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A Response to:
ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God
by Saunaka Rsi Dasa, Vol. 7, No.1
 

An orthodox Jewish response

There seem to me to be unresolved ambiguities in the ISKCON document, specifically be-tween the denial of mission in the body of the document and the clearly missionary ethos of ISKCON expressed in the Primary Aim of the movement and in its Seven Purposes.

On the one hand there are a series of statements indicating a negative attitude to mis-sionary activity. It is said, for example, that no one religion holds a monopoly on the truth  (p. 2); it is not proper to constantly propagate the superiority of one's own teachers over other people's teachers; a devotee, instead of criticising other religious systems, should encourage their followers to stick to their principles; ISKCON does not have a mission to proselytise members of other faiths (p. 3); ISKCON does not advocate any sectarian religion (p. 4); ISKCON members should respect the right of others to disagree and their desire to be left alone, and should not feel the need to convert them (p. 7); and there is no difference between a pure Christian and a sincere devotee of Krsna (note 18).

On the other hand, there are statements that make mission and conversion a central feature of ISKCON's outlook. Thus it views dialogue with other faiths as an opportunity to share its commitment and faith with others (p. 1); Swami Prabhupada came to New York in September 1965 to 'systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life' (the primary aim of ISKCON); he came West to deliver Western countries from godlessness (atheism) (p. 2); ISKCON sees interfaith dialogue as a challenge of faith to devotees of every tradition (p. 4); one cannot live without a loving and serving relationship with Krsna and His devotees (p. 6); it is ISKCON's purpose to propagate a consciousness of Krsna (God), as it is revealed in the great scriptures of India, the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam; to develop the idea within humanity at large that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of the Godhead (Krsna); and to teach and encourage the chanting of the holy name of God as revealed in the teachings of Caitanya (pp. 7-8, Appendix).

It seems from these latter statements that mission and conversion, in the most obvious meaning of these terms, are indeed at the heart of ISKCON, and are exemplified by the 'mission' of Swami Prabhupada in the West and by the conversion of non-Hindus to a clearly sectarian religious position. I do not understand how one can reconcile this with Swami Prabhupada's explicit statement that 'We do not advocate any sectarian religion.'

If a primary purpose of ISKCON is to propagate a consciousness of Krsna as found in the Gita and Bhagavata (Purpose number 2, p. 7), then it is clearly a sectarian, missionary religion. It is all very well saying that this propagation does not actually take place among the believers of different religious traditions, but among the unbelievers, the doubters, and those lacking spirituality. This merely indicates that those targeted by missionaries (any missionaries, whether ISKCON or not) are the weak and confused members of a religious tradition.

Judaism does not see itself as a missionary religion. Although it accepts converts who feel they have been called to serve God from within the Jewish tradition, it only accepts them after a prolonged period of study and contemplation. The reason why Judaism does not actively promulgate its faith is because Jews regard themselves as members of a specific covenantal faith community called by God to exemplify His teachings. They recognise that non-Jews, with their own dharma as it were, may also be called by God to serve Him, and may be devoted to Him from a different religious position. Jews are 'called', whether they believe or not. They are part of the covenantal community, whether they respond or not, that is their particular dharma as it were.

Orthodox Judaism does not encourage formal interfaith dialogue on matters of spirituality or belief, since those committed to propagating a faith understandably tend to use any opportunity, including the 'dialogue' situation, to spread its teachings. This has been the experience of Jews in past contacts with Christians and with Moslems. Thus, though Jews may be willing to share ethical or social concerns with members of other faiths, Orthodox Judaism does not wish to share in 'spiritual' dialogue with other faiths, certainly not with those committed to missionarising. It takes a lot of introspection for someone to be aware of a deeply held desire to convince others of the truth of one's own views. This applies even for those within a committed non-missionary tradition, how much more so from within a faith tradition permeated by mission.

From a Jewish perspective, the ISKCON document on dialogue may be regarded as expressing a typically sectarian position, albeit in a modified form, and making sectarian assumptions about the nature of God and of the spiritual life. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this as long as it is acknowledged.

Some of the assumptions made in the Document about the universality of Krsna only tend to reinforce scepticism with regard to it. A number of elements of Vaisnava faith are obviously at odds with Jewish assumptions, and the authors of the Document are speaking not simply about God and spiritual techniques, but about God and spirituality as understood by the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition within Hinduism.

To take one example mentioned in the Document. Purpose number three (p. 7), of the Seven Purposes formulated by Swami Prabhupada, states that one aim of ISKCON is to develop 'the idea within the members and humanity at large, that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krsna).' Judaism does not believe that each soul is 'part and parcel of the quality of the Godhead' if this is taken literally, indeed such an idea may be regarded as blasphemous to Judaism. ISKCON, despite its claims to universality, is representing a particular understanding of devotion to God, and particular ways of serving Him, e.g. by encouraging the chanting of the divine names as taught by Caitanya (an act not actually permitted by Judaism, which prohibits taking God's name in vain).

While the mere appearance of the Document is, I am sure, an important moment in ISKCON self-consciousness, for Orthodox Jews, at least, it will seem to be of limited appeal. Genuine respect for other faith traditions also means listening to, and respecting, the limitations on what can be shared. Whether one can talk meaningfully about God and the spiritual life outside of any sectarian or cultural tradition seems doubtful.

 

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