Question: "Who are the Hare Krishnas and what do they believe?"
Answer: The origin of the Hare Krishnas (International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON) dates back to the fifteenth century (1486), when Chaitanya Mahaprabhu first taught that Krishna was the supreme Lord above every other god. Mahaprabhu advocated a devotional method of faith where adherents to Krishna entered into a relationship with Krishna expressing adoration to Krishna through dancing and chanting. His public displays of adoration earned a large following, in part, due to its sharp contrast with dispassionate and ascetic expressions which is common to Hinduism. This Hindu sect, however distinct it is in its unique adherence to Krishna, is still quite Hindu since even Krishna is but a manifestation (or "Avatar") of Vishnu—one of the classic deities of Hinduism. Moreover, Hare Krishnas retain the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu Scripture, as well as the doctrines of reincarnation and karma.
The ultimate goal for Hare Krishnas is a transcendental, loving relationship with Lord Krishna. "Hare" itself refers to "the pleasure potency of Krishna," similar to the Christian idea of man's highest goal being to worship God and enjoy Him forever. Some Christian overtones should be obvious at this point, even though ISKCON is a distinctly Hindu cult. Due to the mystical "devotion" expressed in chanting and dancing, the Hare Krishnas can be compared to Sufi Muslims ("Whirling Dervishes") and some mystical expressions of Christianity which emphasize ecstatic experiences and mystical transcendence.
In 1965, the Hare Krishna movement came to America by means of Abhay Charan De Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an aged Indian exponent of the worship of Krishna. The Swami forsook the world in 1959 at the age of 63 to be a guru in total devotion to Krishna. At the age of 70 he traveled to New York to popularize his views. The Hare Krishna movement sprouted quickly in the ready soil of the 1960s. Western values were being questioned, and Eastern thought was becoming fashionable. The larger culture of the United States was shifting to a new religious paradigm of which ISKCON was another player. A tireless evangelist, the Swami founded ISKCON and remained its leader until his death in 1977. ISKCON is a wealthy organization today, having gained its wealth largely through soliciting funds and distributing its lavishly illustrated literature, including the Bhagavad Gita and its periodical Back to Godhead. During the 1960s and 1970s, Hare Krishnas were so prevalent in public places such as airports that laws had to be passed to prevent them from accosting people with their often aggressive and intimidating demands for money.
ISKCON is quite demanding of its adherents. Becoming a member involves choosing a guru and becoming his disciple. This guru is so critical that it is said, "Without [the guru] the cultivation of Krishna consciousness is impossible.” From the devotee's side, “initiation means that he accepts the guru as his spiritual master and agrees to worship him as God." (Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions 2001, p. 176). And the whole of one's life is to be encompassed by Krishna-centered practice and devotion. To attain this goal, ISKCON pulls its members into communal settings where all discussion and life is deliberately centered around Krishna. Very intricate rules are established in these communities to make sure that all activity is Krishna-centered. Much of Indian/Hindu culture is imported into these communes. It must be noted that these communities have been questioned by ex-members and outsiders alike who allege illegal and immoral practices within the safety of their relative isolation. ISKCON has been accused of great evils in this regard, even though such allegations, were they true, should not be hastily attributed to ISKCON doctrine specifically but rather to the practices of some Hare Krishnas. A similar example could be made, for Christians, with the moral downfall of certain Christian leaders and televangelists.
The beliefs of the Krishnas are typically Hindu and are largely incompatible with biblical Christianity. First, the view of God is basically pantheistic, meaning that they believe God is all and in all. For Hare Krishnas, God is everything and everything is God. For the Christian, God is transcendent—He is above all that He created. One of the tenets of ISKCON thought is that we actually achieve relational unity with God ourselves. Christians can relate somewhat to this idea since Bhakti Hinduism, to which ISKCON subscribes, is nearly theistic in its view of God and admittedly teaches that man can enter into a loving relationship with God. The Hare Krishna, however, is a little blurry on how relational this ultimate goal actually is. The goal of the Hare Krishna is to reach a "Krishna consciousness," a kind of enlightenment. This is the deepest identification with Krishna. Insofar as ISKCON is truly Hindu, it can ascribe to a pantheistic view of God and therefore teach that man is ultimately identical to God. The Christian may recognize in these words a faint and deceptive whisper dating back to the Garden of Eden, "you will be as God" (Genesis 3:5).
Like all false religions, salvation for the Hare Krishna is reduced to a series of works. Yes, devotion and relationship are packed into their belief system. But these are built up from works. And, in practice, there remains a push to chant more, dance more, and always work harder lest one retain some bit of karmic debt and fail to enter into Krishna consciousness. Self-denial and sacrifice are also crucial for salvation in ISKCON. Salvation for the Hare Krishna is thoroughly entwined with the Hindu concept of karma, or retributive justice. This teaching requires belief in reincarnation and/or transmigration of the soul. One's works, good and bad, are measured and judged either for or against him. He continues to be reincarnated into higher life forms if his deeds are good, or lower life forms if his deeds are bad. It is only when his good deeds have counterbalanced his bad deeds that he can cease the cycles of rebirth and realize his oneness with Krishna.
How different this is from the compassionate and merciful God of the Bible who "so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16). The Bible is clear that salvation is by grace through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21). No amount of good deeds can ever achieve salvation for anyone. And even where Hare Krishnas rightly assert that a loving relationship is necessary for salvation, Krishna is still the wrong object of devotion. Hare Krishnas, like all humanity, have only one hope for eternal life: Jesus Christ, crucified, resurrected and exalted forever. All other paths, sad to say, lead to destruction. Jesus Himself said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by Me" (John 14:6) for "there is salvation in no other one; for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).