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Who are the Hare Krishnas and what do they believe?

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The origin of Hare Krishna, also called Gaudiya Vaishnavism or Chaitanya Vaishnavism, is promoted through the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (or ISKCON). Hare Krishna is a mystical sect of Hinduism. It is usually classified as a monotheistic form of Hinduism, since Hare Krishnas believe that all deities are simply various manifestations of the one god, Vishnu or Krishna. The “monotheism” of Hare Krishna is a little muddled, however, as Sri Krishna has an “eternal consort” named Srimati Radharani; together, Krishna and Radharani comprise the “Divine Couple.”

The Hare Krishna movement dates back to the fifteenth century (1486), when its founder, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, began teaching that Krishna was the supreme Lord above every other god. Mahaprabhu advocated a devotional method of faith in which adherents of Gaudiya Vaishnavism entered into a relationship with Krishna and expressed their adoration for Krishna through dancing and chanting. Mahaprabhu’s public displays of adoration gained a large following, in part, due to their sharp contrast with the dispassionate and ascetic expressions 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 refers to “the pleasure potency of Krishna.” Due to their mystical devotion expressed in chanting and dancing, the Hare Krishnas can be compared to Sufi Muslims ("Whirling Dervishes") and some mystical expressions of Christianity that emphasize ecstatic experiences and mystical transcendence.

In 1965 the Hare Krishna movement came to America by means of Abhay Charan De Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The Hare Krishna movement grew quickly in the ready soil of the 1960s. Western values were being questioned, and Eastern thought was becoming fashionable. ISKCON is a wealthy organization today, having gained its wealth largely through soliciting funds and distributing its 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.

Hare Krishna is quite demanding of its adherents. Becoming a member involves choosing a guru and becoming his disciple. This guru is critical to attaining enlightenment: “Without [the guru] the cultivation of Krishna consciousness is impossible.” On 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. ISKCON pulls its members into communal settings where everything is deliberately centered on Krishna. Much of Indian/Hindu culture is imported into these communes. It must be noted that these communes have been harshly criticized by ex-members, and ISKCON has faced criminal charges alleging illegal and immoral practices, including widespread child abuse, taking place within the movement.

The beliefs of the Hare Krishnas are typically Hindu and are 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. The goal of the Hare Krishna is to reach “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. This is an old lie dating back to the Garden of Eden: “You will be as God” (Genesis 3:5).

Like all false religions, Hare Krishna requires a series of works for salvation. Yes, devotion and relationship are packed into their belief system, but these are built up from works, from bhakti-yoga to meditation before an altar to soliciting funds. Chanting is a major part of Hare Krishna. Sri Chaitanya recommended that his followers chant 100,000 holy names every day. The chanting is facilitated by the use of a mala, a rosary of 108 beads. Eating meat is disallowed, as is dining in restaurants, due to the belief that food retains the consciousness of the cook—ingesting food prepared by an angry chef will make the eater angry. In Hare Krishna, there is always a push to chant more, dance more, and work harder lest some bit of karmic debt is retained and cause one to fail to enter Krishna consciousness.

Self-denial and sacrifice are also crucial for salvation in Hare Krishna. Salvation, according to ISKCON, is thoroughly entwined with the Hindu concept of karma, or retributive justice. This teaching requires belief in reincarnation and/or the transmigration of the soul. One’s works, good and bad, are measured and judged after death. If one’s deeds are good, he continues to be reincarnated into higher life forms; if his deeds are bad, he will become a lower life form. It is only when one’s good deeds have counterbalanced the bad that he can cease the cycles of rebirth and realize his oneness with Krishna.

How different Krishna 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. Hare Krishnas, like all humanity, have only one hope for eternal life: Jesus Christ, crucified, resurrected, and exalted forever. All other paths 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), and “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).

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022