Is ISKCON a Hindu religious movement? This very question has caused a great deal of discussion both between members of the ISKCON and those commenting on the Society from outside. Since ISKCON is a unique product of the vision of one individual, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, its founder, we must examine his position on this issue. Central to the difficulties that commentators have had in coming to any sort of decision are the seemingly ambiguous comments and decisions that the founder made with regards to Hinduism and his Society. There are times when he clearly stated that ISKCON was not Hindu and that his followers should endeavour to keep themselves apart from Hindu influences, and there were other times when be clearly linked ISKCON to Hinduism. Jan K. Br explores the references that Srila Prabhupada made to Hinduism, and more importantly he discusses these comments within the context in which they were made, thus enabling us to gain a clearer understanding of Srila Prabhupada's position on Hinduism.
One afternoon in October 1970, Srila Prabhupada visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar. After touring the temple and seeing the way in which food was distributed, he signed the temple's guestbook. Under religion he wrote, 'Krsnaite' and under comments he wrote, 'Very spiritual' (Lilamrta, vol. 4, 137).
Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (henceforth Prabhupada) also sometimes jokingly called himself and his movement Krsnian, a play on Christian, but neither Krsnaite nor Krsnian became current, even though the institution he founded was named the International Society for Krsna Consciousness. Popularly, of course, his followers were known as the Hare Krsnas, a name to which Prabhupada did not make an objection. Acknowledging his membership in the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya or Gaudiya Vaisnava disciplic succession, he happily identified himself as Gaudiya Vaisnava. However, his relationship with the larger entity known as Hinduism was rather less clear. In fact, he often overtly denied any connection to Hinduism at all: 'The Krsna consciousness movement has nothing to do with the Hindu religion or any system of religion' (SSR: 3). Another time he wrote: 'One should clearly understand that the Krsna consciousness movement is not preaching the so-called Hindu religion.' He could be even stronger in his judgement of Hinduism, calling it 'a dead religion' with 'no philosophy' (72-02-04.VAI) or 'a cheating religion' (731006BG.BOM).
Prabhupada conceded on more than one occasion that Krsna consciousness had its roots in Hinduism, but since in one place he compares it to Buddhism it may be thought that he felt it was a new religion growing out of the Hindu tradition, though entirely distinct from it: 'You can call it Hinduism, but actually it does not belong to any 'ism'. It is a science of understanding God, but it appears to be like the Hindu religion. In that sense Buddhism is also the Hindu religion because Lord Buddha was a Hindu' (750519RC.MEL).
On the other hand, Prabhupada also expressed a deeper emotional connection to Hinduism, such as in 1970 when he reacted to an article in a Bombay newspaper. He felt he had been misrepresented as denying Hinduism entirely by saying that 'Krsna is everything' (701104RC.BOM). Accusing the reporter of making contradictory statements, he asked how one who worships Radha-Krsna and follows Hindu ceremonies like Rathayatra can say that 'Hinduism is nothing'? (701212RC.IND). His identification of Rathayatra and Radha-Krsna worship with Hinduism shows that he had not, in fact, made as sharp a break with that tradition as the Buddha had done.
In view of this apparently ambivalent attitude, an analysis of Prabhupada's statements on Hinduism is needed to find out the relationship between the religious movement he founded and its broader Hindu heritage. This preliminary study is an attempt to summarise different themes surrounding the terms 'Hindu' and 'Hinduism' as found in Prabhupada's writings, letters, speeches and conversations.
Prabhupada's fundamental discourse on Hinduism is standard and oft-repeated. It customarily begins with a rejection of the term 'Hindu' itself as a misnomer, describing it as an outsider's term. This is, of course, accepted historical fact, though Prabhupada suggests that it had a negative connotation for those outsiders: 'In India, according to the Vedic language, the Europeans are called mlecchas or yavanas. Similarly, "Hindu" is a name given by the Muslims' (SSR: 3).
Like every other scholar who has rehearsed the etymology of the word 'Hindu' from Sindhu/Indus, Prabhupada does not deny the existence of an entity which has come to be known by the name Hinduism. Rather, he uses this discourse as an opportunity to establish the true name of the religion which accepts the Vedic authority, and from there to describe what he holds to be its authentic form. Since Prabhupada's approach is prescriptive, his concept of Hinduism is perhaps clearer than that of scholars who attempt to describe it phenomenologically. In this respect he is similar to many other Hindus who have accepted the term but have struggled to define it in a satisfactory manner.
Alternative names for the religious system which submits to the Vedic authority and which Prabhupada finds preferable to 'Hinduism' are sanatana-dharma, varnasrama dharma, and vaidika dharma or Vedic culture. However, Prabhupada contrasts or complements these terms with the 'science of God', bhagavata-dharma or, less frequently, vaisnava-dharma. It will be first of all necessary to disentangle these terms in order to understand how Prabhupada saw his movement in relation to the broader Hindu tradition.
To contextualise this discussion of Prabhupada's use of the term 'Hindu', it is worthwhile examinining one or two definitions given by others who have no qualms about calling themselves by that name. I have selected the following two:
[A Hindu is one] who accepts the Vedas, the Smrtis, the Puranas and the Tantras as the basis of religion and the rule of conduct, and believes in one supreme being (Brahman ), in the law of retributive justice (karma) and in Reincarnation (punar janma).
The main tenets of Hindu dharma are: belief in one Supreme Principle-Brahman, accepting the authority of the Vedas, the theory of karma and rebirth, values designated as purusartha, the social organisation of varna-asrama and jati, performance of rituals and practice of samanya-dharma. It is essential to note that one can remain a Hindu even when he rejects any one or all of these. It is really difficult to point out any single essential attribute of a Hindu except the ideal of universal fraternity.
The first of these definitions is wide enough to be easily acceptable to Prabhupada, though he would no doubt wish to nuance the word Brahman, who for him is the Para-Brahman, the Supreme Personality of Godhead Krsna. The second definition, which is somewhat narrower, would likely require more nuances on his part, but the last two sentences clearly show that a Hindu would have had no trouble in accepting Prabhupada as one. A question which needs to be asked is whether Prabhupada would have accepted the same tolerant attitude attributed to Hinduism and much vaunted by its proponents like Vivekananda.
Prabhupada does not use the term 'Vedic dharma' frequently. However, the word 'Vedic' itself and the necessity for the acceptance of the Vedic scriptural authority comes up repeatedly. The use of the word 'Vedic' by Prabhupada contains certain problems, but if we recognise that like Srisa Basu (in the first definition above), he means the entire field of Hindu literature by this term, then he is in agreement with most Hindus. Thus when Prabhupada says, 'Hinduism is accepting the Vedic authority' (661226CC.NY), he is identifying himself with Hinduism. As a result of such identification, he accepts even Sankaracarya, the great teacher of the monistic doctrine and avowed rival of the Vaisnavas because he based his arguments on the Vedic literature and reestablished the Vedic authority (SB 1.3.24, 4.21.27; CC Madhya 25.91).
Ultimately, the Mayavadi philosophers say that God, the Supreme Absolute Truth, is impersonal, whereas the Vaisnava philosophers say that in the end, the Absolute Truth is a person and He, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is Krsna. Krsnas tu bhagavan svayam. Each group sticks to its position and they fight-'fight' means by philosophical arguments. That has been going on for a very long time. However, both of them belong to the sanatana Hindu dharma because both of them will talk on the Vedanta philosophy. They can give differing interpretations, but they cannot say that they don't accept Vedanta. If they do, it is at once rejected. So one must give an interpretation on the Vedanta philosophy to be accepted as acarya (661226CC.NY).
Prabhupada also stressed that the acaryas and disciplic successions which preserved their interpretations of these revealed scriptures, played an essential role in characterising and defining the Vedic-Hindu system: 'India's culture depends on the acaryas like Ramanujacarya, Madhvacarya, Sankaracarya, Nimbarka, and Visnusvami. So in the Bhagavad-gita it is said, acaryopasanam. Anyone in India who claims to be a Hindu must have followed an acarya' (740612RC.PAR).
Prabhupada repeats a countless number of times the statement made in the Bhagavad-gita that Krsna is the object of Vedic knowledge-vedais ca sarvair aham eva vedyah (BG 15.15). Furthermore, he clearly indicates in the conclusion to this statement, 'All the acaryas accept Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.' So anyone who accepts the Vedic authority, in Prabhupada's understanding, must accept the personal form of the Para-Brahman, Krsna.
Prabhupada frequently stresses that Krsna consciousness is the science of self-realisation (indeed one of his books has this concept as its title), by which he means that it teaches universal principles of worshipping the Lord rather than sectarian dogmas conditioned by time, place and culture. The first principle of this science is that the self is distinct from the body. Thus Prabhupada on one occasion said, 'Am I this body or something else? This is the first question I was trying to answer, but some people in my audience thought it was a kind of Hindu culture. It is not Hindu culture. It is a scientific conception' (JSD: 1, 3). On the other hand, this is the specific teaching of the Vedic literature: 'We are not this body. This is self-realisation. That is Vedic culture' (740628LE.MEL).
For Prabhupada, knowledge has 'no colour' (740619RC.GER), by which he means that knowledge is an objective truth and thus not the monopoly of any religious denomination. One may follow any religious scripture, he argues, but why should an individual who is serious about God not accept the Krsna consciousness movement if he or she can find further enlightenment there? He explained this during an interview:
This religious principle means to understand God. Every religion is trying to understand God according to their capacity . . . But the only difference is that we give details so that modern minds advanced in education and
scientific knowledge can understand, whereas others cannot give in such detail (680201IV.LA).
Prabhupada most frequently offers sanatana-dharma and varnasrama-dharma as more correct names for the religious system which accepts Vedic authority. His discourses which accompany these two terms suggest that he did not believe that they meant the same thing; though he does occasionally present them as being equivalent, his arguments are usually a refutation of the view commonly held by many Hindus which directly equates the two.
In his discourse on sanatana-dharma, Prabhupada tends to break the term down into its component parts and discuss their etymological meaning. Rather than simply translate the word dharma as religion, he tends to analyse the etymology of dharma from the root dhr, defining it as 'that which sustains the living being' (SB 1.2.6P) or 'that which is constantly existing with a particular object' (BG Introduction). Another meaning is given as 'occupational duty':
The word 'religion' is not a perfect translation of the Sanskrit word dharma. Religion is a kind of faith which we can change. But dharma means your occupational duty which you cannot change; you have to execute it. What is our dharma? What is our compulsory duty? I have several times analysed this fact: our compulsory duty is to serve (690409SB.NY).
Thus sanatana-dharma can be construed as 'the eternal quality of the living being' or his nitya-svarupa, which in accordance with the Caitanya-caritamrta (Madhya 20.108) is to be the eternal servant of Krsna. This eternal service may be directly expressed and thus be liberating, or perverted into service for some other object out of ignorance.
For a further understanding of the word sanatana ('eternal'), Prabhupada refers to Bhagavad-gita where it has been used three times as an adjective describing the individual soul or jiva (15.7), the Supreme Lord (11.18) and the Lord's abode (8.20). 'When these three sanatanas come together, that is called sanatana life, and any process that takes us to that sanatana position, that is called sanatana-dharma' (730228LE.JKT).
So sanatana-dharma means both the eternal constitutional position of the jiva as a servant of God and the process by which one realises that constitutional identity. Graham Schweig refers to this usage of the word dharma by Prabhupada as having the 'universal' sense of religion and as being an expression of the unity of religion. For religions in the plural sense, Prabhupada favours the term 'faith'. Since service to the divine is the constitutional position of the living entity, Prabhupada says on numerous occasions that to revive this eternal attitude of service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead is a science and as such applicable to all, regardless of their colour, caste or creed. It thus transcends Hinduism which here is equated with the other world religions as a 'faith': 'Most of our Hindus call themselves sanatana-dharmi, but sanatana-dharma is not limited to any particular type of society. It is meant for all human beings, all living entities' (730228LE.JKT).
Quoted more than a 100 times throughout Prabhupada's discourses and written works is Shrimad Bhagavatam 1.2.6: 'The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to the loving service of the transcendent Lord.' This verse was the guiding principle to Prabhupada's analysis of religion:
The definition is: that principle of religion is the best by which you can develop your devotion or love for the Supreme Personality of Godhead. How nice this definition is, just try to understand. You may follow Christianism or Hinduism or Buddhism or Muhammadanism-it doesn't matter. The test is how far you have developed love of God . . . If you have developed the sense of love for God, then it is to be understood that you have actually followed the religious principle (710826SB.LON).
Prabhupada relegates religious systems which do not strive for this ultimate goal to a lower level: '"Hinduism", "Muslimism" (sic) and "Christianism" (sic) are all prakrta, mundane. But we have to transcend this prakrta, or mundane conception of religion' (750320AR.CAL). By mundane conceptions of religion, Prabhupada means that the aims of such systems is restricted to the four goals of life or purusarthas, which he sees as different levels of ego or sense gratification (SB 1.1.2P). Prabhupada termed such religions which do not aim at developing love for God as 'pseudo-religion' (BG 2.26P) and even 'cheating religion' on the basis of dharmah projjhita-kaitavo'tra (SB 1.1.20).
Another definition of religion (dharma ) is based on a teaching from the Srimad Bhagavatam, dharmam tu saksad bhagavat-pranitam (6.3.19), was much favoured by Prabhupada: 'Religion means the codes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.' He compares these laws to those of the state:
Just like in the state, there is king's law. The king gives you some laws, and if you are a good citizen, you obey those laws and live peacefully. This is a crude example. Similarly, dharma or religion means nothing other than to obey the laws of God, though they may differ according to time, circumstances and people (681020LE.BOS).
So all bonafide religious systems are, according to Prabhupada, God-given and can not be manufactured by human endeavours. (731006BG.BOM). On the other hand, he states that 'Muhammadanism, Hinduism, Christianism, all these "isms" are imperfect and man-made', whereas 'this [Krsna-consciousness] is perfect because it is given by God Himself'. The criterion is that 'if a religion teaches ultimately surrender to God, then it is perfect religion. Otherwise it is not religion' (BERGSON.SYA)
Prabhupada repeatedly denies that Krsna is a Hindu god. He is God for all. He does not descend in his incarnation to revive Hindu religion, but to revive the eternal religion which is surrender to himself. 'When Krsna says that he comes to reestablish religion (BG 4.8), it is not to reestablish Hinduism or Muslimism (sic) or Christianism (sic). His purpose was to teach true religion, that is, surrender unto Krsna. 'sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja' (731006BG.BOM). This absolute surrender then is the ultimate law of God.
Though other religious systems are considered to be the products of time, circumstance and the people amongst whom they were instituted, devotional service to Krsna even when executed by an imperfect practitioner is considered by Prabhupada, in keeping with the Caitanya-caritamrta, to be transcendental:
When we are on the material platform, there are different types of religions-Hinduism, Christianity, Mohammedanism, Buddhism, and so on. These are instituted for a particular time, a particular country or a particular person. Consequently there are differences. Christian principles are different from Hindu principles, and Hindu principles are different from Mohammedan and Buddhist principles. These may be considered on the material platform, but when we come to the platform of transcendental devotional service, there are no such considerations. The transcendental service of the Lord (sadhana-bhakti) is above these principles. The world is anxious for religious unity, and that common platform can be achieved in transcendental devotional service. This is the verdict of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. When one becomes a Vaisnava, he becomes transcendental to all these limited considerations (CC Madhya 25.121P).
That which is conceptualised as sanatana-dharma is in practice given the name Vaisnava-dharma or Bhagavata-dharma. Prabhupada does not use the term Vaisnava-dharma with any frequency, but following the Srimad-Bhagavatam, gives preference to the latter term.
There are 375 references to the word bhagavata-dharma in the database of Prabhupada's words. It is 'the process of religion enunciated by the pure devotees, direct representatives of the Supreme Personality of Godhead' (SB 6.16.41P) and is defined variously as 'the activities of the devotees', 'the sankirtana movement', 'the religion of glorifying the Lord and His devotees', bhakti, prema-dharma, pure devotional service, 'the cult of the Srimad-Bhagavatam'. As such it is the 'religious principles in devotional service that transcend religious principles for liberation and the mitigation of material misery' (SB 5.5 Summary), 'the religion of surrender to the Supreme Lord and love for Him' (SB 6.3.20-12P). It is 'the transcendental religion which is the eternal function of the living being' (CC Adi 1.91P) and consists of 'chanting, dancing and preaching the principles of the Srimad-Bhagavatam' (CC Adi 7.41).
In keeping with the definition of all religion as the orders of the Supreme Lord, bhagavata-dharma also encourages the social doctrine of varnasrama-dharma (SB 6.16.43P).