Originaly published at the Jiva Institute
QUESTION: Why can I not be a devotee of Krishna without subscribing to Vedic or rather Indian customs? Why do I have to dress like an Indian, which even modern Indians don’t do? This may be alright while one is living in India, but to carry these customs to the West makes one look weird and an object of mockery. Bhakti, after all is not dependent on anything external, it is a matter of bhava. Krishna is pleased only with devotion and not with anything else: bhaktya tusyati kevalam na tu gunaih bhakti priyo madhava (Padyavali 8).
ANSWER: Absolute reality has two manifestions, personal and impersonal. The yogis and jnanis strive for impersonal realization of the Absolute after attaining perfection in the form of ultimate liberation, atyantika mukti, they do not have any personal relationship with the Absolute. Therefore, they do not need to follow any specific culture in which they will live after liberation. Devotees, however, follow the path of a personal God.
On the path of devotion, there are two types of devotees. Those who want to have a specific relation with Him in a specific form and those who are not keen on any specific relationship. Those who want to have a specific relation have to know the specific form of God, such as Krishna, and His mood and behavior befitting the desired relation. This had to be understood here in the sadhaka body. On the path of a specific relation (raganuga), the service is done both with one’s physical body and also the aspired spiritual body (seva sadhaka-rupena siddha-rupena catra hi, Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu 1.2.295). To do this seva, one has to learn the customs. As far as doing the seva in the spiritual form, there is no social restriction because it is all done as a meditation, but to do the seva with the physical body, there may be social restrictions, because one may not live in a society or family that is supportive of devotion. Then one has to make adjustments, but one has to always keep in mind the goal.
As Gaudiya Vaisnavas, our goal is to be with Krishna, therefore it is important for us to understand Him as a person within a certain setting. How much of the rules and customs we can follow can be adjusted if one understands the principles. If one does not understand the principles, then the tendency will be to do what one is accustomed and then gradually one may just follow one’s own mind and not the principles of bhakti. Here it should also be understood that on the path of bhakti, what is most important is bhava, but that is not something we have, rather it is our goal or object to achieve. And although the customs and process of Deity worship, rules related with eating, greeting, and worship are external to bhava, they also assist to reach this bhava.
Thus, unless it is impossible or unfavorable to practice these principles and customs, one should try to follow as much as one can. Moreover, if one has bhava, which means love, one would naturally do what is pleasing to Krishna. Why would one like to do something which is not appreciated by Him?
Krishna is not Indian nor does He follow Indian culture. But He is also not Western. He lives according to Vedic culture and customs. If we want to live with Him, then we need to know this culture and follow it as much as possible in our modern setting. If we cannot follow it because of our social situation, we should at least be aware of it, be respectful to it, and not deride it. Those modern Indians who do not follow Vedic culture are not our ideals.
QUESTION: But how can God be so narrow-minded and why would He be partial? God is universal and does not discriminate, so why do I have to follow something which is only known in India and not follow the Western customs and attain God?
ANSWER: Yes, I agree that God is universal and impartial and it is possible to approach God by following any culture or customs. However, as said before, we are not interested in that impartial manifestation of God.
Our goal is to have a specific loving relationship with a specific form of God called Krishna who is svayam bhagavan and who is not impartial when it comes to His devotees.
God has two kinds of manifestation—very specific manifestations such as Krishna or Rama, and a general impartial manifestation, called Paramatma, or Isvara. Besides this, He also has an impersonal manifestation, called Brahman. So if one is interested in attaining Brahman, or just Paramatma, then one does not have to follow the specific Vedic custom, culture or life style, because in that there is no need to develop a specific relationship with God. However, if the interest is to be with Krishna in Vraja and to have an intimate relation, then one has to know Him very intimately and make oneself qualified to live with Him in the desire intimate relationship.
Krishna has His partiality for His devotees, His likes and dislikes. He identifies Himself as a cowherd boy and nothing else. He does not identify Himself as a creator god or one who looks after the maintenance of the cosmos. His mind is very much focused on His devotees in Vraja. He does not think of anything beyond. An example of His mood is when the wives of the brahmanas of Mathura approached Him with food and surrendered to Him, he did not accept them in the same way as the cowherd girls and women because according to Vedic or traditional Indian culture, a cowherd man cannot have any conjugal relation with a brahmaṇa girl or woman. For this reason, Gaudiya Vaisnavas, who want to have a madhurya bhava relationship with Kṛṣṇa, aspire to be born as cowherd-girls and not brahmana girls. So, Krishna in Vraja has the ego of a cowherd boy. Outside of Vraja and in other forms, He has other egos. This has to be properly understood.
Thus, these things are just a matter of custom. Krishna behaves according to the ideals of Vedic culture, and therefore we have to learn these if we are interested in a relationship with Him.
One should keep in mind that this is a very specific path and one has to be very clear about one’s goal. And that practice has to be done here. There is no bypassing it.
Swami B.V. Tripurari:
Sankirtan is the way to the goal of prema, wherein Sri Nama recedes to the background and lila seva comes to the foreground. In prema, the lila within the name comes forth and takes precedent as one becomes a player in the eternal drama of Krsna lila.
Yes, our goal is to serve Krsna in the form of sakhya or madhurya rasa, but in the nitya lila separation is not prominent, because Krsna does not appear to depart for Mathura and Dvaraka, as he does in the prakata lila for such a long time. So service in separation is more related to the way than it is the goal.
As far as what to wear, householders can dress in sattvic clothing or one more focused on the goal can dress as a member of Gaura-lila in meditation on that lila and with the aspiration to enter it in dasya bhakti for Mahaprabhu. Monastics should wear traditional monastic attire. But if outreach is hindered by any particular dress, those engaged in such outreach can adjust accordingly.
However, it is not at all a foregone conclusion that the traditional dress of Gaura lila hinders outreach. You speak of public sankirtana. It seems to me that people who would be alienated by thinking they had to change their dress to be a member would be even more alienated by thinking that they had to chant and dance in public to be a member, if not more so. Fortunately, the teaching is that they do not have to do either. One can dress in the sattva guna and practice in one’s home, and many Gaudiya Vasinavas do this today. Still they will in time be meditating on empowered descriptions of specific lilas coming from our founding acaryas, the Six Goswamis, that describe modes of dress, etc. So . . .
And finally, the fact that monastic dress in public for actual monastics is not an impediment to sharing the teaching is evidenced by the recent visit of the Pope to the US. Millions of people came to see and hear him, dressed as he was in flowing robes, etc.
Swami B.V. Ashram:
We also have examples of other famous members of monastic orders, East and West, whose work has not been impeded by wearing their traditional monastic dress. No one is put off by the Dalai Lama’s dress, or by Thich Nhat Hanh’s. Mother Teresa and Thomas Merton were also quite effective in their day. We also see that Pema Chodron and Karma Lekse Tsomo, who is a nun in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition who is also a professor at the University of San Diego, don’t put off their students by their dress.
I don’t know of anyone who presents the chanting of the Mahamantra and the teachings of Lord Caitanya who tells their audiences that they must change their dress, or even their diets. We have always requested others to simply add the chanting to their lives without necessarily changing anything else. We have seen that many of those who make the experiment end up asking devotees’ advice on how to increase their experience of the chanting’s effects. It is no secret that our immaturity sometimes (okay, often) resulted in advice that was not well attuned to where the others actually were in terms of their faith, and some of us may have, in our zeal, pressed others to engage beyond their ability to do so effectively. But that if we ourselves actually understand the teachings, have mature faith, and have a clear sense of where our audience is at, this need not be the case.
I understand that Visvanath Cakravarti Thakur das is a yoga teacher and a kirtaniya. I think that if he presents the teachings and the chanting according to his own faith, his students will find it attractive, not off-putting. I have a friend and Gosdister who owns a yoga school in Kansas (Kansas, of all places!) and presents her yoga instruction, as she puts it, “infused with bhakti.” She meets her students, both her regular yoga students and her teacher-training students, where they are. Her own faith and the character that creates goes a long way to helping create faith in bhakti in her students. I recently joined her teacher-training students for kirtan and discourse on Baladeva Purnima. I spoke on Balarama as the source of the serving ego, and we had two Hare Krishna Mahamantra kirtans. The students were immersed in the kirtans and they appreciated the talk. No one was put off by my being dressed as a sannyasi, nor did they feel even an implied pressure that they must do so themselves.
Swami B.V. Tripurari:
An example of changing one’s dress in consideration of outreach is the sannyasa dress implemented in the line of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura. Traditionally the Gaudiya renunciates wore white and a short cloth. Hari-bhakti-vilasa cites sastra stating that white cloth is for Vaisnavas. Gaudiya taygis like Sanatana Goswami wore short white vesa just above the knees, but not new cloth, rather only cloth previously used by others, and Mahaprabhu was pleased to note this. However, Saraswati Thakura experienced that babas dressed like this in his time were not respected by the public, whereas those from other lineages dressed in saffron were respected. So he instituted a renounced order of sannyasa and dressed his sannyasins in saffron with much success in terms of attracting educated people.
As a member of that sannyasa order living in the West, I find that this dress has some power. Many people go out of their way to smile, nod, and in other ways acknowledge that I am a monk of an Eastern tradition and indicate that they think this is an admirable lifestyle.
Every culture has a uniform for its religious priests, and it’s renunciates are to avoid the vanity involved in attire. Thus, they adopt anything from ashes to a simple cloth and make it a point to stand out in society.