Is ISKCON part of "Hinduism?"
Formerly, Muslims living in the regions of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia called the Sindhu (Indus) River “Hindu” and the people living in and beyond the river valley “Hindus.”
From its founding in 1966 the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been invigorated by the participation of the Indian community, both in India and the West, and by the endorsements of Hindu organizations around the world. Many of ISKCON’s Indian members, some of whom have leading roles in the Krishna consciousness movement, have worshiped Lord Krishna from their childhood and have followed all their lives, as part of their family or cultural traditions, the basic principles followed by all ISKCON members—total abstinence from non-vegetarian foods, and from intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling.
The Indians’ support of ISKCON never fails to impress me and to encourage me in my own practice of Krishna consciousness. In the West especially, people tend to look at ISKCON devotees as something new, strange, and threatening, but the large-scale participation of the Hindu community helps me to remember, and to convince others, that in joining ISKCON I have joined an age-old religious and cultural tradition that currently has hundreds of millions of followers.
I must honestly confess, however, that despite my growing appreciation of Hindu culture, I wince whenever I hear someone refer to Lord Krishna as “a Hindu god,” to the Krishna consciousness movement as “a sect of Hinduism,” or to the Bhagavad-gita, which ISKCON has published in more than thirty languages, as “the Hindu bible.” By convention, or common understanding, it may be OK to call us Hindu, but a closer look shows that the designation is not wholly appropriate.
Neither in the Gita nor in any of India’s Vedic literature will you once find the word hindu. Hindu comes from the Sanskrit sindhu, which means “river,” and which was specifically a name for the river that rises in the Tibetan Himalayas and flows nearly two thousand miles to the Arabian Sea, passing through present-day Jammu, Kashmir, and Pakistan—the river we today call the Indus.
Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON’s founder-acharya, explained that Muslims living in the regions of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia, through a singularity of their native pronunciation, called the Sindhu River the Hindu and the people living in and beyond the river valley Hindus. Over the centuries, as Greek, Hun, Tartar, and Mogul armies marched across the Indus to conquer the subcontinent to the south, they brought the name Hindu with them and made it stick. Hindu, Hindustan, Hinduism, Hindi, and even the name India itself, all derive from a term coined by India’s conquerors. Today still, for what little is understood of Indian culture, you might as well broadly define a Hindu as a person living beyond the Indus River, and Hinduism, tautologically, as what Hindus do.
But what do the “people beyond the Indus” do? What were they doing before the repeated conquest of their land, during its occupation, and now after independence? What is that complex body of religion, philosophy, and culture—situated within a crumbling social structure known as the caste system—that we call Hinduism?
Srila Prabhupada answered that India’s actual culture is described in brief in the Bhagavad-gita, where Lord Krishna explains that He has created human society with four natural social classes, or varnas. These are (1) an intellectual class, (2) an administrative class, (3) a mercantile class, and (4) a laborer class. These classes, or occupational divisions, are recognized by the qualifications and activities of the individual, and they are present throughout the world, not just in India.
In addition to social classes there are four spiritual orders, or ashramas, which correspond to stages in each individual’s life. The spiritual orders are (1) student life, (2) married life, (3) retired life, and (4) renounced life. These spiritual orders too are visible to some extent in every human society. The first part of life is for education, after which one gets married and finds a job. Later, at the age of fifty-five or sixty, there is retirement. The renounced order is not so prominent worldwide, although in some religions men and women do renounce married life altogether to become priests, ministers, or nuns.
The entire system of social and spiritual orders is called varnashrama-dharma (dharma meaning, very loosely, duty or religion), and the Vedic literatures prescribe detailed duties for an individual according to his or her position in a particular social and spiritual division. Although this varnashrama-dharma system does indeed constitute a complex body of religion and culture, the aim of all prescribed duties is unified—to serve and please the Supreme Lord. Service to the Supreme is called sanatana-dharma, or the eternal religion. Sanatana-dharma is the common function or duty of every living entity, the thread that unites all world religions, and the essence of the varnashrama system. The Srimad-Bhagavatam ( 1.2.13) states:
"The highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to social divisions and spiritual orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead."
In the Gita also, the Personality of Godhead Himself explains that the purpose of all the Vedic literatures is to know Him. So the Vedic varnashrama system, though superficially complex, is essentially simple. To simplify further, Lord Chaitanya has taught that since in this age the Vedic prescribed duties are nearly impossible to follow in their exact details, the members of all social divisions should instead please the Lord by regularly chanting His holy names and by offering the fruits of their work to Him.
The Indian caste system is a perversion of varnashrama-dharma because caste is decided by birth, not by aptitudes and activities. Caste by birth is not supported by any Vedic text; nor is it a very practical idea. Can a judge’s son automatically be allowed to preside in court? Does the child of every IBM executive have natural business talents? Of course not.
Another important difference between the original varnashrama system and Hinduism that has developed over time is that Hinduism recognizes no ultimate goal or conclusion. Hinduism embraces worship of both the original Personality of Godhead and the subordinate demigods, and recognizes the practice of many yoga disciplines, the performance of an array of austerities, and the execution of assorted rituals—all without ever acknowledging that the original purpose of these varied activities is to bring the widest possible variety of individuals to the transcendental platform of exclusive devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
So is ISKCON a part of Hinduism? Well, yes and no. You decide.
What’s clear, though, is that the word Hinduism is an outsider’s term for what’s going on beyond the Indus. What’s going on there is a misunderstood, misapplied version of the Vedic varnashrama system, a system that ISKCON—with invaluable participation and leadership from the Hindu community—is working to establish everywhere. To establish, in other words, on both sides of the Indus.