Vaiṣṇava-Christian Dialogue: A Model of Respect, Cooperation, and Learning

A Model of Respect, Cooperation, and Learning

Anuttama Dāsa

The sages of world-recognized religious sects who believe in God must come out of their secluded places and preach the science of God, the Supreme Will, to the people in general. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and the members of other sects that have convincing faith in the authority of God must not sit idly now and silently watch the rapid growth of a godless civilization. There is the supreme will of God, and no nation or society can live in peace and prosperity without acceptance of this vital truth.



We live in a multifaith world. In the distant past, mountain ranges, rivers, oceans and other natural boundaries limited religious interactions. More recently, national boundaries or ethnic and racial discrimination would keep diverse peoples separated. But in the last few decades, increased travel, immigration, modern communications, and the explosion of social media have practically forced us to acknowledge the religious “other.”

At the same time, interactions between religious communities and the relations between them and governments, secular insti- tutions, and other social bodies have not always been congenial, cooperative, or even peaceful. There have been a staggering number of recent conflicts based on or inflamed by religious differences and animosity. Quite often conflicts build on ignorance, misunderstand- ing, and negative projections of the other. Even in the United States, which has prided itself on religious freedom and the separation of church and state, there is growing polarization between religious communities, or between the religious and nonreligious.

It is my belief that interreligious conflicts can be minimized, if not mitigated, through dialogue. We have seen that even where strongly felt religious animosities are held (often intertwined with complex geopolitical conflicts), patient and respectful dialogues have led to mutual understanding among religious players, accep- tance of the validity of other faith communities, and agreements to live peacefully with one another.2 At less polarized levels of social tension or separation, dialogue has helped differing religious com- munities build mutual respect, reduce animosity, work on shared social issues, and increase tolerance and often outright appreciation between different sects. 3

There is a tremendous need for religious individuals and com- munities—especially those that hold to a view of inclusiveness and mutual respect—to help increase understanding through interfaith, or interreligious, dialogue. To understand another person or group, and to overcome whatever distance, tension, and mistrust exist in any relationship, we must be willing to listen to each other. Dialogue begins with listening.

ISKCON members can and should play an important role in promoting and supporting dialogue wherever we are present in the world. Although I wrote this article to report on more than twenty years of Vaiṣṇava-Christian dialogue in the capital city of the United States, I also appeal to members of iskcon to begin dialoguing. To do so promotes iskcon’s mission: “to achieve real unity and peace in the world” and it enhances spiritual growth within ourselves and our communities.  ISKCON’s mission and interfaith

ISKCON’s founder-ācārya, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, wrote the “Seven Purposes of ISKCON.” The first is “To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.” 4 I consider these words a mandate for iskcon members to actively promote understanding, unity, and peace. It is quite natural to do so, based on the inclusive theology, culture, and tradition we have received from our founder, previous teachers, and scriptures. At least some iskcon members with sufficient maturity and interest can strive to systematically build relationships with people of other faiths, based on respect and a shared desire to know and serve God.ISKCON’s mission, in the simplest terms, is to “spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness.” Often this is understood as bringing new people into the practice of the Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇava faith. In short, to “make more devotees.” This definition is too narrow. While we should not minimize the importance of engaging those in spiritual need in the practice of kṛṣṇa-bhakti, “spreading Kṛṣṇa consciousness” also necessitates spreading its principles. These include teachingabout and promoting God’s centrality; the four “pillars of religion”: clean liness, truthfulness, self-discipline (austerity), and mercy; humility; respect; protection of the vulnerable and the environment, and so on. Our mission is promoting the values that will help bring about the unity and peace that Śrīla Prabhupāda envisioned, even when that does not directly bring someone to the personal practice of bhakti-yoga.5

In this context, we should be clear that we do not expect all people to embrace our Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇava faith. Even when Lord Kṛṣṇa appeared in the world some five thousand years ago, not everyone accepted His divinity. The same is true of Śrī Caitanya Mahaprābhu some five hundred years ago. All across the Vedic culture, there is diversity in understanding dharma.

Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇava teachers have understood the reality of this diversity of faith. Śrīla Prabhupāda nicely touched on this topic in the quotation I cite at the beginning. Prabhupāda underscored his respect for religious diversity in a lecture in 1969: “Everyone should follow the particular tradition or sampradāya, the regulative principles of your own religion. This is required as much as there are different political parties, although everyone is meant to serve one country.”6 There are multiple examples of this understanding from iskcon’s founder. My favorite one is when Śrīla Prabhupāda was asked (during a visit to Tehran in 1976) whether chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa is better than reciting the name of Allah, and he responded, “Why are you trying to make me sectarian?”  

 Vaisnava foundations for dialogue

ISKCON members are encouraged to be respectful to people of faith from other traditions and to see the need for people of different faiths to work together for the benefit of society as a whole and for the glorification of God.

— ISKCON and Interfaith:
ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God


While some people find differing religious scriptures, modes of worship, dress, and concepts of God to be sources of confusion, anxiety, fear, or resentment, a mature Vaiṣṇava responds differently, knowing that the urge to seek God is within every human being. It simply lies dormant or is differently expressed by various people and cultures. Vaiṣṇavas believe that all souls are eternal servants and lovers

of God. We souls have just forgotten our spiritual identity. Human life is the opportunity to awaken our natural love of God. Religious systems vary, but at their core they seek the same outcome: reconnecting with the Divine.

Śrīla Prabhupāda explains this in his purport to the Bhagavadgītā text 4.7, in the section of the Gītā wherein Lord Kṛṣṇa says that He comes to the world, time and again, to reestablish religious

principles and benefit those who have forgotten Him. Prabhupāda


In each and every incarnation, the Lord speaks as

much about religion as can be understood by the particular people under their particular circumstances.

But the mission is the same — to lead people to God

consciousness . . . Sometimes He descends person

ally, and sometimes He sends His bona fide represen

tative in the form of His son, or servant, or Himself

in some disguised form . . . Two plus two equals four

is a mathematical principle that is true in the begin

ner’s arithmetic class and in the advanced class as

well. Still, there are higher and lower mathematics.

In all incarnations of the Lord, therefore, the same

principles are taught, but they appear to be higher and lower in varied circumstances.9


Understanding that core principles of faith are taught by various traditions in different ways is a source of inspiration to Vaiṣṇavas, and thus we seek opportunities for dialogue with others.

We perceive dialogue as an opportunity to grow with those similarly inspired in a search for God.


Types of dialogue

ISKCON views dialogue between its members and people of other faith as an opportunity to listen to others, to develop mutual understanding and mutual trust, and to share our commitment and faith with others, while respecting their commitment to their faith.10


The benefits of dialogue with open-minded men and women of faith, particularly in the Christian community though not exclusively with that community, are yielding tremendous benefits — practical and theological, social and psychological, cultural and intellectual. There are many types of valuable dialogue. Father Thomas Ryan, former Director of the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, is a longtime partner in our Vaiṣṇava-Christian dialogue in Washington. He described these four types:

1 The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit;

2 The dialogue of action, where people of diverse faiths collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people;

3 The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding and appreciate others’ spiritual values;

4 The dialogue of religious experience, in which persons share their spiritual riches — for instance, prayer and contemplation.11


The Vaiṣṇava-Christian dialogue has been a blend of the last two types: the dialogues of theological exchange and of religious experience. We discuss our deepest beliefs, theologies, and understandings of God and a godly life, and we share in the experience of faith, worship, and spiritual practice.

We also take part in the practice of prīti-lakṣaṇam, the loving exchanges described in Upadeśāmṛta, or The Nectar of Instruction:

“Offering gifts in charity, accepting charitable gifts, revealing one’s mind in confidence, inquiring confidentially, accepting prasāda and offering prasāda are the six symptoms of love shared by one devotee and another.”12 Some might question how this text, describing typical exchanges among Vaiṣṇavas, can apply to meeting people of other faiths. In answer, I must refer to my personal realizations and the comments of participants in the dialogue. Genuine

dialogue shared by committed followers of different traditions in confidential, heartfelt ways, is a deep, spiritually inspiring experience, during which we feel ourselves brought closer to God. Many insights on God and how to reach the Divine are shared, and there is no greater gift than this. An essential part of our meetings has been the enjoyment of delicious, sanctified vegetarian meals, or prasāda.


The mood of dialogue

Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, a nineteenth-century leader in the Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇava tradition and a principal figure in iskcon’s lineage, writes:

When we have the occasion to be present at the place of worship of other religionists at the time of their worship, we should stay there in a respectful mood, contemplating thus: “Here is being worshiped my adorable highest entity, God, in a different form than that of mine. Due to my practice of a different kind, I cannot thoroughly comprehend this system of theirs. But seeing it, I am feeling a greater attachment for my own system. I bow down with prostration before His emblem as I see it here, and I offer my prayer to my Lord who has adopted this different emblem that he may increase my love toward Him.”13

Prabhupāda reinforces this view and the need to give up oucritical mentality when he writes: “We should not criticize others’ methods of religion. . . . A devotee, instead of criticizing such systems, will encourage the followers to stick to their principles.”14 Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura developed the idea of inclusivity by discussing the term sāragrāhī, or “essence seeker,” that is to say, a person sufficiently wise to appreciate the dedication and spiritual advancement of others, even those outside one’s tradition. He advocates relishing the association of like-minded souls, though one’s culture and practices may differ.15


My inspiration to dialogue

I am from a nominally Protestant Christian background. I committed to the Vaiṣṇava discipline in August 1975, when I moved into the iskcon ashram in Denver. I was aware of the overlapping ideas and appeals to the heart present in the Vaiṣṇava and Christian traditions. I never doubted that experimenting with different paths helped me progress to a full-time commitment to spiritual discipline. The evening I began living in the Rādhā-Govinda temple, I prayed as sincerely as I could to Jesus, Allah, Buddha, and Kṛṣṇa for guidance in my search. I prayed that if the Vaiṣṇava way is not a legitimate, progressive path toward God, “please reveal this to me” so that I can continue searching. That was forty-five years before writing this article. Today, I still attend occasional church services and remain inspired by the Christian call to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.

A brief history

In January 1996, my colleague Shaunaka Rishi Dāsa, then the head of ISKCON Communications in Europe, organized a dialogue between Christians and Vaiṣṇavas in Wales. I did not attend, but I was inspired by his entreaties that I organize something similar in the United States. With his support, I soon arranged a two-day event. I invited Protestant and Catholic scholars and leaders whom I knew about through their studies of Vaiṣṇavism, iskcon, and new religious movements. Our first dialogue in America was held near Boston in September 1996. Numerous iskcon leaders attended, including scholars, gurus, Governing Body Commissioners, and thoughtful elders.16 After this dialogue’s success, we moved the venue to the Washington area, where I live, and invited many participants also based in that area, though some traveled from other parts of the U.S. Apart from one dialogue held at the historic Fisher Mansion in Detroit, now home to the iskcon temple, the American Vaiṣṇava- Christian dialogues have continued annually in Washington.17

To help plan the initial dialogue in Washington, I reached out to several Christians, most notably Dr. John Borelli of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. We discussed a format, topics, and invitations, and decided on two days and ten participants from each side. This form of dialogue proved to be a hit, and we maintained it, or a similar concept, for the past twenty-three years. Many participants commented that this dialogue is a highlight of their year.



The ethos of our dialogues is simple. We are a group of faithful people, some scholars and all scholarly, who wish to learn about each other’s tradition and grow through the process. The dialogue is held in the spring.18 For almost two decades, we met at Rockford Manor, a beautiful retreat center in suburban Washington, but when the fees became too costly, we moved to another facility nearby, with all members arranging housing on their own. In 2017, we met at St. Anselm’s Abbey, a Catholic community, hosted by our long-standing dialogue partner Abbot James Wiseman. In 2018 and ’19 we were hosted by iskcon of Potomac, Maryland. Both religious sites offered us opportunities to visit the chapel and temple, respectively, to observe the Vespers service and see the Deities.

Catholics and Protestants participate, while from the Vaiṣṇava side, primarily Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇavas take part, but some from the Madhva, Śrī Vaiṣṇava, and Nimbārka communities attend. For many years a Hindu friend or two, favorable to the Vaiṣṇava tradition, also came. The topic of discussion is decided a year in advance by the participants. Typically, a member from the Christian side and a member from the Vaiṣṇava side prepare a paper or academic presentation on the topic.19 The dialogue begins on Friday afternoon at one, with individual updates from each participant on the past year. These reports have often included degrees earned, books published, new jobs or positions, new babies, and new goals identified. Some years, sadly, we’ve begun with remembrances of deceased dialogue partners. Then the two papers are presented, followed by an afternoon of discussion and introspection on the ideas raised. Our loosely structured conversation ebbs and flows with the inspiration and curiosity of individual members. We end with a sumptuous evening meal prepared by iskcon. Our mealtimes are often the most rewarding, as the informal dinner hour allows new and old friends gathered around a table to discuss the day’s topics, inquire about shared comments or religious insights, or just tell stories about adventures or family photos. In the early years of our dialogue, dinner was followed by devotional entertainment, but latterly we just interact after dinner.

On Saturday morning we begin with an early breakfast catered by iskcon, usually followed by two separate prayer services. In alternating years, we are led first by a Christian, followed by a Vaiṣṇava. (Professor Carney’s article, which follows mine, mentions a few details.) Members of the dialogue observe or participate as they feel comfortable. After a short break and a longer dialogue time, lunch is served. Then we spend a few hours discussing the papers, morning services, or other topics that arise. Near the end of the afternoon we plan our next year’s dialogue. 20


Lessons learned

I will highlight a half-dozen benefits I found most significant: friendships, spiritual growth, self-criticism, strengthening iskcon, shared issues, and advancing our mission.


Our dialogues are opportunities to build long-lasting friendships. Many participants have attended for more than twenty years, others for five to ten years; others are newcomers. All become close friends. While our traditions differ, we have truly been on a journey of the heart, sharing openly with dialogue partners our human and often flawed efforts to understand and serve God.

Spiritual growth

The dialogues help me go deeper into my commitment as an aspiring servant of God, a Vaiṣṇava. My faith is increased annually duringthe dialogues, as I learn more about Christian faith and practice, and hear from Vaiṣṇava elders and scholars how our tradition addresses key concepts and questions on various topics. My faith is stretched and deepened by learning from wise, devoted people, including those who think and believe differently than I do. 


As a member of iskcon, a community that expresses a centuries-old Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition yet organizationally is just over fifty years old, I benefit by learning from leaders of other, more established organizations. I hear how they address opportunities and problems as teachers, leaders, and practitioners. I learn to be more self-critical in a healthy way. For iskcon to grow, we need to be fearless about asking other communities how they have faced similar social, organizational, and philosophical challenges. And, in a spirit of seeking improvement and growth, we need to measure ourselves against their progress. Through dialogue I learn that we mature when we understand the way others think and do things, because this can shed light on new and better ways for iskcon’s expanding global community to solve problems and realize opportunities.

Strengthening iskcon

Śrīla Prabhupāda writes in a letter that “because we are in the mate-rial world, sometimes we require . . . help.”21 He advised reaching out to “sympathizers” who can appreciate the positive contributions we are making to the world. It behooves iskcon centers worldwide to build a network of friends, allies, and amiable critics. A principal means of doing this is through interfaith dialogue. This often means that we are invited to important events, welcomed into networks of influential people, and given the honor of meeting world leaders.22

Shared issues

My friends from the dialogues have networked with me on issues of shared concerns, including environmental protection and religious freedom. I sometimes asked for help when iskcon faced adversities, and from our side, iskcon has signed amicus briefs (court documents) to help protect the rights of Christians and others. For instance, iskcon supported (1) an order of Catholic nuns who sought exemption from a U.S. law that obliged them to pay for abortions via their employee health-care plan (an eventual Supreme Court victory) and (2) the Washington, D.C. Catholic Diocese’s ability to promote Christmas on public buses (a case lost in court).

Advancing our message

Clearly, iskcon’s mission involves sharing with other religious leaders the teachings and wisdom of Lord Kṛṣṇa and Śrī Caitanya Mahaprābhu. An essential part of dialogue is teaching others the profound and practical contributions of the Vaiṣṇava tradition in a proper mood of respect and mutual exchange.


Broadening the scope

Peace among different peoples, cultures, and faiths must be predicated on mutual respect and understanding. Dialogue is a powerful instrument to lay the foundation of such peace. I pray that more iskcon devotees worldwide, spiritually motivated by a mature desire to learn and grow while sharing our tradition’s amazing insights and wisdom, take up this aspect of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mission. To succeed in dialogue requires just a few things of our faithful members: to be deeply rooted and secure in our tradition of kṛṣṇa-bhakti, and a willingness to see how the Supreme Lord is revealed within other traditions and to learn from them how to better glorify and serve the all-attractive Lord.



1 Light of the Bhāgavata, commentary on Plate 6. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1984.
2 The peace initiatives in Ireland and between Egypt and Israel come to mind. Emphasizing the role of dialogue and open communications in problem-solving does not minimize the severity of some of the problems, nor does it ignore the role that religiously motivated terrorism has played in recent years. I do not blindly assume that violent extremism can be addressed solely by dialogue. Here I promote the need for reasonable, albeit skeptical people to
learn to communicate with and learn from each other and thus promote a more respectful, tolerant, and ultimately appreciative culture. That said, even those who promote hatred, bigotry, and violence have sometimes been guided to give up deeply held animosity through dialogue and open communications.
4 The “Seven Purposes of ISKCON” were first recorded in the in corporation documents of iskcon’s original temple in New York City, in 1966.
5 It is interesting to note that in Prabhupāda’s first purpose for iskcon, he employed the generic language of propagating “spiritual knowledge” and “spiritual life.” It is only in his second purpose (as well as 3, 4 and 5) that he directly mentioned Lord Kṛṣṇa or Lord Caitanya.
6 Cited in ISKCON and Interfaith: ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God; p. 6, ISKCON Communications, 2004
7 This is a well-known anecdote told by Ātreya Ṛṣi Dāsa, who witnessed the conversation.
8 Ibid, p. 3. This document was developed by the iskcon Interfaith Commission and authorized by iskcon’s Governing Body Commission Executive Committee. Published in 2004 by the iskcon Communications Ministry.
9 Bhagavad-gītā As it Is, Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2001.
10 ISKCON and Interfaith: ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God. Part One, page 2. ISKCON Communications, 2004
11 Cited in Speaking of Faith: The Essential Handbook for Religion Communicators, 7th Edition, 2004, Religion Communicators Council, p. 125.
12 The Nectar of Instruction, text 4. An English presentation of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s Śrī Upadeśāmṛta, by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1997.
13 Śrī Caitanya-śikṣāmṛta, Introduction.
14 Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 4.22.24, purport.
15 For more on this, see Hindu Encounter with Modernity by Shukavak N. Dāsa, ŚRĪ Publications: Sanskrit Religious Institute, 1999.
16 Details of that dialogue can be found in my article “Thoughts on the History and Development of the Vaiṣṇava-Christian Dialogue,” Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Volume 20, No. 2, 2012.
17 This dialogue has also inspired an annual Vaiṣṇava-Christian Dialogue in India, the first of which was held in January, 2015, and which follows a similar format.
18 In 2020, because of the need to adjust to a pandemic, our group met virtually in September. As expected, there were modifications of the program, but we tried to stay close to our standard format.
19 The topics discussed during twenty-three years of dialogue in Washington included: “The Everlasting Soul” (1998); “The Soul and Its Destiny” (1999 & 2000); “Spiritual Growth” (2001); “Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s ‘On Loving God’ and the ‘Narada-Bhakti Sutra’” (2002); “Suffering” (2003); “Spiritual Disciplines” (2004); “Love and Suffering” (2005); “God as a Devotee” (2006); “Theodicy” (2007); “Why Dialogue?” (2008); “Relating to the Non- Spiritual: Views and Strategies In Our Religious Traditions“ (2009); “Love and Fear” (2010); “The Song of Solomon and Gita Govinda” (2011); “The Hidden God” (2012); “The Holy Name” (2013); “The Mother of God” (2014); “Prayer” (2015); “Sonic Theology” (2016); “Religion and the Environment” (2017); “Monasticism” (2018); “Cultivation of the Heart” (2019); and “Union with God; Separation from God” (2020).
20 Readers interested in more about the Washington, D.C. dialogues can see the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2012, dedicated exclusively to articles about the Vaiṣṇava-Christian dialogues. Authors include Francis X. Clooney, John Borelli, Kenneth Cracknell, James Reddington, James Wiseman, Carole Crumley, Ravīndra-svarūpa Dāsa, Tamāl Kṛṣṇa Goswami, Ravi Gupta, Graham M. Schweig, Sara Adams, and others.
21 Letter to Tejīyas Dāsa, dated August 15, 1973.
22 Two examples: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops invited Dr. Ravi Gupta (Rādhikā-ramaṇa Dāsa) to meet Pope Benedict XVI in Washington, D.C. on behalf of Hindu American youth, during the papal visit of April 2006. During iskcon’s fiftieth anniversary gala in Washington in 2016, Father Leo D. Lefebure (a Professor of Theology at Georgetown University) and Reverend Charles P. Gibbs (the Founding Executive Director of United Religions Initiative) — both dear friends and participants in the Vaiṣṇava-Christian dialogues — spoke on stage and offered words of appreciation.


ANUTTAMA DĀSA joined iskcon in 1975. He was initiated by Śrīla Prabhupāda in 1976 and served as a saṅkīrtana leader until 1983. From 1983‒6 he was president of the Boulder, Colorado temple and was subsequently appointed president of the Denver temple, a post he held until 1993. He joined the iskcon Governing Body Commission (gbc) in 2000 and served as its Chairman in 2014‒2015. He enacts his leadership goals globally by teaching seminars including: “ISKCON’s Leadership and Management,” “ISKCON Communications Course,” “The Guru Seminar,” and the “ISKCON Disciples Course,” all of which he helped co-author with teams of other senior Vaiṣṇavas.
Besides his gbc duties, Anuttama has served as iskcon’s International Director of Communications for twenty years. He is a regular contributor and senior editor for ISKCON News and has authored articles for the ISKCON Communications Journal and several interfaith publications outside of iskcon. Furthermore, he co-founded the annual Vaiṣṇava-Christian Dialogues (USA and India) and Vaiṣṇava-Muslim Dialogue (USA).