H.H. Hridayananda Goswami’s Krishna West project is based on the simple idea that if you remove the non-essential, Indian cultural trappings of present-day ISKCON from its spiritual essence, then ISKCON will be restored to its former potency and once again become the dynamic preaching movement with high levels of recruitment it once was. According to the Krishna West mission statement, they “do everything possible to make bhakti-yoga easy, relevant and enjoyable for Western people, without in any way compromising, diluting, or diminishing the purity and power of a glorious ancient tradition.”And they aim to do this “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.” Therefore they say they are giving the people in the West “the chance to practice genuine bhakti-yoga within an external culture that is comfortable and natural for them.” The big idea behind Krishna West is that bhakti is internal whereas culture is external, and their aim is to establish a complete and mature Krishna conscious community on this principle.
In some respects, Krishna West’s approach to preaching is no different from other long-standing bridge-preaching programs like spaghetti night at the local university or the successful loft program pioneered in Australia, whose focus was to create a “hang-out” for young people so they could feel comfortable, make friends with devotees and eventually become devotees. The idea is that there is a kind of cultural rift that prevents people who would otherwise like to become devotees but due to cultural attachments won’t. Therefore, as its name implies, the program tries to “bridge” that cultural divide and make it easier for them to cross over to Krishna consciousness. Successful bridge-preaching programs generally have to deemphasize certain aspects of ISKCON’s internal culture in order to be effective.
But Krishna West is different from these past and on-going bridge-preaching projects in that it aims to establish a fully Krishna conscious society on the idea that culture is external to bhakti, that it is irrelevant. Bridge-preaching before Krishna West had always operated under the assumption that once one becomes serious about Krishna consciousness, he, or she, will automatically warm up to ISKCON’s internal culture. Krishna West, however, rejects this assumption. Because they say that culture is external, encouraging others to adopt some other culture foreign to their own tastes should be discouraged and considered undesirable. Since they regard culture as external to bhakti, they consider culture to be just as irrelevant in the mature stage of Krishna consciousness as it is in the beginning. The Krishna conscious community envisioned by Krishna West is therefore bridge-preaching scaled up from a peripheral outreach program to an extensive, fully mature, Krishna conscious society, but one in which culture is considered irrelevant to Krishna consciousness.
Culture and Bhakti
However, just because the good people of Krishna West believe that culture is irrelevant to Krishna bhakti does not mean they think it is unimportant. Their website features numerous articles and promotions for musicians associated with their project, articles about clothing, articles about food and recipes, and so forth—all with a distinctive and deliberate Western orientation. It is, after all, Krishna “West”. As they say in their mission statement, they do not want to distract newcomers and practitioners from the essence of Krishna bhakti with the trouble of having to assume a “new ethnicity.” But they do want people to remain comfortable, and it is universally acknowledged that comfort includes sufficient music, cuisine, dress, art, dance, and so forth, at least to the extent that people generally seek these things. If people are devoid of them, then they will also be distracted, because they will be miserable without them. The Krishna West website therefore heavily promotes devotional music with Western motifs, Western dress, Western cuisine, and so forth, because they want people in the West to be sufficiently comfortable to practice Krishna bhakti.
Yet despite the importance they give to culture, they still consider it external. But is it? Consider the type of cuisine offered to Krishna as it might reasonably be practiced in a Krishna West community. Regardless of whether it is haute cuisine or the humble sandwich, the majority of what is offered is Western. Why is that? Because that is the kind of food that Krishna West devotees like to eat. It’s what makes them comfortable. The example of Vidura offering banana peels to Krishna and Krishna eating them does not justify indifference to what is offered. Transcendental ecstatic pure love of Krishna is probably not motivating the Prabhus to offer sandwiches to Krishna. They are offering them because someone wants to eat a sandwich, and that someone else probably isn’t Krishna. What is happening here is that by denying that Krishna has specific preferences for (in this case) a specific cuisine or preparation, the preferences of the so-called worshipper are substituted for Krishna’s, and the so-called worship that goes on in the name of Krishna is in fact mundane sense gratification.
Does Krishna Really Have His Own Desires?
It is often said that it matters not what is offered to Krishna as long as it is offered with love and devotion. But how far can this indifference to preference be taken before we come to the conclusion that Krishna has no desire at all? Mother Yashoda packs a lunch for Krishna that has rice mixed with yogurt and pieces of fruit. This was what Krishna was eating out of His left hand when Lord Brahma came to offer his apologies and prayers after trying to steal His cowherd boyfriends. Did Mother Yashoda prepare that because she knows that He likes it? Or alternatively did she make it for Him because it’s what she felt like He wanted, regardless of whether He actually wanted it, and Krishna just went along with it but really didn’t care one way or the other? What does it even mean to be a devotee if Krishna has no independent desire that His devotees want to satisfy?
If we believe that Krishna has no desires of his own, including desiring some specific kind of preparation (yes, specific preparations, not simply abstract categories), it means that our conception of Krishna is tainted with impersonalism. Lord Brahma says, ye nye ‘ravindaksha vimukta-maninas tvayy asta bhavad avishuddha-buddhayah / aruhya krcchena param padam tatah patanty adho ‘nadrta-yusmad-angrayah, “O lotus-eyed Lord, although nondevotees who accept severe austerities and penances to achieve the highest position may think themselves liberated, their intelligence is impure. They fall down from their position of imagined superiority because they have no regard for your lotus feet” (SB 10.2.32). Thinking that Krishna is desire-less is one of innumerable ways of disregarding His lotus feet. He has desires, and His devotees try to satisfy those desires, which is why they are devotees.
Is it devotional to offer some foodstuff to Krishna because some great devotee offered it or if there is information that the Lord liked something? Of course it is. The Sri Caitanya-caritamrita by Srila Krishnadas Kaviraja is full of detailed descriptions of the preparations made and offered to the Lord. Indeed, when festival days like Sri Nityananda Traodasi and especially Gaura Purnima come around, the devotee cooks refer to these transcendental descriptions to prepare things that they know were offered to the Lord.
“He [Raghunatha Das] also obtained five or seven especially large earthen pots, and in these pots a brahmana began soaking chipped rice for the satisfaction of Lord Nityananda. He also obtained five or seven especially large earthen pots, and in these pots a brahmana began soaking chipped rice for the satisfaction of Lord Nityananda. In one place, chipped rice was soaked in hot milk in each of the large pots. Then half the rice was mixed with yogurt, sugar and bananas. The other half was mixed with condensed milk and a special type of banana known as canpa-kala. Then sugar, clarified butter and camphor were added” (CC Antya 6.5 – 6.58).
But if culture is external, then all these descriptions and pastimes are also external. It matters not that Lord Nityananda wanted these things or that Raghunatha das Goswami arranged for them for His pleasure. And it matters not that our motivation to continue offering these same preparations to the Lord is based on these pastimes. By declaring culture external, we have made the expressed desire of the Lord irrelevant to our conception and practice of devotional service.
Bridge-preaching will always have some positive utility in preaching. But the Krishna West attempt to create a mature, Krishna conscious society on the model of bridge-preaching without compromising their Krishna consciousness is like trying to scale up a bamboo hut to a skyscraper without changing its fundamental architecture and building materials. Such an attempt is certain to fail.
Because bridge-preaching depends on deemphasizing specific, positive information about the Lord that also happens to be fundamental to the mature conception and practice of devotional service, bridge-preaching projects must never be more than peripheral to Hare Krishna communities. The proper standard is that the Lord is worshipped as far as possible as He has always been worshipped, and that includes foodstuffs, clothing, paraphernalia, devotional songs, rituals, and so forth, that have been used in His service.
Krishna conscious communities are based on hearing, chanting and remembering the transcendental pastimes of the Lord. And it so happens that the way of life that facilitates the recollection of these pastimes is misunderstood as mundane by people who have insufficient information about the Lord. If you try to remove aspects of our devotional culture by declaring them external, you also fundamentally change our conception of devotion, and the change results in the introduction of impersonalism. From there, the entire community falls down into sense gratification on account of neglecting the lotus feet of the Lord.