Iskcon Cultural Divide, Or Unity?
By Kesava Krsna Dasa
Inching forward with preaching successes worldwide, our conservative or modern pursuance of Krishna consciousness is often influenced by ‘Indian’ or Western concepts. While representatives of cultural differences aim for mutual ‘Vedic’ convergence on vital and important issues, we witness arguments for or against ‘Indian’ or Western culture. Who is right?
Prabhupada: “Your international feeling and my inter-national feeling are overlapping and conflicting. We have to find the proper center for our loving feelings…. That center is Kṛṣṇa.” (International Student Society, Boston, Dec ’69)
Is it not worth noticing how the “inching forward” is done by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mercy regardless of whether we preach with an ‘Indian’ or Western bias? Such mercy is above ‘Indian’ or Western notions. While some of us rack our intellects wondering how to implement VAD, we yet see how “catur varnam maya srstam…” is already prevalent before our eyes in human society. How can we create something that is already created by the Lord? Srila Prabhupada wanted it, but surely there must be a way to harness VAD to existing human divisions.
Prabhupāda: “Cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ [Bg. 4.13]. Varṇāśrama-dharma is there, but it is not organized. Varṇa… Because it is made by God, mayā sṛṣṭam, it cannot be violated. So… But it (is) in a perverted way. Therefore we are suffering.” (February 22, 1974, Bombay)
For instance, China had muzzled the natural vaisya human instinct under traditional Mao communism. As if they had taken a leaf out of Bhagavad-Gita, they have gradually unleashed the vaisya spirit, resulting in rapid national prosperity.
By ‘Indian,’ we refer to those who think that ‘Indian’ is closer to Vedic standards than elsewhere, and so have a ‘moral right’ to lecture to assumed derelict, and morally bankrupt ‘Western tinged’ preaching methods. Even devotees from Western countries who spend extended time in India, we find, are usually influenced the ‘Indian’ or ‘Vedic’ way, and tend to be more conservative than others are. No doubt, the enduring power of ‘Indian’ culture – some of it Vedic in origin – has defied centuries of Moghul and British disincentives. But…
Puṣṭa Kṛṣṇa: [break] “They use this argument against us, that the Vedic culture was most solidly founded in India.”
Prabhupāda: “But you have, I mean to say, curbed down. This rascal civilization, they could not take the Western civilization, and they lost their own civilization. This is India’s bad luck. The Britishers did not teach them how to take up the Western culture, but they killed the Eastern culture. You understand?” (October 18, 1975, Johannesburg)
But didn’t Srila Prabhupada venture Westward? Didn’t he utilise Western capital, talent and Bhakti enthusiasm of his disciples to spread Krishna consciousness? Wasn’t he proud to present his “dancing white elephants” to his fellow compatriots, who were supposedly guardians of Vedic Sanatana Dharma?
This staying power can clearly influence devotees, but there are still elements of ‘Indian’ culture that are not quite Vedic, and are cause for concern for Western (and Indian) human rights campaigners. Matters of honour killings, exorbitant dowry demands that end in violent fiascos, occasional enforced sati, the cruel and inflexible caste system, are some social problems. In general, there is gullibility to worshipping human spiritual leaders as God, pervasive pancopasana mayavada infiltration, imitating the West, cow slaughterhouses, and total disregard for things holy, like River Yamuna and mining in Mathura district and so on. There is substantial “loss” in Vedic culture.
In spite of this, the holy name and sadhana Bhakti side of Krishna consciousness strikes a chord with numerous Indian nationals who imbibe it within that “staying power.” Krishna consciousness has rapidly spread in India, but the former Eastern Bloc countries also have phenomenal growth. What then is to be said for China, whose people are accustomed to regimented lifestyles? Sadhana Bhakti should be natural for them.
In years to come, when more Chinese people become Vaisnavas – and maybe the best, as Srila Prabhupada predicted – and represent a formidable bloc on our world GBC, we will not be talking ‘India’ and the West, but also China and other Far-Eastern nations. Their cultural clout shall not be taken lightly. All this world cultural diversity remains however, subordinate to the mercy of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the liberality of the Lord’s holy names.
The challenge for us is how to spread such mercy and liberality and agree on certain topics amid diverse world cultures. Future society shall need a cultural base. Are we to expect our worldwide Iskcon society to not have regional or international variations? If we observe the oriental artwork adorning Srila Prabhupada’s Light Of The Bhagavat, then we’ll know that Srila Prabhupada appreciated cultural diversity in presenting Krishna consciousness.
At this particular time, we have a seemingly ‘superior’ traditional ‘high-ground’ connected with things ‘India’ in matters of presenting Krishna consciousness. Economically speaking India has risen to the top ten of world nations. This has made India more important in cultural terms. During Srila Prabhupada’s time in the West, India was viewed as, or was grouped into nations with stagnant socialist leanings riled with poverty.
Today, even Indian bodied devotees born and bred in Western countries experience sometimes-extreme cultural shock when visiting India, or the holy dhama (with material vision). The worldwide diaspora of Indian nationals presents an interesting cultural comparison. The “staying power” of Sanatana Dharma has ensured cultural stability of ‘Indians’ wherever they move, or were moved to by the British. Attribute the fact that many of these dispersion communities have taken to Krishna consciousness, could inadvertently give credit to the British for helping to spread Lord Chaitanya’s mission of love around the world.
Another cultural polemic for traditionalists is how our GBC and large percentage of initiating spiritual masters are of ‘Western’ origin. Their perceived ‘Western’ liberality is sometimes assumed to be at variance with ‘Indian’ historical claims for stern traditional applications of Vedic culture. But are they really liberal, as in a Western moral decline sense, or are they liberal as representing the liberality of Srila Prabhupada and the holy name? The latter is more realistic. Why?
Just as the same human rights campaigners worry about certain of supposed Vedic culture abuses earlier mentioned, the followers of the Bhakti path of love also want to see Krishna consciousness presented in preaching, and implemented as culture, in a humane, or rather, in a kindly and compassionate way. This is where our world cultural divergence can benefit – to soften the rigid and hardness of traditional expectations of Krishna consciousness with the sympathetic and generousness of ‘liberal’ intent.
If we put the colour of rigidity and hardness (red for passion) together with the colour of liberality and generosity (yellow for goodness), we’ll end up with an orange. So, Orange can be the colour of our cultural mix? Does this mean compromising? Will the same Orange keep us from exerting superiority over other forms of preaching?
(Bg 18.21) “That knowledge by which one sees that in every different body there is a different type of living entity you should understand to be in the mode of passion.”
(Bg 18.20) ”That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all living entities, though they are divided into innumerable forms, you should understand to be in the mode of goodness.”
If Iskcon were a city or nation, our conservative or liberal preferences as aired in our discussions, pretty much mirror those of normal materialistic societies. What does this say about us? Does it reveal that collectively we have not transcended normal petty societal feelings? In countries like Egypt, battling for a newly democratic identity, there is fear and loathing among the moderates of being governed by a traditionalist Muslim Brotherhood sided with more extreme Sala’fist minorities. Our situation is not very different on a societal level. Aside from uniting in the liberal holy name, we are still trying to forge an identity as a society, albeit a diverse one.
While we can converge or reach consensus, the combination should result in moderation and balance. We can unite spiritually with citizen devotees of countries and nations who bare hostility and suspicion towards other nations and citizens on a governmental footing. This level of unity should surely help us in our efforts, which are above national and cultural identities. Yet, can’t Iskcon be a culturally varied family or society?
If ‘Indian’ cultural standards appear somewhat unfriendly for the liberal, think of areas of the world, like Northern Africa, where violent and excruciating cultural methods of controlling sexual urges are used, as with genital mutilation. Imagine how the painless procedure of sadhana Bhakti can help. Of course, sadhana can be painful in the beginning for most spiritual aspirants, but nectar awaits determined practice, which hopefully earns mercy.
We can also imagine a situation where, during Lord Chaitanya’s time, a close family member of Sri Ramananda Raya, Bhavananda Raya, was to be executed by being thrown upon raised swords. Does this sound barbaric? There is no record of Lord Chaitanya saying that such punishment was barbaric – it was generally accepted. Even within moderate cultural settings, there still has to be Vedic responses to six kinds of aggressors.
Vedic culture then, contains lethal means of punishment, law, and order, which cannot be done away with. This Manu Samhita type of awareness can however, add to a misplaced sense of superior masculinity though, and subsequent abuse of womanhood, under the guise of ‘women-at-home’ proposals presented by traditionalists, that modern western women are afraid of. Some of our educated and qualified female ‘Indian’ devotees would be worried too. In Kali-yuga, patriarchal dominance often equals weak macho exploitation.
Would the years of female education incurred at great expense to make them useful members of society, and assets for Iskcon, go to waste, by being confined to ‘women-at-home’ demands made by our conservatives, with VAD in mind? Wouldn’t such a waste of talent and usefulness be a form of abuse? It will be, because the imposition of cultural shock can be anti Bhakti, by not allowing human resources to flourish for Krishna’s pleasure.
Simultaneously, many of our lady devotees are favourable to this. It can be harder not to act on traditional impositions if a sizable number of female devotees approve. How can we reconcile this? A practical solution would be to allow our women devotees to live as talented, educated and versatile Mothers and Sisters. Such ability can still be presented on major preaching fronts.
If these terms and roles are adopted without questionable Guru Titles, this can at least appease both sides. While acknowledging that not everyone can adapt to ‘Indian’ standards of culture, with understandable fear of abuse and victimisation, let our ladies flourish in devotion wherever they are – West or East. Is this a cultural compromise? It need not be. Patriarchs first have to earn implicit trust of females before females submit themselves to VAD strictures. This is a fair observation.
While we concern ourselves with tradition and modernity, one great benefit in preaching to Western people is that they genuinely wake up to Krishna consciousness with an innocence, whereas those familiar with Vedic ideals (mayavada tinged people) have to be drawn out of pretentious sleep. These two challenges reveal how we have to retain Western and ‘Indian’ diversity – both are beneficial.
Then, aren’t we all ultimately meant to be singing, dancing, and playing with Krishna? If that is our combined goal in life, why can’t we lend joy and happiness to all who come to Krishna consciousness by being happily situated? If that happiness is found either in traditional or Western situations, who are we to interfere with this? If variety is the spice of life, it would make sense to allow cultural variations of Krishna consciousness that appeal to all, and even to each of us as we travel.
Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa