excerpt – Hare Krishna

Bhaktivedanta on one of his morning walks, during which he would often engage his disciples in theological discussions. In 1969, the swami founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York . Courtesy of the Bhaktivedanta Archives2. PRACTICES AND RITUALS

The distinctive dress that Hare Krsna devotees came to be known for is not unusual in India. But, in fact, the classic figure of the dancing, chanting devotee with a shaved head and saffron robe—the icon of religious sects in the West—has now nearly disappeared. Today, most ISKCON members are laics and reside outside of the temple compounds, wear standard dress, and avoid anything that would identify them as Hare Krsnas at work or elsewhere in public.

Full-time members do continue to wear traditional Indian robes, and among the residents of the temples and communities, men still shave their heads, leaving a tuft of hair (sikha) to fall onto the nape of the neck. The men’s robe, the dhoti, is white to indicate a married man and saffron for celibates and senior members who have taken the vow of renunciation. Women who reside in the communities wear long, multicolored lengths of cloth, saris, that are wrapped around the whole body and sometimes over the top of the head. Their hair is usually kept long but tidily braided.

Full-time members apply the traditional marks (tilaka) of the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition to their forehead, arms, chest, and abdomen once a day using clay that comes from sacred Indian rivers and lakes. They also wear a beaded necklace that is made out of tulasi wood; tulasi is a sacred plant that is worshipped by Vaisnavas.

In considering a devotee’s daily practices, one should keep in mind that there are two distinct dimensions of belonging as either an “internal resident devotee” or an “external devotee.” Since the percentage of lay members is much higher than the percentage of temple residents, it would be wrong to overlook the lay practices. However, the daily observances of non-resident believers derive, to some extent, from the temple liturgy.

ISKCON claims to be a modern expression of the older Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition.1 However, it is important to remember that its ritual and liturgical practices were adapted according to its founder’s vision and its international dimension. In some ways, it diverges from other religious communities in Bengal, Orissa, and Uttar Pradesh which claim a similar heritage.2 This is not surprising since in the Hindu experience one would expect variations on a tradition3 as influenced by geography, historical-political context, social dimensions, language, and the figure of the leader.


The following is meant to be a description of ISKCON practices4 as they agree with and diverge from other Vaisnava realities. Whereas the emphasis within ISKCON is on certain liturgical and doctrinal elements, they constitute one possible interpretation of Gaudiya principles, and it is the combination of these elements that comprises ISKCON orthodoxy.5

Conforming to common Hindu habits, ISKCON devotees begin each day very early, about two hours before dawn, with a meticulous body cleansing, which is considered to be a necessary prerequisite for ritual activities. Then comes the body “spiritualization” when the traditional symbols such as the tilaka are applied to the body. Following these individual preparations, devotees meet in the temple room for the mangala-arati ceremony at 4:30 a.m. This ritual is widely observed in South Asia with slight variations. It involves ritualistically awakening and greeting the temple deities6 and singing hymns in Sanskrit (kirtana, bhajana) for their pleasure, accompanied by traditional instruments such as the two-faced drum and brass cymbals.

The deities are the focal point around which all daily activities in the temple revolve. The statues are worshipped as if they were living beings. For instance, all food is ritually offered to the deities before it is consumed by the devotees as consecrated prasada. There are variations in the worship rituals, which may be simple or quite elaborate according to the available facilities and human resources. What is common to all temples is that the devotees ritually bathe the deities in the morning, clothe them in full vestments one or two times every day, and make food offerings to them at different hours of the day.

The wakening ritual ends at about 5:15 a.m., and the next two hours are allotted for individual meditation with the help of a rosary crafted out of sacred wood (aksa-mala)on which mantras are counted. Devotees are expected to chant or murmur (japa)7 the names of Krsna8 with complete concentration in an atmosphere of praise and invocation to god. In ISKCON, this practice is a fundamental part of all religious and missionary activities.9

After meditation, the collective ceremony known as srn-gara-drati begins at 7:15 a.m., allowing devotees to admire the new costumes the murtis are dressed in. The costumes are elaborate and are changed every day. Thereafter comes guru-puja, the daily worship of the founder, Bhaktivedanta.

Around 8:00 a.m., after some additional prayers and songs, the residents gather in the temple room to hear a lecture by a senior member of the community or a traveling master. The topic usually comes from the Bhagavata-purdna, which is the central scripture in ISKCON and was the founder’s favorite. Bhaktivedanta not only translated the Bhagavata-purdna into English, he also provided followers with his own extensive, published commentary on it.10 The liturgical session is usually over by 9:00 A.M. when it is time for the customary vegetarian breakfast in the refectory.

Thereafter, each devotee performs various practical duties assigned to him or her according to the circumstances, needs, and scope of the community. Members might engage in book production and sales, cooking, gardening, priestly or liturgical duties, or office work.

Around 2:00 p.m., the members reconvene for lunch, followed by an hour or two of privacy when devotees rest or read religious literature. Work is then resumed and continues until 7:00 p.m. At that time, devotees gather in the temple room to sing hymns (sandhya-arati), sometimes followed by a brief lecture on the Bhagavad-gita, which was dear to Bhaktivedanta.11 Finally at 8:00 p.m., the sayana-arati is the final ceremony wherein the deities are invited to rest for the night. There is an optional light supper of milk, cereal, and fruit; then the devotees retire to their rooms, sometimes to read scriptural passages before sleeping.

External devotees generally observe the same schedule, although more or less rigidly according to the piety and conscientiousness of each person. There are non-initiated devotees who follow the canonical schedule precisely, while there are senior initiates who are more lax and might even keep aloof from the community. Whether a novice or veteran, many of the external devotees admire the temple life-style, and in some cases they express nostalgia or seem to suffer from an inferiority complex with regard to the life-style of full-time residents. However, it is important to note that the laic congregation’s growth—its expansion beyond the controlled communities—produced new forms of participation and belonging, and hence, orthodoxy became more moderate and accommodating of the laic dimension.12


The complex and varied nature of ISKCON rituals excludes a thorough examination here, although a few milestones along the believer’s path deserve special mention. To begin with, the novitiate usually lasts at least six months. During this time, a candidate is encouraged to choose which authorized guru he or she will follow as a disciple.13 This is the first step toward the “first initiation,” or harinama-diksa, when the adept is told the holy names of Hari and takes his or her vows.14

After a period of verification and confirmation, the novice completes a questionnaire with thirteen doctrinal and institutional questions. He must then receive the blessings of the local temple authorities, who attest to the genuineness of the novice’s character and motivations. The individual is then fit to be initiated. A fire sacrifice is performed. During the ceremony, the novice solemnly takes his vows before his guru, who changes his name to a Sanskrit designation. This new name links the believer to a particular aspect or form of god. The name always includes the suffix dasa for men and dasi for women, in both cases signifying a “servant.” It reminds the believer of his state of servitude before god and guru. Thereafter, the devotee is known in the community as, for instance, Krsnadasa or Krsnadasi.

During the initiation ceremony, the candidate promises to abide by certain ethical standards, including both positive prescriptions and negative prohibitions. The founder emphasized four “regulative principles”: “No illicit sex life, no meat-eating, no intoxication, no gambling.”15 The candidate promises to chant a precise number of mantras every day, along with other duties.16

A year or more later, a devotee can be considered eligible for a “second initiation,” a further rite that enables him to perform specific liturgical procedures. On this occasion, the initiate receives the status of a brahmana17 symbolized by the sacred thread (yajnopavita),18 which is held when chanting the gayatri-mantra.19 This ceremony was first introduced by Bhaktivedanta Svami’s guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, who had distanced himself from the traditionalists by rejecting the idea that only those who were brahmanas by birth (jati) could perform sacrificial rites or other activities linked to the brahmanical status.20

Other important rites of passage in a Krsna life include the marriage ceremony (vivaha-yajna) and, at a mature age, initiation into the order of renunciation (sonny asa). In its historic evolution, ISKCON has drawn from various Vaisnava traditions to establish its own liturgy for various events. Where the founder chose not to establish a fixed liturgy, ISKCON leaders have filled in the gaps, deriving notions from external authorities, to create a cultural setting that included all the normal “rites of passage.”21_______________


1. For descriptions of traditional Gaudiya practices, see Sushil Kumar De, Early History of the Vaisnava Faith and Movement in Bengal (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1961), 408-541; Melville T. Kennedy, The Chaitanya Movement: A Study of the Vaisnava of Bengal (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1993), 180-216; Edward C. Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava Sahajiya Cult of Bengal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 181-221; David L. Haberman, Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Raganuga Bhakti Sadhana (New York City: Oxford University Press, 1988), 115-144.

2. Particularly interesting is the social network established by ISKCON in its Indian temples and communities. See Charles Brooks, “ISKCON’s Place in the Bengal Vaishnava Tradition of Caitanya Mahaprabhu,” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 6 (spring 1998): 5-30; Brooks, The Hare Krishnas in India (Princeton, NJ: Prince-ton University Press, 1989); Brooks, “A Unique Conjecture: The Incorporation of ISKCON in Vrindaban,” in Krishna Consciousness in the West, eds. David Bromley and Larry D. Shinn (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1989), 165-187; Shukavak N. Dasa, “ISKCON’s Link to Sadhana-bhakti within the Caitanya Vaishnava Tradition,” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 6 (spring 1998): 189-212.

3. On the variegation, mutability, conflict, and dynamism of Indian religious traditions, see Jan C. Heesterman, The Inner Conflict of Tradition: Essays in Indian Ritual, Kingship, and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Wilhelm Halbfass, Tradition and Reflection: Exploration in Indian Thought (Albany: State University of New York, 1991); Gerald James Larson, India’s Agony over Religion (Albany: State University of New York, 1995).

4. The information conveyed here is drawn partly from the canonic manual, Pancaratra-Pradlpa, 2 vols. (Mayapur, India: ISKCON GBC Press, 1994).

5. The analysis of Indologist Rahul Peter Das is of particular interest (Rahul, “‘Vedic’ in the Terminology of Prabhupada and His Followers,” journal of Vaisnava Studies 6 (spring 1998): 141-159. On the connection between ISKCON and other Gaudiya traditions, see Rahul, Essays on Vaisnavism in Bengal (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1997), 54-71.

6. Statues of marble or brass are found in Hindu temples as images of divinity, known as murtis in Sanskrit, and are specific to each tradition. They are installed in the sancta sanctorum with a grand ceremony called pratistha (installation), which is when their “divinization” takes place.

7. Ancient Indian sources mention three styles japa: loud, murmured, and silent (mental). In ISKCON the first is viewed as superior because it allows others to hear god’s holy names and benefits everyone rather than just the individual chanter. Traditionalists maintain that silent japa is best because it involves utter concentration and is thus more thoroughly pure. For an example of the traditional view, see Manavadharmasastra 2.85.

8. This implies the repetition of a Sanskrit mantra sixteen times for each of the 108 beads of the rosary. The mantra comes from Kali-santarana Upanisad 1.2: hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare / hare krsna hare hrsna hrsna krsna hare hare / iti sodasakam namndm kali-kalmasa nasanam / natah parataropayah sarva vedesu drsyate. On the underlying theology, see Norvin J. Hein, “Caitanya’s Ecstasies and the Theology of the Name,” in Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions, ed. Larry Smith (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1976), 16-32. For a traditional view, see Raghava Caitanya, The Divine Name (Berhampur, India: Bhakti Vigyan Nityananda Book Trust, rpt. 1997).

9. The theological motives for this emphasis are described in Guy L. Beck, Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1993), 183-203.

10. Tamal Krsna Gosvami, “The Dance of the Dexterous Hermeneute: Transformation vs. Continuity, Tension in Scriptural Transmission,” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 6 (spring 1998): 61-72.

11. Regarding Bhaktivedanta’s commentary on the Bhagavad-gita, see the apologetic text written by Sivarama Svami, The Bhaktivedanta Purports: Perfect Explanation of the Bhagavad-gita (Badger, CA: Torchlight Publishing, 1998). For an intriguing critique of the founder’s approach to the Bhagavad-gita, cf. Eric Sharpe, The Universal Gita: Western Images of the Bhagavad Gita (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1985), 141-147.

12. Burke Rochford, “Family Formation: Culture and Change in the Hare Krishna Movement,” I5KCON Communications Journal 5 (Dec. 1997): 68-72; Rochford. “Crescita: Espansione e Mutamento nel Movimento degli Hare Krishna,” Religion! e Sette nel Mondo 1/1 (1995): 75-78.

13. ISKCON has a complex set of norms that guide the master-disciple relationship. For details, see “Gurus and Initiation in ISKCON: Law of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness,” 1996 (unpublished).

14. The initiation procedure is, in some ways, peculiar and exclusive to ISKCON. In older Gaudiya Vaisnava traditions, there were separate ceremonies and practices for vaisnava-diksa. One of these included five sanctifying elements known as panca-samskara: the guru marked the adept’s body with sacred symbols (tapa), he applied the vertical tilaka mark (urdhva-pundra), bestowed on him a new name (nama), introduced the disciple to prayer and revealed the sacred stanzas (mantra) to him, and initiated him to ritual worship (yaga). This procedure is described by the Gaudiya Vaisnava theologian Baladeva Vidyabhusana (Pra-meya-ratndvali VIII.1-12). A description of a canonical Gaudiya initiation rite is included in an older work (Gopala Bhatta Gosvami, Hari Bhakti Vilasa, vilasa II). For a comparison with vedic and post-vedic models of initiation (diksa), see Jan Gonda, Change and Continuity in Indian Religion (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, rpt. 1997), 315-462; Rajbali Pandey, Hindu Samskdras (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994), 106-152.

15. Lecture of Bhaktivedanta Svami on Srimad-Bhagavatam, December 12, 1970. Besides meat, fish and eggs are forbidden.

16. On the standard enforced for ISKCON celibates and ministers, see one of the early manuals, Hare Krsna Handbook (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1970), 44-52.

17. For brahminic initiation customs in ancient India, see, e.g., Manavadharmasastra II.36-44.

18. A long composite thread (upavita) in cotton or silk is draped from the left shoulder to the right hip as the distinctive mark of the brahmanas (the priestly class) and, in classical times, also of warriors and merchants. For an instructive historical perspective on the ancient use of the yajnopavita, see Pandurang Vaman Kane, History of Dharmasastra (Pune, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, rpt. 1997), 2.1:287-297.

19. Guy L. Beck, “Variation on a Vedic Theme: The Divine Names in the Gayatri Mantra,” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 2/2 (1994): 47-58.

20. The investiture of the sacred thread is sometimes called upanayana. The history and meaning of the word are not clear or linear. See Kane, History of Dharmasastra, 268-334; Pandey, Hindu Samskaras, 115-116.

21. Manuals with standardized ceremonies and liturgies have been published that attempt to make sense of the contemporary extrapolations of ancient rites and intricacies of deity worship. See ISKCON’s Pancaratra Pradipa; Prema Rasa Dasa, The Book of Samskaras: Purificatory Rituals for Successful Life (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1998).