Is ISKCON being digested into Judeo-Christianity?

This thread deals with the concept of digestion explained in the book Being Different. The importance of this work is evident by the fact that we keep returning to its fundamental concepts to explain events that are happening around us. It would be beneficial to first read this prior post that summarizes all previous threads on digestion.

The discussion below was set in motion by Rajiv posting this link regarding the attempt at digestion taking place within an ISKCON formation in the USA.

Rajiv stated:

This trend is how uturns and digestions work. The person wants to have it both ways. He also wants to cater to "mainstream white americans" who are Judeo-Christians.

What is outside their comfort zone must be removed. Done in the name of "going mainstream". Many confused Hindus support this.

Krishna responded:

I went to the source and read about Howard Renick, a PhD from Harvard has used Hindus and his academic background wisely to make a claim that he is the expert in Vaishnavitism. I make this observation based on a research publication he wrote and is available in one of the links.

Second, this evangelism part is very disturbing. It is clear case of totally assimilating into Western ethos. Food, clothing, music and the methods of preaching the religion is going to change a lot. Obviously, within few years it will become the fastest growing / evangelizing Hindu religion of the West.

Since they are also building a massive temple in the suburbs of Kolkota, we have other issues coming up. Ownership of ISKCON and the role of Hindus in the organizational set up now and in the future. Indians made enormous contribution and sacrifice towards the success of the project.

Maria had this to say about ISKCON:

ISKCON in the West and by Westerners is already pervaded by western ethos. I would say it has been since its very beginning. Now they are only taking it a step further.

ISKCON in the west is divided into two parts, one, the smallest, consider themselves Hindu. They would have more to do with a hindu outlook of the world, in which respect towards all the paramparas and towards all deities is there. But I am sorry to say that this is the tiny minority. The vast majority have only replaced the western word and meaning of "God" by "Krishna" as a monotheistic monolitic Unique Supreme, distorting the sacred scriptures to the extent of saying that Bhagavan Vishnu is an avatar of Shri Krishna, for example.
A real hindu as far as my understanding reaches, would revere all deities as different aspects of the Ultimate Divine, even having their own istha devatha, and would never try to impose their view on others. With westerners hare krishnas, it is exactly the opposite of what they do, regarding all Devatas as "minor gods" and following their own exclusivist view on Krishna. 

Tushar elaborated on the ideologies of ISKCON as he saw it. he says:

I have read ISKCON books and they are all translations and purports by Srila Prabhupada who is very much an Indian Guru.
All these translations and purports are preserved and unedited. So, I feel there is no distortion of scriptures because his purports are very clear and unambiguous.

Besides, in all Vaishnav schools,  (Four sampradayas, viz, Rudra, Gaudiya, Sri, Nimbarka), it is believed that Vishnu is an expansion of Krishna and not otherwise. Hence, I feel that ISKCON believing that Vishnu is an avatar of Krishna is justified, since ISKCON is also one of the Vaishnava schools.

Besides, there are several evidences in Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam to support the above statement.

Also, ISKCON believing that all other Gods are smaller Gods(Devtas) is also supported in Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam and several other scriptures. Infact, worship of Devtas instead of worship of Krishna is discouraged in Bhagavad Gita, if not prohibited.

I tend to agree that there might be changes in the way the Hare Krishnas live to adapt to the environment in  which they are located. However, I am not sure of any U-turn happening.

At this point Rajiv Malhotra said that the disagreement that many people felt with ISKCON was due to the Vaishnava texts that they followed. He also said that his next book would deal with some of these difference under the head of "Level 2 access to Ishta-devata". Rajiv also added that the three main traditions viz Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shakta with their numerous sub-systems did not agree with each other on many things. He however said, it was his endeavour to delve deeper than the common understanding to arrive at the foundational unity which would help establish their mutual respect.

Chittaranjan elaborates on what he sees as the ISKCON ideology

A real hindu as far as my understanding reaches, would revere all deities as different aspects of the Ultimate Divine, even having their own istha devatha, and would never try to impose their view on others.  With westerners hare krishnas, it is exactly the opposite of what they do, regarding all Devatas as "minor gods" and following their own exclusivist view on Krishna. 
The concept of Vishnu being Supreme and the other gods being subservient to Vishnu comes from the philosophy of Madhvacharya's Dvaita Vedanta. This kind of hierarchy of the gods is known in Dvaita Vedanta as Deva Taratamya. The Gaudiya tradition (to which ISKCON belongs) borrows the concept of Deva Taratamya from Madhva's Dvaita Vedanta but replaces Vishnu as the Supreme with Krishna (and indeed regards Krishna in a peculiar way as higher than even Vishnu). 

I agree with you though when you say that ISKCON in the West is pervaded by the Western ethos; but the concept of Krishna being Supreme and other gods being lower in the hierarchy actually comes from the Indian Gaudiya sampradaya itself.

Sant had sent the original link that Rajiv had posted, to a concerned official at ISKCON and what follows is a reply from the ISKCON official [Reproduced as is here]

Dear Sant,
Namaste. Hare Krishna.
Thank you for sending me the article, "Hare Krishna Gets Evangelical”, from the Washington Post. I would like to make a few comments. 
First, the opinions expressed in this article do not represent the official position of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON. You will notice that only a few persons were quoted in the article, some of whom are not even ISKCON members. 
In particular, the statements minimizing Indian culture and its importance to the Hare Krishna society do not reflect the policies of ISKCON. 
I am the Minister of Communications and Chairman of ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission, and I don’t agree with much of this article. The majority of ISKCON members and leaders would disagree strongly with many of the opinions presented therein.
But, ISKCON is a large international organization and there are differences of viewpoint within our society. Just as America has diversity and India has diversity, so does ISKCON. 
And, as is often the case, the media is attracted to minority opinions and controversial statements, and not always interested in understanding or presenting a balanced perspective. 
Anyone who has visited an ISKCON temple anywhere in the world knows our temples are filled with people—native and Indian born—wearing traditional Vaishnava Hindu dress, singing Sanskrit and Bengali bhajans, and serving Deities of Radha-Krishna, Sita-Rama, and Sri Caitanya at one of the highest standards of traditional worship found in the world. 
It is interesting too, that even the photographs in the article show men and women of ISKCON dressed in dhotis and saris and wearing traditional Vaishnava tilak on their foreheads. Something that few people outside ISKCON and outside India still do—at least on a regular basis.
I write today from Russia. This very morning I attended an ISKCON temple with nearly one hundred Russian-born Hare Krishna devotees. All chant the maha-mantra daily, all study Bhagavad-gita, all are strict vegetarians, all aspire to visit India to worship in Vrindavan, Tirupati, and other holy places—and most were dressed in traditional Indian/Vedic dress. 
ISKCON’s connection and roots in Indian culture are solid. Yet, as a global Vaishnava society that is attracting millions of people to practice bhakti-yoga and give their lives to Lord Krishna, it is natural that some ISKCON members will not adhere to traditional Indian style of dress or culture. That type of diversity is natural in the free expression of what is today a global religious society. 
That said, let us remember that knowledgeable people give great credit to ISKCON as one of the pre-eminent organizations transmitting the core principles, traditions and culture of sanatan-dharma all over the world.
Thank you.
Anuttama Dasa
International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)
Chairman, Governing Body Commission, and
Minister of International Communications

Rajiv, in response to the above mail had this to say:

My own experience with the few ISKCON leaders I know agrees with this post. 

One of our best supporters has been Jagannath Priya ji in Mumbai who is ISKCON leader. Others of ISKCON in Mumbai have also helped me and are firmly embedded in Hinduism along with its full Indian cultural context. They have hosted me, gone around out of their way helping me in numerous concrete ways and continue to do so. They are also solid Indian patriots.

At the same time, the key factors differentiating ISKCON from most other major movements today is that each ISKCON group is separately incorporated and they do not report to one central headquarters. I am told there is a central committee but its unclear how much authority it can assert. Those organizations with a living guru can hold together and this was the case while Prabhupada was alive. But after he left some of the multiple ISKCON groups started wandering away in their own directions. 

One of the worst digesters of ISKCON into Judeo-Christianity is the head of the Center for Hindu Studies at Oxford. Since I have examined his positions in particular I can support my claim. There was also a major paper written by some other western leader in ISKCON who wrote about how its tenets can and should be digested into Judaism.

So it seems the western and Indian leaders and groups within ISKCON are going in different directions. I would not paint all of ISKCON with one brush and make it look homogeneous.

I would like to invite JP ji for his perspective because as an insider of ISKCON and also a solid Hindu, his perspective is important. 

Sai went on to explore the Centre for Hindu Studies at Oxford after Rajiv mentioned about them in his response above. Sai came up with this observation:

This the faculty and admin page for OCHS, I dont see even one 'Indian born but UK resident' (or) 'UK born Indian' in this page. Perfect atmosphere to take U-Turns. How can some institute of such repute not employ a native of Indian origin in the admin group for Hindu studies? Very organized inculturation. 

This is what S. Rishi Das, Director, OCHS has to say about his ISKCON involvement.

Joining a Hindu movement in the Ireland of his time did not feel like a courageous act for Rishi Das. Of his first encounters with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) he said:
They were speaking Christianity but not calling it that. I knew I had met the people I was to practice with. My desire was to be a Christian. I had to struggle with the fact that I found it being practised to the highest standard by non-Christians.[39]
Christianity practiced by non-Christians??? Can he not draw lines between Nicene creed and Gaudiya Vaishnavism??? 

Sai's mail triggered reflection by Dushyant again on how ISKCON viewed itself. In his response below he elaborates on how the need to preach/evangelize, enshrined in the views of ISKCON made it a prime target for digestion/inculturation:

In the history of ISKCON, the need to preach to everyone (West included) has existed since the time of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura Prabhupāda (Guru of AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON). Under British rule, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura had also sent few of his follower Sadhus to the Europe but did not receive much of a success to further their mission.

This zeal of preaching to the west was, unfortunately, never met by a same amount of rigorous efforts to understand the Western Point of view (Purva-Paksha). Because of their virtually non-existing Purva-Paksha (but firmly established in Gaudiya Vaishnavism) ISKCON, eventually, adopted to the evangelical methods of preaching to the Western People (and also to the Indians). 

The evangelical preaching methods brought with them the Western categories and ISKCON had to mold/dilute (or digest) it's various cultural and societal Indian ethnic stands according to the Western cultures where they were operating. On the other hand, in order to prove more Indian, ISKCON insisted on the lifestyle of Indian culture such as Sarees, Dhoti-Kurtas, Tilak, exclusively Indian cuisines to offer bhoga to Krishna etc. The lifestyle did provided ISKCON an Indian appearance but without a solid Purva-Paksha (in comparative religious studies) and hence the preaching requirements in the West slowly digested Gaudiya Vaishnava categories.

As it is also mentioned in this thread (and I personally know about it) that, although, ISKCON do have a Governing Body Commision, it does not dictate the view of an individual follower; moreover each Temple is an independent center. Followers who come from Abrahamic backgrounds, bring with them their own cultural categories of defining things and usually, simply, replace their Abrahamic philosophies with the Gaudiya Vaishnava one. 

For example, in the US their views on sex and marriage are the same as the hardcore Christian ones. Again as example, their views on euthanasia, abortion, social development etc. are same as the Church's stand on the issues. Although, formulated with in the Western categories itself, their opposition of scientific point of views (especially on Evolution and Origins of the Universe) is so zealous and passionate that it reminds me of persistent Christians who would knock on my door twice a week to deliver the "good news" (who are also passionately against any opposing views than their own).

As a historical trait within the Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy and sampradayas of presenting other devi-devatas as subordinate and representatives of Krishna; ISKCON have extended this privilege to Jesus and Muhammad too (who are accepted as the messengers of "God" or "Krishna" and, as ISKCON says, who taught according to time, place and circumstances; which is itself an Indic idea). One can confirm this by talking to any ISKCON devotee about their stand on Jesus and Muhammad. 

On an extreme note, in order to preach in the West, you may find few of the devotees describing the early Christians as early Western Devotees of supreme God Krishna (because Jesus is suppose to be a messenger of God/Krishna). It is also accepted that Jesus and Muhammad are the "Jagad-Gurus," although they do insist that the "Jagad-Gurus" are needed to be understood through a "Mahanta-Guru" (a living spiritual masters) to remove the distortions in order to follow Jesus' or Muhammad's "original teachings." (for reference please see translation by the "Rays of The Harmonist" team from Śrīla Prabhupādera Upadeśāmṛta)

In conclusion, I agree, that, ISKCON is not a monotonous culture and is quite diverse. As also mentioned by Rajivji that the Indian devotees in India (and many NRIs) are firmly Hindus and patriots. On the other hand, many Western and NRI ISKCON devotees shy and shun away from the word Hindu (even in their preaching) and do describe themselves as not-Hindus but "Hare Krsnas".

Dushyant further goes on to analyze why many westerners eventually leave the ISKCON movement. His analysis is represented here. He starts with a line from Sai Kiran's mail in the thread:

"...I found it (Christianity) being practised to the highest standard by non-Christians." 

That's how ISKCON presents itself in order to preach, that, it is a some sort of fulfillment of Christianity and Islam. ISKCON maintains that a person can be simultaneously Christian/Muslim and can also be a Hare Krsna through chanting Hare Krishna mantra (notice that they don't say that the person can be a Hindu but Hare Krsna). 

Although they don't realize that in Islam and Christianity you cannot maintain dual membership and because of that rigidity a person has a greater pull towards Abrahamic religions. A big number of ISKCON devotees eventually leave it after years of practise. There are many examples in ISKCON where people left it and retained their native religions. These people, then, criticize ISKCON and also the Hindu practices and philosophies. 

Shaas, another forum member feels that while it is perfectly acceptable to accord preferential status for one's Ishta devata, ISKCON calling Gods other than Vishnu or Krishna as demi-gods is very un-Hindu like and makes the formation itself very evangelical.

Jagannath ji from ISKCON replied as Rajiv requested him to and he had many things to say on the issue:

We need to first understand the issue with its respective context. This has been one of the most profound contributions by Rajiv ji  in Dharma perspectives- Purvapaksha and Contextual understanding of Dharma.

Hence, before I present my views I wish to explain a brief history of how ISKCON was setup and that will give clarity in this issue. In 1965 at the age of 70, when Srila Prabhupada first went to the US he was discouraged by everyone from India and US, including his own Godbrothers. He had NO ONE to start his movement. He began by spending time doing kirtans under a tree in downtown Newyork, living by begging etc. Hippies, homeless, druggists etc only were the first audience. Prabhupada converted “these hippies” to follow highest standards of vaishnavism. Some became leaders, some Sannyasis too who later opened temples all over the world, and spread the teachings of Gita and Bhagwatam globally. Later many others joined. Many of these western leaders/followers of ISKCON were well versed with Gita, Bhagwatam, Chaitanya Charitamrita, and also very sincere individual practitioners, but did not understand nor had any “experience” of the overall Vedic culture, its diversity and its application. And many don’t understand even now. Many westerners (not all) of ISKCON, because they lack a personal exposure and experiences of Vedic lifestyle and culture, they tend to accept only as much as was told to them by their specific guru or teacher and reject everything else. Yet when they do/did it, they follow it in their earlier evangelical Christian and Muslim psyche – Im the best and everyone else is inferior. So when they learn about Krishna, that’s how they apply it. So that creates a sense of fanaticism in some too. Some assume that they have a mandate to lead and steer based on little knowledge in some scriptures. Some Indians too think that way.

Unfortunately nowadays Indians themselves do not understand. I must say, before Rajiv ji brought out perspectives many too dint understand how to “position” ourselves clearly on Dharmic views, and Im sure many in the forum would agree to this. In “all” my interactions so far with various very big “leaders” of various Hindu religious and social organisations, books like BD and IN are an eye opener. This shows how much awareness is needed in these subjects. Hence to expect everyone to be born or be aware of such mature perspectives is absurd. We need to collectively work to push these concepts. 

...I feel that to truly understand the word "diversity" one needs to travel within India, not just at tourist places or airports, but by interacting with local temples, local people etc where you can see a vibrant diversity in each aspect of Dharma. Mind boggling diversity amongst same streams of Shaivites, Smartas, Vaishnavites can be seen all across India. 

I tend to agree with Anuttam’s mail. ISKCON is a highly diverse organization, highly decentralized and very different style of governing. Some are inspired by ISKCON, they split later but maintain standards, some split and deviate…, some are well intentioned but less informed, all look the same externally. Yet ISKCON is also one of the very few organisations with very high standards in terms of Eating habits, Sadhana, Deity worship, Pilgrimages, Kirtans, etc. But it certainly isn’t perfect in the Absolute sense.  Having said this, I dont expect many in ISKCON, especially westerners to understand this view due to their limited exposure on this subject. That doesnt provide an excuse though.

From my honest view, it needs more improvement, and lots and lots of it, than what can be see from outside. But there are very few organisations who even come close to what ISKCON has achieved so far globally and the rigorous effort it continues to put to promote certain basic tenets of Sanatan Dharma, popularly known as Hinduism.

Hence, it is important to see that the various sampradayas of Hinduism strive to find the intrinsic foundational unity that binds them with mutual respect and do a thorough purva paksha on those trying to digest them. It is only when this is done that Hindus can avoid the far too easy traps that they fall into allowing non Dharmic faiths to inculturate and eventually digest them. Indra's Net, Rajiv's book dealing with the open architecture nature of Dharmic faiths, provides defense mechanisms for Dharmics to counter such attempts from history-centric Abrahamic faiths.

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