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'
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'
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
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
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
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
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).