Home > ICJ Home > Issues On-line > ICJ Vol 7, No 2 December 1999 > A Response to: ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God by Saunaka Rsi Dasa, Vol. 7, No. 1
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A Response to: ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God
by Saunaka Rsi Dasa, Vol. 7, No.1

I am honoured at being invited to respond to this important landmark document. As a Roman Catholic concerned with interreligious relations I welcome and admire this statement. It is simple, lucid, moving and theologically convincing, and seems to make explicit much that I have already experienced and respected in members of ISKCON.

Historically, the statement is important for two particular reasons. 'Hinduism' is such a broad label encompassing a very complex phenomenon, so that to have a statement that has been institutionally agreed as representing one segment of this vast religious tradition is quite a triumph. It can only be welcomed in helping to clarify some of the issues involved in understanding Hinduism and interreligious dialogue. Second, it is also important in indicating the sociological significance of Gaudiya-Vaisnava Hinduism, in the West and internationally. Saunaka Rsi Dasa says, in his introduction to the statement, that it reflects a 'more global responsibility', and this is to be welcomed, for the relation between religions is vital to the future of our planet.

What I found particularly commendable about the statement is the clear theological underpinning of the views advanced. They come in part 3, but are the rationale for parts 1 and 2, and lead very naturally to part 4. Part 3, then, is the most important section by which to judge the coherence and integrity of the rest of the document. It provides a powerful rationale for the distinction between 'pure love of God, and what is commonly understood as religion' (p. 4). This distinction thereby allows for a fundamental unity of persons in their devotion to a personal deity, be they Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim. This authentic devotion is recognised 'by the presence of any of the nine devotional processes outlined by the Vaisnava authority, Prahlada Maharaja' (p. 5). In effect, the document develops the ancient tradition to apply it to modern problems and questions. The two most recommended processes of the nine are hearing spiritual sound and chanting the name of God, but we are not told of the other seven in this document.

 This is a failing, for it does not provide a rationale for the affirmation given to those from non-theistic traditions and non-religious traditions stated in the opening paragraph. (part 1, (1), p.1) This also underscores the slight ambiguity present in the document: it says it deals with those who have faith in a personal divinity (p. 1), and yet it then continuously deals with these further two categories (nontheistic religions and humanism). I think it is important to address non-theistic and non-religious movements, but then one has to do this more carefully in the light of the Vaisnava tradition and clarify the conceptual differences between theistic traditions explicitly involved in devotion to God (which is the only linking point provided in part 3) and those not involved in devotion to a personal deity at all — even if they are involved in good works and seek to do follow the truth as they see it. For example, nowhere in part 3 do we find a justification of why: 'Other communities and organisations advocating humanitarian, ethical and moral standards are also valued as being beneficial to society' (p. 1). From a Vaisnava point of view, devotional relationship to God and cultivation of God consciousness is the proper prerequisite to ethics and right action. However, the document seems to overturn this element in the tradition, and this requires more careful justification than is given.

The spirit of respect, dignity and openness pervades this document, both in style and content. It clearly indicates that Gaudiya Vaisnava Hinduism takes other (theistic) religions seriously and does not dismiss them. It acknowledges that it has much to learn from them, and, if they are willing to listen, much to offer. It indicates that this willingness to learn does not in the least mitigate against the missionary nature of Gaudiya-Vaisnava Hinduism. This makes the document credible and indicates its clear roots and commitment as well as its openness. In Part 2, however, mission seems to be exclusively directed towards 'atheistic and materialistic' traditions (p. 2) for they, apparently, are the most challenged by Gaudiya-Vaisnava Hinduism. While this may be true, it seems to me that a more historical orientation to the question might show that many (theistic) religions have as bad, or worse, records than atheistic and materialist traditions. The point is that if Gaudiya-Vaisnava Hinduism's mission is to challenge the godlessness of society, it should not assume a priori that godlessness is to be found outside of religions. What is required is a more differentiated analysis of 'religions'. As an aside, I should say that this is also a weakness in the major Roman Catholic document on relations between religions (1965: Nostra Aetate).

I want to end with a question. Part 4 deals with principles and guidelines. These are very attractive, realistic and helpful. There is one point in both the principles and guidelines that do not make sense to me in the light of Gaudiya-Vaisnava theology. 'Be prepared to listen to others, to understand their language, assumptions, culture and values. Therefore, do not judge others' practice by our ideals' (p. 6, principle 7). 'Allow members of other faiths to define themselves in their own language and own culture without imposing definitions upon them, thus avoiding to compare their practice with our ideals.' (p. 7, guideline 4). It is absolutely right to try and understand the 'others' in their own terms, but it makes no sense to then suspend a critical judgement especially if one is a Gaudiya-Vaisnava Hindu (at least in my own reading!). In Part 3, it makes it clear that there are nine devotional processes that measure the presence of true devotion, and this is therefore making judgements about others on one's own criteria. Furthermore, there are huge judgements made upon others based on Gaudiya Vaisnava principles such as: the poverty of materialism and atheism; and that 'no one religion holds a monopoly on the truth' (p. 2) — presumably even if they think they do. Why make these latter claims and then in the last part of the document say that such claims should not be made? It is important to be respectful and attentive to others, but not at the cost of being attentive to the truth.

These questions are raised out of respect and are, I hope, intra-systematic questions. That is, they arise from the internal logic of the document and are not posed from a specifically Roman Catholic point of view. From a Roman Catholic point of view, I think the two main difficulties with the document are first, the relativisation of 'religion' and the historical process of 'true devotion' that seems to transcend 'religion'. In this respect, the questions have some analogy with the debate between liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Second, there is a commendation of love and devotion without specific reference to the meaning of suffering and redeeming love, as found in the cross of Christ. This would require a more differentiated accounting of the meaning of 'love' and 'devotion'. In many respects both 'difficulties' are matters that call for more serious dialogue between Gaudiya-Vaisnava Hinduism and Christians — which is precisely what the document demands and, most importantly, facilitates. For this, Christians should be most grateful.


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