Understanding ISKCON

Charles R. Brooks

Charles Brooks wrote The Hare Krishnas in India, an importantstudy of the Hare Krishna movement in India, focusing particularlyon their presence in Vrindavan. Thus he is perhaps more qualifiedthan most to comment on the legitimacy of ISKCON, of which he isconvinced. However, like many devotees, Dr. Brooks would like ISKCONto address issues that, even after thirty years, seem to have been neglected.In this presentation I hope to answer several questions. These include: Is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) a legitimate religion? What is the relevance of the term 'cult' in understanding ISKCON? How is ISKCON perceived and treated in India? How can an anthropological perspective contribute to the public discourse about ISKCON?

I am speaking as an anthropologist, anthropology being a socialscience uniquely equipped to answer these types of questions. Thestudy of comparative religions is firmly established in the discipline,and there is a high degree of academic agreement concerning howto approach and understand the sensitive issues involved. More thanthat, however, is the direct understanding of cultural phenomenathat the anthropologist achieves in the process of doing his orher research. While the primary method of the anthropologist - participantobservation - results in data that can be used in comparative analysiswith objective validity, it also provides an understanding of studiedphenomena from a native or insider's perspective. These dual methodologicaland analytical attributes allow the anthropologist to speak froma truly empirical, yet sensitive, position.

Is ISKCON a religion?

As I consider the issue of whether a system of knowledge and behaviour constitutes a legitimate religion, I am guided by a concept with an explicit definition: religion is cultural knowledge about the supernatural realm that people use to cope with the ultimate problems of human existence. Religion, then, is part of a broader, integrated cultural system with the specific attribute of informing people about a reality beyond normal human experience. This knowledge is internalised to such a degree, however, that this supernatural is understood to be unquestionably real. Concepts of the supernatural vary from culture to culture, but generally we find it is conceived as personified beings - gods and goddesses, for example - or as an impersonal power or force.

A religion's legitimacy from the anthropological perspective cannotbe conferred by a society's dominant religious institutions only.The animistic practice of hunters and gatherers is a religion ascomplex and real as Roman Catholicism. So the minimal attributeof any religion is true belief that supernatural beings, forcesand places do exist, that human beings can interact with the supernaturaland that supernatural beings and forces have some influence overhuman life. If these things exist, there is religion. Beliefs thatdo not include the existence and importance of the supernaturalare not religion.

ISKCON entails committed, devoted, passionate beliefs in a complexsupernatural reality, so no challenge to ISKCON's identity as a religioncan be seriously entertained.

Is ISKCON a cult?

Ethnocentrism seems to be an unavoidable component of human nature. It manifests in different ways in different populations, ranging from mild dislike to extreme hatred. We can understand that the valuing of one's culture is necessary for its continuation and continuity; yet ethnocentrism is also at the root of most social conflicts, and a primary barrier to communication and understanding. This is especially so in the domain of religion. I know of no religion that does not have some idea that its beliefs and practices are in some ways superior or more correct than others. For the Christian, salvation can only be achieved through belief in a redeeming Christ; for the Muslim, there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet who presents the fullest revelation of truth. ISKCON also believes that an ultimate understanding of reality is contained in its sacred texts and revealed through its saintly teachers. Here is another point of convergence between ISKCON and other religions.

However, since ISKCON itself is rarely seen as part of a traditionalreligious system, and since in most places ISKCON is not part ofthe dominant culture, its members are marginalised, stigmatisedand sometimes persecuted. The ethnocentrism of the dominant majorityresults in classifying ISKCON as sinful, dangerous, evil, etc. Inother words, in the West ISKCON is often viewed as a cult, and thatterm carries with it the darkest stigma.

This is an unfortunate linguistic and cultural development, sincethe old religious meaning of the term and its sociological / anthropologicalapplications, has been completely lost. The Latin cultus,meaning ritual or liturgy, and the sociological term 'cult', meaningan organisation formed around a centrally dominating belief or prophet,is rarely understood in its current popular usage. Today the word'cult' implies 'brainwashing', physical and mental enslavement, totalsubmission of individuality and other negative attributes contraryto normative Western cultural values. Enough has been said and writtenby scholars so I need not prolong this discussion, except to say thatthe idea of evil cults in the public mind today is incorrect. Rarelycan these ideas be sustained by empirical research. And ISKCON isnot a cult if the popular definition of cult is applied.

Understanding ISKCON's historical emergence from an anthropologicalviewpoint can be better achieved by observing how closely it fitsAnthony Wallace's model of the 'Revitalisation Movement'. A RevitalisationMovement is a conscious, organised effort by people who are so dissatisfiedwith their culture that they desire to create a more satisfyingone. Such sociocultural phenomena have appeared throughout historywhen societies go through periods of disorganisation and failure.When a particular culture ceases to function for some people, theybegin to experience a high degree of distress and actively seekto find new ways of thinking and behaving. As more and more peopleexperience this condition, a period of 'cultural distortion' canbe said to exist. Individuals begin to recognise others with similarproblems, and a loose sense of community begins to form among them.

This was the situation in the late sixties and early seventies whena counterculture formed in the United States and Western Europe. Suchconditions are optimal for the formation of revitalisation movements,and they may or may not succeed depending on whether a charismaticleader or prophet appears. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami arrived in theUnited States at this time, although he was personally unaware ofthese conditions. He thus provided the charismatic leadership anddirection around which a new culture and society - ISKCON-formed.ISKCON is a classic revitalisation movement in the American context.So was the early Christian church, as well as early forms of Buddhismand Islam. I have written in more detail about ISKCON's early daysas a revitalisation movement in The Hare Krishnas in Indiaand other publications.

Most revitalisation movements fade away after the death of the founder, unlessthey routinise, institutionalise and find some way to make accommodationswith the dominant society. The major religions in the world todaysurvived and flourished in this way, and so has ISKCON. With themost minimal comparative study it is easy to see these parallels.

If we wish to understand ISKCON and other similar groups in theiroriginal context (in this case American), the well-described and studiedRevitalisation Movement model would seem to offer an objective, realisticand unbiased alternative to 'cult'.

What do the Indians think about ISKCON?

The beliefs and practices of ISKCON are determined by a process ofcultural transmission that is quite ancient. The particular tradition,or sampradaya, is most commonly called Gaudiya Vaishnavism,or Bengali Vaishnavism. The descriptive term Caitanyite Vaishnavismis also appropriate since it was the Bengali saint Caitanya Mahaprabhuwho was the founding personality of this tradition. Of course, Caitanyain a very real sense energised a religious system based upon the beliefin Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, which was alreadythousands of years old. So the Caitanya sampradaya is veryold within India and is an important part of that country's dominantreligious system.

Religious legitimacy in the Indian tradition depends on the directtransmission of knowledge from guru to disciple in an unbroken chain.Swami Bhaktivedanta, ISKCON's founder, is such a guru, and he is awell documented link in the chain of the Caitanya sampradaya.

My studies of ISKCON in India took a close look at how Indians themselvesviewed the Western converts to their religion. This is certainly acomplex topic, but I can say with full confidence that Indians ingeneral, and specifically those who practise Gaudiya Vaishnavism,see ISKCON as a legitimate and important development in their religion'shistory.

This is especially significant, since Western analysis of Hinduismhas traditionally seen it as a closed system where membership is achievedonly by birth. Essentially it has generally been accepted that tobe Hindu means to be born into a Hindu family in India. What is evenmore surprising to many is the Indian acceptance that at least somedevotees of ISKCON are legitimately Brahmin. This acceptance of� ISKCON'sBrahmin status is demonstrated by the fact that many Indians see devoteesas legitimate religious specialists, accepting them as priests, gurusand pandits.

Swami Bhaktivedanta envisioned that Western devotees of Krsnacould contribute to a revival of religious fervour in India, andindeed this has happened. ISKCON enjoys considerable support froma wide range of Indian citizens, from government officials downto village farmers. Moreover, in the United States and other placeswhere there is a sizeable immigrant Indian population, ISKCON isan important cultural resource for these communities. In many locationswhere there is no Hindu temple, the ISKCON temple serves as theprimary place of worship for Indians. They also see ISKCON as aresource for transmitting their native culture to their children.There can be no doubt that ISKCON is considered legitimate by Indians,whether they live in their native country or abroad. This is especiallyunderscored by the fact that Indians in the United States and otherplaces have seen attacks against ISKCON as attacks against theirown culture.

Proposals for improving the public discourse about ISKCON ISKCON isnot a cult in the popular conception of the term. It is a legitimatereligion from the perspective of the anthropological study of comparativereligions, and is viewed as such in India. The question for considerationthen is how can the stigma assigned to ISKCON by many societies berectified, and what conditions can be created so that ISKCON devoteescan practise their religion freely throughout the world without fearof persecution?

On the one hand, the fact that ethnocentrism does and will continueis a considerable obstacle. On the other hand, anthropological studiesshow us that change does occur and that tolerance of differences canincrease in any society. Public education about the actual natureof ISKCON is of central importance if ideas are to be changed. Ifgovernments, cultural leaders, national institutions and the mediatransmit unbiased messages about ISKCON, then public opinion can bechanged to some extent.

This project of changing public opinion should be part of broadercampaign that educates people about the improper use of the term'cult', emphasising that ISKCON and other stigmatised religiousgroups are not to be feared but should be considered religions,plain and simple. Members of ISKCON may not agree, but in my opiniona step in the right direction would be to demonstrate that ISKCONis a legitimate form of Hinduism. Scholars know that 'Hinduism'is a misleading word and of marginal use, but linking ISKCON withHindu Indians has practical advantages. In Western societies wherefreedom of religion is a sacred value, Indians living in those societieshave some degree of legal protection and popular tolerance.

Scholars, journalists, film makers and other media professionalscould also contribute to this process by publishing works for ageneral audience that review unbiased research about ISKCON whichpresents devotees in a favourable light. Included in this (and othertypes of public education campaigns) should be a clear discussionof the high moral, ethical and behavioural standards that ISKCONdevotees are expected to maintain.

In this connection there is one other point to be made: if ISKCONis to overcome the negative impressions that have developed aroundit, the organisation collectively, and devotees individually, mustconfront the root of the public's animosity, especially in the UnitedStates. Many people have had personal encounters with devotees sellingbooks and religious articles, only to be tricked into giving moremoney than they wished. The image of the ISKCON devotee as huckster,or even criminal, is very strong in the public mind and must be dealtwith. To some degree ISKCON has already begun to do this and shouldcontinue in its efforts. Public apologies about past behaviour, realor imagined, must be communicated with sincerity. The public willthen be better prepared to be re-educated about the true nature ofISKCON.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a fascinatingand anthropologically significant phenomenon. Through the effortsof one devoted, elderly man, the lives of many people around the worldhave been changed. But more than this, through Swami Bhaktivedanta,a religious system has quickly spread from its place of origin toalmost every niche on the planet. The success of ISKCON may be comparableonly to the spreading of Christianity and Buddhism. But what makesthe study of ISKCON even more compelling is that this cross-culturalexpansion began only thirty years ago.

ISKCON has survived the death of its guru, which predisposes it tolongevity from the perspective of a revitalisation movement. As anorganisation, it continues to confront its doctrinal and managerialproblems, adapting to changing situations and environments. It islikely to be around for the duration of human history, so it is timefor governments, other religions and the general public to be honestlyeducated about it, so at least a functional degree of tolerance canbe achieved for the 'long haul'.

This paper was originally delivered at a conference at HumboltUniversity, Berlin in July 1995.


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