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New Friends of Iskcon ?

On the Gita Controversy

by Subhash Gatade, 26 December 2011

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The Parliament which has remained rather dysfunctional for different reasons all the year witnessed a strange bonhomie few days back. It was difficult to believe that they are the same representatives of people who could not see eye to eye on various issues of concern and were always keen to score their point over their political adversaries. Led by the likes of Laloo Prasad Yadav - interspersed with slogans of ’Jai Krishna’ - the government’s alleged silence on the developments in a faraway court in Russia was called into question.

Interestingly, BJP the party which happens to be the chief opposition party, found itself playing second fiddle to the troika of Laloo, Mulayam and Sharad Yadav on this matter. The issue related to proceedings in a court in Tomsk which supposedly had found portions of ’Gita’ objectionable and ’extremist’ and was contemplating to ban it.

The tempers were down only when foreign minister S.M. Krishna gave a assurance to the parliament that the government is looking into the matter and would take all necessary steps. The Russian ambassador’s assurance also played a soothing role who said that nobody would be allowed to sabotage the long frienship between peoples of two great countries.
In the meanwhile penpushers - or should one say ’bytemovers’ - had a fieldday explaining to the lesser mortals how Russians have always looked to ’Gita’ with respect and toleration and its first translation appeared way back in 1788 when Czars ruled the country. The saffrons who yearn to turn India into (what Jawaharlal Nehru use to say) ’Hindu Pakistan’ and who had found themselves on the wanting when the issue was raised in the Parliament, sensed a golden opportunity to mobilise their core constituency and organised demonstrations at few places. Sushma Swaraj, leader of the BJP in Lok Sabha, even demanded that ’Gita’ be declared a national book.
In this melee nobody bothered to know whether the actual ’Gita’ was on the agenda of the Tomsk court or some other book which was based on it. Only when the dust settled one came to know that the book in question in the Tomsk court happened to be a Russian translation of Gita with detailed commentaries on it, titled ’Bhagwad-gita As It Is’ written by the founder of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. In a briefing in Moscow Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said (Interfax, 23 Dec 2011)
"As evident from the materials available, the admonitions of the law enforcement authorities are not so much about the text of the book proper, whose double translation is not without the sin of semantic distortion, as about the author’s comments which were classified as falling under Article 13 of the Russian Federation Federal Law ’On countering extremist activities’," he said.

Could it be then said that the whole case was misrepresented by some vested interests or in their overenthusiasm to get noticed in the Parliament, members of both the houses did not pay enough attention to the issue.


The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), known colloquially as the Hare Krishna movement, is a Gaudiya Vaishnava religious organization. It was founded in 1966 in New York City by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Its core beliefs are based on traditional Hindu scriptures such as the S’ri-mad Bha-gavatam and the Bhagavad-gi-ta-,both of which, according to the traditional Hindu view, date back more than 5,000 years. The distinctive appearance of the movement and its culture come from the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, which has had adherents in India since the late 15th century and Western converts since the early 1930s. ISKCON was formed to spread the practice of bhakti yoga, in which aspirant devotees (bhaktas) dedicate their thoughts and actions towards pleasing the Supreme Lord, Krishna.
-- from a ’Wikipedia’ entry on ISKCON
The scene is set, with only the need for a brief note regarding this translation and commentary.
The general pattern translators have followed in rendering Bhagavad-gi-ta- into English has been to brush aside the person Kr.s.n.a to make room for their own concepts and philosophies. The history of the Maha-bha-rata is taken as quaint mythology, and Kr.s.n.a becomes a poetic device for presenting the ideas of some anonymous genius, or at best He becomes a minor historical personage. But the person Kr.s.n.a is both the goal and the substance of Bhagavad-gi-ta-, so far as the Gi-ta- speaks of itself.
-—The Publishers (Bhagwad Gita As It Is)

A note about the second edition of the book ’Bhagwad-gita As It Is’ tells us that Prabhupada finished the first draft of the book in 1967, two years after he came from India to America. Macmillan company published its first abridged edition in 1968 and the first unabridged edition came out in 1972.
In his preface to the book A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami makes few things crystal clear(12 May, 1971, Sydney, Australia) :
Originally I wrote Bhagavad-gi-ta- As It Is in the form in which it is presented now. When this book was first published, the original manuscript was, unfortunately, cut short to less than 400 pages, without illustrations and without explanations for most of the original verses of the S’ri-mad Bhagavad-gi-ta-.... Thus the present attempt is to offer the original manuscript of this great book of knowledge with full parampara- explanation in order to establish the Kr.s.n.a consciousness movement more soundly and progressively.Our Kr.s.n.a consciousness movement is genuine, historically authorized, natural and transcendental due to its being based on Bhagavad-gi-ta- As It Is.

The longish introduction to the translation and commentary on Bhagwadgita by ’Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupa-da’ Founder-A-ca-rya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, ends with what the author calls ’The Disciplic Succession’ According to him : ’’Evam. parampara—pra-ptam imam. ra-jars.ayo viduh. (Bhagavad-gi-ta- 4.2). This Bhagavad-gi-ta- As It Is is received through this disciplic succession: 1. Kr.s.n.a, 2. Brahma-3. Na-rada, 4. Vya-sa, 5. Madhva,6. Padmana-bha,7. Nr.hari, 8. Ma-dhava, 9. Aks.obhya,10. Jaya Ti-rtha, 11. Jña-nasindhu, 12. Daya-nidhi, 13. Vidya-nidhi, 14. Ra-jendra, 15. Jayadharma.16. Purus.ottama , 17. Brahman.ya Ti-rtha, 18. Vya-sa Ti-rtha , 19. Laks.mi-pati, 20. Ma-dhavendra Puri-,21. I-s’vara Puri-, (Nitya-nanda, Advaita), 22. Lord Caitanya,23. Ru-pa, (Svaru-pa, Sana-tana),24. Raghuna-tha, Ji-va,25. Kr.s.n.ada-sa,26. Narottama, 27. Vis’vana-tha,28. (Baladeva) Jaganna-tha, 29. Bhaktivinoda, 30. Gaurakis’ora, 31. Bhaktisiddha-nta Sarasvati-, 32. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupa-da
Divided into 18 chapters or adhyayas ranging from the first chapter Observing the Armies on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra and the final 18 th chapter of ’Conclusion - The Perfect Renunciation, the book follows a system where the original verse is followed by word for word Sanskrit English equivalents, translations and purports.

To get an idea of the pattern followed the first verse of the first chapter is given in full. Readers can excuse me for the longish extract from the book, but it does give one an idea what does Prabhupada mean when he says that he has written the book.

Bg 1.1
dhr.tara-s.t.ra uva-ca
dharma-ks.etre kuru-ks.etre
samaveta- yuyutsavah.
ma-maka-h. pa-n.d.ava-s’ caiva
kim akurvata sañjaya
Word for word:
dhr.tara-s.t.rah. uva-ca — King Dhr.tara-s.t.ra said; dharma-ks.etre — in the place of pilgrimage; kuru-ks.etre — in the place named Kuruks.etra; samaveta-h. — assembled; yuyutsavah. — desiring to fight; ma-maka-h. — my party (sons); pa-n.d.ava-h. — the sons of Pa-n.d.u; ca — and; eva — certainly; kim — what; akurvata — did they do; sañjaya — O Sañjaya.
Dhr.tara-s.t.ra said: O Sañjaya, after my sons and the sons of Pa-n.d.u assembled in the place of pilgrimage at Kuruks.etra, desiring to fight, what did they do?
Bhagavad-gi-ta- is the widely read theistic science summarized in the Gi-ta—ma-ha-tmya (Glorification of the Gi-ta-). There it says that one should read Bhagavad-gi-ta- very scrutinizingly with the help of a person who is a devotee of S’ri- Kr.s.n.a and try to understand it without personally motivated interpretations. The example of clear understanding is there in the Bhagavad-gi-ta- itself, in the way the teaching is understood by Arjuna, who heard the Gi-ta- directly from the Lord. If someone is fortunate enough to understand Bhagavad-gi-ta- in that line of disciplic succession, without motivated interpretation, then he surpasses all studies of Vedic wisdom, and all scriptures of the world. One will find in the Bhagavad-gi-ta- all that is contained in other scriptures, but the reader will also find things which are not to be found elsewhere. That is the specific standard of the Gi-ta-. It is the perfect theistic science because it is directly spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord S’ri- Kr.s.n.a.
The topics discussed by Dhr.tara-s.t.ra and Sañjaya, as described in the Maha-bha-rata, form the basic principle for this great philosophy. It is understood that this philosophy evolved on the Battlefield of Kuruks.etra, which is a sacred place of pilgrimage from the immemorial time of the Vedic age. It was spoken by the Lord when He was present personally on this planet for the guidance of mankind.
The word dharma-ks.etra (a place where religious rituals are performed) is significant because, on the Battlefield of Kuruks.etra, the Supreme Personality of Godhead was present on the side of Arjuna. Dhr.tara-s.t.ra, the father of the Kurus, was highly doubtful about the possibility of his sons’ ultimate victory. In his doubt, he inquired from his secretary Sañjaya, "What did they do?" He was confident that both his sons and the sons of his younger brother Pa-n.d.u were assembled in that Field of Kuruks.etra for a determined engagement of the war. Still, his inquiry is significant. He did not want a compromise between the cousins and brothers, and he wanted to be sure of the fate of his sons on the battlefield. Because the battle was arranged to be fought at Kuruks.etra, which is mentioned elsewhere in the Vedas as a place of worship—even for the denizens of heaven—Dhr.tara-s.t.ra became very fearful about the influence of the holy place on the outcome of the battle. He knew very well that this would influence Arjuna and the sons of Pa-n.d.u favorably, because by nature they were all virtuous. Sañjaya was a student of Vya-sa, and therefore, by the mercy of Vya-sa, Sañjaya was able to envision the Battlefield of Kuruks.etra even while he was in the room of Dhr.tara-s.t.ra. And so, Dhr.tara-s.t.ra asked him about the situation on the battlefield.
Both the Pa-n.d.avas and the sons of Dhr.tara-s.t.ra belong to the same family, but Dhr.tara-s.t.ra’s mind is disclosed herein. He deliberately claimed only his sons as Kurus, and he separated the sons of Pa-n.d.u from the family heritage. One can thus understand the specific position of Dhr.tara-s.t.ra in his relationship with his nephews, the sons of Pa-n.d.u. As in the paddy field the unnecessary plants are taken out, so it is expected from the very beginning of these topics that in the religious field of Kuruks.etra, where the father of religion, S’ri- Kr.s.n.a, was present, the unwanted plants like Dhr.tara-s.t.ra’s son Duryodhana and others would be wiped out and the thoroughly religious persons, headed by Yudhis.t.hira, would be established by the Lord. This is the significance of the words dharma-ks.etre and kuru-ks.etre, apart from their historical and Vedic importance.

A cursory glance at the book makes it clear that although every ’purport’ following the verse is not that longish one but it is clearly visible that through these commentaries Prabhupada tries to establish Bhagwadgita as it is understood by him as THE MANIFESTO for the Krishna Consciousness movement he pioneered. Look at the his ’puroport’ to the verse 5.29 (bhokta-ram. yajña-tapasa-m / sarva-loka-mahes’varam/ suhr.dam. sarva-bhu-ta-na-m./ jña-tva- ma-m. s’a-ntim r.cchati Translation: A person in full consciousness of Me, knowing Me to be the ultimate beneficiary of all sacrifices and austerities, the Supreme Lord of all planets and demigods, and the benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, attains peace from the pangs of material miseries.) According to him

This Fifth Chapter is a practical explanation of Kr.s.n.a consciousness, generally known as karma-yoga. The question of mental speculation as to how karma-yoga can give liberation is answered herewith. To work in Kr.s.n.a consciousness is to work with the complete knowledge of the Lord as the predominator. Such work is not different from transcendental knowledge. Direct Kr.s.n.a consciousness is bhakti-yoga, and jña-na-yoga is a path leading to bhakti-yoga. Kr.s.n.a consciousness means to work in full knowledge of one’s relationship with the Supreme Absolute, and the perfection of this consciousness is full knowledge of Kr.s.n.a, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

One can go on giving extracts of the book which is freely available on the net ( - Bhaktivedanta Vedabase) and interested readers can as well go into the details of Prabhupada’s commentaries. But the key point to remember here is that the book around which a controversy seems to have erupted is not the original Gita as it is made out to be but a new book around the same written by founder of ISKCON. In fact as mentioned earlier Prabhupada has no qualms in saying that not only he is the author of the book and in his own disciplic succession puts him at the end of the list.

As an aside it may be told that faced with difficulties ISKCON leaders have appealed to the Hindu community to back them up time and again, but if one refers to what Prabhupada had himself said it cannot be said to be belonging to any religion.

There is a misconception," wrote His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1977 in Science of Self Realization, "that the Krishna consciousness movement represents the Hindu religion. Sometimes Indians both inside and outside of India think that we are preaching the Hindu religion, but actually we are not." In chapter three of the book [available from Bhaktivedanta Archives, P.O. Box 255, Sandy Ridge, North Carolina 27046 USA], this startling point is made several times: "The Krishna consciousness movement has nothing to do with the Hindu religion or any system of religion.... One should clearly understand that the Krishna consciousness movement is not preaching the so-called Hindu religion."
..The Guru frequently explained his position, and acted upon his beliefs in establishing his dynamic society. At a 1974 Mumbai lecture, he declared, "We are not preaching Hindu religion. While registering the association, I purposely kept this name, ’Krishna Consciousness,’ neither Hindu religion nor Christian nor Buddhist religion."
(Oct 1998 / Hinduism Today)

Question naturally arises today when the ISKCON movement is celebrating 40 years of its entry into Russia, why it has come under scanner there.


There is no doubt that ISKCON today is a worldwide confederation of more than 400 centers, including 60 farm communities, some aiming for self-sufficiency, 50 schools and 90 restaurants. In recent decades the movement’s most rapid expansions in terms of numbers of membership have been within Eastern Europe (especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union) and India.

The immediate context for the case is the manner in which few followers of ISKCON in Tomsk tried to build their homes in an area which is supposed to be a protected sanctuary. The issue went to the court. Those who were opposed to the construction tried to dig deep further and discovered to their delight that some references in the book written by the founder of ISKCON were ’objectionable’ and ’extremist’. They raised the demand that the same text be banned. A professor of philosophy in the University of Tomsk, the other a linguist, happened to be the experts whose advice was sought by the courts. The Tomsk prosecutors discerned in Prabhupada’s version “signs of fomenting religious hatred, denigration of human dignity on grounds of gender, race, nationality, language, origins and religious conviction” and demanded that the book be banned as “extremist.”According to a report published in ’Tehelka’ when their opinion of Prabhupada’s words of wisdom created a storm, the experts withdrew their original comments. And as of now the court records tell us that their opinion is not admissible.

It may be added here that ISKCON has faced periodic problems with respect to its properties and functioning in Moscow and elsewhere. And there have been occasions when Indian Embassy has intervened on behalf of ISKCON with the local city authorities as well as with the Russian Government.

The court case against a translation of the Bhagavad Gita in the Siberian city of Tomsk is also linked to long-running attempts by the Russian Orthodox Church to limit the activities of the Hare Krishna movement, branding it as a totalitarian sect.Earlier this year, the authorities banned the construction of an ISKCON community village in the Tomsk region. Seven years ago, the Moscow city government did not allow the movement to build a sprawling prayer-cum-cultural complex in central Moscow. Later, ISKCON was permitted to set up its centre in a Moscow suburb. ISKCON says it has one lakh Russian followers and more than 100 communities but the Orthodox Church claims the number is in a few thousands.
Pravda, Russia in its September 23, 2010 issue had published this report which underlined how the activities of Hare Krishna sect are causing a social nuisance also.

Hare Krishna sect drives people to suicide in Siberia

Pravda, Russia/September 23, 2010

In Omsk, the leader of the Hare Krishna sect where people are deprived of money, housing, and driven to suicide, has been acquitted.
Two years ago, the police department of the Central District of Omsk received a statement from the 25-year-old Svetlana Ahmentzhaeva. The young woman accused Babaji Ali, the leader of the sect of Hare Krishna, of the extortion of money, an apartment and the threat of murder. In the five years it was the 52nd statement from citizens demanding the sectarian should be held accountable. It was the seventh incident where the prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case. As a result, the extortionist is still free, and people affected by him are forced to live in fear or hide.
While searching the apartment of Babaji Ali, who is the same person as a repeatedly convicted Ashot Gevorgovich Tugopaev, detectives found drugs. Criminological examination revealed they were Salvia divinorum. In Russia this psychotropic drug is not prohibited by law. With the help of this drug, Hare Krishna easily doped their victims, including Svetlana Ahmetzhaeva.
...Ahmetzhaeva was lucky: her claim made the prosecutor’s office to open a criminal case. But Nina Voropaeva, whose daughter cut her veins after joining the sect, could not achieve the same result.

"In 2007, my 16-year-old daughter Natasha joined the Hare Krishna sect in Omsk," says Voropayeva. "My husband and I could not dissuade her. She had been reading religious literature and was convinced that Krishna will punish anyone who does not comprehend his teachings. When she began to ask us for money for Babaji Ali, my husband and I refused her. But the daughter has threatened that if we do not give her five thousand, she would cut her veins open. I had to give the money.

..Two days later I came home from work and found Natasha dead in a bloody tub. I spent about a month in the police department, demanding that they open a case against the leader of the sect, but prosecutors refused, as leader of the Hare Krishna sect said he had never seen our daughter. "

The same report provides inputs by Sergei Krivonos, an investigator of Internal Affairs of TSAO Omsk: "During the trial involving Tugopaev Ashot Gevorgovich a dozen witnesses - former members of the Hare Krishna sect - testified on the use of hashish. But as hashish has not been found during the search, the lawyer of Tugopaev managed to convince the court that because of their inexperience the witnesses could not distinguish between illicit drugs and legitimate psychotropic drugs, such as Salvia. And all the charges for illegal sale of drugs were withdrawn."

The controversial nature of ISKCON’s activities in and around Tomsk reminds one of another distrubing chapter in its history when the Hare Krishna organisation was sued for alleged child abuse. Stories of child abuse started appearing in 1980s with cases dating back from mid 1970s onwards. In fact Prabhupada had exhorted his followers to send their wards - even 5 year olds - to the various Gurukulas which had come up in US and India where they faced abuse at the hands of teachers and other staff. A law firm which took up the case of the victims said that the abuse started in 1972 with ISKCON’s first school in Dallas, and continued in six other U.S. schools and two in India. According to its estimates more than half of the children in the schools were victimized. Few of these cases later appeared in print, such as in John Hubner and Lindsay Gruson’s 1988 book Monkey on a Stick. An official publication produced by ISKCON in 1988 provided details of the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children at the society’s boarding schools in both India and the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s.

It would not be improper to say that controversies have always accompanied ISKCON’s activities. It was the year 1976 when a case involving allegations of "brainwashing" involving a minor named Robin George and her parents went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1983, a California jury awarded the family more than $32 million in damages for false imprisonment and other charges, which was reduced to $485,000 in 1993.


The l’affaire ’Bhagwadgita As It Is’ and the way it unfolded here raises many uncomfortable questions about our polity as well as society and the way secularism is understood and practised by us. It also denotes the impetuosity with which the articulate sections of our society get agitated when matters of faith are debated.

It is true that Gita was invoked by leaders of freedom struggle on many occasions - supposedly to arouse the Indian masses from deep slumber - and for that matter many other religious symbols or festivals were also used to mobilise the masses. Lokmanya Tilak, who wrote a treatise on Gita himself started Ganesh Jayanti and Shiv Jayanti festivals to communicate to the ordinary masses the idea of freedom from colonial yoke. We should be clear that final word has not been said about the modus operandi adopted by all these honourable leaders to awaken the ’backward masses’. The strong secular current in the anti-colonial struggle which was led by the likes of Bhagat Singh and Communists and Socialists of various hues cannot be brushed aside so easily. One could also say that if the leaders could have desisted from using religious imagery, the history of the subcontinent could have taken another turn.

It has been more than sixty years that we became free and moved on towards building a secular democratic and socialist republic. And it is high time that we become aware of the pitfalls of using symbols, images, scriptures as a basis of our nation building project. The implosion of neighbouring Pakistan which did not stick to the secular road is for everyone to see. Perhaps we can learn from the crisis which is visible there. It is sad to say that despite a sixty plus year journey on the secular path one still witnesses wavering on the issue among overtly secular parties also.

Imagine for a moment say one of the sacred books of other communities living here since centuries together had been declared ’objectionable’ and ’extremist’ in one of those western countries. Whether the polity’s actions would have been similar ? Definitely not. Why this double standard ?
It appears that (whether we agree or not) the articulate sections of our society have imbibed the simplistic division between religions - made famous by the ideologues of Hindutva - namely Indic religions and non-Indic religions or Abrahamic religions. Thus Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are considered Indic religions whereas likes of Islam and Christianity are considered non-Indic religions.

We have been witness to the period following 9/11, when US imperialists with due help from other right wing regimes/formations unleashed ’war against terror’ which effectively metamorphosed into ’war against Islam’. The criminalisation and terrorisation of a particular community and its faith reached such a dubious level that many Christian fundamentalists even searched for roots of terror in Quran itself. Looking back is not it logical that if ’Gita’s alleged insult in a foreign land’ could wake us from deep slumber why we remained silent when holy book of our own compatriots came under systematic and malicious attack ?

The Tomsk episode involving book by ISKCON’s founder would be over within a short time but should not we see it as a wake up call for all of us.