Might I be viewed as some sort of intercultural interloper?
I didn’t know, but was curious to find out …
by Subhananda Dasa
As I boarded the Taj Express, I was immersed in philosophical reflection and overpowered by an extraordinary combination of emotions, both mournful and blissful. I took my seat in a second-class compartment of the Delhi-bound train along with my traveling companion, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami. Peering out the window of the train, I absorbed the intense sights and sounds of Mathura Junction: people, individually and in groups, rushing to catch crowded trains; the sing-song calls of food vendors, the loud whistles of arriving and departing trains, entire families sprawled out on makeshift beds on the floor of the station, waiting long hours for delayed trains. It was the early morning of a warm autumn day, and people were involved in their worldly routines.
As I gazed out the window, my mind returned to nearby Vrndavana, from where I had just come. Events of the past two weeks had made a powerful imprint upon my consciousness, and scenes flashed through my mind in quick succession. I had been present at the passing of my beloved spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and my mind was now exhausted from the mixture of appalling sadness and transcendental exultation surrounding that event. Across from me sat Satsvarupa Goswami, his face bathed in the morning sunlight. He was absorbed in writing in his journal. I wanted to ask him to share with me his thoughts and realizations, but he was clearly in a contemplative mood, and I did not want to distract him. I meditated on my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, greatly desiring his transcendental presence. I recalled the instructive words of one scholarly disciple: “Vyakta, avyakta—manifest and unmanifest—the spiritual master may be physically present or not, but he is always present in the heart of the disciple through his vani, his words. The relationship between guru and disciple is not dependent on physical proximity.” I knew, deeper than ever, that my relationship with Srila Prabhupada was a sublime spiritual fact.
A loud, piercing whistle and a sudden jolt of the train shattered my meditations. A well-dressed man across from me was intoning devotional prayers under his breath. Soon the train was moving rapidly through the Indian countryside.
I was now on my way to Delhi to book a return flight to New York. Where would I stay while in Delhi? I could, of course, stay at our ISKCON center, but what if it was full with devotees in transit to and from Vrndavana? I then recalled a surprise encounter, on the flight from New York, with a good friend of mine, an Indian scientist from Denver, Dr. Brahma Sharma. He was on his way to visit his elder brother, Tribhuvanatha, who lived with his family in a Delhi suburb. Brahma had invited me to visit him at his brother’s house if at all possible, assuring me that I would be a welcome guest. At that time I had declined his offer, speculating that it was unlikely that I’d be free. Now, however, I was feeling slightly ill and decided that if our Delhi center was too crowded, I would take Brahma up on his kind invitation. Although I had been to India several times before, I had never actually lived with an Indian family. Although I had largely become assimilated into Indian spiritual culture as a brahmacari, a renounced monk, would I be well received at Tribhuvanatha’s home, or might I be viewed as some sort of intercultural interloper? I didn’t know, but was curious to find out.
As the train glided through rural India, I took in the passing scene with great interest. The train passed remote villages separated by distances great and small. People working in the fields and plowing the land with large muscular oxen, small children deftly manipulating small herds of cows, village women and girls fetching fresh water from ancient wells, villagers engaged in a great variety of agricultural activities and crafts—these passed through my field of vision like a fast-motion movie. I got kicked in the head. A little man had been sleeping in the luggage rack above my head, and he was trying to climb down. He apologized, profusely begging my forgiveness until I became embarrassed.
My vision was again drawn to the rapidly passing countryside, lush and green from the rainy season: young children playing, old women conversing by a well, families gathering for the morning meal, water buffalo submerging their big black bodies in cooling mud. I began to reflect on this mysterious Indian culture, the culture of spiritual India.
It is an entirely different realm of consciousness. Here (in spite of the ravages of passionate consumerism advertised as “modernization”) most people have a deeply philosophical perspective on life, a spiritual-philosophical aptitude and demeanor rare in the West.
In India, spiritual vision is not mere armchair philosophy. It is not the domain of complacent university philosophers and theologians interested in creating a reputation for themselves in the history of ideas. It is deeply ingrained in the common man. In India, even a street sweeper knows that he is an eternal, spiritual soul reaping the fruits of karma, materially motivated actions. He knows that there is a transcendental, spiritual world beyond this one, and his goal is ultimate liberation from this temporary world of illusion and suffering.
Still, India is not a paradise. One should not romanticize. In India, natural disasters such as drought and monsoon floods bring on famine. The government is notoriously bureaucratic and beset, like other governments, with endless political intrigue. Poverty haunts the cities. The modern caste system is a corrupt and exploitative perversion of an ancient and enlightened system of social organization. India, largely, has fallen victim to this age of materialism, this age of moral and intellectual degradation the ancient Vedic scriptures call the Kali-yuga. Now India appears only a dim reflection of the ancient and majestic Vedic culture still so much an enigma to modern empiric researchers.
The clearest records of this civilization are not archaeological but literary. A complete and graphic record of Vedic civilization can be found inscribed in the pages of India’s ancient Vedic literature, especially its monumental epics, such as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the eighteen Puranas. These comprise a vast and profound literature and provide remarkable insight into an ancient culture whose roots are not in mundane, relative time, but in eternal transcendence. Vedic culture is primeval and primordial.
Although Vedic culture has flourished, historically, on the Indian subcontinent, it represents a universal principle that transcends relative cultural orientations. It is not “Indian”—it is human. Vedic civilization is conceived on the principle that human life, both individually and collectively, should be organized around the absolute necessity of human spiritual development, without neglect of man’s basic material needs. Human society should be organized socially, economically, and politically so that in this life a person can live simply and peacefully and without lack of basic material requirements but simultaneously cultivate spiritual awareness so that at the end of life he can return to the spiritual world. Civilization means Vedic civilization. It is not a product of historical and cultural circumstance but the basis of it. Vedic culture is universal and transcendental.
And this is why it is not “artificial” (as some have suggested) for a Westerner to take to Vedic culture. Such a voluntary transformation does not represent a mere switching of cultural loyalties. We devotees are not mere culture buffs who find India a quaint fascination, or heady romanticists lured by the ethereal and the mystical. Nor are we apologists for contemporary Indian society. The luminous wisdom, the philosophical and theological beauty of India’s ancient Vedas call not only Indians but all souls to the divine life, irrespective of culture, race, nationality, or religion.
Spirituality transcends cultural relativity; it goes beyond “East” and “West.” God, truth, wisdom, knowledge: these are not relative commodities. They are universal principles. If something is really “true,” its veracity is sustained in all places and at all times. God is not Indian or American. He existed long before the establishment of such temporal geographical and political demarcations. Religion is not “Eastern” or “Western.” It simply is. And I, a shaven-headed, saffron-robed American on pilgrimage in India, was living proof!
A man approached us and said, “I am most saddened to hear that your guru has now left this world. He was one of our greatest saints. He was the only one who spread India’s spiritual wealth all over the world. He has delivered India’s sanatana– dharma, her eternal religion, to the people of the world. You are most fortunate to be his disciples.” He pressed our hands and continued on his way.
We were nearing Delhi. I had dozed off briefly but was awakened by the movement of passengers to the exits. We arrived at New Delhi station. Satsvarupa dasa Goswami had decided, during the journey, to reserve a seat on a flight for New York leaving in seven days and to return to holy Vrndavana for an extra week. I decided to proceed with my plans to return immediately. We parted ways. He went to the ISKCON temple in New Delhi, and I proceeded to the Pan Am ticket office. The next available flight was not until two days from now. I reserved a seat. I had to wait it out in New Delhi. I flagged down a tiny yellow and black three-wheeled scooter-taxi, one of thousands that buzz around New Delhi like giant bumblebees. I climbed in and began to give the address of our local temple. The driver, a large-turbaned Sikh, stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “I know, I know,” and promptly delivered me to the doorstep of the ISKCON temple. As I had anticipated, the temple was a bit overcrowded. I hungered for quiet and solitude. I decided to visit my friend Brahma Sharma, who was staying with his elder brother in suburban Delhi.
When I arrived by three-wheeler at Tribhuvanatha’s home, his wife, Rama, a large, smiling woman, the prototype Indian mataji (mother), greeted me like a mother welcoming her long-lost son. I asked for Brahma, and she responded in Hindi. Seeing my quizzical look, she retreated into her house and momentarily returned with her teenage daughter, Neelam, who smiled shyly and, in passable English, invited me into their modest home. Once inside, I was offered a seat and immediately brought a plate of cut fruit and a glass of cold water, a welcome refreshment. I already felt very much at home. The house was rather compact, consisting of a small sitting room in front, a bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom in the back. It was small but homey and comfortable. Neelam explained that just the previous day my friend Brahma had gone to visit a brother in Lucknow, several hundred miles away, and that he was not expected for several days. Until then I should please stay. I explained that I was leaving Delhi in only two days, but she only repeated her request that I stay.
One after another, the Sharmas’ other children—Meera, Ravi, Bharati, Arati, and Raju—returned from school, and each was amazed and delighted to find an American “sadhu” sitting in their living room. It was not often that they came into close contact with Americans, what to speak of an American with shaven head and saffron robes. I was suddenly an object of awe and delight. Shortly thereafter, Tribhuvanatha Sharma arrived home and was hurriedly met outside by Neelam, who told him the news of the strange visitor. Entering his home, he offered his heartfelt greetings and embraced me warmly. “Brahma told me you might kindly visit us. It is our great fortune that you have come. It is a great blessing on my home and my family. Brahma has gone to Lucknow to visit one of our brothers, but I will call him, and he will return at once.” I told Tribhuvanatha that I didn’t want to interfere with Brahma’s family visit, but he insisted that Brahma would want very much to see me. Tribhuvanatha’s English was excellent, so we spoke for a long time. He was a deeply religious and good-hearted man who exuded great fatherly warmth, genteel humility, and an unceasing flow of good cheer.
After a dinner of deliciously cooked vegetarian food, the entire family prepared to visit the local temple, as was the nightly custom, and requested me to accompany them. During the brief walk to the temple, Tribhuvanatha explained that although the community in which he lived, Malviya Nagar, was a suburb of New Delhi, it retained an intimate, small-village atmosphere. This seemed apparent, for warm mutual exchanges occurred whenever almost anyone passed us by on foot. After a brief jaunt down the main street, we arrived at the temple, a sizable structure wherein were installed the divine forms of Radha-Krsna, Sita-Rama, and Laksmi-Narayana, worshiped according to timeless Indian scriptural regulations. We walked into an adjoining auditorium wherein several hundred people were quietly hearing a pandita, a scholar learned in sacred texts, recite and explain the Ramayana, the ancient epic story of King Ramacandra, the perfect king and incarnation of God who had appeared on earth in a bygone age. We quietly entered the large hall and sat down in the back, inconspicuously. A moment later, however, the pandita looked up from his sacred text, motioned to a man sitting near him at the front, then pointed towards me. The man in front came at once to where I was sitting, led me through the assembly to the raised platform in front on which the pandita sat, and sat me down on a raised cushion while another man garlanded me. What was happening? There must have been some mistake! I could then understand that it was simply out of respect for a saffron-robed sadhu that I was receiving this honor. But, frankly, I am no sadhu. I fear that I am not all that holy. At least, as a spiritual neophyte, I try to cultivate a sense of humility, to curb down the tendency toward egoistic pride. But this undeserved attention and honor was not going to be any help.
Momentarily, the pandita concluded his discourse and turned to Tribhuvanatha, who had accompanied me to the front, and the two of them spoke together briefly in whispers. “Panditji,” as he was called, then delivered what I later found out from Tribhuvanatha was a rousing, dramatic introduction to “this foreigner from America who at the young age of eighteen completely renounced a life of material comfort and with a pure heart began to seek after God. He is a disciple of the great spiritual master Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and he is staying with Tribhuvanatha Sharma and his family for some time to bless us with his divine presence. Let us now hear his words of enlightenment.” If I had understood Hindi, I would have been overcome by embarrassment. Panditji then asked me, through our interpreter, Mr. Sharma, to speak to the large assembly. Within my mind, I earnestly prayed to my spiritual master for inspiration and began to speak as Mr. Sharma translated, sentence by sentence, into Hindi:
“Is it not strange that I am sitting here before all of you, asked to speak for your edification? I was born and educated in a country where materialism is the standard of life. In my youth, I never heard the divine names ‘Krsna’ or ‘Rama: I thought that the whimsical gratification of this temporary material body and mind was the goal of life. I had no idea of an eternal spiritual existence beyond this temporary fleeting life. I had no jnana, transcendental knowledge, no bhakti, devotion to God. I was, from your point of view, more or less uncivilized.
“You, on the other hand, are all pious, religious people, educated in the lofty spiritual principles of your ancient Vedic culture. You live lives, most of you, free from vice. Purity of heart and devotion to God is your way of life. From childhood, you have heard the panditas and sadhus recite the spiritually auspicious stories of Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Bhagavatam. All in all, you are people whose lives are deeply touched by the hand of God.
“Considering our difference, then, how is it possible that I am sitting before you to speak, you thinking that I am some kind of sadhu, a holy person? How is it that one who was without spiritual assets and sinful in every way is now given a seat of honor and asked to address pious Hindus on the goal of life? This is the extraordinary miracle effected by my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, one of India’s greatest saints. By his holy influence thousands of Westerners have given up lives of materialistic self-indulgence and become fully dedicated to self-realization and devotional service to Lord Sri Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Is this not a miracle of modern history? The transcendental and universal quality of your ancient Vedic culture is thus being practically demonstrated for the first time, on a massive scale. Such is the glory of my spiritual master, His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada.
“Five hundred years ago in Bengal, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who was Krsna Himself in the form of a great bhakta, a great devotee, predicted that the chanting of the maha-mantra (Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare) would spread to every town and village and that there would be a great revival of spirituality in this world. Now we see this prediction being fulfilled, as in most countries of the world there is hardly a person who has not heard these divine names of God from the members of the Krsna consciousness movement. I pray that you will bless us in our endeavor and will help us in a practical way to spread this movement to every corner of India and the entire world.”
When I had finished speaking, Panditji spoke with great animation and said, as Tribhuvanatha later told me, “We should be ashamed of ourselves! Nowadays we are running after material things, influenced by the West. But this young sadhu himself has come from the West. He had everything material one could desire, but he did not find satisfaction in these things. So he gave it all up and has become a real sadhu and has taken our holy scriptures as his guide in life. We should take this as a great inspiration and seek only after spiritual perfection, Krsna consciousness.” He also announced that I would be staying with the Sharmas for some days and would be available for sat-sanga (spiritual discussions and counseling). Panditji then asked me to lead kirtana, devotional chanting. Playing a small harmonium (a kind of hand organ), I led all present in congregational chanting of the maha-mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Afterwards, Panditji adjourned the meeting. As the assembly began to disperse, many approached the stage, offering respects both to Panditji and to me. I felt a little awkward when some people began to garland me and present various offerings such as fruit and flowers. Feeling very humble, I mentally offered these simple gifts to my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, for whom they were actually meant. Many of the people approached Tribhuvanatha and Rama Sharma requesting their permission to go to their home and visit with the new honored guest. I did not feel right accepting, this honor and attention, but viewed it as a chance to speak about Srila Prabhupada and the Krsna consciousness movement.
From that night onwards, I was treated as a spiritual V.I.P. My friend Brahma returned from Lucknow the next day and persuaded me to remain with the Sharmas several days longer. During the next several days, neighborhood people came to visit the Sharmas, seeking spiritual guidance from their resident “American sadhu,” who did the best he could.
When the day for my departure came, I had to leave the Sharma household about 3 a.m. to catch an early-morning flight back to America. When the taxi arrived, all the Sharmas arose from bed and came to see me off. They didn’t want me to go, and I would have liked very much to stay longer with these wonderful and loving people who had fully accepted me as a family member, loving and caring for me as for a dear son and brother, but I had to return to responsibilities in the U.S. I embraced Tribhuvanatha, and offered respects to everyone else. “Hare Krsna!” I called from the taxi. An enthusiastic “Hare Krsna!” echoed back.
When I arrived at the airport, I was delighted to find Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, accompanied by a few other devotees, there to catch the same plane. My great fortune! After surviving the usual hassles at Indian customs, we boarded our flight and headed for Frankfurt and New York.
In Frankfurt, we had a three-hour layover in the airport. Although I had been in India only three weeks, I experienced some degree of culture shock. Frankfurt International Airport seemed a microcosm of everything bad about the West. Walking about the airport, I encountered a huge duty-free shop offering a cornucopic display of alcoholic beverages and, to my disbelief, a large emporium called “Dr. Muller’s Sex Shop.” A great variety of shops selling a great variety of useless gadgets, gifts, and sundries competed for the attention and money of thousands of international transit passengers, who eyed one another nervously while passing in the vast airport corridors, walking and running to meet flights destined for points around the globe.
As I walked about the airport, I became the object of some very cold stares and the butt of a few insults and jokes. A woman passed me by with her young daughter, shielding her young gaze from the strange “Hare Krsna” lest she be influenced by some kind of hypnotic evil power. I was reminded of those people in the West who view the Hare Krsna movement as some kind of questionable new “cult.” The press, either from ignorance of from malice, tends to merge us in with the growing number of new religious, quasi-religious, and pseudoreligious movements that abound in the West. How can people identify this Krsna consciousness movement with such ad hoc enterprises?
During the flight from Frankfurt to New York, I reflected on my experiences in India and meditated on my eternal spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada. How fortunate I was to have had the rare opportunity to sit at his feet and hear him speak, to view a living saint in action, even to speak with him personally and receive personal instructions from him on occasion. Feeling deeply moved by these sweet reminiscences, I pulled the blanket over me and wept.