Founder of ISKCON: A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), also known as ‘the Hare Krishna‘ was founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. While some classified the sect as a new religious movement, its core philosophy is based on scriptures such as the Bhagavad-Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam, both of which date back thousands of years. The distinctive appearance of the movement and its culture come from the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition, which has had adherents in India ever since the late 1400s.
ISKCON was formed to spread the practice of ‘Bhakti Yoga‘ (The Yoga of Devotion); wherein aspirant devotees (Bhaktas) dedicate their thoughts and actions towards pleasing the Supreme Lord, Krishna (seen as nondifferent from God).
Philosophy and history
Srila Prabhupada dancing with devotees at Bhaktivedanta Manor in England
Hare Krishna devotees believe that Krishna is the origin of Lord Vishnu. They honor Krishna as the highest form of God, and often refer to him as “the Supreme Personality of Godhead” in writing, which was a phrase coined by Srila Prabhupada in his books on the subject. Devotees consider Radha to be Krishna’s female counterpart, the embodiment of love. An important aspect of their philosophy is the belief that the individual soul is an eternal personal identity which does not ultimately merge into any formless light or void as suggested by the monistic (advaita) schools of Hinduism.
Hare Krishna devotees specifically follow a disciplic line of Gaudiya, or Bengali, Vaisnavas which comes under the general description of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Gaudiya Vaisnavism has had a continuous following in India, especially West Bengal and Orissa for the past five hundred years. Srila Prabhupada popularized Gaudiya Vaishnava Theology in the Western world through extensive writings and translations, including Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana) and Chaitanya Charitamrita and other scriptures. These works are now available in more than sixty languages and serve as the canon of ISKCON. Many of these books are now available online . More about these books, their commentaries and production is here.
The ‘Maha Mantra’
The popular nickname of “Hare Krishnas” for devotees of this movement comes from the mantra that devotees sing aloud or chant quietly on rosary-like beads, called Japa mala. This mantra, known also as the Maha Mantra, contains the names of God ‘Hare‘, ‘Krishna‘ and ‘Rama‘. Devotees believe that the sound vibration created by repeating these names of God gradually induces pure God-consciousness, or “Krishna consciousness.”
The Maha Mantra :
- Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
- Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
- Hare Rama Hare Rama
- Rama Rama Hare Hare
The seven purposes of ISKCON
When Srila Prabhupada first incorporated ISKCON, in 1966, he gave it seven purposes:
- To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.
- To propagate a consciousness of Krishna, as it is revealed in the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
- To bring the members of the Society together with each other and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, thus to develop the idea within the members, and humanity at large, that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krishna).
- To teach and encourage the sankirtana movement, congregational chanting of the holy names of God as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
- To erect for the members, and for society at large, a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated to the personality of Krishna.
- To bring the members closer together for the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.
- With a view towards achieving the aforementioned purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals, magazines, books and other writings.
The four regulative principles
An Iskcon street festival in the 1970’s
Srila Prabhupada prescribed four regulative principles as the basis of the spiritual life:
- No eating of meat, fish or eggs
- No illicit sex
- No gambling
- No intoxication (including alcohol, caffeine and tobacco).
Spreading the word
ISKCON is actively evangelistic. Members try to spread Krishna consciousness by, for example, going on the streets to chant the mantra or to sell books written by the sect’s founder. According to the doctrine of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, one does not need to be born in a Hindu family to take up the practice of Vaishnavism. This openness places ISKCON in strong contrast to many other branches of Hinduism, which stress on hereditary lineage and are non-missionary by nature. There are ISKCON communities around the world with schools, restaurants and farms. Many ISKCON temples also have programs (like Food for Life Global) to provide meals for the needy. Also, ISKCON has recently brought the academic study of Krishna into western academia as Krishnology.
ISKCON after Srila Prabhupada’s death
Srila Prabhupada spent much of the last decade of his life setting up the institution of ISKCON. As a charismatic leader, Srila Prabhupada’s personality and management were responsible for much of the growth of ISKCON and the reach of his mission.
Upon Prabhupada’s death on November 14, 1977, eleven of his disciples became initiating gurus for ISKCON. Those chosen were Satsvarupa dasa Goswami , Jayapataka Swami , Hridayananda Goswami, Tamal Krishna Goswami, Bhavananda Goswami, Hamsaduta Swami, Ramesvara Swami, Harikesa Swami, Bhagavan dasa Adhikari, Kirtanananda Swami, and Jayatirtha dasa Adhikari. Of these eleven, the first three are still actively preaching within ISKCON, as was Tamal Krishna Goswami until his death in a car accident in March 2002.
ISKCON is managed by the Governing Body Commission created by Srila Prabhupada to handle affairs in his absence. The authority and mission of this body has evolved since the time of Prabhupada’s demise in 1977.
Scandal and controversy
ISKCON has been involved in a number of scandals and controversies.
In 1998, an article in ISKCON Communications Journal, the society’s official publication, detailed physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children at the society’s boarding schools in India and the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s. The group received praise for its candor but later was sued by 95 people who had attended the schools.
Facing the fiscal drain likely to ensue from this legal action, the ISKCON centers involved declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This allowed them to work out a settlement of US$9.5 million, meant to compensate not only the former students who had brought the suit but also any others who had undergone abuse but not sued. About 430 such people responded to newspaper advertisements seeking to identify them. Individual victims are expected to receive between $6,000 and $50,000, depending on the nature and duration of their abuse.
To guard against further abuses, ISKCON has established a child protection office with teams worldwide, meant to screen out actual or potential abusers, educate children and adults on child abuse, and encourage due vigilance. A petition circulating (as of July 2006) among ISKCON members calls for “zero tolerance” for past offenders.
In 1990, US Courts pronounced Kirtanananda Swami, the leader of the ‘New Vrindavan’ religious community (which was expelled from ISKCON for ten years between 1988-1998)  guilty on charges of racketeering and conspiracy to murder for his role in the death of two devotees who had threatened his control of the community. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison on the racketeering charge, but was released in June 2004 for health reasons. Another notable case, involving a woman named Robin George and her parents, went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. 
In response to the need to establish transparency and accountability among its members, ISKCON encouraged the establishment of an ombudsman organization, “ISKCONResolve.“ The Integrated Conflict Management System (ICMS) also provides facilitators, arbitrators, and conflict analysis experts. The organisation says that ICMS is designed to give all members of ISKCON a voice and to bring the ISKCON leadership to higher levels of transparency and accountability.
Points of philosophical contention
After Srila Prabhupada died, a number of theological controversies arose.
The origin of the soul
Srila Prabhupada explains that the soul falls from the spiritual world to this material world and the supreme objective of the human life is to become Krishna conscious to be able to return “Back to Godhead” (this is also the title of the official ISKCON magazine). However Sarasvata Gaudiya Vaisnavas teach that the soul apparently has never been in the spiritual world. More information is available in the book ‘Our Original Position’ published by GBC Press and the article ‘Where Do the Fallen Souls Fall From?’
The Guru and the Parampara
Passing of knowledge is named Parampara, or disciplic succession. Some Gaudiya Vaisnavas claim that one needs to learn only from Srila Prabhupada and there should be no other gurus. Just before his physical departure, Srila Prabhupada set up a system of initiation employing the use of ritviks (ceremonial priests) who would continue to initiate on his behalf, without the need for his physical involvement (as, during this time, he was unable to travel). Based on Srila Prabhupada’s statements in letters, most agree that it was right that the system stopped upon Prabhupada’s passing. Thus, the proxy-initiation ritvik system was put aside in 1977, on the basis of Prabhupada’s instructions in letters and tapes.
A minority, named ISKCON Revival Movement, say it was a permanent order meant to continue even after Prabhupada died. More information about the proxy-initiation ritvik position is offered in “The Final Order,” the main position paper of the IRM.