ISKCON and Hinduism

Since the departure of His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada, it is often difficult for his followers in ISKCON to easily reach conclusions about some of his teachings and their implementation. One such topic that has been largely debated is wither Prabhupada had wanted his movement to be identified with Hinduism.

Here in the UK, ISKCON has worked closely with the Hindu community and have been happy to be identified as Hindus for the last twenty years. However, there has been criticism from other ISKCON members because Srila Prabhupada blatantly stated on occasions that “we are not Hindus”.

In researching Prabhupada’s teachings it becomes evident that he did indeed make such statements in his classes and writings, so why all the fuss and have ISKCON UK deviated? Well the problem arises when we study Prabhupada a little further and then find quotes such as “We are spreading Hindu culture throughout the world”. Such contradictory statements can be found, which make it a little difficult for the western mind to understand. Therefore it is important to understand that when Prabhupada spoke about Hinduism, whatever he said was clearly context specific. When we do venture on to grasp the context of his speech, it then becomes clear that there is no contradiction whatsoever.

In researching Prabhupada’s teachings I have come up with eight different contexts within which he talks about ISKCON either being or not being Hindus. In five of the contexts he declines to acknowledge the term and in three he accepts it. They are as follows:

1. TRANSCENDENCE: When it comes to describing the eternal transcendental nature of God, the soul and their constitutional relationship, Prabhupada preferred not to use the term Hindu. He presented the soul as being beyond all designations including Hindu, which he felt related to race, culture and religion in the temporal world.
2. ETHNICITY: When the word Hindu is used in describing people of an Indian ethnicity, he felt it inappropriate to use the term for his multi racial followers or his movement.
3. MEMBERSHIP: Prabhupada considered his teachings and movement were for everyone regardless of their religious or cultural backgrounds. Thus, not wanting anyone to think that his movement was limited to a specific race, he preferred not to be identified by the term.
4. DESIGNATION: Because Hindu is not a term found in any Vedic teaching, but was rather a name historically given to the people of India, relating to their geographical location , Prabhupada struggled to accept it. Further to this the name Hindu became a derogatory term which was used by invaders who desired to convert the people of India to their faith.
5. PLURALISM: After the name Hindu was given to the people of India, gradually through time everything from village superstitions to orthodox religious traditions simply became known as Hinduism. Today in trying to make sense of what the religion Hinduism is all about, hopeful scholars have attempted to tie all the rituals, ideas and philosophies of India together into to one philosophical system, but because it make little sense they have opted for the word “pluralism” to describe it. This basically means in Hinduism anything goes. Prabhupada found this almost humerous and referred to is as “hodgepodge”. He refused to be included within such a melting pot.
6. CULTURE: When the term is used to describe the ancient culture of varnasrama in India, Prabhupada referred to this as truly civilised society and happily accepted the term and identified with it.
7. ACADEMIC: When Hindu is used in the academic field to refer to indigenous religions of India, he accepted the identity and term.
8. LEGAL & SOCIAL: In all matters pertaining to legalities, social acceptance and integration, Prabhupada also accepted the term and had Hindu leaders specifically, authenticate that his movement was indeed Hindu.

The quotes to substantiate all these statements and contexts are available, but to restrict the length of this blog, I have not included them.

So altogether for ISKCON it’s not quite simply a matter of wither they are Hindus or not. Clearly they are and they are not, all depending on what context we are referring to, of course. Prabhupada himself points out the same to a disciple in the following statement:

"Regarding your questions: Hindu means the culture of the Indians……… But the culture of the Indians or the Hindus is Vedic and beginning with the four varnas and four asramas. So these four varnas and four asramas are meant for really civilized human race. *Therefore the conclusion is actually when a human being is civilized in the true sense of the term he follows the system of varna and asrama and then he can be called a "Hindu.'' Our Krsna Consciousness Movement is preaching these four varnas and four asramas*, *so naturally it has got some relationship with the Hindus. So Hindus can be understood from the cultural point of view, not religious point of view."

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