* Publisher: Greenwood
* Number Of Pages: 320
* Publication Date: 2004-10-30
* ISBN-10 / ASIN: 0313328072
* ISBN-13 / EAN: 9780313328077International Society for Krishna Consciousness
For a time in the late 1960s and 1970s the saffron-robed devotees of the Indian deity Krishna were so ubiquitous in American public spaces that the 1980 film Airplane
could easily spoof their insistent entreaties that passers-by make a donation or buy a book. The dedicated missionary work of Hare Krishnas in airports and on street corners and their colorful public worship punctuated with singing and dancing were part of a mission to spread Krishna consciousness throughout the United States and the rest of the world. That mission was begun by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1965. When he was twenty-six Prabhupada had been given the charge to spread the worship of Krishna beyond India during a chance encounter with the guru Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. The beginning of his missionary activity, however, was substantially delayed as Abhay Charan De, who only later would become known as Swami Prabhupada, pursued a career in business. During that time, Prabhupada generously supported the publication of books about Krishna and in 1944 founded an English language magazine, Back to Godhead
. Only in 1959, in his early sixties, did Prabhupada formally renounce worldly activity and become a sannyasa, "one who casts off." Six years later, at age sixty-nine, he began his mission in America.
Prabhupada repeatedly emphasized that he was part of a "disciplic succession" that went back not only to his own guru but to Krishna himself. Prabhupada wrote that he "was born in the darkest ignorance, and [his] spiritual master opened [his] eyes with the torch of knowledge." Prabhupada's guru did for him what his predecessors in the succession had previously done and what Prabhupada, through the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, offered to do for others. One of the most important figures in that succession of teachers was the sixteenth-century Bengali mystic Sri Caitanya, who deemphasized the importance of elaborate rituals and caste distinctions and stressed the immediate devotion to God, through joyful worship, or bhatki
. Prabhupada asserted, for example, that "this movement of Krsna consciousness was introduced by Lord Caitanya five hundred years ago in Bengal." Like many other bearers of innovative messages, Prabhupada denied that he was saying anything new. He claimed to present only the clear, unvarnished message of the Bhagavad-Gita. In his understanding, any interpretation was the enemy of the transcendent clarity of the text. He asserted that "Vedic knowledge is not a question of research. Our research work is imperfect because we are researching things with imperfect senses. We have to accept perfect knowledge which comes down, as it stated in the Bhagavad-gita, by the parampara
(disciplic succession). . . . We must accept the Bhagavad-gita without interpretation, without deletion and without our own whimsical participation in the matter." In fact, Prabhupada contended that people needed to read only
the Bhagavad-Gita, because it is spoken by Krishna himself. It should become, he believed, the "one common scripture for the whole world."
In Prabhupada's formulation, the goal of encountering Krishna is to uncover one's true human identity. He wrote that "the purpose of this Krsna consciousness movement is to awaken man's original consciousness . . . We are all part and parcel of God; that is our real identity." As he described it, however, the quest to retrieve that lost identity was both simple and arduous. Especially in the current age, when humans have almost completely lost sight of their true nature, Prabhupada recommended that the chanting of a simple mantra could reawaken their consciousness of God. The mantra that repeats the praises of God, "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare Hare," as one devotee put it, "is the biggest connection we have to Krishna. All other things are based on it." Another devotee reported that "when you chant Hare Krishna you become purified. Your awareness is acutely intensified. Your awareness of everything: your spiritual awareness, your physical awareness, your awareness of everything around you." But even after several years of dutifully reciting the mantra, the same devotee acknowledged that the effects of chanting were not immediate. With firm resolve, she reported: "I want to learn to perfect the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. That's a main goal. I want to learn to chant Hare Krishna and actually become pure. I've been making spiritual advancement, so I want to make more progress. I want to actually realize that Krishna is God and that everyone won't be happy until they are situated back into the practice of serving God, serving Krishna." Prabhupada taught that the discipline necessary to chant with full consciousness the necessary sixteen daily rounds of the mantra on a 108-bead rosary could only be developed in the context of a guru-disciple relationship. He asserted that "one who is serious about understanding spiritual life requires a guru." Because he saw the guru's task as ensuring that no human being suffers in the material world and because suffering stems from ignorance, Prabhupada insisted that "the guru's first business is to rescue his disciple from ignorance." The guru does that by leading the ignorant sufferer to the Bhagavad-Gita and to the greatest mantra, "Hare Krishna." Being acutely aware of the competition among many who would claim to be gurus, Prabhupada assured his audiences that the only trustworthy gurus would be found within a specific tradition of teachers, or disciplic succession, that could trace itself back through Prabhupada's own guru to Caitanya and eventually to Krishna himself.
The surrender to Krishna through the guru that was a central characteristic of the new identity that Hare Krishnas adopted was accompanied by significant changes in outward appearance and behavior, including shaved heads for males, Indian styles of dress, new Sanskrit names, a vegetarian diet, acceptance of a hierarchical system of authority, a new worldview, and, in many cases, communal living. In many ways acceptance of Prabhupada's message of Krishna consciousness increased the distance and often the tension, between his American devotees and the surrounding society. In a gentle conversation with his daughter, the father of one devotee put the situation bluntly, "nobody in America knows from Hindu. Over here you just look like a bunch of kooks." Although Prabhupada and many of his disciples continually stressed that theirs was by no means a new religion, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) nevertheless became assimilated to the popular image of the suspicious cult. In 1976, for example, a former devotee, Robin George, and her mother filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit charging that the devotee had been kidnapped, brainwashed, and falsely imprisoned. The initial award to the plaintiffs of $32 million was contested by ISKCON, with the support of several mainstream religions, and after extensive litigation was reduced first to less than $10 million and eventually to less than $ 5oo,ooo. George and ISKCON reached a confidential settlement in 1993 after seventeen years of legal wrangling. After the Jonestown tragedy in November 1978, ISKCON became cemented into the popular image of dangerous cults, where it generally has remained despite various efforts by devotees to portray a different image of the group.
Prabhupada's death in November 1977 introduced substantial instability into the organization. Like many other charismatic leaders he had not provided precise instructions about who would lead the organization when he "left his body." He had established the Governing Body Commission in 1970 to help oversee the administration of ISKCON, but in the summer of 1977 he had also empowered a group of his disciples to perform initiations for devotees. Soon after his death several of the initiating gurus began to see themselves as the successors to Prabhupada in the disciplic succession and to claim the honor, and even worship, that they believed was due to them. Some of them, however, led lives at odds with the exalted religious status that they claimed. In the four years after Prabhupada's death, ISKCON was rocked by a series of "guru controversies" that threatened to fracture the movement, drive out faithful devotees, and endanger the entire project of spreading Krishna consciousness in the West. The controversies put the bureaucratic authority of the GBC in conflict with the claimed charismatic authority of the gurus who had been chosen by Prabhupada to perform initiations in his absence. Some of the gurus also competed among themselves for preeminence. The contention for authority within the movement shook the commitment of some of the devotees. One reported that "with Srila Prabhupada's disappearance, my commitment fluctuates, depending on how strictly Prabhupada's orders are being carried out by ISKCON." In 1982 a splinter group broke off from ISKCON and affiliated with Maharaja Swami in India, a former associate of Prabhupada. But in the wake of those defections, the GBC consolidated its power and the remaining gurus acknowledged its primacy in directing the Krishna consciousness Movement.
In the following decades ISKCON assumed a relatively lower profile, as it strove to heal the wounds of the bitter conflicts that followed Prabhupada's death. But at the turn of the century it was once again thrust into the news because of shocking accusations of child abuse at its boarding schools in the United States and India during the 1970s and 1980s. A federal lawsuit, Children of ISKCON v. ISKCON
, was filed in Dallas in 2000 by former members who claimed that they had been abused in the gurukula
schools by representatives of the organization. In October 1998, leaders of the movement had acknowledged that numerous children had suffered abuse in the movement's schools, but many critics were not fully satisfied by that statement or by the actions that followed it. In the summer of 2003 Hare Krishna temples in the United States were filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and one of their leaders called the decision an attempt to protect ISKCON from a lawsuit that "threatens to shut down an entire religion." Whether ISKCON would indeed be destroyed by the lawsuit remained to be seen in 2004, but the continuing troubles of the movement suggest that it will not be able soon, if ever, to return the prominence in American religious life that it experienced in the 1970s.
The abuses of power and people that marked the post-Prabhupada years of ISKCON lent additional support to the anticult movement's generic characterization of cult leaders as exploitative con men, but it is important to note that it was not the founder of ISKCON but rather the first generation of his would-be successors to whom the abuses can be traced. It is possible that the potential for abuse is at least as inherent in certain types of situations, such as the control that the successor gurus exercised over their devotees, as it is in certain types of people. In his analysis of the interrelationships between the leader of the Japanese new religion Aum Shinrikyo, Shoko Asahara, and his disciples, Robert Jay Lifton cautioned that "guru, disciple, and the bond between them are all more complex than usually described." As the lawsuit against ISKCON and its consequences unfold, Lifton's warning should lead observers away from simplistic analyses to more nuanced views of the relations between gurus and those who submit to their authority, as it should in general whenever the interactions between leaders and followers are under examination.