India has the longest continuous religious tradition of any country in the world. Long before Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam were conceived, the path of Sanatana-dharma was followed by millions.
The sacred writings of the Vedas were in existence long before the Egyptians built their pyramids, and the way of life we now call Hinduism has remained intact through thousands of years right up to the present day.
That’s an incredibly resilient spiritual tradition. Kingdoms have come and gone, and mighty civilisations and empires have simply melted away under the inexorable force of time; but the worship of Vishnu and Lakshmi continues.
Where does the history of the Hare Krishna movement begin? Perhaps, since it is the latest expression of the oldest of all, we could start at the very beginning, even before the dawn of history. But that’s too far back for a simple blog like this; it would take many pages. Let’s just go back to a time that gave the modern movement some of its current shape.
From approximately 500-900 AD there lived a succession of Vaishnava saints in south India. Known as the Alvars they toured the Tamil country, writing hymns and poems at the many beautiful Vishnu temples, established hundreds of years before. Their mood of utter devotion to Vishnu, the supreme God, was preserved and found philosophical expression in the writings of Ramanuja-acharya (1017-1137) who wrote extensive commentaries on the main theological works, helped to codify temple rituals and systems of personal discipline, and inspired and shaped a major religious movement.
Madhva-acharya (1238-1317) propounded the worship of Vishnu in the region of India now known as Karnataka. His robust declaration of the soul’s eternal servitude to God was decried by his opponents, yet his following thrived, and his disciples travelled far and wide re-establishing the worship of Vishnu where Buddhism and other teachings had once held sway.
Both Vedanta Deshika (1269-1370) and Manavala Mamunigal (1370-1443) continued the tradition of writing poetry and philosophy in the local languages, in addition to Sanskrit, thus expanding the possibilities for many more to follow a life of intellect-based devotion. They defended in vigorous debate the principles of Vaishnavism against the incursions of Islam, now invading from the north.
Finally, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534) appeared in the east of India and articulated a philosophy of devotion which reconciled and harmonised many subtle points expressed by those who came before him. He led a popular movement of millions, and converted many leading thinkers and political leaders to the worship of Krishna. His stress was on the congregational chanting of the names of God as the pre-eminent method of self-realisation for the age.
His immediate followers, the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan, the holy place where Lord Krishna was born, wrote many books on the science of devotion, re-discovered the lost holy places where Krishna spent his youth, and they established many beautiful temples where millions of pilgrims could come and experience the sacred darshan of Krishna.
From them, a chain of gurus and their disciples preserved the teachings and practices until modern times. The founder of the Hare Krishna movement, Srila A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), was requested by his guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakura, in 1922, to take the teachings of Krishna to English-speaking people throughout the world. He founded an English language publication in 1944 and finally journeyed west in 1965. He incorporated his new organisation as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, in 1966.
Spending some years developing his new movement amongst the youth of America, he eventually came to England in 1969. By 1970 the Hare Krishna chant was being broadcast as a pop song on the radio and the early followers, supported by their new celebrity status, attracted many interested people to the ancient teachings of India. The purchase of a large country manor house by George Harrison of the Beatles in 1973 helped to establish a headquarters for the movement in Britain.
Before he died in 1977, Srila Prabhupada had created an organisation with small yet dynamic branches in every country. He appointed an international governing body, the “Governing Body Commission” (GBC) to oversee the affairs of the Society. The members of this body are predominantly sanyasis, or monks, who travel to ensure that spiritual standards are being met and that the various centres under their jurisdiction are adhering to both the local government laws and the procedures and systems of the ISKCON movement. National affairs in each country are co-ordinated by a Council.
Although the centres, temples, restaurants and farms are the institutional core of the movement, their residential membership represents only five percent of the movement’s total membership. Devotees of Krishna are now of all ages and careers. Many attend sanghas in the town where they live – there are some 40 in the UK – and help to spread the message locally. A little known fact is that outside India, where the ISKCON movement has helped to reform and revitalise Hinduism through some 50 temples, Russia has the greatest number of practising devotees of Krishna, with some 10,000 in the Moscow area alone.
The Hare Krishna movement has a somewhat flattened hierarchy where trust and friendship are the most important factors in governance. However, human nature being what it is, there are sometimes disputes on philosophical or administrative points. Whilst ISKCON has a quite developed internal system of conflict resolution, with regional ombudsmen and procedures of appeal, there are nonetheless some half-dozen splinter groups that have sprung up from this particular limb of the Vedic Tree.