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ISKCON Studies Conference 2007

ISKCON and Interpretation: Context, History, Theory, Practice

 Prabhupadadesh, Italy, 27–30 July 2007

The ISKCON Studies Institute held its first annual ISKCON Studies Conference at Prabhupadadesh, Italy, on 27–30 July. The Conference, which brought together some of ISKCON’s best thinkers, led to the ISKCON Studies Institute becoming one of the few initiatives to be recognised and approved by ISKCON’s Ministry of Educational Development.

The theme of the Conference was “ISKCON and Interpretation: Context, History, Theory, Practice”. The aim of the Conference was to create a space where ISKCON thinkers can come together and engage in open, intelligent discussion in a conservative temple atmosphere. According to one of the organisers, Krishna-ksetra Dasa: “When I joined ISKCON, in Germany, the questions were fairly simple: whether to eat seconds or thirds of dessert, which town to go to for chanting, and so on. The answers to some of our philosophical questions, though, were sometimes stereotyped, and [ISKCON’s founder] Srila Prabhupada taught us that Krishna consciousness is not stereotyped. So I began to think that we needed to go deeper into our tradition to secure more thoughtful answers to the questions we asked.”

Presenters at the conference included Braja Bihari Dasa, Federico Squarcini, Jayadvaita Swami, Krishna Ksetra Dasa, Kumari Priya Dasi Pranava Dasa, Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, Radhika Ramana Dasa, Rembert Lutjeharms, and Sesa Dasa. The special guest speaker was Massimo Introvigne, the founder and managing director of the Centre for Studies on New Religions, an international network of scholars.

The Conference is a direct development from the groundbreaking ISKCON Communications Meetings (ICELT), which ran from 1993–2006 and were responsible for fostering initiatives including the Bhaktivedanta College at Radhadesh, the ISKCON Communications Journal, and ISKCON’s Child Protection Office. The ISKCON Studies Institute is also a product of these meetings. As well as holding the ISKCON Studies Conference, it is publishing the ISKCON Studies Journal (a relaunched ISKCON  Communications Journal) and has a large ISKCON Archive based in Oxford. The Institute’s declared aims are to develop the field of ISKCON studies and related areas of interest; develop forums for academic exchange; and promote relevant research and facilitate publishing about ISKCON in various disciplines.

Day One: Preparing the ground

Introduction: Mapping the field
Radhika Ramana Dasa

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Interpretation is a central human activity, and an inevitable function of religious institutions. In this session, Radhika Ramana Dasa will provide an overview of the themes that will be explored during the meetings. He will raise key questions, pointing out both the necessity and difficulties of interpretation in a devotional context. Who is qualified to interpret the scriptures? What are the limits of interpretation, and why are we warned against it? How can we facilitate proper interpretation and learn to recognise it?

Text and context
Rembert Lutjeharms

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What is the importance of interpretation for Hindu religious traditions and how do they approach sacred texts? How do these approaches compare with those of the Gaudiya Vaishnava acaryas? How unique was their approach and how much did it mirror other Indian traditions? What did they reject and what did embrace and modify? Finally, what role does tradition play in interpretation? How does tradition shape interpretation and how is it in turned shaped by it?

Bhaktivinoda and bhadralok: Responses to colonial Christianity
Krsna-ksetra Dasa

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Christian missionaries and the forces of European secularism posed a great challenge to nineteenth-century India’s religious traditions. Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s interpretation of Vaishnava scripture sometimes resisted and sometimes embraced these new views. This important acarya in the Gaudiya tradition wrestled vigorously and fearlessly with the Vaishnava tradition he so loved, turning it into a ‘modality of change’ for reformulating spiritual renewal to the tune of universalism that resonated with Enlightenment thinking of his time.

Viewing the East from the West
Federico Squarcini

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How does our cultural background affect our interpretation? Our commonly shared European attitude towards anything needs an act of interpretation to be understood. We tend to be convinced by our own ‘understanding’ and our own ‘comprehension’ of reality. Using classical South Asian materials and example we will see the potential incompatibility between our largely shared ‘post-modern’ view and a more ‘classical’ understanding of what it means ‘to interpret’.

Day Two: Spiritual institution or institutional spirit?

Re-Visioning ISKCON: Constructive theologising for reform and renewal
Krishna Ksetra Dasa

This paper, co-authored in 2000 (and published in 2004) by Krishna Ksetra Dasa and the late Tamal Krishna Goswami, was an attempt to engage in ‘constructive theology’ within an educated public forum. The ideas generated in this article may be perceived as anywhere from passé to downright blasphemous, as either creative interpretations or misinterpretations of the Caitanya Vaishnava tradition.

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Institution as interpretation
Jayadvaita Swami

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While interpreting the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, ISKCON also interprets itself. That is, its members and leaders develop ideas of what ISKCON is and should be. And these in turn affect both ISKCON and the personal lives of its members, as well as others with whom ISKCON stands in relation. Those affected then further affect ISKCON itself. How do post-charismatic dilemmas and other social forces influence ISKCON’s interpretation of itself? And how does ISKCON’s self-interpretation affect the way ISKCON arouses, interprets, and responds to the forces of alienation, schism, heresy, and competition? What has history shown us, and what can we expect?

Case Study One: Bhaktisiddhanta and the Gaudiya Math
Pranava Dasa

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In what way was the Gaudiya Math a response to the need to translate the Vaishnava tradition for a broader audience and to meet the challenges posed by modernity? Traditionally in Gaudiya Vaishnavism a network of personal, spiritual relationships was the accepted pattern of social hierarchy and interaction. However, if the tradition was to reach the educated Hindu middle class and a Western audience, a modern, sophisticated institution was required. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, building on the legacy of Bhaktivinode Thakura, developed that kind of institution. This allowed Gaudiya Vaishnavism to expand beyond the cultural and religious borders of Bengal and, later on, India.

Introducing schism
Massimo Introvigne

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The term ‘schism’ is not originally sociological, but theological. It belongs to the jargon of the Roman Catholic and of the Eastern Orthodox churches, where its use has always been politically important. Some recent examples, both Catholic and Orthodox may illustrate how the use of the word ‘schism’ is socially constructed and politically negotiated. The original theological meaning does not apply well to religious organisations (including Protestantism) that don’t use the episcopal Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox model. However in a landmark 2004 article, Sutton and Chaves tried to construct a sociological concept of ‘denominational schism’ applicable to Protestantism (Zuckerman did the same for Judaism in 1997 but his article was less influential). Although not easily applicable to a Hindu or non-Judeo-Christian context, these sociological works may form the basis for a typology of schisms independent from the original theological meanings of the term.

Legislative interpretation
Sesa Dasa

How well equipped is ISKCON Law to handle irrational eruptions, ideological eruptions, and other destructive emotional responses that can easily form the basis of ‘witch trials’. Who interprets ISKCON Law? Who enforces ISKCON Law? Does ISKCON Law contribute to hysteria or mitigate against hysteria?

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Day Four: Interpretation and schism

‘As It Is’ As it is: Understanding the hermeneutical principles of Srila Prabhupada
Ravindra Svarupa Dasa

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Srila Prabhupada makes claims about his principles of understanding scripture that appear, to the modern mind, to be patently false, even absurd, and they tend to be dismissed out of hand as an instance of naive, unreflective ‘fundamentalism’. This study shows, however, that Prabhupada works from a profound and highly sophisticated theology of sacred utterances, which constitutes in effect a defence of his hermeneutics. A close reading from Prabhupada’s translation and commentary on Srimad Bhagavatam (1.3.44–1.4.1), discloses the core of Prabhupada’s hermeneutical process. We see that essential to it is the systematic formation of the intellect and character required by which the hearer attains the qualification (adhikara) for reception. In this light, Prabhupada’s creation of ISKCON is revealed as a necessary component of the hermeneutical process itself. Indeed, that process constitutes the raison d’etre for the institution. Those who want to understand Prabhupada’s hermeneutics, must take into account both his theology and the hermeneutical way of life it entails.

Schism: Cause and effect (historical examples)
Kumaripriya Devi Dasi

In this session we will survey several instances of schism in religious traditions. The main focus will be on analysis of a few examples of ‘heresies’ that led to schisms in early Christianity. Examples from Buddhism and Islam will also be discussed. We will touch on themes previously introduced, such as ‘Whose tradition is it?’ and therefore ‘Who has the right/privilege to assume authority of interpretation and why?’ We will also assess the importance of context for ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’ interpretations. The main area of discussion will address: ‘What motivates schisms?’ What can we draw from the examples discussed that will help us to identify and constructively address the roots of schisms? Can we identify defining lines between orthodox and heterodox interpretations?

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ISKCON schisms: The good, the bad, and the normal
Braja Bihari Dasa

Schismatic groups – groups that break away from the established religious organisation – are a common phenomenon in history. ISKCON is no exception. Even during Srila Prabhupada’s time one existed, and since then there have been several major schisms. This presentation will examine the history of ISKCON’s schisms, place those schisms in the light of social theory and the history of other religious organizations, and discuss the benefits and problems these schisms create.

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