ISKCON devotees specifically follow the line of Lord Sri Chaitanya, a tradition which has been historically known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Gaudiya Vaishnavism has had a continuous following in India, especially in West Bengal and Orissa, for the past five hundred years. Srila Prabhupada popularised Gaudiya Vaishnava Theology in the Western world through his extensive writings and translations, most importantly the Bhagavad-Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, and Chaitanya Charitamrita. These works are now served as the canon for ISKCON.
ISKCON honors Krishna as the highest form of God, and often refers to him as “the Supreme Personality of Godhead,” which was a phrase coined by Srila Prabhupada in his books on the subject. Krishna is seen as the ultimate source of all manifestations of the divine. While typical Hindu theology identifies Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu, An important aspect of the Gaudiya and ISKCON philosophy is the belief that the individual soul is an eternal personal identity that does not ultimately merge into any formless light or void as suggested by the monistic schools of Hinduism.
The Vedic scriptures state that spiritual life begins when one inquires into the nature of the absolute truth, the Supreme Godhead. Gaudiya Vaishnavas are monotheists and know the personality of Godhead as Krishna, the All-attractive. But it is also recognised that the Supreme has unlimited names such as Rama, Buddha, Vishnu, Jehovah, Allah, etc. The ultimate goal of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is to develop a loving relationship with the Supreme Godhead. The Vedas also tell us that the understanding of the self, as being non-material or spiritual by nature, is the preliminary stage of realisation of the Absolute truth. To understand knowledge of self-realisation one must approach a genuine spiritual master, just as one learns the essence of any subject from a perfected practitioner.
The congregational chanting of the Maha-mantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
as started by Sri Chaitanya, is accepted by the Vedas as the most effective means of self-purification in this age. The Vedas describe that the mantra is a prayer to the Lord, “Please Lord, engage me in Your service”. Devotees may accept formal initiation into the chanting of the Holy Name vowing to abstain from intoxication, gambling, illicit sexual connections and the eating of meat, fish or eggs termed as four regulative principles.
Chanting of the mantra is said to be the most important duty of ISKCON followers, and its recitation is required of all initiates. It is the optimum means by which to achieve and maintain devotional bliss to Lord Krishna. Further, all disciples are required to perform a certain quota of chants on their own. Devotees practice these private chants by meditating upon beads called japa mala which resemble rosary beads. These names are said to connect both the practitioner and the listener to transcendental spiritual energy, as the sound vibrations created by their repetition gradually induce pure “Krishna Consciousness.” Anyone, whether initiated as a member of ISKCON or not, can benefit from the public performance of the mantra, as the sound itself is sacred. Personal advancement through chanting is evident through a gradual disappearance of such vices as lust, greed and anger, leading to an eventual eschewing of all material desire.
In addition, they take part in congregational chanting, referred to as kirtan. Commonly, this chant is set to music for performance in temples and public settings. The thrice weekly evening and daily morning classes held at ISKCON centers are marked in large part by congregational chants.