FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Here you will find brief answers to some common questions about spirituality, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, our faith and our practices. For more information, see how you can learn more here.
What is our real identity?
The question “Who am I?” has preoccupied both philosophers and academics alike for millennia. The ancient scriptural wisdom of India explains that the bodies we see with our eyes – white, black, Indian, European, Greek, Chinese – are temporary, external designations. The real person, the spirit soul, dwells within. It is not that we should claim “I have a soul”. In fact you are the soul. The real understanding is, “I am a soul and I have a body”. When the body dies, the soul continues to live and moves onto another destination.
Are all beings spirit souls? What about plants, animal, insects, etc?
If there is life, it is the symptom of the presence of a soul. When a soul is present, all living things undergo six changes: they are born, they grow, they endure for a while, they produce offspring, they dwindle and then they die. These six stages can be seen in plants, animals, insects and even microbes although the duration of each stage will differ. If these six stages are present it means there is the presence of a soul which is the cause of these changes. Once the soul leaves, the organism dies.
What do you mean by 'people are materially conditioned'?
As spirit souls, we originate from the spiritual sky – which one may consider to be heaven. We have fallen into the material world which is a temporary place, and we become conditioned by its laws (the modes of material nature). Therefore we forget who we really are. We then believe that we are these bodies and act to satisfy our senses. Since sense pleasure is temporary, we will always remain unsatisfied. We often attempt to increase our sense enjoyment more and more and in quite diverse ways. To think that we can achieve real happiness through the mind, body and senses is an illusion. One who does not know the difference between the material and spiritual realities is considered materially conditioned.
Who is Krishna?
God has many names, but God is one. When we refer to God as the “Supreme” Lord, then there can only be one “Supreme” or it renders the term meaningless. The analogy of the Sun can be used to explain this idea. The Sun in Spanish is called ‘sol’, in English is called ‘sun’ and in Swahili is called ‘jua’. However none of those languages can have any claim of proprietorship over the Sun. It is not the Spanish Sun any more than it belongs to the people of Africa; it is the same sun that shines everywhere. Similarly, God is one and he has different names. Krishna is the original name of God in Sanskrit, which means ‘The All Attractive One’. Nobody in any religion denies the all attractive nature of God.
What do you mean by 'Krishna consciousness'?
‘Krishna’ means God. We are all intimately connected with Him because He is our original father. But we have forgotten this connection. When we become interested in knowing “What is my connection with God? What is the aim of life?” then we are God conscious or Krishna conscious.
Why do you chant “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”?
This is the mantra for liberation in this age. Mantra means spiritual sound vibration. Material sounds affect us on the material emotional, psychological and intellectual levels, and clutter our consciousness. Spiritual sound vibrations, in particular, this Maha-mantra (the greatest chant for deliverance in this age) connects with who you really are (the soul) and revives our dormant spiritual consciousness. It re-awakens the conditioned soul to his real identity. The mantra is not a sectarian chant belonging to a particular religion. It is a chant of names of God and can be chanted by anyone. It is a transcendental sound vibration that connects with the spirit soul; the soul cannot be Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Jew; the soul is simply what it is – pure spirit.
There is a constant reference to the Vedas. What is this actually?
‘Veda’ means knowledge. The Vedas are the original knowledge that is revealed at the time of the universe’s creation. Life in the material world is a combination of matter and spirit. The Vedic literature is a vast body of knowledge divided into four main treatises that covers diverse aspects – from science, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, military science, politics, architecture, medicine and even cuisine. Just as a device or appliance comes with an instruction manual, the Vedas educate one about the purpose and proper use of this material world to avoid being further implicated in its laws. The ultimate purpose of the Vedas is to lead one to liberation from the material nature.
What is karma?
Western science and philosophy explain that the law of causality governs all actions and events in the universe. Actions and events have corresponding reactions on the material platform. The Vedic texts, which predate Western science, call this principle of action and reaction ‘karma’. The spirit soul, which is entrapped in the material nature, acts in particular ways which can cause it either further bondage or liberation from the laws of nature. An individual’s actions bring about his or her transmigration from one body to another. One cannot become free from karma simply by refraining from action. One has to learn the art of working without accruing karma, which is the process of bhakti yoga.
What are the universal principles of religion?
Four principles of all religions are identified: truthfulness, compassion, austerity and cleanliness. For one practicing spiritual life, it is essential to understand the activities which destroy these principles. The Vedas explain that the following activities destroy the universal principles:
Gambling destroys truthfulness. Gambling does not only refer to betting with money, but speculative, dishonest, or illicit business dealings. The increase in dishonesty, greed, anxiety and loss of equilibrium destroys the elevating quality of truthfulness.
Killing animals destroys compassion. Institutionalised animal slaughter is organised violence. In the act of killing an animal, there is a conspiracy by the party of sinners, and all of the sinners are liable to be punished as murderers exactly like a party of conspirators who kill a human being. He who gives permission, he who kills the animal, he who sells the slaughtered animal, he who cooks the animal, he who administers distribution of the foodstuff, and at last he who eats such animal food are all murderers, and all of them are liable to be punished by the laws of nature. All these activities destroy compassion. No one can create a living being despite all advancement of material science, and therefore no one has the right to kill a living being by one’s independent whims.
Unrestrained sex indulgence destroys austerity. Sexual indulgence causes excessive attachment to the body and bodily pleasures and thus entrenches one in the false conception the one is the body. Sexual indulgence has been excessively prompted by media and advertising, and such unrestrained sexual activity has resulted in several social, emotional and psychological problems in society.
Intoxication destroys cleanliness. Intoxication, which includes cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and even caffeine, are unnatural to the body, and often lead to addiction. These habits often lead to loss of life, loss of mental health, disease, premature aging and an inability to naturally focus the mind intelligently and steadily on any task. The addictions escalate until the individual loses all reason, and leads to the miserable state of existence in which all cleanliness is destroyed.
Devotees of Krishna commit to following the four regulative principles of no meat-eating, no gambling, no intoxication and no illicit sex.
Why do you call your process ‘bhakti yoga’? Isn’t yoga some kind of exercise or gymnastics?
The yoga that the West is familiar with in the form of exercises is but just one small part of a series of steps known as ashtanga or hatha yoga.
Hatha yoga was actually practiced by ancient sages in quiet places to control the mind and senses to improve meditation on God. The West has appropriated only the yoga postures. Of course, modern society and medicine has realised the positive health benefits of hatha yoga and has promoted it. Many yoga practitioners use the exercises for improving fitness, but not many of them adopt the deeper values of yoga. Thus it is not uncommon to find people doing yoga, but still smoking, taking alcohol and non-vegetarian foodstuff, or being promiscuous.
There are many types of yoga. ‘Yoga’ means ‘linking with the Supreme’. If one wishes to link with the Supreme by analysing the material and spiritual natures by his intelligence, then this is called ‘jnana yoga’.
These processes of hatha yoga and jnana yoga are fraught with difficulties and it could take hundreds of years to perfect them.
The recommended process for this era is bhakti yoga – linking oneself to the Supreme in a relationship of unconditional loving devotional service. This begins by chanting the Holy names in the form of the Mahamantra and then rendering practical service.
By chanting this mantra one can more easily attain perfect self-realisation than all other methods past and present.
Why is this process referred to as the science of self-realisation?
Scientific reasoning often involves setting up an experiment – there is method, observation and results. Similarly in this process of bhakti yoga, one does an experiment. One can try the chanting (method), observe particular changes in consciousness (observation) and experience the benefits (result). The difference is that science relies on one’s external senses to conduct the experiment, while bhakti yoga is an internal process and revives the dormant spiritual consciousness that is covered by the mind, intelligence and ego.
Is a guru really necessary for spiritual advancement?
To develop knowledge and skill we need a good teacher whether it is at school or university. Similarly for spiritual knowledge we approach a spiritual teacher or ‘guru’. The genuine guru is one who has learnt the philosophy from his predecessor teachers, practices it impeccably and has deep realisations about its truth. As conditioned souls, we have four defects – we are under illusion, we have a cheating propensity, we commit mistakes, and have imperfect senses. Thus we cannot attain perfect knowledge by direct perception. Aural reception of transcendental knowledge from a bona fide guru is the Vedic standard.
How do you know that the guru is speaking the truth?
Blind faith and fanatical following is not advocated in the Vedas. It is unfortunate that there have been a few Indian and Western teachers who have claimed to be gurus and taken advantage of the naivety of innocent followers. The Vedas caution the prospective disciple to study the qualifications of the guru carefully and question him about all matters. A very important scripture in the Vedic canon, called the Nectar of Instruction states that “A sober person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind’s demands, the actions of anger and the urges of the tongue, belly and genitals is qualified to make disciples all over the world”.
As a check-and-balance, there are three ways that one can establish the bona fide nature of a guru. Firstly, a guru must be coming in an unbroken disciplic succession which can be traced back to the original speaker of the Vedic truths, Lord Krishna. Secondly, whatever the guru says must be verifiable in the scriptural canon. Thirdly, it must also concord with the instructions and descriptions of the teachers that came before him. And, of course, one’s own tangible experience will show oneself: “By following this guru, am I giving up degrading activities and progressing in my spiritual development?” If so, then one has found a true guru.
What is ISKCON?
ISKCON is an acronym for The International Society for Krishna Consciousness. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada legally constituted this organisation in 1966 in New York. He is the founder-acharya (spiritual master) of ISKCON. ISKCON is an organisation of the Vedic tradition established in the West to perpetuate the ancient wisdom of the Vedas. Srila Prabhupada personally travelled around the world 12 times to develop this fledgling society into a truly international society which currently has more than 300 temples, farms communities, ashrams, schools and institutes. He established a Governing Body Commission (GBC) to oversee the both the administrative and spiritual needs of the society. His position as the founder cannot be replaced by anyone but he wisely gave the society a collective management structure so that it would survive his passing. The headquarters of ISKCON is located in Mayapur in the state of Western Bengal, India. This place is of special significance because it is the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, religious reformer and divine incarnate by whose instructions and personal example the glories of the holy names of God are spreading.
ISKCON temples are found in almost every major city on every continent and the members are from all races and backgrounds, making it a truly international society.
Your followers dress differently. Why is this?
It is not necessary that a follower of Krishna consciousness is compelled to dress in the traditional robes of Hare Krishna devotees. Most devotees have occupations and wear regular clothes to work and dress according to their cultures and corporate roles. Just some modesty in dress is required. As ambassadors of the practices however, especially if one is a resident at one of the centres, then they dress to represent the monastic tradition. The men prefer to wear a dhoti and kurta. A dhoti is the cloth that is draped over the lower half of the body and the kurta is the shirt. Those that wear the saffron (orange) colour are either celibate students or renunciants.
Ladies tend to wear sarees, or punjabees (slacks and a long top) or a traditional skirt and top. Often the ladies decorate themselves, and at festivals will be seen in colourful, elaborate clothing, jewellery and exquisite make-up.
What is that white marking on your forehead that looks like a tuning fork?
That is called ‘tilak’ (“tee-luck”). It is clay taken from holy places and used to adorn the body of a devotee. Just as you recognise a temple as a special place of worship by its markings, similarly the devotee marks his or her body with tilak to indicate that the body is a temple of God to be used in God’s service. It also indicates that the person’s head is always bowed in a position of submission before God.
What is the position of women in your society?
On a spiritual platform there is no difference between men and women, or any other designation for that matter. Physically, it is obvious there are differences. That’s why men and women take part in their own categories at sports events. Spiritually there is no duality, no inferiority or superiority based on body and mind.
In our quest for gender equality, it is also easy to negate that there are differences which influence our activities differently. For example, only women have the natural biological capacity to bear children and nourish them with breast milk. We cannot avoid that difference. However, in Krishna consciousness there is no restriction on women in occupational roles or leadership roles in ISKCON. Several departments are headed by women. We even have precedence in our lineage, just after Lord Chaitanya left this planet 500 years ago, that thousands of devotees were led by Jahnavi Mata, a great female saint.
The negative reaction from women to the patriarchal and exploitative attitudes of men toward them is obviously natural. Therefore if one has a spiritual perspective, then ones attitude will be protective rather than exploitative, and one will treat all living beings with equality.
What is your stance on animal rights and the environment?
Krishna consciousness is the most respectful philosophy of animal and environmental rights that exist in the world.
Devotees are strictly vegetarian, we do not eat meat, fish or eggs. That immediately supports animal rights, because we respect their right to live. There is no need to kill animals for the satisfaction of our palates, as the trees and plants are bowing down with vegetables, fruit, grains and nuts for our meals. One may ask, how is it that we are killing the plants? Harvesting does not always kill the plant – apples can be reaped in every season from the same tree. We have to eat, so we take our meals from that kingdom from which we cause the least amount of distress and pain. Still eating vegetables just like that means there is some reaction, therefore devotees prepare, cook and offer vegetarian meals guided by spiritual principles of cooking given in the Vedas.
Vegetarianism and a simpler lifestyle sustains the environment. The meat industry contributes largely to deforestation, desertification, water pollution, water shortages, air pollution, and soil erosion. Half of the Amazon rain forests have been cleared for cattle ranching, 40% of the land in Western United States is used for rearing beef livestock, 50% 0f the world’s grain suitable for human consumption are fed to cattle whilst millions of humans remain starving and undernourished. All the soybean and grain fed to US livestock in a year could feed 1.3 billion people.
Moreover, no other philosophy reveres the cow like the Vedas instruct. The cow is regarded as the mother of mankind as she sustains all with life giving milk. Devotees therefore protect the cow and will not even think of slaughtering her. Calves should have the first right to any milk that a mother cow produces, and whatever is left over is available to humans.
Do you believe in reincarnation? Is there evidence for reincarnation?
Yes, and yes. The word ‘reincarnate’ derives from the root ‘carna’ which means ‘flesh’. Reincarnate therefore means to enter into the flesh again. The Vedas explain that the spirit soul is eternal; the real person, the spirit soul never dies. In the natural course of life the body grows from a baby to youth to boyhood, middle age, then old age and death, and then transmigrates into another body at death. Your destination depends upon your thoughts at death, and what we think of at the time of death depends on what we have been absorbed in for most of our lives. Thus spiritual training is needed for one to remember a spiritual destination at the time of death or one will continue in the cycle of birth and death.
The Vedas contain amazing stories of reincarnation. The Western sceptic, of course, wants scientific evidence. One can study the work of the late Dr. Ian Stevenson who investigated and recorded cases of reincarnation or that of Dr. Michael Sabom and others. Reincarnation memories often occur in children and as they grow they tend to forget. So if one wanted to confirm a case of reincarnation, investigative work may reveal old civic records of the person in a previous life. For one in the Vedic paradigm, ideas of reincarnation are quite normal.
What is your view on other religions?
ISKCON accepts that God consciousness is universal and all major religions in their authentic form are bona fide. The Vedic understanding is that at particular times empowered agents of God will preach His message to different people all over the world and the message will be given according to time, place and circumstance. Thus it may surprise the practitioners of other religions to know that the empowered representatives of God like Jesus, or Mohammed and Buddha are actually predicted in the ancient Vedas. Srila Prabhupada had utmost respect for other religions and stated:
“Who will not respect Jesus Christ? He sacrificed everything for God, even his life. So who is that rascal that he’ll not respect to Jesus Christ. What did [Christ] do wrong to the human society? He did everything for the good of the human society. Oh, I have got very, very, great respect for Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the purport of Srimad Bhagavatam (2.4.18) Srila Prabhupada writes:
“Jesus Christ and Muhammad, two powerful devotees of the Lord, have done tremendous service on behalf of the Lord on the surface of the globe.”
With this understanding, ISKCON does not proselytize members of other faiths. We engage in interfaith dialogue with people who are interested with a view to improving the practice of everyone. There are many Christians and Muslims who have adopted the principles of Krishna consciousness in their lives.