Hindus in the West: The Challenge to Spiritual Roots


Hindus in the West: The Challenge to Spiritual Roots

Many Indians now living in Western countries have become successful at their occupations, and they hope their children will become even more successful. In the United States the Indian population is one of the wealthiest minorities, with many leading professionals in various fields. There is not much doubt that the Indians in the West can succeed materially. But the challenge remains: will they be able—and willing—to retain their cultural origins?

As a Krsna devotee of American origin, I have Indian friends both in the West and in India, and I share their concerns. At a recent conference of the Visva Hindu Parisad held in North Carolina, two of these concerns were the subjects of lectures: (1) “The Relevancy of Vedic Literature in the Modern Age” and (2) “The Effect of Karma on Youth.” I would like to express my realization on these topics from the Krsna conscious viewpoint.


It is proper for any religionist to assess whether his or her spiritual upbringing is keeping pace with modern life. But the assessment should not be superficial or too strongly swayed by current fashions. The fact is, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Vedic literatures describe four problems that prevent all human beings from attaining happiness—birth, death, old age, and disease.

In the thousands of years since the Vedic literatures were presented to mankind, no one has been able to get free of these miseries, despite the advances of science, politics, or philosophical speculation. Although particular diseases may have been subdued by medicine and technology, many new diseases have arisen. No one has prevented death, and the introduction of nuclear weapons has greatly increased the probability of mass violence and death. Therefore, the statement of Bhagavad-gita that human life is duhkhalayam asasvatam, unhappy and temporary, should be taken as a permanent fact. It is not a truth that belongs only to the East or West, just as the sun is not a product of East or West.

Vedic literature is certainly relevant, because it addresses humanity’s age-old problems and presents profound solutions. The Vedas explain how we can transcend the anxieties of temporary existence and live more peacefully in this life by cultivating our spiritual life. More important, by the process of bhakti-yoga we can develop love of God, conquer the dilemma of death, and gain eternal life.

Though the Vedic literatures are the oldest scriptures in the world, the followers of the Vedas should not think that the “ancient” truths have been outdated or replaced. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his appreciation of Bhagavad-gita, stated, “It is nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.” Similarly, Aldous Huxley described the Upanisads as “perennial philosophy.” And Henry David Thoreau spoke of “the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.”

My Indian friends may consider me presumptuous to warn them not to think of Vedic scripture as dispensable. After all, I am a come-lately to Krsna consciousness; they were born into it. Many Indians feel very confident that no matter how much they become Westernized, they will never lose their original scriptural ideas. Even if out of social pressure they compromise spiritual practices, many say, “I can always think of Krsna.” They show considerable anxiety, however, about whether their offspring will be able to keep the valuable roots of Indian spirituality.

Karma and Youth

Spiritual realization is not something parents or well-wishers can force upon youth. Karma, the inevitable law of cause and effect, operates upon the young as well as the old. Therefore, in the original Vedic culture spiritual training always began at the earliest possible age. Young students became adept at yoga, meditation, and appreciation of the epic literatures such as Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Although Indian parents may want their children to appreciate the values of Vedic culture, the parents are often disappointed. Young people are more interested in preyas, immediate pleasures, than in sreyas, pleasure received by sacrificing immediate gains in favor of long-term, spiritual ones. Although young people may sometimes forego an evening’s fun at the cinema to study for exams, rarely do they sacrifice in favor of spiritual life. More of ten they indulge in excessive, sinful practices. For although youth is a time of great opportunity, it is also a time of uncontrolled senses. How, then, can Indian parents instill within their children an appreciation for Vedic culture?

Appreciation for spiritual life comes only when we are able to associate with persons who are self-realized and who live according to spiritual truths. On the other hand, if we hear the speculations of nondevotees about the heroes of Vedic culture, such as Lord Krsna, Lord Rama, the Pandavas, and Hanuman, then we may come to regard them as mythical or irrelevant. Only the learned, God-conscious teachers and saintly persons can infuse us with the conviction that the personalities in the Vedic histories were real persons—persons of the highest standard, whose words and deeds should be followed by all humanity.

His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada transplanted the Vedic culture, almost in its entirety, to countries throughout the world. By introducing Krsna consciousness in Western countries through books and temple worship, Srila Prabhupada proved that Vedic culture is not only for Hindus.

Lord Caitanya also predicted that the day would come when the names of Krsna would be chanted in every town and village of the world. Because many pioneer teachers since Lord Caitanya have worked for the realization of this vision, we now see persons adopting Vaisnava habits, lifestyle, and philosophy in places where Vedic culture was undreamt-of before.

If Indians in Western countries avail themselves of the association of the Westerners who have also become Krsna conscious, this will provide a natural inspiration for everyone. Certainly the Western devotees will find their own convictions solidified when they make friends with Indians who have imbibed the Vedic ways from birth.

And the Indians, perhaps especially the young, may take heart to see Westerners giving up the glittering attractions of hedonism and staunchly defending Vedic knowledge against the onslaught of atheistic speculations. The more such association takes place, the more the Indian and Western devotees of Krsna can be assured that Vedic spiritual life will certainly endure throughout the world, despite the challenges of modern life.—SDG

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