I OFTEN DRESS IN A WAY that identifies me, in the West at least, as a devotee of Lord Krsna. But when I'm asked, "Are you a Hindu?" I'm never ready to reply with an unequivocal "Yes!"

Why is that? As a member of the Hare Krsna movement, I, like Hindus, accept the Vedic literature as the best source of knowledge, especially spiritual knowledge. And I'm a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, who gave his life to spread the teachings ofBhagavad-gita, "the Hindu scripture." So why am I uneasy with the label "Hindu"?

You'll find one important reason if you look up "Hinduism" in any number of reference books: the goal of Hinduism is usually stated to be "to merge with the One."

Well, that's not my goal. I bristle when I hear it, as does any aspiring Vaisnava. Prabodhananda Sarasvati, a great devotee in our line, said that for him, merging with God would be worse than life in hell. Why? Because in hell he would be able to serve Krsna by remembering Him, chanting His names, and so on. Service to Krsna is the devotee's life; the thought of losing that service is unbearable.

Consider Krsna's greatest devotees, the cowherd girls of Vrndavana. They're so captivated by seeing Krsna that they want to curse Brahma, the creator, for making eyes that blink. They can't bear to lose the sight of Krsna for even a moment. Merge with Krsna? Never.

Some followers of the Vedas argue that all this devotion to Krsna, however intense, is temporary, a means to the real goal, which is to merge. A common claim is that bhakti is one of many paths. Accept bhakti if you like, but merging is the final goal.

But in the Bhagavad-gita (15.7) Krsna says that we jivas, minute souls, are eternally His parts (amsa). Earlier, in verse 2.12, He says that He, Arjuna, and all the soldiers on the battlefield exist as individuals in the past, present, and future.

Once, when Srila Prabhupada was speaking with a man in South India who was following the path of bhakti to attain "oneness," Prabhupada kept emphatically repeating a line from Bhagavad-gita (9.14): nitya-yukta upasate "engaged in My worshipperpetually." True devotees of the Lord never give up worshiping Him.

Various arguments are put forward to support the idea that bhakti should end in merging. The most despicable for devotees is the claim that one must merge into the unknowable beyond Krsna because Krsna is a product of the material energy. Of course, if Krsna is part of the material world, then there is no question of having an eternal relationship with Him. Ultimately, Krsna is not real, and any relationship with Him is only an illusion.

Krsna soundly refutes this idea in many places in the Gita, perhaps most notably in verse 7.6: "There is no truth superior to Me." Again, in 10.8, He says, "I am the source of all material and spiritual worlds."

True to the mood of his spiritual predecessors, Srila Prabhupada presented the direct meaning of Krsna's words, without interpretation. Despite what your encyclopedia might say, Prabhupada with "the Hindu scripture" in hand awakened in people's hearts not the urge to merge, but eternal devotion to Lord Krsna.

Nagaraja Dasa