The Sensibility of Krishna West

By Padma devi dasi - 6.9 2017

In my eyes, H.D. Goswami’s Krishna West program constitutes a sensible and pragmatic approach to outreach in the Western world. It claims nothing more than adherence to what our past Vaisnava acaryas have taught since time immemorial: to preach according to time, place and circumstance.

Krishna West centers, which are increasing in number, propose a simple program of prasadam distribution, kirtan and classes on the basics of Krishna consciousness, all within a setting that is amenable to Western populations.

"The expert devotees also can discover novel ways and means to convert the nondevotees in terms of particular time and circumstance. Devotional service is dynamic activity, and the expert devotees can find out competent means to inject it into the dull brains of the materialistic population. Such transcendental activities of the devotees for the service of the Lord can bring a new order of life to the foolish society of materialistic men. Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His subsequent followers exhibited expert dexterity in this connection." –Srila Prabhupada, Srimad Bhagavatam 1.5.16 purport

What to Wear and What to Not Wear, This is Not the Question

The much-discussed topic of clothing for ISKCON devotees, is one that I feel has already passed its zenith. At least it should have done so by now, given the un-importance of the matter. I say this with all due respect to all who spend their time debating over whether women should wear saris, gopi-skirts, long Western skirts, Western dresses, trousers, jeans etc. and likewise for the men. I am aware that most secular cultures maintain some sort of customary dress for both men and women, but Krishna consciousness transcends concerns for secular cultural norms, simply because as devotees we aim for identification with our spiritual selves, not with our material bodies. The physical body is described as a garment that covers the pure spiritual personality, and this personality has nothing to do with physical designations. Nor does it have anything to do with physical or bodily peculiarities. The same lesson appears in many of our scriptures: stop paying attention to the outer covering, and start paying attention to the inner soul. Srila Prabhupada discusses this point in an address to the Governor at the Hotel De Ville, 1974:

"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."

Why then is there so much emphasis placed on what ISKCON devotees wear? 
 
Some argue that dressing in Indian clothing such as saris and dhotis, helps the bhakti-yogi to identify with ‘being a devotee of Krishna’, simply because Krishna's devotees who are of Indian origin, mostly wear saris and dhotis. But have any of these Indian-bodied Vaisnavas ever asserted that they wear what they wear, to gain entrance into the spiritual kingdom? Do any of our sastras state that Vaisnavas must wear a certain type of clothing, apart from maintaining clean and decent attire? Have any of our previous acaryas ever asserted that if we do not dress ourselves in saris and dhotis, we will be prevented from achieving the highest spiritual platform, in terms of spiritual self-realization? In a lecture in Boston, 1969, Srila Prabhupada states: 

"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."

Krishna West does not argue for Western clothing. To do so would be yet another attempt to place emphasis on bodily designations. Krishna West argues that devotees engaging in devotional activities in a manner that is amenable to the cultural norms of a specific society, enables the members of that society to more easily approach devotees. The fact that today, the world’s predominant mainstream society is Western society, means that most people find it easier to approach devotees, if devotees are wearing Western clothing. It is simply a matter of finding the way in which the general population will be most likely to interact with us. That is all. 
 
It does not make much sense to try to force a foreign culture onto any established society, no more than it does trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It simply does not work- or at least it is very difficult. But what is not very difficult is to introduce teachings and a lifestyle that resonate with the spiritual soul- with every spiritual soul, and it can be done if we abstain from pushing onto others elements that challenge individuals’ cultural norms. Vegetarian food, clothing, musical performance, musical instruments, drama, architecture, fine arts, literature etc. that have their roots in Western cultures, can all be prepared and offered with love to the Supreme Lord. In this way, bhakti-yoga practitioners within Western cultures can engage their resources in the service of the Supreme Lord, without needing to first exchange those resources with those from another culture, namely India’s culture.  
 
So, the relevant question, if we must discuss personal attire, is not “should I wear traditional Indian or Western clothing?” but rather “should I wear something that people within my contemporary culture can identify with, thereby making it easier for them to interact with me?” If we are serious about doing all we can to reach out to others, then the answer to this question is “yes.” Vaisnava standards simply require that we cover our bodies in a chaste and clean manner, according to what will be practical to carry out our services for Krishna. That is all. Srila Prabhupada wanted us to present ourselves like ladies and gentlemen, and that can be done wearing traditional Indian or Western clothing.

Extending Our Loving Hand

It is all too easy for committed devotees to become complacent with what feels comfortable, in terms of what we desire for our own spiritual lives. We often end up justifying our own comfortable lifestyles when we talk about reaching out to others, as if others’ likes and dislikes are concordant, or should be concordant, with our own. After all, why should others not share in our own vision of the glories of devotional practice? 
 
The truth is that Krishna, as the Supreme Soul within everyone’s heart, works with every individual being to deliver them to the spiritual platform, according to ‘what works for them.’ This may mean very different things for two individuals, even though those individuals may be situated within the same worldly circumstances. This being the case, devotees who desire to engage others in devotional activities need to become expert at understanding how to present Krishna consciousness in a manner that will appeal to different individuals. 
 
But this task need not be insurmountable. Krishna West offers a framework for reaching out to individuals from Western backgrounds, responding to a variety of Western cultural, traditional, societal and hereditary norms. Facilitating customary behaviors of Western culture, while at the same time delivering the core principles of bhakti-yoga, Krishna West offers a mechanism by which individuals conditioned to Western society, will not feel challenged about their own ethnicity. This principle is integral to Krishna West teachings: ethnic peculiarities have nothing to do with spiritual life, and therefore need not be addressed within bhakti-yoga outreach programs.  
 
The heart of all bhakti-yoga outreach programs is the love that devotees offer all living beings, in striving to revitalize their personal relationships with the Supreme Lord. The hand that is affectionately extended to others is the means by which individuals are given a ‘looking glass’, through which they can see themselves as spiritual souls, rather than as material bodies. Such a vision sustains the individual on his/her path of bhakti-yoga, and ensures him/her freedom from anxiety about impending death. This looking-glass is tenderly handed to any who are willing to accept it, and the best way in which to bestow this gift, is to avoid insistence on the receiver changing their mundane affiliations, including their ethnicity. Most people are not seeking to change their ethnicity. They are seeking a better way forward from their current circumstances, not simply a change from one mundane situation to another.

The Individuality of the Individual Spiritual Self

"Individuality means if I like, I can accept; if I don’t like, I do not accept. That is individuality. If I am forced to do something, that is not my individuality." –Srila Prabhupada, Lecture (Montreal 1968)

Our Vedic sastras teach us that Vaisnava philosophy constitutes the top-most personalist approach to spiritual life. This means that every individual living being is an eternally-existing spiritual personality, endowed with individual spiritual awareness, bliss and innate happiness. It is this individuality that connects us to the Supreme Lord in a progressive and reciprocal loving relationship that is unique, exclusive and very, very satisfying. This satisfaction is sought after by every individual being, signifying the true objective of all endeavors on behalf of the eternal individual. As such, the individual’s pathway towards achieving this objective must absolutely not be obstructed by mundane sentiments, such as those encapsulating the pursuit of ethnic affiliation—of any type.
 
The best approach to outreach is thereby the facilitation of engagement in bhakti-yoga, within a setting that is already familiar to the practitioner. Who knows what our circumstances were in our previous lives? We may have lived a lifetime within an entirely different culture to our present one, spoken an entirely different language, ate entirely different foods, and endured entirely different environmental conditions. But one thing is for certain: our present lifetime has already conditioned us to find security, reassurance, familiarity, confidence, reasoning and understanding within our current cultural settings, and whether we like it or not, we still depend on all these factors for our everyday decision-making and our rationalizing about what constitutes our priorities. 
 
The materially-conditioned mind of the materially-embodied soul requires gentle and careful nurturing, in order to accept the philosophy of bhakti-yoga. It requires respect and dignity, acceptance and tolerance, if it is to accommodate the new and somewhat astounding message that Vedic teachings deliver. As the controller of the five bodily senses, the mind of the individual seeks to secure a safe and trustworthy pathway forward in life. Yet it is constantly challenged by the thought that it may not achieve this goal due to making the wrong decisions at the wrong time, and pursuing such decisions.  
 
But bhakti-yoga, in its pure form, does not demand expertise in mundane activities, of any type. It asks for sincerity from individual practitioners, and a serious effort to try to please the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, in whichever way is possible. As such, the bhakti-yogi can advance in Krishna consciousness within whatever worldly circumstances he/she is currently situated. Krishna Himself extends His loving hand to all materially-embodied individuals within whatever mundane circumstances they are currently situated. As His devotees, we need to learn to how to also do this. 
 
H.D. Goswami established his Krishna West program in response to this need. Not only must we learn to act unselfishly by reaching out to others in a manner that makes sense to them, but we must also learn to embrace the teachings of our past acaryas, which stipulate that bodily designations have nothing to do with spiritual life. In acting to bring others to the lotus feet of Krishna, we do the needful in whichever way is easiest. And within Western cultures, whether we like it or not, presenting ourselves in a manner that is familiar amongst Westerners, is the easiest way for us to interact with the Western public, and for the Western public to interact with us.
 
There is no teaching anywhere in any of our sastras that insists on engaging others in devotional life, by changing secular cultural norms. The culture of spiritual life means chanting Hare Krishna, studying the scriptures, associating with devotees, serving the Supreme Lord, and eating Krishna prasadam. Our sastras impose no other activities, and as Krishna’s devotees, we must fall into step with this. If we desire to communicate that bhakti-yoga constitutes the only universally ‘normal’ culture, which it does, then we need to live by this example. This means communicating that bhakti-yoga has no parallel on the mundane platform, not even within Indian ethnicity.

On an Opening Note  

Today there are several outreach programs that deliver bhakti-yoga teachings within a mainstream Western setting. These programs open the door to new horizons, in terms of the endless variety of devotional services that await practitioners. Without imposing external Indian customs, bhakti-yogis integrate benign Western customs with Krishna's message. They teach that service to Him does not depend on ethnic norms. All lands belong to Krishna, all resources come from Krishna, all service opportunities are facilitated by Krishna, and all intentions become qualified by devotion to Krishna. As such, it is wrong for devotees to introduce unnecessary barriers to service opportunities, by insisting on adherence to India’s ethnic customs. 
 
There are no cultural barriers to performing the services we desire to perform for our Supreme Lord. They can be carried out within any decent, mundane setting, environment, and culture. Krishna West presents a medium by which this realization can take root, both in bhakti-yogi practitioners, as well as in those who simply observe. Although the relationships between Krishna and His devotees manifest in countless varieties, this factor remains consistent: there is no diminution of spiritual advancement for individuals who choose to practice bhakti-yoga within a Western cultural setting, rather than within a traditional Indian setting. The process, as well as the goal, remain unaffected by such mundane considerations.

"The whole process of spiritual culture is aimed at changing the heart of the living being in the matter of his relation with the Supreme Lord as subordinate servant, which is his eternal constitutional position." –Srila Prabhupada, Srimad Bhagavatam 2.3.24 purport

Padma devi dasi (H.E. Widolf, Ph.D.) holds a doctoral degree in Physics, Behavioral Science, and Consciousness Studies. With additional academic training in counseling, welfare work, and mediation, she runs an online counseling and advisory service for Krishna West. She is also a published author, currently working on a biography of H.D. Goswami.