A few years ago, I was involved with the local ISKCON group in Dunedin, New Zealand, attending weekly Sunday meetings at the university Clubs and Societies centre. I learnt quite a lot about it, and I visited an ISKCON temple in Christchurch. Not long after, I left ISKCON and investigated Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Since then I went to the Eastern Orthodox Church and back to Islam. However, my girlfriend's father, who is a Hindu, would never let his daughter marry a Muslim. He agreed to give me a chance if I became a Hindu. I agreed. I've been visting temples here in Malaysia, and they are lovely. They are quite different from the ISKCON temples, My girlfriend's uncle, who is quite knowledgable about Hinduism, said that ISKCON are extremists. With what I've seen and heard about them, they are. I have a few questions.
1. The murtis (deities) in the temples here are usually made out of black stone or brass, and the facial features are very hard to see. There is usually one deity per shrine. The murtis in the ISKCON temples are made of marble, and you can easily see their facial features. There are usually two or three deities on the shrine (Caitanya-Nityananda, Radha-Krishna, Rama-Seeta-Lakshmana, Jaganatha, Subhadara and the other one). Is this an ISKCON innovation, or are there mainstream Vaishnava temples like this in West Bengal? The temples here are all South Indian ones.
2. The ISKCON puja or arati is quite different to the puja in the Malaysian temples (which are usually dedicated to Sri Maha Mariamman or Lord Shiva). The ISKCON puja involves incense sticks, a five-wick ghee lamp, water in a conch that is sprinkled, a handkerchief, flowers on a plate, and a camara whisk. The puja here involves cone-like incense burnt in a round bowl with a handle, a one-wick oil lamp, a conical camphor lamp, flower petals, a pot of water with a spoon used to feed the deity. Is the ISKCON puja practiced by any mainstream Hindu temples?
3. ISKCON follows the teaching of Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Are there any mainstream Hindus who follow his teachings and worship him as an incarnation of Vishnu?
4. Is it all right to sing bhajans composed by Caitanya's disciples, the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan? I love the bhajan Radhe Jaya Jaya Madhava Dayite. What about if they have verses expressing worship of Caitanya?
5. The ISKCON devotees talk about Krishnaloka, the celestial abode of Lord Krishna. Is this the same as Vaikuntha, or is Krishnaloka the highest level of Vaikuntha?
6. I know that the Maha-Mantra comes from the Kali Santarana Upanishad, and I chant it quite often. However, does it actually have the effect that ISKCON says it does, that chanting it cleanses you from karma?