Shape and origin of the image of Christianity
in the work of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami

Lecture by Peter Schmidt, Dr. phil., Frankfurt am Main, 07-16-1998

http://www.fphschmidt.de/bs/VortragE.htm   --   http://www.fphschmidt.de/bs/VNN.htm

More than three years I worked for obtaining a doctorate for "dr.phil." investigating A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
and the gaudiya-vaishnava-religion in interreligious dialogue. The results are published under the above mentioned title

 

Outline of the lecture:

0. Introduction and theses
1. Bhaktivedanta Swami´s view of Christianity
1.1. The Bible; 1.2. Jesus; 1.3. History of the church
2. Bhaktivedanta Swami´s religious socialization
2.1. Childhood; 2.2 College; 2.3. Vaishnava-teachers
3. Final summary and appendix (with glossary)
 

0. Ladies and gentlemen,
in the realm of my doctorate disputation I would like to deal today with the work of the Bengal Swami Abhay Caranaravinda Bhaktivedanta, briefly called "Bhaktivedanta Swami". Chiefly his view of Christianity shall be treated. This Indian scholar lived from 1896 to 1977. Eleven years before his death he founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York, abbreviated: ISKCON, for the most of you better known as the "Hare-Krishna movement".
At the beginning I would like to formulate three major theses on which my following explanations will be based:

1. One may not consider Bhaktivedanta Swami as the founder of a so-called sect, today described as a "new religious movement"; his religion rather is based on a century old, genuine Hindu faith tradition.
2. Bhaktivedanta Swami´s view of Christianity - under an almost exclusive consideration of the Bible - is extensive and characterized by a high valuation of the person of Jesus Christ. References to the origin of this position are supported by his numerous remarks about a religious education highly influenced by Christianity in his adolescence.
3. To this day there is no serious scientific publication about Bhaktivedanta Swami´s life that could take into account his points of view about the Christian religion in an acceptable way. The official posthumous ISKCON-biography has to be seen as extremely problematic in this context.

Referring to the science of religion, one must place Bhaktivedanta Swami´s organization into the big complex of monotheistic Hinduism. Although all other forms of religion found within the Indian subcontinent, such as animism, schamanism, polytheism, pantheism, and monism belong to Hinduism as well, the way of worshipping a higher Being, with the idea of a personal God, is the basis of Bhaktivedanta Swami´s religion, a part of the so-called Vaishnavism (or Vishnuism). Besides Shivaism und Shaktism it is one of the three largest religions in India.
It is a religious tradition which was started in the 3. century a.d. and is found mainly in Bengal, in which God Vishnu, or one of his incarnations, like Rama or the extremely popular Krishna, is adored. One of the literary bases in this context is the Bhagavad-Gita, a philosophical-didactic teaching poem drawn up in the same time period.
The supporters of the Vaishnavism, the so-called Vaishnavas, do not cultivate any homogenous cultural and theological traditions. One speaks of four big philosophical trends. All were formed in the Middle Ages and named after their founders who mainly were from south India. This includes, for example, the school of Madhva who developed the dualistic philosophical system of the Dvaita in which God, and all earthly souls, have to be understood as totally distinguishable spiritual unities.
As a rule the Vaishnavas were leaders of movements that were aimed at the ritualistic piety of the hierarchically organized Brahmanic religion. God should be more easily accessible and more available to every single creditor for the striven salvation of the cycle of existence. Concretely it meant that highly complex fire rituals, ceremonial songs and complicated offerings by the Brahmanic priesthood should yield to simple acts also performed by laymen and guided by Bhakti, the selfless love and devotion to God. For example the admiration of images in temples and the chanting of the different names of God were introduced as the best ways of worship in the communities.
In the first half of the 16th century the movement by the preacher Caitanya, came into Bengal from Mayapura. Considered as an Avatara, an incarnation of God, that founder of the so-called Gaudiya-Vaishnava-tradition concentrated the religious experience on a devoted worship of God Krishna and his eternal female companion, Radha. Bhaktivedanta Swami´s movement for Krishna-consciousness also came from this line of the Vaishnavism. They see their main task in a worldwide spreading of the common praise song of God´s names, the Nama-sankirtan.

To complete the thought one has to mention that ISKCON is not the only representative of the Gaudiya-Vaishnavism in the western world. One of the spiritual relatives of Bhaktivedanta Swami, i. e. another pupil of their religious teacher, introduced himself as an authorative spiritual preacher of the same time outside of India. It was Bhakti Rakshaka Sridhara who also founded a religious organization for the distribution of the teachings of Caitanya. Its head office is in Navadvipa, India.

As already mentioned, there are a large number of newer scientific publications about the traditional, as well as the modern tendencies of the Vaishnava religion worldwide. While sorting out the available scientific literature about Bhaktivedanta Swami it became clear that particularly his relationship to other world religions - especially to Christianity - have not been treated at all or only very briefly. Hardly no scientifically well-founded discussions until now have taken place with this subject.
Exactly this is the main object of my doctoral work, in which I have particularly worked through the complete works of Bhaktivedanta Swami, including exclusive consideration of his viewpoints of Christianity, and the resulting strategies of an interreligious dialogue. In addition to that I have followed the question of origin of Bhaktivedanta Swami´s opinions about Christianity in his religious socialization process.
A CD-ROM which contains the complete collection of his books, letters and articles, as well as the copies of all tape logs of his lectures and various discussions in the English language served as my primary source.
In the following I should like to introduce you to the most important results of the first section of my work, an will I pick up my second thesis:

1.1. In the opinion of Bhaktivedanta Swami the question of a so-called Shastra, a sacred scripture, which documents God's will authentically, is not only constitutive for the Christian religion. He regards the Bible as a part of the oldest Hindu literature, the so-called Vedic scriptures, and presents it moreover as a book that can be used as a source of information about the life and work of the Christian incarnation of God, Jesus Christ.
Regarding the quality of the Bible it has to be understood as a kind of simplified summary of the divine message, which can be found much more detailed in the Bhagavad-Gita (comparison paperback dictionary - larger encyclopedia). But the statements of that sacred document aren't untrue, however the target groups of both works are different, particularly in their intellectual ability. Therefore, the message of the divine love is presented much less clearly in the Bible.
Principally everybody could strive for the purpose of a religion with the Bible successfully. For Bhaktivedanta Swami this consisted in the guidance of all people to a loving relationship with God, i. e. in the development of what he called "Krishna-consciousness".
However, for Bhaktivedanta Swami the person of Jesus wrongly became a unique saviour of the world. The reasons for this are numerous forbidden manipulations of the text of the Bible, an event which may be understood as an evidence of the faith, but which cannot be tolerated in any way. Through this the claim of absolute truth would be lost. Such a revision of the Bible (he called it „manufacturing“) can always be seen if Christians deliberately and wilfully ascribe direct speeches to Jesus, although they probably were written long after his crucifixion.
In a letter written in 1969 Bhaktivedanta Swami reported that he had heard, through the reading of a church circular (whose author remains anonymous), by the examinations of certain Prof. Charles Smith. This establishes, as he described the contents of the circular, that generally there are great doubts about the authenticity of all biblical words of Jesus. For example: numerous passages considered to have been said by Jesus originally are by the author of the fourth Gospel. He particularly mentioned John 14.6., where Jesus is quoted with „I am the way, the truth and the life; nobody comes to the Father unless through me“. Here Bhaktivedanta Swami took into consideration that - if one follows the theses of Charles Smith - this statement, which is important for the Christian self-confidence, might also have been added later.
Smith, a theologian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was mentioned by Bhaktivedanta Swami only once. For this reason it seems to be obvious that the Indian knew Smith´s book „The paradox of Jesus in the Gospels“ only through the secondary source of the church circular. My own investigations, which brought me to the Loyola University of New Orleans, yield that this thesis by Charles Smith, who in those days was engaged in the biblical demythologization, nevertheless was quoted correctly.

Examining Bhaktivedanta Swami´s competence with respect to the contents of the Bible, one notices that he never goes into concrete details respectively to the context in any of his 14 Bible quotations. The reconstruction of the Bible´s historical frame also doesn't play any part for him. In his discussions he rather frequently scattered Bible words to which he thought to have discovered an identity with his own philosophy. One important subject was the love which man should develop towards God, as well as the infinite power of God and the dependence of man on Him.
His preferred Bible quotation was the Fifth Commandment which can be located in 158 quotations, much more often than any other Bible quotation. Bhaktivedanta Swami called it the „first commandment of the Bible“ that, although it is in the center of the Christian philosophy, it is violated frequently.
In his commentary of 1975 on the „Srimad Bhagavatam“, a central Vaishnava document about Krishna, Bhaktivedanta Swami referred to the twelve year old Jesus in the temple (Luke 2, 41-52). By using not identifiable secondary sources he presented an incident of grave consequence for Christianity: to his knowledge the adolescent Jesus was shocked by the Jewish practice of animal sacrifice in the synagogues (!). Consequently he declined the Jewish faith and started his own religion, i.e. Christianity, with a „thou shalt not kill“ finally correctly understood.
On another occasion Bhaktivedanta Swami justified the necessity of the confirmation of the fifth commandment with the argument that people of the biblical period would have been so accustomed to killing, that they couldn´t grasp the real meaning of this law.
Nowadays the situation has escalated, because animals are killed not only as objects for sacrifices but also for inadmissible food purposes in slaughter-houses. Since the killing of living beings, as a matter of principle should be condemned as an abominable and merciless action, one has to describe Christians, who tolerate or support such a deplorable state, as incapable of realizing the true nature of God.
At the same time Bhaktivedanta Swami ascribed a steadily fading influence of the Bible on the urgently necessary religious recovery of the modern western world. It´s decay is based on an extremely materialistic and egotistical way of life, particularly of many Christian clergymen. More on this topic in a moment.
Summarizing Bhaktivedanta Swami accepted the biblical texts as the work of a divine revelation and even recommended studies in the Holy Book now and then. Although the words of Jesus are not quoted as a first source, for him the Bible includes all considerable guidelines for the practice of a true religion. Now I would like to go into details on the meaning intended for Jesus in this connection.

1.2. In his complete teachings Bhaktivedanta Swami used the name of Jesus 861 times and the title „Christ“ even 1083 times; in comparison: Judaism is mentioned merely 3 times, Mohammed 40 times, Buddha 619 times and Krishna 81.826 times.
Jesus for whom titles like „Lord" or „Son of God" are used has shown an overwhelming sympathy towards all creatures on this planet, moreover a remarkable tolerance (particularly towards his enemies) as well as a self-sacrificing modesty without any material adherence to this world. He has proven an infinite confidence and an absolute dedication to God's powerful greatness.
It is interesting that Bhaktivedanta Swami also used terms of the Hindu tradition: Jesus would have been a real Vaishnava-teacher, a guru, and a powerful „Devotee“. This term describes a purely religious and pious man who serves God voluntarily and with infinite devotion. The title „Avatara“ is also very important to Bhaktivedanta Swami.
Again and again the exemplary fundamental attitude of  Jesus, regarding the serving obedience towards God, is emphasized. Before His earthly existence, while in heaven, it is thought that He might have been without anything to do, and therefore were very bored. On earth however, Bhaktivedanta Swami said, he made efforts toward all other living beings in a truly Vaishnava and exemplary way.
Bhaktivedanta Swami agreed uncompromisingly with the biblical version of Jesus´ fate, despite his doubts about the authenticity of the Gospels. He was convinced that there was a divine order for His salvation giving death at the cross. This also applies to the following resurrection. The latter remained second-rated for him, in view of the meaning of Jesus as a sublime, divine ambassador and reformer, towering above everything. The people of the biblical times should have been guided back to the godhead Krishna by developing a more unpretentious - please allow me this expression! - "light-"version of  the Vaishnava-philosophy.
Jesus therefore is also indisputably in the tradition of all important religious reformers. His magnanimous and selfless attitude most likely consisted in taking over and wiping out once and for all the sins of mankind, with his self-sacrifice. The after-death interpretation of Jesus´noble deed however, had nothing to do with the original intention, said Bhaktivedanta Swami. For him the practice of the Christian religion rather was based on the creation and preservation of a tricky and disastrous contract which has been concluded in Jesus ever since biblical times. Jesus had the function of a kind of scapegoat to forgive the sins committed in the past, present and future.
This reproach is only comprehensible through Bhaktivedanta Swami´s definition of sin, namely the human disobedience towards God and his commandments. No "rotten" contract with Jesus but devotional service to God alone, integrated in daily life prevents the origin of new sins. Every man therefore incessantly and only has to strive activities dedicated to God.
No word of disapproval of the devine concept of forgiveness of sins for the world's salvation is said; only the misunderstanding, and thus abnormal behavior of the supporters of Jesus which in Bhaktivedanta Swami´s critical crossfire by undermining morality, even to this day. So to speak as a counterweight to the faultless and perfect Jesus, Bhaktivedanta Swami reproached Christians of all times for being helplessly lost in a purely materialistic life, intolerant fanatics towards other religions, without any kind of world saving philosophy, in return well equipped with inconsistent, corrupt and selfish ethics. All of this proved to be fatal for Bhaktivedanta Swami because in the Ten Commandments there is an acceptable and potentially suitable normative basis for a truthfully meek life. Nevertheless, he had great confidence that the younger generations will prevent the decline of western society. Bhaktivedanta Swami considered a strong rejection of his movement as a measurable degree of public success for himself.

1.3. A portrayal of Bhaktivedanta Swamis critical view of Christianity would be incomplete if his sparse statements about the history of the Christian church were not mentioned.
Within Christianity, the Roman-Catholic Church appeared to him to be the only authorized opponent. He never justified this attitude and it certainly had to do with his rudimentary knowledge of the history of Protestantism, which he severely condemned. He equated the origin of this denomination with the development of the Church of England: a certain King John, so he told the audience in several lectures, is said to have „protested“ against the power of the Roman-catholic clergy without any justification. As a result this king founded the since then so-called Protestant Church, which in Bhaktivedanta Swami´s opinion is to be called „notoriously discontent“. Of course Bhaktivedanta Swami didn´t mean King John without land, but Henry VIII. The subject was never extended, consequently no European reformers were ever mentioned.

So much to Bhaktivedanta Swami´s view of Christianity. Coming to the third thesis we have to consider the factors which in whole have contributed to Bhaktivedanta Swami´s religious development and which are believed to have been the decisive influences on his opinions towards Christianity.
There are numerous descriptions of Bhaktivedanta Swami´s development from childhood to puberty in the already mentioned ISKCON-biography of 1980. In that the author Satsvarupa das reports on the child and even the adolescent student, who still is called Abhay Charan De, as continuously thinking about religious and philosophical subjects. At the same time he already should have received a sound philosophical training in the Vedic scriptures by his father, and faced western philosophers sceptically and negatively. Conscientously he is to have listened to his father´s descriptions about the eternal soul, Krishna´s will and the doctrines of the Vaishnava religion and understood every word of it. Abhay was absolutely indifferent to worldly sciences and their discoveries, never felt any fascination for these subjects.
So far the "facts" written in the biography´s first volume. My analysis of Bhaktivedanta Swami´s childhood and adolescence however, shows that those descriptions have to be seen as incorrect. I would like to give some detailed reasons for this observation.

2.1. In fact Bhaktivedanta Swami´s first contact with a religion was in his childhood, namely by the Vaishnava world of his pious father Goura Mohon, a cloth merchant in Calcutta who observed numerous ritualistic duties and feasts. Till up into his high age, the son remembers his own playful-imitating attempts of Krishna-worship. Yet the theological meaning, he later has to confess retrospectively, remained completely unknown or misunderstood in those days. And his childlike and naive fascination for the solemnity and mystery of the religious cult gave him no insights into the sacred Vaishnava literature.
Instead, Abhay was already confronted with the extremely contrasting and nevertheless enticing culture of the British colonial society. Without any contradiction from his father, he left the religious roots of his ancestors as a pupil and still more sharply as a student. As a teenager his life was defined by religious phenomena, progressive thinking and modern technologies. There were gramophones and ventilators that were moved by invisible dwarfs, he was interested in the driving technology of tramcars, he was fond going to the cinema and drinking 7up, which he was still mad about in his late seventies, and he liked to play football. Altogether Bhaktivedanta Swami gave lectures on this sport 44 times. He, for example, compares the technique of playing football with the theory of reincarnation: „The football has no place. As soon as (it) comes (to) somebody’s feet, he kicks. He goes to another body. ... So we are just like football. We are being kicked up. Now I am American. Next time I shall be kicked up to China...“ (lecture about the Bhagavad-Gita in New York, 20th Dec. 1966).

2.2. From 1916 to 1920 Abhay was a student at the Scottish Churches College in Calcutta. Here the trends of his childhood and youth continued. In the classes he was confronted with the purely western way of Christian culture. Through the contact with west Europeans a generally existing affinity to the western lifestyle emerged among the students.
In his old age Bhaktivedanta Swami often remembered one of his college-teachers, a Scottish Reverend by the name of Dr. William Spence Urquhart, the late headmaster of the College. This person obviously had a lasting influence on the student, which was expressed in an extraordinary affection and paternal bond, completely independent of the Christian background of the teacher, at least in the eyes of the young Bhaktivedanta Swami.
With regard to the religious and philosophical knowledge the student behaved more than loyal towards his favourite teacher: Rev Urquhart´s daily and obligatory Bible classes in front of 150(!) students can be considered as the primary source of Bhaktivedanta Swami´s Bible knowledge. His frequent reference to this teacher lead me to further investigations of Urquhart´s person and theological work. During my two trips to Edinburgh, Scotland I was very successful.
The most important results are: Bhaktivedanta Swami predominantly adopted Rev. Urquhart´s introductions of Jesus which are embossed by thoughts of a liberal theology. This particularly applies to the idea of Jesus´ divine order as an exemplary religious teacher and as an authority who sets important moral standards. For both scholars the death of Jesus by crucifixion was essential. Neither of them ever doubted the historical authenticity and the divine origin of the biblical words of Jesus. Every now and then the Indian even chose exactly the same Bible quotations and Christian theological terms in his works which his college-teacher also valued. (Interestingly Rev. Urquhart had lively contact to Rudolf Otto in Marburg and spoke German fluently; they visited each other in Germany and in India.)

During his College years Abhay´s knowledge of his paternal childhood religion vanished completely, or rather was rejected by the student now and then. Instead, according to his own statements, he developed a real longing for western identity and modern city life; he dreamed of trips to New York or London (the cities which later should become the first centers of his missionary activities), he admired the first skyscrapers as he used to the streetcars and regularly read scientific magazines, for example „The Scientific American“.
So much for Bhaktivedanta Swami´s own statements about his own religious development in childhood and adolescence. Some more words to the ISKCON-biography. Quite obviously it tries to create an indisputable ideal of Bhaktivedanta Swami´s religious personality full of legends, a procedure which is academically little commendable and laudable. For this reason it isn't further surprising that the author has completely ignored the influential person of the Scottish Reverend Urquhart.
2.3. Finally, let´s have a look at Bhaktivedanta Swami´s theological career as an adult. Although one cannot find any reference to Christianity in the traditional Vaishnava-theology, the changed conditions during the British rule in India made contacts possible to Christian missionaries. This phenomenon also began to show in the writings of Bhaktivedanta Swami´s spiritual Vaishnava-teacher, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati and his physical father, Bhaktivinoda Thakura Swami. Their theological positions to Christianity also influenced the views of the ISKCON-founder. I could verify these assumptions via Internet only after arduous literature research.
Bhaktivinoda Thakura Swami saw Jesus as a religious reformer who - as others before Him - engaged in the fulfilment of the divine law on earth. He said that Jesus set an example by having all qualities of a Saviour with a strong loving dedication to the paternal God. However  He was not understood adequately by His contemporaries which in turn resulted in an interpretative distortion of the Holy Bible. Bhaktivinoda Thakura emphasized that the divine message has a global character so that Christians finally could come to quite similar religious findings as the Vaishnavas.
Bhaktivedanta Swami adopted the fundamental distinction of religious philosophies, which was originally believed by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, his actual Vaishnava-guru (the initiation had been carried out in November 1932, ten years after their first meeting).
Both clearly mark off a unique "religion" from a so-called "practice of faith", with the examples of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. To be concrete, one has to understand religion as the learning and the lifelong exerted rehearsal of obedience towards God and His laws. Since today it is possible to convert from one denomination to another - like changing one´s mind - one could not speak of a true religion in that case, but merely of piety (in the sense of „having confidence in something“ or „standing up for a spiritual point of view“). Nevertheless Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati concluded, like his pupil Bhaktivedanta Swami later on, that it would be possible for a true Christian to keep his belief, because this "religion" also has the powerful potential, for reaching the aim of the claimed Krishna-consciousness.
The criticism of the members of clerical institutions is strongly defined in the scriptures of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. He claimed that spiritual dignitaries all throughout the world are prototypes of human corruption, since they hinder any spiritual development and simultaneously promote the growth of hypocrisy, the mania of sensuality, the addiction to intoxication and the killing of animals.
Just like Bhaktivedanta Swami his teacher had confidence in the reforming power of the younger generations and called on a religious offensive by authoritative and missionary activities religious emissaries, for example by distributing religious books. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati´s order for Bhaktivedanta Swami shortly before his death in 1937 to preach in western countries has to be understood with this background information.

3. At the end of this lecture let me now summarize the most important facts. During his missionary activities, the Vaishnava-teacher Bhaktivedanta Swami again and again fell back upon his Bible knowledge and his concrete introductions of Jesus, which supposes many years of education under a genuine Christian background.
The emotional bases for the religiousness of the Indian were already anchored in his paternal education, although he was totally alienated from every Vaishnava-piety as a college-student and not instructed to substantial elements of the philosophy at all.
Bhaktivedanta Swami´s childhood and early adolescence - this yields the examination of his own statements - had no direct influence on his subtly differentiated view of the Christian religion. Thus the western college-education has to be regarded as the only valid source of the Indian´s Christian theology. In this connection it has to be kept in mind that his ideas of a loving God, who engages His Son in the Salvation of the world, originate from the biblical lectures of a theologically liberal Scottish missionary. Only the interreligiously open-minded education of two Vaishnava-scholars made the development of a trusting and simultaneously critical acceptance of the Christian religion possible. The Swamis already knew and tolerated a lot of Christian faith elements and could not foresee the far-reaching consequences of their pupil by virtually supporting the theology of Bhaktivedanta Swami´s college-teacher Urquhart.
Certainly we can speak of the coincidence of numerous and favorable circumstances in the life of Bhaktivedanta Swami. If one tries to sketch up his spiritual and - concerning Christianity particularly tolerant - career: it comes to the picture of a traditionally educated Vaishnava-Hindu who over many years was socialized in a profound Christian-protestant way, simultaneously and who finally in his high ages would evolve to a leadership figure of Vaishnavism, not only to the western world.

Thank you for your attention.

Glossary:  (in chronological order)

- Bhaktivedanta : literally "whose summit of the vedas is the love of God "; Swami: adress for a spiritual teacher.
- Shivaism : religion in India, the center of devotion is God Shiva.
- Shaktism : religion in India, which pays homage to the female energy of a local mother-Godess.
- Bhagavad-gita : didactical poem consisting of 700 verses (3rd or 4th century b. C.) and containing mainly philosophical, religious and ethical thoughts. One of the main literary bases of Vaishnavism.
- Vaishnavas : supporter of Vaishnavism, the center of their devotion is Vishnu or Krishna, resp. his other incarnations.
- Krishna: in general an incarnation of God Vishnu, but the contrary is possible, too. The historic figure begins to appear in three different phases, beginnig in the 4th century b. C. until the 3rd century b.C., in the religious scriptures of India. There is 1. Krishna as a clan-chief of the Yadavas, who serves as charioteer of prince Arjuna in the epic Mahabharata, 2. Krishna as an incarnated God, who teaches Arjurna the absolute truth, 3. Krishna from Goloka, raised by herdsmen who as a child has a lot of thrilling and legendary adventures and later on is a winning lover of the herdsmen´s daughters. His most famous female partner is Radha.
- dvaita : dualistic; Dvaita Vedanta = dualistic school of Indian philosophy.
- bhakti : literally „surrender, devotion, service“.
- Caitanya : Vaishnava-saint from Mayapura/Bengal (1486-1534), avatara of Radha and Krishna. Founder of the Gaudiya-Vaishnava-Tradition that is concentrating on the loving devotion of God Krishna and his eternal companion Radha.
- avatara : term for "incarnation of God".
- nama-sankirtan : common singing of God´s holy names propagated by Caitanya.
- Bhakti Rakshaka Sridhara : literally "guardian of piety" (1895-1988), a Vaishnava- teacher, also known and respected outside India as a preaching authority; founder of a religious organisation for the spreading of Caitanya´s ideas. Center in Navadvipa/India.
- Vedic Scriptures/Vedas : literally "knowledge", ancient Sanscrit-scriptures (from 1200 b. C. until the 2nd half of the 6th century b. C.), representing the most important base of classical Hindu tradition.
- Shastra : literally "holy scripture".
- Srimad-Bhagavatam = Bhagavata Purana : a central Vaishnava scripture emphasizing the devotion to Krishna.
- guru : religious teacher.
- devotee : from „to devote“; describing a follower of Bhaktivedanta Swami who is a practitioner of bhakti, the loving devotion towards God.
- Satsvarupa Dasa Gosvami : Author of "Srila Prabhupada-Lilamrta", the official ISKCON-biography of Bhaktivedanta Swami, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust 1980.
- Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati : Vaishnava-teacher und spiritual master of Bhaktivedanta Swami (1874-1937); son of the Vaishnava-teacher Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838-1914).

 


 

In 2002 my second book about Bhaktivedanta Swami was published -
this time only in english! the titel is "krishna meets jesus"; ISBN: 3-8311-3570-3!
Below is the first chapter -- http://www.fphschmidt.de/bs/introduction.pdf

 

I. Introduction

1. Preliminary Notes

In New York, in 1966, Bengali-born Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami, in short Bhaktivedanta Swami1 (September 1, 1896-November 14, 1977), founded ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness), commonly known in the West as the "Hare Krishna Movement."

Technically speaking, Bhaktivedanta Swami's movement belongs to Hinduism. Within Hinduism, it is part of the theistic Saguna religions of the Vaisnavas, who worship Visnu and whose tradition is called Vaisnavism. And within Vaisnavism, ISKCON is a branch of the Gaudlya Vaisnava tradition, which originated in Bengal (Gauda-desa is an old name for Bengal). The Gaudiya Vaisnava movement was formed in the first half of the 16 century by the religious ecstatic thSri Krsna Caitanya, whose followers worshiped him as an avatara (incarnation) of Radha and Krsna. The religious practice of the Gaudlya Vaisnavas is centered around the devotional worship (bhakti) of Krsna and his eternal consort Radha.

Bhaktivedanta Swami belongs to a disciplic succession within that Gaudlya Vaisnava tradition. Thus, within Hindu society ISKCON is a fully recognized religious group.

For the sake of completeness it should be mentioned in this connection that in the West ISKCON is not the only representative of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Among others, one of the spiritual relatives of Bhaktivedanta Swami, i.e. another disciple of his spiritual master, has become known as a spiritual authority outside of India. Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara also founded a religious organization for spreading the teachings of Caitanya that, like ISKCON, has its headquarters in Navadvipa, India.2

2. State of Research

Worldwide there is a good number of recent scientific publications about the traditional and modern manifestations of the Vaisnava religion.3

In these publications, however, Bhaktivedanta Swami's extremely liberal attitude toward Christianity has been almost completely neglected, or explored rather inadequately. To date, a systematic research of this subject has not been undertaken. In some works, this matter has been touched upon, but with a different focus. Considering the great importance that dialog with Christianity held for the Swami, and still holds for the present relationship between Vaisnavism and Christianity, this represents and highlights a real lack within religious science. 4

3. Purpose and Structure of This Study

This study reconstructs Bhaktivedanta Swami's perspective on Christianity and his resultant strategy for interreligious dialog. In the final part, I depict on this subject the current official view of ISKCON as presented by Subhananda Dasa. I will demonstrate a clear digression from Bhaktivedanta Swami's views.

The complete works of Bhaktivedanta Swami in the English language (his published books, letters, magazines as well as transcriptions of recorded lectures, discussions, conversations, TV interviews, and other utterances) has been published by the Bhaktivedanta Archives as a CD/ROM.5

In general one can observe that Bhaktivedanta Swami's attitude to the other world religions is extremely equivocal. This ambivalence has also manifested in his way of describing or interpreting other religions:

(1) Buddhism deserves a special consideration. Due to Bhaktivedanta Swami's interest in this philosophy standing in opposition to his own, dualistic conceptions of the world and God, it is mentioned almost as much as Christianity (the name "Buddha" alone appears 619 times in his complete works).6

(2) Islam appears to take a much less important role in Bhaktivedanta Swami's interreligious debate. For example, he refers to Mohammed (the different ways of spelling already taken into consideration) a mere 37 times, and the word "Islam" is mentioned only 42 times. Considering that the majority of Bengal's population are Muslims, this is a remarkable fact.

(3) Judaism, mentioned only 3 times, is an insignificant side issue for Bhakti-vedanta Swami.

These observations alone already confirm the special importance Bhaktivedanta Swami gave to Christianity and to interreligious dialog with Christians.

The study will be conducted in the following steps: First, beginning in part II, we will elaborate upon Bhaktivedanta Swami's expositions concerning the Bible, Jesus and Christian history (as found in the above-mentioned sources). In the first chapter, appreciative and critical statements about the holy scripture of the Christians will be discussed separately.

Concerning Bhaktivedanta Swami's comparison of the Bible and the Bhagavad-gita, an explanation of his conception of the general purpose of religion is necessary, and thus is included.

The second chapter is a study of Bhaktivedanta Swami's perspectives on Jesus. Due to the large amount of source material, this chapter is divided into several subsections dealing with the forms of Jesus's address, his character, mission, and function as a model. In this connection, Bhaktivedanta Swami's criticism of Christian forms of piety and his concepts of Jesus's enemies are also discussed.

Further insertions deal with Bhaktivedanta Swami's concept of sin. In this regard, his conversation with a French cardinal about the alleged Christian neglect of the Fifth Commandment is taken into special consideration. The subject of the last section is Bhaktivedanta Swami's rarely mentioned ideas of Jesus's stay in India, as well as his etymological comparison of "Krsna" and "Christ."

The third chapter concludes the exploration of source material with an exhibition of Bhaktivedanta Swami's knowledge and evaluation of the history of Christianity, especially of Protestantism and Christian mysticism. Next, in order to determine the origin of Bhaktivedanta Swami's views on Christianity, the results of the previous chapters are placed into a broad biographical context. Besides important findings about Bhaktivedanta Swami's childhood and youth, of special significance is the discovery of the influence of his Calcutta college education on his views on Christianity. Further, there is a detailed study of the life and work of Bhaktivedanta Swami's college teacher, the Scottish Reverend Dr. William Spence Urquhart, who was highly esteemed by him. In this connection, we highlight the points of commonality and difference between the theological positions of both teacher and student.

This chapter is concluded by two short insertions: the first, about Bhaktivedanta Swami's views on the differences between the sexes, and the second about his youth (based on the official ISKCON biography).

The analysis of the origin of Bhaktivedanta Swami's vision on the Christian religion would remain incomplete without considering the great influence of previous Vaisnava scholars. Based on an examination of the works of Bhaktivinoda Thakura and his son Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, we will show that this theological influence took place only during adulthood.

In the fifth and last chapter of this part, Bhaktivedanta Swami's statements about Christianity are compared and contrasted with his views on interreligious dialog. Further points of discussion are the principles underpinning his desire for dialog, his conclusions for future interreligious contact as well as the various initiatives taken up during the early years of ISKCON in the West. In this connection, a letter to Pope Paul VI and a conversation with high Vatican representatives are noteworthy, and are thus explored in some depth.

Part III of this study picks up on the different approaches to interreligious dialog taken by the disciples of Bhaktivedanta Swami -- from ISKCON's earlier years right on up to the present day. We examine ISKCON's official standpoint to show the evolution of the interreligious concept within the Society. The chapter con-tains an analysis of a discussion between Bhaktivedanta Swami and some of his leading disciples concerning Christian theology and the principles behind dialog with Christians (this took place in the 70s and was to remain the only discussion of its kind).

In principle, this study consistently refers to the complete works of ISKCON's founder, i.e., all the primary sources that are available have been taken into consideration.

Also the source material related to Bhaktivedanta Swami's Vaisnava teachers could only be used in limited fashions. But recent publications of original writings of these Acaryas on the Internet allow for a well-founded judgment on how much their ideas have influenced Bhaktivedanta Swami's relationship to Christianity.

 


1 - Later he was addressed with the honorary title Prabhupada. (Words in italics are explained in detail in the glossary.)

2 - Over the last few years there are even attempts to unify the different branches of Vaisnavism under one parent organization. On November 18, 1994, nineteen Vaisnava institutions (among them ISKCON and the Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Matha of Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara as well as the Sri Caitanya Bhakti Association in Berlin) have united as the "World Vaisnava Association." One of the purposes of this organization is to promote the mission in the English language.

3 - There is a voluminous compendium of the most important publications by Edmund Weber (ed.) entitled Krishna im Westen, Studia Irenica vol. 30, Frankfurt 1985.

4 - Taking the viewpoint of a Christian religionist, Harvey Cox (ibid., pp. 10-12) has investigated the question: "Has Krsna consciousness something to offer to Christianity in regards to theology?" A. L. Basham (ibid., pp. 145-8) has made a comparison of the Hare Krsna Movement and various Christian monastic orders. Klaus Klostermaier (in Contemporary Scholars Discuss the Gaudiya Tradition, Steven Rosen (ed.), Delhi 1994, p. 219 f.) has characterized the general view of Jesus by the Vaisnavas. Inge von Wedemeyer (Sri Krishna und Jesus Christus: eine Hinführung zur Bhagavad-gita und eine Zusammenschau mit Worten der Bibel, Inge von Wedemeyer, Calw 1994) has tried to compare Bhagavad-gita with the Bible. However, Bhaktivedanta Swami is only quoted through a short excerpt from his Bhagavad-gita translation. Edmund Weber (in "THEION—Annual for Religious Culture," vol. II, Interreligiöse Beziehungen, Konflikte und Konvergenzen, Hans Christoph Stoodt / Edmund Weber (eds.), Frankfurt am Main 1993, pp. 155-67) has shown evidence for the religious affinity between Sri Krsna Caitanya and Martin Luther, and thus between Gaudiya Vaisnavism and the Protestant Christianity. In another study of the relationship between Vaisnavism and Christianity, Weber has reformulated the religion of ISKCON and Bhaktivedanta Swami's religious evaluation of Christianity in terms of diacritical theology (The Religion of the ISKCON Vaishnavas in the Perspectives of Diacritical Theology. In: Journal of Religious Culture 11 / 1997 (Internet)).

5 - The Bhaktivedanta VedaBASE, featuring the Complete Teachings of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Version 2.01, Sandy Ridge, North Carolina, U.S.A., 3 / 1995. The Bhaktivedanta Archives are a department of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, the publishing arm of ISKCON.

6 - In Der Hindu Buddha in der Theologie des bengalischen Vaisnava acarya Bhaktivedanta Swami (in Journal of Religious Culture, 15/98 (Internet)), Edmund Weber has described Bhaktivedanta Swami's view on Buddhism and has given evidence for the irenic nature of his strategy also in relationship to the Buddhists.

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