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The Western Educationalists’ Perspective on the Vedic Tradition

Rasamandala dasa has offered us this article to help clarify some of the concerns and reservations that many of us may have with educational approaches to Vedanta and Hinduism. He reassures us with his positive treatment of the subject and with his obvious experience in the field of teaching Hinduism and Vaishnavism in British schools. He has systematised our objectives very well and marries this to the difficulty in interpretation experienced between members of the tradition and those non-practitioners who attempt to teach the tradition to others. This article is essential for those in our society engaged in the religious or academic fields.

 In my last article1, I applied modern communications theory to explore how presentations to school audiences can improve public perception of ISKCON. We also discussed how, within the statutory educational framework, there may be legitimate scope for teaching about Krishna Consciousness. We also heard how, in Britain, our Society has been fortunate to enjoy both these benefits.

However, right from the start, there were a couple of notable challenges. Firstly we were assumed, and required, to represent one of the principle world religions2, namely Hinduism. This raised pertinent, and sometimes controversial, theological questions about the identity of ISKCON and its members (we’ll come back to this later). Secondly and subsequently, this also meant that ISKCON Educational Services staff were required to make presentations not just on ISKCON and Gaudiya Vaishnavism, nor on broader Vaishnavism, but on the whole spectrum of Hinduism itself. I began to question whether this supported our Society’s aims or was even consistent with them. As I pondered, and read more school textbooks on Hinduism, I considered and noted down some of the possible benefits of speaking and writing about the subject. However, I also noticed in many school textbooks room for considerable improvement.

This concerned me. We were, whether we liked it or not, strongly identified with the broader tradition and any misrepresentation of that could reflect badly on ISKCON. On a positive note, it was evident that a large percentage of our presentation material on Hinduism per se was congruent with Krishna Consciousness, giving us ample scope to redress such errors. In other words, I concluded that the reputation of ISKCON, at least within the educational world3 , depended significantly on public perception of the broader tradition, which we had ample opportunity to influence.

What I intend to do here, therefore, is to discuss the educationalists perspective on the Hindu tradition, identifying areas of apparent misunderstanding or misrepresentation. This subject is presented mainly through the experience of our schools programme in the UK, though it naturally has implications on higher academic levels. Indeed, I hope this article, presented here principally for Krishna devotees, will form the basis of an extended study of interest to scholars (in both Religious Education and Religious Studies). My comments here are not intended to be a criticism of the educational and academic worlds, where there is increasing sensitivity towards multi-cultural issues. I hope, though, that by identifying possible shortcomings, in methodology, this article will be constructively challenging.

The subject is discussed in terms of the ten objectives which ISKCON Educational Services has formulated in teaching about Hinduism. Each objective (in bold type) is followed by a brief explanation including practical information for devotees making presentations in the educational sphere.

1. To promote an understanding of the universal and axiomatic principles of Sanatana Dharmaand Varnashrama Dharma as revealed through the Vedic scriptures and as particularly embodied by Vaishnavism, and to explain how these relate to the tradition generally called Hinduism.

This first objective serves two main purposes: 1) To clarify the meaning of the term ‘Hinduism’. and 2) To clearly establish ISKCON’s identity in relation to it.

ISKCON’s relationship to Hinduism is contentious for some devotees, and the Society’s often ambivalent stance has been noted by both devotees4 and academics5. For most people (and why not for devotees?) it is convenient, if not necessary, to explain ISKCON’s roots in relation to the world we know. With this, however, are theological implications, as explained in the Science of Self Realisation:

When attempting to place the Krishna Consciousness movement within a conventional historical-cultural context, many people identify the movement with Hinduism. But this is misleading. Srila Prabhupada 6 disavows connection with the pantheism, polytheism and caste consciousness that pervades modern Hinduism. Although Krishna Consciousness and modern Hinduism share a common historical root-India’s ancient Vedic culture-Hinduism has become… a sectarian establishment, whereas Krishna Consciousness is universal and transcends relative, sectarian designations. (SSR. Ch.3. Article: ‘Krishna Consciousness: Hindu Cult or Divine Culture?’)

From this statement, it is not quite clear whether the author7 is suggesting that ISKCON refute any connection whatsoever with Hinduism. Still, ISKCON devotees well understand the thrust of this statement. The Vedas establish the soul’s identity as distinct from the body. Consequently designations such as Hindu, Muslim and Christian are ultimately no less illusory and divisive than discrimination on the grounds of age, race or gender. Srila Prabhupada confirms this:

Thus the most dangerous of the dirty things within our hearts is this mis-identification of the body as the self. Under the influence of this misunderstanding, one thinks, ‘I am this body. I am an Englishman. I am an Indian. I am an American. I am Hindu. I am Muslim’.8

Nevertheless, in the context of school and college teaching, the simple aphorism ‘I am not a Hindu’, though doctrinally correct, may need further explanation and may otherwise lead to problems!9 I’m not suggesting that devotees resort to pragmatic duplicity, pretending to be Hindus whilst inwardly considering otherwise. Rather they have a genuine connection with that tradition and this needs careful definition.

Srila Prabhupada elaborates:

It (the word Hindu) is neither a Sanskrit word nor is it found in the Vedic literature. But the culture of the Indians or the Hindus is Vedic and begins with the four varnas and asramas… Our Krishna Consciousness Movement is preaching these four varnas and asramas, so naturally it has got some relationship with the Hindus. (Letter from Srila Prabhupada to Janmanjaya and Taradevi, 9th July 1970)

As well as confirming ‘some relationship’, Srila Prabhupada makes a couple of important points:

  1. The culture of the Hindus is Vedic (i.e. derived from the Vedas and their supplements).

  2. The word Hindu is not found in Vedic literature.

Considering this second point, the question naturally arises, ‘Where then does the word come from?’ Scholars suggest that it was used as early as the eighth century CE by Persian invaders to refer to the people on the far side of the River Sindhu (now the Indus in Pakistan). It’s early connotations were not specifically religious, but social, cultural, political and geographical. Though the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ are now in common use, their exact meanings remain unclear and somewhat arbitrary. Hinduism is not, therefore, necessarily synonymous with Vaidika Dharma (the religion of the Vedas) nor with Sanatana or Varnashrama Dharma. Not all Hindus believe in the pervasive doctrines of karma and rebirth, nor is it clear whether Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists are included in their ranks10. However, it is universally accepted that Hinduism was a name given by foreigners, and generally accepted by insiders since the early nineteenth century. They too had difficulties with its exact meaning, as Eleanor Nesbitt explains:

‘The term Hinduism… is essentially a Western construct. It was the introduction of the concept of Hinduism, and the presence of Westerners talking, writing and asking about Hinduism which led Hindus to try to define true and false Hinduism, which they did (and still do) in different ways. Thus, for example, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) distinguished between ‘false and corrupt Hinduism’ which Europeans denounced and ‘true Hinduism’ which, in his case, involved devotion to God and a humanistic ethic (King 1978). For Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), on the other hand, true Hinduism was the monistic philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which Bankim has rejected as part of false Hinduism. Many more examples could be cited. For our purposes ‘Hinduism’ is an umbrella term for a great number of practices and beliefs each of which belongs to some of the millions of people who for historical reasons are called Hindus.

Despite countless differences of region and language, these practices and beliefs bear a family likeness. There may be no one founder and no overarching credal statement but there are modes of worship and ways of thinking which appear like a recurrent motif.11

 Despite the lack of clear definition and consequent confusion, Srila Prabhupada clearly favours the meaning of ‘the followers of the Vedas’ (Vaidika Dharma, as mentioned above). This is the definition which ISKCON Educational Services uses with British schools. The following quotes from Srila Prabhupada may further elucidate:

You may call the Vedas Hindu but Hindu is a foreign name. We are not Hindus. Our real identification is Varnashrama. Varnashrama denotes the followers of the Vedas.12

Formerly, the people of India (now misnamed as ‘Hindus’) followed Varnashrama dharma orSanatana Dharma…13

Here Srila Prabhupada is equating Vaidika Dharma with both Varnashrama Dharma and Sanatana Dharma .14 It may of course be incorrect to say that modern Hinduism is Vaidika Dharma, or Sanatana Dharma, since many members of the tradition are not practising scriptural tenets.15 Nevertheless, accepting this definition of ‘genuine Hinduism’, there remains diversity which begs cohesive explanation. ISKCON’s relationship to the tradition also requires clarification. I list below several points, some or all of which may be useful when giving school presentations:

  1. Hinduism is a foreign name…

  2. Though the meaning is somewhat arbitrary, we could say that Hinduism means ‘those who follow the Vedic scriptures’, and that’s the definition we’ll use. The words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ are not found in Vedic literature…

  3. The Vedic literature favours the term Sanatana Dharma (explain in terms of the eternal soul free from designations, whose natural function is to serve God).

  4. Hindus believe in Varnashrama Dharma, which was originally determined by qualification rather than birth.

  5. The Vedas, though ultimately promoting liberation and love of God, accommodate different levels of spirituality, according to the three principal stages of karma, jnana and bhakti.16

  6. There are six main philosophical/ theological17 systems, which are progressive18 and culminate in Vedanta.19

  7. Within Vedanta there are two main schools of thought-monism (impersonalism) and monotheism (personalism). ISKCON is monotheistic. (Explain both schools in relationship to ‘the many gods’).

  8. Within Hinduism today there are three main focuses of worship: Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti (Durga). The Shaivites and Shaktas are more disposed towards impersonalism whereas the Vaishnavas are generally personalists.

  9. Members of ISKCON are Gaudiya (Bengali) Vaishnavas following in the footsteps of Lord Caitanya…

The subject is obviously complex! Taking into account the issues of migration and acculturation, modern Hinduism becomes highly enigmatic, particularly for teachers. It is understandable that many school texts misrepresent the tradition through over generalisation. It cannot be accurately represented without appreciation of its great diversity. And yet it needs to be presented, as far as possible, as a unified whole, a comprehensive picture. Explaining its roots in terms of Sanatana Dharma andVarnashrama Dharma, as based on the Vedas, and with particular reference to the self’s distinction from the body, can significantly help in this respect.

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