Hinduism,Vaisnavism And ISKCON

Authentic Traditions Or Scholarly Constructions?

Gavin Flood

This paper was delivered by Dr Flood at a conference in HumboldtUniversityBerlin, in 1995. It concerns issuesof tradition and identity, making it relevant reading to devoteesand researchers. The questions regarding ISKCON's relationship withHinduism and Vaisnavism have been raised repeatedly. Dr Flood concludesby hinting at a more precise identification of ISKCON in relationto its heritage. He says: 'Indeed, Bengali Vaisnavism, from whichISKCON clearly develops historically, is a more clearly definedentity than Hinduism'.

This paper will examine some problems in understanding the terms'Hinduism' and 'Vaisnavism', and look at their use in understandingIndian religions, with particular reference to ISKCON. Two broadscholarly opinions have been developed with regard to 'Hinduism'.The first - an essentialist view - regards it as a single, greattradition of many interrelated parts stemming from the revelation(sruti) of the Vedas. The other sees Hinduism as anineteenth-century construction with no social or religious identity.

In discussing some of the issues relevant to this, I will arguethat 'Hinduism' is an important concept, especially with regardto Hindu self-perception. Vaisnavism is but one facet of this loosedesignation, and ISKCON must be understood in the context of thistradition. Inevitably when a tradition moves from one cultural andgeographical location to another, there are transformations in thistradition and questions of identity and authenticity are raised.

The paper concludes with some thoughts on the issues facing ISKCONin the contemporary world.

What is Hinduism?

A simple answer to this question might be that Hinduism is a termused to denote the religions of the majority of people in Indiaand Nepal (and of some communities in other continents) who referto themselves as 'Hindus'. However, difficulties arise when we tryto understand precisely what this means; for the diversity of Hinduismis truly vast, and its history long and complex. Some people - bothfrom within the tradition and outside of it - might claim that becauseof this diversity there is no such thing as Hinduism, while othersfeel that in spite of its diversity there is an 'essence' whichstructures its appearance. The truth probably lies somewhere betweenthese two viewpoints. Most Hindus will be certain that their identityas 'Hindu' contrasts with that of Christian, Muslim or Buddhist.Yet those who call themselves 'Hindu' may demonstrate as many individualdifferences as those seen between different religions.

Of India's population of approximately nine hundred million people,seven hundred million are Hindus.[1] The remainder are Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists,Parsees, Jews and followers of 'tribal' religions. There are 120million Muslims, 45 million tribal peoples or adivasis, 14million Sikhs and an estimated 14 million Christians (Klostermaier,1994). This is a wide mix of religions and cultural groups, allof which interact with Hinduism in a number of ways.

There are also sizeable Hindu communities beyond the South Asianboundaries in South Africa, East Africa, South America, the WestIndies, the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Bali andJava. A census carried out in the US in 1981 estimated the Indianpopulation at 387,223, most of whom would probably classify themselvesas Hindu. The number of Hindus in the UK for the same year was estimatedat 300,000 (Knott and Toon, 1982) There are also many Westernersfrom Europe and America who would claim to follow Hinduism or religionsderiving from it, of which ISKCON is an example. Ideas such as karma,yoga and vegetarianism are now commonplace in the West.

The actual term 'Hindu' first occurs as a Persian geographicalterm for the people who lived beyond the River Indus (from the Sanskritword sindhu). In Arabic texts, 'Al-Hind' defines people ofmodern day India (Thapar, 1993:77). 'Hindu' or 'Hindoo' was usedby the British towards the end of the eighteenth century to describethe people of 'Hindustan' in north-west India. Eventually 'Hindu'became virtually equivalent to any 'Indian' who was not a Moslem,Sikh, Jain or Christian, thereby encompassing a range of religiousbeliefs and practices.

The 'ism' was added to 'Hindu' around 1830 to denote the cultureand religion of the high-caste Brahmans. It was soon appropriatedby Indians themselves as they tried to establish a national identity�separate to colonialism.

While Hindu identity (as we might understand it today) developedduring the nineteenth century, the term 'Hindu' does occur in earlierSanskrit and Bengali hagiographic texts (such as the Caitanya-caritamrta)from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. In these BengaliVaisnava texts (one of which ISKCON reveres), the term 'Hindu' isused to indicate a class of people as distinct from the Yavanas,and is used along with the term dharma (law, duty, socio-cosmicorder). Thus the term 'Hindu dharma' indicates ritual practicesof 'Hindus' in contrast to those of the 'foreigners' - the Yavanasor Mlecchas - which referred to the Muslims (O'Connell, 1973:340-4).Thus, there would seem to be some indication of� self-perceptionas 'Hindu' in contrast to Moslem as early as the sixteenth century.

Defining Hinduism

There is a problem arriving at a definition of the term 'Hindu'because of the wide range of traditions and ideas incorporated byit. The majority revere a body of sacred literature, the Vedas,as revelation, though some do not; some traditions regard certainrituals as essential for salvation, while others do not; some Hinduphilosophies postulate a theistic reality who creates, maintainsand destroys the universe, yet others reject this claim. Hinduismis often characterised as belief in reincarnation (samsara)determined by the law that all actions have effects (karma),and that salvation is freedom from this cycle. Yet other South Asianreligions, such as Buddhism and Jainism, also believe in this.

Part of the problem of definition is due to the fact that Hinduismdoes not have a single historical founder, as do so many other worldreligions; it does not have a unified system of belief encoded ina creed or declaration of faith; it does not have a single systemof soteriology; and it does not have a centralised authority orbureaucratic structure. It is therefore a very different kind ofreligion to the monotheistic, Western traditions of Christianityand Islam, though there are arguably stronger affinities with Judaism.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India,said that Hinduism is 'all things to all men' (Smith, B. K., 1987:36),certainly an inclusive definition, but so inclusive as to be oflittle use for our purposes.

Yet while it might not be possible to arrive at a watertight definitionof Hinduism, this does not mean that the term is empty. There areclearly some practices, texts and beliefs which are central to theconcept of being a 'Hindu', and there are others which are on theedges of Hinduism. I feel that while 'Hinduism' cannot be definedin terms of having distinct properties, there are nevertheless prototypicalforms of Hindu practice and belief. High caste devotees of the Hindugod Visnu, living in Tamil Nadu in South India, fall clearly within,and are prototypical of, that category. In comparison, the beliefsand practices of Radhasoami devotees in the Punjab, who worshipa God without attributes, do not accept the Vedas as revelationand reject many other Hindu teachings, are not prototypically Hindu,would still fall within the sphere, and category, of Hinduism. Inother words, 'Hinduism' is not a category in the classical sense,to which something either belongs or doesn't.

In his Prototype Theory, George Lakoff (1987) maintains that categoriesdo not have rigid boundaries, but rather there are degrees of membershipto which some members are more prototypical than others. These degreesof category membership may be related through family resemblance:'Members of a category may be related to one another without allmembers having any properties in common that define the category'(Lakoff, 1987:12) In this sense, Hinduism can be seen as a categorywith 'fuzzy edges', whereby some forms of religion are central toit while others are less clearly central but still within that category.Indeed, Ferro-Luzzi (1991:187-95) has developed his own 'ProtoypeTheory' approach to Hinduism.[2]

To say what is or isn't central to the category of Hinduism is,of course, to make judgements about its degree of prototypicality.The question arises as to what is the basis of such judgements.Here we must turn to Hindu self-perception, for it has developedcategories to describe itself (Piatigorsky, 1985:208-24), as wellas looking at the scholarly definitions of common features or structuringprinciples as seen from outside the tradition.������� Although Ihave some sympathy with Jonathan Z. Smith's remark that religionis the creation of the scholar's imagination (Smith, J. Z., 1982:xi),insofar as the act of scholarship involves a reduction, selectionand a highlighting of some discourses and texts, and a backgroundingof others, there is nevertheless a wide body of ritual practices,forms of behaviour, doctrines, stories, texts and deeply felt personalexperiences and testimonies to which the term Hinduism refers.

In contemporary society the term 'Hindu' can certainly be usedto describe the dominant religion of South Asia, albeit one thatembraces a wide variety of beliefs. However, it is also importantto bear in mind that the formation of Hinduism as the world religionwe know today has only occurred since the nineteenth century, whenthe term started being used by Hindu reformers and Western orientalists.However, its origins and the 'streams' which feed into it are veryancient, extending back to the Indus Valley civilisation (Smart,1993:1).

In my opinion, Hinduism is not purely the construction of Westernorientalists in order to make sense of the plurality of religiousphenomena within the vast geographical area of South Asia, as somescholars have maintained [3] (Smith, W.C., 1962:65; Stietencron, pp.1-22;Halbfass, 1991:1-22), but has� also arisen from Hindu self-perception;a transformation in the modern world of themes already present.

Religion and the sacred

What we understand of Hinduism as a religion partly depends uponwhat we mean by 'religion'. Our perception of Hinduism has beenmediated by Western understanding of the nature of religion, andthe projection of Hinduism as an 'other' to the West's Christianity(Inden, 1990).� While this is not the place for an elaborate discussionof the meaning of religion, it is nevertheless important to makesome remarks about it, and to indicate some parameters for its use.The category 'religion' has developed out of a largely Protestantunderstanding, which defines it in terms of belief. This is indicatedby the frequent use of the term 'faith' as a synonym for 'religion'.If 'religion' is to contribute to our understanding of human viewsand practices, its characterisation purely in terms of belief isclearly inadequate and would need to be modified to include a varietyof human practices.

Definitions of religion provoke much debate and disagreement, butin using the term we need to have some idea of what we mean by it.Religion needs to be located squarely within human society and culture;there is no privileged discourse of religion outside of particularcultures and societies. The noted sociologist Emile Durkheim inThe Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, first publishedin 1915, defined religion as 'a unified set of beliefs and practicesrelative to sacred things' which creates a social bond between people(Durkheim, 1964:37). This unified set of beliefs and practices isa system of symbols which acts, to use Peter Berger's phrase, asa 'sacred canopy', imbuing individual and social life with meaning.'Sacred' refers to a quality of mysterious power which is believedto dwell within certain objects, persons and places, and which isopposed to chaos and death. According to Berger, religion establishesa 'sacred cosmos' which provides the 'ultimate shield against theterror of anomy' (Berger, 1990:26). I am also influenced here byClifford Geertz' definition of religion as that which 'tunes humanactions to an envisaged cosmic order and projects images of cosmicorder onto the plane of human experience' (Geertz, 1993:90).

This sense of sacred power is of vital importance to the experienceof men and women throughout the history of religions. In Hinduism,the sacred might be experienced as the sense of a greater beingoutside of the self, a 'numinous' experience (to use the term coinedby the German theologian Rudolf Otto) characterised by a feelingof awe, fascination and mystery (Otto, 1982). It may also be aninner or contemplative experience within the self, what might becalled a 'mystical' experien ce (Smart, 1958; Smart, 1989:13-4).

There has been a tendency in recent studies to reduce the 'religious'to the 'political' (Dirks, 1993: 106-7). While it is important torecognise that the religious exists only within specific culturalcontexts - as does the political - the concept of the sacred isdistinctive to a religious discourse within cultures. The sacredis regarded as divine power manifested in a variety of contexts:temples, locations, images and people. While this is not divorcedfrom political power, it can nevertheless exist independently, ascan be seen in popular religious festivals and personal devotionaland ascetic practices which result in states of inner ecstasy.

The sacred exists entirely within culture. The categories of thesacred and the everyday are not substantive, as Jonathan Smith,the eminent scholar of religion, has observed, but relational; theychange according to circumstance and situation. There is nothingin Hinduism which is inherently sacred. The sacredness of time,objects or persons depends upon context, and the boundaries betweenthe sacred and the everyday are fluid. A temple image or icon priorto consecration is merely stone, metal or wood; once consecrated,however, it is empowered and becomes the focus of mediation: 'Itbecomes sacred by having our attention directed to it in a specialway' (Smith, J.Z., 1982:55).� I have used the term 'icon' in preferenceto 'image' to indicate the physical manifestation of a deity. Myuse of the term has been influenced by Charles Pierce's understandingof the icon as 'a sign which refers to the object that it denotesmerely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possessesjust the same, whether any such object actually exists or not' (Pierce,1932:247). There are also parallels between the Hindu murtiand the Christian Orthodox 'icon' as a material centre which, accordingto Vladamir Lossky, contains an energy and divine truth (Miguel,1971:1236). On this account a person can be an icon as well as an'object' of stone or wood.

General features of Hinduism

Many Hindus believe in a transcendent God, beyond the universe,who is within all living beings and can be approached in a varietyof ways. Such a Hindu might say that this supreme being can be worshippedin innumerable forms - as a handsome young man (Krsna in the BhagavataPurana), a majestic king (Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita),a beautiful young girl, an old woman or even as a featureless stone.The transcendent being is mediated through icons in temples, naturalphenomena or living teachers and saints. This sacred in Hinduismis mediated through innumerable, changing forms which bear witnessto a deeply rich, religious imagination, centred on mediation andtransformation.

Hinduism is often characterised as being polytheistic, and whileit is true that innumerable deities are the objects of worship,many Hindus will regard these as an aspect or manifestation of sacredpower. Devotion (bhakti) to deities mediated through iconsand holy persons provides refuge in times of crisis, and even finalliberation (moksa) from action (karma) and the cycleof reincarnation (samsara). The transcendent is also revealedin sacred literature called the Veda, and in the codes ofritual, social and ethical behaviour known as dharma, whichthat literature reveals. The two terms veda and dharmaare of central importance in what might be called Hindu self-understanding.

Veda and dharma

The Veda is a large body of literature composed in Sanskrit,a sacred language of Hinduism, revered as revelation (sruti)and as the source of dharma. The term veda means 'knowledge',originally revealed to the ancient sages (rsi), conveyedto the community by them and passed through the generations, initiallyas an oral tradition. There is also a large body of Sanskrit literature,inspired but nevertheless regarded as being of human authorship,comprising rules of conduct (the Dharma literature), andstories about people and gods (the Epics and mythological textscalled Puranas). These texts might be regarded as a secondaryor indirect revelation (smrti).[4] � There are also texts in vernacular Indian languages, particularlyTamil, which are revered as equal to the Veda by some Hindus.

The Veda as revelation is of vital importance in understandingHinduism, though its acceptance is not universal among Hindus andthere are forms of Hinduism which have rejected the Vedaand its legitimising authority to sanction an hierarchical socialorder. However, all Hindu traditions make some reference to theVeda, whether in its acceptance or rejection, and some scholarshave regarded reference to its legitimising authority as a criterionof being Hindu [5] (ISKCON's acceptance of the Veda means the organisation fallsclearly within the realm of Hinduism) While revelation as an abstract,or even notional entity, is important, the actual contents of theVeda has often been neglected by Hindu traditions. Rather,it has acted as a reference point for the construction of Hinduidentity and self-understanding (Halbfass, 1991:1-22).

Dharma is revealed by the Veda. It is the nearestsemantic equivalent in Sanskrit to the English term 'religion',but has a wider connotation, incorporating the ideas of 'truth','duty', 'ethics', 'law' and even 'natural law'. It is that powerwhich upholds or supports society and the cosmos, and constrainsphenomena into their particularity, which makes things what theyare. Zaehner relates dharma to the Sanskrit root dhrwhich means to 'hold, have or maintain'. He defines dharmaas 'the "form" of things as they are and the power that keeps themas they are and not otherwise' (Zaehner, 1966:2).

The nineteenth-century Hindu reformers spoke of Hinduism as theeternal religion or law (sanatana dharma) - a commonidea among modern Hindus today (including ISKCON devotees) - intheir self-description. More specifically, dharma refersto the duty of high-caste Hindus with regard to their social positionor class (varna), and the stage of life they are at (asrama),both of these being encompassed within the term varnasrama-dharma.

One striking feature of Hinduism is that generally practice takesprecedence over belief. What a Hindu does is more important thanwhat he or she believes. Hinduism is not creedal. Adherence to dharmais therefore not an acceptance of certain beliefs but the performanceof certain duties, which are defined in accordance with dharmicsocial stratification.

The boundaries of what a Hindu can and cannot do have been largelydetermined by his or her particular endogamous social group, orcaste, stratified in a hierarchical order and, of course, by gender.This social hierarchy is governed by the distinction between purityand pollution, with the higher, purer castes at the top of the structure,and the lower, polluted and polluting castes at the bottom. Behaviourtakes precedence over belief - orthopraxy over orthodoxy. As FritzStaal says, a Hindu 'may be a theist, pantheist, atheist, communistand believe whatever he likes, but what makes him into a Hindu arethe ritual practices he performs and the rules to which he adheres,in short, what he does' (Staal, 1989:389).,�������

This sociological characterisation of Hinduism is very compelling.A Hindu is someone born within an Indian social group who adheresto its rules with regard to purity and marriage, and who performsits prescribed rituals (which usually focus on one of the many Hindudeities such as Siva or Visnu). One might add that these ritualsand social rules are derived from the Hindu primary revelation,the Veda, and from the secondary revelation, the inspiredtexts of human authorship. The Veda and its ritual reciters,the highest caste or Brahmans, are the closest Hinduism gets toa legitimising authority, for the Brahman class has been extremelyimportant in the dissemination and maintenance of Hindu culture.It is predominently the Brahman class that has attempted to coherentlystructure the multiple expressions of Hinduism.

There have, however, been certain sects within Hinduism, particularlydevotional ones, which have rejected caste and maintained that salvationis open to all. ISKCON needs to be understood in the context ofsuch caste-transcending groups.

Hindu traditions The idea of tradition inevitably stresses unityat the cost of difference and divergence. In pre-Islamic India therewould have been a number of distinct sects and regional religiousidentities, perhaps united by common cultural symbols, but no notionof 'Hinduism' as a comprehensive entity. Yet there are neverthelessstriking continuities in Hindu traditions.

There are essentially two models of tradition: the arboreal andthe river. The arboreal model claims that various sub-traditionsbranch off from a central, original tradition, often founded bya specific person. The river model, the exact inverse of the arborealmodel, claims that a tradition comprises multiple streams whichmerge into a single mainstream (Faure, pp.13-4) Contemporary Hinduismcannot be traced to a common origin, so the discussion is directedtowards whether Hinduism fits the river model or, to extend themetaphor, whether the term 'Hinduism' simply refers to a numberof distinct rivers. While these models have restricted use in thatthey suggest a teleological direction or intention, the river modelwould seem to be more appropriate in that it emphasises the multipleorigins of Hinduism.������� The many traditions which feed intocontemporary Hinduism can be subsumed under three broad headings:the traditions of brahmanical orthopraxy, the renouncer traditions,and popular or local traditions. Brahmanical orthopraxy has playedthe role of a 'master narrative', transmitting a body of knowledgeand behaviour through time, and defining the conditions of orthopraxy,such as adherence to varnasrama-dharma. From the medievalperiod a number of traditions (sampradaya) or systems ofguru-disciple transmission (parampara) developed within thebroadly brahmanical world. These traditions, which developed significantlyduring the first millennium CE, are focused upon a particular deityor group of deities.

Among these broadly brahmanical systems, three are particularlyimportant in Hindu self-representation: Vaisnava traditions, focusedon the deity Visnu and His incarnations; Saiva traditions, focusedon Siva, and Sakta traditions, focused on the Goddess or Devi. TheVaisnava tradition reveres the Veda as revelation and alsofocuses other texts, notably the Bhagavad-gita, Visnu Puranaand Bhagavata Purana.

Unlike the concept of 'Hinduism', the boundaries of these traditions- or rather the sub-traditions within them - are more clearly defined,often demanding initiation and adherence to a set of principlesand practices. ISKCON falls within this general characterisation,with clearly defined boundaries marked by patterns of thought andbehaviour which distinguish its devotees from others, although thepresent picture is less clear as the organisation now has many laydevotees who are not so easily identified by their style of dressor distinguishing behavioural features such as chanting in the streets(Shaunaka Rishi Dasa, 1995).

Cutting across these religious traditions is the theology of Vedanta,the unfolding of a sophisticated discourse on the nature and contentof sacred scriptures exploring questions of existence and knowledge.The Vedanta is the theological articulation of the Vedictraditions, a discourse which penetrated Vaisnava and, to a lesserextent, Saiva and Sakta thinking. The Vedanta tradition isthe theological basis of Vaisnava tradition (including that of ISKCON),and it played an important role in the nineteenth and twentiethcentury Hindu renaissance.

Vaisnavism The terms 'sect', 'order' and 'tradition' are roughequivalents of the Sanskrit term sampradaya, which refersto a tradition focused on a deity, often regional in character,into which a disciple is initiated by a guru, who is within a lineof previous acaryas, a santana or parampara, originatingwith the founding father.

The idea of pupilliary succession is extremely important in allforms of Hinduism, as this authenticates the tradition and teachings;disputes over succession, which have sometimes been vehement, canbe of deep religious concern, particularly in traditions which seethe guru as the embodiment of the divine, possessing the power tobestow the Lord's grace on his devotees. With initiation (diksa)into the sampradaya (and this is highly pertinent to ISKCON)the disciple undertakes to abide by the values of the traditionand community, and he or she receives a new name and a mantra particularlysacred to that tradition. A sampradaya might demand celibacyand comprise only world renouncers, or it might have a much widersocial base, accepting householders of both genders and, possibly,all castes including untouchables.

The most important Vaisnava orders and cults are:

  • The Gaudiya or Bengali Vaisnavas located mainly in Bengal, Orissaand Vrindavan. They revere the teachings of the Saint Caitanyaand focus their devotion on Krsna and Radha. The Hare Krishnamovement is a development or branch of this tradition.
  • The Cult of Vithobha in Maharashtra, particularly in the pilgrimagecentre of Pandarpur. Their teachings are derived from the saints(sant) J�anesvara, Namdev and Janabai.
  • The Cult of Rama, primarly located in the North East at Ayodhyaand Janakpur, and associated with the annual festival of Ramlilain which the Ramayana is performed. The ascetic Ramanandiorder are devoted to Rama and Sita.
  • The northern Sant tradition that, whilst not being strictlyVaisnava as it worships a transcendent Lord beyond qualities,nevertheless derives much of its teachings and names of God fromVaisnavism. Especially venerated are Kabir and Nanak, the founderof Sikhism.
  • The Sri Vaisnavas located in Tamil Nadu whose centre is thetemple at Srirangam, and for whom the theology of Ramanuja isparticularly important.

These sampradayas have developed within the wider mainstreamof brahmanical worship based on texts, especially the Puranas.The Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition is squarely within the Vedic,Puranic tradition.�������� Within these sampradayas,a number of devotional attitudes to the personal absolute have developed.The relationship between the disciple and the Lord could be oneof servant to master, parent to child, friend to friend, or loverto beloved. The Bengali Vaisnavas, for example, regard the attitudeof the lover to the beloved as the highest expression of devotion,not dissimilar to the braut-mystik tradition in Western mysticaltheology; while the sect of Tukaram view the devotional relationshipas one of servant to master. What is significant here is that therelationship between the devotee and the Lord is modelled on humanrelationships, and that the Lord can be perceived and approachedin a variety of ways, His love taking many forms.

Gaudiya Vaisnavism

Devotional traditions focused on Krsna the Cowherd developed innorthern India, and found articulation in Sanskrit devotional andpoetic literature as well as in more popular devotional movements,particularly in Vrindavan and Bengal. The Gaudiya Vaisnavism movement,which developed in Bengal, places great emphasis on devotion andthe love relationship between the devotee and Krsna. It was thisform of Hinduism which Srila Prabhupada brought to the West in 1965.

The 1960s saw many Hindu (as well as Buddhist and Chinese) ideasand practices come to the West which had a large impact upon thecounter-culture then developing. Dominant figures in popular culture,pop stars such as the Beatles and poets such as Alan Ginsberg, promotedHindu ideas and gurus. Following the lifting of immigration restrictionsin the USA in 1965, there was a flow of Indian gurus to the West,such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the TranscendentalMeditation (TM) movement, and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (Srila Prabhupada).Upon the demise of Prabhupada, eleven Western gurus were chosento succeed as spiritual heads of the Hare Krishna movement. However,many notorious problems followed their appointment, and the movementhas since veered away from investing absolute authority in a few,fallible human teachers.


After describing some of the phenomena associated with the terms'Hinduism', 'Vaisnavism' and 'ISKCON, it can be summised that ISKCONcertainly perceives itself to be an authentic Vedic tradition, althoughmany Indian Brahmans do not recognise its authenticity because ISKCONdevotees tend to be 'foreign'. For example, they have not been allowedinto the Jagannatha temple at Puri, though this may change in thefuture. However, if the idea of pupilliary succession is regardedas a criterion of authenticity, then ISKCON is certainly authenticinsofar as it has developed in a clear line of succession from Prabhupadawho was himself an initiate of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati GosvamiMaharaja. He in turn was a disciple of Srila Gaurakisora dasa BabajiMaharaja, a disciple of Srila Thakura Bhaktivinoda. Indeed BengaliVaisnavism, from which ISKCON clearly develops historically, isa more clearly defined entity than 'Hinduism'.

Inevitably, when a tradition changes geographical location andculture there are bound to be changes. ISKCON followers are predominantlyWesterners who have been born and brought up in Western cultures;they have Western presuppositions and deep forms of perception andconditioning which will inevitably influence the tradition theyhave adopted. Indeed the Governing Body Commission (GBC) is a Westerndevelopment, although initiated by Srila Prabhupada himself.

To date, ISKCON appears to have been fairly successful in adaptingto the modern world, while at the same time maintaining a continuityof Indian tradition. However, it will need to continually adaptand face and address contemporary challenges and issues, the mostimportant being:

1.����� Gender (ISKCON has been accused of occluding women's rightsin terms of significant positions within the organisation, relegatingthem to a minor role).

2.����� The degree to which ISKCON continues to articulate a literalunderstanding of Vaisnava narrative traditions - or put crudely,a 'fundamentalist' interpretation of mythology - in the face ofits own tradition's hermeneutics, Western science and textual scholarship.

3.����� The way in which it responds to global issues such as concernfor the environment. (On the one hand ISKCON articulates an environment-friendlyattitude, yet there are tensions within the tradition and a strongidea that the material world is a trap, the web of maya, andis degenerating as the 'dark age' continues).

One might conclude with the words of Mahatma Gandhi that 'to swimin the waters oftradition is good, but to drown in them is suicide.'

Included in Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge UniversityPress, 1996.


[1] The March1991 census of India estimated the population to 843,930,861.

[2] My thanksto Harald Keller for drawing my attention to Ferro-Luzzi.

[3] For aninteresting, brief survey of the idea of 'Hinduism' and thedevelopment of recent scholarship about it, see Hardy, 1990:144-55.

[4] Theterms 'secondary' and 'indirect revelation' to refer tothis literature of human authorship, are used by AlexisSanderson (Sanderson, 1998: 662).

[5] BrianSmith has defined Hinduism as 'the religion of those humanswho create, perpetuate and transform traditions with legitimisingreference to the aurhority of the Veda' (Smith, B. K.,1987: 40).


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