ISKCON Celebrates 50 Years Since Its Founding

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Ronak Desai, Forbes Magazine

The renowned International Society for Krishna Consciousness(ISKCON) celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding by revered spiritual leader A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada with an elaborate black-tie gala in Washington DC late last month. The event brought together scores of religious, academic and political leaders from across the country to celebrate the life of Swami Prabhupada and the influential, global organization his work inspired.

Founded in 1966 in New York, ISKCON boasts more than 600 centers and millions of adherents worldwide who worship the Hindu deity Krishna, a central figure in the Hindu religion. Swami Prabhupada played a major role in introducing the western world to teachings of Krishna by translating major Hindu works, including the Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam, into English and spreading their message across the United States.

Over 300 guests attended the gala, which took place just blocks away from the White House. Highlighting the interfaith support ISKCON enjoys in the United States since its inception, the guest roster included Catholic and Protestant priests, Jewish rabbis and the new chaplain of Hindu life at Georgetown University, amongst other religious leaders.

Reflecting on the significance of the event, an attendee of the gala, Hrishikesh Hari, observed “At a moment in history influenced by deep internal and external division, the Gala left a deep and healing impression because it united people of all faiths.”

In addition to high-ranking representatives from a host of foreign embassies and the executive branch, several members of Congress attended the celebration, including Congressman Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). Representative Gabbard is currently the only Hindu-American member of Congress, although she could be joined by several others in the upcoming November elections.

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Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) addresses the gala event. (Courtesy of ISKCON DC).

Anuttama Dasa, the gala’s primary organizer who serves as ISKCON’s Communications Minister and Governing Body Commissioner, noted “It was humbling to see government officials, religious leaders, and academic scholars all come together to honor Swami Prabhupada and the religious society he began that has made significant contributions to the areas of philosophy, culture, literature, religious freedom, and social welfare in the last 50 years.”

ISKCON’s followers include some of the country’s most prominent figures. Alfred B. Ford, great-grandson of car magnate Henry Ford, is one of the organization’s leading figures and addressed the gala regarding ISKCON’s landmark spiritual project in West Bengal inspired by the teachings of Swami Prabhupada, the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium. Former Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs recounted in his famous 2005 commencement speech to Stanford University how he relied on ISKCON temples to feed himself: “I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms. I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it.”

Former Beatle, George Harrison, likely remains the most famous ISKCON supporter. He recorded routinely with Hare Krishnas and included the Hare Krishna mantra in his 1970’s hit “My Sweet Lord.

Over the past half-century, ISKCON has established an impressive track record of public service, community activism and charitable work. Its global vegetarian food relief program, for example, has responded to the needs of people all over the world, including victims of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and victims of Hurricane Katrina the following year in the United States. Every day 1.2 million school children are fed daily in schools across India by an ISKCON-run food relief program. Bhaktivedanta Hospital, one of nine ISKCON-affiliated hospitals and medical clinics, treated over 200,000 patients this past year.

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ISKCON’s current initiatives (Created by FreePik)

Anuttama observed, “Slowly, but surely, ISKCON is growing globally in its influence. Its 50-year history has witnessed significant contributions to society from promoting vegetarianism to defending religious freedom around the world. It has also helped introduce the concepts of yoga, karma, mantra meditation and reincarnation to the West where they are now considered mainstream.”

Reflecting on what ISKCON may offer over the next 50 years, Ananda Vrindavanesvari, President of the ISKCON center in Washington DC, offered “the Hare Krishnas’ core practice of devotional service, or service to the Divine, and emphasis on compassion for all living beings has the potential to help solve the major issues facing the world in the years ahead.”

World leaders have joined the chorus congratulating ISKCON. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron celebrated the 50th anniversary at an ISKCON center outside of London in June, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently wrote a letter celebrating the “teachings and wisdom of the faith.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote a letter in August praising five decades of “selfless service” and commending “the efforts of the ISKCON family in sectors like education, publishing and disaster-relief.”

The gala in Washington is one of hundreds of such celebrations around the world this year, with additional commemorations expected throughout the end of the year in the United States and abroad. Other notable events included an academic conference at the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions on the global impact of the Hare Krishna movement in April and a celebration at the Sydney Opera House in August. Another major gala event is planned in Houston in December.