The ISKCON Narrative (Part 1)

What Do ISKCON Members Believe About ISKCON?

(1) ISKCON is the modern manifestation of the world’s oldest and therefore original religion. (2) The organization is connected directly to god through its “pure devotee” founder and what it calls its disciplic succession, a chain of spiritual teachers presumed to reach back through history directly to god himself, who lived on this planet in human form roughly 5,000 years ago. (3) The beliefs and values held by ISKCON’s members are governed by a voluminous body of unerring and internally consistent texts, the bulk of them composed roughly 5,000 years ago by a single “empowered incarnation” of god and completely unchanged since that time. (4) ISKCON’s mission is to revive the “ancient Vedic culture,” which members believe is not only how the entire human race lived thousands of years ago but also how fully enlightened beings live with god in the “spiritual world,” ISKCON’s version of heaven. (5) ISKCON is destined to bring about a 10,000-year “Golden Age” of “Krishna consciousness” in which the founder’s books will serve as “the law books for human society.”

Well, how much of that is true?

Obviously, much of it is unverifiable, based as it is on various articles of faith. As for the rest, let’s take a look.

(1) ISKCON is the modern manifestation of the world’s oldest and therefore original religion.

ISKCON claims to represent what it calls sanatana-dharma, humanity’s religious essence, which they say has existed since before the beginning of the so-called material creation. While ISKCON members will sometimes explain that this religious essence is exemplified by actively serving god with love, that vague and inoffensive view of an ur-religion is, in practice, much more concrete and exceedingly sectarian.

In presenting their beliefs to the world, ISKCON members are often heard to say that their organization represents Hinduism (more generally); Vaishnavism, the monotheistic worship of the Hindu god Vishnu (more specifically); and Gaudiya-Vaishnavism, the monotheistic worship of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu (much more specifically).

The last description is the most accurate of the three, and not just because of its specificity. Although Gaudiya-Vaishnavism does in fact belong to the wider tradition of Vaishnavism, for an official ISKCON website to say (as one does) that ISKCON devotees are Vaishnavas and then to point out that there are approximately 560 million Vaishnavas worldwide is misleading at best. It’s more misleading still to say that ISKCON represents Hinduism. Although Vaishnavism and Gaudiya-Vaishnavism are both denominations under the wider umbrella of Hinduism, Bhaktivedanta Swami, ISKCON’s founder, frequently denied that his organization had anything at all to do with Hinduism. He denied, in fact, that such a thing as Hinduism even existed. The specific religious practice he wanted ISKCON to embody – namely, the exclusive worship of Krishna as god – he insisted was the pure and original (and historically preeminent) form of the “hodgepodge” that, in his view, later became Hinduism. Bhaktivedanta famously asserted that the word hindu does not appear anywhere in the Vedas, the books considered by most Hindus to be their religion’s primary sacred texts. (Not-so-incidentally, it’s disputable whether or not the word krishna appears in the Vedas. At the very least, Krishna is not mentioned there in a context that suggests he has any great importance, let alone preeminence, in the Hindu pantheon.) Nevertheless, ISKCON devotees are more than willing to claim that their organization is connected to Hinduism whenever that connection might be politically (or financially) advantageous – a practice established by Bhaktivedanta himself.

(2) The organization is connected directly to god through its “pure devotee” founder and what it call its disciplic succession, a chain of spiritual teachers presumed to reach back through history directly to god himself, who lived on this planet in human form roughly 5,000 years ago.

ISKCON’s connection to god through its founder will be the topic of Part 2 of this 3-part series. For now, let’s say a few things about ISKCON’s idea of disciplic succession.

There are legitimate doubts about the authenticity of ISKCON’s list of spiritual teachers, including accusations that the list itself was just concocted by the guru of Bhaktivedanta in order to give his own organization the stamp of authenticity. Outside ISKCON’s ideological closed loop, there are perfectly reasonable doubts to be raised about any allegedly unbroken chain of human teachers said to consist of 30-odd members and extend over some five thousand years. Naturally, a tradition that’s existed over thousands of years – or even hundreds of years, as is more accurately the case for Gaudiya Vaishnavism – is bound to be host to controversies, scandals, and just general inconsistencies.

The important point here is that ISKCON’s story about itself contains the idea that the organization is connected to an authentic lineage. ISKCON’s founder repeatedly claimed that a spiritual organization must be connected to such a lineage in order to itself be authentic. He said this to impress upon his followers the idea that unless an individual practitioner is connected to such a lineage there is absolutely no hope of his or her becoming “Krishna conscious,” that is, enlightened.

In establishing ISKCON in the late 1960s, Bhaktivedanta positioned his then nascent society as the rightful institutional heir to an authentic spiritual lineage. This would seem to place ISKCON in a specific historical and cultural context. However, it would be inappropriate to say that ISKCON is just one branch of a particular religious sect. Not because such a statement would be factually inaccurate, but because that’s not what ISKCON members believe by the time they’ve made a formal commitment to the organization.

No one joins ISKCON thinking that he’s adopting a several-hundred-year-old Indian religion, or that she’s becoming a member of an obscure Hindu sect. New converts join ISKCON because they have been convinced that it’s the religion, the only religion directly connected to god, established by a man who could see and communicate with god as easily as someone else might make a phone call. They think ISKCON represents something timeless and eternal. And they think all these things both because they want to and because that’s exactly what the organization’s founder has told them to believe.

(3) The beliefs and values held by ISKCON’s members are governed by a voluminous body of unerring and internally consistent texts, the bulk of them composed roughly 5,000 years ago by a single “empowered incarnation” of god and completely unchanged since that time.

Well… Not according to the scholars and historians who have devoted their professional lives to studying the history of India and its religious traditions. The Vedas, the four books that comprise Hinduism’s oldest texts, date to no earlier than 1200 BCE and, like most other texts handed down from antiquity, have been subject to revision and interpolation. The Bhagavat-purana and the Bhagavad-gita, arguably the most revered texts within ISKCON, have also been tainted by the same process of human tampering. The Bhagavat-purana – what ISKCON members call the Srimad-Bhagavatam – was composed sometime between the 8th and 10th Centuries, and evidence strongly suggests that it was the work of multiple authors. The Gita, which ISKCON devotees consider to be the unaltered transcript of a five-thousand-year-old conversation between god and one of his closest friends, scholars say was composed some time between the 5th and 2nd Centuries, BCE. The more recent literary history of Gaudiya-Vaishnavism has its own problems with interpolation and even pseudepigraphy, meaning that some texts were written by practitioners in the tradition who attempted to pass them off as having been written hundreds of years prior by established luminaries.

(4) ISKCON’s mission is to revive the “ancient Vedic culture,” which members believe is not only how the entire human race lived thousands of years ago but also how fully enlightened beings live with god in the “spiritual world,” ISKCON’s version of heaven.

Religious beliefs aside, the verifiable claims made here are not supported by historians or archaeologists; there’s simply no compelling reason to believe ISKCON’s version of human history. Having said that, it’s worth explaining exactly what the above means for ISKCON’s members. Among committed members there is frequent talk of the ancient Vedic culture, which they imagine was a monotheistic, Krishna-centered theocracy that controlled the entire planet five thousand years ago (and for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years before that) and which followed not just the religious but also the cultural, aesthetic, and culinary standards ISKCON devotees (aspire to) practice today. In other words, what (in ideal circumstances) ISKCON devotees believe and do and wear and eat is emblematic of what they’re convinced was common on Earth for all of humanity five thousand years ago. Again, there is no reliable archaeological evidence to support this. Many of ISKCON’s aesthetic and cultural practices – especially those in relation to food and clothing and architecture – resemble much of wider Indian culture, that is, a mishmash of things taken from the various ethnic groups that have existed on the Indian subcontinent over the centuries. They are by no means a representation of some ancient, pure root culture.

(5) ISKCON is destined to bring about a 10,000-year “Golden Age” of “Krishna consciousness” in which the founder’s books will serve as “the law books for human society.”

To explicitly state what should be obvious, the future is difficult to accurately predict. (Though the last five decades since ISKCON’s founding give little reason to expect that any of the above will come to pass.) Prognostication aside, we can however speculate on what might be some of the consequences of believing in all of this. Because ISKCON members are convinced that their organization is destined, essentially, for total world domination, they are obsessively results-oriented and all too often tainted by the conviction that their ends justify whatever means might be available to them. Practically speaking, belief in the ISKCON narrative ensures that the priorities of its members will forever remain the same – sell books, make new members, build temples, and very carefully protect the organization’s public image.

What might be a more reasonable approach to describing ISKCON’s history and its place in the wider world that surrounds it?

Simply put, ISKCON is the institutional manifestation of one man’s idiosyncratic interpretation of what was, only a few decades ago, a very small, very obscure Indian religious sect. Because he happened to be in the right place at the right time, Bhaktivedanta’s special brand of Gaudiya Vaishnavism has achieved a wider degree of exposure than it likely would have otherwise achieved. But now, fifty years after it was first established, ISKCON is still a far cry from commanding any sort of significant presence in the wider culture, to say nothing of its aspirations for world domination. It is in fact suffering from internal factions and institutional splintering, much of which has been caused by the organization’s decreasing ability to control its public image and the historical narrative about itself.

If ISKCON’s members were to embrace a revised (more factual) narrative, they might be able to re-align their organization with the wider tradition to which they claim to belong and to become more focused on the specific spiritual practices they claim to champion. If material – that is, monetary – success were no longer an organizational priority, ISKCON might also become willing to sell some of the larger properties they have long had difficulty maintaining (in North America especially) and instead focus on smaller congregations who are more personally dedicated to spiritual practice. Essentially, ISKCON could dismantle the narrative of world domination and focus instead on caring for the spiritual well-being of its committed members.

And yet, that would require the institution to do something it’s extremely unlikely to ever, ever do. It would have to de-emphasize the importance of its founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami, by allowing its members to openly criticize him. ISKCON would need to officially denounce some of their founder’s more offensive statements and to assert, unequivocally, that the organization is capable of making decisions without those decisions being ratified by what Bhaktivedanta said he wanted for his society.

…Which brings us to Part 2: What do ISKCON devotees believe about their founder?

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