Chakra Discussions

Hinduization of ISKCON

by Nimai Nitai dasa (NRS)

Posted April 13, 2005

Phyletism (ethnic religiosity) finds expression in the progressive Hinduization of ISKCON in America. Because we minister increasingly to Hindu congregations, we attempt to pose as 'authentic' Vaishnavas by taking on the external trappings of Hinduism, and especially its language, ritualism, and appearance. We exchange our Western ethnicity for an Indian ethnicity, without realizing that both are external designations arising from material conditioning.

If that were the extent of the problem, perhaps it would not lessen the effectiveness of our preaching so dangerously. Unfortunately, we are beginning to experience the more internal assimilation of the 'tatha matha tatha patha' ideology of contemporary Hinduism, which dovetails perfectly with Western individualist subjectivism. Thus, Krsna Consciousness is often experienced by many as a spiritual buffet where we can consume whatever we like best, and eschew whatever we dislike -- not unlike directing the servers at the Feast to give us plenty of savories, halava, and sweet rice, and a smaller portion of vegetables.

There are extremely practical -- legal and financial -- reasons for our headlong rush toward phyletism, and one could understand and perhaps even accept a strategic retreat into Hinduism while we resolve many of our current problems as a recently transplanted movement. Unfortunately, our escalating embrace of Hindu culture is not justified as a strategy by its proponents and enactors, but as a principle. They claim that the particular ethno-historical expression of Vedic principles in India is eternal and unchangeable, and therefore universal.

Because Vedic culture was dominant in the entire planet (and most recently in India), there are remnants everywhere. These remnants are Vedic, insofar as they are expressions of Vedic principles in a particular time and place. However, those same remnants, expressed in a different time and place, cease to be expressions of Vedic culture, and become nostalgic manifestations of ethnic chauvinism. What is Vedic is not a set of fixed rules concerning sartorial styles, table manners, musical fashions, and other cultural manifestations, but rather the principles informing all actions. And what is the essential principle? smartavyah satatam visnur vismartavyo na jatucit: Always remember Krsna, and never forget Him. [1]

Rather than assuming that some specific cultural manifestation is Vedic because it was done in the past in a localized manifestation of Vedic culture, we should always discriminate between Vedic principles and their localized expressions. Even if a particular Vedic principle was perfectly expressed at some point in time in a specific location, [2] it does not necessarily follow that the same principle can be expressed identically in another circumstance.

We should always remain grounded in guru, sadhu, and sastra, and not give way to deviation into syncretism. However, this does not mean that we are obligated to use Hindu forms to express Bhagavata Dharma. Srila Bhakti Vinoda Thakura, Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Sarasvati, and Srila Prabhupada were not "innovators" in the sense of speculating or changing the essence of Bhagavata Dharma. On the contrary, they were loyal followers in the line of the Six Goswamis precisely because they contextualized Krsna Consciousness to their specific desa-kala-patra. The Lord Himself contextualizes in every age, descending in different Divine Forms and establishing a suitable path for "going back home, back to Godhead" in every age (coincidentally, an Indo-Anglican phrase adopted originally by Srila Bhakti Vinoda Thakura).

There must be deep study of Srila Prabhupada's teaching and example, and we certainly must avoid speculation. Dedication without deviation should always be our motto. But Srila Prabhupada himself gave us the key to how we should make proper adjustments. He continually made adjustments throughout his pastime of preaching in the West. He did not give one answer for all times, for all places, for all people. He considered each specific circumstance and made any and all necessary adjustments. That is the essence of his instruction: "Always follow in the footsteps of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and do the needful according to the time and circumstances." [3]

If Western seekers feel that they must become Hindus before they can accept Krsna Consciousness, our movement in North America will always remain infinitesimal, and we will have betrayed Srila Prabhupada's mission to fulfill the prophecy (and commission) of Lord Chaitanya. In the footsteps of our Acharyas, we must be bold in communicating the unchanging message of the Supreme Lord in a form and a language that are understandable and effective.

In terms of language, it should be evident that Srila Prabhupada favored and promoted the use of the vernacular. He preached in the vernacular (to make this point, he preached in English even in India), and a great portion of his time among us was dedicated to translating the scriptures and writing directly in English. He also strongly encouraged that His books be translated into every language. Srila Prabhupada did not originate this trend: Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did not preach in Sanskrit in Nadia (nor did He change sartorial, culinary, and other external manifestations of Bengali culture as a pre-requisite for chanting the Holy Name). Lord Nityananda preached in Bengali in Bengal. Srila Gadadhara Pandita preached in Oriyan in Orissa. In their respective commentaries on the verse srnvan su-bhadrani rathanga-paner janmani karmani ca yani loke / gitani namani tad-arthakani gayan vilajjo vicared asangah,[4] Srila Jiva Goswami has emphasized that the term 'loke' indicates that the activities of Lord Krsna should be celebrated according to local traditions, and Srila Visvanatha Cakravartipada has emphasized that the glories of the Lord should be chanted in different languages, according to the countries in which devotees reside.

Srila Bhakti Vinoda Thakura wrote in Hindi, Farsi, English, and other languages to reach diverse audiences. Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Sarasvati wrote and preached extensively in English, and used terminology that is nowhere to be found in the tradition before him -- he actually borrowed many terms from Anglican and Reformed Christianity. Srila Prabhupada said the following, referring to his Guru Maharaja, Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Sarasvati: "Our superior authority, our spiritual master, he ordered me that 'You just try to preach this gospel, whatever you have learned from me, in English.'" [5] Phyletists probably cringe at Srila Prabhupada's use of the term "gospel" to refer to the message of Krsna Consciousness, but that is precisely how he chose to communicate. He did not shy away from using terms that some might (erroneously) associate exclusively with Western Christianity. Evidently, his use of the term "gospel" does not imply that Srila Prabhupada was preaching Christianity.

Some devotees understand Bhagavata Dharma as a fixed form, and believe that to maintain Hindu culture (which they equate with Vedic culture) is to uphold Bhagavata Dharma. However, if there were no need to change the expression of Bhagavata Dharma according to time, place, and circumstance, we would still be worshiping Lord Matsya, and we would strive to live according to aquatic dharma. Every culture in the material world is always in a state of flux. That is, its core beliefs and values are expressed in varying forms (language, art, architecture, dress, cuisine, behaviors, etc.) according to the context in which it manifests. Change is an essential characteristic of material existence. Even as the Lord descends in a time-specific, place-specific, and circumstance-specific Form, so must the Sampradaya "incarnate" (another Christian term used extensively by Srila Prabhupada, even though theologically it is not an accurate translation of the Sanskrit 'avatara') in a specific time, place, and circumstance.

When discussing the manifestation of Vedic culture in the material world, divergent views arise due to conservative formalism (bharavahatva) or liberal essentialism (saragrahatva) -- to use Srila Bhakti Vinoda Thakura's terminology. Bharavahis exhibit excessive adherence to the letter of the divine law, while saragrahis seek to cling to its essential meaning. Srila Prabhupada said, "We cannot depart from Bhagavad-Gita. But conservative we are not. [...] Everyone is invited to come chant Hare Krsna. This is Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's munificence, His liberality. No, we are not conservative." [6]

Many devotees make a very strong case against the adoption of Western culture and all its ills -- a position that true saragrahis share wholeheartedly, enthusiastically, and without reservations. However, that is a "straw man" argument, since saragrahis do not advocate acceptance of the rationalism, individualism, immorality, materialism, relativism, and banality that some dismissively equate with Western culture. Nor are saragrahis advocating that devotees embrace carnivorism, fornication, gambling, and intoxication, or that we abrogate or relax the scriptural prohibitions against them. Saragrahis do not encourage initiated devotees to chant fewer than the prescribed 16 rounds (on the contrary!), or to chant unauthorized mantras. Furthermore, saragrahis do not propose that we read from the Judeo-Christian Bible in our liturgies, instead of from Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, and Chaitanya Caritamrta.

Saragrahis do not want to Westernize Krsna Consciousness, but rather to propagate Krsna Consciousness in the West, as Srila Prabhupada ordered us to do. And, in order to do so, we must express the immutable principles of Bhagavata Dharma in our own time, place, and circumstance. A 'paka' Hindu appearance, the ability to quote and etymologize Sanskrit or Bengali slokas, and the gross imitation of Srila Prabhupada's personal idiosyncrasies and mannerisms do not and cannot make us good preachers or pure Vaishnavas. In fact, these external forms that some mistakenly accept as signs of spiritual advancement often prevent the pure message of Krsna Consciousness from penetrating the minds and hearts of sincere Western seekers.

Srila Prabhupada encouraged us to always apply Vedic principles according to time, place, and circumstance. "The teacher (acharya) has to consider time, candidate and country. He must avoid the principle of niyamagraha -- that is, he should not try to perform the impossible. What is possible in one country may not be possible in another. The acharya's duty is to accept the essence of devotional service. There may be a little change here and there as far as yukta-vairagya (proper renunciation) is concerned." [7] Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Sarasvati has given the same instruction: "The supreme Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya, in pursuance of the teaching of the scriptures, enjoins all absence of conventionalism for the teachers of the eternal religion." [8]

Externals are important, but they cannot be imitated or imported from other times, places, and circumstances. We must conform to external behavioral standards, but these must be based on essential Vedic principles (vedais ca sarvair aham eva vedyo [9]). "[...] What is required is a special technique according to country, time and candidate." [10] Our behavior, language, and appearance should communicate that we are sober devotees of the Lord. We should not adopt Western secular behavior and fashion in order to "blend in" (and thus risk losing both our identity and our purpose), but we must act in a manner that communicates our adherence to Krsna Consciousness, rather than to Hinduism. "When we are on the material platform, there are different types of religions --Hinduism, Christianity, Mohammedanism, Buddhism, and so on. These are instituted for a particular time, a particular country or a particular person. Consequently there are differences. [...] When one becomes a Vaisnava, he becomes transcendental to all these limited considerations." [11]

We indeed would weaken our Krsna Consciousness if we were to adopt contradictory principles and the forms that express them. However, the rejection of Hindu phyletism is not synonymous with the adoption of secular Western standards. We must express Vedic principles in a manner that is authentic in our present time, place, and circumstance. This is what Srila Bhakti Vinoda Thakura has to say about putting too much stock in attempting to enforce one universal cultural standard:

"People in various countries on various continents have a wide variety of natures. Although their principal nature is only one, their secondary characteristics are many -- you will not find any two people in the world who have identical secondary qualities. Since even twins born of the same womb have some difference in form and quality, can one expect that people born in different countries can ever have exactly the same qualities? Different countries have different water, air, mountains, forests, and different eatables and clothing. Because of this, the people of these places have naturally developed different physiques, complexions, customs, clothing, and food." [12]

Many devotees correctly perceive the nominalism that engulfs ISKCON in America, and their reaction is to attempt to impose a 'no change' paradigm on the external manifestations of Krsna Consciousness. They assume that what Srila Prabhupada accomplished is best maintained by repeating an inalterable tactic (regardless of changing circumstances), instead of grasping the strategic principle that informed his brilliant missionary efforts. They forget that the entire history of the Sampradaya is precisely one of continuous change and adaptation; it is descent (avatara) into the desa-kala-patra. 'No change' is perhaps the most ominous of change ideologies; it is deviation of a fundamental order, a betrayal of Lord Chaitanya's mission for the redemption of all living entities, meeting them wherever they may be, in all towns and villages.

Srila Prabhupada was always careful in making any adjustments, and we should be equally -- if not more -- careful. We should not make hasty modifications, nor should we make them independently of the consensus of saintly Vaishnavas. For this purpose, among many others, we should return to the conciliar mode of settling differences that was prevalent in the Sampradaya in earlier times. The annual Sri Mayapura meetings of the worldwide Society are an ideal setting in which these matters should be discussed. If a consensus cannot be reached among the senior ISKCON members, we should not hesitate to consult the leading sadhus of other branches of our Sampradaya. It is vitally important for us to consider that every branch of the Sampradaya must remain always organically connected to every other, and to the trunk from which all branches arise, Lord Chaitanya and His intimate Associates.

The Chaitanya Sampradaya is a living, undivided body, a communion of faith and practice. It is not a juridical structure, nor a corporation with unchanging "standard operating procedures". We must continue to manifest Bhagavata Dharma in the West; that is what Srila Prabhupada commissioned us to do. But we must not -- and cannot -- imitate our Founder-Acharya and the previous Acharyas. Rather, we must propagate Bhagavata Dharma by following in their footsteps. Ultimately, the Chaitanya Sampradaya is the yutha of Srimati Radharani, and Her servants must always "do the needful according to the time and circumstances."


[1] Padma Purana,quoted in Cc Madhya 22.113

[2] 5000 years ago, 500 years ago, or even 50 years ago, in India or New York's Lower East Side

[3] Cc. Adi 17.144 p.

[4] SB 11.2.39

[5] London, on August 3, 1973

[6] Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita, Chapter One

[7] Cc Madhya 23.105, p

[8] The Harmonist, Vol. XXIX No 7, 1932

[9] Bg 15.15

[10] Cc. Madhya 23.105 p

[11] CC Madhya 25.121 p

[12] ibid