You may have seen them in airports, or dancing through streets of a major city. They have stopped you to ask for money, or to sell you one of their magazines. They are easily recognizable by their shaved heads, robes, and their incessant chanting: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. They are popularly known as Hare Krishnas, but officially members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). ISKCON was brought to the United States in the 1960’s by a Hindu Swami called A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. Prabhupada was a convert to a Hindu sect that focused on the Lord Krishna as the chief deity.
In traditional Hinduism, the ultimate reality is the impersonal divine Brahman. However, Brahman is manifested through a myriad of gods and goddesses. Chief among these is the triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. In India, many people follow one or the other of these three gods, with Shiva and Vishnu being especially popular. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu was a savior god, often appearing as an avatar, an incarnation who appeared on the earth in a time of crisis. One of these avatars was the Lord Krishna. The story of Krishna is told in the Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad Gita.
In the particular sect to which Prabhupada belonged, Krishna was considered the chief and primary deity. Indeed, this sect taught that Vishnu himself was a manifestation of Krishna. Prabhupada came to the U.S. in 1965 as a sort of Hindu missionary, bringing his peculiar form of Hindu belief. The Hare Krishnas, as the devotees of ISKCON are usually called, became a common site in many U.S. locales. And along with other Hindu gurus who were popular in the Western counterculture, such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Swami Satchidananda, the Hare Krishnas gained a following among hippies, musicians, film stars, and those pursuing Eastern mystical belief systems. Even the Beatles George Harrison was a convert, and honored the Lord Krishna in his song “My Sweet Lord.”
As in other forms of Hinduism, the goal of Krishna Consciousness is to escape this illusory, material world through experiencing enlightenment. Our problem is that we repeatedly are bound in an ongoing cycle of reincarnation. There are various ways to free ourselves from this cycle, and experience oneness with the divine—prayer, worship, meditation, morality, etc. However, the chief means is devotion to Krishna, especially as expressed in chanting the kirtana, the Krishna mantra cited earlier.
The followers of Krishna, when they are not dancing and chanting, live an austere lifestyle. Celibacy is considered the preferred state. They are strict vegetarians. They do not use tobacco, drugs or alcohol. They spent many hours each day working for ISKCON, e.g., they are famous for selling flowers, candy, or magazines to raise money for the group. The group has 100,000’s of followers worldwide, with many temples and centered scattered around the globe. One of their chief centers is a temple complex located outside of Wheeling, West Virginia. They also operate dozens of schools, farm communities and restaurants.
Basically ISKCON promotes a form of bhakti yoga, that is, spiritual disciplines that focuses on the worship and devotion to a god. This is considered the chief means of achieving enlightenment.
Summary of Beliefs
God: A Hindu perspective, but with a twist—Krishna is the chief expression of the divine.
Jesus: Jesus is basically irrelevant. Some assert that Jesus is the son of Krishna—others that he is an incarnation of Krishna.
Salvation: Salvation consists of human effort, especially in devotion to Krishna. By chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, devotees hope to experience oneness with Krishna.
Sin: No biblical concept of sin. Man’s problem is lack of knowledge and enlightenment.
Afterlife: Reincarnation is man’s lot. Ultimate salvation is achieved through union with
Krishna. There is a hell for sinners. But this only temporary, before being reincarnated.
Authority: The Bhagavad Gita is the primary scripture. Other Hindu writings, and the books of Swami Prabhupada are also revered.