What’s in a name?


My last piece about the Hindu school has been attracting more hits than normal. And more than a few comments. The people at Hinduism Today – American converts living in Hawaii – wrote online to say that ISKCON is not Hindu at all.

I suppose I should have been prepared for that. Years ago, when they were just starting out as a newspaper, I wrote to them and offered that ISKCON reserves the right to define itself according to the demands of prevailing circumstances. They published my letter and the editor commented – perhaps a little too gratefully – that since ISKCON used the term only conditionally, it had forfeited its right to be known as Hindu.

I presume by this tactic that the swamis hoped to relegate a much bigger international organisation to a mere historical footnote in their ‘global Hindu renaissance.’

They actually do a very good job, the swamis at Hinduism Today. The magazine is a colourful and interesting read, and has helped thousands of Hindus feel a sense of pride and wonder at this most ancient of faiths. Many readers are Indians living abroad amid circumstances that challenge their comittment to the Hindu way of life. The magazine bolsters their identity and goes a long way to showing the logic behind the ancient ways of life. Most importantly, it shows that Hindus have no need to be embarrassed at their beliefs, which is always a good thing.

What many might not know is that the actual religion behind this noble publication is not merely a generic ‘Hindu’ but Shaivite, the worship of Lord Shiva. Indeed, their periodical started out as New Shaivite World but then they were advised by a friendly marketing expert that they should change the name to incorporate the more inclusive term Hindu in order to encourage more sales; and thus Hinduism Today was born.

So ISKCON, it seems, is not alone in employing the term Hindu according to choice or need. But that is quite legitimate. For what ISKCON has done around the world to restore and teach the Vedic heritage, we certainly deserve to be known as Hindus if anyone does.

I have stated in other pieces that the designation Hindu is Muslim in origin, and not mentioned anywhere in the Veda. That it is a catch-all term indicating thousands of communities in the sub-continent. What this means is that when a Hindu in India identifies themselves to another person they will not merely use the term Hindu but will explain to which particular community or sampradaya they belong. I suppose you could say that no-one is really a generic Hindu, they have to be a specific Hindu. They have to be identified with a particular spiritual teacher and community.

So just as myself, a Vaishnava by sampradaya, can legitimately lay claim to the cultural, social and political term Hindu if I wish, so can my Shaivite friends over at Hinduism Today.

And so can the Gujarati Krishna-bhakta work colleagues of my friend and fellow blogger Sita Pati Das. He wrote on his site to say that his workmates felt that the new Hindu school in London would be sectarian if it did not admit pupils who could not demonstrate that they were vegetarian and regular worshippers at a local temple. Perhaps his work colleagues have been working away from India for too long to come up with this curiously illogical remark.

Show me a ‘non-sectarian’ Hindu, or a ‘non-sectarian’ Christian, and I will show you someone who doesn’t actually believe in anything firmly enough, cannot make up his mind, or just doesn’t belong to a community yet.

In the West we lay great acclaim for something religious if it is non-sectarian. It is often used to explain the breadth and openness of a persons belief system, and to show that they are entirely free from prejudice. But you cannot be a non-sectarian Hindu because the entirety of what the world refers to as Hinduism is comprised of many sections, or sects.

A flower is no less beautiful if you describe it as being made up of numerous individual petals, no matter that the petals all look the same to the untrained eye.

But we’re really talking about a school aren’t we? A school that is the first of its kind in England and that will be open by this time next year. The school will be a Vegetarian school. A Vaishnava school. An English school. And a thoroughly Hindu one, too.

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4 Comments

Filed under Hinduism, Religion

4 responses to “What’s in a name?

  1. Omdas

    Hare Krishna,

    On one side I do appreciate your look towards modern day Hinduism and your take on it, but on the other side this school is meant for people who follow Hindu tradition, right?

    So if you go to east of India (Bengal) you will see many people giving animal sacrifies to godess Durga and there are examples from whole India. Even in shastric terms we see many instances where descriptions of Matsyakanya and Hunters are given, now these terms itself identify that even in old times there used to be people killing animals for their living while devoting themselves to some devi or devta.

    Now accepted that to go back to god head one has to say no to meat eating and animal killing and all that, but how is it fair for those people who still follow some part of Hinduism to be left out?

    Yes not serving meat is a shastric stand on this point as completely based on shastras we dont want students to get polluted and hence dont feed them non-vege meals at school. Which I completely agree.

    Also Shrila Prabhupada said that he is ready to feed meat if someone is coming to learn this knowledge from him.

    Also why are we scared of someone coming from the backgound where meat eating is allowed? Why don’t we take this as a challenge and preach this kid to be a very true Hindu or Vaishnava?

    Any ways this money is funded by Govt hence I feel these points should be considered. I know you are not involved with this school thing but I will like to know your opinion on this. Thanks, Hare krishna.

  2. Dear Omdas, thanks for your lengthy comment.

    There are 127 full time Muslim schools in the UK, while the first state-funded Hindu school has yet to lay the first brick.

    There is one place of religious worship for every 200 Muslims in the UK, while there is one place of worship for every 11,000 Hindus in the UK.

    Whilst everyone knows that Hindus are generally industrious and quite prominent amongst the professions, perhaps these statistics might suggest that religious and educational buildings have not, until now, been the priorities for the community.

    Now that Hindus have finally decided to do something they deserve all our support. It is an achievement to be celebrated.

    Vegetarianism, whilst not a universal dietary principle for Hindus, is nonetheless a dietary common denominator amongst the mainly sanatan-dharma Hindus of Harrow, where this school will be situated.

    From September 2008, they will begin with the first 30 pupils, and from then on gradually build up, one school year at a time, until the full complement of 250 is reached. I can assure you that there will be no difficulties in finding that number of vegetarian children.

  3. Dear Kripamoya prabhu, PAMHO. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
    Thank you very much for so many wonderful views on Hinduism.
    I like to share one observance about Hinduism.
    What the Hinduism referred to by Hindus is that they are followers of ” Regular Varnashram Dharma” sometimes also used by the Hindus as Sanatan Dharma. Although this title is misplaced as we know that ‘Sanatan Dharma’ is means the Dharma of the Soul not to material duties.

    In the Regular Varnashram Dharma, All classes of people are accepted because there is provision for everyone’s Dharma (Duties) and beliefs according to their natures.

    E.g. The fishermen were in the sudra class and were subsisting on fish for their food. There were the cobblers who were dealing with animal hide, so they may have been eating meat. Then there were the forest dwellers and hunters who were also taking meat for their maintainance.
    We also know that the animal sacrifice for goddess Kali was given as a provision for those you could not restrain from the meat eating. The strict rules were laid down where a lowly goat was supposed to be sacrificed on a dark moonnight with specific mantras to elevate the killer so he may come to his senses (that if he kills the animal in this life and agrees to be killed by the same animal in the next life).

    But because of the passage of time, the real meanings are lost and these rituals became norm for sense gratification and mass killing etc. happens because of the decline in these religious principles. Since the brahminical culture is lost, there is no one to educate the young Hindus about all these reasons.

    But nevertheless, the Hindus know to some extent the rules of human etiquette, behaviour, duties and obligations towards each other which are part of varnashram dharma and devotees of ISKCON refer to them as karma kanda (or fruitive actitivites) – And that is what the Hindus are following.

    The middle-aged Hindu people try to follow some of those regulations of their Varnas and Ashrams but they are not fully able to explain the meanings and reasons for everything to their modern children living in the west.

    On the other hand the ISKCON devotees are following the rules of Pure Devotional Service (Bhakti – which purifies them and take them back to godhead even though they may not be fully conversant in the Varnshram Dharmic Principals. But by their constant execution of devotional practices, they are supposed to become gentlemen with very good qualities.

    Yet Iskcon devotees are not fully aware of all the obligations, duties and regulations that the Hindus are following towards their family, relatives and society in general).

    BhaktiVinod Thakur mentions this distinctions in Jaiva Dharma and Srila Prabhupada wanted ISKCON to establish the principals of Daivi-Varnashram Dharma, which would include Divine principals of Bhakti and adding Varnashram duties, rules, regulations and obligations of Varna and Ashrams.

    So in conclusion, ISKCON is following the Vaisnavism which should be inclusive of Varnshram Principals (but is lacking in many areas still) and Hinduism is what is remanents of Regular Varnshram Dharma.

    One may argue why should ISKCON take on the principals of fruitive activities?

    The answer is in the examples of great devotees who knew the Bhagavat Dharma and were also following the princiapals of Varnashram Dharma. Brahma, Siva, Svayambhuva Manu, Prahlada, Janaka, Bali, Vyasadeva and what to speak of Prithu, Ambarisha, Lord Rama and even Lord Krsna.

    Gopiparanthan Prabhu is making this more clear in his seminar tapes of Syambhuva manu.

    So hope this helps to understand Hinduism from Hindu point of view.

  4. Good website that you have. Some time ago I read an artcile : Whats in a name?
    You may like to read it below:

    http://indiasecular.wordpress.com/2007/08/22/what-is-in-name/

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