Some people equate Vedic culture with current ethnic customs in India. However, there has been significant Muslim influence in India. Could you comment on this?
- There is a widespread misunderstanding of the term “Vedic culture.” The first point to understand is that this exact, literal term, “Vedic culture” does not occur in Vedic scriptures. Logically, if we use a term not found in scriptures, we must define that term with principles that do come from scripture. Otherwise, we have a concept that lacks spiritual authority.
- Prabhupada often uses the term “Vedic culture.” Therefore, we accept the term, but with a definition authorized by scriptures. After all, Prabhupada always taught us that the guru derives his authority from scriptures.
- Just as the term “Native American culture” or “Bavarian culture” may indicate a regional, historical ethnicity that includes traditional forms of clothing, cuisine, dance, music, architecture etc., so many believe that the term “Vedic culture” indicates, among other things, an eternal Vedic ethnicity. They further believe that “Vedic culture” thus teaches and requires serious Vaishnavas to use specific forms of clothing, cuisine, architecture etc., that invariably come from India.
- They also believe that those who do not adhere to this Indian/Vedic ethnicity in personal and community life are not serious in the practice of bhakti-yoga, if not disloyal to Prabhupada and Krishna.
- In fact, just as the literal term “Vedic culture” does not occur in Vedic scriptures, the concept of a mandatory “Vedic ethnicity” also does not occur. In other words, no important scripture such as Srimad Bhagavatam, Bhagavad-gita, Mahabharata etc., demands or even recommends an eternal standard of clothing, architecture, cooking recipes, music style etc.
- To the contrary, scriptures reveal cultural differences. For example, we find differences between the cultures of large cities and rural towns. Thus, when Krishna leaves the simple village of Vrindavan, the gopis lament that now Krishna, living in a sophisticated city, will have different cultural preferences and values. Just as in America, or any country, we find cultural differences between large cities and rural villages, this was also true in Krishna’s time. We also see cultural varieties in terms of region and climate. We can hardly imagine that people who lived high up in mountains dressed like people in tropical forests, or deserts, or beaches. And since Vedic culture existed in many parts of the world, we can safely conclude that people who lived, say, in Denmark or Ireland (Ireland = Arya-land) did not eat or dress etc. exactly as in this or that region of India.
- The Caitanya-caritamrta does not indicate that Lord Caitanya, or His followers, wore uniforms that were exotic within their society, or that they even dressed differently from society in general. Authorized biographies indicate that Mahaprabhu and His devotees dressed in a “normal” and respectable way within their society. Mahaprabhu never declared that the external Bengali or Indian culture of His time corresponded perfectly to an eternal Vedic ethnicity. He was concerned that He and His followers be respected within their society. Here are some examples of His efforts in that regard:
a) He took sannyasa from an impersonal but respected institution.
b) He insisted that Sanatana Goswami, recently “converted,” abandon his rich clothing and dress in a way that met the general cultural expectations of his society for a “sadhu.”
c) Mahaprabhu ate only in the houses of brahmanas, following the current custom for sannyasis, even though, 5000 years ago, Krishna ate every day in the home of His parents, the “vaishyas” Nanda and Yasoda.
There are many other examples.
Conclusion: Prabhupada used the term “Vedic culture”, but this non-shastric term must refer to cultural principles, not ethnic details, since shastra teaches and requires cultural principles, not ethnic details. For example, offering food in the mode of goodness to Krishna is a cultural principle taught in scriptures. Using Indian recipes is an ethnic detail not taught in scriptures. Prabhupada confirms this in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam verse 4.8.54. Similarly, using clothing that is chaste, clean, and appropriate to time and place is a cultural principle. Using a dhoti or sari is an ethnic detail. No scripture, nor Indian history, indicates that dhoti and sari were, at any historical time, “Vaishnava dress.”
Some devotees insist that Vaishnavas should dress like Krishna, who wore a dhoti like ours. However:
- The word dhoti does not occur in the scriptures.
- Krishna never taught that we should dress like Him.
- Scriptures do say that Krishna, and many others, wore “belts” that are not normally used with dhotis. Many Bhagavatam verses speak of belts:
•Krishna’s belt: 2.2.11, 8.3.28, 8.14.25, 8.20.32, 10.88.28
•Belt used by the gopis: 10.33.13,
•Belts used by brahmacaris: 11.17.23
•Belts used by associates of Krishna: 10.75.24
Thus it is not clear that 5000 years ago, men dressed in dhotis, just like our dhotis.
It is also important to note that the intention of Krishna West is not to criticize or insult Vaishnavas with other views, nor to insist that every devotee follow our standard. We deeply respect the right of any devotee to practice Krishna consciousness according to the external and ethnic tradition of India, if this tradition works best for their spiritual life.
Krishna West is simply a sincere attempt, within the basic principles of ISKCON, to fulfill the ardent desire of Srila Prabhupada and Gaura-Nitai, and establish Krishna consciousness as a powerful, relevant movement in the western world.
Prabhupada’s purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 4.8.54 is crucial in this regard. There Srila Prabhupada writes: “Sometimes our Indian friends, puffed up with concocted notions, criticize, ‘This has not been done. That has not been done.’ But they forget this instruction of Narada Muni to one of the greatest Vaishnavas, Dhruva Maharaja. One has to consider the particular time, country and conveniences… If someone does go and preach, taking all risks and allowing all considerations for time and place, it might be that there are changes in the manner of worship, but that is not at all faulty according to shastra.”
If I thought Krishna West would ultimately displease Srila Prabhupada, of course I would not go forward with it. But seeing that our mission to western people has seriously diminished since Prabhupada’s time, we have to try, “taking all risks and allowing all considerations of time and place,” as Prabhupada himself says.
Ultimately, we are trying to universalize Krishna consciousness without changing its essential principles. Since Krishna is universal, the process of approaching Him should also be universal. Bhagavad-gita’s standard of good behavior is sattva-guna, the quality of goodness, not Indian ethnicity. The quality of goodness is universal, whereas Indian ethnicity is regional and specific.