The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was established in New York in 1966. However, it is not a new religion. Its founder, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, represents a tradition tracing back to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was Chaitanya Himself, who appeared in a succession of teachers dating back thousands of years in India. This lineage, called the Brahma-Madhva Gaudiya sampradaya, is one of the four principle traditions of Vaishnavas, those who worship Lord Krishna or Lord Vishnu as Supreme.
Vaishnavism is one of the main theological schools within the tradition broadly defined by the word Hinduism. However, the terms “Hindu” and “Hinduism” are not found in any of the scriptures. They were coined by the Persian invaders to refer to the religion and culture of the people beyond the River Sindhu (now called the Indus in modern Pakistan). Hinduism has been used to refer to the totality of India’s religious culture, apart from those faiths originating outside of India, such as Christianity; it includes those, which arose within this context but have since defined themselves as distinctive traditions, such as Buddhism and Sikhism.
Many adherents of the tradition prefer the term ‘sanatan-dharma’. This term refers to the eternal function of the living being, understood as service to God. It implies that genuine religion is above temporary designations of faith, gender, colour, nationality and species. The principles of sanatan-dharma are enunciated in the sacred texts called the Vedas.
Key figures in the tradition
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is considered to be an incarnation of both Lord Krishna and his consort Radha-rani. He was born in Bengal in 1486. He taught the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra while travelling for six years throughout India and He spent His final eighteen years in Jagannatha-Puri. There He displayed the sublime emotions of one absorbed in love of God.
Chaitanya’s immediate followers, the Six Goswamis (Rupa, Sanatan, Jiva, Gopal Bhatta, Raghunath Bhatta and Raghunath das) drew on Vedic evidence to consolidate and document His teachings. One of the most significant teachings of Chaitanya include the belief that individual souls are simultaneously the same and different from a personal God.
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838-1914) was a highly influential figure, and he re-established the moral and philosophical integrity of the tradition. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was the son of Bhaktivinode and the disciple of Gaura Kishor Babaji. He was a life-long celibate and a brilliant scholar. He established sixty-four centres throughout India and requested his disciples to spread the message of Chaitanya worldwide in the English language.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada took initiation from Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati in 1926. As a married man, he tried to execute the desire of his spiritual teacher to preach the message of Chaitanya throughout the world. He took sannyasa (vows of renunciation) in 1957, sailed for New York in 1965 and established ISKCON the following year. In eleven years, he spread Krishna consciousness worldwide.