ISCKON’s inculturation in the West and its epic fail

img 54aa5ea36536d ISCKONs inculturation in the West and its epic fail We cannot precisely tell if ISCKON is shrinking or growing because of India where everything is so difficult to count, and even if counted, is hardly worth relying. For the purposes of religious studies we assume the number of ISKCON devotees being either at standstill or slightly moving in any way. A problem of much greater interest is profound loss of ISKCON’s positions in the West, ISKCON’s failure to inculturate into Western civilization.

On one hand, it looks like ISKCON is slowly growing due to new converts flow in India and post-USSR countries and this growth is powerful enough to substitute the losses in USA and Europe.

Another thing we can say for sure — ISKCON hasn’t passed the test of inculturation into Western World. The Hare Krishna movement’s fast rise in USA and Europe was co-working great with the 60-s’ and 70-s thrive for spirituality and counterculture, but since that times lots of ISKCON temples in USA have been closed and many will soon transform into India’s cultural and religious centers, sometimes moving far from original ISKCON theology and organization.

Globally, after its popularity peak in early seventies Hare Krishna movement becomes more and more marginal, comprehended more like a bright and recognizable cultural phenomenon with current spiritual and religious influence on global society close, but not equal to zero.


The main reason for loss of devotees in the West is what seemed to be a strong side of ISKCON – its rigid emphasis on ascetics and heavy every-day religious practice. Unfortunately, there’s not many people in Western world really ready for such a full-scale devotion and self-sacrifice as Srila Prabhupada’s maxims demand.

Another thing is the attempt to introduce Indian traditional social system into the West – an attempt doomed for failure. Varnashrama doesn’t work well even in India these days, for sure Western society is completely unable to implement it – people of middle class don’t want to live in ashrams and don’t want to let their youth do so.

In the West it’s much more difficult to re-create the idealized Indian tradition of people leaving in the ashram – one of many reasons is that it costs bigger money to survive there than in India.

Why did that happen? Why have ISKCON temples in the West become empty, closed or transformed into Hindu diaspora “cultural centers”?

ISKCON has turned out to be too conservative and too fundamentalist, refusing dialog with “dirty and sinful” society. Shrila Prabhupada’s gospel offered a good response to spiritual thirst and message well-understood by the “flower and mushroom generation”, but the Western society has changed much since that time.

I’m speaking not about preaching, but about dialog. Too radical in its views and often carrying Prabhupada’s “rascals!” mood, ISKCON allowed its members to adopt too aggressive attitudetowards the society, in its presumption of own moral superiorityforgetting that any new religious trend coming from different culture has to go through inculturation process.

Instead of changing to go better with the dominant culture of the society ISKCON has decided to stubbornly push its way. This choice to be “few, but faithful”, rather than “being many and mediocre” (missing the organization forms where both variants can co-exist) deserves respect, but it inevitably leads to the current situation.



ISKCON temples in the West becoming (with no evil intent, for sure:) ) a target of Indian diaspora cultural attack and annexation is predictable trend that shocks only those who had drawn in their minds a stiff idol of early ISKCON.

Some “devotees” are so scared of Hindus that they demand to “stop the Hinduization of Prabhupada’s temples as Real pre-requisites for ISKCON’s growth”.

This means that some forces in ISCKON are turning it into a sect in a bad meaning of this word and shows that fear of change and reluctance to accept it will bring inevitable crash to Society, – history shows that rigid religious forms brought to new societies do not survive, if they don’t find flexibility and courage to change and wisdom to accept change.

A smart strategy would be not to get scared, but study new opportunities this “hinduization” brings – in the spheres of language, culture, Indian religious traditions that are much more tolerant towards Others and less aggressive than Westernized ISKCON.

The fact that so many in ISKCON are uncontended with its hinduization shows the truth about ISKCON’s claims to be “Vedic” and “preach an ancient-Indian tradition”. In the presence of real bearers of Hindu traditions it’s much more difficult to keep complacent face showing that ISKCON brahmacharis know the “Vedic truth” better who have been born in India and have lived many years in society largely influenced by true post-Vedic culture and spirit. If ISCKON was really and totally about heart and spiritual openness, there would be more encouragement to share and to study the Indian heritage, but not fear of hinduization.

this tendency can be witnessed in post-USSR ISKCON even in greater extent than in the West: Ukrainian and Russian ISKCON people I observe often are scared of India, its religions and its other-sampradaya vaishnavism (remember, some 500+millions of devotees) perhaps even more than Orthodox Christians are scared of demons. They are uncomfortable in presence of “real” traditional Hindu worshipers with their sometimes different, “wrong”, but also based on some scriptures attitudes to many theological and worship elements of ISKCON’s reality.

This arrogance and the attitude towards Hindus coming to the temples sometimes gets so ugly, that the word “racism” comes to mind… Or is it because of sublime notion that the Hindu diaspora are “true”/” real” and have some deeper understanding of vaishnavism than the white guys in white and orange clothes and what the latter doing here being just an imitation???

I didn’t say that – it’s just a notion appearing when you see confused Ukrainian devotees contacting with Hindu vaishnavas.



Another thing is typically Indian –disregard for the individual, his personality, and “rich inner world” that European civilization has nourished for so many centuries. ISKCON’s disregard of all this psychic activity and its demand to sacrifice all the ego-games “for Krishna” receive less and less understanding and desire to implement in the West. This controversy brings frustration and rejection to devotees and people leave – just because ISKCON “thinks Indian” ignoring the challenges of different culture.

One more problem is in the sphere of sex. Celibacy is hard to observe even for Indian saddhus who have developed this culture for centuries. Strict principle leaves devotees with no other chances than to feel guilt for their “illicit” life. Sad for ISKCON but true – the majority of modern people because of complex factors are not able to follow the celibacy principle. But the Society’s strict insistence on it brings problems. Another sexual problem is ISKCON’s patriarchal character — undermining female’s roles works very good in India and post-Soviet countries,but it’d be naїve to expect emancipated matajis of Europe and USA to tolerate such attitudes for long.



Assessing ISKCON’s mission in the West is difficult. The Society has created lots of temples, devotees, beautiful works of art, music, created and translated lots of texts, introduced new philosophy and culture from India, create interest that drove hundreds of thousands people to India, to religion, spirituality, in sixties and seventies it appeared to be a warhead of some new spiritual  supermissile that would transform the Western society.

It didn’t happen. After Prabhupada, despite all the kirtans, books, lectures, harinamas, and prasada distribution Hare Krishna movement hasn’t changed the Western society, hasn’t produced a new philosopher of religious leader, cultural or religious figure of size noticeable on the scale of humanity. It seems that they’ve even quit trying — majority of ISKCON’s spiritual life these days goes on in India and that’s why its greatest leaders like Swami Radhanath spend most of their time there.

ISKCON could have used its popularity to become a spike of counterculture, to shape, and direct one of its major spiritual streams. Instead, the Society chose the more fundamentalist path which inevitably pushed it ad marginem of modern West, to the way of decline and stagnation.

The movement’s glory has been left in times of the Beatles and hippie revolution and I seriously doubt that it will arise once more in Western Europe or North America. (Though ICKON has quite a serious growth and potential in post-USSR countries, it looks destined to remain marginal “new religious movement” without huge spiritual or cultural influence on these countries’ societies en masse.)

*       *       *

Or could all this activity of ISKCON being just a smart move of Hindu maharajes to prepare the West for a new westernized religion that is to become basis for further Hinduism conquista of the West?

Sounds to much like religious conspiracy? Who knows, those Eastern guys are so subtle…

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  • Tim

    I disagree with the article from the perspective that ISCKON did succeed in its mission in the West as it did build temples and many literatures pertaining to Vedanta are available to view only for free, so the organization really did find a way to reach the West.

    • ahamot

      Yes, Tim, you are right, it has succeeded at some point of its development – the temples are there, and literature as well, but where are Western devotees in numbers of Srila Prabhupada’s time? Looks like modern ISKCON is loosing its attractiveness for Westerners.

      • Marek Dąbrowski

        You are wrong. And so is the article’s thesis. Why? For a very simple reason – you are confusing the number of devotees living in temples with the number of devotees. At present 99% of them live amongst the general society, so one may have the impression of decreasing number of them. For the same reason, your notion of “epic fail of inculturation” is also wrong.

        • ahamot

          am I? read the article attentively. In my research I consider people who at least try to follow four principles and repeat at list one circle of Hare Krishna maha-mantra to be “devotees”. It’s normal for any religion to have much more people living lay life and having lay practice than those living in temples))

          • Marek Dąbrowski

            Read my post again this time trying to understand what you are reading and keep in mind that “a devotee” is someone who believes in Krishna and considers Him to be the Supreme, to be God. That is the miinimum and at the same time the most important critirion for accepting someone as Krishnaite. Not the amount of rounds or principles regarding food or sex. In view of this, my notion is correct and your arcticle’s thesis wrong.

          • sushma indian

            Hmmm… I am a Hindu. I think it is not correct to say that Krishna is a Supreme Being.. The Supreme Being is Brahman- Cosmic Energy pervading the entire universe… As a Sanatana Dharma follower, I think it is important to spread the message that all paths lead to realisation of Brahman within you and the entire universe. The worship of Krishna should not turn into you vs me. Because in India, there are thousands of sects- but will never fight against each other due to the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma. Worship of nature is very important as per vedas. (But what is dominant in India now is Brahmanic Hinduism and not Vedic Hinduism…)… The Trinity- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva- are the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer of the universe.(universe undergoes expansion and contraction every 100 Brahma years).. The Trinity are not Human Beings-they are personification of the aspects of Brahman. And Krishna is an avatar of the Vishnu-the preserver. I am saying this because we need to uphold the core philosophy of Sanatana Dharma for the protection of peace. And I think ISCKON should promote this core philosophy although Krishna is worshipped. Every aspect of Sanatana Dharma is important. And ISCKON members, I think, should promote the native culture of every region and not Indian dressing… because cultures take centuries to develop. and what makes this world beautiful is the diversity of cultures.

          • Marek Dąbrowski

            Hmmm, I am a Hindu, too thoug not an Indian. Is this some kind of argument? Krishna is in the core of Sanatana Dharma, He is its source and creator. Cosmic energy is a New Age rubbish, and Brahman is but Krishna’s all-pervading and eternal shine in which refuge take souls like you who are not fortunate enough to comprehend Him and renounce envy of Him and desire to be Him. The rest of your post is gibberish that is meant to impress the less aware. Just like your remark that you are a Hindu. Read abut the goals of Iskcon. Promoting native culture of India (that is now more arabic than truly Hindu) is not among them. It’s done only as an auxilliary means to help accept spiritual culture of Sanatana Dharma.

          • sushma indian

            :-) Not an argument… Just an opinion based on the videos I saw on youtube. Excuse me if I offended you in any way due to my ignorance… Thank you for promoting Sanatana Dharma. I only wish for world peace. Do you worship to other gods as well? (And out of interest-which country are you from?)

          • Marek Dąbrowski

            1. Yes, you are an ignorant. But there is hope, because you know it. 2. From Poland.

          • sushma indian

            I wish you and all poles a very happy and prosperous life… Visit India if you are interested… (But India is not what it used to be…. A very very painful history for the last 1000 years.. and many Indian hindus have given up their values and took up Churchill’s values :) and there is large scale Christianization going on)… And watch “A Little Poland in India” if you have time :)

          • Marek Dąbrowski

            What makes you think I haven’t watched it and I am not aware of the history and situation in India?

          • sushma indian

            :) How am I supposed to know that you know so much about India? (as I know very little about Poland..)Because the Britishers have completely fabricated and altered Indian history. And the baton has now been passed on to the US Indologists..all the intellectuals in India now are Marxists, whose mission is to keep Indians from knowing the real history. Most Indians themselves don’t know their real history…And it is very difficult for an outsider to understand the complexity of Indian situation and problems… Am just wishing you… Now I presume that you have visited India:) And dear Marek…please add a smile(ISKCON way).. How many Hindus are there in Poland? Don’t you face problems from the Church?

          • bill

            “Hmmm, I am a Hindu, too thoug not an Indian.” Right, and you know everything about India and its culture and religion just by sitting there in Poland!!! It is you who is ignorant and arrogant, just like a typical ISKCON devotee.

          • Marek Dąbrowski

            You know shit about me and where I’ve been, but pass judgments. And you dare talk about ignorance and arrogance? What a moron. Seek help to treat your frustration, man.

          • bill

            Why should I seek help ? It is you who should seek help for believing in crap like hare krishna which is no wonder declining, just like every other stupid religious belief.Even a fifth grader will laugh after reading your comments. Everybody is entitled to his or her own personal opinion. You should at least cut down on your arrogant tone. The way, you responded to an Indian and pretended that you know better than her about India is not only laughable but also pathetic. I bet you can’t even recognize the flag of India at random among a bunch of other different flags.

          • Marek Dąbrowski

            I deem uncouth louts not worthy of reply other than block. Bye.

          • bill

            Nice typical ISKCON behavior. On a friendly note, get a serious help for your Tourette syndrome because ISKCON will NOT be able to help that.

        • Mike Thornton

          Dear Marek,

          This article is definitely NOT wrong.Quite the contrary though, it could not possibly be more correct.

          Let us calculate the rough estimate of total number of ISKCON followers. Shall we? I have ex-ISKCON friends living in Mayapur, the HQ of ISKCON. From them, I hear that the total number of active members in there is about 6000 now, mostly comprised of foreigners. Please note that the local population of Mayapur is not responsible for that number, even though it is a rural area of West Bengal, a not very progressive and an economically poor state of India.

          Please also let me share a very personal experience of mine. A few years ago, I went to Bhubaneswar for business purposes because IT is my profession. There is an ISKCON temple near Nayapalli, a quite posh area and a market place there. Almost every time without fail the temple was almost empty. It merely serves as a bus stop purpose. This happened in Bhubaneswar which is called the temple city of India.

          So, if the average number of active followers per ISKCON centre is about 1000 and the total number of centres is about 200 globally, it comes to roughly 200,000 active devotees worldwide. So the total ISKCON devotees globally, will be 1 million at most, which mainly consists of very old people (at least 60+) and bored housewives and I am being very liberal about this. There are much less than 200 centres globally and the average number of active devotees per centre is also quite less than 1000.

          Not only that, the total number of iskcon temples globally is definitely NOT increasing since at least 2000.

          The main reason for ISKCON’s demise is its anti-women nature, to the point of calling Kali & Durga worshipers vagina worshipers. That definitely does not sit well with Indians,considering the fact that Diwali & Dussehra are the major festivals of India. I think almost all the major Hindu Gods are female i.e. Goddesses. So,
          no wonder, ISKCON is failing in India itself.

          The real reason why Indian society became (or looks like) oppressive and patriarchal is because of islamic invasions. Indians, in general, are
          fed up with this and they really want to change. I have been to India, mixed
          freely with Indians and I know this.

          Lastly, remember one thing,being a Vaihnav does NOT necessarily imply being a ISKCON sympathizer.Worshiping Krishna also does NOT necessarily imply being a ISKCON sympathizer.The article also tackles that beautifully, something which I did not expect.

          Actually, ISKCON is a crazy cult which is not only anti-Hindu and anti-women but anti-Sanatana Dharma as well.


  • bill

    You are absolutely right. ISKCON is actually failing not only in other countries but in India as well, because ISKCON’s ideas are not at all Indian or Hindu either. Take it from me, because I know HIndu people in India .

    • Michael Schenk

      From what I hear from Indian folks, they like the ISKCON temples but dislike its organizational structure and don’t like Prabhupad. “He’s too harsh,” said a woman I met in New Zealand. “I love Krishna, he is my favorite god, but Prabhupad and his followers… I don’t like them.” I get the feeling that they only go to ISKCON temples because they have the nicest deities and the grounds are well looked-after.

      • Mike Thornton

        Right! Spot on !

  • Dee Snyder

    ISCKON is failing because it is a strict, conservative cult, and secularism is rising worldwide.

  • kishan kumar

    A true and pure religion is same for all living and non-living beings of the world. ISKCON is just community. So it’s failure is natural.