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Home » reviews

Review: Hare Krishna in the Modern World

Submitted by on October 21, 2013 – 8:42 am19 Comments

hk_in_the_modern_world_1Graham Dwyer & Richard J. Cole, Hare Krishna in the Modern World: Reflections by Distinguished Academics and Scholarly Devotees. Arktos, 2013.

Reviewed by Bhrigupada Dasa (Dr. Måns Broo)

ISKCON has a long history of interaction with academics. The first in-depth study of the movement, J. Stillson Judah’s Hare Krishna and the Counterculture (1974) was much appreciated by Srila Prabhupada himself, and when ISKCON became embroiled in the cult-controversy in the mid-seventies, one source of legitimization as a “bona fide” religion rather than as a “cult” was sought by deliberately cultivating the scholarly community.

The first major fruit of this work was Steven Gelberg’s Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West (1983), featuring interviews with A.L. Basham, Harvey Cox, Shrivatsa Goswami, Thomas J. Hopkins and Larry Shinn, but it is an effort that has continued. In 1992, Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) published Vaisnavism: Contemporary Scholars Discuss the Gaudiya Tradition, featuring a much larger cast than Gelberg’s book, and this time including scholars from within ISKCON as well.

The authors of the present text, Graham Dwyer and Richard J. Cole, published in 2007 The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change, drawing together essays by several scholarly ISKCON devotees and two outsiders, Thomas J. Hopkins and Anna King. While not being an ISKCON publication with an explicit religious agenda, it is not unreasonable to place it together with Gelberg’s and Rosen’s work above. With the present book, the editors add another and updated chapter to the tale, this time returning to the interview format followed by the previous texts.

The main part of the book—the interviews—is prefaced by a brief introductory essay by E. Burke Rochford, called Sociological Reflections on the History and Development on the Hare Krishna Movement. The essay focuses on the “Hinduisation of ISKCON”, a topic that will be familiar for those familiar with the previous work of this scholar. Many of the interviews refer back to this essay and sometimes criticize it. I agree with the comments of Dr. Edith Best, when she points out that the development of ISKCON in the United States is not in every case indicative of the movement’s development elsewhere (“America is not the world”). Unfortunately, Burke Rochford’s USA-centered approach to ISKCON is somewhat mirrored by the book is a whole: all of the persons featured are either from the USA or from Great Britain.

The book contains seven interviews. Three are with well-established outside scholars, Dr. Anna S. King from the University of Winchester, Professor Julius Lipner from the University of Cambridge and Professor Kim Knott from the University of Leeds. All of these scholars reminiscence about their studies of and engagement with the movement in a sympathetic way, viewing its prospects with optimism. Sometimes they offer words of advice—Kim Knott for example would like to put children and transmission on the agenda—but it is only Anna S. King that really gives voice to criticism. Given her very sympathetic view of the movement, I feel that ISKCON devotees should take her seriously here. The first criticism is in regards to the way in which many if not most devotees within ISKCON view science. It is difficult not to agree with her here: the campaigns against evolution or, even more bizarrely, against a heliocentric view of the solar system, are not only a huge waste of resources, but are not likely to attract many people to the movement—even were they miraculously to succeed. I mean, if Darwin was wrong, why would the next step be to shave up and move into a Hare Krishna temple?

Anna King’s second criticism concerns the nostalgia for varnashrama dharma within the movement. Having worked with dalits in India for many years, she can clearly see how such a project is not only totally unrealistic; it would also contribute to violence and oppression.

Four scholarly ISKCON devotees are interviewed. Kenneth Valpey (Krishna Kshetra Dasa) brings up the need for ISKCON-friendly but independent think-tanks, such as the ISKCON Studies Institute, and also voices the idea that the mission of ISKCON as an institution really is to foster the development of sadhus, non-political people interested in their own spiritual life and in disseminating that to others.

Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) talks at some length about his work with Journal of Vaishnava Studies, and how interacting with the scholarly community has strengthened his faith in the “basic” or “fundamental” truths of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, calling issues such as whether there really was a Rama in Treta Yuga “almost irrelevant” in this regard—and thus firmly placing himself in the camp of “flaming liberals.” Rosen also comments at length on the conflict between ISKCON and Srila BV Narayana Maharaj, an issue very much topical at the time of the interviews. Unlike other ISKCON devotees in the book (and outside), Rosen shows sympathy and understanding for Narayan Maharaj’s point of view. Such a view is easy to take now that Narayan Maharaj has departed this world, but at the time of the interview it was a strong, even courageous statement.

Joshua M. Green (Yogesvara Dasa) speaks about bringing the teachings of Gaudiya Vaishnavism into the wider world, but also raises a painful fact: ISKCON in North America has gone from being ridiculed and being feared to today being utterly irrelevant.

Edith Best (Urmila Devi Dasi) comes last, but then again, she also has the most to say in terms of substance. She links the influx of Hindus in, as she carefully points out, selected parts of ISKCON with the conservation of social capital, using Pierre Bourdieu’s term, and has a lot to say about training and engaging the next generation of devotees. As she says, “We have not understood the value of our children.” She is also the only one of the interviewees offering something of a global perspective, as well as a very important female insider voice, often modifying or even contradicting the rather unrealistic views on the relationship between the genders in ISKCON today voiced by outsiders or male insiders.

The book ends with a short final remark by another devotee scholar, Michael J. Gressett, summing up some of what has been said before and discussing the legacy of Shrila Prabhupada.

What does the book teach us about ISKCON, then? While I primarily view this book together with the ISKCON insider material I mentioned at the beginning, I do not intend to say that it lacks scholarly value. Far from it. Since most of the interviewees are influential ISKCON devotees, it offers an important viewpoint into current discussions within the movement. In this sense, it can function as a sourcebook to what is going on within ISKCON in the 2010s.

The book suffers from two major drawbacks—the absence of an Indian and of a conservative voice—but it does illustrate the fact that ISKCON of today is no monolith. It is an organization vibrant with activity and energy in some parts of the world but moribund in others, it is in some cases despairingly insular and bigoted but in others welcoming and open. For despite the lofty goals of both its founder and present leaders, ISKCON is a movement of human beings, and it is perhaps here that both its perdition and salvation lies.

19 Comments »

  • Amara dasa

    The devotee’s criticism of science is a good point but I don’t consider their support for (daiva-)varnasrama a bad thing. After all, devotees do not support varnasrama based on birth (such as with the oppression of Dalits) but rather on the nature of one’s character and work. As for a lack of any conservative viewpoint, I think Urmila fits that bill quite nicely! All in all, I think it’s always good when the devotees reevaluate themselves in respect to modernity. Hare Krishna!

  • Indranuja

    Excellent review, thank you for your scholarly exposition on a topic dear to many Gaudiyas. It is nice to see such a clear critique.

  • Ram Doyal

    “It is difficult not to agree with her here: the campaigns against evolution or, even more bizarrely, against a heliocentric view of the solar system, are not only a huge waste of resources, but are not likely to attract many people to the movement – even were they miraculously to succeed. I mean, if Darwin was wrong, why would the next step be to shave up and move into a Hare Krishna temple?”

    The campaigns against evolutionist and Darwinism are completely justified as there are fanatic campaigns going on by die hard evolutionists who support the evolution theory as the only fact for mankind and they use it as a basis for atheism. They go further to ridicule people’s belief in God and scriptures. May be Dr. Anna is not well informed.

    • gopal dasa

      Ram Doyal, I am familiar with the position that you advocate, but practically and spiritually speaking I believe the fanatical response on the part of devotees — even to fanatical outspoken atheists — has been a failure. To the limited extent that some of Iskcon’s most fundamentalist anti-science propaganda has reached beyond that group, it has also been an embarrassment.

      Combating fanaticism with fanaticism may feel good, and it may give members (of either party) a sense of unity in opposition to a competing worldview. Such attributes of fanaticism may have benefits for institution building, but the spiritual basis is basically zero. Although I have not read the book under discussion, it seems that the scholars themselves recognize that a full-out rejection of modern scientific theories is simply non-essential to the transmission of Gaudiya siddhanta in the contemporary world. We can learn from that realization, as it’s quite an insightful one. Moreover, they observe the ways in which such fanaticism will simply serve to (further) marginalize a group like Iskcon. Where is there evidence to the contrary? The researchers who contributed to the book seemingly found none, although they are well-wishers of the movement.

      There are people who ridicule belief in God. That is unfortunate. But why would we respond by, for example, arguing against the heliocentric view? Who – atheist or otherwise – is going to find that view to be persuasive in light of astrophysical findings? Better, in my opinion, to focus on the question of consciousness. That is Gaudiya Vaisnavism’s entry point into a dialog that can be appreciated by a general audience of non-fanatics. By contrast, pulling out Puranic histories as empirical facts to go against the modern scientific narrative is unwise. It is unwise both tactically and in the sense that doing so privileges form over spiritual substance in a way that distorts the ultimate essence of the Bhagavatam.

      • Ram Doyal

        Gopal Das,Please accept my greetings and here are my response to your arguments:
        when the baby is still crawling, we can’t teach it subject matters which depends on its ability to run as a fully grown man. Same is true for refuting the arguments of those fanatical evolutionist.
        Who are You to judge whether response was failure or an embarrassment? Sometimes what is not comprehensible to the logic of the jnani is well founded in ways of Bhakti. Why do you say devotees are fanatical and even level them to non devotees in their attempt to establish what is siddhanta? Devotees are in no way fanatical except may be they are fanatical to the truth and to common sense.
        Yes we might not reject modern scientific theories but of what use is it to Gaudhiya Vaishnavas? Will you be able to convince Richard Dawkins with your Gaudiya philosophy? When they impose that science is the limit to knowledge, why should we not reject science and its theories which are based on speculation and full of human defectiveness?
        Of what astrophysical findings are you talking about? If you are doubtful of scriptural truth, then you better be a buddhist..http://www.iskcondesiretree.net/profiles/blogs/the-geocentric-and-heliocentric-model.
        Certainly we should talk about consciousness but only to those who understands it…
        Hare Krishna
        ram

        • Citta Hari dasa

          Ram Doyal,

          The article you cited in support of the geocentric model is not going to convince a rational person. The reason for this is that the article relies primarily on Mach’s theory which posits that the entire universe rotates around the earth. For that to be true then the stars and galaxies many light years away would have to have velocities many times the speed of light, the farther away the faster they go. That is not plausible to anyone with any knowledge of physics. As Gopal pointed out it’s far better, then, to focus on the nature of consciousness, which is the real focus of the sastras like the Bhagavata Purana, not minute details of the material creation.

          • Vikram Ramsoondur

            Richard L. Thompson said nothing about Ernst Mach in his second, larger book on ancient Indian cosmology published in 2000. The material posted on the Iskcon Desire Tree page linked to is from his earlier, 1989-released preliminary work on the subject. He obviously thought better of it and resolved to expunge these passages when writing his more developed thesis on the topic.

            The point was made, however, that most, if not all, astronomical quantities in the old Sanskrit texts are expressed in geocentric terms because that perfectly served the purposes for which these measurements were carried out in the first place. Since human beings are based on earth, determining the positions and movements of astral bodies in outer space from an earthly vantage point to serve religious and astrological ends makes sense. This is still largely practised today.

            The authors of these writings almost certainly did not intend to arrive at a comprehensive, conclusive description or understanding of the physical structure of the cosmos as is the explicit objective of modern science. Regarding information pertaining to the distances from earth of planets and so forth, it is always possible to relativise and explain such in other ways, as has been done in one of the responses to Ram Doyal.

        • Doubtful about scriptural truth? I think Gopala is doubtful about a particular, limited understanding of scriptural truth. When the baby is still crawling, we can’t teach it subject matters which depends on its ability to run as a fully grown man. Similarly sometimes scripture is presented literally, when in fact its essential meaning is much more nuanced. Is the sun closer to the earth than the moon? Yes, in that its influence is felt more than that of the moon, whose light is also reflected. Pujyapada Sridhara Deva Goswami replied with this answer. There are other answers as well.

          We should not reject science because it although he scientific method can not give us perfect knowledge in all respects, it nonetheless does give us knowledge that we use everyday to our material and spiritual advantage.

          It would be interesting to speak with Dawkins.

          • Ram Doyal

            Dear Swami Ji,
            Dandavats Pranam.

            Certainly I am a baby still crawling when I read this understanding of how the sun is closer to earth than the moon and that is why we have this forum for discussion.
            The following doubt is there whether it is not a kind of consolation philosophy. Today science posits that the Sun is in the center and we use the reasoning that scriptures are saying things in an aesthetic way and we should ignore the literal meanings; if tomorrow science shows more controversies of heliocentric theory, we take the literal meaning of the scriptures and claim that the geocentric theory was always in our scripture.
            I feel there is thought thread missing here; Does scriptures requires a science to help its interpretation? Does it requires experiments to consolidate its validity and reliability? Where do we draw the line when choosing between literal and between the lines meanings?
            Thank You Swami Ji.

  • Lal

    There are problems with accepting the scriptural accounts too literally, even if it is difficult (not impossible) to prove the Earth orbits the Sun (the star fields change by season, which can only occur if the Earth is moving).

    The main problem is in ardha-kukkuti-nyaya, accepting only half a hen. In English they have a similar saying: You can’t have your cake and eat it too. The idea of both is that you cannot accept two contradictory ideas. You can’t kill the chicken and expect eggs; you can’t have a cake if you eat it.

    If you are going to promote the cosmology of the Bhagavatam, then you can’t pick and choose what you like and ignore the rest as if it doesn’t matter.

    We know the earth is a sphere because we have space imagery and we know we can travel in any direction and end up back where we started if we go long enough. But that is not what we should expect if we take Puranic cosmology as literal truth, where Jambudvipa is not described as a sphere. Also we can see there are many other attributes of the Puranic model which are not literally true, e.g. oceans of Iksurasa (sugar cane juice), Sura (Wine), Ghrita (Ghee), Dadhi (Yogurt), Dugdha (Milk) and Swadujala (Sweet water). Where is Mount Meru? Where is the Jambu tree thousands of miles in height?

    If you are going to argue for a geocentric earth because of the Puranic accounts, you also have to explain all of Puranic cosmology – otherwise it’s ardha-kukkuti-nyaya. You’re promoting only certain parts of Puranic cosmology which are naturally difficult to disprove unless you can get a camera outside of our solar system, while not promoting the rest of that cosmological model which is easy to disprove.

    Saying that there isn’t a correlation between disproving current scientific norms and people taking up bhakti, isn’t necessarily true, and in that I agree with Ram Doyal. How do we know what inspires a person to inquire to bhakti? How do we know that hearing from a devotee on those topics will or won’t inspire them to inquiry?

    But that doesn’t mean devotees should act a fool. That will have the opposite of the intended effect. Arguing for a geocentric cosmology is virtually the same as walking up to people and handing them a card that says, “Hi, I’m mentally ill.”

    Arguing against evolution is another matter, since evolutionists don’t have the science on their side and inevitably resort to various types of fallacies in arguments. But still, most people who believe in evolution are going to be much easier to get interested in bhakti directly, rather than indirectly through devotees speaking against evolution. More than likely the people who will be affected by anti-evolution talk will be those who already don’t believe in evolution.

    I guess what the devotees in the book are talking about is prioritizing your time and energy if you’re going to spend it preaching. Don’t waste it on deaf ears, and don’t make yourself look like a fool in order to make some fanciful principled stand.

  • Ram Doyal,

    When asked by Pariksit about the nature of the material world—the glory of Visnu maya—Sukadeva replied that essentially this world is a transformation of the three gunas, nothing more—bhagavato maya-guna-vibhuteh. He goes on to say that no one can describe this world perfectly, vacasa vadhigantum alam vibhudhayusapi purusas. As the sage continues his explanation, he describes it as being based on the estimations of learned persons of that period, pramana-laksanato vyakhyatah.

    At the same time Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura explains that Raja Pariksit’s inquiry about material nature that gave rise to the descriptions of the universe in the fifth canto of the Bhagavatam was asked on behalf of bhakti-misra yogis present in the assembly. Thus the form of the world described is a subtle form of nature useful for a particular kind of yogic meditation on Bhagavan. This is not a form of Bhagavan for devotees to meditate on.

    The Bhagavatam is about devotional meditation, kirtana, etc. Devotees meditate directly on the forms of Bhagavan. The book should be explained in a manner that helps others to pursue such a path. To that end, different acaryas may comment of the fifth canto differently at different times. If one feels that a literal interpretation of this section can be promoted such that it will result in others forgoing the atheistic conclusions of modern scientism, such an acarya may comment on it along these lines. But if such a strategy in time proves counterproductive, it can be abandoned.

    Again, the book has a purpose and particular focus. And that focus is not the same as that of modern science with regard to exploring the nature and structure of the material world. Science wants to capture the world in its fist, whereas the Bhagavatam makes it clear that this is not its objective nor is such possible. It describes the world in different ways in different places all for the purpose of shifting its readers attention from objective forces like gravitational, electromagnetic, and strong and weak nuclear ones to subjective forces like dasya, sakhya vatsalya, and madhurya.

    • Ram Doyal

      Swami Ji,

      Dandavats Pranam.

      You have rewired the missing thought to my understanding. I cherish this answer and am very grateful to You. There is a feeling that this answer has descended from a wave of mercy despite that I do not have the qualifications for this answer. Thank You million times.

  • Parker Williams

    I’m always quite taken back by members of the Gaudiya community who rather casually dismiss the work of Srila Prabhupada in combating Darwinian evolution. He vehemently rejected it. It is my hunch that indeed, the monolithic power which Darwinism is clinging to, will continue to crumble. Those devotees who found themselves hedging their bets in regard to Darwinism validity will then be forced to consider why they chose the deliberations of their own mind instead of following the guidance of their leaders. Subjective Evoltuion by Srila Sridhara Maharaja also comes to mind.

    • I think it is wrong to characterize the position of the article as a casual dismissal of the work of SP in combating Darwinian evolution. It is not a question of whether or not this evolutionary theory is an accurate account of an aspect of biological life, but rather whether a particular preaching emphasis of a half a century past is the best foot forward at present, especially when speaking to educated people. There is more than one way to enter a house and the very heart of preaching involves consideration of time and circumstances. Blind following and merely parroting predecessor acaryas is not to use one’s mind spiritually. For that matter, the approach found in Subjective Evolution is quite different from that of Srila Prabhupada’s. It focuses on the nature of consciousness as the ground of being and the idea that matter comes from consciousness instead of the reverse, an argument that has considerable traction in today’s world. It does not dismiss altogether the idea that biological organisms adapt relative to their environment, but rather questions both chemical evolution, which incidentally has faded to the background, and also the other end of the spectrum of an all inclusive notion of evolution that sees mind and consciousness as functions of the brain. Prabhupada was more concerned with life comes from life rather than from chemicals (chemical evolution) and the idea that consciousness has no biological foundation than he was with the idea that species adapt. And the modern sense that the opposite is true is merely a conjecture and not an inherent truth of evolutionary theory itself. Of course Prabhupada was also opposed to the idea of macro evolution for other reasons.

    • the monolithic power which Darwinism is clinging to, will continue to crumble.

      It may lose ground going forward, but over the last 40 years since Prabhupada passed on it has gained a tremendous amount of traction.

  • Parker Williams

    Dear Tripurari Swami,

    Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Śrīla Prabhupāda!

    The Discovery Institute (a Christian scientific body) is doing the same type of rebuttal work today that Srila Prabhupada was doing 40-50 years ago and the highly educated scientists and professors in that camp are exposing Darwinism to a great degree.

    That species adapt over time is one thing, but to posit theories like a single-celled “universal common ancestor” is contrary to our understanding that Krsna and by extension Lord Brahma are our universal common ancestors.

    What am I missing?

    “I mean, if Darwin was wrong, why would the next step be to shave up and move into a Hare Krishna temple?” It wouldn’t, necessarily. But it would be a strong indication that doing so might be a step in the right direction.

    • I am familiar with the work of the Discovery Institute. It is interesting but I am not sure how much headway it is making. My understanding is that it is not getting very far in the scientific community and is often associated (correctly or incorrectly) with fundamentalist Christianity in the eye of the educated public. Again the question in the article is one of preaching according to time and circumstance. Is it the best foot forward to directly challenge and dismiss evolution, especially with simplistic arguments (unlike the discovery Institute) when speaking to educated people as man devotees do, or will it be more fruitful not emphasize that topic and instead to question whether consciousness is a feature of the brain? I side with the latter emphasis. And I am not an evolutionist.

      • Parker Williams

        Point taken. I agree, often devotees do not understand this principle of time place and circumstance and instead mimick or imitate Srila Prabhupada, for example.

        And thanks for clarifying your position on the matter unequivocally.

      • Parker Williams

        The problem with the discovery institute is that it is associated tightly with Christianity which itself has a terrible reputation for being grossly anti-science and anti-everything-not-jesus.

        However, were that not the case and were there strong backing from the great scholars and minds of the Vaisnava tradition, more advanced and complete positive conceptions of life and it’s origins could be put forth. For example, I never truly supported the DI because of this very reason.

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