We often like to say that Krishna Consciousness is an eternal spiritual science. And it is. But we commonly fail to extract the science part from the cultural vehicle in which it was brought to us. ISKCON today is not teaching the pure spiritual science of KC only. It has mixed that message with cultural details that are not only superfluous, but also counterproductive to our mission.
I use the term “cultural vehicle” here for that set of behaviors (including clothing and hair styles), tastes (decorative and culinary), rituals, etc. that carry a message.
It’s common for a person to not see the cultural vehicle and the message it carries as being separable. But they are.
A careful study of our core scriptures (Bhagavad-gita, Srimad Bhagavatam and Caitanya Caritamrta, and Srila Prabhupada’s purports to them) reveals that the spiritual science aspect is taught carefully avoiding cultural details, in the commonly used sense of the word culture, i.e. descriptions of clothing, decoration, architecture, art, cooking and music styles, etc. Also absent from the Gita and Bhagavatam is any great emphasis on public Deity worship or monastic life, both very much a central part of ISKCON culture (but more about that in a later post).
The basic message we get then, is that Krishna consciousness can and should be practiced by people independent of their culture, and there is no reason for it to be imprisoned in a foreign or outdated culture. Precisely because KC is a science and not a set of ethnic behaviors, it can exist in harmony with whatever the reigning culture is. The more we can practice KC without shocking with our native culture, the more likely we are to be really practicing the eternal spiritual science and not uselessly importing cultural behavior from another ethnic group or past period in time. The less time we spend trying to adjust ethnic details in our life, such as clothing and food, the more we can concentrate on actually becoming perfect servants of Krishna, in terms of our moral behavior (mode of goodness lifestyle) and devotion.
People strongly resist changing their ways. It’s just the way we are wired. It’s one thing to adjust within one’s culture (from a non-vegetarian diet to a vegetarian diet, from immoral to moral behavior, from taking drugs and drinking to remaining sober), but it’s quite another to adopt a new ethnicity or to accept social interactions that are foreign to us.
When we mix spiritual science with non-native cultural details, or what is otherwise seen as strange behavior to that native culture, we also diminish our capacity to spread Krishna Consciousness. In fact, an anachronistic or ethnically dissonant cultural vehicle, affects our Movement by: 1) giving it a cultish and unappealing image to the general public, 2) making it more difficult for people to want to get to know about it, 3) once people do get to know about, it makes it more difficult for them to commit to it, and 4) once they do commit to it, it makes it more difficult to stick to it year after year.
It is the duty of each and every one of us who are part of ISKCON to analyze our way of doing things and acting, to become aware of what bhakti-yoga really is, what is really essential to KC, and what is not.