The future of Hinduism in Britain is by no means easy to predict. The history of Hindu traditions within Britain does not go back all that far, and the ways in which it is practised and perceived certainly appear to have developed considerably since the 1970s, when Hindu temples first become established in significant numbers. Over the next twenty to thirty years the maturation of a new generation of Hindus will produce an as yet unknown development for the maintenance of the Hindu traditions.
Recently, I have been surveying the feelings of Hindus across Britain-I have mailed out questionnaires to Hindus (namely to people with Hindu names) asking questions on a number of factors related to their religiosity. At the end of the questionnaire I asked the question: 'Do you think that Hinduism in Britain is likely to change over the next twenty years?' and 'please give reasons for your answer'. So far I have only received about 45 responses from 190 questionnaires posted- I still have a long way to go before I will have achieved a good cross section of Hindu life. But I am very much struck by the number of responses that I have received which predict a decline in Hinduism: over half have said it will change for the worse in some way, mostly because of the pressures on young Hindus to become westernised, resulting in the loss of their religion and culture. Thus according to two respondents:
The current generation is being brought up in the 'British way', i.e. more tolerance for drink, sex, etc. As time goes on our culture will slowly die and become more faint as families are more westernised.
Yes Hinduism will change: (there will be) fewer young generation, a loss of traditions, especially the understanding and meaning of customers, maybe a 'soulless' generation in terms of Hinduism. (There will be) a drifting generation seeking salvation and solace and forgetting that 'it' was always there.
The main fear is that in the next generation there will be few who wish to (or are able) to maintain the traditions which their parents or grandparents brought from India. This will be partly due to their own indifference, but also because of the indifference of their parents. Thus according to these three respondents:
The new generation is not going to be much interested (in religion). I hate to say that. I am very much upset as well.
Over the generation less and less Hindu tradition is passed on.
We will be westernised completely. My wife was born and brought up in the UK. We therefore hardly celebrate any of our own culture apart from Diwali. Our daughter speaks no Indian [sic.] at all. She will not know anything about her own culture because there is no one to tell her.
But the decline may also be a product of the ways in which Hinduism is presented institutionally:
I am afraid in my opinion Hinduism will suffer a decline in 20 years to come. Very few youngsters follow or understand the great Hindu religions / traditions. They are far too liberal. Liberal or ignorant preachers in temples do the daily rituals but they don't themselves know / understand the golden principles of Hinduism.
I have received many similar responses which follow this line of thinking things are going to change for British Hindus and generally for the worse.
So how does ISKCON fit into this? Back in the 1980s (and still in some quarters today) one did not have to look too hard to find fairly similar predictions being made of the future of ISKCON. The demise of the Hare Krishnas seemed almost inevitable, with the death of Srila Prabhupada, the scandals of the gurus and the seeming lack of interest from new generations who had lost sight of the hippie ideals, all pointed to a religion which could not survive in a fiercely secular world.
But when you put ISKCON together with British Hindus you have an interesting combination as the two groups are currently thriving in a mutual relationship in Britain, which bodes well for the future of them both. In this paper I will discuss how the various forms of Hinduism are being shaped by the influences of ISKCON. By turning towards the 'Hindu community'1 ISKCON precipitated developments which are not merely limited to themselves but may also lead to significant changes in the way Hindu traditions are expressed in the British context. It is quite likely that ISKCON can and probably will have a strong and important influence both directly and indirectly. On a direct level ISKCON reach a significant number of Hindu population-through their worship, preaching and literature. On an indirect level they have the potential to play the part of a 'pace setter' for other groups to follow, in a similar (although also very different) way in which the Ismailis had considerable influence among many East African religious communities in the mid decades of this century.2
ISKCON and Indian Hindu
The main problem faced by ISKCON devotees and British Hindus is the extent to which ISKCON is 'Hindu', or to put it more accurately the extent to which what ISKCON does (in ritual and teachings, for example), fits in with the expectations of Hindus in Britain who previously had no real experience of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. For most ISKCON devotees the label of 'Hinduism' as a description of their religion is one they are happy with, as a loose translation of the more indigenous term sanatana dharma in Hindi. But even so, there is within ISKCON a minority of devotees who do not like the term Hinduism, which they feel has a lot of connotations which are irrelevant to them. In particular for them 'Hinduism' is the mish-mash (khitchri) of religious beliefs and practices that misrepresent and distort the Vedic teachings. The lead is taken here from Srila Praphupada's own writings on the matter in which he clearly states that Krishna consciousness is not Hindu.3 Many of these non-Hindu devotees wish to retain the internationalism of ISKCON and see the primary purpose of the ISKCON yatra (organisation) as being to preach to, and convert, the indigenous white population of Britain. So in this sense, the 'Indianisation', or more accurately perhaps, the 'Hinduisation' of ISKCON is not absolute. Of course, the ethnic composition of ISKCON reflects a diversity of backgrounds and probably no more than one third of initiated devotees in Britain are of Indian ancestry, whilst the reminder are from British, American, Eastern European, African and other backgrounds.
But one can observe a large emphasis on the part of ISKCON in recent years to engage with the idea of Hinduism, and to identify themselves as part of the sanatana dharma, in the main arguing that theirs is the most accurate representation of the eternal religion. In the majority of their public statements ISKCON has been very clear in saying that they are most definitely Hindu, and point to the large level of support that they receive from Indian Hindus as proof of their authenticity as Hindus.
The large extent of this support from the 'Indian (Hindu) community' should not be taken for granted. The large majority of Indian Hindus who worship at ISKCON temples and centres (most particularly Bhaktivedanta Manor) are of Gujarati ancestry, and come from a region and culture far removed from the Bengali roots of ISKCON. One could argue that there are a number of factors that have encouraged so many Gujarati Hindus to turn to ISKCON to meet some or all of their religious needs in Britain. One particular factor may be the convenience of Bhaktivedanta Manor for the large population of mainly East African Gujaratis who are living in north west London (although the traffic problems and threat of closure which bedevilled the Manor for so many years could hardly justify anyone thinking it was 'convenient'). Of course, the Vaisnavite theology of ISKCON, and in particular the very accessible worship of Radha Krishna, are also very important factors for many Hindus visiting ISKCON centres. I think it would be fair to say that of the thousands of Indian Hindus who visit Bhaktivedanta Manor on Janmasthami in summer each year, the majority will be going first and foremost to worship Krishna and the fact that it is an ISKCON centre will be of far less interest to them than that it is a Krishna temple. Of course a number of those who visit out of general interest do become much more deeply involved with Krishna Consciousness, but for many interaction with ISKCON does not entail any high degree of commitment to ISKCON's ideals or teachings.
From my questionnaire returns, twenty-four respondents (that is over half of the total) have been at some time to either Bhaktivedanta Manor, or the central London temple in Soho Street. Many of these had very positive comments to make about ISKCON as an institution, such as the following:
(Bhaktivedanta Manor) is a good holy place.
It is a good institute to maintain Hinduism in this country.
It's a good institution, run in a professional way by dedicated people.
I am not a devotee but I think they are a no-nonsense group doing their bit in their own way.
I feel it is doing a tremendous job making the wider society understand some parts of Hinduism in Britain.
I am surprised to see that most of these followers are Europeans and they are following this faith much more accurately than the original Hindus.
Very organised devotees and true, honest to their religion.
But there is certainly an engagement on a substantial level between ISKCON and many Hindus, and I wish to argue here that this engagement is a two way process: ISKCON is feeding into the milieu of British Hinduism and on a number of levels they are becoming an important player in the public and private debates on the direction of Hinduism in Britain. Of course, ISKCON are by no means the only players on the scene of British Hinduism. There are many other Hindu groups who are also having a strong influence on the shaping of Hinduism, most of whom have very different visions of what Hinduism is and how it should be practised. But amongst other factors that ISKCON have had in their favour is that they are one of the best organised Hindu groups in Britain and they also seem to have the ability to get things done. On both national and private levels, these two things make a huge difference.
ISKCON and the development of Hinduism on a national leveL
ISKCON, through Bhaktivedanta Manor, have been involved with the National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT) since the 1970s, in fact since the NCHT was founded. Through the NCHT ISKCON have, along with other groups, been in the position to have an influence on national discussion about the future of Hindu traditions in Britain, particularly on the institutional level (that is with regard to the creation and maintenance of temples). The NCHT has already had a fairly limited role for most Hindus in Britain as its role is mainly as an advisory body providing a great deal of help and advice to local groups of Hindus. At the same time, however, the NCHT have occasionally taken a more political / pressure-group type role, for example during December 1992 following the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, the NCHT were involved in discussions with Muslim organisations to try to resolve Hindu-Muslin tensions in Britain.
In 1994 a new national Hindu organisation was created-very much with the blessing of the NCHT (and indeed with many of its personnel). This was the Hindu Council of the UK (HCUK), whose role is to become a mouthpiece for all Hindus in Britain, modelling itself to a degree along the lines of the British Board of Deputies for the Jewish population. Therefore, the HCUK has the potential to become a strong lobbying organisation for the 500,000 Hindu population of Britain. Again members of ISKCON were involved in planning for and launch of the HCUK, and so if the latter succeeds in its objectives, then so will ISKCON since they will be able to have a strong influence on the future development of Hinduism in the UK at this national level.
It is important, however, to bear in mind that there remains a great deal of heterogeneity within British Hindu groups and that ISKCON is playing against other powerful groups who are also seeking to shape the future direction of national movements such as the NCHT and the HCUK. There are several large non-sectarian temples that have a high measure of public support from both local and wider communities. There are other sectarian groups with very different approaches to ISKCON, in particular the Swaminarayan groups-the International Swaminarayan Satsang Organisation (ISSO) and the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission. There are also regional groups such as the Hindu Council of the North and the Hindu Council of Brent, and caste based groups such as the Patidar Samaj. Each of these groups has a different agenda to ISKCON, and so of course will want to take the national organisations in different directions to those proposed by ISKCON.
The most important factor within the development of the relationship between ISKCON and British Hindus at the national level has been the campaign to prevent the closure of the temple at Bhaktivedanta Manor, just outside London. Although this place was originally envisioned by Prabhupada as a training centre for ISKCON pujaris (temple 'priests'), the temple accommodating the deities of Radha-Gokulananda at the Manor soon became popular with the local Hindu population living in north-west London. During the 1970s-beginning with the deity installation ceremony in September 1973-increasing numbers of Indian Hindus visited the temple for worship. It has been primarily through this temple that most Indian Hindus have become devotees and followers of ISKCON. But the passage of large numbers of worshippers in cars through the village nearby (in some cases as many as 25,000 for the festival of Janmasthami) caused upset for the local (mainly white middle-class) residents.
I have documented elsewhere the long campaign that ISKCON fought to prevent the closure of the Manor.4 As is well known, ISKCON was finally successful in 1996 when the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, gave permission for the construction of an access driveway which by-passed the local village, plus full planning permission for the Manor to be used as a place of public worship. One very significant reason for ISKCON's success was, I believe, that the fight to 'save the temple' was not just about ISKCON standing up for itself, it became an issue for all Hindus in Britain. The NCHT and the HCUK were mobilised to demonstrate their support for Bhaktivedanta Manor, the Gujarati language British newspaper Gujarat Samachar campaigned to raise the awareness of its Hindu readership of the need to protect the Manor. A group called the 'Hare Krishna Temple Defence Movement' campaigned vigorously among Hindu groups both to raise money to help the campaign and to organise public demonstrations in support of the Manor.
Through these intense efforts many local Hindu temples took up the campaign to save the temple, and to fight what they saw as a threat to Hinduism in Britain. Many parties frequently emphasised the fact that the Manor was 'the most important Hindu temple in the UK', with the best facilities and standard of worship, and it is also the only institution in Britain where Hindu priests are formally trained. The campaign has certainly raised ISKCON's profile and support among the general Hindu population- few Hindus in Britain will now be unaware of ISKCON as a society and where they can be found. The support for the Manor as a genuine and important Hindu temple has made it very difficult for any Hindus to accuse ISKCON of being outside the Hindu tradition. In sum, the campaign as it was fought was a fight against an external force (British society, indifference to Hinduism and most extremely, white racism), and as such it has been a very effective means by which ISKCON has gained the sympathy and support of Hindus.
ISKCON and Hindus on a private level
It is not enough, however, for ISKCON to gain a public profile through these campaigns and these organisations. ISKCON's influence among British Hindus also has to go down to the 'grass roots' level of individual practitioners and believers if it is to make a difference to the next generations of Hindus. For many years Hindus have been visiting Bhaktivedanta Manor, talking to devotees, receiving ISKCON literature and teachings. In many ways the freely available facilities that ISKCON provide to Hindus (and any other interested visitors) have helped to transform the ways in which many Hindus in Britain practise their religion and are likely to have an ongoing influence.
On the level of public worship, the worship at ISKCON temples is of an extremely high standard. Because of the training facilities at Bhaktivedanta Manor and the way in which ISKCON have a high number of full-time followers (supported by ISKCON without any other work commitments), there is a pool of well trained pujaris who have the ability to serve the temple deities very well throughout the day. Worship of this standard is certainly not available in many other Hindu temples in Britain and so this is a strong advantage for ISKCON and sets a standard of expectation which other temples need to aspire to.
However, the high quality of worship means more to individual devotees than merely a comfortable and enjoyable visit to a temple. Consistent, rigorous and efficient worship by the pujaris in the temple has the result that the deities (murtis) are pleased, and will be more likely to intervene in human affairs. In particular the murtis of Radha-Gokulananda (Radha-Krishna), that are the main focus on worship at the temple at Bhaktivedanta Manor, are considered by many Hindus to be very powerful, and highly effective if prayed to. There are some stories that Hindus have received blessings and miracles from Radha-Gokulananda-for example a woman who had previously been unable to conceive a child became pregnant when she performed worship to Radha-Gokulananda at Bhaktivedanta Manor. Such stories are not unusual for Hindu temple deities, but they do serve to establish the significance of the deities at a particular place, and in turn this helps to establish the place as a centre for pilgrimage.
This again has a knock-on effect on other Hindu temples-first it shows that Hindu deities are very much present and active within the British environment (if proof is needed), and secondly it helps to further shift the emphasis of Hinduism from India to Britain. Now it is not strictly necessary to go to India to perform a tirtha-yatra (pilgrimage). Although the main centres for Hindu pilgrimage still remain on the Indian sub-continent, sites are developing in the UK-such as Bhaktivedanta Manor- where effective pilgrimage can be undertaken.
To return to my questionnaire, however, it is interesting to note that for most Hindus in Britain the idea of pilgrimage is something which is done outside of Britain. I asked two questions about this subject: 'what places / temples have you been on pilgrimage to?' and 'which place / temple would you most like to make a pilgrimage to'? All the responses I have received so far have been from people living in the London area and from them by far the majority of responses have mentioned India as the place they have visited or would like to visit for pilgrimage. One respondent listed 'Luton, Coventry, Leicester, India' as the places where he had been on pilgrimage, and only one specifically mentioned Bhaktivedanta Manor, saying 'because it is so peaceful, no restriction in what you wear or how you pray etc.'. On the whole, however, there are many Hindus going to Bhaktivedanta Manor, but no so many of them describe it particularly as a place of pilgrimage.
ISKCON is also making a very important contribution to the development of Hinduism in Britain through the process of education-both through its literature and through the teaching abilities of its devotees. Through its teaching programmes it can present a systematic and highly comprehensible representation of Hinduism-not only to other Hindus, but also to outsiders. This is not always a feat that is easily achieved, and some may feel that to present Hinduism so systematically is to actually mis-represent the complexity of Hindu traditions. But nonetheless the ability of ISKCON teachers and educationalists to communicate their religious tradition is well respected by many Hindus- especially those who are struggling to teach their children about Hinduism.5
Since around 1994 ISKCON has also been strongly involved in generating inter-faith dialogue with other major religious groups in Britain-particularly Christians. In September 1994 a conference was held at Bhaktivedanta Manor to explore experiences of god between ISKCON devotees, church professionals and other interested parties6 and further such conferences have followed.7 ISKCON has indeed been involved with inter-faith groups (particularly the national Inter-Faith Network) for many years, and has received support from the Inter-Faith Network for their campaign to keep Bhaktivedanta Manor open. But the organisation of these conferences to encourage dialogue suggests a new attempt to shape outsiders' perceptions of Hinduism- particularly the Vaishnavism of ISKCON-through dialogue with leading members of other faith groups.
On a more immediate level, however, ISKCON also has a ready-made medium through which to communicate that message to young British Hindus. As the answers to my questionnaire indicated earlier, in Britain there are an ever growing number of Hindu children who are not proficient in their 'mother tongue' (whether it be Hindi, Gujarati or some other language). To some degree, therefore, religious ideas have to be translated for them, and the transmission of the religion to the next generation is heavily dependent on the way in which the translation is made, if at all.8 For ISKCON, though, the process of translation began long ago, with the advent of Krishna Consciousness in the west. One of Prabhupada's gifts was as a translator-he saw his mission as bringing the message of Krishna into the medium of English, and hence to the English-speaking world (of course, his own guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had encouraged him to do this in 1922). This means that when young British Hindus of Indian ancestry go to ISKCON temples, the devotees and teachers that they find there literally speak their language and can talk to them in depth about their religion in English. Furthermore, the ISKCON devotees are ready and able to explain the complexities of their philosophy in a medium that the young Hindus are able to understand. This in itself is an advantage for ISKCON, since not only is the provision of explanations for Hindu religious ideas not usually found in Hindu temples, such explanations are heavily in demand by young Hindus who have been educated to expect to have answers to their questions about their religion.
The appeal of ISKCON for many British Hindus is obviously strong. However, it is by no means universal, and it is not likely that ISKCON will become the dominant form of Hinduism in Britain (either in the short or the long term). But the development of Hinduism in Britain has been-and will most probably continue to be-extremely fluid, with innovation and reinvention of traditions taking the various expressions of Hinduism in new directions which are specific to the British context. As a traditional and yet innovative form of Hinduism, ISKCON is well placed to take a leading role in shaping some aspects of the forms of Hinduism that will emerge in this country over the next generations, and they have already shown an ability and willingness to reach out and be influential in this way.
One final key advantage that ISKCON has in this situation is that theirs is an outlook and a history which addresses one of the major issues that all British Hindus have to face-that is, bridging the gap between the Indian culture from which their experiences are derived, and the western culture in which are they are very much enmeshed. ISKCON can be of some help here, since the movement has done some of the hard work in this renegotiation already. Prabhupada himself tried to bridge the gap between traditional Indian Hinduism and western cultures. The history of ISKCON as a westerner's form of Hinduism-with many of its devotees coming from western cultural backgrounds-places it at a similar interface as that experienced by the majority of Hindus in Britain. In this sense, Prabhupada and the early devotees have provided some paradigms and perhaps a few answers for the new Indian / Hindu Krishna devotees (although coming at the experience from a rather different angle). ISKCON is providing devotees with a form of Hinduism that is definitely designed for the west-in a way, it could be called a western form of Hinduism-which is still most definitely rooted in the Hindu tradition. This puts ISKCON in a very good place to succeed as a major influence in the development of the emerging forms of Hinduism in Britain. And it is quite likely-notwithstanding the pessimistic prognoses of many British Hindus-that the religion will continue and develop within its new context.
|Back to Vol. 5, No. 2 Contents|
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