Founder Acharya His Divine Grace
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

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Understanding ISKCON
By Charles R. Brooks   |  May 04, 2007

ICJ Vol 3, No 2 – December 1995: Charles Brooks wrote The Hare Krishnas in India, an important study of the Hare Krishna movement in India, focusing particularly on their presence in Vrindavan. Thus he is perhaps more qualified than most to comment on the legitimacy of ISKCON, of which he is convinced. However, like many devotees, Dr. Brooks would like ISKCON to address issues that, even after thirty years, seem to have been neglected.

In this presentation I hope to answer several questions. These include: Is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) a legitimate religion? What is the relevance of the term ‘cult’ in understanding ISKCON? How is ISKCON perceived and treated in India? How can an anthropological perspective contribute to the public discourse about ISKCON?

I am speaking as an anthropologist, anthropology being a socialscience uniquely equipped to answer these types of questions. The study of comparative religions is firmly established in the discipline, and there is a high degree of academic agreement concerning how to approach and understand the sensitive issues involved. More than that, however, is the direct understanding of cultural phenomena that the anthropologist achieves in the process of doing his or her research. 

While the primary method of the anthropologist – participant observation – results in data that can be used in comparative analysis with objective validity, it also provides an understanding of studied phenomena from a native or insider’s perspective. These dual methodological and analytical attributes allow the anthropologist to speak from a truly empirical, yet sensitive, position. 

Is ISKCON a religion? 

As I consider the issue of whether a system of knowledge and behaviour constitutes a legitimate religion, I am guided by a concept with an explicit definition: religion is cultural knowledge about the supernatural realm that people use to cope with the ultimate problems of human existence. Religion, then, is part of a broader, integrated cultural system with the specific attribute of informing people about a reality beyond normal human experience. This knowledge is internalised to such a degree, however, that this supernatural is understood to be unquestionably real. Concepts of the supernatural vary from culture to culture, but generally we find it is conceived as personified beings – gods and goddesses, for example – or as an impersonal power or force. 

A religion’s legitimacy from the anthropological perspective cannot be conferred by a society’s dominant religious institutions only. The animistic practice of hunters and gatherers is a religion as complex and real as Roman Catholicism. So the minimal attributeof any religion is true belief that supernatural beings, forces and places do exist, that human beings can interact with the supernatural and that supernatural beings and forces have some influence overhuman life. If these things exist, there is religion. Beliefs thatdo not include the existence and importance of the supernatural are not religion.

ISKCON entails committed, devoted, passionate beliefs in a complex supernatural reality, so no challenge to ISKCON’s identity as a religion can be seriously entertained. 

Is ISKCON a cult? 

Ethnocentrism seems to be an unavoidable component of human nature. It manifests in different ways in different populations, ranging from mild dislike to extreme hatred. We can understand that the valuing of one’s culture is necessary for its continuation and continuity; yet ethnocentrism is also at the root of most social conflicts, and a primary barrier to communication and understanding. 

This is especially so in the domain of religion. I know of no religion that does not have some idea that its beliefs and practices are in some ways superior or more correct than others. For the Christian, salvation can only be achieved through belief in a redeeming Christ; for the Muslim, there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet who presents the fullest revelation of truth. ISKCON also believes that an ultimate understanding of reality is contained in its sacred texts and revealed through its saintly teachers. 

Here is another point of convergence between ISKCON and other religions.

However, since ISKCON itself is rarely seen as part of a traditional religious system, and since in most places ISKCON is not part of the dominant culture, its members are marginalised, stigmatised and sometimes persecuted. The ethnocentrism of the dominant majority results in classifying ISKCON as sinful, dangerous, evil, etc. In other words, in the West ISKCON is often viewed as a cult, and that term carries with it the darkest stigma.

This is an unfortunate linguistic and cultural development, since the old religious meaning of the term and its sociological / anthropological applications, has been completely lost. The Latin cultus,meaning ritual or liturgy, and the sociological term ‘cult’, meaning an organisation formed around a centrally dominating belief or prophet, is rarely understood in its current popular usage. Today the word ‘cult’ implies ‘brainwashing’, physical and mental enslavement, total submission of individuality and other negative attributes contrary to normative Western cultural values. 

Enough has been said and written by scholars so I need not prolong this discussion, except to say that the idea of evil cults in the public mind today is incorrect. Rarely can these ideas be sustained by empirical research. And ISKCON is not a cult if the popular definition of cult is applied.

Understanding ISKCON’s historical emergence from an anthropological viewpoint can be better achieved by observing how closely it fits Anthony Wallace’s model of the ‘Revitalisation Movement’. A Revitalisation Movement is a conscious, organised effort by people who are so dissatisfiedwith their culture that they desire to create a more satisfying one. Such sociocultural phenomena have appeared throughout history when societies go through periods of disorganisation and failure.When a particular culture ceases to function for some people, they begin to experience a high degree of distress and actively seek to find new ways of thinking and behaving. 

As more and more people experience this condition, a period of ‘cultural distortion’ can be said to exist. Individuals begin to recognise others with similar problems, and a loose sense of community begins to form among them.

This was the situation in the late sixties and early seventies when a counterculture formed in the United States and Western Europe. Such conditions are optimal for the formation of revitalisation movements,and they may or may not succeed depending on whether a charismatic leader or prophet appears. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami arrived in theUnited States at this time, although he was personally unaware of these conditions. He thus provided the charismatic leadership and direction around which a new culture and society – ISKCON – formed. 

ISKCON is a classic revitalisation movement in the American context. So was the early Christian church, as well as early forms of Buddhism and Islam. I have written in more detail about ISKCON’s early days as a revitalisation movement in The Hare Krishnas in India and other publications.

Most revitalisation movements fade away after the death of the founder, unless they routinise, institutionalise and find some way to make accommodations with the dominant society. The major religions in the world today survived and flourished in this way, and so has ISKCON. With the most minimal comparative study it is easy to see these parallels.

If we wish to understand ISKCON and other similar groups in theiroriginal context (in this case American), the well-described and studied Revitalisation Movement model would seem to offer an objective, realistic and unbiased alternative to ‘cult’. 

What do the Indians think about ISKCON? 

The beliefs and practices of ISKCON are determined by a process of cultural transmission that is quite ancient. The particular tradition,or sampradaya, is most commonly called Gaudiya Vaishnavism,or Bengali Vaishnavism. The descriptive term Caitanyite Vaishnavism is also appropriate since it was the Bengali saint Caitanya Mahaprabhu who was the founding personality of this tradition. Of course, Caitanya in a very real sense energised a religious system based upon the belief in Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, which was already thousands of years old. So the Caitanya sampradaya is very old within India and is an important part of that country’s dominant religious system. 

Religious legitimacy in the Indian tradition depends on the direct transmission of knowledge from guru to disciple in an unbroken chain. Swami Bhaktivedanta, ISKCON’s founder, is such a guru, and he is a well documented link in the chain of the Caitanya sampradaya.

My studies of ISKCON in India took a close look at how Indians themselves viewed the Western converts to their religion. This is certainly a complex topic, but I can say with full confidence that Indians in general, and specifically those who practise Gaudiya Vaishnavism, see ISKCON as a legitimate and important development in their religion’s history. 

This is especially significant, since Western analysis of Hinduism has traditionally seen it as a closed system where membership is achieved only by birth. Essentially it has generally been accepted that to be Hindu means to be born into a Hindu family in India. What is even more surprising to many is the Indian acceptance that at least some devotees of ISKCON are legitimately Brahmin. This acceptance of ISKCON’s Brahmin status is demonstrated by the fact that many Indians see devotees as legitimate religious specialists, accepting them as priests, gurus and pandits.

Swami Bhaktivedanta envisioned that Western devotees of Krsna could contribute to a revival of religious fervour in India, and indeed this has happened. ISKCON enjoys considerable support from a wide range of Indian citizens, from government officials down to village farmers. Moreover, in the United States and other places where there is a sizeable immigrant Indian population, ISKCON is an important cultural resource for these communities. In many locations where there is no Hindu temple, the ISKCON temple serves as the primary place of worship for Indians. They also see ISKCON as a resource for transmitting their native culture to their children. There can be no doubt that ISKCON is considered legitimate by Indians,whether they live in their native country or abroad. This is especially underscored by the fact that Indians in the United States and other places have seen attacks against ISKCON as attacks against their own culture. 

Proposals for improving the public discourse about ISKCON 

ISKCON is not a cult in the popular conception of the term. It is a legitimate religion from the perspective of the anthropological study of comparative religions, and is viewed as such in India. The question for consideration then is how can the stigma assigned to ISKCON by many societies be rectified, and what conditions can be created so that ISKCON devotees can practise their religion freely throughout the world without fear of persecution? 

On the one hand, the fact that ethnocentrism does and will continue is a considerable obstacle. On the other hand, anthropological studies show us that change does occur and that tolerance of differences can increase in any society. Public education about the actual nature of ISKCON is of central importance if ideas are to be changed. If governments, cultural leaders, national institutions and the media transmit unbiased messages about ISKCON, then public opinion can be changed to some extent.

This project of changing public opinion should be part of a broader campaign that educates people about the improper use of the term’cult’, emphasising that ISKCON and other stigmatised religious groups are not to be feared but should be considered religions, plain and simple. 

Members of ISKCON may not agree, but in my opinion a step in the right direction would be to demonstrate that ISKCON is a legitimate form of Hinduism. Scholars know that ‘Hinduism’ is a misleading word and of marginal use, but linking ISKCON with Hindu Indians has practical advantages. In Western societies where freedom of religion is a sacred value, Indians living in those societies have some degree of legal protection and popular tolerance.

Scholars, journalists, film makers and other media professionals could also contribute to this process by publishing works for a general audience that review unbiased research about ISKCON which presents devotees in a favourable light. Included in this (and other types of public education campaigns) should be a clear discussionof the high moral, ethical and behavioural standards that ISKCON devotees are expected to maintain.

In this connection there is one other point to be made: if ISKCON is to overcome the negative impressions that have developed around it, the organisation collectively, and devotees individually, must confront the root of the public’s animosity, especially in the United States. 

Many people have had personal encounters with devotees selling books and religious articles, only to be tricked into giving more money than they wished. The image of the ISKCON devotee as huckster, or even criminal, is very strong in the public mind and must be dealt with. To some degree ISKCON has already begun to do this and should continue in its efforts. Public apologies about past behaviour, real or imagined, must be communicated with sincerity. The public will then be better prepared to be re-educated about the true nature of ISKCON.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a fascinating and anthropologically significant phenomenon. Through the effortsof one devoted, elderly man, the lives of many people around the world have been changed. But more than this, through Swami Bhaktivedanta, a religious system has quickly spread from its place of origin to almost every niche on the planet. The success of ISKCON may be comparable only to the spreading of Christianity and Buddhism. But what makes the study of ISKCON even more compelling is that this cross-cultural expansion began only thirty years ago.

ISKCON has survived the death of its guru, which predisposes it to longevity from the perspective of a revitalisation movement. As an organisation, it continues to confront its doctrinal and managerial problems, adapting to changing situations and environments. It is likely to be around for the duration of human history, so it is time for governments, other religions and the general public to be honestly educated about it, so at least a functional degree of tolerance can be achieved for the ‘long haul’. 

This paper was originally delivered at a conference at Humbolt University, Berlin in July 1995.