Are we deviating from Prabhupada's teachings?

Dear Editor,

There seems to be a disturbing trend in ISKCON today, and that has to do with the term "Vaisnava." This word seems to be more in vogue to the expense of "Vedic." Though it may seem silly to worry about semantics, the differences between the two terms go to the heart of ISKCON's mission and purpose.

Devotees within ISKCON use "Vaisnava" to mean devotee. Yet, to outsiders, "Vaisnava" implies a particular sect of Hinduism. A "Vaisnava" is opposed to a "Saivite" or other sects. Using the term "Vaisnava" implies that ISKCON is nothing more than an organization that follows the tenets of a particular sect of a particular religion. This implication is exactly what Srila Prabhupada wanted to avoid. He repeatedly emphasized that ISKCON propagates the science of the soul and explains what reality is; ISKCON does not simply practice a particular subsect of a particular religion. He, in fact, stated that ISKCON is not concerned with "isms"; that is, ISKCON is not here to propagate a particular religion. Yet one finds the use of the word "Vaisnavism," another "ism," by the GBC (Is Krsna Consciousness Hindu? BTG, July/August, 1992). Srila Prabhupada did not use Vaisnava or Vaisnavism too often because he realized that these terms do not summarize ISKCON's mission most clearly. Instead, he used the term "Vedic."

The term "Vedic" accurately delineates ISKCON's philosophy. ISKCON is based on the Vedic scriptures and propagates the essence of Vedic philosophy. If ISKCON gives up on the term "Vedic," that is tantamount to saying that ISKCON is not Vedic and the Mayavadis [impersonalists] are (since they use Vedic and Vedantic freely). It is a defeat for ISKCON. ISKCON wants to show that it is not merely another religious organization; ISKCON propagates pure knowledge about the soul's condition. "Vedic," as a term related to "knowledge," is much more apt for ISKCON's purposes. The problem here is not that of substance; ISKCON clearly follows the Vedic teachings. The problem is that of packaging; ISKCON must claim that it actually follows the essence of the Vedas and that the Mayavadis do not. In order to do so, ISKCON must use the term "Vedic."

Most people got attracted to ISKCON because ISKCON presents the truth about reality; most people did not join ISKCON because of ISKCON's immediate lineage in a particular sect or tradition. ISKCON should not get away from the teachings of Srila Prabhupada; ISKCON should follow his example and consciously use "Vedic" wherever possible. ISKCON will be fine as long as it follows Srila Prabhupada; most of the time, ISKCON does. On this issue, however, ISKCON has strayed from Prabhupada's words. Prabhupada certainly never wanted his ISKCON to give the Mayavadis the cloak of being Vedantic and Vedic; ISKCON has done so by default by not using the term "Vedic." Is ISKCON aware of the communication and packaging problems inherent in these semantic issues?

Sandeep Vaishnavi
Atlanta, Georgia

JAYADVAITA SWAMI REPLIES: The points you raise surprise me somewhat because, in fact, Srila Prabhupada commonly used both words, Vedic and Vaisnava. I haven't done a word count, but I do know that he used both words frequently.

An essential misunderstanding some hold is that "Vaisnavism" refers to a sectarian religion, or a mere subsect within a larger sectarian faith. And another misunderstanding seems to be that one can attain perfection in knowledge but still not become a Vaisnava.

Srila Prabhupada, however, used the term "Vaisnavism" to refer to nonsectarian devotional service to the Supreme Lord, the Personality of Godhead. And he made clear that only when one becomes a Vaisnava can one be considered to have attained perfect knowledge. According to Bhagavad-gita:

bahunam janmanam ante
jnanavan mam prapadyate
vasudevah sarvam iti
sa mahatma su-durlabhah

After many, many births, when one reaches the perfection of Vedic knowledge one surrenders to Vasudeva, Krsna, the original Visnu, and thus becomes a Vaisnava.

Elsewhere in Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna says, vedais ca sarvair aham eva vedayah: "All the Vedic literature is meant for understanding Me."

And Sripada Madhvacarya quotes:

vede ramayane caiva
purane bharate tatha
adav ante ca madhye ca
harih sarvatra giyate

In the Vedic literature, including the Ramayana, Puranas, and Mahabharata, from the very beginning (adau) to the end (ante), as well as within the middle (madhye ca), only Hari, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is explained.

In the Rg Veda we find, om tad visnoh paramam padam sada pasyanti surayah: "All the demigods look constantly towards the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Visnu." And in Srimad-Bhagavatam Lord Siva himself is described as the greatest of the Vaisnavas (vaisnavanam yatha sambhu).

In other words, Vaisnava is not a limited sectarian designation. Even the demigods are Vaisnavas. And in fact, according to all the Vedic knowledge, to serve as a Vaisnava is the eternal occupation of the soul. Therefore Lord Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita that one should give up all other supposedly religious duties and just surrender unto Him, or, in other words, become a Vaisnava (sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja).

"Veda" means "knowledge," and knowledge is meant for everyone. Similarly, "Vaisnava" means a devotee of the Supreme Lord, and everyone ought to give up all sectarian designations and become the Lord's devotee.

Unfortunately, some people mistakenly think that the Vedic scriptures are meant only for certain sectarian, ethnic, or cultural groups basically, only for Indians. And they think that Vaisnavas are merely adherents to a particular Indian sect or faith. We have to inform people, therefore, that the Vedic scriptures are meant to offer knowledge and self-realization to all human beings. And we must bring people to understand that Vaisnavism is the eternal spiritual function of all living entities. A Vais-nava, and only a Vaisnava, has attained perfect knowledge and become a perfectly self-realized soul.

Let me assure you that we shall not give up using the word Vedic. As mentioned above, when one reaches the conclusion of Vedic knowledge (vedanta) one becomes a devotee of the Lord (a Vaisnava). Krsna consciousness is "Vedic" and "Vaisnava," and therefore we shall continue to use both words.