When Hinduism is not a missionary religion, why does ISKCON stress missionary activities so much?

by Chaitanya CharanDecember 27, 2013

Transcription: Shalini Mataji

Question: When Hinduism is not a missionary religion why does ISKCON stress missionary activities so much?

Answer: There are three different issues over here; whether Hinduism is a missionary religion, second what do we mean by missionary religion and third is what does ISKCON do when it stresses missionary activities. Firstly, regarding Hinduism not being a missionary religion, there is a widespread conception in the Hindu religious world that Hindus just you believe what you want to believe I believe what I want to believe and that way we just live peacefully and we don’t impose our faith on others and you don’t impose your faith on us. So this is the general idea that Hinduism has a broad tolerant spirit in which it doesn’t impose its faith on others. That is definitely true. At the same time not imposing its faith on others does not mean not trying to elevate people to higher levels of consciousness. In fact if we look at the history even if we go back right to the Puranas we will see that there are travelling sages like Narad Muni who travel around and they go to householders or they go to other people who are in materially entangled situations and they help them come out of entanglement. At one level this is missionary activity. Now we may not see in the Vedic literature, the sages or the teachers talking to people outside the Vedic fold because the Vedic literature were written at a time unlike the present world where everyone was more or less within the Vedic fold. But concern for elevating people to higher levels of consciousness is definitely there. And spiritual inquisitiveness is very much encouraged. “athato brahm jigyaasa” the Vedanta Sutra (1.1.1) says. And there are constant discussions between the sages about the ultimate philosophical truth. And the discussions often become debates also. There are in the Upanishads references to how great sages come to a particular place and the king asks various questions and then the best school of thought is celebrated. There are things like this in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and other Upanishads also. So the point is, philosophical discussion by which people are elevated to a higher level of understanding that is an integral part of Vedic culture. And those who have particular knowledge they want to share it with others, that is natural. And we see this happening even in the medieval times. Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhavacharya all travelled vigorously. Ramanujacharya went to North India all the way up not just to meet Vyasadev, yes he did that, but along with that he preached. And there are occasions where they also interacted with non-Hindus. Muslims were there, not at the time of Shankaracharya but at the time of Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya they were there. There were some interactions with them. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu interacted with Chand Kazi. And if we look at the tradition, the tradition of elevating people to higher levels of consciousness and sharing spiritual wisdom for that purpose and even debating with various schools of thought to establish the conclusive understanding, all these are integral parts of Vedic culture. So now Christians have been the primary missionary religions and then after Christians there have been Muslims also who have been doing it and generally these two have done missionary activities in a way which has given often the idea of missionary activities a negative ring to it. Now when Christians came to South America as well as to North America, in South America it was the Catholic Church which went and in North America it was the Protestants who went. And either ways in both places the original culture was completely destroyed. And in fact the Mayan civilization, the Aztec civilization in South America, it has been wiped out. And the Native Americans who were there in North America they were numbering in millions and now they are a few thousands who have to live like animals in reserve areas. Of course now things are changing slightly but the point is that the Christians they were convinced that we possess the truth and all other religious conceptions are false conceptions except ours and therefore they decided to just go about destroying other religions. And that was the way missionary activities were done by them. Even Islam also had the same idea. There were severe conflicts between Muslims and Christians; they were called as the crusades. And wherever Islam went it largely spread by the sword. Either you convert or we will kill you. So religious conversion has itself got a bad name because of the way certain religious teachers, certain religions have gone about converting others to their faith. Now whether this is the way that has been taught in Christianity and Islam to convert people that is a different issue which I will not go into.  Because even within these religions there are preachers in goodness, passion and ignorance. But predominantly if we look at history conversion has happened this way. And that’s why conversion has got a bad name. Or rather missionary activities have got a bad name. And whenever Hindu thinkers want to say that Hinduism is not a missionary religion, they are differentiating it from this position that Hinduism does not have a track record of destroying other people’s faith and destroying people who don’t agree with the particular school of thought. The Advaitas and Dvaitas would have tremendous debates and they are all within Vedanta itself and apart from that there are 5 systems of philosophy and they would have debates among them also. The debates would be cultured and at the end of the debate whoever would be the winner would be gracious with the person who was defeated. Its not that the person had to die or that sort of. So in the Vedic culture missionary activities were mostly in the intellectual realm and they never got transformed into military activities. One of the problems with Christianity and Islam, as they have been historically is that the religious has become very strongly mixed with the political and in fact many a times political powers have used religion to spread their influence and where the pursuit for political power ends and where the pursuit for religious compassion begins, that is very difficult to say in these religions in many cases not all. So it is that sort of missionary activities that are not at all done in the Hindu tradition. But through intellectual means, through discussions, through debates, through systematic presentation of one’s school of thought, the attempt to elevate people to higher level of understanding has definitely been an integral part of Vedic culture. And it is that tradition which Krishna consciousness is carrying on. And most importantly Hinduism considers one of its central text to be the Bhagavad Gita. And Krishna endorses sharing the spiritual message very strongly in the eighteenth chapter towards the conclusion. He is glorifying, he says that those who share his message with others are extremely dear to him. And he says they will attain pure devotion and come back to him. So in that sense if Hinduism is to the extent faithful to the Bhagavad Gita it should be actually trying to share the Gita’s message. So intellectually sharing the message is very much glorified by Krishna and he also says that this is not just intellectual this is the result of spiritual realisation. In the sixth chapter when he talks about the highest yogis, so this comes in 18.68-69, and in the sixth chapter Krishna has talked about the topmost yogi, there in 6.32, just after he has concluded his discussion about how the topmost yogi sees the spiritual truth everywhere, then he says such a yogi should be compassionate to everyone.

ātmaupamyena sarvatrasamaḿ paśyati yo ‘rjunasukhaḿ  yadi  duḥkhaḿsa yogī paramo mataḥ (BG 6.32)

So one who sees spiritual equality of all living beings. So what does that mean? In happiness and in distress one sees that everyone is equal that means that this caused me misery that will be causing misery to others also. This caused me happiness this will bring happiness to others also. And the yogi has, if you look at the previous verses, it has been described that the yogi has experienced spiritual happiness.

sukham ātyantikaḿ yat tad (BG 6.21)

So that means when one has experienced material miseries in the past and one has experienced spiritual happiness now one should want to share that spiritual happiness with others. So Srila Prabhupada said the mood of preacher is very simple. He said that a patient who has been sick for a very long time and finally found a medicine that cures effectively naturally wants to go to all the other people who are suffering from a similar disease and tell them about the medicine. So it is missionary activities which the Krishna consciousness movement does are very much in keeping with the Vedic tradition. They are an integral part of what the Bhagavad Gita teaches and they are in the mood of compassionately raising people to the higher levels of consciousness. It is not based on the idea that our way is the only way and if you don’t follow our way then we will destroy you. So that means we can have 3 different positions, one is the position of the Abrahamic religions. Historically they have been quite intolerant in their missionary activities where they destroy, stamp out other religions sometimes. And then there are the extremely passive Hindus who say that you do whatever you want to do I’ll do whatever I want to do and in this way they just let the culture rot away. So this sort of passivity, tolerance is not impotence. Tolerance means that if you want to believe something different from what I believe its not that I am going to stamp out your existence. But tolerance doesn’t mean impotence. That means that you believe whatever you want to believe and if you are claiming that this is the true Vedic teaching and if it is a misrepresentation its not that I am going to sit passively. I am going to counter that so tolerance is not impotence, religious tolerance means that yes we allow other schools of thought to exist, because ultimately Krishna gives everyone free will, free will to act and free will to believe what they want but still Krishna gives a conclusive message and sharing that message with others is the responsibility of those who are devotees. So in that sense the balanced Vedic position is to intellectually share the message with others and to do it compassionately and vigorously but not do it in the sense of politically becoming violent or using military methods or using force to convert people. That is not recommended and that the Krishna conscious movement doesn’t do at all. So it is very much in keeping with the Vedic tradition of elevating people to higher levels of consciousness by sharing spiritual knowledge and giving them the opportunity for spiritual realisation.

Thank you, Hare Krishna !




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Chaitanya Charan

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