NRMIs A Four-letter Word

The Language of Oppression

Mukunda Goswami

To most devotees, the classification 'New Religious Movement'(NRM), when applied to ISKCON, appears inappropriate and potentiallymisleading.� Mukunda Goswami explains that the misuse of this termdisplays ignorance of the tradition and of ISKCON itself and exposesthe need for scholars to re-evaluate their classification of religiousmovements from a more holistic perspective. He further argues thatalthough Krishna Consciousness is a relatively new sociologicalphenomenon in the West, it can only be called a new religion interms of an extremely rarefied sociological perspective.� The NRMlabel may satisfy a generous desire to reclassify all minority andalternative religions, often referred to as 'cults' or sects', butthe NRM term has similarly served to disadvantage ISKCON. In hisarticle, Mukunda Goswami calls on scholars and researchers to workwith devotees to help find a solution to this problem.

I will never forget the name of my kindergarden teacher - Mrs. Thwaits.It was a tongue-twister for a five-year-old. I found it difficultto kick the habit of calling her simply 'teacher'. Only after severalstern reminders did I start calling her what she wanted to be called:'Mrs. Thwaits'.

Thirty-five years later, I was a full-time Hare Krishna devotee, livingin a Los Angeles apartment. One day when I was making introductions,I absent-mindedly presented my friend Lawrence as 'Larry'. Lawrencelooked at me blankly and said, 'Please don't call me that again. Imade a point not to.��

I learned the hard way that calling or labelling another person orgroup differently from the way he, she or they wish, can result inpsychological warfare.� I also discovered that people or groups thataccept false labelling, can lose important battles for their God-givenrights, even before a single shot is fired.In recent decades we have invented hate words for citizens ofother countries, especially when 'our' country was at war with them.To their perceived enemies, Americans are 'imperialist pigs' andRussians are 'pinkos'. We use slurs for racial and religious groups.Systematic and calculated misnaming and disinformation campaignshave become part of this century's shame.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the military and medical establishmentsfashioned new terms to mask brutality. Their euphemisms assumednew contortions. 'Hamlet pacification' during the Vietnam war meantsetting populated villages on fire with napalm, torturously killingmen, woman and children. 'Tissue' became a medical term used todescribe a human embryo before and after abortion.

The familiar phenomenon of religious repression took on new attireas it invaded the English language in the mid-1970s with the repeateduse of the word 'cult'. A small but vociferous group of people unofficiallybut effectively redefined the word, and like a Trojan horse, itreentered the English language. The 'C' word's reinventors appliedit constantly to almost any religion (or alleged religion) theydidn't happen to like.

Seizing upon this new expression, the media exploited its sensationalcontent. Reporters used it to spice stories; 'cult' helped the sellingof news. Even the Seventh Day Adventists and the Church of the LatterDay Saints (Mormons) were not spared. These and other harmless organisationsbecame part of the new cult kaleidoscope that included witchcraftand satanic societies.

As the Seventies and Eighties wore on, academics began to writeabout the deceit of 'cult' labelling, and at the same time the innocuousreligious groups protested loudly. As with many linguistic larks,the word's emotional impact gradually began to fade, much of theintelligentsia pooh-poohed it and many realised that it was merelya propaganda device used to demean unconventional groups of people.

Even so, anti-cult groups use the word today to persecute theirperceived enemies, especially in Eastern Europe and nations of theformer Soviet Union. With some victories under their belts, the'anti-cults' in the East expect to realise some of the earlier successesthey had in America and Western Europe. Their Eastern European campaigns,however, have been somewhat contained because their targets - mainlythe same groups they persecuted in the West - have learned theirdetractors' modus operandi and how to retaliate.

In the eighties groups of academics, responding to the propagandabludgeoning of religious orders, mobilised against what they sawas a clear violation of religious freedom. They began to write papersand hold conferences; they defended well-meaning organisations whichthe 'anti-cult' groups had disingenuously lumped together with blackmagic and other overtly harmful, dangerous and violent organisations.

Many of these scholars eventually agreed upon what they felt wasa more honest and hospitable classification for unjustly persecutedreligious groups. Thus the term 'New Religious Movement' (NRM) wasborn. Those who founded 'NRM' were sympathetic to the intrinsicrights of religious organisations, even those that appeared quitestrange on the surface. Pundits of pluralism found it convenientto use the term 'NRM' in writing papers, citing cult labelling asa grave injustice. For example, Jane Dillon, a sociology professorat the University of San Diego, wrote an excellent paper entitled,Cult is a Four-Letter-Word, and presented it at an academicconference in Santa Barbara, California.

While it is useful for religious freedom savants to use a descriptionthat overcomes the dishonesty of 'cult', 'NRM' is also a seriousmisnomer in the case of ISKCON.�� As intimated at the beginningof this essay, labelling a person or group as something other thanwhat the person or group wants to be called, is offensive humanbehaviour. ISKCON's philosophy is what matters most to ISKCON, andwhat we want to be called. This must be considered when sympatheticscholars desire to categorise us in sociological terms.

Mislabelling can desecrate human dignity. For this reason manyEnglish phrases have been banished and replaced in the United States.�In the 1990s 'the poor' became 'economically challenged', 'the deaf'were designated as 'hearing impaired' and' American Indians' arenow officially known as 'Native Americans'. Vaishnavism is olderthan Christianity, Buddhism or Islam. Designating it as an NRM becauseit is 'new' outside of India is tantamount to calling people ofAfrican origin a 'new' race because they are 'new' to and minoritiesin most countries outside of Africa.

The NRM tag also misrepresents and contradicts the five thousandyear old tradition from which ISKCON comes. In 1976, New York DistrictJudge John Leahy wrote that the Hare Krishna movement had 'rootsin India going back thousands of years'. This description was partof a landmark decision that 'brainwashing' charges against ISKCON.

According to its Vedic authority, ISKCON's tradition has no beginning.The people of India -whose heritage is Vedic history - representalmost a fifth of this planet's population. They are convinced thatthey have no roots, because roots imply a beginning. Hindus embracethe view that their culture is timeless, and historical recordsshow that Vedic civilisation existed from at least the start ofrecorded history.

More scrutinising research reveals that the first Indologists'inner purpose was to establish Christianity and European superiorityin India. Their 'findings' portrayed Vedic traditions and Indiansas primitive, superstitious and imaginary. They misrepresented thepast and created many false dates about important occurrences. Theintellectually dishonest writings of these men determined much ofthe future course of Indology, tainting a vast body of knowledge.Even today most Indological studies misrepresent, trivialise andhumiliate Vedic civilisation and philosophy.[1]

The classic Sanskrit books upon which ISKCON is based validateour position on Vedic historicity. For example, in the Bhagavad-gitaAs It Is, Lord Krsna says to Arjuna, 'I instructed this imperishablescience of yoga to the sun-god, Vivasvan, and Vivasvan instructedit to Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu in turn instructed itto Iksvaku.' [2]

In his purport to this statement, the book's author, A. C. BhaktivedantaSwami - the Founder-acarya of ISKCON- explains that, basedon the age of the sun-god accepted by Vedic authorities, 'the Gitawas spoken at least 120,400,000 years ago; and in human societyit has been extant for two million years. It was spoken again bythe Lord to Arjuna approximately five thousand years ago. That isa rough estimate of the history of the Gita, accordingto the Gita itself and its speaker, Lord Sri Krsna ... Themundane wranglers may speculate on the Gita in their ownways, but that is not Bhagavad-gita as it is.[3] Reliable records show that the Bhagavad-gitapre-dates the Bible and the Old Testament by thousands of years.These are some of the reasons why ISKCON members feel unfairly marginalisedand hurt when classified as 'new'.

An old story tells of a passer-by who accosted a man quarrying marble to build St. Francis of Assisi's church. 'Why do you struggle so hard to pull rock from the ground?' he asked. 'I'm not mining rock,' answered the digger, 'I'm building a temple.'� ISKCON is also 'building a temple'. Its temple is a mission, based on ancient origins, to return society to its original condition of God consciousness. Our quest is to re-spiritualise humanity by disseminating knowledge contained in timeless books of truth, including the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam. These texts reach into the remote past through oral traditions that have no written beginnings.

Perceptions of ISKCON as 'new' cannot, and do not, change what isessentially a 'spiritual movement', a classification to which we wouldnot object. Nor do we mind being called 'Hare Krishnas', or even 'Krishnas',because these expressions are central to our philosophy and methodsof outreach. Through study of Vedic texts, bhakti-yoga andmantra mediation, ISKCON systematically teaches people how to developlove for God, using a method as old as time itself.

When the proverbial blind man was asked to explain what an elephantwas like, he carefully felt the tail and then described the animalas a snake-like creature with a bushy cluster of hair at one end.Snakes and hairy tails serve a purpose, but they do not constitutean elephant. Let's get our definitions right from the start - especiallywhen the dignity of millions of human beings and the sanctity of timelesstraditions are at stake.

Notes and References

[1] Goswami, Satsvarupa, Readings in Vedic Literature, Appendix 'The First Indologists', p. 173.

[2] Swami, A. C. Bhaktivedanta, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Ch. 4, Text 1.

[3] Swami, A. C. Bhaktivedanta, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, purport, op cit.