The Hare Krishna
Movement, or ISKCON1
to give it its proper name, is a sect of Vaishnava Hinduism
based on the demonstration of intense love for Krishna2
, or God. The movement was introduced into the West by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada3
As well as a devout, unfaltering, love for Krishna (also known as bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion), members also believe that by chanting the maha mantra4 and by meditating on it ("japa" meditation), that they may in their lifetime achieve enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of birth and death, or reincarnation. Members live ascetic lives, abstaining from meat, fish and eggs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and other drugs, gambling, and illicit sex. They believe that sexual relationships should only take place within marriage and solely for procreation. Hence members often live in commune-type ashramas, where they may also engage in deity worship (arati), and group chanting (kirtana).
Scripture: While their holy books include mainstream Hindu scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita5, ancillary upanishads, puranas, etc., their main scriptures are:
- the Srimad Bhagavatam, which they often study daily;
- the Bhagavad Gita;
- the Sri Caitanya Caritamrita, the biography of Sri Caintanya Mahaprabhu; and
- others such as Sri Isopanisad, Sri Upadeshamrita (both noded), and Sri Brahma Samhita, but always in the translation/commentary of one of their parampara (see Disciplic Succession).
People are often under the misassumption that the Hare Krishna movement is only a western phenomenon. Indeed, the movement originated in India as part of the Gaudiya Matha, and ISKCON have a great number of centres in India (most notably Krishna-Balaram Mandir in Vrindavana, Sri Mayapura City in West Bengal, and Hare Krishna Land at Juhu in Bombay) -- use http://www.iskcon.org/address/ with the country as India and you will get a partial listing, or consult the back of one of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust's books to get a full listing.
If you walk down a crowded road here (Scotland) for an hour you probably wouldn't notice the Hare Krsnas either. As blessedangel alludes to, people no longer wear their faith on their sleeves. Also, sadly, their presence is very much more low key than it was in the 1970s. The movemement today is becoming increasingly fragmentary with allegations that Srila Prabhupada was murdered in 1977, problems with ritvikism, apasiddhantic sectarianism, and increasing dissatisfaction with the "GBC".
I myself, was/am a member of this movement, and found the peace and serenity I gained from it to be the most profound I have ever experienced. In my teenage years I left the movement after I was unable to balance its views on sexuality with my own, and after I realised the bigotry that existed in it towards other religions that I thought they would not have had (e.g. Buddhism).
In 2001 I finally met some gay Vaishnavas via eGroups' successor...! I moved to America, got dumped (finding that these things cross all faiths), came back...as excommunicated from ISKCON, but kept involved, but eventually lefty in 2003...).
1 - The International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The name Hare Krishna is derived from their popular chant, the maha mantra.
2 - An incarnation of the god Vishnu.
3 - (1896-1977)
4 - A Sanskrit mantra made up of four names for Krishna:
hare krishna hare krishna
krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama
rama rama hare hare
- Itself a part of the epic Mahabharata