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.