NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to
a separate footnote
Rasamandala dasa has offered us this article to help clarify
some of the concerns and reservations that many of us may have with
educational approaches to Vedanta and Hinduism. He reassures us
with his positive treatment of the subject and with his obvious
experience in the field of teaching Hinduism and Vaishnavism in
British schools. He has systematised our objectives very well and
marries this to the difficulty in interpretation experienced between
members of the tradition and those non-practitioners who attempt
to teach the tradition to others. This article is essential for
those in our society engaged in the religious or academic fields.
In my last article1, I applied
modern communications theory to explore how presentations to school
audiences can improve public perception of ISKCON. We also discussed
how, within the statutory educational framework, there may be legitimate
scope for teaching about Krishna Consciousness. We also heard how,
in Britain, our Society has been fortunate to enjoy both these benefits.
However, right from the start, there were a couple of notable challenges.
Firstly we were assumed, and required, to represent one of the principle
world religions2, namely Hinduism.
This raised pertinent, and sometimes controversial, theological
questions about the identity of ISKCON and its members (we'll come
back to this later). Secondly and subsequently, this also meant
that ISKCON Educational Services staff were required to make presentations
not just on ISKCON and Gaudiya Vaishnavism, nor on broader Vaishnavism,
but on the whole spectrum of Hinduism itself. I began to question
whether this supported our Society's aims or was even consistent
with them. As I pondered, and read more school textbooks on Hinduism,
I considered and noted down some of the possible benefits of speaking
and writing about the subject. However, I also noticed in many school
textbooks room for considerable improvement.
This concerned me. We were, whether we liked it or not, strongly
identified with the broader tradition and any misrepresentation
of that could reflect badly on ISKCON. On a positive note, it was
evident that a large percentage of our presentation material on
Hinduism per se was congruent with Krishna Consciousness, giving
us ample scope to redress such errors. In other words, I concluded
that the reputation of ISKCON, at least within the educational world3
, depended significantly on public perception of the broader tradition,
which we had ample opportunity to influence.
What I intend to do here, therefore, is to discuss the educationalists
perspective on the Hindu tradition, identifying areas of apparent
misunderstanding or misrepresentation. This subject is presented
mainly through the experience of our schools programme in the UK,
though it naturally has implications on higher academic levels.
Indeed, I hope this article, presented here principally for Krishna
devotees, will form the basis of an extended study of interest to
scholars (in both Religious Education and Religious Studies). My
comments here are not intended to be a criticism of the educational
and academic worlds, where there is increasing sensitivity towards
multi-cultural issues. I hope, though, that by identifying possible
shortcomings, in methodology, this article will be constructively
The subject is discussed in terms of the ten objectives which ISKCON
Educational Services has formulated in teaching about Hinduism.
Each objective (in bold type) is followed by a brief explanation
including practical information for devotees making presentations
in the educational sphere.
1. To promote an understanding of the universal and axiomatic
principles of Sanatana Dharma and Varnashrama Dharma
as revealed through the Vedic scriptures and as particularly embodied
by Vaishnavism, and to explain how these relate to the tradition
generally called Hinduism.
This first objective serves two main purposes: 1) To clarify the
meaning of the term 'Hinduism'. and 2) To clearly establish ISKCON's
identity in relation to it.
ISKCON's relationship to Hinduism is contentious for some devotees,
and the Society's often ambivalent stance has been noted by both
devotees4 and academics5.
For most people (and why not for devotees?) it is convenient, if
not necessary, to explain ISKCON's roots in relation to the world
we know. With this, however, are theological implications, as explained
in the Science of Self Realisation:
When attempting to place the Krishna Consciousness movement within
a conventional historical-cultural context, many people identify
the movement with Hinduism. But this is misleading. Srila Prabhupada
6 disavows connection with the
pantheism, polytheism and caste consciousness that pervades modern
Hinduism. Although Krishna Consciousness and modern Hinduism share
a common historical root-India's ancient Vedic culture-Hinduism
has become... a sectarian establishment, whereas Krishna Consciousness
is universal and transcends relative, sectarian designations.
(SSR. Ch.3. Article: 'Krishna Consciousness: Hindu Cult or Divine
From this statement, it is not quite clear whether the author7
is suggesting that ISKCON refute any connection whatsoever with
Hinduism. Still, ISKCON devotees well understand the thrust of this
statement. The Vedas establish the soul's identity as distinct from
the body. Consequently designations such as Hindu, Muslim and Christian
are ultimately no less illusory and divisive than discrimination
on the grounds of age, race or gender. Srila Prabhupada confirms
Thus the most dangerous of the dirty things within our hearts
is this mis-identification of the body as the self. Under the
influence of this misunderstanding, one thinks, 'I am this body.
I am an Englishman. I am an Indian. I am an American. I am Hindu.
I am Muslim'.8
Nevertheless, in the context of school and college teaching, the
simple aphorism 'I am not a Hindu', though doctrinally correct,
may need further explanation and may otherwise lead to problems!9
I'm not suggesting that devotees resort to pragmatic duplicity,
pretending to be Hindus whilst inwardly considering otherwise. Rather
they have a genuine connection with that tradition and this needs
Srila Prabhupada elaborates:
It (the word Hindu) is neither a Sanskrit word nor is it found
in the Vedic literature. But the culture of the Indians or the
Hindus is Vedic and begins with the four varnas and asramas...
Our Krishna Consciousness Movement is preaching these four varnas
and asramas, so naturally it has got some relationship
with the Hindus. (Letter from Srila Prabhupada to Janmanjaya and
Taradevi, 9th July 1970)
As well as confirming 'some relationship', Srila Prabhupada makes
a couple of important points:
- The culture of the Hindus is Vedic (i.e. derived from the Vedas
and their supplements).
- The word Hindu is not found in Vedic literature.
Considering this second point, the question naturally arises, 'Where
then does the word come from?' Scholars suggest that it was used
as early as the eighth century CE by Persian invaders to refer to
the people on the far side of the River Sindhu (now the Indus in
Pakistan). It's early connotations were not specifically religious,
but social, cultural, political and geographical. Though the terms
'Hindu' and 'Hinduism' are now in common use, their exact meanings
remain unclear and somewhat arbitrary. Hinduism is not, therefore,
necessarily synonymous with Vaidika Dharma (the religion
of the Vedas) nor with Sanatana or Varnashrama Dharma.
Not all Hindus believe in the pervasive doctrines of karma and rebirth,
nor is it clear whether Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists are included
in their ranks10. However, it
is universally accepted that Hinduism was a name given by foreigners,
and generally accepted by insiders since the early nineteenth century.
They too had difficulties with its exact meaning, as Eleanor Nesbitt
'The term Hinduism... is essentially a Western construct. It
was the introduction of the concept of Hinduism, and the presence
of Westerners talking, writing and asking about Hinduism which
led Hindus to try to define true and false Hinduism, which they
did (and still do) in different ways. Thus, for example, Bankim
Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) distinguished between 'false and
corrupt Hinduism' which Europeans denounced and 'true Hinduism'
which, in his case, involved devotion to God and a humanistic
ethic (King 1978). For Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), on the other
hand, true Hinduism was the monistic philosophy of Advaita Vedanta,
which Bankim has rejected as part of false Hinduism. Many more
examples could be cited. For our purposes 'Hinduism' is an umbrella
term for a great number of practices and beliefs each of which
belongs to some of the millions of people who for historical reasons
are called Hindus.
Despite countless differences of region and language, these practices
and beliefs bear a family likeness. There may be no one founder
and no overarching credal statement but there are modes of worship
and ways of thinking which appear like a recurrent motif.11
Despite the lack of clear definition and consequent confusion,
Srila Prabhupada clearly favours the meaning of 'the followers of
the Vedas' (Vaidika Dharma, as mentioned above). This is
the definition which ISKCON Educational Services uses with British
schools. The following quotes from Srila Prabhupada may further
You may call the Vedas Hindu but Hindu is a foreign name. We
are not Hindus. Our real identification is Varnashrama.
Varnashrama denotes the followers of the Vedas.12
Formerly, the people of India (now misnamed as 'Hindus') followed
Varnashrama dharma or Sanatana Dharma...13
Here Srila Prabhupada is equating Vaidika Dharma with both
Varnashrama Dharma and Sanatana Dharma .14
It may of course be incorrect to say that modern Hinduism is Vaidika
Dharma, or Sanatana Dharma, since many members of the
tradition are not practising scriptural tenets.15
Nevertheless, accepting this definition of 'genuine Hinduism', there
remains diversity which begs cohesive explanation. ISKCON's relationship
to the tradition also requires clarification. I list below several
points, some or all of which may be useful when giving school presentations:
- Hinduism is a foreign name...
- Though the meaning is somewhat arbitrary, we could say that
Hinduism means 'those who follow the Vedic scriptures', and that's
the definition we'll use. The words 'Hindu' and 'Hinduism' are
not found in Vedic literature...
- The Vedic literature favours the term Sanatana Dharma
(explain in terms of the eternal soul free from designations,
whose natural function is to serve God).
- Hindus believe in Varnashrama Dharma, which was originally
determined by qualification rather than birth.
- The Vedas, though ultimately promoting liberation and love of
God, accommodate different levels of spirituality, according to
the three principal stages of karma, jnana and bhakti.16
- There are six main philosophical/ theological17
systems, which are progressive18
and culminate in Vedanta.19
- Within Vedanta there are two main schools of thought-monism
(impersonalism) and monotheism (personalism). ISKCON is monotheistic.
(Explain both schools in relationship to 'the many gods').
- Within Hinduism today there are three main focuses of worship:
Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti (Durga). The Shaivites and Shaktas are
more disposed towards impersonalism whereas the Vaishnavas are
- Members of ISKCON are Gaudiya (Bengali) Vaishnavas following
in the footsteps of Lord Caitanya...
The subject is obviously complex! Taking into account the issues
of migration and acculturation, modern Hinduism becomes highly enigmatic,
particularly for teachers. It is understandable that many school
texts misrepresent the tradition through over generalisation. It
cannot be accurately represented without appreciation of its great
diversity. And yet it needs to be presented, as far as possible,
as a unified whole, a comprehensive picture. Explaining its roots
in terms of Sanatana Dharma and Varnashrama Dharma,
as based on the Vedas, and with particular reference to the self's
distinction from the body, can significantly help in this respect.
Our first objective then, as discussed above, may help educationalists
in untangling the web of religious, social and cultural phenomena
which we call Hinduism. Referring back to my doubts about teaching
the subject, Srila Prabhupada confirms ISKCON's intended role:
Srila Prabhupada said it was certainly a fact that we are the
authorities when it comes to teaching what is 'real Hinduism'.
It is just and proper that the educational circles of Sweden should
accept us as such. (Letter from Tamal Krishna Goswami to H.G.
Vegavan Prabhu, 22nd August 1977)
2. To counteract the portrayal of Hindu theology as either (a)
exclusively impersonal or (b) impersonal at best (i.e. monistic,
polytheistic, anthropomorphic, but never monotheistic).
In teaching about the Vedic tradition this is perhaps ISKCON's
principal aim, particularly in consideration of Srila Prabhupada's
desires20. He writes:
With reference to your article in the Los Angeles Times dated
Sunday, January 11,1970, under the heading 'Krishna Chant', I
beg to point out that the Hindu religion is perfectly based in
the personal conception of God, or Vishnu. The impersonal conception
of God is a side issue, or one of the three features of God.21
Despite this, almost all authors, teachers and lecturers in Religious
Education fail to acknowledge the existence of a monotheism doctrine
within Hinduism. A recently available two-volume publication suitably
illustrates this point. The first book, covering the Semitic religions-Judaism,
Christianity and Islam-is entitled 'Believers in One God'. Implicit
in this is the notion that monotheism is absent from the other major
traditions- Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism.22
Text books abound with similar inaccuracies, suggesting that all
Hindus ultimately believe in the 'Universal World Soul' (Brahman).
Note for example:
...frequent use of statues of 'gods and goddesses'. Although
these are merely 'pointers' to that which defies full description...23
It is essential to realise that the images are not worshipped
but can be used for the focus of worship as symbols of the One
Why then this inordinate leaning towards impersonalism? I'd suggest
- Teachers in schools are usually sensitive and, in trying to
rationalise the multiplicity of deities (without resorting to
polytheism which is unquestionably heretical to the Western mind)
find monism a convenient explanation. One textbook illustrate
'Hinduism is full of stories of hundreds of gods and of goddesses
and lesser celestial beings who people the heavens and earth.
Yet most Hindus believe that God is one. Westerners are often
baffled by this apparent contradiction or paradox.' And continues:
'...but it can be simply explained. Ninian Smart of Lancaster
University has likened this [impersonal] idea to that experiment
you may have done in Science where a single beam of white light
is refracted into many colours by a prism. For most Hindus, their
many gods and goddesses display 'aspects' or 'refraction's' of
The personalist, however, can also reconcile 'God is One' with
the multiplicity of lesser deities26
though it may be more complex in the classroom situation.
- Teachers are often eager to dispel any preconception that Hinduism
includes idolatry, clearly a heresy to the Western psyche. Monism
conveniently but inaccurately explains the use and function of
the murti (as illustrated in the quotes above).
- The influence of Vivekananda and other advaitins in promoting
Hinduism in the West.
- The natural predisposition which academics have for the path
- The discomfort which some Christians experience in meeting another
tradition in which adherents claim a unique, personal relationship
Room does not permit us here to explore these reasons at length.
What is important, though, is to mention that countering the impersonal
concept is not easy, even in those whose commitment is only educational!
One problem is that bhaktiis (ostensibly) accepted, but again
akin to the monist, as a means to an end (mukti or liberation)29.
Personalism is also apparently accommodated but again in a monistic
sense, often mentioned in connection with one's chosen deity (Ishtadev).
We may note here the egalitarian connotations! Feminism also has
its influence with authors suggesting that God (or Brahman) should
be called 'It'-a term that sensitive people wouldn't use for their
cat or dog! The subject is complex and I've spent many hours with
educationalists, locked in theological discussion; not without some
success, but often left considering 'How do we succinctly explain
the personalistic conception to teachers and how can they deliver
it in a way accessible to pupils?' This remains for us quite a challenge!30
Fortunately, help is coming from above! Scholars are beginning
to recognise that Vedanta is not the monopoly of the advaitins.
For example, Dr. Julius Lipner writes:
Many Westerners also believe-alas, this is true for too many
of the modern Indian intelligentsia as well-that the great Advaita
Shankara is representative of Hindu religious thinkers. Now this
belief strikes me as manifestly indefensible... There are other
religious thinkers who deserve more than a courteous look in...
Ramanuja is one of them. (The Face of Truth, Macmillan
3. To counteract the general portrayal of the Vedic tradition
as primitive and superstitious.
The perception and portrayal of India (and indeed the third-world
generally) as primitive and superstitious is not confined to the
academic or educational world.32
It is endemic, I suggest, in broader society, with roots in empiricism,
hedonism and the quest for affluence. The 'standard of living' is
the predominant measure of merit and morality. Simple living, devoid
of car and computer, is identified with our cave-dwelling forefathers.
Fortunately, ecological and environmental concerns are now challenging
many widely held assumptions-the Darwinian construct, for example,
by which evolution is external and unidirectional, and God and the
soul redundant, relegated to the role of secular religion.
And what then is the role of that religion? Could certain
elements of Christianity with its world-confirming-or more precisely,
world-improving-ethic have helped foster the idea that the third
world has little to offer but opportunities for missionary work
abroad? Charity advertisements, inadvertently perhaps, reinforce
the image of a parched land yielding little to scantily clad natives.
More ominously, though, there are school texts, produced by so-called33
Christians, which intentionally focus on aspects of the Vedic lifestyle
predicted to evoke disgust. One book on ISKCON, for example, claimed
that members drank cow's urine34.
Fortunately, most Christians in the RE world these days are far
more charitable! Credit must certainly go to such organisations
as the CEM (Christian Education Movement), and many RE advisers,
teachers and so on, for their valuable efforts in promoting multi-cultural
Nevertheless, some branches of Christianity, particularly the evangelical,
strongly oppose, apparently on moral grounds, the teaching in schools
of anything remotely 'supernatural'. Astrology may be branded as
the 'work of the devil' and meditation condemned as 'demonology'.
The Vedic tradition tends to view subtle phenomena
35 with far less suspicion and without resorting to unsubstantiated
accusations of superstition. (Superstition may be prevalent, in
India and elsewhere, but this does not imply that all notions of
the paranormal are such, nor that such superstition is completely
groundless.) In studying the Western world view then, from both
secular (or 'scientific') and religious (or 'faith') perspectives,
there seems great commonality in their reluctance to accept anything
beyond that which we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. This
we'll discuss further in the next section.
How then do some school texts reflect and project a distorted,
primitive image of India, its culture and heritage? This will be
discussed, somewhat implicitly, in future sections of this article
(including objectives 5, 6 and 8) Here a couple of examples will
suffice. The first is text, describing the 'Aryan tribes' led by
Originally they were nomadic cattle herdsmen and hunters. The
Vedic Aryans worshipped deities who controlled the forces of nature...
and domesticated the horse and the cow and used tools of iron,
copper and bronze. Their gods were flattered through prayer in
order to gain favour.36
Notice the connotations which may reflect poorly on modern Hinduism
(e.g. the reference to deity worship). It must be acknowledged that
other religions have similar accounts of a tribal past (e.g. Judaism
and Christianity37) but according
to Hindus this portrayal of their heritage is erroneous (as we'll
discuss later) and, additionally, there's often the assumption that
India hasn't evolved as much as elsewhere.
My second example refers not to text, but to illustration. In this
case of the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses, whose forms too
often are depicted as bizarre or comical. Whilst recently reviewing
material intended for school use I made the following comments:
'Brahma looks more like Attila the Hun with two or three extra heads'
and 'Nataraja's anatomy doesn't quite reach human standards what
to speak of divine. Besides a general stiffness, his right foot
seems to have ended up on the end of his left leg'. Such drawings,
had they been published, would have further undermined the integrity
and dignity of the Vedic culture. Again this reinforces the need
for educationalists to consult faith members who can 'see with the
eyes of devotion'. Fortunately the professionals in Religious Education
are increasingly eager to receive such feedback. We are optimistic
that the sophisticated and theologically-based worship of the arca
vigraha (murti or image) will no longer be mistaken for
the anthropomorphic 38 worship
of tribal man!
4. To promote the study of religion in general (and Hinduism
in particular) from the experiential and faith perspective as well
as from (or in preference to) the empirical and academic point of
view. (Exclusive adherence to the latter approach, which views beliefs
and practices only in response to external factors, may undermine
the philosophical integrity of a faith).
Modern preference for empirical knowledge my lie at the root of
any misrepresentation of Vedic tradition. According to Vaishnava
thought, exclusive reliance on empiricism suggests lack of faith
in the authority of the Supreme. The Bhagavad-gita confirms
that scholarship without such faith falls within the category of
mayaya pahrita jnana-knowledge stolen by illusion. In other
words, pride in experimental knowledge to manipulate39
the world for selfish purposes, concentrated or extended, results
in illusion and neglect of spiritual welfare.
Such statements may appear to be those of the unsophisticated literalist.
Indeed, academics have often interpreted Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy,
with it's concept of achintya40
(inconceivability), as being anti-intellectual, opposed to the use
of rationale, or just downright irrational. In actuality the systematic
search for knowledge is not rejected but subsumed to the process
of bhakti. Lord Krishna confirms that the ultimate result of knowledge
( jnana) is surrender to the authority of the Lord (B.G.
7.19). Devotees further explain this, claiming that acceptance of
the inconceivability of God, and a subsequent understanding of the
need to accept revelationary knowledge to know Him, is in itself
rational. This has sometimes been termed 'reasonable faith' as opposed
to 'blind faith'.
The apparent dichotomy between belief (derived from faith) and
knowledge (derived from empirical science) is a particularly Western
construct41-and a biased one. In both cases, for the empiricist
and the revelationist, it is a question of faith; specifically,
faith in authority, whether it be to guru or orientalist, scripture
or scientific thesis. Dr. Kim Knott argues in favour of this:
'Faith in the origins of revealed scripture is important
to most devotees; dependence on historical 'facts' is important
to most scholars of religion. To some extent the issue, both for
the devotee and the scholar, becomes one of 'authority'.42'
This discussion is not to condemn academia but to demonstrate the
shortcomings of empiricism within the domain of revealed knowledge.
The opinions of those with commitment (so necessary for subjective
realisation and effective transmission) may well compliment the
objectivity of the dispassionate scholar, provided he or she can
maintain objectivity43 . The problems
arise however when the scholar:
(a) is biased (as we'll discuss later with regards to the early
(b) accepts as canonical facts theories presented by others whose
methodology is flawed.
(c) tries to fit a religious tradition into a predetermined conceptual
model, often based on philosophical or religious predilections.
I'd also add (from the other side, as it were) that the devotee
benefits from interaction with the scholar. Such contact encourages
reflection and reassessment and prevents complacency, blind literalism
and unquestioning allegiance. The RE world in Britain is already
appreciating the benefits of mutual interaction between the two
communities-professional and confessional. In the recent development
of national Model Syllabuses for R.E.44
representatives of the six principal faiths drew up individual reports,
identifying what they would like to see taught in schools.
Many consider this a significant watershed, the result of many years
development in the philosophy of Religious Education and the methodology
of Religious Studies. The phenomenological approach to religion,
initiated in Britain in the late '60s by Dr. Ninian Smart, proposes
that religion cannot be understood devoid of objectivity and empathy.
Religion should not be studied with preconception and bias, nor
divorced from the people behind it-their values, attitudes and personal
experiences. Particularly significant is the development of 'ethnographic'
research, using data obtained from religious practitioners through
participant observation, informal chats, focused interviews and
so on. Many current schools texts feature quotes from faith members,
particularly children45 . Above
all, teacher and pupil alike are taught to respect the integrity
of all faiths. The emphasis on experiential learning, including
visits to faith communities, is an integral part of this positive
How then does adherence to empiricism still visibly colour the
presentation of Hinduism? For examples we can refer to standard
texts. Conspicuous to devotees is the presentation of theology as
a product of social, political and other external forces. Lets consider
a couple of passages from The Sacred Cow by A.L. Basham46
'Evidently the theistic Vaishnava cult had not long existed at
the time of this part of the Bhagavad Gita and was meeting
some opposition: 'The deluded world doesn't recognise Me as unborn
and changeless', says Krishna (7.25). 'Fools scorn Me', He says
elsewhere 'because I have taken on human form'.'
Basham here implies that the author is using philosophical texts
as a sophisticated way of name-calling. Furthermore, he adds:
'...It is quite clear that the text (of the Gita) is a
defence not only of the warrior's duty to wage righteous warfare
but also of the whole brahminical social system. This also suggests
a date... when Buddhists and other were strongly criticising the
doctrine of the four classes and declaring that birth made no
difference to a person's fundamental merit and value'.
Besides the fallacious nature of this argument, (as evinced by
the Gita itself47) attributing
political motives to the author is unsound both morally and academically.
The ultimate result is the undermining of the text's theological
credibility-the author's statements are no more respectable than
the rhetoric of partisan politicians. Though true revelationalist
is not opposed to the appropriate use of rationale, empiricism without
faith in the Supreme, or without respect for the opinions of these
with such faith, may compound error with offence. Satsvarupa dasa
Goswami has written:
'Today many scholars continue to minimise the existential and
transcendental validity of the Vedas, often without so much as
an explanation why empirical knowledge should take preference
over sabda, knowledge from authority'.48
Fortunately with the swing towards more appropriate methodologies,
both within religious studies and anthropology, some scholars are
beginning to appreciate this, i.e. that there may be profound spiritual
forces at work in the development of religion. Dr. Malory Nye writes:
'Furthermore, the sociological forces helping to shape such communities
are themselves shaped by other factors such as the desire to reproduce
religious traditions and the wish to express devotion '.49
5. To demonstrate the influence of the British on Hinduism,
especially with reference to the reform movements, and how this
may still colour our comprehension of the tradition.
Here I'd like to examine how the relationship between Britain and
India still colours the Westerners impression of Indian culture.
At first British government was careful not to impose any religious
constrains upon the Indian people. Indeed the zeal for abolishing
'human ignorance' rested not with church leaders or politicians
but more with rationalists like Hume and Berkeley, whose influence
was significant (as we'll later discuss). Racism, it seems, also
played its part. Thus upon his arrival in India in 1813, the governor
general marquis of Hastings wrote:
'The Hindoo appears a being merely limited to mere animal functions,
and even to them indifferent... with no higher intellect than
This may help us understand the prevalent attitudes of the time.
It was only at the beginning of the nineteenth century that, without
governmental sanction, the Christian evangelists came 'to India
to proselytise and undermine the superstition of the country'51.
H.H. Satsvarupa dasa Goswami writes:
'They did not hesitate to denounce the Vedic literature
as 'absurdities' meant 'for the amusement of children'.'52
When, at around the same period, the first Indologists appeared,
considering themselves the 'bearers of Christian light', some grew
to admire the Vedic culture. Despite this, stalwarts such as Wilson,
Muller and Monier-Williams frankly admitted their preference for
European values (often including Christianity) and hastily dismissed
Vedic philosophy and 'mythology'. Today's scholars are different,
though still a bias remains -not evangelical but empirical-as Satsvarupa
dasa Goswami notes:
'Vedic scholars... still, largely out of academic habit....give
tacit approval to many of the first Indologist's conclusions'.53
Thus their questionable opinions, still quoted as time-honoured
facts, remain as cornerstones of the academic world's misconception
of Vedic thought.
The other significant impact of British rule was on Hindu intelligentsia.
To win them over to Euro-centric thought was a deliberate policy
instigated by Thomas MaCauley, backed from 1835 with government
funds. Jackson and Killingley comment on the effect of British rule
'From the beginning of the nineteenth century printed books,
periodicals, public lectures and educational institutes began
to replace the guru-pupil relationship as ways of transmitting
ideas. Hindu ideas were also influenced by contact with the West,
especially in Calcutta, which at that time was the main seat of
British power in India'.54
Ironically enough, rather than resorting to Christianity, may
Hindu intellectuals turned to rationalism. The most notable developments
were the establishment of the Brahmo Samaj by a Bengali, Ram Mohan
Roy, and the Arya Samaj by Dayananda. Both attempted to combat degenerate
forms of Hinduism but in so doing indiscriminately rejected principles
axiomatic to Vaidika-Dharma including worship of the arca-vigraha
and acceptance of the devas (demigods).
Bhaktivinoda Thakur, the great Gaudiya Vaishnava acharya,
comments on another effect of rationalism:
'Amongst the scientific beliefs that have come to India along
with the British rule, the metaphysical inference that the Deity
has no form has been accepted as one of the most philosophical
acquisitions that man has ever obtained. The current of the abstruse
idea of a formless Brahman, which has invaded thought and worship
in India since the time of Pandit Shankaracharya has, with the
existence of the European idea of a formless God55,
become so much extended, especially in the minds of the youngsters
of this country, that if an attempt is made to establish the fact
that God has external56 form,
it is hooted down as an act of stupidity'.57
These effects, particularly the bias towards advaita, are
still being felt, as Lipner has noted in his introduction to 'The
Face of Truth' 58 (in the previously
quoted passage). Hindu intellectuals, as well as denying the personal
conception of God, also disputed the previously unquestionable validity
of the scriptures - and still do. For example, Mathoor Krishnamurti,
Executive Director of the Bhavan Centre in London, wrote recently
in the Gujarat Samachar
'I must share with my friends and readers .... the knowledge
that I have gleaned from years of research which brought me to
the conclusion that Sri Rama ruled 4000 to 5000 years ago.'
The letter prompted vehement replies. The secretary of the National
Council for Hindu Temples, Mr. Vipin Aery accused the writer of
ardha kukkuti nyaya-half-hen logic60,
referring to the rationalists' habit of picking and choosing which
scriptural tenets to accept and which to reject. Aery also attempted
to explain the necessity of revealed knowledge over and above the
'While recognising the folly of irrational belief and behaviour,
reason itself compels us to accept the inconceivable nature of
the Supreme. Our search for truth necessitates us going beyond
(though not necessarily against) our limited powers of perception
and conception-the very tools of empirical research'.61
This statement strikes a remarkable resemblance to the arguments
directed against Ram Mohan Roy. Lipner confirms:
'In debate, his Hindu opponents claimed equally to have used
reason to demonstrate reason's rational limitations in defence
of many of the so-called superstitions'.62
It can be safely concluded that many Hindu intellectuals use reason.
not only to analyse or interpret Vedic texts, but to deny their
statements and to denigrate the apparently superstitious aspects
of their own faith. In one Hinduism textbook, for example, the author
'In Hinduism, pollution means ritual impurity and has
little or nothing to do with actual physical or chemical
Caste abuse notwithstanding, is there not valid reason behind some
concepts of purity and pollution? Why, for example, does the relative
of a recently deceased Hindu undergo a predetermined period of 'impurity'?
Scholars may well benefit by seeking to understand the theological/
philosophical principles underpinning these practices. These topics,
though, are difficult to comprehend without understanding the science
of the soul and the process of transmigration. This may be the crux
of the matter.64
6. To redress the exclusive adherence to modern empiricism to
date the history and development of Hinduism, neglecting to mention
the opinions of the tradition itself
This objective is closely related to number four, which we've already
discussed at length. Here, though, we'll focus on the history of
Hinduism and how it's presented in schools. Most texts propound
standard theory, including mention of the Indus Valley Civilisation,
(largely based on archaeological evidence from two walled cities,
Mohenjo-daro and Harappa) and the subsequent Aryan invasion. Whether
or not there is truth in these hypothetical claims, the general
portrayal of progressive evolution from tribal status to modern
Hindu runs contrary to the Vedic paradigm of eternal, cyclical and
degenerative time. What has concerned Hindus has not been so much
the inclusion of empirical theory (usually termed historical
facts) but the exclusion of any mention of the tradition's
It is encouraging to note that the recently published Model Agreed
Syllabuses for RE, included in the Hinduism Working Party report,
a section on 'The Nature of Time', recommending study of 'traditional
views relating to the four yugas' and 'the nature of the present
age'65 . This is perceived by
many as a significant step in the right direction.
About the influence of early British scholars, Satsvarupa dasa
Goswami has written:
'Sir William Jones... drew fire from the eminent British historian
James Mill for his 'hypothesis of a high state of civilisation'.
Typically, Mill believed that the people of India never had been
advanced and that therefore their claim to a glorious past (which
some of the early Indologists supported) was historical fantasy.'66
Some Hindu intellectuals, though, have tried to establish the validity
of their claim, using empiric techniques. They have countered the
more recent dates which scholars generally attribute to scriptural
compilation and historical events. Shri Kshitish Chandra De, for
example, has authored one dissertation aimed to determine the period
of the Kurukshetra war.67 In his
book 68, he cites scriptural,
archaeological and astronomical69
evidence to conclude that the fratricidal war was fought in 3137
B.C.E., only two years at variance with the traditionally accepted
date. Some scientists have also claimed to have found evidence of
nuclear blasts occurring thousands of years ago. These arguments
may be somewhat tenuous but interesting in the light of Srila Prabhupada's
commentary on the Srimad Bhagavatam:
'The brahmastra is similar to the modern nuclear weapon
manipulated by atomic energy... but the difference is that the
atomic bomb is a gross type of nuclear weapon, whereas the brahmastra
is a subtle type of weapon produced by chanting hymns'.70
Shastra thus confirms the claims of these scientists, (whose
research, however, remains highly speculative). Still, the hypothesis
of cyclical time, suggesting previous high levels of civilisation
is not unreasonable. On the contrary, it seems that the notion of
linear time, and other corollaries, are central to the Westerners
general difficulty in grasping Vedic knowledge-and, indeed, spiritual
life at all.
7. To establish understanding and appreciation of the principles
behind the original caste system, i.e. Varnashrama Dharma.
Caste-as used in the terms caste-system-is a word derived from
the Portuguese71 and is equivalent
to the Indian vernacular term jati. It refers to 'structurally
distinct hereditary communities, differentiated not only by occupation
but by their degree of ritual purity in relation to one another'.72
It does not specifically refer to varna, but to sub-divisions, though
it is naturally related to it on the basis of its hereditary and
hierarchical structure. In delineating objective seven above, I've
equated caste-system with Varnashrama, both for the sake
of brevity and because colloquially the term is used to refer to
the system of both varnas and jatis.
The caste system is understandably notorious, not least for the
work of Gandhi in protecting the interests of the untouchables,
whom he called 'Harijans'73
. It is therefore a struggle, particularly with the popular egalitarian
ethic, to establish the validity of Varnashrama. However,
taking into account modern sentiment, ISKCON devotees would be expedient
in explaining the subject with reference to Lord Caitanya's defiance
of the rigid and perverse caste system. ISKCON's often predominantly
non-Asian (and hence 'untouchable') membership is a powerful living
example of opposition to hereditary and exploitative caste consciousness.
As mentioned earlier, Srila Prabhupada defines ISKCON's tradition
in terms of Sanatana Dharma and Varnashrama Dharma.
To establish the integrity of the original system is therefore crucial
in promoting the Society's reputable heritage. One way that we may
do this is by promoting the use of the term 'non-caste brahmin',
as applicable to ISKCON's initiated priests.
8. To abolish other misconceptions about practices which fall
under 'dismissive designations' such as untouchabiltiy, ritual purity
/ ritual pollution, child marriage, sati, image worship,
the Hindu pantheon, the sacred cow, etc.
The above mentioned 'dismissive designations' are so called since
they often evoke immediate rejection, without consideration of any
underlying principle. One reason for this is widespread malpractice.
Although it is fallacious to reject a practice wholesale on account
of its degeneration, this often seems the case74
. In 1991, members of the National Council for Hindu Temples expressed
to me the desire that in British schools less attention be given
to such contentious issues as mentioned above. Their response, though
understandable, reminded me of the reaction of the Reform Movements.
It would be better, I suggested, to address these issues and, where
appropriate, explain the rationale behind them. Devotees making
presentations to schools should also be prepared to address these
I believe there is a second reason for which malpractice, though
factual in itself, serves as a convenient smokescreen. It is the
issue of our world view, our model of reality, that which discerns
what is acceptable and what to reject. A short anecdote would be
in order here. One evening whilst showing a couple of teacher friends
around our new cowshed at Bhaktivedanta Manor, the cowherdsman kindly
offered us some fresh milk. We politely consented. As we stood there
holding the warm liquid in stainless steel bowls, we glanced at
each other, somewhat nervous, but sensing the profundity of the
moment. We explored our emotional and cognitive responses. 'What!
It came from where? Hasn't it been pasteurised? It's still warm!
Does it have lumps in?' After enjoying what turned out to be a delicious
drink, we realised not only where milk originates (including the
stuff in bottles) but how much we were out-of-touch with nature.
Moreover, though, we had the direct experience of the inadequacies
of trying to appreciate practices of one culture through the eyes
In this light, let us consider one of the above issues -child marriage.
There have undoubtedly been unspeakable social aberrations, sometimes
to secure sizeable dowries. Despite this there is within Vedic dharma
a system of betrothal75, often
from an early age. Actual marriage would never take place till shortly
after puberty. Even then we Westerners are usually abhorred. Teenage
girls freely mixing with boys, with every possibility of premature
pregnancy and so on, poses little problem, but marriage (what to
speak of arranged marriage) appears unmistakably barbaric. There
are, Vaishnavas claim, sound socio-theological reasons for early
marriage, as Srila Prabhupada explains in one lecture76
referring to his mother, wife and daughter, who were all married
at an early age. It must be noted, though, that any practice cannot
be literally translated or transposed in its entirety from one milieu
to another without considering the principles underpinning it.77
For this reason, educationalists often stress that 'religious beliefs'
and 'religious practices' should not be taught as discreet units
but constantly interrelated throughout the learning process.
9. To promote the prominence of certain historical figures.
These would include Madhva, Ramanuja and Caitanya, perhaps mentioning
the latter's contribution as a social reformer (though He appeared
well before the modern reform movements of the 19th and 20th Centuries).
In more recent history we could include the names of Bhaktivinoda,
Bhaktisiddhanta and Srila Prabhupada.
I originally included this point after reading one school text
book78 which stated:
'There is no one messenger, or even a group of men, to whom Hinduism
can look with any certainly and identify as the people through
whom God revealed Himself. Seven rishis or wise men are
mentioned in the ancient myths of Hinduism, but no details of
their lives are known...'
Thereafter the text refers only to 'Brahmins' and 'Gurus', without
mentioning specific names. After explaining their roles, it continues:
'Perhaps because these [current] guides can be so important in
the everyday life of a Hindu, historical figures of the past have
never acquired the significance of men like Moses, Siddhartha
This latter statement seems quite contentious, raising several
pertinent questions. In this case, though, I don't doubt the co-author's
intentions as both are well-respected, sympathetic towards multi-religious
education and experts in the underlying methodology. What is important
to note is that, despite their credentials, this section of the
book is inadequate, highlighting the unique challenge which Hinduism
presents. The tradition has neither a definite starting point (if
indeed one at all) nor a single founder. What's more, by mentioning
leaders significant to one tradition one may omit these revered
by another. In addition, as hinted in the text above, one needs
to choose between ancient seers, more recent leaders and the current
proliferation of gurus and swamis. The often amorphous divide between
human and immortal further complicates the issue. And yet, accounting
for local variations of worship and sampradayic affiliations,
it's not an impossible task, though one which certainly requires
In the above mentioned list, I have not mentioned Shankara, although
naturally he should be included in any in-depth study of Hinduism.
I have already mentioned the natural leaning towards impersonalism,
and thus Madhva and Ramanuja should be included alongside him. In
connection with the great Gaudiya Vaishnava acharyas, as mentioned,
I anticipate that as ISKCON develops, they will naturally receive
the attention of academics and scholars, particularly if we can
offer them assistance in their studies. Meanwhile, in schools and
colleges we can mention their significant contributions in preserving
and promoting the Vedic religion.
I have omitted Lord Krishna from this list as He shouldn't be regarded
as simply a historic figure. Still, amongst the great, His person
cannot be overlooked-not only from the Vaishnava theological stance
but in terms of popularity amongst the Hindu community (particularly
in the U.K.79) His exalted position
is confirmed by Dr. Harvey Cox:80
'Someone once called India the 'land of a million gods'. But
if there's one divinity who excels all others in pre-eminence
and beauty, it is surely the sky-blue Lord Krishna, the bejewelled
10. To demonstrate the relevance of the Vedic scriptures to
personal, social and moral education and the issues it raises such
as health, the environment, violence etc
This last objective presents perhaps the greatest challenge to
ISKCON, not just to departments involved with schools81
or colleges, but to the Society as a whole. As ISKCON evolves from
mainly monastic (and somewhat wary of the world) to more congregational
(and judicially affirmative) its predominant role will become supportive
rather then prescriptive. 82 This
necessitates development of a pastoral theology, translating doctrine
into positive and practical action. In this vein, for the Communications
Department Mukunda Maharaja83
has established a 'Universal Mission Statement' which begins:
'The Hare Krishna Movement benefits the individual and society
by offering practical solutions to today's material and spiritual
The Asian population faces its own challenges. In the West, largely
through tensions created by acculturation, the Hindu community is
questioning its collective identity. In the context of British Hindus
establishing their own communities, Malory Nye has written:
'Also the notion of a shared religion-that is, Hinduism itself-is
being constructed in this process'.
Many Hindus are questioning and reassessing their own tradition.
There are indications, particularly with its work amongst the Asian
youth, that ISKCON may become the predominant voice for post-modern
Hinduism86 . It is certainly a
possibility which devotees cannot ignore. Nor are scholars unaware,
as Basham confirms:
'Hinduism is once more becoming - quietly perhaps, but very definitely-an
expansive missionary religion taking in people from all over the
world....Now, the culmination of this process so far, is that
represented by the followers of the Hare Krishna Movement. Here
for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, is a new
Asian religion-that is to say, an Asian religion new to the Western
world-being practised by people of Western race and Judeo-Christian
background. It arose out of next to nothing in less than twenty
years and has become known all over the West. This, I feel, is
a sign of the times and an important fact in the history of the