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What is the Hare Krishna Movement?
The Hare Krishna movement is the popular name for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Who started ISKCON?
In 1965, an elderly monk, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), travelled alone from India to establish the culture of Krishna consciousness in the Western world. He single-handedly began a world-wide confederation of over one hundred temples, farm communities and educational institutes. Since it’s beginning, ISKCON has steadily grown in membership and is today known all over the world.
Where do the teachings come from?
Although the Hare Krishna movement has only been established in the West for the past two decades, it roots extend thousands of years into India’s past. The lifestyle and philosophical beliefs are based on ancient scriptures knows as the Vedas.
Originally preserved in the spoken word, the Vedas were written down in the Sanskrit language 5000 years ago. Their compiler, Srila Vyasadeva, divided the work into various departments of material and spiritual knowledge, entrusting his disciples with particular sections. In this way, the scriptures developed into four principal Vedas, supplemented by the Vedanta Sutra, 108 Upanishads, and 18 Puranas, collectively known as the “fifth Veda”. The final Purana, the Bhagavat Purana or Srimad Bhagavatam, contains the essence of the Vedic wisdom in 18,000 verses. Two further works are the epics – the Mahabharata which includes the well-known Bhagavad Gita, and the story of Lord Rama as told in the Ramayana.
The process described in the Vedas is one of gradual elevation to the platform of God-realisation. Vedic wisdom was then carefully preserved and passed down for centuries through the tutorial vehicle of guru-parampara, a disciplic succession of self-realised teachers.
In the early 16th century, a remarkable spiritual renaissance took place within India. This was led by a brilliant philosopher, mystic and saint, Sri Chaitanya (1486-1534). He challenged the religious leaders of his day who he felt were stifling the teachings of Vedic knowledge. Caste-conscious priests alone had access to the Vedas and considered spiritual life the prerogative of an educated minority. Taking religion out of the temples and amongst the people, regardless of their caste, Sri Chaitanya propagated devotion to Lord Krishna and pioneered a massive movement that swept the subcontinent, gaining a following of millions. The ancient wisdom of the Puranas and Upanishads, through the practical teachings of Sri Chaitanya, are now finding expression outside India in the Hare Krishna movement.
So is the Hare Krishna movement Hindu?
The Vedas are sacred to the 600 million members of Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the essential texts of the Hare Krishna Movement, is often referred to as “The Bible of Hinduism”. Yet the word “Hinduism” itself simply means the “ism” of India, the word “Hindu” first being used by the Persians to denote “those of the Indus river”. As such, the term “Hinduism” describes not a single, monolithic religion, but a vast spectrum of diverse spiritual paths, tracing their origins to particular branches of the Vedas. Perhaps the oldest and most cohesive of Vedic traditions is that of the monotheistic sanatana dharma, the eternal teaching, academically known as Vaishnavism.
What are the teachings?
It is often assumed that the final goal of Indian spirituality is nirvana – the extinguishing of individual existence and the simultaneous absorption into an amorphous Absolute. The Bhagavad Gita reveals that this is only the preliminary stage of self-realisation. Beyond this is the awakening of the soul’s eternal consciousness of Krishna, the personal form of the Absolute Truth. In brief, the Gita explains as follows:
(1) We are not our bodies, but eternal spirit soul (atman), part and parcels of God (Krishna). Although we are essentially spiritual (brahman), we have temporarily forgotten our true identity.
(2) Having lost touch with our original, pure consciousness we are trying to achieve permanent happiness within a temporary world. Our attempts produce karmic reactions that cause us to remain within this world for repeated lifetimes (samsara).
(3) By sincerely learning and following a genuine spiritual science (dharma) under the guidance of a self-realised teacher, we can be free from anxiety and come to a state of pure, blissful enlightenment in this lifetime.
(4) Krishna is eternal, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-powerful and all-attractive. He is the seed-giving father of all living beings and He is the sustaining energy of the entire cosmic creation.
(5) Our dormant relationship with Krishna can be re-awakened by the practice of bhakti-yoga, the science of spiritualising all human activities by dedicating them to the Supreme. This ancient yoga system gradually frees us from the entanglement of karma and thereby the cycle of birth and death.
What is reincarnation?
The Bhagavad Gita states that life doesn’t begin at birth or end with death. It is eternal. The soul is constantly transmigrating from one body to another according to its desires and quality of activities (karma). The Vedas further explain that the soul in the material world moves through a cycle of 8,400,000 forms of life. The human form, however, is the only birth that affords one the chance for self-realisation. Lower-than-human species are not endowed with sufficient intelligence to understand the self as different from the body.
Do you meditate?
Members of the Hare Krishna movement practice mantra mediation. In Sanskrit, manah” means “mind” and “tra” means “freeing”. So a mantra is a combination of sounds that is meant to relieve the mind of anxieties arising from worldly entanglement. Vedic literature compares the mind to a mirror, and our present state of spiritual forgetfulness to a mirror which has accumulated dust. Mantra meditation clears the dust from the mirror of the mind so that we can see our original self. When our spiritual nature is inwardly perceived, the anxieties caused by illusion cease, and we experience spiritual happiness.
What is the Hare Krishna chant?
Members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness chant the Hare Krishna mantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare because the Vedas refer to it as the maha-mantra or “Great Mantra”. This sixteen-word mantra is especially recommended as the easiest method for self-realisation in the present age.
Krishna is a Sanskrit name of God meaning “all attractive”, and Rama is another name meaning “reservoir of pleasure”. The divine energy of God is addressed as Hare. Vedic knowledge teaches that since we are all constitutionally servants of God, the chanting of His names is not an artificial imposition of the mind but is as natural as a child calling for its mother. There are two ways to chant the maha mantra. One may chant in a group (kirtan) and one may chant softly saying the mantra to oneself (japa). The latter is done by using a string of 108 wooden prayer beads to enhance concentration. In both methods, there are no hard and fast rules and anyone can chant with good results.
What are the practices?
There are four simple practices when beginning Krishna Consciousness.
(1) Reading (Sravanam)
Reading provides the intellectual satisfaction that is essential to developing faith in any spiritual practice. Without a comprehensive body of philosophical knowledge, any religious tradition can easily become a system of unfounded beliefs and rituals. Vedic literature offers logical answers to profound questions, and when carefully studies, books, like Bhagavad Gita will allow the inquisitive reader an opportunity to explore many new ideas and concepts.
The books of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada are translations and commentaries upon India’s timeless spiritual classics, written over a period of twenty years. His writings comprise a complete course of study in bhakti-yoga and are the basis of the spiritual lives of Hare Krishna members around the world.
Studies usually begin with the Bhagavad Gita, Isopanishad, Srimad Bhagavatam and The Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. Members study at least a few minutes daily, reserving a quiet period when they can read without disturbance.
(2) Chanting (kirtanam)
Recitation of the Hare Krishna mantra is the essential practice of Krishna consciousness. Member may spend from 10 minutes to 2 hours per day chanting japa. Once around the circle of 108 beads is called a “round” and members will chant anywhere between one and sixteen “rounds” per day, as their time and inclination permit. Chanting is done either sitting or walking and usually in the morning. At first the language of the mantra may feel strange, but as the profound nature of the sound vibration is experiences, any feelings of awkwardness disappear.
Anyone who chants with sincerity, pronouncing the words distinctly and listening attentively will become peaceful and experience a sense of happiness. One who continues the process becomes advanced in the techniques of mantra meditation and enjoys an awakening of the soul’s natural, original qualities of eternity, knowledge and bliss.
(3) Friendship (Sat-sangam)
Our friendships have tremendous influence upon the way we think and act. We may enthusiastically take to a more spiritual way of life, but if our friendships with others are not similarly transformed, our personal development may become checked. Associating with others who are spiritually inclined is therefore one of the most important and rewarding aspects of the Hare Krishna way of life.
New members of ISKCON usually start off by linking up with others in the same town or country. Regular meetings now take place in many parts of the country with other get-togethers in member’s homes. People are often surprised when they come to these meetings to find themselves developing very gratifying friendships.
Apart from local meetings, members cultivate friendships with others through correspondence, or by hosting visits from travelling teachers. Large events like the yearly London Chariot Festival (Ratha Yatra) are social and spiritual gatherings where thousands of members meet up both to celebrate and to enjoy each other’s company. The network of Krishna centres, meetings, shops and temples, is steadily growing. As it does, many more people are discovering the personal benefits of being part of a spiritual community.
(4) Remembering (Smaranam)
The aim of Krishna consciousness is to cultivate a constant flow of awakened states of consciousness wherein we remember our spiritual identity and our relationship with Krishna. Vaishnavas therefore begin the day with a combination of practices that help to focus the mind spiritually. Rising early, bathing, japa meditation and study, all purify the mind from its sleepiness and create a mental state suitable for an entire day of spiritual progress.
The Vedic literature teaches that our daily actions should lead us to develop valuable personal qualities such as peacefulness, tolerance, honesty and compassion. To this end, members also adopt regulative principles like vegetarianism as part of their personal lifestyle. In this way, even our most basic daily function of eating, can be an integral part of our spiritual path.
Why are you vegetarians?
The Vedic scriptures establish non-violence (ahimsa), as the ethical foundation of vegetarianism. According to the Veda, God is the Supreme Father of all creatures, not just humans. Therefore, the slaughter of innocent animals is considered equivalent to killing one’s brother or sister.
Hare Krishna devotees follow a wholesome diet that excludes meat, fish and eggs. Although it may be argued that vegetarians are guilty of killing vegetables, vegetarian foods such as fruits, nuts, milk and grains do not require killing. Even when a plant’s life is taken, the pain it experiences is dramatically less than that of a highly sensitive animal such as a cow or lamb.
According to the law of karma, nature’s law of action and reaction, human beings must suffer for any kind of killing that is against God’s laws. For this reason, as well as to show recognition and appreciation for the Supreme Proprietor and supplier of all foodstuffs, devotees prepare vegetarian meals as devotional offerings to Krishna. Such spiritualised food is then called prasadam (the mercy of Krishna), which can be fully enjoyed without fear of transgressing the laws of nature.
Why do some Hare Krishna devotees look like Buddhist monks?
Shaven heads and orange robes actually predate Buddhism by many centuries. In Vedic culture a person is dressed according to his or her social and spiritual position. Simple robes, although external, have traditionally been worn to help cultivate humility and freedom from vanity. In keeping with this reasoning the Hare Krishna Movement has retained certain elements of Vedic tradition wherever practical. Following this principle, women in the Hare Krishna communities wear the traditional saree, while the men wear robes known as dhotis.
Young men who have gone forward to observe a celibate student life and train as monks wear saffron coloured robes; married men wear white. Most choose to shave their heads leaving a single lock of hair in the back called a sikha. This is done as a sign of renunciation and surrender to Krishna, as well as cleanliness and simplicity. The U-shaped marking of clay on the forehead is known as tilak, made with yellow clay from the banks of sacred rivers in India. Together with these traditional ascetic practices, fully committed devotees of Krishna, whether residing in a temple community or not, also abstain from all types of intoxication, and do not gamble or have sexual relationships outside marriage.
What do you do all day?
The activities of the members of ISKCON are as varied as their strikingly diverse lifestyles. For instance, although most members are naturally vegetarian, all other practices are a matter of their personal choice and commitment. Thus one member of ISKCON lives in a religious community, rises at 4 o’clock in the morning, and leads a strict monastic life, while another cares for a young family or works in a busy office. The circumstances may vary greatly but the basic aim is the same.
Why do you chant in the streets?
Most scriptures of the world and particularly the Vedas, extol the chanting of God’s names as a powerful means of spiritual realisation. Someone who enjoys their spiritual life naturally feels inclined to share it with others. This enthusiasm impelled the founder of ISKCON to teach Krishna Consciousness and to organise his early students as a formal society for the purpose of teaching others. Devotees of Krishna, therefore will often be found in public places performing Sankirtan, by chanting with musical instruments, as introduced by Sri Chaitanya some 500 years ago.
What else do you do?
Apart from the twenty-two communities in Britain and Ireland, the Hare Krishna movement’s projects in 1991 included:
- Residential training courses in the theology, history and practices of Vaishnavism.
- Two primary schools. (The largest of these, ‘The Manor School’, is at Bhaktivedanta Manor).
- A national “Hare Krishna Festival” team who introduce large audiences to Vaishnava culture through music, art, dance, theatre, film and food.
- Food distribution schemes for the homeless (Hare Krishna Food for Life) in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham.
- A book publishing department and warehouse. (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust).
- Mail-order service supplying literature, videos, audio-tapes, posters, incense and health products. (Bhaktivedanta Books Ltd).
- Vegetarian restaurants, television programmes and books on vegetarian cooking.
- Numerous local meetings, centres, shops and associated activities.
- Cow-protection and organic farming projects.
- Padayatra – world-wide pilgrimage with bullock-carts.
- ISKCON Communications – national media relations.
- ISKCON Educational Services, which monitors and promotes the movements interaction with schools, colleges and universities.
How does the movement raise funds?
ISKCON raises much of it’s funding through the sale of its books and other devotional items. Married devotees and lay-members also donate regularly, usually through systematic membership schemes. Bhaktivedanta Manor, for example, receives nearly half it’s income through a patron membership programme, supported almost exclusively by the Hindu community. Devotees also engage in farming, craft work, catering and other business to help maintain the movement.
How is the movement managed?
Before he passed away in 1977, Srila Prabhupada established a Governing Body Commission, (G.B.C.), consisting of his senior disciples. The forty members meet annually at ISKCON’s world headquarters in West Bengal to set standards and policies.
GBC members take responsibility for various world zones, each composed of one or more countries. Each individual temple or centre runs under a president and an executive, and is more or less self-managing. A minimum of central control is exercised by zonal or national councils.
For more information, please contact:
Tulsi Seva Dasi
ISKCON Educational Services
Tel/fax: 1923-859578 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
ISKCON Educational Services:
- Provides speakers for schools and colleges.
- Arranges school and college group-visits to Hindu temples.
- Organises cultural programmes (music, dance and drama).
- Supplies resources and artefacts. (Catalogue available on request).
- Provides a correspondence service for teachers and students doing project work.
- Arranges in-service training for teachers and trainee teachers.
- Offers residential facilities for those doing academic research.
If you are interested in any of the above services, please contact Tulsi Seva Dasi, as above.