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One of the most vigorous and vibrant periods of devotional piety on the Indian subcontinent began about five hundred years ago, when a new wave of this ancient bhakti tradition broke across north India as virtually a Protestant Reformation of the Hindu tradition. The love of Krishna was an important part of this movement, which produced a burst of devotional poetry, not in the Sanskrit of the elite, but in the vernacular languages of the people. In their songs and hymns these poets repeated many of the themes of the Gétä: the supremacy of devotional faith rather than ritual; the affirmation of human equality rather than hierarchy; the importance of simple acts of praise—making offerings of flowers or singing the name of the Lord.

There were many poets, saints, and theologians who contributed to this era of exuberant devotion. Among them was the Bengali spiritual leader Sri Caitanya, who may be called the founder of the Hare Krishna movement. He was born in Bengal in 1486 and at a young age became an adept Sanskrit scholar. In 1508 on a pilgrimage to Gaya, he encountered a teacher of the devotional Vaishnava school named Isvara Puri. From this time on, he gave himself fully to the devotional worship of Krishna, popularizing and developing a form of worship called kirtana, the chanting and singing of the holy names of the Lord to the accompaniment of small brass hand cymbals and long cylindrical drums.

Sri Caitanya traveled throughout India and attracted many followers. He made one pilgrimage to the heart of the Vaishnava South, and according to his biographers he left the entire South chanting the name of Krishna. More important to the Caitanya movement, however, were his travels in the North, where he is said to have converted great nondualist philosophers as well as some of the world-renouncing sannyasis of Banaras to the love of Krishna.

Caitanya's devotion to Krishna was both intense and magnetic. According to his immediate followers, Caitanya revealed himself as Krishna and Krishna's beloved Radha manifest together in one body.

Sri Caitanya himself left only eight written verses. After he passed away, however, he was followed by a group of six inspired disciples and scholars called Gosvämés who settled in Krishna's ancient homeland of Vrindavana and contributed a tremendously rich body of literature to the emerging Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. Among them, Sanatana Gosvami wrote the famous Hari-bhakti-vilasa, a manual of ritual still utilized by the Hare Krishna movement. His brother Rupa Gosvami wrote one of the principal theological works of the movement, the Bhakti-rasamata-sindhu, translated into English by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada as The Nectar of Devotion. Rupa Gosvam, the author of Sat-sandarbha; was the chief philosopher of the movement. A somewhat younger contemporary was Krishnadasa Kaviraja, who, at the request of the Gosvamis, wrote the biography of Sri Caitanya, the Caitanya-caritamita, in Bengali.

From this first generation of disciples both in Vrindavana and in Bengal, the great teachers of this devotional tradition emerged, one after another, passing their insight from one generation to the next. They have followed in succession to the present day, and Vrindavana continues to be the spiritual heart of this bhakti tradition.

In 1933 one of the leaders of the Gaudiya Vaishnava movement, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami, initiated a new disciple: A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, whose special task was to bring the message of Krishna-bhakti to the English-speaking world. In 1944, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami began to publish in Calcutta an English semimonthly magazine called Back to Godhead, which is published in the United States today under the same name. During the fifties he retired to Vrindavana, where he lived a very simple life in the temple of Radha-Damodara and began to translate into English the voluminous Bhagavata Purana. In 1965, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami came to the United States, arriving by freighter, with little money and no contacts. In time, with difficulty, he established the first Krishna temple in the United States, a Second Avenue storefront on the Lower East Side in New York. Before long, one could hear the name of Krishna in Tompkins Square Park or on Fifth Avenue. Within a decade the International Society for Krishna Consciousness—the American strand of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition—spread to most major American cities. It became known by the very words with which the saint Caitanya praised the Lord some five hundred years ago: "Hare Krishna!" "Praise Krishna!"

Among the recent projects of those who have devoted themselves to Krishna is the establishment of a farming community in the hills of West Virginia named after the homeland of Krishna—New Vrindavana. Meanwhile, in the original Vrindavana, the worship of Krishna flourishes, and the new Krishna-Balarama temple, built by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, has become one of the favorites of Hindu pilgrims to the holy land of Krishna.

In the summer of 1978 while I was doing my own research in north India, I was approached by a number of Hindus who assumed, because I wore a sari and spoke Hindi, that I was a Hare Krishna devotee. Without exception they praised the work of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in India, both in Vrindavana and in the birthplace of Caitanya at Mayapur in Bengal. I remember especially one old woman who came up to me in a temple in Banaras, and touched my feet in a gesture of respect, and said to me in Hindi, “The temple you have built to Lord Krishna in Vrindavana is splendid, so splendid, and I want to thank you.”

Surely the greatest affirmation of the authenticity and significance of the Hare Krishna movement has come from Hindus themselves. ISKCON temples have become a gathering place for many of the Indians who live here as professional people or as students. There on Commonwealth Avenue, together with American devotees, they worship Krishna and celebrate the great festivals of the Hindu year. And in Vrindavana, Hindus crowd into the new Krishna-Balarama temple and sing "Hare Krishna" with those young Americans who have become new participants in their ancient tradition.