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Hare Krishna movement: What is it?

The Hare Krishna movement has captured pop culture's attention for years, most recently making a cameo on Mad Men. But what is the movement all about?
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LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 12: A devotee of the Hare Krishna faith distributes food gifts from a Chariot during the festival of Rathayatra on June 12, 2011 in London, England. Rathayatra, or Chariot festival, features three huge, wooden chariots pulled by hand across Central London accompanied by constant singing, chanting, drums, cymbals and dancing. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images) (Matthew Lloyd/AFP/Getty Images)

The Hare Krishna movement, formally known as the he International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), seems to have grabbed the attention of Mad Men's characters. But what is the religion all about? 

With their distinctive shaved heads, white dots and saffron robes, the Hare Krishna became "one of the spiritual icons of the hippie counterculture," the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The sect of Hinduism was formed in New York in 1966 by 69-year-old A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who arrived in Boston from India with $7 in change and books about Krishna, according to Krishna.com.

Prabhupada spoke about the ideals of Hare Krishna at yoga studios, YMCAs, and artists' lofts, and drumming and chanting the mantra that is now the iconic association to the religion: "Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare." 

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The Hare Krishnas subscribe to the a monotheistic branch of Hinduism, and follow the teachings of Lord Krishna as their one god, according to Krishna.com. They focus on two Hindu texts — the Bhagavad Gita (part of the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata) and the Srimad Bhagavatam.

The religion is based on bhakti yoga, in which devotees (known as bhaktas) put all their thoughts and actions towards pleasing the Supreme Lord, Krishna, according to srimadbhagavatam.com. By chanting Krishna's names, the Hare Krishnas come closer to him, whom they call "eternal, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-powerful, and all-attractive," and equate with Allah, Buddha and Jehovah, according to ISKON.org

The religion has been at the center of several controversies since its inception, with some equating it to a cult, according to the Chronicle. When Prabhupada died in 1977, there was much infighting over who would be the next leader of the Hare Krishnas, and in 2000, a Texas lawyer filed a $400 million lawsuit alleging that the religion's Dallas ashram (as well as other temples and schools, known as gurukalas) committed sexual, emotional and physical abuse against over 40 Krishna children, the Chronicle reported. 

Today, ISKCON has about 500 centers around the world, and many of them run farms or restaurants to sustain their temples and practices, according to Krishna.com. 

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