The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) belongs to the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya (denomination or tradition), an ancient monotheistic tradition within Vedic or Hindu culture. ISKCON was established on July 11, 1966 by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (affectionately called Srila Prabhupada). It began in a small storefront in New York and has since developed into a worldwide confederation of over 11,000 temple devotees, 980,000 congregational devotees, and is comprised of more than 350 centers, 60 rural communities, and 55 restaurants worldwide.
The mission of this nonsectarian, monotheistic movement, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement, is to promote the well being of society by teaching the science of Krishna consciousness according to the Bhagavad Gita and other ancient Vedic scriptures of India
With the growing influence and awareness about ISKCON, have also come many misconceptions, some of them trivial, bordering humorous (like do I have to become bald to join ISKCON?) to much more serious (like does ISKCON deny the existence of other religions?). In this article, we will examine the more common myths related to ISKCON and explain the facts.
Myth: ISKCON is an American organization.
Fact: ISKCON is non-sectarian in all respects, including nationality. It has temples all over the world managed and attended by local people of that region. Devotees often travel to different temples all over the world serving the deities, preaching and performing temple services as and when needed.
Myth: ISKCON propagates a predominantly Hindu religion.
Fact: Hindu culture is vast, and the term encompasses numerous theologies, philosophies religious traditions and spiritual cultures. ISKCON propagates the timeless Vedic philosophy which is not limited to any religion. The concept of God consciousness, devotional service and associating with God by remembering His name, His pastimes and following His instructions is universally preached in all spiritual walks of life and is explained in the Vedas as the 'sanatana dharma', the basic duty of all living entities.
Myth: ISKCON is a new-wave religion
Fact: ISKCON belongs to the Brahma Sampradaya, emanating from Lord Brahma and is one of the four authorized Vaishnava sampradayas (the other three are the Sri or Lakshmi, Rudra and Kumara sampradayas). The founder acarya Srila Prabhupada belongs to an unbroken disciplic succession started by Sri Krishna through Lord Brahma and includes authorities like Narada Muni, Srila Vyasadeva, Sripada Madhavacarya and Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Myth: ISKCON uses American wealth to fund its project over the world.
Fact: All temples in ISKCON are mostly self sufficient and rely on their local congregation, book distribution and festivals to sustain and expand.
Myth: ISKCON is very aggressive in its preaching.
Fact: Devotees are naturally very compassionate and eager to share their love of Godhead with others. The Vedic scriptures enjoin that there is no activity as holy as spreading the name and teachings of God. However they also respect the views, background and practices of different people at all times. ISKCON does see it as its mission to accept with open arms any sincere soul who declares a need for spiritual shelter and guidance. There is a definite missionary spirit in Vaishnavism and Hinduism, but its practice is not governed by an exclusionist conversion model. From a Gaudiya Vaishnava perspective, ISKCON works not at 'conversion' but spiritual development.
Myth: ISKCON has been altered to suit the westerners
Fact: ISKCON is based on the potency of disciplic succession. The original word is passed from spiritual master to disciple without any modifications. The philosophy, practices, principles and any apparent deviation have been clearly enunciated and authorized by the Vedic scriptures. ISKCON requires that all initiated devotees strictly follow the four regulative principles (no meat eating, no intoxication, no gambling, no illicit sex), chant at least sixteen round of Japa daily and seriously study, understand and assimilate the Vedic scriptures like Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam etc.
Myth: ISKCON has turned religion into a public show.
Fact: People are often bemused and some times angered by the public sankirtans performed by ISKCON. However the scriptures recommend sankirtan as the yuga dharma for the current age of Kali. The traditional ratha yatra held annually in Puri is a classic example of this. The Nagara Sankirtana (town chanting) movement inaugurated by Caitanya Mahaprabhu has been followed in India for centuries and spontaneously engages even unwilling people into devotional service by sravana (hearing) and kirtana (singing) the Lord's name. However, these public displays are sustained by serious introspection, study of the scriptures. and hours of daily Japa meditation and deity worship.
Myth: Deity worship standard in ISKCON does not come up to the level of traditional temples in India.
Fact: ISKCON temples are highly acclaimed in India and the rest of the world for exactingly high standard of deity worship. There are daily six aratis, regular bhoga offering beginning from early morning at 4:30AM, qualified priests and Brahmans expertly trained in deity dressing and worship.
Myth: ISKCON has very few people from Brahman families.
Fact: In Bhagavad Gita (18.42-44), Sri Krishna clearly states that the Varna (caste) of a person is decided by his activities, not by birth. At ISKCON all devotees follow rigorous regulative principles and are carefully guided and observed by their spiritual masters before they become eligible to receive their first (Harinam) or second (Brahamanical) initiation. All initiated devotees in ISKCON take a vow to adhere to the four regulative principles (no meat eating, no intoxication, no gambling and no illicit sex) and chant at least sixteen rounds of Japa every day.
Myth: ISKCON propounds a culture of conversion
Fact: ISKCON has the basic belief that God consciousness is universal and all major religions are bona fide. With this understanding, ISKCON does not have a mission to proselytize members of other faiths. There are fully practicing Christians and Moslems who are active members of ISKCON. Similarly there are many that have wholeheartedly embraced the Vedic teachings explained in the ISKCON temples. Conversion is a an individual experience, a very personal spiritual journey that transcends religious institutions and sectarian affiliations. Conversion models that depend on exclusionist demands of affiliation may often do so without considering the Lord's supremacy, independent in truth.
Myth: ISKCON like other temples and churches is always asking for money.
Fact: It is customary for religious organizations, engaged in spiritual service, to depend on the congregation for support. While our temples do need money to support, they are ultimately only dependant on the mercy of Sri Krishna for this. People contribute voluntarily, only when they are eager to utilize their wealth in the service of Sri Krishna, and ISKCON takes utmost care that this is done optimally. However, no one is excluded on the basis of their wealth or contributions. The greatest spiritual realizations that one can have is that he is not the proprietor of anything - every thing belongs to Krishna and is best used in his service.
Myth: ISKCON has diluted religion by making it high-tech.
Fact: Temples in ISKCON are known to rely on latest technology to attract visitors. Sannyasis fly around the world and keep in touch using Email from their laptops. But all this is being used in the service of Sri Krishna. In itself technology is neither good or bad, it is the intent of its use that makes the difference. The concept of 'yukta vairagya' using everything in the service of Krishna is fully understood and carefully followed in ISKCON.
Myth: ISKCON does not have any social obligations.
Fact: ISKCON is the largest Vegetarian Food Relief organization in the world. It distributes a plate of prasadam every five seconds, some times in the midst of war and famine situations. At different places, depending on the resources and interest, ISKCON has established hospitals, schools, farm communities and restaurants. However, they do not distribute just food, they distribute prasadam (food that has been sanctified by offering to Krishna), which not only alleviates physical hunger but also provides spiritual nourishment. The focus is always on the spiritual growth of a person, not just the temporary material body.
Myth: ISKCON requires its members to shave up and become bald !
Fact: The only basis of joining ISKCON is simple: a sincere desire to develop God consciousness. There are attendant processes while making spiritual advancements, like austerity, simplicity and frugalness. Becoming bald is simply one of the prescribed ways to lead a simple, austere life.
We hope that this has cleared many common misconceptions about ISKCON held by people in different countries and denominations. As always, we welcome from our readers, discussions on any of these points.