Category Archives: 5. Swami Bhaktivedanta and ISKCON



Kirtana is a Sanskrit word that means “to praise” or “to glorify.” Kirtana is primarily used in a form of call and response chanting of sacred Sanskrit names of Hindu deities (LaTrobe 10). Through the centuries, kirtana metamorphosed into devotional hymns and mantras extensively glorifying the great deity Krsna (Kinsley 1979:176). It is also known as sankirtana which encompasses group acting performances, storytelling, singing and dancing, accompanied by drums and various exotic instruments (Delmonico in Bryant 549).

Kirtana has historical roots in the 6th century when a new form of devotional worship arose in the Tamil speaking part of southern India. The two main groups of Tamil poet-saints were the Alvars and the Nayanars who attributed special devotion to their gods Visnu and Siva respectively. These poets traveled from temple to temple or village to village singing ecstatic hymns and praises in adoration of their gods. They promoted the use of all the senses and the body to enhance a fuller experience of divine bliss (Dehejia 13). Tamil saints not only walked the path of love themselves but through their songs they promoted love and devotion toward God. They attracted many followers because their message was simple; all that was required was an intimate and constant abiding love of God. Followers did not require a deep knowledge of the scriptures or need to be learned in philosophy or religious tradition (Dehejia 13).

Tamil hymns composed by the saints were often set to the music of traditional ballads so that everyone could join in singing the responses (Dehejia 30). Hymns were expressly designed to move the hearts of the listeners to a passionate love and devotion to God. Followers of Tamil poet-saints were encouraged to engage in ecstatic and emotional singing, dancing and worshiping of the gods. This newly created culture became known as bhakti – a passionate and personal love relationship between the Beloved and the Devoted (Bhattacharya 47). Sensuous, erotic, and ecstatic personal experience with God were prominent characteristics of early Tamil bhakti saints and their followers.

Bhakti had its main source already in the first century from the Bhagavad-Gita, a dialogue between the god Krsna and his friend Arjuna. The Bhagavad-Gita, or simply the Gita, was handed down orally in the form of hymns, ballads, and folk-songs. The philosophy of the Gita was a religion of love that embraced God’s creatures as brothers of the same family; it did not recognize classes, castes, sexes, or races (Bhattacharya 49). The bhakti movement was a resistance to ritually oriented orthodoxy dominated by priests. It took mantras out of the temples and into the streets where all peoples could engage and connect with their deities through singing and dancing. Thus, promulgated by the Tamil poet-saints who sang songs of total devotion for their God that disregarded caste distinctions and other hierarchies of orthodox Hinduism (Peterson 9), the bhakti movement is about deep social reform and liberation for the masses (Hawley 8).

Kirtana was the outcome of the bhakti movement. In the bhakti tradition, communion with a deity was described as blissful, intoxicating and overwhelming and often culminated in weeping, singing, and impulsive dancing. An early proponent of kirtana was Sri Caitanya, a 16th century Bengali mystic who is said to have introduced kirtana as an exceptional way of attaining and expressing bhakti (Kinsley 1979:177). So great was his intoxicating love for Krsna that he often appeared to be a lunatic as much of his life was spent in continual fits of uncontrollable weeping and wailing, laughing, singing, and dancing in ecstatic love (Kinsley 1974:291).

Kirtana was used by Caitanya and his followers as an effective medium of communication and proliferation of emotional bhakti (Chakrabarty 18). When orthodox Brahmans attempted to ban kirtana, Caitanya organized a massive demonstration where thousands came out in the streets. Led by kirtana singing and dancing groups, the people soon began to sing, dance, cry and weep. “Men grew almost insane in ecstasy…the kirtana sounded like an earth-shaking roar, the impact of which was very much enhanced by the continuous sounds of drums, cymbals, and clapping” (Chakrabarty 19). The Caitanya tradition proposes that kirtana is the proper form of religious worship for the current age, the Age of Kali, the Age of Quarrel (Delmonico in Bryant 549). Kirtana leaders will occasionally remind participants that chanting the names of God prepares one for salvation during Kali Yuga which is a period of dishonesty and spiritual degradation (Cooke 24).

While there is no structured pattern followed in the performance of kirtana, chanting and singing praises to Krsna is often followed by ecstatic and frenzied dancing. It is common for the whole kirtana group, including the musicians, to get up and dance as they play their instruments or clap their hands. Some kirtana singers will smoke marijuana before they sing to enhance the intensity of the experience (Henry 36). When the devotees sing and glorify Krsna a celebratory excitement permeates the gathering, and many will fall into trances or become giddy like children. Even grave, old men with perfect manners will succumb to the powerful crescendo of sound and movement and engage in blissful devotion to Krsna (Kinsley 1979:181).

Kirtana is often held in the evenings along a riverbank or at the centre of a village. To the villagers, it is a religious and social event. The leader of the kirtana, known as the kirtankar, can capture the hearts of illiterate listeners and encourage them towards a deeper spiritual life (Naikar 96). Although most kirtanas are meant to glorify God, they also provide opportunities for the kirtankar to teach, expose social injustices, and even provide entertainment in the form of plays. Participants become active players in the poem being sung by the kirtankar and strive to communicate with the deity. For example, if the theme is Krsna playing with the gopis (milkmaids), devotees will get up and dance in circles, often culminating in an ecstatic frenzy of jumping, clapping of hands, beating of thighs, and rolling on the ground (Kinsley 1979:178). It is written in the Caitanya-bhagavata that a kirtana held at the home of a companion of Caitanya became so exuberant that some devotees could not keep their clothes on and others passed out in an ecstatic trance. (Kinsley 1979:177).

Musical instruments are an important characteristic of kirtana. Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas and the Upanisads consider music and musical instruments as sacred sounds closely identified with the Hindu Gods and Goddesses (Beck 20). For example, Lord Brahma, creator of the universe, is portrayed as playing the hand symbols. Lord Krsna plays the flute, prompting the gopis to dance ecstatically with him in the moonlight. Lord Visnu plays the conch shell and Lord Siva the damaru drum. Each of these instruments represents Om, which is Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. The notion of sacred sound expresses the connection between the human realm and the divine (Beck 20).

Kirtana events typically include flutes, drums, cymbals, harmonium, and various stringed instruments. One of the oldest and most popular musical instruments used in traditional kirtana is the bamboo flute, including a bamboo nose flute (LaTrobe 111). These flutes have since been replaced with the more vigorous clarinet. The clarinet provides musical reinforcement for the singers and can be heard above the clashing cymbals and robust drum rhythms.

The kohl drum is a double-sided drum made from a piece of jackfruit wood which has been hollowed out and covered with pieces of goatskin leather (Beck 23). A black paste made from a mixture of rice flour and stone dust is pressed layer upon layer on top of the skin. According to ancient literature, the black paste represents the crying eyes of Radha after her painful separation from her lover Krsna (LaTrobe 107). The kohl drum, and the kartal, small wooden clappers with six cymbals inside, are central to the kirtana performance as they provide the rhythmic foundation of the music. Exotic sounding stringed instruments include the sitar, ektara, and the ananda laharii, which means “waves of bliss” (LaTrobe 111).  Single stringed instruments such as the ektara and the ananda laharii are symbolic of single-mindedness towards spiritual goals (LaTrobe 110).

Music was viewed as a personal journey toward moksa (liberation). The bhakti movement emphasized that moksa also depended on one’s emotions and the deepness of one’s personal relationship with the deity (Beck 24). Singing and chanting, accompanied with musical instruments connected deep religious ecstasy with spiritual self-realization for participants of kirtana.

Chanting became popular in the western world when a charismatic Indian monk named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought kirtana to North America in the mid-1960s (Ketola 312). Challenged by his guru to preach Lord Caitanya’s message of devotion to Krsna and bhakti yoga throughout the world, the penniless samnyasi travelled to New York on a cargo ship where he soon attracted a group of devotees, mostly hippies (Ketola 312). One day he took his followers to a local park for a public kirtana. The dancing, singing, and chanting attracted significant audiences and soon kirtana became very popular. Shortly after his arrival in America, Swami Prabhupada formed the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the Hare Krsna movement which pushed kirtana into the public limelight. Converts to the Hare Krsna movement became known for their public chanting of sacred Vedic deities specifically the mahamantra (the great mantra):

Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

As the sound vibrations of repeating the holy names of deities are sacred, singing and chanting kirtana benefits the listener, performer and the environment where the names are sung. Participants who sing kirtana and repeat the mahamantra claim to experience both a transcendental connection with the Divine and physical sensations of bliss that has even resulted in healing of physical and emotional ailments (Cooke 124, 125).

Kirtana serves to unite spirituality through bhakti yoga – the yoga of love and emotional attachment to God and can be found in many yoga studios today. Kirtana is sound vibration and chanting mantras invokes the presence of God himself. Participants who combine kirtana and bhakti yoga claim to experience peace and happiness (Brown 2012:77).

Kirtana has influenced modern-day styles of popular music such as reggae, hip-hop, and dubstep (Brown 2014:458). Hare Krsna festivals all around the world feature popular kirtana artists. Kirtana experienced through call and response chanting, singing, dancing, or yoga is likened to a divine love affair between the devotee and God. It is a religion of the heart, a process of pursuit, continuously changing, full of surprises and hidden delights, delicate and yet passionately ecstatic, all in the quest of a perfect union with God and self.


Beck, Guy L. (2007) “The Magic of Hindu Music.” Hinduism Today, 29 (4): 18-27. (October/November/December 2007)

Bhattacharya, B., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2003) Bhakti: The Religion of Love. New Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors Ltd.

Brown, Sara (2012) “Every Word is a Song, Every Step is a Dance: Participation, Agency, and the Expression of Communal Bliss in Hare Krishna Festival Kirtan.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed on October 28, 2018.

Brown, Sara Black (2014) “Krishna, Christians, and Colors: The Socially Binding Influence of Kirtan Singing at a Utah Hare Krishna Festival.” Ethnomusicology 58 (3): 454.

Chakrabarty, Ramakanta (1986) “Vaisnava Kirtana in Bengal” Journal of the Indian Musicological Society 17 (1): 12.

Cooke, Jubilee Q. (2009) Kirtan in Seattle: New Hootenanny for Spirit Junkies. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed on October 28, 2018.

Dehejia, Vidya, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Delmonico, Neal (2007) “Chaitanya Vaishnavism and the Holy Names” In Krishna: A Sourcebook, edited by Edwin F. Bryant and MyiLibrary, 549-575. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hawley, John Stratton (2015) A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Henry, Edward O. (2002) “The Rationalization of Intensity in Indian Music.” Ethnomusicology 46 (1): 33-55.

Ketola, Kimmo (2004) “The Hare Krishna and the Counterculture in the Light of the Theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 16 (3): 301-20.

Kinsley, David R., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1979) The Divine Player: A Study of Krsna Lĩlã. 1st – ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kinsley, David R. (1974) “Through the Looking Glass: Divine Madness in the Hindu Religious Tradition.” History of Religions 13 (4): 270-305.

La Trobe, Jyoshna (2010) “Red Earth Song. Marāī Kīrtan of Rāṛh: Devotional Singing and the Performance of Ecstasy in the Purulia District of Bengal, India.” PDF. Accessed October 09, 2018.

Peterson, Indira Viswanathan (1989) Poems to Śiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Ramaswamy Sastri, K. S., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2003) The Tamils: The People, their History, and Culture. Vol. 1-5. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.


Related Topics for Further Investigation





Sri Caitanya



Kali Yuga





A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Hare Krsna

International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON)


Bhakti Yoga

Hare Krsna Festivals

Popular Kirtan Artists



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Joey Grace (Fall 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.



ISKCON (The International Society for Krsna Consciousness)

The International Society for Krsna Consciousness was founded in the United States of America in 1966. It was started by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in New York City (Bryant and Ekstrand 2). Though Bhaktivedanta is the sole leader of this movement, he “does not ever make a direct claim to God, only to being His representative on earth”(Daner 19).  The mission of this movement is to bring western society the Vedic cult of Krsna worship (Daner 1). This society also seeks to accept the doctrine of bhakti yoga (Daner 6). The International Society for Krsna Consciousness is one of the most well known eastern religions in the Western hemisphere (Bryant and Ekstrand 1). Because this movement was started in America, it is mainly populated by so-called converts to Hinduism. As this is a fairly new movement in the Hindu tradition, their modes of worship and their beliefs are not well known to the rest of the world. Also, it is not fully understood by mainstream culture why this movement became so popular.

The International Society for Krnsa Consciousness, when it was first created, appealed mainly to the people who were disillusioned with American society (Daner 8). Larry D. Shin said that “…almost all had been in a state of crisis before they joined the movement. By ‘crisis’ I mean most often psychological crisis: a sense of identity confusion, not being quite sure where to place one’s values, search for meaning, religious crisis”(Gelberg 64). The people that joined the Hare Krsna movement were dissatisfied with the materialistic world, only because they had been so invested in it (Gelberg 65). Because the International Society for Krsna Consciousness was started in the sixties, most of the converts and followers were part of what became known as the counter culture. These people were mainly hippies (Daner 7). Because these people were dissatisfied with society, the fact that the International Society for Krsna Consciousness practices communal living is also enticing; it provides a way for them to have a sense of freedom from the society that they are so disenchanted with (Judah 174).  What enticed these people to this movement, and still does, is the ideas and of the Hare Krsna movement. The converts to the International Society for Krsna Consciousness like the philosophy and ideas of this movement because it does not focus on society; it instead focuses on worshipping a personal God, therefore making it an extremely personal experience. Judah states that “[t]his need for the expression of love in worshipping and serving a personal, living deity is probably a predominant factor uniting all devotees of Krishna” (Judah 173). The converts to the International Society for Krsna Consciousness were also drawn to the movement because they enjoyed the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra and the sense of community and togetherness that is found among the devotees to Krsna (Judah 165).

As stated above, one of the main enticing factors to this movement is its beliefs. The beliefs of this movement focus on the Hindu deity Krsna. One of the foremost beliefs of the International Society for Krsna Consciousness is that of “theistic intimacy”(Bryant and Ekstrand 14). Theistic intimacy is the belief that you can have a relationship of uttermost love with a deity or member of a godhead. In the case of the Hare Krsna movement, this intimate relationship is with the Hindu deity Krsna. The followers of the Hare Krsna movement also practice what is known as bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga is the idea of conceding one’s self to the deity Krsna, and improving your relationship with him (Judah 87). The International Society for Krsna Consciousness believe that in order to achieve bhakti they must achieve the eight preliminary aspects of bhakti (Daner 35). These aspects are: Recognizing the deity Krsna as refuge; serving a guru; reading the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam; singing praises to Krsna; thinking solely of the deity Krsna; serving and worshipping the deities; performing rites and rituals taught by the guru; and kneeling before the deity and the spiritual guru (Daner 35).

The International Society for Krsna Consciousness has a variety of ways of worshipping and showing their devotion to the deity Krsna. Many of these ways of worshipping are manifested in how they live their lives. Through living communally, the followers of the Hare Krsna movement show their devotion to Krsna and their desire to gain an intimate relationship with the deity. Another way that the members of the Hare Krsna movement worship is through the act of chanting. The mantra of the International Society for Krsna Consciousness is called the mahamantra, and it means the great mantra (Bryant and Ekstrand 35).

The mantra, Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, is in public and in private, and is said to be the most important religious responsibility of the Hare Krsnas (Bryant and Ekstrand 35-36). Another way that the members of the Hare Krsna movement worship is through the aratrika ceremony in their temples. This ritual is a way in which Krsna is greeted, and it is performed six times daily (Daner 45). This ceremony begins with chanting, after which food is brought out on platters for the deities to eat. Next, incense is offered to the deities, followed by a lamp with five wicks. After that water in a conch shell is offered, then a handkerchief, and next a flower. After these a fan made out of peacock feathers is offered, and last a yak tail attached to a silver handle (Daner 46-47). Another way that members of the International Society for Krsna Consciousness worship and show their devotion is through festivals. One of the important festivals celebrated is Chaitanya’s birthday. Another important festival celebrated is the festival of Lord Jagannatha (Judah 96). There are many other festivals celebrated by the Hare Krsna movement, but these two are the most commonly celebrated.

The International Society for Krsna Consciousness is one of the most notable branches of the Hindu tradition. Because it originated in the United States of America in the 1960’s, it had a great impact on the generation that was a part of the counter culture.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Brooks, Charles R. (1989) The Hare Krishnas in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bryant, Edwin F. And Ekstrand, Maria L. Ed (2004) The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant. New York: Columbia University Press.

Daner, Francine Jeanne (1976) The American Children of KRSNA: A Study of the Hare KRSNA Movement. Dallas: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Gelberg, Steven J. Ed. (1983) Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

Judah, J. Stillson (1974) Hare Krishna and the Counterculture. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Rochford, E. Burke Jr. (1995) Family Structure, Commitment, and Involvement in the Hare Krishna Movement. Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada




Lord Jagannatha

Aratrika ceremony




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Brittany Turner (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada

Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada (Founder of the Hare Krsnas)

Srila Prabhupada was born Abhay Charan De to parents Gour Mohan De, a cloth merchant, and mother Rajani on September 1st, 1896 (Gowami 1983: 5-6) His childhood home was located at 115 Harrison Road, situated in the northern Indian section of Calcutta, India. His father belonged to the aristocratic suvarna-vanik merchant caste, was pure Vaisnava, and raised his son to be just as Krsna conscious as he was. Young Abhay accompanied his father, mother or servant daily to the temple near their home to worship, showed his strong faith which was evident even in his childhood. This devotion was helped of course by Gour Mohan’s wishes for his son to achieve Vaisnava goals and become a  servant to Radha and Krsna. Employing a professional mrdana (a kind of drum) player to teach Abhay the rhythms for accompanying kirtana (a form of musical worship), Gour Mohan was determined to give his son all the teachings to enable him to reach the prescribed Vaisnava goals, even if this went against his wife’s wishes. Rajani was skeptical about the importance of her son learning to play the mrdana, and while she too was a devote follower of Krshna consciousness, she wanted Abhay to grow up and become a British lawyer. This however did not stop her from modeling her perfection of Vedic housewife duties, showcased through her attempts to keep her pet child, Abhay, safe from danger, disease and death. At age six it became clear which path Abhay favored, as he asked his father to bring home deities of his own to worship. Bringing home Radha-Krsna deities, Gour Mohan and Rajani watched their son from this day forward offering food first to these effigies, and putting them to rest at night in perfect imitation of his fathers own puja (Goswami 1983: 9-13).

While Abhay Charan De’s  religious beliefs and talents continued to grow, so did his intellect in school. However, even Abhay was subject to the tradition of arranged marriage and was wed to Radharani Datta. Living apart, Srila Prabhupada was to finish his college degree before taking on full responsibility of supporting his family. But, in his fourth year of college, Abhay began to feel reluctant about finishing his degree. This was due to the influences of Subhas Chandra Bose, who was a spirited nationalist and eventual leader of the Indian National Army. Bose charged the student population to align with the Indian independence movement and forsake their studies. This proclamation was also echoed by another notable figure, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi, who was a spiritual entity instead of a just a political one like Bose, had a profound impact on Abhay, who began listening to Gandhi and abiding to  his messages. When Gandhi said that the foreign run schools, like the one Abhay attended, did nothing more than instill a slave mentality, Abhay was left with a decision to make. Even though he finished his studies in 1920, after his fourth year, Abhay refused his diploma thus showing his devotion to Gandhi’s call to boycott the British rule of India (Goswami 1983: 14-15).

Inspired by Gandhi, Abhay continued to follow his lead and strengthen his own spirituality while working as a department manager at Bose Laboratory in his hometown of Calcutta, India. It was his religious quest however that led him to meet his spiritual master in 1922, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (Rochford 10). Initially unimpressed by the work of Thakura, it was only through a friend’s encouragement that he visited him. Upon their first meeting, it was Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura who asked why, as an educated young man, Abhay did not travel the world spreading the message of Lord Caitanya. From this bold question Abhay went on to make many more insightful inquiries which left him so impressed at the end of their first meeting that he accepted Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura as his spiritual master in his heart. Until Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s death in December 1936, Abhay was a devote follower and friend, visiting him whenever time would allow as his family had moved to Allahabad in 1932 for business purposes. Abhay truly embraced Thakura’s ideal of spreading Krsna consciousness around the world and began to preach from his home. He wrote an essay and poem which were published in The Harmonist, gaining him the title of kavi, “learned poet” (Goswami 1983: 18). However, being a humble man, his most glorious moment was when this poem reached his master and gave him joy. The last conversation between himself and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was one that had the most profound impact on his life and how he chose to get his message out.  Thakura told him, “If you ever get money, print books” (Goswami 1983: 91) which is just what Abhay did (Goswami 1983: 15-20).

While still in India Abhay had to suffer through WWII. He not only had to attempt to get enough food to ensure his families survival, but also had to fight with the government for paper on which to print his journal, Back to Godhead. While his determination to spread the only real scarcity of Krsna consciousness intensified, his business and family affairs began to abate as his major focus shifted to preaching. A major breakthrough at this time in his life was being invited to lecture at the Gita Mandir, an invitation that he gladly accepted. It was in this place, of Jhansi, that Abhay formed his first center. Leaving behind his business affairs in Allahabad to his son, Abhay was now focused on creating a spiritual movement in Jhansi. He was 56 years old (Gotswami 1983: 20-24).

It was after this age that Abhay truly hit a turning point. Getting a note in Jhansi that his home had been burglarized, he returned to Calcutta as familial responsibilities outweighed his preaching desires. With bills to pay and unmarried children to look after, Abhay came back to his family but continued to talk of God and preach just as he had done before. This angered his family who could not understand his devotion. It was this misunderstanding that eventually led Abhay to break from his family and business all together, when he returned home one night and found that his wife has sold his copy of Srimad-Bhagavatam for money to buy tea biscuits. Angered and upset, this final straw led Abhay to finally leave and pursue his goal of preaching Krshna consciousness and printing books (Gotswami 1983: 24-25).

The 1950s saw Abhay facing hard time. Scraping together enough money to print Back to Godhead, he went without proper clothing for the winter to fulfill his mission. From showing such devotion, Abhay was pushed past his tipping point after he had a dream in which Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura appeared and urged him to become a sannyasa (Goswami 1983: 34). After careful deliberation, Abhay knew what he must do and became Abhay Caranaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami after his formal sannyasa ceremony. After this ceremony, his desire to spread Krsna consciousness intensified, leading Abhay to finally begin printing books. Struggling once more to raise funds and sell his volumes, Abhay was forced to become resourceful, sending copies of his works to noted officials and utilizing their positive reviews to advertise. Transforming himself from humble beginnings to notoriety, Abhay was gaining fame in India, but desired to spread his message West. With this desire in his heart, it was on August 13th, 1965 at the age of 69 that Abhay boarded the cargo ship Jaladuta to begin his journey to America (Goswami 1983: 25-38).

Reaching New York City on September 19th, 1965 he walked with little more than the clothing on his back to the bus terminal to find transit to Butler to stay with friends, the Agarwal’s. Taking up residence in the YMCA, Abhay began writing to people of religious interest in New York City to grow his network (Goswami 1983: 42). It was through such letter writing that Abhay was able to become financed by Dr. Mishra, whose yoga studios became the first site of meetings for followers of Abhay’s message (Goswami 1991: 1-14).

Abhay’s next move was out of the yoga studio and downstairs into his own place. However, far from being a temple, this move was rife with poverty. With his name on the door, anyone could find him, and despite his meager surroundings in Room 307, the meetings were becoming a new source of life for Abhay and for his followers. However, this move too proved temporary. Abhay was subject to a great number of moves following this until he finally came to find a suitable apartment to call his own. This place would allow him to grab his footing for the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (Knott 29-30)

From this point forward, Bhaktivedanta Swami spread his message. Getting a feature in the local New York press, The Village Voice was of particular importance, as it allowed Abhay to grow the number of members in his lecture groups (Knott 32). From this growing population of followers, Abhay drafted the Seven Purposes of the International Society for Krsna Consciousness, and the ISKCON really gained a hold. Circulating leaflets and invitations, the chanting of the Hare Krshna was touted as the drug of choice as it allowed one to stay high forever, because of their expanded consciousness. Thus the popular name for the ISKCON was born, and the Hare Krsna continued to thrive (Goswami 1983: 28-75).

On January 16th, 1967 Abhay left behind his devoted followers in New York and flew to spread his message in San Francisco. Awaiting his arrival this day was a group of about fifty flower bearing chanters, most of which knew the Swami only by reputation. Settling into an apartment at 518 Fredrick Street, this dwelling was now known as the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple, attracting numerous followers from the first days of Abhays arrival. From this place, Abhay preached and held lectures for his many followers. He wrote in his office, getting his messages out and attending to the needs and problems of his devotees (Goswami 1983: 75-130).

However, Abhay longed to return to India and he fulfilled this desire in the summer of 1967. He stayed until the winter months, when he once again returned to the United States and travelled around, spreading his messages and publications across the globe, even coming into contact with John Lennon and Yoko Ono when the Hare Krshna recorded chantings for their record (Knott 34-37). From such public relations, Prabhupada’s message was widely received and the ISKCON grew, setting up head quarters all over the world. This was up until Abhay’s death on November 14th, 1977 at 81 years old (Rochford 10-11).


Goswami, Satsvarupa Dasa (1983) Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Goswami, Satsvarupa Dasa (1983) Prabhupada: He Built a House in Which the Whole World Can Live.  Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Goswami, Tamal Krishna (1999) Servant of the Servant: A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,  Founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Dialogue & Alliance, 13(1), 5-17.

Knott, Kim (1986) My Sweet Lord: The Hare Krishna Movement. San Bernando: Borgo Press.

Rochford, E. Burke (1985) Hare Krishna in America. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Related Topics for Further Reading

The Hare Krshna

Caste System







Mohandas K. Ghandi

Subhas Chandra Bose

Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Jaycene Mock (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Hare Krsna Controversy

This article shall discuss the persecution of the Hare Krsna movement in the United States during the mid 1960s through to the late 1970s. In order to fully understand the persecution of this group, one must first know its history as well as the socio-political climate of the United States during this time.

Overview of the Hare Krsnas

The International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON) was founded by Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. He was born in Calcutta and studied under Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Gosvami Maharaja who instructed him to spread Krsna consciousness to the western world (Daner 15, 16). Swami Bhaktivedanta traveled to the United States and arrived in New York City – which along with San Francisco was a haven for members of the counter-culture – in 1965 (Daner 17). He taught in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and gained several followers who became known as “Hare Krsnas” due to their Mahamantra [Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare (Daner 112)] (Daner 17-22). Swami Bhaktivedanta eventually traveled to San Francisco where he taught several icons of the counter-culture such as Timothy Leary [A professor of Psychology at Harvard University (1959-1963) Dr. Leary preformed experiments dealing with the usefulness of mind altering drugs (such as LSD) using himself and several of his graduate students as test subjects, which ultimately cost him his position. After he was dismissed from Harvard Leary became an influential member of the counter-culture and a champion for the legalization of psychedelic drugs. He died on May 31, 1996 and is commonly remembered for his controversial statement, “Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.” (Wuergler 274-276) ] and the rock band the Grateful Dead (Daner 17). ISKCON was officially formed in July 1966.

The Counter-Culture

With the assassination of the American president John F. Kennedy in 1963 much of the optimism that America had in the 1950s was lost. As a result many young people began to feel alienated from mainstream American culture and began to rebel against society’s traditional values. They held demonstrations for equal rights, protested the war in Vietnam and the abuse of the environment. Many began to search for inner meaning through Eastern philosophy and by taking narcotics (Stuessy 175-176). These youth embodied what has come to be known as the counter-culture. It was here that ISKCON found many of its followers. ISKCON was opposed to the accumulation of wealth. It encouraged non-violence [While ISKCON did not encourage violence it was not pacifistic. Unlike Gandhi, Swami Bhaktivedanta taught that violence is acceptable, and even necessary, so long as it is in defense. This view is based on Krsna’s speech (known as the Bhagavad-Gita) to Arjuna on the eve of Battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas as told in the Mahabharata (Judah 117)], felt that the United States government needed to be reformed, and that the education system needed to be over-hauled as it devoted too much time teaching students how to acquire wealth (Judah 112-124), all of which appealed to the counter-culture.

The Mainstream

Throughout much of the Cold War the Western World feared everything communist, which included most everything foreign (McCloud 38-39) and were constantly watchful for any infiltrating communist ideology, including religious cults. Starting in the mid-1950s periodicals such as Time, Newsweek, and Life began publishing articles warning people of “fringe,” “offbeat” religions and “California Cults.” An article in the April 12, 1965 Time even described joining a “fringe” religion as a form of neurosis (McCloud 25-45). These articles continued through the 1970s. Another article published in Time (in 1975) accused The Unification Church [The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity was founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in Korea in 1954. The group’s beliefs are based upon Christianity as well as Moon’s biblical interpretations. Due to the group’s strict communal living, group weddings, aggressive style of proselytizing and foreign origins it was a popular target for the American anticult movement. Members of the Unification Church are often referred to as “Moonies,” a derogatory name referencing the group’s founder. (McCloud 127-129)] of “psychological abuse” and “brainwashing” members (McCloud 127) which encouraged and elevated parents’ fears that their children could be involved with a dangerous group. Eventually most every new religious movement was considered a dangerous cult which employed coercion and brainwashing on its members (McCloud 127-159). During this time the Hare Krsnas took a large amount of criticism. Members were visibly different from the average American (they shaved their heads and wore saffron robes) and they took vows of poverty and lived communally, practices in direct opposition to the American Dream. The Hare Krsnas were also considered to be promiscuous, sexual deviants, attitudes derived solely from the label that they were a “cult” (McCloud 173) and not grounded at all on the groups teachings, for ISKCON was and is opposed to premarital sex (Judah 124-125).

Brainwashing and Deprogramming

As with virtually all new religious movements of that period the Hare Krsnas were accused of using brainwashing to convert people. The notion of brainwash permeated almost all of the 1970s’ culture; from the news to Saturday morning cartoons, brainwashing was everywhere. As with most organizations a number of members who had joined up earlier did leave ISKCON, for not all members of the counter-culture agreed with the group’s communal nature, feeling that it hampered their individuality (Judah 13). According to Larry D. Shinn, some of these former members may have provided “proof” of brainwashing as it is easier to say that they were coerced into joining the group than it is to admit that they chose to join (Gelberg 89-90). To “rescue” members from these cults a process called “Deprogramming” was employed. The modus operandi of the deprogrammer was to kidnap a member of a new religious movement and convince them that their beliefs were wrong (McCloud 137), essentially brainwashing the brainwashed. Interestingly, the media and mainstream religions that accused new religious movements of brainwashing converts did point out that deprogramming violated the right to freedom of religion. Although this may have been on account of the fact that many of Ted Patrick’s [News magazines such as Newsweek originally recommended Ted Patrick as a deprogrammer as he “removed hundreds of young converts from new religions”] (one of the most prominent deprogrammers of the 1970s) patients were members of small, Christian based groups that were similar to American mainstream religions (McCloud 138-141).

Before his death in 1977, Swami Bhaktivedanta appointed eleven disciples as his successors and instructed them to spread Krsna consciousness throughout the world. By the early 1980s they had established 130 temples outside the United States (Shinn 267).


Daner, Francine Jeanne (1974) The American Children of Krsna: A Study of the Hare Krsna Movement. Dallas, Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Gelberg, Steven J. (ed.) (1983) Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West. New York: Grove Press.

Judah, J. Stillson (1974) Hare Krishna and the Counterculture. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

McCloud, Sean (2004) Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives and Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press

Patrick, John J. and Gerald P. Long (eds.) (1999) Constitutional Debates on Freedom of Religion: Documentary History. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press

Shinn, Larry D. (1987) “International Society for Krishna Consciousness” in The Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by Mircea Eliade. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company

Stuessy, Joe and Scott Lipscomb (2006) Rock and Roll: It’s History and Stylistic Development. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Wuergler, Brad (1999) “Leary, Timothy” in Historical Dictionary of the 1960s. Edited by James S. Olson. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press

Related Topics for Further Investigation

A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada


Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura Prabhupada

International Society for Krsna Consciousness (Hare Krsna)




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic The official Bhaktivedanta Book Trust web site containing information on Vaisnava philosophy and beliefs. An interview with George Harrison about his experiences with ISKCON. A modern day argument against ISKCON which is very similar to those put forth by the anti-cult movement in the 1970s.

Written by Greg Gedrasik (Spring 206) who is solely responsible for its content.