Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

Has ISKCON Two Faces?--A Reply - Goswami das Satsvarupa

Dear Editors,

Please permit me space in »Update« to make a reply to Dr. Johannes Aagaard’s allegations in his article, »Has ISKCON Two Faces?.« I am one of the initiating spiritual masters in ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), and the Editor in Chief for »Back to Godhead,« the magazine of the Hare Krishna movement.

Dr. Aagaard objects to Jayadvaita Swami’s statements on behalf of ISKCON, that our movement is not Hindu. Dr. Aagaard offers evidence to the contrary: ISKCON is warmly endorsed by worldwide Hindu organizations like the Hindu Visva Parisad, and representatives of ISKCON »have often proved that ISKCON is recognized by the most impressive Hindu leaders as a genuine part of Hinduism.« Our claiming to be not Hindu seems to Dr. Aagaard to be dishonest trickery »donned for missionary purposes« in the non-Hindu West.

But I beg to submit that ISKCON is not hypocritical on this issue. In both our Eastern and Western preaching we clearly say we are not Hindus. in one sense, it is a technical issue, As all careful scholars of India are aware, the words »Hindu« and »Hinduism« are not found in the Vedic literature. Dr. Ainslee T. Embree, for example, has noted the point:

The physical setting (of Vedic literature) is the land known to the Western world since ancient times as India, a word borrowed by the Greeks from the Persians, who because of the difficulty they had with the initial »s« called the Sindu River (the modern Indus) the »Hindu.« It was this word that came to be applied by foreigners to the religion and culture of the people who lived in the land bordered by the two rivers the Indus and the Ganges, although the people themselves did not use the term.1)

A misnomer to begin with, the term Hindu has evolved to become a political, social, and racial catch-all. »Hindu religion« has come to mean anything, from a superstitious worship of ghosts to the loftiest philosophy of Vedanta-sutra. The term has also been misused to back a false claim that only persons born in the Indian race can be spiritually advanced priests and scholars of the Vedic literatures. This claim, however, is not at all supported by the Vedic scriptures. In order to distinguish that we are following the universal teachings of Lord Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita, ISKCON clearly states that it is not Hindu. Lord Krsna Himself never used the term »Hindu« anywhere in the Bhagavad-gita. The essential understanding of Krsna’s message is that we not think of ourselves as Hindus, Christians, Muslims, or Jews, but understand that we are all servants of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

When we speak before organizations that choose to think in terms of Hinduism, we certainly make this point clear. Nevertheless, despite the differences of understanding about »Hinduism« we continue to have a warm relationship with such Hindu organizations We do agree on many aspects of Vedic culture, such as the axiom that the Vedic scriptures are the word of God, that animal slaughter is sinful, and so on. In a similar way we have agreeable dialogues with some Christian and other organizations on the ecumenical basis that we all accept the word of God as revealed in different scriptures and that we all advocate obedience to God's law. I do not think it is accurate therefore that Dr Aagaard considers ISKCON two-faced and dishonest in this matter. We are able to relate to Indian and non-Indian groups not because we dishonestly disguise our teachings but because the Krishna consciousness philosophy is nondesignative and all-embracing.

Dr Aagaard also charges that Krsna conscious representatives misinterpret the Bhagavad gita and other Vedic literature when we I advocate the philosophy of nonviolence »It is strange to read,« writes Dr. Aagaard, »that the Vedas preach nonviolence and extend it even towards animals. in fact, Vedic religion is based on and presupposes bloody sacrifices.«

It is not a fact that Vedic religion is based on bloody sacrifices. There was a very limited use of animal sacrifice, performed only by brahmin priests as described in the Yajur Veda This was never something accessible to most of the population or used by them. The major Veda was the Rg Veda which was devotional, with no such sacrifices. The most commonly used »sacrifice« in the Vedas is the »sama yajna,« an offering of a nectar to the demigods in order to please them and to encourage benedictions. It is also an historical fact that over the years the so-called followers of the Vedic animal sacrifices abused this process, and therefore Lord Buddha appeared to advocate complete nonviolence.

Dr. Aagaard writes, »As far as I know no Hindu commentator up till now has ever attempted to interpret the Vedas in terms of nonviolence.« Although Dr. Aagaard regularly writes about ISKCON it does not appear that he has studied the writings of our founder, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Throughout his commentaries in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Srila Prabhupada makes it clear that nonviolence is advocated by Lord Krsna as one of the duties of a brahmana (Chapter 3); as one of the items of transcendental knowledge (Chapter 13); as one of the qualifications for a person in the divine nature (Chapter 16); and as one of the austerities to be practiced with the body (Chapter 17). In giving a definition for nonviolence, Srila Prabhupada extends the concept further than that given by Lord Buddha.

Nonviolence is generally taken to mean not killing or destroying the body, but actually nonviolence means not to put others into distress. Men in general are trapped by ignorance in the material concept of life, and they perpetually suffer material pains. So, unless one elevates people to spiritual knowledge, one is practicing violence.2)

Finally, we cannot accept Dr. Aagaard’s conclusion that the Bhagavad-gita is advocating violence because Krsna is telling Arjuna to fight. The Gita does not deny the presupposed ethics of nonviolence which are given extensively throughout the scriptures. But rather, within the Bhagavad-gita is the perfect solution of an ethical dilemma, which Krsna gives by placing Arjuna’s problem on the spiritual or transcendental platform. Arjuna is faced with the dilemma of whether to kill relatives or to allow evil forces to take over society. Killing and the allowing of evil are both not allowed in the dharma sastras, such as the Laws of Manu and hundreds of other volumes. The beauty of the Bhagavad-gita’s teachings is that this intricate dilemma is cleared up in a mere 700 verses. In this particular case, on the battlefield of Kuruksetra, Lord Krsna encourages Arjuna to fight and save the world from tyranny. It is a gross misinterpretation to say that therefore Lord Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita, as well as the followers of the Krsna Consciousness movement advocate violence, Srila Prabhupada writes in his Commentary:

Although the soul is immortal, violence is not encouraged, but at the time of war it is not discouraged when there is actual need for it. That need must be justified in terms of the sanction of the Lord and not capriciously.

We therefore object to Dr. Aagaard’s uncareful handling of the Krsna conscious movement’s position regarding Hinduism, as well his presentation of the Bhagavad-gjta regarding violence and nonviolence. We are grateful to the editors of »Update« for allowing to present our side in this all-important matter regarding the presentation of our religion and philosophy.

Ainslee T. Embree, The Hindu Tradition (New York, NY: Vintage, 1972).

A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabbupada, Bhagavad-gita As It Is (Los Angeles, CA: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1974).