Vedic Culture and Ethnic Customs


Question

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?

Answer

H.D. Goswami Profile Picture

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:

  1. Food: Halavah, a standard Deity offering in ISKCON, comes from the Middle East. Halvah means “sweet” in Arabic.
  2. Clothing: Kurta is a Persian word, and the long shirt that some take as “devotional clothing” comes from Muslim culture.
  3. Language: Hindi, the national language of India, is full of Arabic and Persian words. This shows a significant level of cultural influence.
  4. 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.”
  5. Architecture: Here we also see much foreign influence, especially from Muslim cultures.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.