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Dialogue with ISKCON:
A Roman Catholic Perspective

 

John A. Saliba, S.J.

Part One
NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to a separate footnote page.

This paper by John Saliba presents a challenge to both the Catholic Church and to ISKCON. Saliba explores the desire and the ability of both traditions to engage in fruitful dialogue and examines the various ways the Catholic Church and ISKCON could meet in dialogue. While also looking at obstacles to dialogue he concludes that it is appropriate and timely now for a formal dialogue to begin. He holds that the current religious scene calls for an examination of the relationship between the dominant churches and the minority or new religions. His perspective is informed, well researched, and comprehensive, and deserves to be met with a favourable response from ISKCON.

For centuries the Christian West has enjoyed relative isolation from the great Eastern religious traditions. Over the last few decades it has become impossible to ignore them. Immigration, travel and mass communication have made people aware of the irreconcilable worldviews that different religions propose and of the need to develop working relationships with people of different faith commitments. There is a need to construct theologies which explain the presence and persistence of diverse religions as well as pastoral programs to deal with the misconceptions and difficulties that arise between people who adhere to different religious tenets and follow conflicting ethical norms and lifestyles.

The presence of new religious movements in the West has brought sharply into focus the problems of religious pluralism and inter-religious relationships. Buddhists and Hindus have embarked on their own programmes to disseminate their respective faiths and can no longer be seen as people who must be converted to Christianity. These traditional Eastern faiths and many other smaller alternative religious groups have employed conventional evangelisation techniques to attract Christians who are not quite committed to their traditional religious upbringing. Although the new religious movements comprise only a small percentage of the world population, they should not be dismissed as unimportant or negligible. David Barrett estimates that about 140 million people belong to all these religious groups combined, and that most of their adherents live in Asia - with only about 3.5 million in the Western world.1 Since the proliferation of small religious groups has increased over the last few decades, the establishment of good relations with the new religions merits the attention of all those concerned with religious conflicts.

This essay explores the issue of how the Christian West should relate to the new religious movements with reference to one specific instance, namely the relationship between the Catholic Church and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).2 It will, first of all, focus on ISKCON's Hindu background, and examine its openness and willingness to engage in the kind of dialogue that is being carried out between the world religions. Second, the Roman Catholic reactions to Hinduism will be summarised, stressing particularly the developments that have taken place since Vatican Council II. To what extent and degree these reactions apply to ISKCON will be discussed. Third, one of the major obstacles in the dialogue between the Catholic Church and ISKCON-namely the evangelical and missionary goals of both religious groups-will be examined. Finally, several possible ways in which contact between the Catholic Church and ISKCON can be established and maintained will be briefly outlined. It is the position of this paper that, in spite of several difficulties, some form of dialogue between these two religious traditions is both possible and desirable.

Hindu and ISKCON Attitudes to Other Religions and to Dialogue
The story of the advent of the Hare Krishna movement in the West has been retold many times. Its evangelising techniques have also been the subject of heated debates and accusations.3 What is often forgotten, particularly in the public forum, is its thoroughly Hindu background as a continuation of the Hindu devotion towards Krishna. ISKCON must be understood in the context of the Hindu religious tradition. Its mission to the West has to be seen not as a great novelty, but as an extension of the nineteenth-century Hindu renaissance that brought Hindu missionaries to Western shores.4

Stillson Judah has observed that the Vaishnava movement begun by Caitanya (1486-1534?) is "presently represented most faithfully by the Gaudiya Vaishnavas and by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness."5 The main religious text, the Bhagavad-gita, on which the Hare Krishna movement bases its theology, forms part of the traditional Hindu scriptures.6

Although "many Indian Brahmans do not recognise its authenticity because ISKCON devotees tend to be 'foreign'"7 one cannot understand ISKCON's worldview without some knowledge of Hindu philosophy and theology. Its attitudes to other religions and its readiness for participation in the current encounter between world religions must be seen in the framework of the Hindu theology of religions.

Hindu Theology of Religions
It has often been remarked that Hindu tolerance of other religions is compatible with religious dialogue. This might well be the case, but the Hindu theology of religions is rather complex and, like any other theology of religions, is not immune to difficulties.8

In an interesting and provocative article, K. R. Sundararajan9 examined the Hindu approach to religious dialogue particularly from the Brahmanical tradition. He maintains that Hinduism has tended to deal with internal diversity by adopting an attitude of tolerance, while it coped with non-Hindu religious groups by fostering isolation and indifference. He distinguishes two models of dialogue. The first, "the closed-border model", implies that each individual should be interested solely in the religion of one's birth and make no effort to convert others. At best, this model would restrict any attempts to evangelise others and maintain a relationship of intellectual curiosity with other religious groups. At its worst, the model would downgrade, if not deny, the validity of other religions and relegate them to imperfect and/or temporary expressions of genuine religiousness. The second model, "the border-crossing" one, involves a process of indigenisation, and represents the spirit of both compromise and accommodation. It aims at appropriating elements from other religious traditions. Such a model has the disadvantage of minimising or removing the distinctiveness of other religions and of reinterpreting them to fit into Hindu theology. Sundararajan argues that neither of the two models can by themselves provide a basis for a meaningful dialogue, but can, if integrated, lay the groundwork for a such a relationship. The first model stresses rootedness in one's tradition; the second, openness to others and willingness to expand the dimension of one's faith. That many Hindus have succeeded in combining these two models is evident from their participation in dialogue with the Christian Church. 10 These two models are hardly unique to Hinduism. They may be found in other religions as well as in ISKCON.
ISKCON Theology of Religions

The issue of whether ISKCON is ready for dialogue was discussed explicitly in the early 1980s by J. Frank Kenny who concluded that this new religious movement is not tolerant of other religions.11 Kenny argued that ISKCON's theology is exclusive, and fails to recognise the validity and effectiveness of other beliefs and practices unless they could be fitted into ISKCON's own theology. In other words, ISKCON's intentions of relating to other faiths are motivated solely by the desire to convert others to Krishna Consciousness, and its members do not relate to members of other faith with the openness that dialogue demands. Consequently, ISKCON cannot engage in meaningful dialogue.

Almost a decade later Kenny took up the same point and asked whether ISKCON is ready to abandon its exclusive views and recognise that other religions can provide an encounter with the sacred.12 He reaffirms his previous conclusion that ISKCON is intolerant of other religions, but notices the recent efforts by some ISKCON members to adopt a much more positive approach to other religions. He mentions four developments indicative of a change in ISKCON: (1) the fact that ISKCON, which had previously rejected the "Hindu" label, is now recognising itself as a Hindu religion; (2) the acknowledgment that Christianity is a religion in its own right and not just an imperfect form of Krishna consciousness; (3) the adoption of academic studies to understand and interpret Krishna consciousness; and (4) the recognition that the comparative method can be employed to delineate similarities between Hinduism and Christianity. 13

In spite of these hopeful signs, however, Kenny rules out the possibility of any official dialogue with ISKCON as an institution. He adds that the prospects for dialogue are further hindered by the facts that (1) it is not easy to determine who speaks for ISKCON, and (2) it is doubtful whether ISKCON has any official beliefs.The same issue has been discussed at some length by Steven Gelberg, a former member of ISKCON, who agrees with Kenny that ISKCON has been too exclusive. He writes:

    ISKCON's theological exclusivism has also impeded a true planting of Krishna Consciousness in the West. Viewing itself as an island in a sea of illusion, ISKCON has rarely sought intellectual or theological common ground with its host society. Religions and philosophies not rooted in the "Vedic" tradition have tended to be dismissed out of hand.14

But Gelberg disagrees with Kenny and thinks that the "insistent and unthinking scriptural literalism with which many devotees preach Krishna consciousness does little justice to the richness and subtlety of Vaishnava texts and commentaries".15 Elsewhere he points out that its founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, consistently affirmed the legitimacy of Christianity as an authentic religious path that leads devotees to God consciousness.16

Gelberg also states that Prabhupada held that Christianity was ontologically inferior to Krishna Consciousness and criticised Christians for compromising their religious ideals with mundane things and for abandoning the path laid out in the Bible, especially by their eating of animal flesh. Prabhupäda's insistence on the ethical principle of abstaining from killing animals for food has been the major obstacle to dialogue.17 Gelberg, however, expresses hope that the Western devotees of ISKCON will eventually examine their scriptures "for those theological principles that would allow those [Christian] forms of spirituality to exist beyond the conceptual and linguistic boundaries of their own chosen tradition."18

The most explicit effort to initiate a dialogue between the Hare Krishna movement and the Catholic Church was initiated in the mid-1980s by Gelberg [then known under his Hare Krishna name of Subhananda das].19 Though not an official statement by any means, his essay is an indication that some ISKCON members have been reconsidering their relationship with other religions for over a decade.

Gelberg begins by contradicting Kenny and stating that the Hare Kåñëa movement is quite open to dialogue. He is convinced of this because the movement is "a significant representative of mainline Hindu tradition"20 and, therefore, could participate in the Catholic Church's dialogue with the world's religions. He then examines the Catholic theology of non-Christian religions, of Hinduism in general, and of the Hindu devotional traditions. Next he turns to the anti-cult criticisms of ISKCON and maintains that they could easily be levelled against Christian monasticism. He writes:

    In our dominantly secular and materialistic society, it is easy to forget that Christianity has had a long and rich tradition of monasticism which has demanded from its practitioners high levels of commitment, necessitating radical rejection of the world; the weakening of ties with one's biological family; entrance into a highly insular, cloistered community; renunciation of personal possessions; obedience to a religious superior and to a Rule; strict asceticism and self-mortification; the adoption of unusual monastic dress; shaving of the head; celibacy; a change of diet; a rigorous regimen of prayer and meditation; and physical labour.21

In Gelberg's thought, then, monasticism is a form of religious commitment common to the traditions of both the Catholic Church and ISKCON, and could provide the foundation for mutual understanding and cooperation.22 He develops both a Roman Catholic and an ISKCON rationale for dialogue. For Catholics, dialogue with ISKCON, has several advantages: (1) it would make significant contribution to the ongoing Catholic-Hindu dialogue; (2) it would be a good starting point for the Catholic-Hindu dialogue because ISKCON is theologically closer to the Church than any other form of Hinduism; and (3) it would contribute to the spiritual and ecclesial renewal of the Catholic Church itself.23 For members of ISKCON, dialogue with the Catholic Church would be beneficial for (1) it would challenge Hare Krishna devotees to re-examine their attitude towards religious pluralism; (2) it would be a learning process for ISKCON members who must deal with similar problems which the church faced throughout its history; (3) it would contribute to a constructive criticism of ISKCON; and (4) it would help ISKCON to give importance to the interior and contemplative aspects of the spiritual life. 24

One of the practical benefits ISKCON might attain through dialogue, but somewhat downplayed by Gelberg, is that through official dialogue ISKCON might gain respectability. One might also add that dialogue could also enable both ex-Catholic members of ISKCON and their distraught parents to deal more successfully with interfamilial frictions brought about by membership in this religious movement.

It would seem that Gelberg's position has ceased to be the viewpoint of a handful of devotees and has become a movement within ISKCON itself. Recent statements by some ISKCON members suggest that Prabhupada's theology of religions was more ecumenical. In a recent essay examining ISKCON's theology of religion, Ravindra Svarupa das argues that Prabhupada's evaluation of religions was neither condemnatory nor sectarian. Rather, ISKCON's founder maintained that bhakti, or devotion, is the highest form of religious expression, and that it may be practised within other religious traditions.25

A similar position has been advanced by Ranchor das who adds that Prabhupada said that "he had not come to convert Christians into Hindus, but to encourage them to follow their own religion properly."26 Ranchor däsa concedes that "ISKCON has in many circles gained a reputation for being a type of fundamentalist Hinduism, always on the lookout for converts and self-advancement, whose members are too busy putting their own point of view to hear what others have to say."27 This, he insists, is not the theology of religions espoused by ISKCON's founder. Such a position, endorsed by other ISKCON members,28 eschews the forceful evangelisation tactics and proselytisation efforts that are so frequently linked with new religious movements and rightly held to be incompatible with the nature of religious dialogue.

More recently, some members of ISKCON have shown interest in initiating a formal dialogue with the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. While not all ISKCON members might be happy with this turn of events, unanimity of members is hardly a requisite for a productive dialogue. Many conservative Catholics object strongly to, or are highly suspicious of, ecumenical exchanges between the Catholic Church and other religious groups, be they Christian or not. Nor are the schisms within ISKCON itself an insuperable barrier to inter-religious dialogue.

Other signs of ISKCON's readiness for dialogue are noticeable if one looks at internal developments within the movement itself. While in the late 1970s and 1980s the movement was beset with controversy brought about by attacks from outside, and schisms and scandals from within, the 1990s have seen it acquire some stability. There has been a maturation within ISKCON, a maturation seen especially in its members' ability to enact substantial reforms in their organisation,29 to reflect critically and constructively on their own theology, commitment, and behaviour,30 and to listen to assessments of their practices by outsiders.31 Besides, there are indications that an ecumenical movement is emerging within its ranks and that efforts to heal the differences between the various internal factions are well under way. Moreover, the Governing Body Commission, which appears to have assumed the role of ISKCON's official organ of religious authority, is considering a draft on ISKCON's relations with people of other faiths, a draft which contains all the ingredients for a fruitful dialogue.32 One might also add that ISKCON has never engaged in targeting the Catholic Church as the archenemy of religion, as some Christian writers and organisations have done.33

Part Two

Back to Vol. 4, No. 2 Contents

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