Krishna West teaches the timeless, non-sectarian path of Krishna bhakti, devotion to God and all souls. Because the practice of Krishna bhakti offers access to a deeply personal and intimate relationship with God and all living beings, the Bhagavad-gita describes it as the highest stage of spiritual yoga and the joyful climax of all forms of religiosity.
The practice of Krishna bhakti was first established in the West by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his dedicated students. Krishna West continues Prabhupada’s legacy by doing everything possible to make Krishna bhakti easy, relevant, effective, and enjoyable for Western people, without in any way compromising, diluting, or diminishing the purity and power of its glorious ancient tradition. This is achieved by offering the essential spiritual teaching and practice in its entirety, without requiring students and practitioners to embrace a new ethnicity composed of non-essential Eastern dress, cuisine, music etc. We believe people in the West need and deserve the chance to practice genuine bhakti-yoga within an external culture that is comfortable and natural for them.
Frequently Asked Questions
The following is a series of questions answered by H.D. Goswami that address the mission of Krishna West and the teachings of ISKCON’s founder-acharya, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
How can we make Krishna consciousness relevant in the world today?
Regarding “yoga, topical lectures, movies, etc.,” certainly all these can be used in a spirit of yukta-vairagya. Consider also the following: most of the successful ‘loft’ type programs, such as those created by Devamrta Swami, are bridges to conventional, Indian-style Krishna consciousness. I recently spoke to Devamrta Maharaja, whom I greatly admire, and he acknowledged this. Here is the crucial point: if one does a bridge program, the program need not be so straight, because once people are attracted, they will come to a conventional temple and get all their spiritual and religious needs met.
I have a very different purpose. Here are my points: bridge programs are excellent for bringing in new people, but they do little to change our overall image in society. Until we become mainstream, we will never have much influence in society. Just as people have basic nutritional needs, they also have basic religious needs: strong spiritual community, sacred space, strict practice etc. Since bridge programs are not designed to fulfill all religious needs, new people, as I said, usually go back to conservative, Indian-style temples to become strong in Krishna consciousness.
What we really need in the West, in my view, is a full-service western movement within the movement. If new devotees can satisfy their spiritual and religious needs within our western style program, then the program will grow and create an entirely new impression in the public eye. In fact, I believe that western-style Krishna consciousness will become the main western movement in the future.
That’s why I am more concerned than a bridge preacher would be in maintaining strict spiritual standards, because Krishna West (or whatever we call it) is not a bridge. It’s a final destination. And to be a final destination, it has to provide the advanced spiritual community, sacred space etc. I admire those who do bridge programs. They are great souls, who are saving other souls. Yet, for all the good that bridge programs do, and they do much good, I believe they cannot fully revive the Western Hare Krishna Movement and make it relevant and respectable in mainstream society.
What is Krishna West's relationship with ISKCON?
I consider Krishna West to be fully ISKCON, rather than bheda-abheda.
As “a movement within a movement,” is Krishna West trying to change ISKCON?
Krishna West is an ISKCON project faithful to Prabhupada’s spiritual, philosophical, and organizational principles. Krishna West does not seek to change any existing ISKCON project, nor to criticize any of the many sincere, advanced ISKCON devotees who disagree with us. We simply seek to expand ISKCON’s western mission at a time of need, by offering an additional program.
Isn’t it dangerous to modify our presentation simply to accommodate the whims of popular culture?
Two important points:
- I have spoken endlessly of the dangers of extremes. We could also watch YouTube videos of extremely ‘orthodox’ groups that become totally irrelevant.
- I have consistently stated that the Bhagavad-gita‘s standard for external conduct is sattva-guna, not ‘whatever is “hip” at the moment’ nor ‘whatever Indians do.’ Disco dancing is NOT sattva-guna. It includes erotic moves, passionate music etc. Similarly, much Indian food is not sattva-guna, including much that is cooked and offered in temples. According to the Gita, it is clearly rajo-guna.
Last year, a Rathayatra festival in Australia featured Bollywood dancers, who also engaged the crowd in dancing. The dance moves were highly erotic, at times indecent. And this at Rathayatra. Similarly, another Rathayatra festival in Europe featured a man and woman doing a show of yoga moves. The woman was dressed in skin tight clothes over her ENTIRE body. But since Bollywood and yoga come from India, we can ignore the sattva-guna requirement, as we do with Indian food. (I watched films of both Rathayatras and have often choked on Indian style maha-prasadam.)
De facto standard for many devotees: Indian is good, even if rajas or tamas. Western is bad, even if sattva. Now there’s a spiritual science! But after all, as many devotees believe, whatever the gunas, only our adherence to Indian customs can save us from a steep descent into barbarism.
Please explain to me the term “Vedic culture” in the context of your project “Krishna West” and how your views are supported by the teachings of Srila Prabhupada.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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:
1. The word dhoti does not occur in the scriptures.
2. Krishna never taught that we should dress like Him.
3. 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.
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?
We speak about Muslim influence not to denigrate that religion, but rather to show that certain Indian customs that many devotees see as eternal Vedic norms, in fact come from non-Vedic cultures. Here are but a few examples:
- Food: Halavah, a standard Deity offering in ISKCON, comes from the Middle East. Halvah means “sweet” in Arabic.
- Clothing: Kurta is a Persian word, and the long shirt that some take as “devotional clothing” comes from Muslim culture.
- Language: Hindi, the national language of India, is full of Arabic and Persian words. This shows a significant level of cultural influence.
- Music: Muslim musicians became most prominent in the field of Indian classical music. The Sangeet Research Academy, which focuses on Indian classical music, states: “Indian music has developed through very complex interactions between different peoples of different races and cultures over several thousand years. In a musical tradition in which improvisation predominates, and written notation, when used, is skeletal, the music of past generations is irrevocably lost.”
- Architecture: Here we also see much foreign influence, especially from Muslim cultures.
- Art: Just as Northern European and American cultures have often depicted Jesus with a Caucasian, or even Scandinavian, body, so other cultures, including Indian, personalize the images of sacred figures. For example, virtually every known painting of Narada Muni, in India or in ISKCON, depicts the sage with brown or black hair, the hair colors found in India. But Srimad Bhagavatam states that Narada Muni is blond (SB 10.70.32). In this case, devotional artists are imposing an Indian body type on a sage that comes from an ancient Indo-European culture. Prabhupada explains that Vedic culture is Indo-European culture in his purports to the Bhagavatam 1.12.24 and 4.20.26, as well in his Gita classes of 8.1.66, 1.4.67, 8.24.68, and 4.21.76; and in his Bhagavatam classes of 11.6.70, 4.9.69, 7.25.71, 5.7.73, and 5.19.75, and at other times and places as well. Again, original “Vedic culture” is not Indian culture, but Indo-European culture.
Though one may argue that India has best preserved the original Vedic culture, we are still left with these two significant points:
a. We have no evidence of Vedic concern with standardizing ethnic details such as dress, architecture, cuisine etc. We do find a very serious Vedic concern with establishing cultural and spiritual principles such as varnashrama-dharma and, ultimately, pure love of Krishna.
b. There is much historical evidence that India itself has always been ethnically porous, subject to significant foreign influences on its ethnic customs.
Do our scriptures actually recommend any details or style of dress?
The Gita does not tell us to dress in a certain way, although Krsna does tell us to meditate upon a “seat layered with cloth, antelope skin, and kuśa grass.” [Bg 6.11] Clearly devotees do not consider this injunction applicable in our present age. When we look at the Bhagavatam, which Lord Caitanya accepted as our most important shastra, we find, ironically that verses mandating specific dress styles are wholly impractical for this age. Here are the main examples:
bibhṛyāc cen munir vāsaḥ
tyaktaṁ na daṇḍa-pātrābhyām
anyat kiñcid anāpadi
Translation: If a sannyāsī would use clothes, then only a kaupina covering. Otherwise, if there is no emergency, he should not accept anything besides daṇḍa and waterpot.
CC Antya 12.37
Purport: In the tantras it is said:
vastreṇāvṛta-dehas tu yo naraḥ praṇamed dharim śvitrī bhavati mūḍhātmā sapta janmāni bhāvini
“A foolish soul who, with their body covered with clothes, bows to Hari, becomes a leper for seven future births.”
bibhṛyād upavītaṁ ca
Translation: Carrying pure kuśa grass in his hand, the brahmacārī should dress regularly with a belt of straw and with deerskin garments. He should wear matted hair, carry a rod and waterpot and be decorated with a sacred thread, as recommended in the śāstras.
malāni jaṭilo dadhat
Translation: The vānaprastha should wear matted locks of hair on his head and let his body hair, nails and moustache grow. He should not cleanse his body of dirt. He should keep a waterpot, deerskin and rod, wear the bark of a tree as a covering, and use garments colored like fire.
bibhṛyād yady asau vāsaḥ
tyaktaṁ na liṅgād daṇḍāder
anyat kiñcid anāpadi
Translation: A person in the renounced order of life may try to avoid even a dress to cover himself. If he wears anything at all, it should be only a loincloth, and when there is no necessity, a sannyāsī should not even accept a daṇḍa. A sannyāsī should avoid carrying anything but a daṇḍa and kamaṇḍalu.
santoṣaṁ yena kenacit
Translation: …one should dress with scraps of cloth found in rejected places and be satisfied in any material situation.
’rakta-pīṭhaḥ kuśān dadhat
Translation: The brahmacārī should regularly dress with a belt of straw and deerskin garments. He should wear matted hair, carry a rod and waterpot and be decorated with akṣa beads and a sacred thread. Carrying pure kuśa grass in his hand, he should never accept a luxurious or sensuous sitting place. He should not unnecessarily polish his teeth, nor should he bleach and iron his clothes.
Conclusion: We find from these inapplicable verses that dress codes in shastra are time-bound. They are not universal, not for all time, but rather meant for a particular time and place. And no shastra enjoins the use of a dhoti, kurta, sari, or choli etc. Historical evidence, for example, shows that the “choli” came to North India from the South Indian Chola kingdom. Therefore, cholis would not have existed in North India during the time of Krishna and the events of the Mahabharata, despite all the Indian and ISKCON art showing North Indian ladies wearing cholis 5000 years ago.
How should we understand the term “devotional clothes”?
- A study of the Vedabase clearly shows that Srila Prabhupada himself did not use the terms “karmi clothes” and “devotional clothes.” Rather his disciples have established these terms as basic codes of ISKCON.
- Prabhupada liked dhoti and sari as a temporal strategy, i.e. at a certain point in history, to draw public attention. It worked in the 60s and early 70s, when western youth liked things that were strange or exotic. Now the world is very different and this strategy no longer works to our advantage.
- There are serious problems with the famous argument that just as people recognize police by their uniform, people recognize us as spiritual leaders by our uniform of dhoti and sari. Here are some of the problems with that argument:
a. People ALREADY accept the police as an authority. They just need to know WHO is a policeperson. In contrast, very few people in the West ALREADY accept us as spiritual authorities.
b. A police uniform is carefully designed to inspire, within the cultural norms of a particular society, confidence in and respect for police authority. However our “uniform” is not always understood in that way. In fact, sometimes it has the opposite effect.
- Srila Prabhupada perfectly addresses this issue in the following purport: “For paramahamsas, or sannyasis in the Vaishnava order, preaching is the first duty. To preach, such sannyasis may accept the symbols of sannyasa, such as the danda and kamandalu, or sometimes they may not. Generally the Vaishnava sannyasis, being paramahamsas, are automatically called babajis, and they do not carry a kamandalu or danda. Such a sannyasi is free to accept or reject the marks of sannyasa. His only thought is “Where is there an opportunity to spread Krsna consciousness?” Sometimes the Krsna consciousness movement sends its representative sannyasis to foreign countries where the danda and kamandalu are not very much appreciated. We send our preachers in ordinary dress to introduce our books and philosophy. 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.”- SB 7.13.10
The fact that culturally appropriate uniforms may bring certain sociological advantages does not prove that ISKCON’s current “uniform” is appropriate or practical in the West. Rather, I believe that our strange appearance has erected a high, impassable wall that separates the fallen souls from the devotees. If modern society is a headless body, ISKCON today is surely a disembodied head.
Conclusion: Krishna West is an ISKCON project faithful to Prabhupada’s spiritual, philosophical, and organizational principles. Krishna West does not seek to change any existing ISKCON project, nor to criticize any of the many sincere, advanced ISKCON devotees who disagree with us. We simply seek to expand ISKCON’s western mission at a time of need, by offering an additional program.
In your presentation of Krishna West, you explain that there is no mention of dhotis in our scriptures. However, in the Caitanya Bhagavata (Madhya Khanda, chapter one), Lord Caitanya wrung out the dhotis of the other members of the Pancha Tattva them gave them dry dhotis. It is clearly mentioned in the Bengali, dhoti vastra. Thus, how can it be acceptable to disregard something Srila Prabhupada encouraged his disciples to do?
We know that 500 years ago men in Bengal dressed in dhotis, and we know from Shastra that Mahaprabhu did many things to fit into the world of His time.
- taking sannyasa from an impersonal sampradaya;
- eating only in homes of brahmanas;
Mahaprabhu never said that Bengali dress of 500 years ago is eternal Vedic culture. We distinguish in Shastra between descriptive and normative statements. Just as Mahaprabhu fit into His time, we can fit into ours for the same reason. We also clearly see that at no time does Mahaprabhu ask anyone to change their dress style to join His movement.
Srila Prabhupada perfectly addresses this issue in the following purport:
“For paramahamsas, or sannyasis in the Vaishnava order, preaching is the first duty. To preach, such sannyasis may accept the symbols of sannyasa, such as the danda and kamandalu, or sometimes they may not. Generally the Vaishnava sannyasis, being paramahamsas, are automatically called babajis, and they do not carry a kamandalu or danda. Such a sannyasi is free to accept or reject the marks of sannyasa. His only thought is “Where is there an opportunity to spread Krsna consciousness?” Sometimes the Krsna consciousness movement sends its representative sannyasis to foreign countries where the danda and kamandalu are not very much appreciated. We send our preachers in ordinary dress to introduce our books and philosophy. 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.” –Srimad-bhagavatam 7.13.9
The “validity” is doing whatever is required to save the world, as that was Prabhupada’s first consideration. Western preaching is a shadow of what it was in Prabhupada’s time. I invite any preacher to come to America and show us how, with no adjustments and only using dhotis, we can bring the preaching back to its former glory. If someone can do this, then the point that dhotis are not an obstacle will be proved and I will be grateful.
Are you advocating that all of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples put their dhotis into storage? How do your ideas about non-essential Eastern dress affect deity worship?
I want to make clear that I deeply respect those devotees who disagree with me and wish to serve Prabhupada with sari and dhoti. Sometimes in the heat of discussion words like ‘crazy’ may come out, but such words do not reflect my genuine admiration for Srila Prabhupada’s servants. If I have offended any devotees, I sincerely apologize.
Also, the words Krishna West simply indicate, as we say in our mission statement, that our program aims to help Western people accept Srila Prabhupada’s shelter. I am aware, by Prabhupada’s mercy, that Krishna is neither Eastern nor Western.
As we know, Prabhupada often gave various views on external, non-siddhantic issues. Prabhupada’s purport to Srimad-bhagavatam 4.8.54, and other relevant statements he made, inspire and encourage me to try my best to add something to ISKCON. I have no intention of trying to change existing ISKCON temples or projects, nor of introducing bizarre informalities in Deity worship. I am simply trying my best to carry out instructions that Prabhupada personally gave to me, for his pleasure.
If in the course of doing so, I have offended any of Prabhupada’s servants, I again offer my sincere apologies.
What is your opinion regarding nagar sankirtana or harinama (public chanting)? You state in one place that people see us in dhotis and think we are crazy. I have been in places where devotees wear western clothes on harinam and my sense is people still think we are crazy. They observably also ignore us when wearing dhotis and walking through the streets singing a mantra with exotic instruments. If you were running a Krishna West center, would you advise against walking harinam? What about public sit-down harinam?
Regarding your questions, we must first distinguish a basic principle from variable details of application. The basic principle here is that we should engage the public in hearing and chanting the Holy Names of Krishna. The variable details are when, where, and how we do that.
In certain contexts, walking may appeal to the public, as in parades, other festive occasions, or wherever and whenever it works. If we can make a more favorable impression and get more people to hear and chant Krishna’s names by sitting down, then we should sit. The problem is that we have a long traditon of ignoring public opinion on the grounds that Hari-nama Sankirtana is absolutely beneficial and therefore it makes no difference what the public thinks; Or at best we should do some basic choreography and wear clean clothes, but certainly not adjust anything beyond that since the benefit is absolute.
However such thinkers forget Bhagavad-gita 17.28: “Whatever is offered, given or done as austerity, without faith is called asat, ‘unreal,’ it does not stand in this life or the next.”
The Holy Name certainly benefits all those who hear it, however there is far more benefit when one hears or chants with faith. And convincing people that we are respectable, sane members of society is often a precondition to their following us with faith.
I noticed that many or most of devotees don’t really know the meanings of the songs they are singing. Everywhere from China to Zulu tribes, devotees are thanking for food in Bengali (sarira avidya jal…). Do you believe the prayer would lose its effect if translated into a local language? Should we always chant these songs only in their original Sanskrit and Bengali, or should we translate and regularly chant them in our local language in the morning and evening temple programs?
It seems clear that we need songs in local languages so that people understand what they are singing and hearing, and we also need songs in Bengali and Sanskrit so that devotees all over the world can share the same songs and participate in familiar worship in any part of the world. We must be both local and universal.