Reply to a Senior Leader
Recently a senior ISKCON leader tried to refute some basic claims of Krishna West. I feel it is my duty to respond to these points. After all, the Caitanya Caritāmṛta says, “A sincere student should not neglect the discussion of [Kṛṣṇa conscious] conclusions, considering them controversial, for such discussions strengthen the mind. Thus one’s mind becomes attached to Śrī Kṛṣṇa.” [CC Ādi 2.117]
I indicate this leader with the letters SL, for Senior Leader. Most of us are tired of endless debates on these subjects, and we all, hopefully, want to preach in a positive spirit. I am sure SL feels this way as I do. Still, I thought it necessary, for the good of Prabhupada’s mission, that we try to come to a reasonable conclusion about how we can best spread Lord Caitanya’s wonderful mission.
Basically I will argue that in SL’s presentation, we find the following problems:
- Major historical errors
- Invention of new spiritual principles.
- Partial and erroneous depiction of Prabhupada.
- Confusion about Prabhupada’s ultimate mission.
Major Historical Errors
I believe that Western people will be more comfortable with us if we present ourselves with Western dress etc. SL insists that this is not true, because, “since the Middle Ages everyone in Europe has been enamored with Indian culture in all its different aspects” [emphasis mine].
Has SL accurately described the history of Western attitudes toward Indian culture since the Middle Ages? Not really. Here are some facts:
The midpoint of the middle ages is about 1000 years ago. Thus SL claims that roughly for 1000 years, everyone in Europe has been enamored with all aspects of Indian culture.
In fact, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe had little knowledge of India till about 500 years ago when Vasco da Gama landed on its Southwest coast. Until then, Europe believed India was a Christian nation, converted by an apostle of Jesus. When da Gama landed in India he worshiped at a Durga Mandira, believing it to be a shrine to the Virgin Mary. He later discovered his mistake.
Thus we must study European attitudes toward India in the last five hundred years. For most of these years, most Europeans considered India to be a pagan land populated by an inferior race engaged in strange customs. The British promoted a negative view of India to justify their colonial rule. Western scholars did their part to deprecate Indian culture.
Even European and American intellectuals like Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, and Emerson, who prized some intellectual and spiritual achievements of India, such as the Gita and Upanishads, looked down on much of Indian culture. Some aspects of Indian culture disgusted learned Westerners, such as public defecation, satee rites, caste oppression, “idol worship” etc.
Here is a sample from American geographer W.C. Woodbridge in 1821:
“The half-civilized state is like that of the…nations in the South of Asia, who understand agriculture and many of the arts very well…with some books and learning, with established laws and religion. Still they treat their women as slaves, and have many other customs like those of barbarous nations.”1
Similarly, in his forthcoming book on Prabhupada, Yogevśara Prabhu states:
“Antipathy toward Hindus [in America] would grow more pronounced with the publication in 1927 of Katherine Mayo’s notorious bestseller Mother India, which sensationalized wife burnings and other anomalies of Indian culture. In 1929, when poet Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Los Angeles, immigration officials treated him with such disdain that he canceled his tour.”
These are but a few of unlimited examples, many of them far more harsh in their criticism. Of course there were those Westerners who were enamored—the followers of Vivekananda or Yogananda, the Theosophists etc. But to say that all, or most or even many Westerners were enamored with all aspects of Indian culture is a fantastic retelling of history.
Certainly in the sixties and seventies, Western interest in mystic India grew, especially among young people. However that historical window has largely closed. Consider the following:
In the late sixties and early seventies, many Indian “gurus” and India-based spiritual movements gained prominence in the West. Not one of those gurus or groups is prominent today, with the marginal exception of TM whose success is based on Western neurological studies of meditation benefits, rather than any overt connection with spiritual India.
The most prominent manifestation of “mystic India” in the West is clearly yoga. But even here, the latest studies show how interest in mystic India has dramatically waned in America. A leading yoga journal conducted a study that showed that, “More than three-quarters, or 78.3 percent [of those practicing yoga], said they were motivated to [take yoga classes] to improve flexibility. Overall conditioning, stress relief, improved general health and fitness level were other popular motivational factors.”
Note that in this study, spiritual wisdom or spiritual practice did not even make the list of motives! This same study showed that in America, 82.2% of those who take yoga classes are women. Thus yoga in America does not indicate an interest in Indian culture, but rather in bodily benefits, mostly for women.2
Recent academic research paints the same picture of yoga in America:
“A new study traces the evolution of yoga in the US marketplace over the last thirty years…Researchers from Chapman University discovered the meaning of yoga is decreasingly associated with spirituality and increasingly associated with medicine and fitness…“Over the three decade analysis of the yoga market we found that it was decreasingly associated with the logic of spirituality and increasing associated with the medical and fitness logics,” said Dr. Coskuner-Balli.”3
A recent article emphasized that yoga in America is mostly about women’s bodies:
“Yoga may have its roots as a practice largely for… men in India, but in this country, $20-$25 buys women an entrée into a world where hips, sacrums, and elongated necks are prized, and a woman’s body is worshipped…Only in yoga will people chant in a foreign language, oblivious to the meaning of the words and then closely examine their curves in pants now worn by porn stars.”4
Thus a dramatic separation of American yoga from spiritual India is consistent with the fact that
Indian-based spiritual movements wildly popular forty-five years ago are now insignificant in the US.
SL makes another point: “Also, there is an increase in number of tourists going to India.” Unfortunately this argument too is problematic. Here are some facts:
- Seven times more international tourists go to China than to India, and ten times more go to the US.
- Indeed of ten Asian countries surveyed, India is last in foreign tourist visits, with less than Vietnam or Taiwan, even though India’s population is over 13 times larger than Vietnam, and over 50 times larger than Taiwan.5
- Remember that most foreign visits to India are from Indians abroad. One need only board a flight to India from anywhere in America or Europe, or the Middle East, to verify this fact.
- The number of Indians living abroad is growing, and this accounts for slight growth in Indian tourism.
We have further evidence of declining interest in India. In America, enrollment in Chinese and Arabic language courses are increasing, but Indian language enrollment is decreasing. Over fifteen times more students study Chinese languages than Indian languages, and over twenty times more study Japanese.
Conclusion: there is no objective indication that Western interest in Indian ethnic traditions is strong or growing. Thus the notion that all Western people have always been, or are now “enamored with Indian culture in all its different aspects” is untrue.
Well over two thousand years ago, Alexander’s troops rebelled when he began to adopt Eastern customs. In his Ballad of East and West, Kipling wrote: East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Even though this poem advocates mutual respect between cultures, Kipling was addressing a world that lacked such mutual respect. In short, the east-west tension has existed for thousands of years, as clearly shown in real history.6
Recent and massive publicity on rape, and other forms of abuse in India have not improved India’s image in the world.
Invention of New Spiritual Principles
SL states: “The [external] cultural aspects of Krishna Consciousness are integral to practicing Krishna Consciousness, especially for beginners because it helps them identity with the content, music, dress, architecture, of the spiritual world.”
The word integral means essential or fundamental. Do great Ācāryas agree with SL that the external culture of India is essential and fundamental, integral, to the practice of Kṛṣṇa consciousness? It appears they do not.
In chapter six of Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (Nectar of Devotion), Rūpa Gosvāmī gives ten primary principles of bhakti-yoga, then a secondary list of ten, and finally forty-four still lesser principles. None of these sixty-four basic principles confirms SL’s claim that traditional Indian dress, food, architecture etc. is “integral to practicing Krishna consciousness.” Indeed no important Vaiṣṇava Śāstra or Ācārya explicitly, unequivocally requires the adoption of India external culture as an integral component of bhakti-yoga.
Why doesn’t Kṛṣṇa say in the Gītā, “man-manā bhava mad-vāsāḥ, “Think of Me and dress like Me”? Or “eat like Me,” or “design buildings like the ones in My abode”?
When Lord Kṛṣṇa does ask us to follow His personal example [Bg 3.21-25], He speaks not of Indian dress, food, architecture etc, but rather of following His example and performing karma-yoga, rather than trying to be inactive.
Let us examine more closely Prabhupada’s statements about food, architecture, and dress, three cultural items that SL insists must be Indian.
Partial and Erroneous Depiction of Prabhupada.
From the beginning of his American mission, Prabhupada insisted that one need not eat Indian food to be Kṛṣṇa conscious:
“Now, just see. To satisfy Kṛṣṇa is not very difficult thing…It doesn’t matter that because Kṛṣṇa appeared in India, therefore He wanted Indian food. No. Patraṃ puṣpaṃ phalaṃ toyam. Leaf, and flower, and fruit, and water. Oh, that is available in America, that is available in Czechoslovakia and Greenland, everywhere.” [Bg 4.19-22 Lecture — NYC, August 8, 1966]
Prabhupada strongly made the same point to Allen Ginsberg. One need not eat Indian food to be Kṛṣṇa conscious:
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, but what [IKSCON] requires is…an adaptation to Indian food.
Prabhupāda: No, no… It is not Indian food. Are you not eating fruits?
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, yes.
Prabhupāda: Then that is Indian food? Do you mean to say it is Indian food? …It doesn’t matter that you have to take our taste. No. That is not the program, that to become Kṛṣṇa conscious you have to change your taste. No. We say from the Bhagavad-gītā… Kṛṣṇa says, patraṃ puṣpaṃ phalaṃ toyaṃ yo me bhaktyā prayacchati [Bg. 9.26]. “Anyone who is offering Me with devotion these vegetables, fruits, flowers, milk, I accept that.” But we are going to satisfy Kṛṣṇa. Therefore we are selecting foodstuff from this [vegetarian] group. That you are all already accepting. Don’t you take vegetables? Don’t you take fruits? Don’t you take grains? So where is the new item? Now, so far cooking, you can cook in your own taste. But…not meat… That is our program.” [Room conversation with Allen Ginsberg — Columbus, Ohio, May 12, 1969]
Loving parents do not insist that their child have exactly the same taste in food. Loving mothers and fathers simply want to see their child eat nutritious food and grow strong and healthy.
Exactly in that mood, my own loving spiritual father, Prabhupada, once said to me, “Eat what you like and it will be good for you.”
Temple architecture is permanent and prominent, the home of the Deities. Yet even here, Prabhupada favored Western influence to attract Western people, rather than traditional Indian-Vaiṣṇava architecture, which SL believes, is integral to our spiritual practice.
The first important temple that Prabhupada purchased for ISKCON was the Los Angeles property on Watseka Avenue. Interestingly, Prabhupada rejected the devotees’ confident assumption that the Deities would be placed in the large, majestic, church sanctuary. Prabhupada placed the Deities in a smaller, plainer space, the church ‘social hall.’ The reason: Prabhupada wanted to leave the pews in the sanctuary, so that Western guests could sit in a familiar Western style space and hear about Kṛṣṇa. Prabhupada himself gave Sunday lectures in the sanctuary, not in front of the Deities in the temple, to make the Western guests comfortable.
Gargamuni Prabhu, Los Angeles temple president at the time, tells the story:
“The current temple room in L.A was not what Prabhupada intended to be the temple room […] Prabhupada had another idea that wasn’t our vision. His vision was to have mainstream America come in with their shoes on and sit in the pews and hear Bhagavad Gita and kirtan on the stage. We put Prabhupada’s Vyasasana on stage and he had Visnujana play the organ […] Prabhupada didn’t want the stain glass windows removed. “Don’t touch anything,” he said. Even where the minister spoke, the pulpit, he kept that. It was so surreal to sit in the pews and hear Bhagavad Gita and Visnujana singing jaya madhava on the organ. Even Prabhupada would play the organ. Prabhupada said, “They are inclined to come to Church. So let them come back to this Church, but hear Bhagavad Gita and kirtan.” Prabhupada was thinking mainstream America, not hippies. Prabhupada’s vision wasn’t that we all become monks. He wanted judges, politicians, doctors to come to the temple. They weren’t going to become monks and shave up. But we had another vision—come to the temple and shave up.” [Gargamuni Prabhu, Disc 3 in “Following Srila Prabhupada” DVD series]
The devotees also wanted to “Indianize” the external architecture, but again Prabhupada insisted they preserve the Western style. Thus we have a curious situation where Prabhupada is trying to Westernize, and his Western disciples are trying to Indianize. Of course we know the sad ending to this story. Against Prabhupada’s order, the local GBC ripped out the pews and moved the Deities into the main sanctuary where They remain today.
Surabha Prabhu, who recently passed away, was famous as Prabhupada’s architect in India. It was Surabha whom Prabhupada chose to design key projects in India, such as the Raman Reti temple and guesthouse, and the fabulous Juhu project.
In a filmed remembrance of Prabhupada, Surabha reveals that Prabhupada insisted that the Kṛṣṇa-Balarāma templ in Vrindavana not have standard Indian temple architecture.
Prabhupada wanted a fusion of Indian and Western architecture so that Western people would be attracted.
Clearly, Prabhupada’s concern to facilitate Western prasadam and architecture contradicts the popular image of Prabhupada as making no concession to the West. In fact, Prabhupada was eager to make his mission user-friendly in the West. There is more of this story to tell.
SL claims that his Indian sartorial vision follows Prabhupada: “Prabhupada never said that devotional clothes are temporary, or that you should change your dress. In fact he was very disturbed when devotees tried to change the dress-code or hair-code.”
Here SL clearly misrepresents Prabhupada, as we shall see. Although SL objects to Western dress for devotees, Prabhupada does not. For example:
“From the instructions given to King Pratāparudra by Sārvabhauma Bhaṭṭācārya, we can understand that we may change our dress in any way to facilitate our service…The real principle is to spread the Krsna consciousness movement, and if one has to change into regular Western dress for this purpose, there should be no objection.” [CC 2.14.5 Purport]
Similarly, we have this:
Allen Ginsberg: “Yes, but what [ISKCON] requires is an adaptation of Indian dress…”
Prabhupāda: “That is not very important.”
Indeed, Prabhupada often rejected the notion that Indian dress is an integral part of bhakti-yoga.
“Our only concern is to attract people to Krsna consciousness. We may do this in the dress of sannyasis or in the regular dress of gentlemen. Our only concern is to spread interest in Krsna consciousness.” [ŚBh 7.13.10 Purport]
“So if you don’t accept this dress, that does not mean you cannot be in Krishna consciousness. Krishna consciousness can be achieved in any condition of life. It doesn’t matter whether you are dressed in this way or in your American way or any way. That doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do… Krishna consciousness is different from this dress or that dress.” [Lecture — Boston, May 3, 1969]
“Dress has to be accepted according to the taste of others and foodstuffs accepted according to the eater’s taste. So if you think this kind of dress will attract more people, you can dress yourself in that manner.” [Prabhupada Letters: 1969]
“Sadhu does not mean a kind of dress, or kind of beard. No. Sadhu means a devotee, perfect devotee of Krishna. That is a sadhu.” [Sydney, February 16, 1973]
Guru-gauranga Dasa: “Speaking about clothes, Monsieur le President says that he has been to India, and he understands that one dresses like this in India. But why would the disciples dress in America or in Europe in this way? Is it necessary?”
Prabhupada: “No. It is not necessary. Dress you can have as you like. It doesn’t matter, because dress is a dead thing. Real thing is that we want a living being who can understand. That is the real position.” [Srila Prabhupada Welcomed by Governor at Hotel De Ville — Geneva, May 30, 1974]
“If karmi dress is favorable, then go on with karmi dress. We have to execute missionary activities; dress is not fundamental.” [Letter to Satadhanya — February 16, 1976]
Dr. Wolfe: “Srila Prabhupada, the dhoti is not important then.”
Prabhupada: Not important. He can have dhoti, you can have pant, you can have… It doesn’t matter.” [Garden Conversation with Professors — Los Angeles, June 24, 1975]
“Prabhupada once saw a picture of Balavanta preaching into a microphone during a political campaign. Behind him sat the mayor and another candidate. Balavanta wore a suit and tie, tilaka, and tulasi beads…His hair was grown out. Around his neck he wore a beadbag…When Prabhupada saw the picture, he said that this is what we want, to preach in American dress. He said we should be known as American Krishnas.”
“You should use your own discretion; the garb can be Vedic or ‘American.’ There is no harm. Dress has nothing to do with the soul.” [Prabhupada to the artist Yadurani about painting devotees — May 19, 1971; Satsvarūpa dāsa Gosvāmī Prabhupada Nectar]
Prabhupada: “Oh, yes, oh, yes, you can become spiritual in your this dress. Simply you have to learn what it is from the books. The dress is not very important thing…” [March 5, 1975]
This freedom to dress appropriately and effectively for preaching applies to gṛhasthas, sannyāsīs, and according to Prabhupada, to Prabhupada himself:
And: “Householders may wear dhoties in the Temple, or as they like…It is not required to wear dhoties…” [Letter to Balai — September 12, 1968]
“Better go and speak philosophy in your grihastha dress, not this dress, but you have nice coat, pants, gentleman. Who says no? I never said…Why this false dress? What is the wrong to become grihastha?” [Room Conversation — Bombay, January 7, 1977]
Sannyāsīs and Prabhupada
“Sannyasa does not mean a particular type of dress or particular type of beard. Sannyasa means you can become a sannyasi even with your, this coat-pant. It doesn’t matter, provided you have dedicated your life for the service of God. That is called sannyasa.” [ŚBh 7.6.1 — Montreal, December 6, 1968]
“Our only concern is to attract people to Kṛṣṇa consciousness. We may do this in the dress of sannyāsīs or in the regular dress of gentlemen. Our only concern is to spread… Kṛṣṇa consciousness.” [ŚBh 7.13.10]
“You can become a swami even with your this hats and coats. That doesn’t matter.” [ŚBh 5.5.3 Lecture — Boston, May 4, 1968]
“Regarding dress, I have already written to you that you can dress as smartly as possible to deal with the public, and dress is immaterial in Krishna Consciousness. Consciousness is within. I am a sannyasi, but if some important work requires I dress myself just like a smart gentleman, I would immediately accept it. So it is not a problem.” [Letter to Gopala Krsna — March 9, 1969]
In summary, let us compare SL’s statements to those of Prabhupada.
SL: “Dress…is integral to practicing Krishna consciousness.”
Prabhupada: “…dress is not fundamental.”
SL: “Dress…is integral to practicing Krishna consciousness.”
Prabhupada: “Dress? Dress is not important.”
SL: “Dress…is integral to practicing Krishna consciousness.”
Prabhupada: “The dress is not very important thing…”
SL: “Dress…is integral to practicing Krishna consciousness.”
Prabhupada: “Dress is immaterial in Krishna Consciousness. Consciousness is within.”
SL: “Dress…is integral to practicing Krishna consciousness.”
Prabhupada: “Dress you can have as you like. It doesn’t matter, because dress is a dead thing.”
SL: “Dress…is integral to practicing Krishna consciousness.”
Prabhupada: “Dress has nothing to do with the soul.”
Prabhupada denies requiring Indian dress
Twice, Prabhupada states that he never insisted that we use Indian clothes:
Jyotirmayi: No, no. He’s saying why are we dressing like that, like Indians?
Prabhupada: I have not said that you dress like that. You like, you do it. Did I say that you do it? […] we are not concerned with the dress, we are concerned with the advancement of spiritual understanding, that’s all. [Room conversation — Paris, June 1974]
Rameśvara: I’m just saying that it is a little difficult if they wear their dhoti.
Prabhupada: No, dhoti, I don’t say. You have nice coat-pant. I don’t say that you have to…I never said that. You have adopted it. (laughs) I never said that “You put on dhoti.” [January 1977]
Since neither Śāstra nor Ācāryas explicitly state that Indian dress “is integral to practicing Kṛṣṇa consciousness,” SL appears to put forward a new integral religious principle. This new principle could easily lead to rather silly conclusions. For example:
- If dressing like Kṛṣṇa and His friends bestows spiritual power, it follows logically that we should also use ankle bells, like Kṛṣṇa and His friends.
- Is there more spiritual benefit if we tie our dhoties exactly as Krishna and His devotees tie theirs? Is there less power in wearing, say, a Maṇipura dhoti, or a South Indian dhoti, rather than a North Indian dhoti?
- As shown in all ISKCON art, and in the song to the six Gosvāmīs, neither Mahāprabhu nor the six Gosvāmīs used the standard ISKCON dhoti. Is it more purifying for a sannyāsī to dress like Lord Caitanya, or like the nitya-siddha six Gosvāmīs in kaupina and rags (kaupīna-kanthāśritau), or in the modern sannyāsa dhoti?
- Or should renunciants follow the injunctions of Bhāgavatam and dress in deerskin or tree bark, or go naked?
- Since many Indian brāhmaṇas (as seen in Back to Godhead), as well as Krishna and His friends (as seen in ISKCON art), go bare-chested, can we make more advancement by going bare-chested, weather permitting?
A few more points: Acknowledging that Śāstra does not mandate Indian dress, SL argues that we should follow “the essence of these statements…simplicity and austerity.”
First, it’s not clear what these statements are. Second, our goal is not austerity, but rather effective preaching. Prabhupada, unlike the six Gosvāmīs, wore jewels and gold and dressed in silk. He did this for the sake of preaching.
Still, SL gives unusual arguments to defend his thesis. SL: “I would rather wear a kurta than a tie and shirt: it is much more attractive, much more comfortable, and much more sattvik.”
Here we have an example of the ‘straw man argument’ in which one defeats an argument not actually presented by the other side, avoiding the actual argument. Clearly a kurta is more comfortable than a shirt and tie. But it is equally obvious that a kurta is not more comfortable than a soft, cotton T-shirt or collar shirt. Let us examine SL’s three claims above:
- A kurta is much more attractive. Note that a kurta is not merely more It is much more attractive. Somehow lengthening the bottom of a shirt, and removing its collar flap transforms matter into spirit, and radically beautifies the shirt. This claim is rather inscrutable.
- A kurta is much more comfortable. This claim is just as subjective and silly.
- A kurta is much more sattvik. Krishna consciousness is a spiritual science. Where is the science here? One may say that the long kurta covers the private part of the body. But many Western people wear their profane, “all-about-sex” shirts outside and over their pants.
Indeed SL claims that “Western clothes are a product of the mode of ignorance, and at best product of the mode of passion…They are all about sex.”
Certainly some people in the West wear over-sexed clothes, as some people have always done in India, long before the Europeans arrived. However large numbers of people wear decent clothes.
Certainly sattva clothes should be ‘chaste.’ But in highly conservative South India, chaste, respectable women often went topless. We find this also in Indian temple carvings. I myself saw in Śrīdhāma Māyāpura village women with but a thin strip of sari over their exposed chest. We know that cholis are sometimes worn in highly erotic ways. One need only consult Google images for ‘sari’ and click on ‘modern saris’ to see a carnival of sexuality. We may also, briefly, consider the high erotic Bollywood version of dhoties and saris. By fair standards, we find clothes in all three modes in the West, just as we do in India.
Conclusion: Prabhupada sometimes expressed appreciation for Indian culture, but whenever he saw that it might interfere with effective preaching, he at once declared it was not important. Therefore, items such as dress, cuisine, and architecture are clearly variable details, since Prabhupada himself varied in his statements about them.
In contrast, Prabhupada never varied when he spoke of truly integral principles. For example, he always preached that we should chant the names of God. He never preached that we should not chant them, or that Hari-nāma was “not important, a dead thing,” etc, the way he spoke about clothes, food etc.
If we wish to practice, and preach, a true spiritual science, we must make a crucial distinction between unvarying, truly fundamental principles, and variable details.
Misuse of the Word Anartha
SL’s claim that some details are basic principles leads him to another mistake: an erroneous definition of the key term anartha, which in this context means “a useless [habit or behavior].”
Apparently SL believes that using non-Indian clothes, music, architecture, or recipes, is an anartha, a bad habit. SL: “If you want to make a religion out of your anartha, that’s not helpful for Krishna Consciousness.”
How does Prabhupada use the term anartha? He does not use it to refer to non-Indian dress, food etc, Prabhupada uses the term far more seriously to refer to fundamental obstacles to spiritual progress. Thus he has defined anartha as sex desire; the material body; birth, old age, disease, and death; ignorance; the miserable conditions of material life; envy, anger, lust, and greed; sinful habits; material contamination.
But SL uses his concept of anartha to denigrate Western culture: “Western clothes are a product of the mode of ignorance and at best a product of the mode of passion. Generally speaking, they are all about sex.”
In fact, many millions of Western people use simple, decent clothes. Bhaktivinoda
Ṭhākura warns us that the tendency to denigrate other cultures leads us away from Kṛṣṇa:
“As a community…develops more respect for its own standards, it develops hatred towards other communities and considers their standards inferior. These sectarian symptoms are seen in all countries since time immemorial. This is prominent amongst neophytes…Differences that arise from places, times, languages, behaviors, foods, dress, …are incorporated within people’s spiritual practices and gradually make one community so completely different from another community that even the consideration that everyone is a human being may cease to exist…Due to these differences there is disagreement…and fighting…” [Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, Sri Krishna Samhita]
Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura and his glorious son Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Ṭhākura together condemn the tendency to worship external features, rather than essential principles, of Kṛṣṇa consciousness:
“The word ‘Vaishnavism’ indicates the…eternal and natural condition…of all individual souls in relation to Vishnu, the Supreme, the All -pervading Soul. But an unnatural, unpleasant and regrettable sense has been attributed to the word, making one understand by the word Vaishnava (literally a pure and selfless worshipper of Vishnu) a human form with twelve peculiar signs (Tilak) and dress on…and [then] hating any other human form who marks himself with different signs, puts on a different dress and worships…in a different way… This is the most unnatural, unpleasant and regrettable sense of the word ‘Vaishnava.’…” [Bhaktivinoda Ṭhakura and Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhakura from their book Vaishnavism and Nam-Bhajan]
Neither the Bhāgavatam, nor Rūpa Gosvāmī, nor the Caitanya-caritāmṛta teach us that we will make more spiritual advancement if we dress like Kṛṣṇa, or cook with Indian recipes, or design buildings like the buildings in the spiritual world [for which we have very little Śāstric description.] Prabhupada himself strongly, repeatedly, rejects the idea that Indian food, architecture, dress etc are integral components of bhakti-yoga.
We should not teach the devotees and the world that Prabhupada was so conservative in areas where in fact he espoused a very liberal flexibility.
All Knowledge Comes from India?
SL commits further historical and philosophical errors in his claim that, “The Bhagavatam says that all knowledge comes from India and spread all over the world.” Really? Where does the Bhagavatam say that all knowledge spreads from India? We can all agree that advanced knowledge of Kṛṣṇa comes from the land of His appearance, and even that advanced knowledge of the details of material creation, the laws of karma etc come from Bharata-varṣa. But other forms of knowledge appear throughout the world.
The Gita says that general wisdom comes from sattva-guṇa [14.6, 14.11, 14.14, 14.17], not from India. It would be absurd to say that no one outside India was ever in the mode of goodness. In fact, Prabhupada denies such an absurdity.
“It is not the question of East and West. It is the question of understanding. In the East also there are many rascals, and in the West there are many intelligent.” [Morning Walk — Germany, June 20, 1974] Similarly:
“Education may be wrong or right, but science is always the fact. ‘Two plus two equal to four,’—that is equally good in the East and West, not that in the western countries, two plus two will be five…Similarly, to understand the science of God, it does not depend on the Western culture or Eastern culture.” [Room Conversation with Malcolm — London, July 18, 1973]
“So far we are concerned, we have no such distinction, “East and West.” [Bhagavad-gītā 13.8.12 Lecture — Bombay, October 2, 1973]
“There is no question of ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western.’ This is our manufacture, that Eastern is better than the Western. We don’t make such things as ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western.’ We test whether he’s Krsna conscious. That’s all.” [Bhagavad-gita 7.4 Lecture — Nairóbi, October 31, 1975]
On this topic also, SL radically misconstrues the real world. In every country of the world, we find good, kind, loving people and their goodness, as stated in the Gītā, gives them wisdom, as shown in their culture, literature, and behavior. Our job is to add Kṛṣṇa, not denigrate and ridicule all that is non-Indian, as pointed out by Śrīla Bhaktivinoda and Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta.
Of course, it would be yet another absurdity to say, in a literal sense, that all knowledge comes from India. One would thus claim, for example, that knowledge to build an Apple computer, the cure for smallpox, or even the legendary map-making skills of Captain Cook, all come from India.
One may say that all knowledge comes from Śāstra in the sense that it explains all tattvas. The Sanskrit word tattva indicates a categorical truth, such as Viṣṇu-tattva or jīva-tattva. Thus in the famous Gītā verse 4.34, Kṛṣṇa says that we should learn the truth by approaching those who have seen tattva, the truth of of God, soul, and nature. In this sense, Śāstra gives all knowledge, not in the silly sense of acting as an infinitely unabridged encyclopedia that includes, say, the topography of Guatemala, or rigid rules on how to sew and tie dhoties.
SL claims that all knowledge comes from India, yet he acknowledges that Śāstra does not describe in detail proper dress, food, or architecture. Therefore SL claims that India itself, not Śāstra gives all knowledge. This is a new and, to be honest, strange concept.
Perhaps SL means that Ācāryas who lived in India gave all knowledge of external cultural details. But as we have seen, Rūpa Gosvāmī omits such details from his list of integral devotional practices, and Prabhupada repeatedly and forcefully rejects the notion of an absolute standard for such details as food, dress, architecture etc.
Thus it is India itself, apart from Śāstras and Ācāryas, that teaches us. This leads to bizarre conclusions. For instance, SL suggests that since a kurta is Vedic, and since kurta is a Persian word, Muslims must have stolen the kurta from Indian Hindus. Obviously, no one but Hindus ever knew anything of value, not even how to dress properly. But Prabhupada gives a very different picture.
Hṛdayānanda: “Prabhupāda, you said that originally the Europeans had Āryan -type culture…”
Prabhupāda: “Oh, yes. They are still Āryan . Europeans are Āryan, Indo -Āryan. That is admitted in history.” [Morning walk — Māyāpura, February 6, 1976]
“The Vedic culture was all over the world. These Europeans and Americans, they are coming of the same stock, Indo-Aryan stock.” [Class — July 25, 1971]
“The Āryan family is distributed all over the world and is known as Indo-Āryan.” [ŚBh 4.20.26 Purport]
Therefore, the Western remnants of Vedic culture, enriched by the wisdom of virtuous Western people, has in fact sustained many valuable cultural items, even in an age of widespread materialism.
Of course, it has long been a cherished pastime among us to compare the best of India with the worst of the West. However, if we compare the worst of India with the best of the West, we get a very different picture. Ultimately, as Prabhupada clearly states, we are concerned with Kṛṣṇa consciousness, not external labels such as East and West.
Now let us directly consider what Prabhupada himself says about Indian culture, and whether it matches what SL says about it. SL cites Prabhupada as saying, “We will conquer the world with Indian culture.” In fact, we find no such quote in Vedabase. So what does Prabhupada say about “Indian culture”?
In an unpublished “pre-1967” essay, Prabhupada lists four main principles of Mohandas Gandhi, and then says that if the Indian government implements these principles — 1) daily prayer, sankirtana and Gita study; 2) temple worship reform; 3) uplifting of Harijans; and 4) caste system reform — “that India’s original culture will not only be revived and re-established but also will foster India’s indigenous culture in other parts of the world. That will be a sort of cultural conquest of all world by India.”
Prabhupada specifies here that the spread of Indian culture involves basic spiritual principles, not external details of dress, music or architecture. Let us see exactly how Prabhupada uses the term Indian culture, and in what context he uses the term?
After he started ISKCON, Prabhupada once wrote to Jagadīśa Dāsa, “If we simply repeat this philosophy exactly as it is, without any misrepresentation or adulteration, then this movement will never be checked, and we will conquer the world.” World conquest takes place not through Indian dress or recipes, but by teaching pure philosophy. [Letter to Jagadish — March 3, 1972]
For Prabhupada, the essence of Indian culture was not an ethnic style of dress, music, food, or architecture, but rather Kṛṣṇa consciousness: “So our point is: present Krsna as it is. That is real Indian culture.” [Conversation — September 11, 1972, Arlington. Also listed in Vedabase as Mayapura, April 2, 1975]
Indeed, a study of Prabhupada’s use of the term “Indian culture” shows that he used it to indicate the following: Kṛṣṇa consciousness, austerity, detachment, spiritual philosophy, self-realization, varṇāśrama, cow-protection, bhāgavata-kathā, compassion through preaching, and belief in reincarnation. Prabhupada does not promote Indian culture in the sense of the external cultural features that SL claims are “integral to the practice of Krishna consciousness.”
Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, in Jaiva Dharma Chapter 2, states that instructions may be tat-kālika, meant for a specific time, or sarva-kālika, meant for all times. Thus, for example, the Bhāgavatam’s rule that a brahmacārī dress in deerskin is clearly tat-kālika, meant for a specific time, not all times. On the other hand, the injunction to surrender to Kṛṣṇa is valid eternally. Bhaktivinoda’s terms, tat-kālika and sarva-kālika, match Rūpa Gosvāmī’s analysis of unvarying, basic principles, and varying details.
Prabhupada preached at a time when his Western mission flourished. Thousands of Western youth joined ISKCON. All that has drastically changed. Therefore with what authority can we say today, that upon seeing this dramatic downturn in ISKCON’s Western fortunes, Prabhupada would do everything exactly the same? Is there a time in Prabhupada’s preaching life when he responded to adversity by continuing to apply the exact same external strategy year after year? Indeed there is not.
SL’s highly conservative portrait of Prabhupada feeds the widespread myth that Prabhupada opposed any concession to Western taste, and that Prabhupada insisted on preserving in the West all Indian external features. But Prabhupada’s own words give us a very different picture.
In the Bhāgavatam 1.9.9, Bhīṣma is called deśa-kāla-vibhāga-vit, a “knower of the differences in place and time.” In the Bhāgavatam 4.8.54, using the same term, deśa-kāla-vibhāga-vit, Nārada Muni encourages Prince Dhruva to be a “knower of the differences in place and time” in his service to Kṛṣṇa. In his purports to both verses, Prabhupada urges us to be deśa-kāla-vibhāga-vit, and to thus preach appropriately in different times and places. In his purport to ŚBh 1.9.9, Prabhupada writes:
“Expert religionists know perfectly well how to adjust religious principles in terms of time and place. All the great ācāryas or religious preachers or reformers of the world executed their mission by adjustment of religious principles in terms of time and place. There are different climates and situations in different parts of the world, and if one has to discharge his duties to preach the message of the Lord, he must be expert in adjusting things in terms of the time and place.” [ŚBh 1.9.9 Purport]
And in his purport to ŚBh 4.8.54, Prabhupada writes:
“What is convenient in India may not be convenient in the Western countries… 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 śāstra.” [ŚBh 4.8.54 Purport]
Similarly, in the Caitanya-caritāmṛta 2.23.105, Lord Caitanya taught Sanātana Gosvāmī practical renunciation, yukta-vairāgya, and forbade him to adopt “dry renunciation.” In his purport, Prabhupada explains yukta-vairāgya as adopting pragmatic means to spread Krishna consciousness, whereas “dry renunciation” means sticking to impractical methods in the name of following rules. Prabhupada writes:
“The teacher has to consider time, candidate and country. He must avoid the principle of niyamāgraha — that is, he should not try to perform the impossible. What is possible in one country may not be possible in another…The essence of devotional service must be taken into consideration, and not the outward paraphernalia…” [CC 2.23.105 Purport]
And yet SL seems to favor “the outward paraphernalia” even if it means, as we shall see at the end of this essay, that we must abandon the hope of fulfilling Prabhupada’s praṇāma mantra and saving the Western countries.
Prabhupada further states in his purport to CC 2.23.105: “It is not necessary that the rules and regulations followed in India be exactly the same as those in Europe, America and other Western countries.”
Here we clearly see the dramatic difference between SL’s insistence on the necessity of Indian customs, and Prabhupada’s insistence that such external things are not important. Indeed, Kṛṣṇa Himself adjusts according to the time, place, and person: “Krishna is very…expert… He knows how to deal according to time, person and country…” [CC 2.23.72 Purport]
This picture of Prabhupada and Kṛṣṇa as oceans of mercy, ready to do whatever it takes to save souls, stands in stark contrast to the popular image of a Prabhupada, who defiantly rejects any concession to Western people.
In fact, my purpose here is conservative: I want to conserve all of what Prabhupada said so that devotees, young and old, know the full range of Prabhupada’s teachings. In my recent travels, I saw that many devotees are not taught all that Prabhupada taught about preaching strategy. Rather they learn a highly conservative version of Prabhupada that ignores many of Prabhupada’s most relevant and essential words on preaching strategy. But it is only the real and complete Prabhupada who can lead the Western mission to success.
Obviously one may wear Indian clothes in the practice of bhakti-yoga. However to claim that Indian clothes are integral or essential is an invention.
Risk of reinterpreting Prabhupada’s ultimate mission
SL states: “I do not agree that people become alienated [by our Indian presentation]. We are still here, and people are coming forward.”
People are indeed coming forward, but not enough people to make ISKCON relevant in the Western world. I just completed a tour of ten Western countries and I saw this clearly. Further, we have massive evidence in the West that people are in fact alienated from the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. Here is a typical example, from an ISKCON News article, in which a very sincere devotee recounts her experience on Hari-nāma-saṅkīrtana in a major, and very liberal, Western city:
“At the beginning, it was tough…Sometimes, it was just me by myself, and people were laughing. At first, I looked in their eyes, and I would take all their negativity in. But then I learned to close my eyes and just focus on the Holy Name.”
There are hundreds of thousands of stories like this. Everywhere I go, I find that many devotees are embarrassed to invite people to our temples. I even met temple presidents who feel this way!
This is the reality of the West.
Even SL seems to grasp this fact, for he states:
“Prabhupada often said better to remain small, better to remain pure, better to remain small but stay pure and don’t worry about being accepted by a lot of people. That’s certainly the ISKCON I want to belong to, and not an ISKCON that compromises our values… [A prominent] Swami gave the example of the Amish, who have extremely conservative values, who look very strange and continue to look very strange. At the beginning of the 20th century they numbered 5000 in America and everyone thought they would die out, but today they number 250,000…”
Despite SL’s previous claim that no one ever thought us strange, he now cites the words of another prominent ISKCON leader, analogizing devotees to the Amish who look strange, remain small, and who do not preach to outsiders.
Let us compare the Amish to another American religion, the Mormons, who vigorously preach, and who gave up strange external customs, for the sake of preaching. We find that there are nearly sixty times more Mormons than Amish. Sixty times more!
Yet SL and perhaps other leaders, feel that it is the Amish, not the adaptive, preaching Mormons that we should emulate.
If we consider SL’s words more closely, we find a logical error that leads him to risk reinterpreting and compromising Prabhupada’s ultimate mission. I will first show the logical error, and then the risk of compromise.
SL stated: “Prabhupada often said better to remain small, better to remain pure, better to remain small but stay pure and don’t worry about being accepted by a lot of people. That’s certainly the ISKCON I want to belong to, and not an ISKCON that compromises our values…”
Here SL commits the logical error called a false dilemma or false dichotomy, in that he claims there are only two alternatives, when in fact there is a third option. I will make this clearer.
SL suggests that we have only two options [in the West]:
- We remain pure and small.
- We become impure and big.
Based on this belief, SL essentially gives the following argument:
Premise 1: Our only two options are to be pure and small, or impure and big.
Premise 2: Impurity is not an option.
Conclusion: We must resign ourselves to being small and pure, like the Amish.
This argument is based on a false dichotomy because in fact there are not only two options.
There is an obvious third possibility:
- We remain pure and become big.
Of course this third option, which as I will show is Prabhupada’s real desire, is not an option for SL, who mistakenly believes that the adjustments needed in the West would contaminate the devotees, even though Prabhupada himself, as I showed, strongly advocated these adjustments. Thus our only option is to be small and pure. This constitutes a fundamental reinterpretation of Prabhupada’s ultimate mission.
Risk of compromising Prabhupada’s mission
SL holds up for our approval the non-preaching Amish, who grow only because they average around seven children per family, and admirably retain most of their young. Yet to even suggest that we focus on having lots of babies, rather than dynamically, and appropriately, preaching Prabhupada’s message, is to fundamentally reinterpret his Western mission. I will provide evidence for my claim.
- The words preacher, preach, and preaching occur about 23,000 times in Vedabase (Preacher: 1,600 Preach: 7,254; Preaching: 14,004;) That’s a lot. Prabhupada constantly urged us to preach, boldly and appropriately. In contrast, “Originally, the Amish evangelized, as do most Christian denominations, but over the years seeking converts and spreading the gospel became less and less of a priority, to the point that it is not done at all today.”
Does no preaching remind you of Prabhupada? I don’t think so.
- We must not forget how Prabhupada ends his glorious Introduction to Bhagavad-gītā
As It Is? Here are his closing words:
“…let there be one scripture only, one common scripture for the whole world — Bhagavad-gītā. Eko devo devakī-putra eva: let there be one God for the whole world – Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Eko mantras tasya nāmāni: and one hymn, one mantra, one prayer—the chanting of His name: Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. Karmāpy ekaṃ tasya devasya sevā: and let there be one work only—the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
This is not a call to form non-preaching, but fertile communities.
- Recall what Prabhupada said in the Preface to his Bhāgavatam? “Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam
should be introduced also in the schools and colleges, for it is recommended by the great student-devotee Prahlāda Mahārāja in order to change the demoniac face of society.” In the same
Preface: “Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is the transcendental science not only for knowing our relation with Him and our duty toward perfection of the human society on the basis of this perfect knowledge.”
Perhaps rather than perfect human society, we should just have lots of babies and “continue to look very strange.” (“—Swami gave the example of the Amish, who have extremely conservative values, who look very strange and continue to look very strange.”)
- One may feel that given the reality of today’s world, we should focus on preaching to those ethnic groups that join ISKCON in large numbers, and not worry about the West. In fact some leaders criticized and even mocked the fact that I use the word West in the Kṛṣṇa West program. They think I am mixing a mundane designation with a spiritual cause.
Those who scorn the word West in a spiritual project must have forgotten Prabhupada’s praṇāma-mantra, which he wrote himself. There Prabhupada claims to be pāścātya-deśa-tāriṇe, the “savior of the Western countries.”
Prabhupada also made very clear that his entire global strategy depended on ISKCON’s success in the Western countries, among Western people. Are we now to abandon that vision? Is it not instead our sacred duty to defend Prabhupada’s honor by making his words come true? As amply shown in this essay, Prabhupada gave us all the freedom and flexibility we need to accomplish this great task.
We all know that Prabhupada sometimes said he would be satisfied if he made one pure devotee. But that one pure devotee would surely dedicate his or her life to fulfilling Prabhupada’s ultimate dream and ambition: to save this suffering planet.
Fortunately, not just one, but many great souls have joined Prabhupada’s mission, and now is the time to do all we can to fulfill Prabhupada’s greatest hope and dream. Our duty is not to reinterpret, scale down, compromise, or renounce Prabhupada’s grand vision for his Western mission. In his words, let us “do the needful.”
I respect the sincere attempt of many devotees like SL to spread Krishna consciousness in what they believe to be the best way. It is my earnest hope that I have not offended any Vaiṣṇava, including SL, in the course of executing my duty. I pray that we can all work together to fulfill Prabhupada’s ultimate vision of a Kṛṣṇa conscious world.
6 Here is a useful summary covering recent history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Indian_sentiment.