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ISKCON Studies Conference 2010

Transmitting the Truth: Education, Preaching, and Conversion in ISKCON

Villa Vrindavan, near Florence, Italy, 16-19 July 2010.

The theme of this year’s conference – Education, Preaching, and Conversion – addresses concerns central to ISKCON’s history and mission. In what ways have Indic religious traditions, especially the Caitanya Vaisnava tradition, understood and articulated these concepts? How does ISKCON draw from or reinterpret these traditions? What are the theological underpinnings of present-day educational and preaching practices? The conference aims to provide an academic forum to discuss such questions, especially as they relate to ISKCON, but with attention to their broader context.

The Conference is a forum for presentations of research and open discussion among the participants.

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Introductions and opening address
Krsna-Ksetra Dasa

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Meditation as a devotional practice in Jiva Gosvamin's philosophy of education
Dr Barbara A. Holdredge

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In my presentation I will examine the philosophy of education articulated by Jīva Gosvāmin in the Kṛṣṇa Sandarbha and Bhakti Sandarbha, with particular emphasis on his understanding of the role and interrelationship between external bodily practices and internal meditative practices in the training of the sādhaka in the advanced phases of rāgānugā-bhakti.

As an entry-point into Jīva's philosophy of education, I will focus more specifically on his discussion of Vraja-dhāman in the Kṛṣṇa Sandarbha, in which he maintains that while the earthly Vraja can be engaged with the material senses through bodily practices such as pilgrimage, the transcendent Vraja-dhāman, Goloka-Vṛndāvana, is beyond the material senses (atīndriya) and can only be apprehended through direct experience (anubhava). Although Goloka-Vṛndāvana is not visible to the material eye (carma-cakṣus), it can be 'seen' (root dṛś) through direct visionary experience (sākṣāt-kāra or sākṣāt-darśana).

Jīva invokes the authority of Vyāsa and the other great sages who, while immersed in samādhi beyond the material realm of prakṛti in the depths of meditation, attained a direct cognition of Gopāla Kṛṣṇa in his transcendent Vraja-dhāman and then recorded their cognitions in the śāstras. He declares the direct experiences of the sages (vidvad-anubhava) to be the 'crest-jewel of all pramāṇas' in that the record of their experiences preserved in the śāstras provides an authoritative testimony of valid knowledge for future generations. He claims, moreover, that these experiences are not the exclusive prerogative of the sages of the past but can be experienced 'even today' by advanced practitioners of rāgānugā-bhakti who incorporate meditation into their regimen of sādhana-bhakti as a form of devotional practice.

In my presentation I will examine Jīva's representations in the Kṛṣṇa Sandarbha and Bhakti Sandarbha of a range of meditative practices, which he variously terms smaraṇa, contemplative recollection; dhyāna, meditation; bhāvanā or cintana, contemplation; and mantra-upāsana, meditation utilising mantras. He allots a pivotal role to these meditative practices as a critical component of the Gauḍīya path of sādhana-bhakti, and more specifically rāgānugā-bhakti, that can serve as means to attain direct experiential realization of Kṛṣṇa's absolute body (vigraha) and his unmanifest līlā in the transcendent Vraja-dhāman. While Jīva declares that 'one should engage in bhakti-yoga in the form of meditation (dhyāna)' (Bhakti Sandarbha 317), he utilises a number of strategies to distinguish the Gauḍīya meditative practices that are integral to bhakti-yoga from the meditation techniques advocated by yogic and tantric traditions.

Preaching conversion or education? The case of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati
Pranava Dasa

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This presentation will review Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati's multiple approach to education and conversion in terms of strategies of communication based on examples taken from newly discovered documents. It aims at raising questions about the development of academic education in ISKCON with reference to the present development of religious studies in Indian universities. I will argue that Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had a three-level approach to communicating Gaudiya Vaisnavism. The first was targeted to a broader audience such as scholars and educated middle and upper classes, who would critically evaluate his message. The aim was to create a favourable environment for introducing a number of 'new' religious ideas. As a case study, the mission in England and Germany will be briefly reviewed. A second was communication to sympathisers in India, which Bhaktisiddhanta carried out through the founding of the Bhaktivinoda Institute in Mayapur, open to the Hindu/Vaisnava youth. The third addressed the inner circle of the Gaudiya Math and was carried out through a traditional sastric education.

In good faith: on the meaning and role of sraddha in Caitanya Vaisnava thought
Dr Rembert Lutjeharms (Gopinathacarya Dasa)

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'In the beginning is faith (sraddha)' writes Rupa Gosvami in the Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, but what does he mean by that? This paper will examine the place of sraddha in Caitanya Vaisnava theology, by examining the meaning and use of the term in sacred texts that are central to the tradition, by exploring the importance of the concept in the writings of some of the main Caitanya Vaisnava teachers. I argue that members of ISKCON often have a rather Christian concept of faith, as one that centres on doctrine rather than on practice, and will assess the relevance of this discussion to the three themes of this conference: education, preaching and conversion.

Conversion, preaching, and western cultural identity
Dr Jan Olof Bengtsson

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In this presentation I will address the phenomenon of conversion to Krishna Consciousness or Gaudiya Vaisnavism in ISKCON's institutional form in light of the question of the cultural identity of Westerners – the identity I know best, but also one which, for better and worse, is having a global impact. Srila Prabhupada differed from other representatives of the Vedic tradition (in the sense accepted in ISKCON usage) attempting to spread aspects of it in the West in that he brought with him much more of the general, traditional Hindu culture of India: Not just clothes and food, but deeper cultural, moral, and social values. This not only posed more of a challenge to his early followers in the hippie movement than did the message of other yoga and meditation teachers – the 'streamlined swamis', in A. L. Basham's term. After four decades, it still raises in a sharper form the question of the significance of conversion for the cultural identity of people shaped by Western civilisation in a broader sense. History shows that religions spread in new parts of the world by means of cultural syntheses which supplement and transform rather than completely replace existing identities. Even when they claim to reject it, Western converts are inevitably formed by Western culture and society in ways which determine their understanding of the world and thus their preaching. My presentation will seek to contribute to a needed deeper analysis of this centrally important and indeed decisive fact by throwing light on the complex, multi-layered, and often in many respects unconscious and unarticulated identity of Western devotees in a way which will facilitate the kind of discernment and selectivity with regard to it that is needed if it is to become a resource for rather than an obstacle to ISKCON's mission.

Educational perspectives from the Mahabharata
Dr Nick Sutton

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In this presentation I will discuss the main ideas the Mahabharata seeks to convey to its hearers, but more particularly the manner in which it does so. Outside of India there is an expectation that scripture will speak in an authoritative voice with the expectation that the followers will accept and submit to this authority. It seems apparent that the Mahabharata does not attempt to present its main ideas in this way but adopts an alternative approach, as servant rather than master, and it is my intention to explore this technique that provides an important insight into the role of scripture within the Hindu religious tradition as a whole.

The Meaning and Form of Conversion in Gaudiya Vaisnava Tradition
Kumari-priya Dasi

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I will consider a variety of perspectives on the meaning and form of conversion in the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition by discussing examples from the early and formative era, exemplified in the Caitanya Caritamrta and the Bhakti-ratnakara, as well as the comments of the later acaryas Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. These notions of conversion will be compared with certain strategies and approaches of ISKCON, historically and at present. In particular, attention will be given to the claim that ISKCON's preaching and conversion strategies have been influenced by the Western Protestant context of its growth. Looking to Max Weber to define what Protestant might mean in this context, popular notions in ISKCON of conversion and ways of life after conversion will be assessed in light of both Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism on the one hand and Bhagavad-gita on the other.

Conversion, experience, and narrative: Examples from ISKCON
Hrvoje Cargonja

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I present several conversion stories of ISKCON devotees from different cultural backgrounds that are part of my ongoing Ph.D. research on religious experience among Hare Krishna devotees. The issue of conversion and experience will be approached in a case-orientated way, focusing on conversion as a narrative, as a particular type of life history that often entails stories of religious experience. I would like to show how cultural and personal environment shapes the structure of the story and how interplay of contextual factors influences the construction of the meaning through conversion narrative.

Inculturation: The relationship between spirituality and culture, applied to education
Urmila Dasi

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The culture that is native to a spiritual tradition provides both support for that tradition and the most natural expression of it. Spiritual traditions that claim universality and engage in preaching, however, regularly contact other cultures. Even closed ethnic systems are encountering the modern global secular culture which is alien to all types of spirituality. This presentation examines three ways a spiritual tradition can relate to other cultures, and implications for education.

Philosophical interfaith dialogue for lay people
Krishnadas Kaviraj Dasa (Christian Kästner)

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The dominant discourse of interfaith dialogue, which takes place among religious leaders and theologians and which enjoys a fair amount of public and academic attention, is strangely unrelated to the demotic practices that occur between ordinary people of different faiths in more or less everyday situations. The research topic of my Ph.D. work is to explore ways in which interfaith dialogue can be made relevant to a lay people and their religious needs. Focusing on students in higher education institutions I developed an interfaith dialogue programme that seeks to challenge students to think about their faith and religious practices philosophically, thus aiming to connect theological reasoning with real world experience. In my presentation I will reflect on the theoretical foundations of interfaith dialogue and discuss the rationale for said interfaith dialogue programme for students. I will furthermore report on a trial run of the programme in which 40 students of Leeds University took part and discuss the results as explicated by them. Finally, I reflect on the goals interfaith dialogue thusly framed can pursue and how this might be relevant to ISKCON.

Panel discussion: Joining worlds of knowledge – secular and Vaisnava academies
Chair: Pranava Dasa

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Dr Frederico Squarcini and Matsyavatara Dasa

The future of education in ISKCON
Shaunaka Rishi Das

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This presentation will analyse educational developments in ISKCON over the last 12 years, charting success and failure. It will report on current discussions in ISKCON's GBC educational initiative regarding the philosophical and theological foundations of education for devotees of Krishna, and it will end with speculations about the future of education in ISKCON.

Wrapping up
Krishna Ksetra Dasa

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Summary on behalf of ISKCON Studies Institute