Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #26 – Cultural Procreation

July 1st, 2019

What the heck is “cultural procreation”? I made the term up. Well, not exactly — a friend of mine did, but I’m using the term he coined. The explanation of the title and its origins will come later in the article.

 

I want to speak about cultural appropriation. There are many examples of a dominant culture economically exploiting the treasures of a minority culture, or the dominant culture misrepresenting a disadvantaged culture sacrilegiously, or out of context. At the same time, I think that today’s blanket application of cultural appropriation as something immoral has gone too far.[1] Taking elements of another culture as your own has historically been more of a bridge to unity than a vehicle for denigration. What I would like to show in this article is how a truth with a limited application, such as cultural appropriation, becomes a passion, a truth extended far beyond its application, specifically as applied to my lineage, the bhakti tradition of India, which actively promotes sharing elements of its culture around the world as part of its teaching.

 

Before discussing this topic further, I think it is important to know exactly what culture is. Here’s one definition that I like: “Culture is the purposeful construction of one’s environment to help one relate, learn, and communicate more effectively.”[2] Of course, there are more general definitions of “culture” that are devoid of any uplifting objective. However, if we look at the earliest derivative of the word “culture” from the Latin cultura, which initially meant to prepare the land for crops, or its later biological usage as the suitable environment for the production of bacteria or other microorganisms, this sense of facilitating growth gives a more accurate sense of the meaning of “culture” than just an arbitrary collection of communal rituals and mores. It is also consistent with the meaning of Indian culture, which in its purest sense certainly cannot be divorced from spiritual and uplifting objectives, especially in the bhakti tradition of India.

 

When the aim of culture, and specifically the culture of bhakti, is to promote spiritual growth, why would the tradition object to the adoption and propagation of that culture by foreigners when intelligently and appropriately applied? Is not one of the foundational concepts of Indian philosophy to awaken our non-designated eternal spirit souls from their temporary bodily identification? In terms of welcoming others to adopt the path of bhakti, which necessarily includes at least some elements of its culture to facilitate its growth, there are many verses in traditional texts that mention the universal applicability of bhakti, down to listing specific nationalities, such as Germans, Turks, Greeks, and Chinese.[3] In fact, one of the hallmark signs of Śrī Caitanya’s bhakti movement is that a number of its greatest early teachers were formerly Muslims, either by birth or acculturation!

 

It is therefore ironic that those who claim to speak on behalf of the tradition by criticizing foreigners who adopt and promote the culture of India are themselves violating the tradition by claiming to speak for and impose on bhakti a postmodern view of cultural appropriation, which is antithetical to the tradition itself. The bhakti tradition vigorously fought for equal opportunity in Indian societal and religious life, based on one’s qualities, against the priestly class (caste brāhmaṇas) who wanted it restricted by birth. Denying foreigners the right to practice bhakti based on the doctrine of cultural appropriation, which disqualifies people from elements of bhakti culture simply by birth, only feeds into the foundation of the discredited Indian caste system. At its worst, is it not another form of racism?

 

Further, when the banner of cultural appropriation is raised, who exactly is speaking on behalf of the Indian people? Is it the people within the tradition itself? I have lived in India for over forty years. I came shortly after Śrīla Prabhupāda, my spiritual master, returned to India from the West with his foreign disciples specifically to help revive the culture of India, which was under siege by modernity. What was the overwhelming reaction of the people of India? Rather than see forces of cultural dominance, Indians overwhelmingly saw the Westerners adopting their culture with a sense of pride and liberation. For years the British, through Christian missionaries, tried to destroy its traditions, but now those same foreigners were adopting India’s traditions as their own.

 

Back to the title. When the thought of writing on cultural appropriation first came to mind, I shared the idea with a friend who has a sense humor. He either pretended to not hear me or didn’t understand what I said, and responded in jest, “Cultural procreation.” We laughed. Later, when writing the article and looking for a catchy title, I thought “Cultural Procreation” was perfect because my idea was that rather than bhakti practitioners being affronted by emulation of their culture, one of the principles of bhakti is that its teachings and culture should be reproduced around the world. Get it? Reproduced: Cultural Procreation.

 

 

 


[1] https://iskcondesiretree.com/profiles/blogs/bhakti-yoga-club-accused-of-cultural-appropriation-and-shut-down

[2] I don’t remember and can’t find where I read this definition of “culture”.

[3] Bhag. 2.4.18

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