Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #41 – Are the Aspects of Indian Culture Srila Prabhupada Brought to the West Essential to the Cultivation of Bhakti?

October 12th, 2020

Before we talk about the relevance of Indian culture to the cultivation of bhakti, we first have to define what the different parties involved in the discussion mean by “Indian culture”. Some use the term to refer to the ideas, behavior, and material artifacts (physical objects) typical of India which facilitate their human development and have been constructed over the course of India’s history. Others use the term “Indian culture” to refer to something eternal, related to God’s nature as He manifest in this world to help us advance spiritually.


Which is it?


Srila Prabhupada taught that knowledge, which includes culture, isn’t an evolutionary development born in a particular country, but is veda, eternal and manifest in the world at creation. Therefore, when Srila Prabhupada refers to “Indian culture”, although he is talking about its external expression as it appears in a geographical place, India, and the learned culture of his birth, he is mainly referring to eternal cultural principles. The question often asked is whether each of the particular cultural elements he gave us are expressions of those eternal principles and thus essential to the Krishna-bhakti tradition, or are the eternal truths presented simply details of how the cultural principles can be expressed, and in that sense adjustable according to time and place? To try to understand the extent to which the culture Srila Prabhupada brought is essential to our bhakti practice, let’s briefly analyze two cultural artifacts: the musical style and traditional dress he introduced.


To better understand the constituent principles of traditional Indian music, I had a discussion with Dr. Eben Graves, the program director at the Yale School of Sacred Music, who earned his PhD in ethnomusicology by studying the history and contemporary forms of Bengali kirtan. He is also a percussionist, and teaches mridanga (or sri khol). Below is a short summary of the salient points gleaned from that discussion as they relate to today’s topic, particularly an analysis of the mridanga as an artifact of Gaudiya Vaishnava culture.


“Traditional forms of South Asian (or Indian) classical music, and especially forms of Gaudiya Vaishnava music, are based on supporting the voice as the main instrument to aid the essential practice of devotion, nam– and lila-kirtan. The original instruments described in Krishna’s pastimes,[1] such as the vina, bamboo flute, and mridanga (sri khol) are especially geared to do this. Although these are premodern instruments, they have the musical capacity to support the voice in its expression of Radha-Krishna devotion in a way that cannot easily be duplicated by instruments introduced to India later. For example, in padavali kirtan, as well as other classical Bengali traditional forms, mridanga supported by kartals is essential to supporting the singing of devotional lyrics, which forms the crux of classical performance. Other percussion instruments can keep time, but no other drum has the timbre, the particular sound, of a clay mridanga, nor are these other drums capable of producing the intricate beats that facilitate the emotional expressions of Krishna-bhakti – percussion techniques that have been revealed and developed by pure devotee practitioners over hundreds of years. For these reasons, the mridanga is essential to all forms of Gaudiya kirtan, while the use of instruments adopted later, even the harmonium, which has been widely accepted and appreciated as an accompanying instrument for Gaudiya singing, remains optional.”


What I took away from my discussion with Dr. Graves is that in the Gaudiya Vaishnava musical tradition there are original instruments that support the expression of devotion and which, by their ability to serve the purpose of kirtan, make them irreplaceable. Modern instruments can be added to kirtan as long as they are in an appropriate mode and can thereby enhance one’s expression of Krishna-bhakti. Obviously, these instruments can’t be added whimsically; they must serve the core principles of the tradition.


Now, what about the traditional Indian dress Srila Prabhupada introduced? Are dhotis and saris inherently spiritual coverings or simply historical clothing from the time of Lord Caitanya adopted into a Western context? How essential is this traditional dress to the cultivation of Krishna-bhakti?


The word dhoti, the traditional dress Srila Prabhupada introduced to his male disciples, literally means “to cleanse or wash”, implying that a dhoti is a sattvic dress cloth that can easily be washed after each wearing. Although there may be slight variances in how dhotis have been worn throughout Indian history, this type of sarong is mentioned in descriptions of both Gaura and Krishna lila.[2] It is therefore a spiritual dress both in terms of its simplicity and sattvic nature and in terms of its identification with Krishna and Caitanya’s pastimes, and so it serves as a reminder of the identity and life we as Krishna bhaktas ultimately aspire to attain. The same thing can be said for the sari.[3]


But is it essential for devotees to wear the traditional dress?


Obviously, one can perform any of the activities of bhakti and most any other activity wearing the clothes normal to one’s own culture, and I think few will deny that in some circumstances wearing a dress that is foreign to one’s audience can be unsuitable when introducing them to Krishna consciousness – when we understand that the externals will distract them from resonating with the eternal truths we are presenting. We also don’t usually go to work in traditional Indian dress and may adjust our dress to accommodate the weather where we live. Still, wearing devotional dress invokes an identification with Krishna-bhakti, and that is favorable to the cultivation of bhakti, and we shouldn’t minimize the importance of that effect.


We worship Krishna, who is a person, and His being a person means He has His own proclivities and preferences, including in dress and music. In fact, in both Krishna and Gaura lila He lives in a society supported by varnasrama, and this indicates that He favors such a culture. When we sift through the foreign influences that have covered India for hundreds of years and separate out India’s original traditions, we’ll find the culture that best represents what Krishna likes and is therefore the best environment to support the growth of devotion. These cultural artifacts may include rules and customs that are daunting to follow, and we may have to adjust them at times in order to allow them to flourish in foreign soil. To know how to make those adjustments requires that we first understand and honor the principles of that culture. Indian culture in this context is certainly one of the gifts that Srila Prabhupada brought to the West.[4]




[1] When I use the term “Krishna’s pastimes”, I am also referring the Sri Caitanya’s pastimes. The mridanga is an instrument associated with Sri Caitanya’s pastimes, although I read a commentary on the Kaliya-lila that describes Indra with mridanga joining the kirtan of the demigods to accompany Krishna’s dancing on Kaliya.

[2]   I found in Bhanu Swami’s translation of the Bhakti-rasamirta sindhu at least two verses (BRS 2.1.351 and BRS 3.4.31) where Krishna’s dress is described as dhati and is translated as dhoti. David Haberman, a noted scholar who translated the Bhakti -rasamrita sindhu also translates it in the same way. Finally, I also consulted Nityananda das, who is the editor for a forthcoming Bhaktivedanta Book Trust translation of Bhakti-rasamirta sindhu. He wrote “the word dhati literally means loincloth, but in context of those verses it can only refer to something like a dhoti. There are great chances that the word dhoti came from dhati, as Bengalis pronounce the short ‘a’ as ‘oh.”

[3] There is discussion among scholars whether the gopis wore something like a dress or a sari, but the basic idea is that they were akin to the sattvic and modest attire worn in traditional India and not western fashion.

[4] Hridayananda dasa Goswami wrote me after seeing my last post that Krishna West was misrepresented. I replied that if I did, then he may explain how and I will print it. His response, “Thanks for your reply. I appreciate that you are fair and open-minded. The basic problem, in my view, is the notion that I see KW as the only hope. I have explained endlessly that I am advocating generic western-style preaching. I have said hundreds of times that there are other excellent western preaching programs, and even that if someone has a better idea, I will be happy to join them”.


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