Cults and Society, Vol. 1, No.
Hinduism, Vaisnavism, and ISKCON: Authentic Traditions or
This paper will examine
some problems in understanding the terms “Hinduism,” “Vaisnavism,” and “ISKCON,”
and enquire into the usefulness of these terms in understanding Indian
religions, with particular reference to ISKCON. Two broad scholarly opinions
have been developed with regard to “Hinduism.” One, an essentialist view,
regards Hinduism as a single, great tradition of many interrelated parts
stemming from the revelation (sruti) of the Veda. The other view
regards Hinduism as a nineteenth-century construction to which no social or
religious entity refers.
some of the issues relevant to this, I will herein argue that “Hinduism” is an
important concept, especially in regard to Hindu self-perception. Within this
loose designation, the Vaisnava tradition is one current; and ISKCON must be
understood in the context of that tradition. Inevitably when a tradition moves
from one cultural and geographical location to another, transformations of the
tradition occur and questions of identity and authenticity are raised. This
paper concludes with some thoughts on the issues facing ISKCON in the
What is Hinduism?
answer to this question might be that Hinduism is a term used to denote the
religions of the majority of people in India and Nepal (and of some communities
in other continents) who refer to themselves as “Hindus.” However, difficulties
arise when we try to understand precisely what this means, for the diversity of
Hinduism is truly vast, and its history long and complex. Some (from both within
the tradition and from outside of it) might claim that because of this diversity
there is no such thing as Hinduism, while others claim that in spite of its
diversity there is an “essence” which structures its appearances. The truth
probably lies somewhere between these claims. Most Hindus will be certain that
their identity as “Hindu” contrasts with that of Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist.
Yet the kinds of Hindus each Hindu is may vary as much as differences between
Hindus, Buddhists, or Christians.
population of approximately nine hundred million people, seven hundred million
are Hindus,1 the remainder are Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists,
Parsees, Jews, and followers of “tribal” religions. There are 120 million
Muslims, 45 million tribal peoples or adivasis, 14 million Sikhs, and an
estimated 14 million Christians. (Klostermaier, 1994) This is a wide mix of
religions and cultural groups, all of which interact with Hinduism in a number
There are also
sizeable Hindu communities beyond the South Asian boundaries in South Africa,
East Africa, South America, the West Indies, the U.S.A., Canada, Europe,
Australia, New Zealand, Bali, and Java. The 1981 U.S.A. census estimated the
population of Indian communities as 387,223, most of whom would classify
themselves as Hindu. The number of Hindus in the U.K. for the same year is
estimated at 300,000. (Knott and Toon, 1982) There are also many Westerners from
Europe and America who would claim to follow Hinduism or religions deriving from
it, and ISKCON is an example here. Ideas such as karma, yoga, and vegetarianism
are now commonplace in the West.
term “Hindu” first occurs as a Persian geographical term for the people who
lived beyond the River Indus (from the Sanskrit word sindhu). In Arabic
texts Al-Hind is a term for the people of modern day India. (Thapar, 1993:77)
“Hindu” or “Hindoo,” was used towards the end of the eighteenth century by the
British to refer to the people of “Hindustan,” the area of northwest India.
Eventually “Hindu” became virtually equivalent to any “Indian” who was not a
Moslem, Sikh, Jain, or Christian, thereby encompassing a range of religious
beliefs and practices.
The “ism” was
added to “Hindu” around 1830 to denote the culture and religion of the
high-caste Brahmans in contrast to other religions. The term was soon
appropriated by Indians themselves as they tried to establish a national
identity opposed to colonialism.
While a Hindu
identity (as we might understand it today) developed during the nineteenth
century, the term “Hindu” does occur in earlier Sanskrit and Bengali
hagiographic texts (such as the Caitanya-caritamrta) from the
sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. In these Bengali Vaisnava texts (one of
which ISKCON reveres), the term “Hindu” is used to indicate a class of people as
distinct from the Yavanas, and is used along with the term dharma (law,
duty, socio-cosmic order). Thus the term “Hindu dharma” indicates ritual
practices of “Hindus” in contrast to those of the “foreigners,” the Yavanas or
Mlecchas, which referred to the Muslims (O’Connell, 1973:340-344). So there
would seem to be some indication of Hindu self-perception as Hindu in contrast
to Moslem as early as the sixteenth century.
There is a
problem arriving at a definition of the term “Hindu” because of the wide range
of traditions and ideas incorporated by it. Most Hindu traditions revere a body
of sacred literature, the Veda, as revelation, though some do not; some
traditions regard certain rituals as essential for salvation, while others do
not; some Hindu philosophies postulate a theistic reality who creates,
maintains, and destroys the universe, yet others reject this claim. Hinduism is
often characterized as belief in reincarnation (samsara) determined by
the law that all actions have effects (karma), and that salvation is freedom
from this cycle. Yet other South Asian religions, such as Buddhism and Jainism,
also believe in this.
Part of the
problem of definition is due to the fact that Hinduism does not have a single
historical founder, as do so many other world religions; it does not have a
unified system of belief encoded in a creed or declaration of faith; it does not
have a single system of soteriology; and it does not have a centralized
authority or bureaucratic structure. It is therefore a very different kind of
religion in these respects to the monotheistic, Western traditions of
Christianity and Islam, though there are arguably stronger affinities with
Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, said that Hinduism is “all
things to all men” (Smith, B. K., 1987:36), certainly an inclusive definition,
but so inclusive as to be of little use for our purposes.
Yet while it
might not be possible to arrive at a watertight definition of Hinduism, this
does not mean that the term is empty. There are clearly some kinds of practices,
texts, and beliefs which are central to the concept of being a “Hindu,” and
there are others which are on the edges of Hinduism. I take the view that while
“Hinduism” is not a category in the classical sense of an essence defined by
certain properties, there are nevertheless prototypical forms of Hindu practice
and belief. The beliefs and practices of a high-caste devotee of the Hindu god
Visnu, living in Tamil Nadu in South India, fall clearly within the category
“Hindu” and are prototypical of that category. The beliefs and practices of a
Radhasoami devotee in the Punjab, who worships a God without attributes, who
does not accept the Veda as revelation, and even rejects many Hindu
teachings, are not prototypically Hindu, yet are still within the sphere and
category of Hinduism. In other words, “Hinduism” is not a category in the
classical sense to which something either belongs or doesn’t.
(Lakoff, 1987) maintains that categories do not have rigid boundaries, but
rather that there are degrees of category membership in which some members of a
category are more prototypical than others. He calls this Prototype Theory.
These degrees of category membership may be related through family resemblance;
“members of a category may be related to one another without all members having
any properties in common that define the category” (Lakoff, 1987:12). In this
sense Hinduism can be seen as a category with fuzzy edges. Some forms of
religion are central to Hinduism, while others are less clearly central but
still within the category. And Ferro-Luzzi has developed a Protoype Theory
approach to Hinduism2 (Ferro-Luzzi, 1991:187-95).
To say what is
or isn’t central to the category of Hinduism is, of course, to make judgements
about the degree of prototypicality. The question arises as to what the basis of
such judgements is. Here we must turn to Hindu self-understandings, for Hinduism
has developed categories for its own self-description (Piatigorsky,
1985:208-224), as well as looking at the scholars’ understandings of common
features or structuring principles seen from outside the tradition.
have some sympathy with Jonathan Z. Smith’s remark that religion is the creation
of the scholar’s imagination (Smith, J.
Z., 1982:xi), in so far as the act of
scholarship involves a reduction, a selection, a highlighting of some discourses
and texts, and a backgrounding of others, there is nevertheless a wide body of
ritual practices, forms of behaviour, doctrines, stories, texts, and deeply felt
personal experiences and testimonies, which the term Hinduism refers to.
contemporary world the term “Hindu” certainly does refer to the dominant
religion of South Asia, albeit a religion which embraces a wide variety within
it. But it is important to bear in mind that the formation of Hinduism as the
world religion we know today has only occurred since the nineteenth century,
when the term started being used by Hindu reformers and Western orientalists.
However, its origins and the “streams” which feed in to it are very ancient,
extending back to the Indus Valley civilisation (Smart, 1993:1).
I take the
view that Hinduism is not purely the construction of Western orientalists to
make sense of the plurality of religious phenomena within the vast geographical
area of South Asia, as some scholars have maintained3 (Smith, W. C., 1962:65;
Stietencron, pp.1-22; Halbfass, 1991:1-22), but that Hinduism is also a
development of Hindu self-understanding, a transformation in the modern world of
themes already present.
Religion and the Sacred
understand by Hinduism as a religion partly depends upon what we mean by
“religion.” Our understanding of Hinduism has been mediated by Western notions
of what religion is and the projection of Hinduism as an “other” to the West’s
Christianity (Inden, 1990). While this is not the place for an elaborate
discussion of the meaning of religion, it is nevertheless important to make some
remarks about it, and to indicate some parameters of its use. The category
“religion” has developed out of a Christian, largely Protestant, understanding,
which defines it in terms of belief. This is indicated by the frequent use of
the term “faith” as a synonym for “religion.” If “religion” is to contribute to
our understanding of human views and practices, its characterisation purely in
terms of belief is clearly inadequate and would need to be modified to include a
variety of human practices.
religion provoke much debate and disagreement, but to use the term, we have to
have some idea of what we mean by it. Religion needs to be located squarely
within human society and culture; there is no privileged discourse of religion
outside of particular cultures and societies. The famous sociologist Emile
Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, first published
in 1915, defined religion as “a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to
sacred things” which creates a social bond between people (Durkheim, 1964:37).
This unified set of beliefs and practices is a system of symbols which acts, to
use Peter Berger’s phrase, as a “sacred canopy,” imbuing individual and social
life with meaning. The “sacred” refers to a quality of mysterious power which is
believed to dwell within certain objects, persons, and places and which is
opposed to chaos and death. Religion, following Berger, establishes a “sacred
cosmos,” which provides the “ultimate shield against the terror of anomy”
(Berger, 1990:26). I am also influenced here by Clifford Geertz’ definition of
religion as that which “tunes human actions to an envisaged cosmic order and
projects images of cosmic order on to the plane of human experience” (Geertz,
This sense of
sacred power is of vital importance to the experience of men and women
throughout the history of religions. In Hinduism a sense of the sacred might be
experienced as the sense of a greater being outside of the self, a “numinous”
experience (to use the term coined by the German theologian Rudolf Otto)
characterised by a feeling of awe, fascination, and mystery (Otto, 1982). Or the
sense of the sacred might occur as an inner or contemplative experience within
the self, what might be called a “mystical” experience (Smart, 1958; Smart,
There has been
a tendency in recent studies to reduce the “religious” to the “political”
(Dirks, 1993:106-107). While it is important to recognise that the religious
exists only within specific cultural contexts, as does the political, the
concept of the sacred is distinctive to a religious discourse within cultures.
The sacred is regarded as divine power manifested in a variety of contexts:
temples, locations, images, and people. While this power is not divorced from
political power, it can nevertheless exist independently, as is seen in popular
religious festivals and personal devotional and ascetic practices which result
in states of inner ecstasy.
exists entirely within culture. The categories of the sacred and the everyday
are not substantive, as Jonathan Smith, the eminent scholar of religion, has
observed, but relational; they change according to circumstance and situation.
There is nothing in Hinduism which is inherently sacred. The sacredness of time,
objects, or persons depends upon context, and the boundaries between the sacred
and the everyday are fluid. A temple image or icon prior to consecration is
merely stone, metal, or wood; but once consecrated it is empowered and becomes
the focus of mediation: “it becomes sacred by having our attention directed to
it in a special way” (Smith, J. Z., 1982:55). I have used the term “icon” in
preference to “image” to indicate the physical manifestation of a deity. My use
of the term has been influenced by Charles Pierce’s understanding of the icon as
“a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of
characters of its own, and which it possesses just the same, whether any such
object actually exists or not” (Pierce, 1932:247). There are also parallels
between the Hindu murti and the Christian Orthodox “icon” as a material
centre which, according to Vladamir Lossky, contains an energy and divine truth
(Miguel, 1971:1236). On this account a person can be an icon as well as an
“object” of stone or wood
General Features of Hinduism
believe in a transcendent God, beyond the universe, who is yet within all living
beings and who can be approached in a variety of ways. Such a Hindu might say
that this supreme being can be worshipped in innumerable forms—as a handsome
young man (such as Krsna in the Bhagavata Purana), as a majestic king
(such as Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita), as a beautiful young girl, as an
old woman, or even as a featureless stone. The transcendent being is mediated
through icons in temples, through natural phenomena, or through living teachers
and saints. This sacred in Hinduism is mediated through innumerable, changing
forms which bear witness to a deeply rich, religious imagination, centred on
mediation and transformation.
often characterised as being polytheistic, and while it is true that innumerable
deities are the objects of worship, many Hindus will regard these as an aspect
or manifestation of sacred power. Devotion (bhakti) to deities mediated
through icons and holy persons provides refuge in times of crisis, and even
final liberation (moksa) from action (karma) and the cycle of
reincarnation (samsara). The transcendent is also revealed in sacred
literature, called the Veda, and in codes of ritual, social, and ethical
behaviour, called dharma, which that literature reveals. The two terms
veda and dharma are of central importance in what might be called
is a large body of literature composed in Sanskrit, a sacred language of
Hinduism, revered as revelation (sruti) and as the source of dharma.
The term veda means “knowledge,” originally revealed to the ancient
sages (rsi), conveyed to the community by them, and passed through the
generations initially as an oral tradition. There is also a large body of
Sanskrit literature, inspired but nevertheless regarded as being of human
authorship, comprising rules of conduct (the Dharma literature), and
stories about people and gods (the Epics and mythological texts called
Puranas). These texts might be regarded as a secondary or indirect
revelation (smrti).4 There are also texts in vernacular Indian languages,
particularly Tamil, which are revered as equal to the Veda by some
as revelation is of vital importance in understanding Hinduism, though its
acceptance is not universal among Hindus and there are forms of Hinduism which
have rejected the Veda and its legitimising authority to sanction a
hierarchical social order. However, all Hindu traditions make some reference to
the Veda, whether in its acceptance or rejection; and some scholars have
regarded reference to its legitimising authority as a criterion of being Hindu.5
(Because of ISKCON’s acceptance of the Veda, it falls clearly within the
realm of Hinduism.) While revelation as an abstract, or even notional entity, is
important, the actual contents of the Veda has often been neglected by
Hindu traditions. It has acted rather as a reference point for the construction
of Hindu identity and self-understanding (Halbfass, 1991:1-22).
is revealed by the
Veda. It is the nearest semantic equivalent in Sanskrit to the English term
“religion,” but has a wider connotation than this, incorporating the ideas of
“truth,” “duty,” “ethics,” “law,” and even “natural law.” It is that power
which upholds or supports society and the cosmos, that power which constrains
phenomena into their particularity, which makes things what they are. Zaehner
relates dharma to the Sanskrit root dhr which means to “hold, have
or maintain.” He defines dharma as “the ‘form’ of things as they are and
the power that keeps them as they are and not otherwise” (Zaehner, 1966:2).
nineteenth-century Hindu reformers speak of Hinduism as the eternal religion or
law (sanatana dharma), a common idea among modern Hindus today as
well as in ISKCON, in their self-description. More specifically, dharma
refers to the duty of high-caste Hindus with regard to their social position,
caste, or class (varna), and the stage of life they are at (asrama).
All this is incorporated by the term varnasrama-dharma.
feature of Hinduism is that generally practice takes precedence over belief.
What a Hindu does is more important than what a Hindu believes. Hinduism is not
creedal. Adherence to dharma is therefore not an acceptance of certain
beliefs, but the practice or performance of certain duties, which are defined in
accordance with dharmic social stratification.
of what a Hindu can and cannot do has been largely determined by his or her
particular endogamous social group, or caste, stratified in a hierarchical
order, and, of course, by gender. This social hierarchy is governed by the
distinction between purity and pollution, with the higher, purer castes at the
top of the structure, and the lower, polluted and polluting castes at the
bottom. Behaviour takes precedence over belief—orthopraxy over orthodoxy. As
Fritz Staal says, a Hindu “may be a theist, pantheist, atheist, communist and
believe whatever he likes, but what makes him into a Hindu are the ritual
practices he performs and the rules to which he adheres, in short, what he does”
sociological characterisation of Hinduism is very compelling. A Hindu is someone
born within an Indian social group, a caste, who adheres to its rules with
regard to purity and marriage, and who performs its prescribed rituals which
usually focus on one of the many Hindu deities such as Siva or Visnu. One might
add that these rituals and social rules are derived from the Hindu primary
revelation, the Veda, and from the secondary revelation, the inspired
texts of human authorship. The Veda and its ritual reciters, the highest
caste or Brahmans, are the closest Hinduism gets to a legitimising authority,
for the Brahman class has been extremely important in the dissemination and
maintenance of Hindu culture. It is generally the Brahman class that has
attempted to coherently structure the multiple expressions of Hinduism, whose
self-understanding any account of Hinduism needs to take seriously.
however, been certain sects within Hinduism, particularly devotional sects,
which have rejected caste and maintained that salvation is open to all. ISKCON
needs to be understood in the context of such caste-transcending groups.
The idea of
tradition inevitably stresses unity at the cost of difference and divergence. In
pre-Islamic India there would have been a number of distinct sects and regional
religious identities, perhaps united by common cultural symbols, but no notion
of “Hinduism” as a comprehensive entity. Yet there are nevertheless striking
continuities in Hindu traditions.
essentially two models of tradition: the arboreal model and the river model. The
arboreal model claims that various sub-traditions branch off from a central,
original tradition, often founded by a specific person. The river model, the
exact inverse of the arboreal model, claims that a tradition comprises multiple
streams which merge into a single mainstream (Faure, pp.13-14). Contemporary
Hinduism cannot be traced to a common origin, so the discussion is directed
towards whether Hinduism fits the river model or, to extend the metaphor,
whether the term “Hinduism” simply refers to a number of quite distinct rivers.
While these models have restricted use in that they suggest a teleological
direction or intention, the river model would seem to be more appropriate in
that it emphasises the multiple origins of Hinduism.
traditions which feed in to contemporary Hinduism can be subsumed under three
broad headings: the traditions of brahmanical orthopraxy, the renouncer
traditions, and popular or local traditions. The tradition of brahmanical
orthopraxy has played the role of a “master narrative,” transmitting a body of
knowledge and behaviour through time, and defining the conditions of orthopraxy,
such as adherence to varnasrama-dharma. From the medieval period a number
of traditions (sampradaya) or systems of guru-disciple transmission (parampara)
developed within the broadly brahmanical world. These traditions, which
developed significantly during the first millennium CE, are focused upon a
particular deity or group of deities.
broadly brahmanical systems, three are particularly important in Hindu
self-representation: Vaisnava traditions, focused on the deity Visnu and His
incarnations; Saiva traditions, focused on Siva; and Sakta traditions, focused
on the Goddess or Devi. The Vaisnava tradition reveres the Veda as
revelation and also other texts, notably the Bhagavad Gita, Visnu Purana,
and Bhagavata Purana.
concept of “Hinduism,” the boundaries of these traditions, or rather the
sub-traditions within them, are more clearly defined, often demanding initiation
and adherence to a set of principles and practices. ISKCON has been within this
general characterisation, with fairly clearly defined boundaries marked by
patterns of thought and behaviour which distinguish the ISKCON devotee from
others. Today, however, the picture is less clear, with many lay devotees
attending temples who are not clearly identified by their style of dress or
other distinguishing behavioural features (such as chanting in the streets and
so on) (Shaunaka Rishi, 1995).
these religious traditions is the theology of Vedanta, the unfolding of a
sophisticated discourse about the nature and content of sacred scriptures which
explores questions of existence and knowledge. The Vedanta is the
theological articulation of the Vedic traditions, a discourse which penetrated
Vaisnava and, to a lesser extent, Saiva and Sakta thinking. The Vedanta
tradition is the theological basis of Vaisnava tradition, including ISKCON, and
was important in the nineteenth and twentieth century Hindu renaissance.
“sect,” “order,” or “tradition” are rough equivalents of the Sanskrit term
sampradaya, which refers to a tradition focused on a deity, often regional
in character, into which a disciple is initiated by a guru. Furthermore, each
guru is seen to be within a line of gurus, a santana or parampara,
originating with the founding father.
The idea of
pupilliary succession is extremely important in all forms of Hinduism, as this
authenticates the tradition and teachings; disputes over succession, which have
sometimes been vehement, can be of deep religious concern, particularly in
traditions which see the guru as the embodiment of the divine, possessing the
power to bestow the Lord’s grace on his devotees. With initiation (diksa)
into the sampradaya (and this is highly pertinent to ISKCON) the disciple
undertakes to abide by the values of the tradition and community, and he or she
receives a new name and a mantra particularly sacred to that tradition. A
sampradaya might demand celibacy and comprise only world renouncers, or it
might have a much wider social base, accepting householders of both genders and,
possibly, all castes including untouchables.
important Vaisnava orders and cults are:
Gaudiya or Bengali Vaisnavas located mainly in Bengal, Orissa, and
Vrndavana. They revere the teachings of the Saint Caitanya and focus their
devotion on Krsna and Radha. The Hare Krishna movement is a development or
branch of this tradition.
of Vithobha in Maharashtra, particularly in the pilgrimage centre of
Pandarpur. Their teachings are derived from the saints (sant)
Jñanesvara, Namdev, Janabai, etc.
of Rama located mainly in the northeast at Ayodhya and Janakpur and
associated with an annual festival of Ramlila in which the Ramayana
is performed. The ascetic Ramanandi order are devoted to Rama and Sita.
Sant tradition, while not being strictly Vaisnava as it worships a transcendent
Lord beyond qualities, nevertheless derives much of its teachings and names of
God from Vaisnavism. Especially venerated are Kabir and Nanak, the founder of
Sikhism. The Sri Vaisnavas are located in Tamil Nadu, whose centre is the
temple at Srirangam, and for whom the theology of Ramanuja is particularly
sampradayas developed within the wider mainstream of brahmanical worship
based on texts, especially the Puranas. The Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition is
squarely within the Vedic, Puranic tradition.
sampradayas, a number of devotional attitudes to the personal
absolute developed. The relationship between the disciple and the Lord could be
one of servant to master, of parent to child, friend to friend, or lover to
beloved. Some sampradayas adopted one of these modes. The Bengali
Vaisnavas, for example, regarded the attitude of the lover to the beloved as the
highest expression of devotion, not dissimilar to the braut-mystik
tradition in western mystical theology; while the sect of Tukaram viewed the
devotional relationship as one of servant to master. But what is significant
here is that the relationship between the devotee and the Lord is modelled on
human relationships, and that the Lord can be perceived and approached in a
variety of ways: the love of God takes many forms.
traditions focused on Krsna the Cowherd developed in northern India, and found
articulation in Sanskrit devotional and poetic literature as well as in more
popular devotional movements, particularly around Vrindavan and in Bengal. The
form of Vaisnavism which grew in Bengal (Gaudiya) developed a theology which
laid great emphasis on devotion and the love relationship between the devotee
and Krsna. It was this form of Hinduism which Srila Prabhupada brought to the
West in 1965.
The 1960s saw
many Hindu (as well as Buddhist and Chinese) ideas and practices come to the
West which had a large impact upon the counter-culture then developing. Dominant
figures in popular culture, pop stars such as the Beatles and poets such as Alan
Ginsberg, promoted Hindu ideas and gurus. During this period, after the lifting
of immigration restrictions in the U.S.A. in 1965, there was a flow of Indian
gurus to the West, such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the
Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement, and Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. Upon the
demise of Prabhupada, eleven western gurus were chosen to succeed as spiritual
heads of the Hare Krishna movement. But many notorious problems followed upon
their appointment, and the movement has since veered away from investing
absolute authority in a few, fallible human teachers.
description of some of the phenomena associated with the terms “Hinduism,”
“Vaisnavism,” and “ISKCON,” we can summarise by saying that ISKCON certainly
perceives itself to be an authentic Vedic tradition; though many Indian Brahmans
do not recognise its authenticity because ISKCON devotees tend to be “foreign.”
For example, ISKCON devotees have not been allowed into the Jagannatha temple at
Puri, though this may change in the future. But if the idea of pupilliary
succession is regarded as a criterion of authenticity, then ISKCON is certainly
authentic in so far as it has developed in a clear line of succession from
Prabhupada, who was himself an initiate of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati
Gosvami Maharaja. He in turn was a disciple of Srila Gaurakisora dasa Babaji
Maharaja, a disciple of Srila Thakura Bhaktivinoda. Indeed Bengali Vaisnavism,
from which ISKCON clearly develops historically, is a more clearly defined
entity than “Hinduism”.
when a tradition changes geographical location and culture there are bound to be
changes. ISKCON followers are predominantly Westerners who have been born and
brought up in Western cultures; they have Western presuppositions and deep forms
of perception and conditioning which will inevitably influence the tradition
they have adopted. Indeed the Central Governing Body (CGB) is a western
development, although initiated by Srila Prabhupada.
So far ISKCON
seems to have been fairly successful in the need to adapt to the modern world,
while at the same time, maintaining a continuity of tradition from India. But
ISKCON will need to continually adapt and face contemporary challenges and
issues, which, indeed, it appears to be doing. Three important issues, for
example, which ISKCON will need to engage with are:
of gender (ISKCON has been accused of occluding women’s rights in terms of
significant positions within the organisation and relegating women to a
to which ISKCON continues to articulate a literal understanding of Vaisnava
narrative traditions—or put crudely, a “fundamentalist” interpretation of
mythology—in the face of its own Vedic tradition’s hermeneutics and in the
face of Western science and, indeed, textual scholarship; and
the way in
which it responds to global issues such as concern for the environment. (On
the one hand ISKCON articulates an environment-friendly attitude, yet there
are tensions within the tradition and a strong idea that the material world
is a trap, the web of maya, and is degenerating as the dark age
So, one might
conclude with the words of Mahatma Gandhi that “to swim in the waters of
tradition is good, but to drown in them is suicide.”
The March, 1991 census of India estimated the population to be
My thanks to Harold Keller for drawing my attention to Ferro-Luzzi.
For an interesting, brief survey of the idea of “Hinduism” and the
development of recent scholarship about it, see Hardy, 1990:145-155.
The terms “secondary” and “indirect revelation” to refer to this
literature of human authorship, are used by Alexis Sanderson. (Sanderson,
Brian Smith has
defined Hinduism as “the religion of those humans who create, perpetuate,
and transform traditions with legitimising reference to the authority of the
Veda”. (Smith, B. K., 1987:40)
Berger, P. 1990. The Sacred
Canopy, Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor
Dirks, N.B. 1993. The Hollow
Crown. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Durkheim, E. 1964. The
Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen and Unwin.
Fauré, B. The Rhetoric of
E. 1991. “The
Polythetic-Prototype Approach to Hinduism” in G.
D. Sontheimer and H. Kulke
(eds.) Hinduism Reconsidered. Delhi: Manohar.
Frykenberg, R. 1991. “The
Emergence of Modern ‘Hinduism’” in Günther S. Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke
Hinduism Reconsidered. Delhi: Manohar.
Geertz. C. 1993. The
Interpretation of Cultures. London: Fontana.
Halbfass, W. 1991. Tradition
and Reflection. Albany: SUNY Press.
Hardy, F. 1990. “Hinduism” in
Ursula King (ed.), Turning Points in Religious Studies. Edinburgh: T.
and T. Clark.
Inden, R. 1990. Imagining
India. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwells.
Klostermaier, K. 1994. A
Survey of Hinduism. Albany: SUNY Press.
Knott, K. and R. Toon 1982.
“Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in the U.K.: Problems in the estimation of
religious statistics”, Religious Research Paper 6. Leeds: Theology and
Religious Studies Department, University of Leeds.
Lakoff, G. 1987. Women, Fire
and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Chicago and
London: University of Chicago Press.
Miguel, P. 1971. “Théologie de
l’Icone” in M. Viller et. al. Dictionnaire de Spiritualité. vol. 7b.
T. 1973. “The Word
‘Hindu’ in Gaudiya Vaisnava Texts,” Journal of the American Oriental
Otto, R. 1982. The Idea of
the Holy, second edition. Oxford, London and New York: Oxford University
Piatigorsky, A. 1985. “Some
Phenomenological Observations on the Study of Indian Religion”, in R.
Burghardt and A. Cantille (eds.) Indian Religion. (London: Curzon).
Pierce, C. 1932. Collected
Papers of Charles Sanders Pierce, vol.2. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
Shaunaka Rishi das (ed.) 1995.
ISKCON Communications Journal, no.5.
Sanderson, A. 1988. “Saivism and
the Tantric Traditions” in S. Sutherland et. al. (eds.),
The World’s Religions.
Smart, N. 1958. Reasons and
Faiths. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Smart, N. 1989. The World’s
Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smart, N. 1993. “The Formation
Rather than the Origin of a Tradition,” in DISKUS: A Disembodied Journal
of Religious Studies, vol. 1, no. 1.
K. 1987. “Exorcising
the Transcendent: Strategies for Redefining Hinduism and Religion”,
History of Religions. Aug.
Z. 1982. Imagining
Religion, From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago
C. 1962. The Meaning
and End of Religion. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
S. and H. Kulke
1991. Hinduism Reconsidered. Delhi: Manohar.
Staal, F. 1989. Rules Without
Meaning, Ritual, Mantras and the Human Sciences. New York: Peter Lang.
Stietencron, H. von, “Hinduism:
On the Proper Use of A Deceptive Term”, in Günther D.
Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke,
Hinduism Reconsidered, pp.11-27.
Sutherland, S. et. al.
(eds.) 1988. The World’s Religions. London: Routledge.
Thapar, R. 1993. Interpreting
Early India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Zaehner, R.C. 1966. Hinduism.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This paper was
originally delivered at a conference entitled, "Sekten," Politik und
Wissenschaft, held in Humboldt University, Berlin, July, 1995. It is also a
version of a chapter that is to be published in Introduction to Hinduism
to be published by Cambridge University Press in 1996.
This article is reprinted with
permission from ISKCON
Communications Journal, Volume 3, Number 2, 1995, pages 5-15. The journal's
address is: 63 Divinity Rd, Oxford, OX4 1LH, UK (E-mail:
email@example.com; Web site: