There are many different expressions of Hindu belief. Many of the different expressions are relatively small and localized, and people in the West have never heard of them. There are a few, however, which have become known in the Western world. The reasons various ones have become more well known are many. Some because they have enough adherents to be recognized as major religions – such as Hinduism or Buddhism. Others because a missionary has come over and somehow made them visible to the public – such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation. In other cases, some famous actor or musician has converted to it and made a point of spreading the word – for instance, Buddhism with Steven Segal.
In the case of Hare Krishna, it is sort of a combination of all three. The basis of the religion reaches way back into the Hindu tradition. But the modern form is much more recent and has been spread by very missionary minded adherents who chant their mantras in public places and sell their books in order to spread the word. This belief system was very visible in America in the 1960s and 70s as we saw adherents in their robes chanting in airports and other public places. They are not seen nearly as much in America now as they were then, but they are still around. In current times, its greatest growth is being seen in Eastern Europe and in India. The Beatles really helped the spread when they began to dabble in the Krishna belief system and subsequently came out with such songs as “My Sweet Lord”, which is still heard frequently on “Oldies” radio stations.
The Hare Krishna faith dates back to the 15th century A.D. when Chaitanya Mahaprabu developed the doctrines of Krishna from the Hindu sect of Vishnu. Mahaprabu, himself, is regarded by Hare Krishna believers as a human incarnation of Krishna.
Whereas mainstream Hinduism regards Krishna to be the 8th incarnation of Vishnu (the Preserver and one of the Hindu trinity of deities), Hare Krishnas reversed that order and regard Krishna to be the supreme Lord over all deities – including Vishnu. Originally, Krishnaism was an attempt to make philosophical Hinduism appealing to the masses by personalizing God. Their teaching is that Lord Krishna was God Himself and that everyone can regain a personal relationship with him through the chanting of God’s names, specifically by using the Hare Krishna mantra. The reason this would be more popular with the masses is that the cultures which philosophical Hinduism originally came into were based in Animism. The masses were already used to understanding reality based on a worldview in which objective gods existed. By including an objective God in the mix with the major Hindu beliefs, the masses could more easily understand and identify with it.
The Krishna sect came to America in 1965 when Abhay Charan De Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to the United States for the purpose of gaining adherents for the religion. At that time, he founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). This modern version of Krishna is commonly known as Hare Krishna, because of the first two words of their principle mantra, which goes: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare.” In the mantra, the word Krishna means “the all-attractive,” the word Hare relates to “the energy of God,” and Rama means “the greatest pleasure.”
After 12 years of prolific writing and successful promotion of Krishna Consciousness, Prabhupada died in 1977. His main writings were word-for-word translations and commentaries into English of some of the Hindu scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Caitanya Caritamrita. Before his death, he appointed eleven commissioners who had the authority to accept disciples and extend the organization into different countries around the world.
During its early years in America, ISKCON was largely financed through the sale of incense and Prabhupada’s books, published by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Its income continues to come primarily from distributing its literature and from the solicitation of funds.
The organization is now run by two boards – one that focuses on the spiritual side of the movement and the other focused on administration. Additionally, it is organized into two sectors. Sector one is an order of monks and priests who live at a temple. The other sector is composed of congregational members who live outside of the temples in general society.
Male monks shave their heads, except for a central patch called a sikha. They also receive a Sanskrit name and wear robes to indicate they are Krishna monks. Single monks wear saffron colored robes to signify celibacy and the married ones wear white. Female residents of a temple wear traditional Indian saris and do not shave their heads.
Congregation members who live outside of the temples wear regular clothing and work secular jobs. Many live near a temple, follow a vegetarian diet, do some prayer and chanting at home, and come to the temple at least once a week – usually for the “Sunday Feast.”
Figures are not known exactly, but it is estimated that there are about 3,000 core members and about 250,000 lay constituents worldwide.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
Hare Krishna doctrine has much in common with conventional Hinduism. Their sacred text is the Hindu poem Bhagavad Gita which contains conversations between Lord Krishna and a soldier named Arjuna.
There are, however, a number of distinctive beliefs which depart from traditional Hindu doctrine. These distinctive doctrines include:
1. The primary goal of an individual’s life is to break away from repetitive reincarnations and return to the kingdom of God. It is believed that the body and soul are not the same and that death is a transition to the next phase of life. How an individual acts in his or her current life will determine whether they move up, down or out of the reincarnation cycle. Breaking away is attained through the chanting of the Krishna mantra. When the Krishna mantra is recited, it is believed that a person puts himself in harmony with Krishna.
2. Krishna is worshiped as the Supreme God and it is believed that individuals can achieve a personal relationship with Him. Jesus Christ is recognized as a directly empowered representative of Krishna.
3. Hell is understood to be a temporary destination after death for people who have sinned greatly while on earth. Heaven is also considered to be a temporary destination for people who have made progress in their quest to enter eternity but have not fully achieved the necessary qualifications.
4. Devotees need a spiritual master who is in a line of succession from one of the four gurus who acknowledged Krishna as the Supreme God.
5. Eating food prepared for and offered to Krishna is an act of communion with him. When such food is eaten, Krishna’s energy purifies the body of the devotee.
6. Krishna devotees reject deeds which they consider to be the four pillars of a sinful life. These include eating meat, using drugs and alcohol, illicit sex, and gambling.
7. Hare Krishnas also have what they refer to as the “Nine Processes of Devotional Service.” These are:
a. Hearing about God.
b. Chanting the names of God.
c. Remembering God by reading and associating with devotees.
d. Serving the Lord Krishna in the temple.
e. Worshiping God by preparing food, decorating the Lord, and bringing others to see Him.
f. Praying to God.
g. Encouraging others to chant the names of God.
h. Developing a close personal and intimate relationship with God.
i. Giving everything we have to God including our bodies.
There is one God, Krishna, who is the eternal, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-powerful, and all-attractive personality of Godhead. He is the seed-giving father to all living beings, and the sustaining energy of the eternal cosmic creation. In the beginning of creation, there was only the Supreme Personality Narayana – Krishna who created all and enjoys all. All other incarnations of Godhead are simply expansions or parts of Krishna. As Father God, Krishna expresses himself as both personal and impersonal.
Human individuals were originally situated in the spiritual world as servants of God. Some turned away from him because of a desire to experience his position. When this free will act of rebellion occurred, those individuals were sent to this material world and must work through the reincarnation process to make it back to the spiritual world.
To adherents of Krishna, salvation consists of liberation from the bonds of material reality. This must be earned by chanting the name of God, hearing and singing his praises, meditating upon the divine actions and deeds of Krishna, and engaging in the rites and ceremonies of worship. Self-denial and sacrifice are crucial for salvation. One’s good and bad deeds, which have been accomplished over all of one’s reincarnated lives (karma), are measured and judged either positively or negatively. Only when the good deeds have atoned for the bad, can a person realize oneness with Krishna and cease the cycles of rebirth. At that point a person is able to return to the pure spiritual existence of the eternal world.
Faith Foundation (How Hare Krishna Answers the 7 Worldview Questions)
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
The central expression of ultimate reality is Krishna, who manifests Himself both personally and impersonally. Based on his revelation in the Bhagavad Gita, the Supreme Person Krishna is the highest and most complete manifestation of God. At the same time he is expressed impersonally throughout the cosmos by his energies.
2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)
Material reality is an aspect of the immaterial manifestation of Krishna. It appears and disappears in cycles over the course of the eons. Our current cosmos consists of many planets which each have their own characteristic. Some planets are experienced as heaven, some are neutral ground, and others are hell. Our current earthly planet is neutral.
3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
In this material world, all living beings exist on two levels – the material and the spiritual. By nature, human beings are eternal spiritual beings. But during the time of existence in material reality, human spirits are covered by a limiting physical body, mind, intelligence and false ego.
4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
At physical death, the life force recycles (reincarnates) into another form. There are two possibilities in the reincarnation cycle.
The first possibility is to reincarnate into heaven or hell. These are not single locations, but are part of the temporal material cosmos. Just as on this planet there are nice places, hellish places and in between places, within the universe as a whole there are heavenly planets, hellish planets and in-between planets. On the heavenly planets, life is superior to life on earth. On the hellish planets life is worse. One is elevated to a heavenly planet by good karma from the performance of godly deeds, or consigned to hell by bad karma from evil deeds.
The second possibility in the reincarnation cycle is to ascend directly to the spiritual world. When individuals perform the right deeds, they regain their original spiritual consciousness and advance to spiritual perfection which qualifies them to return to the eternal spiritual world where they can enjoy the presence of Krishna.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
The real object of knowledge is Krishna. When individuals come to know him in truth, they rise above illusion which is the defining characteristic of material reality. If one knows the real nature of an illusory object then that person is not bewildered by it.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)
Right and wrong have been revealed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
The cosmos exists in eternity. What we perceive as time is actually the cyclical movement of eternity. Human history exists during the parts of the cycle when material existence comes into being, and ceases to exist during the periods when material existence ends.
Hare Krishna follows the traditional Hindu scriptures, but especially the Bhagavad Gita which was given by Krishna. They also look to the writings of Swami Prabhupada.
Evidence for the Authority
The evidence that the Hindu scriptures are accurate relies completely on the faith of adherents that their scripture represents the way reality is structured, and on their personal experience. There is no objective evidence to demonstrate that the approach to understanding reality described in the Bhagavad Gita is the way it is actually structured. It is simply accepted to be accurate and acted on from that assumption. The various expressions of material reality are viewed as illusions which contradict human experience.
In some ways, Hare Krishna is a hybrid of Far Eastern Thought and Theism. It has the basic underlying beliefs of Far Eastern Thought with its belief in karma and reincarnation. However, it throws in the belief in a personal, transcendent God which individuals can come to know.
In many ways, the Theistic part of this belief system are the most important to its adherents and define the parameters of the religion. The very idea of a personal transcendent God makes this a belief system which has a Theistic feel. The Far Eastern Thought elements, though, give it enough common ground with Far Eastern Thought belief systems to make Hindus, Buddhists and the like feel comfortable with it – particularly the elements of reincarnation and karma.
There is no objective evidence that this belief system is true. It is based strictly on the teachings of ancient writers. There is no evidence of any kind which can demonstrate that reincarnation or karma actually reflect reality. There is also no evidence to demonstrate the actual existence of Lord Krishna. Without some kind of evidence for the validity of this belief system, it is very difficult to take it seriously as a system of truth.
© 2009 Freddy Davis