Greetings of Peace and congratulations upon your participation in ISKCON. From what little I know of the society, it does appear to be a legitimate branch of Gaudiya Vaishnava Hinduism (though this latter term is avoided by the society as a foreign appellation) albeit one that was transplanted to America in 1966 at the height of the counter-cultural revolution, a fact that undoubtedly influenced the temperament and proliferation of its congregation. The tradition appears to have been faithfully perpetuated by Swami Prabhupada without the concessions to modern ideology that may be witnessed in other attempts to transmit Hinduism to the west as one may find for instance in a Swami Vivekananda of the previous generation. Most of the problems that arose within the society and which are strong factors marring its reputation did so after the death of Swami Prabhupada, clearly the result of both human weakness and corruption in the case of the guru scandals and the inability to cope with the loss of a unifying spiritual and administrative leader in the case of the various schisms. Although the shortcomings of men and institutions cannot serve as the criterion of judging the integrity of a tradition which is ultimately revealed by God, the perpetuation of this particular tradition is largely dependent upon fidelity to the principle of parampara, the direct transmission of spiritual instruction and influence from guru to disciple. It is this factor that I would encourage you to be mindful of in the course of your own affiliation.
Others here have drawn attention to the common view that westerners may not practice Hinduism due to caste restrictions. This is a complicated subject owing to the disparity of the classical and contemporary implementations of the caste system. For the time being, I will simply remark that the Hindu religion is incorporated into the social structure of the civilization which determines the nature of one's religious participation therein with respect to both dimension and magnitude. Suffice to say that there are no appropriate proscriptions for those not integrated into this structure. The idea of conversion is simply not given consideration.
Nevertheless, there are certain branches of Hinduism, in the minority but nonetheless existent, which are not influenced by the consideration of caste, instead proscribing the same teachings and practices for all of their adherents and in some instances non-Hindus as well. It is perhaps with these exceptions in mind that, in at least one instance that I am aware of, Frithjof Schuon did not deny the possibility of a European practicing Hinduism in some form, although he did emphasize that in general the nature and qualities of western civilization and the prevailing mentality present certain significant obstacles. In Self-Knowledge and the Western Seeker, he wrote,
"We do not say that a Jew or a Christian [i.e. a westerner] can never follow a Hindu sadhana; we say that, if they follow it, they must ... take account of their own mental make-up."
You also made the comment that you are somewhat unsatisfied with certain exoteric aspects of your Hindu temple implying that you also possess an interest in or an inclination toward esoterism. This is likewise a complex subject, many of the facets of which have been illuminated in Schuon's Understanding Esoterism. In it's simplest and most direct consideration, the difference between exoterism and esoterism is illustrated through the distinction of bhakti and jnana or devotion and knowledge, without ignoring of course the realms within which these dimensions coincide.
In this context, it seems that with your interest in Freemasonry, you may be looking for a gnostic complement to the bhaktic orientation of your present practice. Craft Masonry, or the Blue Lodge of the modern order of Freemasonry contains the vestiges of the medieval initiatory procedure for inducting craftsmen into an operative trade guild. It culminates with participation in a dramatic re-enactment of the sacred origin of masonry, which, in the European tradition consists of the biblical account of the construction of King Solomon's Temple augmented with details of Masonic folklore pertaining to the Grand Master Hiram Abiff.
Other Masonic traditions, such as those of Hinduism and Islam, ascribe different origins to the craft. In Hinduism, there is actually a god of craftsmen or rather the craftsman of the Gods, Vishvakarman, who revealed the arts to humanity. In Islamic civilization, the origination of the craft guilds is credited to Imam Ali as part of a silsila similar to and in some instances allied with that of a tariqah.
The proliferation of further degrees in allied bodies of instruction and chivalry in European Freemasonry are for the most part foreign accretions while the majority of the quasi-Masonic orders are of dubious origin. Although I would not necessarily account the modern institution of European Freemasonry among the perpetrators of the counter-initiation (unlike Co-Masonry and quasi-Masonic Orders such as the Golden Dawn), it is something of a lifeless shell without either the practice of the craft or a religious framework within which to serve as as an alchemical support. One can expect no more from the modern institution than is claimed in its monitors, that of "a system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols."
Craft initiation in general, however, is a compelling subject for those interested in the spiritual dimensions of the plastic arts. I would particularly recommend to your attention The Indian Craftsman by Ananda Coomaraswamy, the UNESCO anthology entitled The Islamic City, and Who's Afraid of Freemasons? By Piatigorsky, which despite its rather unglamorous title is an excellent phenomenological study.
Here is what Schuon has to say on the subject in the aforementioned article: [I have added a few clarifications]
"Secondly, it [Chistian Esoterism] can be something completely different, namely the Greco-Latin — or Near Eastern — esoterism incorporated into Christianity: here we are thinking above all of Hermeticism [Alchemy] and the craft initiations [Freemasonry]. In this case the esoterism is more or less limited or even fragmentary, it resides more in the sapiential character of the method [the spiritual dimensions of metallurgy or architecture] — now lost — than in the doctrine and the objective; the doctrine was principally cosmological, and consequently the objective did not transcend the “lesser mysteries” or horizontal perfection, or “primordial” perfection, if one is referring to the ideal conditions of the “Golden Age”. Be that as it may, this Christianized cosmological or alchemical esoterism — “humanist~~ in a still legitimate sense, since it was a question of restoring to the microcosm the perfection of a macrocosm still in conformity with God — was essentially vocational, given that neither a science nor an art can be imposed on everyone; man chooses a science or an art for reasons of affinity and qualification, and not a priori to save his soul. Salvation, being guaranteed by religion, man may, a posteriori, and on this very basis, exploit his gifts and professional occupations, and it is even normal or necessary that he should do so when an occupation linked with an alchemical or craft esoterism imposes itself on him for any reason.
Here we must explain two paradoxes, that of the craft initiations and that of the emperor. The craft initiations pertain to jnana, but have been reduced to a cosmology and an alchemy, as we remarked above: it is a question of bringing man back to the primordial norm, not by sentimental heroism but simply by basing oneself on the nature of things and with the help of a craft symbolism; it seems likely that, in the case of masonry, this perspective has surrendered the field to a humanistic universalism [an areligious moral code] which is merely the caricature of the intellective point of view; the distant cause of this being the Renaissance, and the proximate cause being the “Enlightenment. "" [In light of these last remarks, it is pertinent to note that European Freemasonry began its transition from operative to speculative masonry in the 16th century having completely lost its craft by the time of the emergence of the United Grand Lodge of England in the 18th century. The sapiential dimensions of craftwork have very nearly been obliterated in the wake of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.]
I hope that you are able to find something useful among these ruminations.
Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.