How Hare Krishnas Took Over the World

The unlikely story of an Indian missionary who landed in 1960s New York City and sparked a contentious global movement.

Sukhada Tatke

July 19, 2022

How Hare Krishnas Took Over the World
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada with Hare Krishnas in Golden Gate Park (Harvey L. Silver/Corbis via Getty Images)

In September 1965, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada — a 70-year-old Indian ascetic from Calcutta — arrived in New York City with nothing but books and a typewriter. He was a man on a mission: he wanted to build a temple and spread the message of Lord Krishna to the West.

Alone, without friends and resources, he wandered the streets of the city in his saffron robe. What he saw around him did not inspire confidence. “What can I do? These people are after meat, wine, and illicit sex. How they will [sic] understand the philosophy [of what I want to teach]? They will say, please go home,” he recollected in an interview.

One day, someone stole all his meager belongings. Deeply dispirited, he went to the shipping company two or three times to inquire about a passage back to India. Each time he turned around, reminding himself that Krishna had sent him to the U.S. for a reason.

After a year of wandering and gathering a few followers in New York, Prabhupada registered the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) — colloquially known as the Hare Krishna movement — in July. A month later, an article, “Chant of Swami is Heard in Park,” appeared in the New York Times, about ‘50 followers find[ing] ecstasy at East Side ceremony.’

In no time, the Hare Krishna movement’s popularity exploded. At its peak in the late 1970s, as many as 10,000 people — most of them young, white hippies — transformed their lives radically to live in ashrams across the U.S. Today, more than five decades after ISKCON’s founding, you can still hear the Hare Krishnas chanting in Union Square in New York City, listen to their music memorialized in a George Harrison song, and find millions of devotees around the world. And this is their story.