History and belief
ISKCON devotees follow a disciplic line of Gaudiya Bhagavata Vaishnavas and are the largest branch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Vaishnavism means 'worship of Vishnu', and Gauḍa refers to the area where this particular branch of Vaishnavism originated, in the Gauda region of West Bengal. Gaudiya Vaishnavism has had a following in India, especially West Bengal and Odisha, for the past five hundred years. Gaudiya Vaishnavism was founded by the saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who rapidly spread his form of ecstatic bhakti (devotion) throughout Bengal. He established Sankirtan, the practice of publicly expressing devotion to
Lord Krishna, the Supreme God, through dance and song. This form of communal worship responded to rigid caste structures by engaging all people in worship regardless of caste and creed. Chaitanya emphasized chanting the Hare Krishna Mahamantra (the 'great mantra'). He is considered by Gaudiya Vaishnavas to be an incarnation of Krishna himself.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought Chaitanya's Gaudiya Vaishnavism to the West in 1965. At 69 years old, he landed in New York without any money. Instead of preaching to New York's elite, he tapped into the 1960s countercultural spirit by preaching and chanting in public parks and attracting hippies and the youth. His movement, then known as the "Hare Krishna Movement", grew even larger when he relocated to San Francisco a year later. When it spread to England, it gained publicity and financial backing from the Beatle George Harrison. He recorded several tracks with the Hare Krishnas and included the Mahamantra in his hit track "My Sweet Lord". The first Hare Krishna commune, New Vrindavan (West Virginia), was established by Prabhupada in 1968. Since then, ISKCON has established more than 600 centers all over the world and has millions of followers.
Key to the spread of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology in the Western world was Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada's extensive writings and translations, including the Bhagavad Gita As It Is, Srimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana), Chaitanya Charitamrita, and other scriptures. These works are now available in more than seventy languages and serve as the scriptures of ISKCON.
ISKCON describes Krishna as the source of all the avatars of God. Thus ISKCON devotees worship Krishna as the highest form of God, svayam bhagavan, and often refer to him as the Supreme Personality of Godhead in writing, which was a phrase coined by Prabhupada in his books on the subject. To devotees, Radha represents Krishna's divine female counterpart, the original spiritual potency, and the embodiment of divine love. The individual soul is an eternal personal identity which does not ultimately merge into a non-dual consciousness (Brahman) as believed by the monistic (Advaita) schools of Hinduism. Prabhupada most frequently offers Sanatana-dharma and Varnashrama dharma as more accurate names for the religious system which accepts Vedic authority. It is a monotheistic tradition which has its roots in the theistic Vedanta traditions.