCON seemed bright.


Figure 2. Number of ISKCON recruits in the United States and Internationally by year from 1970~1977[22]


United States


























Note: The above figures were compiled from a list of devotee names contained in a yearly ISKCON publication Sri Vyasa Puja. Each year, devotees from each of ISKCONí»s communities in America and around the world inscribe their names as part of a tribute to ISKCONí»s founder, Srila Prabhupada. The tributes are published yearly by ISKCONí»s publishing company, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Despite limitations as a reliable census, I have chosen to include this data as they represent the only source available pertaining to ISKCONí»s recruitment efforts over time. Some people estimate that there were 5,000 devotees by the time Prabhupada departed.


3.                Difficulties: Preaching to the Hippies


One major obstacle in Prabhupadaí»s mission was the unfamiliarity of Hindu theology to the western civilizations. Preaching a monotheistic religion based on familiar Christian texts was one thing; preaching that God had many names, all of them in Sanskrit, is obviously an entirely different ordeal. This was not helped by the fact that most people who sought Prabhupadaí»s teachings were frustrated, young people who had been alienated from society – namely, Hippies.

It is interesting to note that the Hippie Counterculture movements and the Hare Krishna movements are demographically analogical. Both movements consisted mainly of white people under the age of thirty. Both movements incidentally share a similar time frame: in 1965, a group of college dropouts from San Francisco State College began living communally in Haight-Ashbury, California. By 1966, the Hippie population in Haight-Ashbury had grown to 15,000. Clearly, people who to whom the Counterculture held much appeal were also drawn to Prabhupada.

Indeed, one would not be exaggerating when saying that Prabhupadaí»s mission, which had been largely ignored by the Americaí»s í░cream of the crop,í▒ was salvaged by the Counterculture. Rochfordí»s inquiries into the movementí»s demography reveal that 63% of the members who had joined from 1967 to 1971 were involved in the Counterculture (Figure 3). The majority of the rest were also involved in organizations that indicated social discontent, and longing for spiritual enlightenment and self-realization – all common characteristics shared by constituents of the Counterculture.


Figure 3. Involvements in Other Social Movements, Religious Organizations, and Self-Help groups by Year of Joining ISKCON[23]

Type of movement or group

ISKCON members joining 1967~1971

ISKCON members joining 1972~1976

ISKCON members joining 1977~1980

Mean %

Political Movements*





Anti-war (Peace) movement










Self-awareness or psychologically oriented groups**





Religious movements, churches, and/or spiritual groups***





Therapy or counseling





*Types of political movements include: various radical groups (e.g., Students for a Democratic Society, Anti-War groups, The Socialist Workers Party, traditional political groups and parties and an assortment of others including The Nixon Eviction Committee, Movement for a Democratic Military, and í░No Nukes.í▒

**Types of self-awareness and psychological groups include: Encounter groups, í░Tí▒ groups, Erhard Seminar Training (EST), Esalan Institute, and a variety of less well-known self-help groups, such as the Berkeley Holistic Health Center and Morehouse.

***Types of religious movements, churches, and spiritual groups include: Traditional faiths (e.g., Catholic Church, Jewish, Methodist), Fundamentalist Christian Churches (e.g., Pentecostal Church), various forms of yoga (e.g., Hatha yoga and Kundalini yoga), other new religions (e.g., Self-Realization Fellowship, Divine Light Mission, Sri Chimoy, Satya Sai Baba, Scientology, and Transcendental Meditation), and a variety of other religious groups and faiths such as Sufism, Quakerism, and Buddhism.


The Counterculture at one point almost made something of an icon out of Srila Prabhupada - a man who had completely stripped himself of material values and therefore social norms. Prabhupada himself, however, was vigorously opposed to its standards and practices[24]. Still, despite his outright disapproval of Hippy customs such as drugs and free sex, he realized that í░hippies were our best customers íŽ and í░immediate candidates of our Krishna Consciousness. (qtd. in Deadwyler 152)í▒ Prabhupada realized that the disillusioned youths of America would show excellent receptivity to his preaching that denounced modern material civilization and social order.

Deadwyler, who had been an associate of Prabhupada, recalls that the acharya had once made the striking statement: í░Krishna did not send me any first-class men. He sent me only second- and third-class men. (qtd. in Deadwyler 154)í▒ It is clear that Prabhupada initially had hoped to seek the political and cultural elite instead of the socially alienated. In a publication in 1962, he had written:


We are confident that if the transcendental message of Srimad-Bhagavatam is received only by the leading men of the world, certainly there will be a change of heart, and naturally the people in general will follow them. The mass of people in general are tools in the hands of the modern politicians and leaders of the people. If there is a change of heart of the leaders only, certainly there will be a radical change in the atmosphere of the world. (qtd. in Dasa, The Pen is Mightier than the Sword)


Nonetheless, Prabhupada accepted reality and considered the receptivity of pubescence to be providential. He preached fervently amongst the ranks of the Counterculture, and as a result the movement grew with extraordinary rapidity.

However, because Prabhupada had to preach to people who had practically no knowledge of Hindu theology (for the educational background of ISKCON members, see Figure 4.), his teachings became limited to those relating to execution of practices instead of theology. This probably was the main factor of societyí»s misgivings concerning ISKCON, as it gave the impression that the movement was an army of one man[25] and had no theological basis rooted in a credible tradition[26].


Figure 4. Educational Background[27]



No high school degree


High school graduate


College graduate


Graduate degree*


*Includes M.A., M.S., Ph.D. and professional degrees M.S.W., M.B.A.


Also, the lack of people possessing theological knowledge or clerical experience propelled a lot of these unqualified devotees to leading positions within ISKCON. Thus, the presence of Prabhupada was imperative as he was the singular spiritual master devotees depended on for guidance through teaching and example. This situation would prove disastrous after Prabhupadaí»s death, when unqualified, inexperienced gurus were delegated the responsibility of leading a fledgling religious movement.


IV.   Post-Samadhi[28] Development of the ISKCON


1.                Prabhupadaí»s Intentions


As a member of the Gaudiya Math, Prabhupada had experienced what the absence of charisma could do to a religious movement. Prabhupada thought that the schism occurred because authority was relegated to a handful of gurus, putting too much power in the hands of individuals who were not even designated acharya. Prabhupada faced a dilemma between consigning the responsibility of leading a developing movement to a group of inexperienced devotees and maintaining a charismatic centripetal force within the movement. During his lifetime, he attempted to ensure an orderly Post-Samadhi period by installing a set of immutable codes and enforcing them by establishing a council called the Governing Body Commission along with introducing a concept that is called by devotees as the NCIP – the í░No Change in ISKCON Paradigm.í▒


l         The Codes: Seven purposes and Four Regulative Principles


Prabhupada gave the Hare Krishna movement seven purposes as a means for the movement to continue in the í░correctí▒ direction after his departure. These are reminiscent of the orders Chaitanya gave to his disciples before he passed away. They basically pointed to the continuation of preaching to the public, publishing Vaishnava materials, and establishing Hare Krishna centers.

Prabhupada also designated four regulative principles as a basis for Bhakti. They were (Deadwyler 155):

I.                     Do not eat of meat, fish, or eggs.

II.                   Do not partake of illicit sex[29].

III.                 Do not gamble.

IV.                 Do not take intoxication (including alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco).

In addition to these, a devotee had to adhere to a number of practices relating to worship. Perhaps the most famous and important of them is japa, or chanting the Hare Krishna mantra on beads. Another equally important tradition is sankirtan, or singing the names of Vishnu and Krishna in public. This was an important means of recruiting new members, as a group of people in colorful robes singing Sanskrit names attracted sights of myriads.


l         The Governing Body Commission and the í░No Change in ISKCON Paradigm.í▒


In 1970, Prabhupada established the Governing Body Commission (GBC) in order to facilitate management of the ISKCON both before and after his death. According to Resolution 1 of the 1975 Resolution on the GBC,


The GBC has been established by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada to represent Him in carrying out the responsibility of managing the International Society for Krishna Consciousness of which He is the Founder-Acharya and supreme authority. The GBC accepts as its life & soul His divine instructions and recognizes that it is completely dependent on His mercy in all respects. The GBC has no other function or purpose other than to execute the instructions so kindly given by His Divine Grace and preserve and spread His Teachings to the world in their pure form.


Prabhupada, by prescribing all the principles and regulations he deemed necessary, sought to make possible the continuation of the movement without a single appointed authority. He thought that all that was needed was a group of people who would look to the adherence of these principles, and through the GBC, Prabhupada intended to preserve himself as the charismatic center of the movement by maintaining control postmortem. This is the í░No Change in ISKCON Paradigmí▒ (NCIP).

As the GBC was meant to only ensure adherence to Prabhupadaí»s principles, the ISKCON also needed a system through which new disciples can be initiated after Prabhupadaí»s departure. In Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, there are two types of people who can perform initiation. One is the diksha: a disciple initiated by a diksha guru is the direct disciple of the guru who had given him initiation. As Prabhupada did not designate any acharya or diksha guru, at the time of his death there was thus no other person who had the authority to initiate disciples directly under his wing. The other type is the ritvik, an í░officiating priestí▒ who initiated disciples on behalf of the acharya or diksha, acting as a representative. Disciples would answer not to the guru who performed the initiation, but the diksha whom had been represented.

In order to preserve his role as the focal charismatic point even after his demise, Prabhupada chose eleven of his disciples to act as ritvik. This way, all new disciples would in fact be Prabhupadaí»s disciples. By ensuring that ISKCON would be run consistently as it had been run during his lifetime, Prabhupada endeavored to prevent the schism that brought the Gaudiya Math to demise.


2.                The Post-Samadhi Emergence of the Zonal Acharya System


After Prabhupadaí»s death, however, the precarious balance between the administrative authority of the GBC and the spiritual authority of the eleven ritvik eventually toppled in favor of the ritvik, and devotees treated them on par with Prabhupada. Although Prabhupada had not intended the eleven to be treated as gurus but as merely disciples with the authority to officiate initiations, devotees seem to have been more willing to accept the spiritual leadership of existing people rather than the rather vague system set up by the founder.

Perhaps Prabhupadaí»s mistake had been choosing the eleven ritvik from members of the GBC, as they came to possess spiritual authority in addition to the administrative authority of other GBC members. Soon after Prabhupadaí»s departure, the eleven ritvik organized a subcommittee that allowed them to exercise exclusive jurisdiction concerning gurus and initiation.

Such an imbalance of power became manifest in the í░zonal acharya system.í▒ When Prabhupada organized the GBC, he divided the world into about twenty administrative districts and handed each member the responsibility for activities in his or her area. The eleven ritvik, however, created eleven larger zones that encompassed the GBC zones, thus submitting each GBC member to control of the ritvik. As they had authority over all matters concerning gurus, they appointed themselves acharya of a particular zone, and thus exercised absolute authority over their zone.

Previous to these events, ISKCON temples had an elevated ceremonial seat called the vyasasana reserved for Prabhupada, on which a life-statue of him had been placed after Samadhi. With the advent of the zonal acharya system, however, two more seats were created: on one, the photo of the zonal acharya was to be placed, and on the other, any outside acharya who might be visiting was to be seated. This created the illusion that Prabhupada and the zonal acharyas were held in equal status, and for many new devotees, the zonal acharya was in fact portrayed as being the supreme authority – even over Prabhupada[30]!

However, the rise of the zonal acharya system marked the beginning of a ten year heyday during which the reputation of ISKCON rapidly decayed as scandals and controversies arose like wildfire. Allegations of child abuse within ISKCON schools for children called gurukalas became prominent weapons against the movement. The treatment of females had also been criticized, as policies and practices reflected the traditional Hindu belief that women were inferior to men[31]. Zonal acharyas and devotees were constantly suspected of embezzlements, and even murder[32]. One zonal acharya had been convicted for possession of firearms, and another for racketeering. In 1983, a devotee had been sentenced to death for having committed first degree murder[33].

The situation was so desperate that by the late 1980í»s, some estimate that only 5% of the original devotees remained in the movement. Although there has been no credible attempt to verify this statistic, it is clear that a large number of devotees had been disillusioned and/or unsatisfied with the performance of the movement during this period (Rochford 239).


3.                The í░Guru Reformí▒


Voices of reform, however, had begun to rise.

In 1984 a routine meeting of the temple presidents of North America turned into an open admission that nearly all present held deep misgivings about the position of the guru in ISKCON. Thus, the í░guru reformí▒ movement was born.

Proponents of the movement identified two problems. The first problem regarded the overall lack of spiritual commitment in the movement. The second problem was that the zonal acharya system was essentially in conflict with what Prabhupada had had in mind. The temple presidents organized an energetic force and set out to persuade the GBC to dismantle the zonal acharya system efficiently and decisively.

The reform movementí»s intent became manifest in largely two efforts. The first effort was to urge a strengthening commitment to spiritual purification on everyoneí»s part. The second effort was to persuade the GBC to dismantle the zonal acharya system efficiently and decisively. Proponents of the movement put forward two proposals to the GBC, which, taken together, would accomplish the latter.

The first proposal was to make the process of guru selection much more open, as previously, the eleven zonal acharyas had given themselves the right to select gurus. In 1982, three-fourths of the votes were transferred to non-acharya GBC members (Deadwyler 167)[34]. Also, as part of the first proposal, zonal acharyas had to give up a parcel of their territory to a new guru. This was an ingenious action on the GBCí»s behalf, not only because it forced zonal acharyas into negotiations with the GBC whenever a new guru had been selected, but also because it downplayed the very geographical foundation of the zonal acharyasí» power. The second proposal was to eliminate the two vyasasana which were not Prabhupadaí»s. This proposal abolished the symbol of the zonal acharyaí»s sovereignty: devotees would no longer perform services in front of representations of the zonal acharya as well, but only in front of the life-size statue of Prabhupada.

As of 1987, the reform had been consolidated and four gurus had been removed, while fifteen additional members had been added to the GBC.


V.      After the í░Guru Reformí▒: A Personal Perspective[35]


While the guru reform brought the ISKCON closer to what Prabhupada had envisioned, there remained significant differences.

There was, of course, was that the trust in spiritual authority had been completely shattered. Originally, monastery life was required of all devotees. Since Prabhupadaí»s death, however, and increasing number of devotees has left the temples. Dissatisfied with their spiritual superiors, these people probably preferred to worship Krishna individually, and many of them installed altars and vyasasana for Prabhupada in their homes, while attending the Sunday morning services at temples. Initially, the ISKCON community shunned these í░drop-outs.í▒ As the proportion of such devotees increased, however, the movement began to acknowledge their status as part of the ISKCON.

Also, while the í░guru reformí▒ movement had indeed brought authority back to the GBC, it had not abolished the position of diksha. There is still conflict amongst the leading strata whether Prabhupada had meant the ritvik system to persist for the duration of the movement or he had merely suggested it as an alternative in cases where there were none who possessed the spiritual aptitude[36].


VI.   Conclusion


The Hare Krishna movement is not an independent religious cult: it is an extension of the five hundred year-old Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. It is also the first of its kind to achieve a certain level of popularity in the West. Whether for the worse or for the better, the Hare Krishna movement has always been one of the most recognizable religious movements of the 20th century.

The fault is not inherent of the religious system nor is it Prabhupadaí»s, unless you count his failure to cultivate a firm theological, philosophical basis within the movement. The movementí»s failures can be attributed to the lack of a strong spiritual force within the movement after Prabhupadaí»s death. For the past two decades, however, the ISKCON has shown a remarkable willingness to clarify its own misdeeds and pursue reform.

As the most famous and largest of Gaudiya Vaishnava institutions, the Hare Krishna movement has, to a certain degree, fulfilled Bhaktisiddhantaí»s and Prabhupadaí»s desire to introduce the beliefs to an international audience.




acharya – title conferred to the founder guru or head gurus of a religious institution

avatar – incarnation of God

Bhagavad GitaSanskrit text, Krishnaí»s instruction to Arjuna

Bhagavata Purana – Sanskrit text featuring the life of Krishna

bhakta – devotee

bhakti – the yoga path of devotion

Bhaktivedanta Swami – founder of ISKCON

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu – sixteenth-century mystic, considered by his followers to be an incarnation of Krishna

Chaitanya Vaishnavism – the school of Vaishnavism stemming from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a.k.a. Gaudiya Vaishnavism

diksha – Guru who can initiate disciples directly under his wing

Gaudiya Math – religious institution founded by Bhaktisiddhanta Swami

Gaudiya Vaishnavism – see Chaitanya Vaishnavism

GBC (Governing Body Commission) – ISKCONí»s ultimate managing authority

gurukulathe house of the guru; traditional religious school for young students

ISKCON – International Society for Krishna Consciousness; the Hare Krishna movement

japadevotional repetition of mantras in a meditative mood

kirtanachanting of devotional mantras, usually communal

Krishna – incarnation of God; supreme God for the Chaitanya sect

mahamahntrathe Hare Krishna mantra

math – monastic institution

parasadamsanctified food offered to deity and then distributed to the public

ritvik – officiating priest initiating on behalf of the guru (in ISKCON parlance)

sankirtanapublic chanting of Krishna mantra in the Chaitanya tradition

sannyasa – renunciation; the fourth stage of life

sannyasi – one who has entered the order of sannyasa

Vaishnava – follower of Vishnu

Vishnu – the supreme God in Vaishnavism; a manifestation of Krishna for the Chaitanya sect

vyasasana – seat of guru

yoga – any spiritual path leading to union with the divine

zonal acharya (guru) system – onetime system in ISKCON wherein prospective disciples were directed toward initiating gurus appointed according to geographical location




Bhagavad-Gita as it is. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-Acharya. United States: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1989.

Brandis, Gabriel. Servant of the Lotus Feet. Nevada: iUniverse, 2004.

Lorenz, Ekkehard. í░The Guru, Mayavadins, and Women: Tracing the Origins of Selected Polemical Statements in the Work of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.í▒ The Hare Krishna Movement. Ed. Edwin Bryand and Maria Ekstrand. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Deadwyler, William H. í░Cleaning House and Cleaning Hearts.í▒ The Hare Krishna Movement. Ed. Edwin Bryand and Maria Ekstrand. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 149-169.

Schweig, Graham. í░Krishna: The Intimate Deity.í▒ The Hare Krishna Movement. Ed. Edwin Bryand and Maria Ekstrand. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 13-30.

Desai, Krishnakant; Awatramami, Sunil; and Pandit Das, Madhu. í░The No Change in ISKCON Paradigm.í▒ The Hare Krishna Movement. Ed. Edwin Bryand and Maria Ekstrand. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 194-213.

Squarcini, Federico and Fizzotti, Eugenio. Hare Krishna. Leumann, Italy: Signature Books, 2004.

Rochford, Jr., E. Burke. Hare Krishna in America. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press,1985.

Muster, Nori J. Betrayal of the Spirit. Illinois: University of Illinois, 2001.

Gelberg, Steven J. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. New York: Grove Press, 1983.

Hubner, John and Gruson, Lindsey. Monkey On a Stick. Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988

Mukherjee, Manju Mohan. Hippies in India, a Study of Sub-Cultural System. Kolkata: Bibasa, 2002.

Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. The Beginning: The 1966 Journal of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Archives, 1998.

Schwartz, Lita and Kaslow, Florence. í░The Cult Phenomenon: Historical, Sociological, and Familial Factors Contributing to Their Development and Appeal.í▒ Cults and the Family. Ed. Florence Kaslow and Marvin Sussman. New York: The Hathworth Press. 1982. 3-30.

Thakura, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. Killing of Putana. Jan. 1932. Bhaktivedanta Memorial Library. Accessed October, 2006. <http://www.bvml.org/SBSST/putana.htm>

Dasa, Pragosa. The Pen is Mightier than the Sword. Sep. 2006. Dandavats. Accessed October, 2006.



Innumerable articles and resources from The Vaishnava News <www.vnn.org> contributed a crucial input of direct resources.


Links to Wikipedia articles that I have referenced:











and probably many moreíŽ

[1] Schwartz and Kaslow, both PhDs, wrote of the Hindu deity Krishna: í░Lord Krishna himself was a charismatic holy man in the 16th century.í▒ (Schwartz and Kaslow 10)

[2] Bhakti signifies devotional love and affectionate self-surrender offered to the personal deity. This not only includes the more universal religious principles of worshipping or glorifying God, but encompasses the love for God as a parent (intimate respect), child (sympathy), and lover (both platonic and erotic love).

[3] Madhvacharya (1238~1317) was an influential Vaishnava philosopher.

[4] God and Creation are one

[5] God and Creation are absolutely separate

[6] inconceivably (achintya) dualistic (bheda) and monistic (abheda)

[7] The quarterly division of the main principles has been borrowed and heavily referenced from the Wikipedia article í░Gaudiya Vaishnavism.í▒

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma

[9] Krishna means í░He who is all attractive,í▒ and Gaudiya Vaishnavas believe that this encompasses aspects such as being supremely powerful, supremely merciful, and all loving.

[10] In other words, the yogi should know that Vishnu is not different from Krishna. Krishna, in this form of Supersoul, exists in every Creation. This is basically what Achintya Bheda-Abheda denotes.

[11] Schweig, pg. 18

[12] Over 3/4s of Chaitanyaí»s associates were Brahmin.

[13] Interestingly, This also foreshadows the difficulties that the ISKCON would face half a century later.

[14] It is generally synonymous with guru. However, acharya is a specific honorific title for exceptional founders. Also, acharya is used to denote a guru who presides at the head of the institution.

[15] This situation bears a striking resemblance to the situation ISKCON had faced after Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupadaí»s death.

[16] One who has entered the order of sannyasa: renunciation; the fourth stage of life in which a Hindu devotee renounces material life and enters complete spiritual discipline.

[17] Chanting of devotional mantras: í░singing Hareí»s name.í▒ Usually communal.

[18] A Bengali calendar

[19] The most important Gaudiya Vaishnava celebration.

[20] My birthday.

[21] This tradition would continue until the 1980s, and visitors would often be offered traditional Bengali food in the name of prasadam (sanctified food offered to the deity and then distributed to the public).

[22] Rochford, pg. 278

[23] Rochford, pg. 65

[24] A letter to one of his associates warns against publishing material that may suggest ISKCONí»s inclination to the Counterculture.

[25] The Unification Movement is considered thus, though rather unjustly.

[26] This is the case for many í░cultsí▒ such as, for example, Scientology.

[27] Rochford, pg. 49

[28] Samadhi, within Bhakti context, is the ultimate stage where one is completely absorbed into his love for Krishna. Once advanced yogis attain this stage, they are purported to be able to consciously leave their bodies as a vital step in soul-liberation. Thus, Prabhupadaí»s death is referred to as Samadhi within the movement, and the period after his death as Post-Samadhi.

[29] Illicit sex in this context is meant as; 1) Sex outside of marriage; 2) Sex within marriage not intended for the purpose of procreation. (Bhagavad-Gita as it is, 3.34)

[30] The experience of a devotee who had been initiated Post-Samadhi is depicted in Gabriel Brandisí» Servant of the Lotus Feet.

[31] The matter concerning women is the only one that perhaps had been evident before Prabhupadaí»s death. Ekkehard Lorenz addresses this issue in his essay, í░The Guru, Mayavadins, and Women.í▒

[32] Major scandals involving female abuse, child abuse, embezzlements, and alleged murder are depicted in Monkey on a Stick (Hubner and Gruson) and Betrayal of the Spirit (Muster). The latter focuses on the experiences of the author, who as a former leading female member of the ISKCON narrates a first hand account of the post-Samadhi controversies.


[34] In his essay, Deadwyler has given the date 1984 as the year the temple presidents of North America communed and instigated the reform movement. However, in the same essay he has also written that three-fourths of votes concerning guru selection were transferred to the GBC in 1982. I have not yet managed to clarify this paradox.

[35] Due to the lack of amount and consistency of substantial resources concerning the movementí»s trajectory after the 1980í»s, my personal perspectives that have been constructed as a result of holistic reading comprise this portion of the research.

[36] In writing this research, I had taken evidence put forward by Desai, Awatramami, and Pandit Das in the essay í░The No Change in ISKCON Paradigm.í▒ as veritable. To affirm this, I have attempted to attain a copy of Prabhupadaí»s last statement concerning gurus by contacting the ISKCON via e-mail. I have received no response to date.

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