So, how many people actually follow Krishna consciousness via ISCKON? A researcher who decides to go beyond usual ISKCON’s answer of “hundreds of millions people follow Krishna” has first to face the problem of whom to count – those who follow “4 regulative principles”? How strictly? Those who are initiated? Those who repeat mahamantra? Those, who repeat 16 rounds of japa daily? Or those who have pranama?
Or should we use common method used in religious studies and try to count “active believers” – those who visit ISKCON temples at least once a week (as researchers of religion usually count believers in most Christian countries) and repeat mahamantra from time to time.
English-language Internet keeps silence on the membership stats. One of the numbers easily available in the Internet is “250 000 diligent devotees and 4000 monastics”, but there’s no proof of this to be the official stats. Many Russian-language Hare Krishna resources copy-paste the number of 1 million devotees, still another Russian ISKCON leader speaks of the “number being 6-digit for sure”.
At this point another sociological problem arises. It looks like official ISKCON has stopped publishing their devotions stats sometime around 2000. Some say because real number of devotees drops.
“According to the 1996 Britannica Book of the Year, there are about 560 million Vaishnavas worldwide. Vaishnavism claims the largest number of followers among the various sects in India. ISKCON, or the Hare Krishna movement, is an orthodox branch of Vaishnavism with nearly four hundred temples worldwide. In addition, ISKCON helps thousands of its congregation members conduct regular meetings in their homes.”
One more authoritative ISKCON resource speaks in words of belief about the shrinking numbers and tells a strange thing that statistics is hard to get. Sounds very weird considering strict American-style management in the Society: “we don’t seem to have international statistics on membership – at least stats that are easily available. Unlike other church groups we don’t seem to keep them.” The author of this statement, a high-level devotee Kripamoya-Das, considers rumors of ISKCON shrinking “to be largely the propaganda strategies of embittered former members”.
ISKCON MEMBERSHIP STATISTICS DOES EXIST
A good friend of mine Abhimanyu-das has been the secretary and PR manager of Ukrainian ISKCON main office for several years. He made no secret, that in Ukrainian ISKCON they do, actually, count devotees and they have pretty good estimations of how many active believers there are. The numbers were 5000 active believers for Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and some 2011 45-50 thousands for Ukraine as of 2011.
If there exists statistics for Ukraine, there must be statistics for Russia and other post-USSR countries – their ISKCON branches have been made pretty much by same people using similar model.
A case with Russian sect-fighters stealing access to one of ISKCON’s yatras inner accountance documents in 2007 (I have saved the document copy in my archieve) proves that the stats are pretty detailed.
The statistics is being counted not only in Ukraine, but in Russia as well (I have the number of 25000 devotees in Moscow as of 2012) and considering homogenic, strict, and hierarchial structure of ISKCON, it makes us difficult to believe in the absence of membership stats in the West. If there was no deliberate command to stop gathering it there for obvious reasons).
Why do Western devotees deny having stats?
I have some guess but no facts.
Still around 2000, ISKCON would speak about 1 million followers and several Russian devotees’ sites would repeat this number. In US and Europe ISKCON has almost vanished (Eastern Europe, Poland, and Hungary still being small strongholds). There’s a number of them in Moldova, Kazahstan, and other post-Soviet countries. Very small communities are scattered in Africa and in Islamic world.
Another problem is counting devotees in India, the country where there are more ISKCONians than in all other countries combined. This country is famous for its easy attitude to any statistics and accountability, and even if its ISCKON provides some hidden stats on India, they should be accepted really carefully.
Another thing to consider is the question – how often does Russian sound in Vrindavan? Very often. ISKCON has de facto transformed into predominantly Indian and post-USSR religion.
So, we see that generalized numbers like “hundreds millions” are just masks leading us away from real state of affairs in ISKCON.
The final number of ISKCON devotees and “pre-devotees” who visit local temple weekly, repeat mantra from time to time and try (with different success) to follow 4 principles seems to be near one million, although even this number can be an overestimation. The real number might be around 700000+.
Compared to “vaishnavism in general” which accounts for 500+ millions Hindu devotees, this shows that ISKCON’s path becomes really a marginal one. It’ll become more and “hinduized” in the West. Its growth in the post-Soviet countries of Eastern Europe with their demand for religion, mystics, and popular esoterism will take place for several years (maybe, even couple decades). However ISKCON will inevitably come to complex problems with its identity and reembodiment into the culture of Indian vaishnavism, being, probably, unable to preserve “not majorly-Hindu” identity with which it has striven since its organization by H.H. Srila Prabhupada in late 1960-s.
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