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

Original Article - ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God

Ulrich Dehn

For some years now, having been in contact with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), particularly with its Berlin chapter, it has been of interest to me to observe and experience a process of opening to honest communication. ISKCON, in sharp contrast to some other movements, has been ready to dig into its own past and identify dark points, expose them to the greater public and bear the consequences in legal and personal regards. On top of that, the departure of Harikesa Swami in 1998 threw ISKCON into unprecedented dynamics close to the danger of a major split. This certainly must have been a painful process.

ISKCON has advanced into a new stage of opening itself up with this paper by Saunaka Rsi Dasa. The paper clarifies ISKCON's relation to people of faith in God, including a concise 'Statement on Relating with People of Faith in God', and supplies theological arguments, mostly from the writings of Srila Prabhupada. My comments shall focus on a couple of points.

When ISKCON expresses that other approaches to God, other ways of faith, need to be recognised and respected as bearing spiritual worth, ongoing encounters are encouraged. This is emphasised in Part One of the Statement regarding a broad range of potential partners in dialogue, not necessarily religious movements. When, in Part Three, it is stated that no one religion holds a monopoly on the truth, this is an insight that could well be written into the diary of some Christians. Anyway, we will have to see the concrete encounters and have verified statements in daily life!

The respect towards people of other faiths (mentioned in Part Four) also includes the recognition that other faiths are such and not just shades of Krsna consciousness, as was suggested by the Rettershof talks (Christ, Krischto, Krsna). Identifications of Christ with Krsna, or other forms of embracement, will not be accepted by (most) Christian counterparts (certainly not by the author of this article), and will have to give way to realistic dialogues and exchanges on various theological issues, which will result in fruitful revelations of differences and commonalities. Exchanges like these are possible, as the Wiesbaden conference of January 1994 has shown. The decisive differences of the various religious traditions need to be named and affirmed. I see the preparedness to this attitude in the following (from the 'Guidelines for Approaching Members of Other Faiths'): 'Give members of other faiths the opportunity to freely express their sincerely held beliefs and convictions. Allow members of other faiths to define themselves in their own language and own culture without imposing definitions upon them, thus avoiding comparing their practice with our ideals.' This, in my understanding, expresses a clear progress from former positions. Moreover, there is a need to clarify ISKCON's position within Vedic and Hindu culture. The paper stresses the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya tradition, a monotheistic one, and will have to update its arguments towards the Advaita Vedanta. It needs to clarify whether the previous polemic by Srila Prabhupada regarding Vedanta monism is still valid or not. In case there is still a critical line, the first partner for 'interreligious dialogue' might be a Vedantic theologian. What kind of God do we encounter in ISKCON? Isn't Krsna consciousness very close to Advaitic atman-brahman ideas? These are questions that I will be looking for in future encounters offered by Saunaka Rsi Dasa.

ISKCON stresses in its 'Seven Purposes' as well as in the Statement 'the aim to co-operate to the benefit of society at large'. This aim can only be welcomed. Yet there are quite a few steps to be taken towards that purpose. The compatibility of social visions needs to be clarified, the degree to which ISKCON is prepared to leave behind Indian social concepts such as varnasrama ideas of a stratified society will have to be the subject of dialogue. Christian ethics basically accept the equal rights of all human beings and the right to self-determination that are laid down in the German constitution. Dialogue with ISKCON in the context of a Western society will ask for an affirmation of these values (as a matter of fact, the Indian constitution offers basically the same ethical standards as Western nations do!).

In the encounter, it will always be a moving element to question each other as to how far transparency, democratic structures, the individual freedom of every single devotee, the right to come and leave again etc. are respected. This is a vice-versa demand, a challenge to the Christian partner as well.

It is part of every religious identity to affirm its respective faith and creed, often to the extent of claiming absoluteness (not to be confused with monopoly). In encounters we will be challenged to recognise our respective absoluteness claims. Some may consider this a contradiction in itself. It is not. It is the way, perhaps the only reasonable way, religious people meet. In Saunaka Rsi's paper I see a step towards acceptance of this way.

The encounter shall be open for many clarifications. Still there are sceptical voices claiming that ISKCON, like the famous Janus, has two faces - the smiling face in dialogues with their external partners, and the strange, repressive face towards its own members - preaching wine to the dialoguing world and water to their devotees.

Those who support a constructive encounter with ISKCON - I am one of them - are longing for an honest dialogue and honest partners. The paper in question gives me hope that this is what ISKCON wants too.

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