MY FATHER remembers his grandmother's cleanliness in the kitchen. She would set up a traditional stove on the floor, and when she cooked there was an understood line around the area, which no family member could cross without taking a shower. She had a special sari she would wear only while cooking. And after every meal, she'd wash and scrub the entire kitchen.
Practices such as this are familiar to almost every Indian. In every sphere of life Indians traditionally followed different rules and regulations to ensure cleanliness.
From the bathroom to the temple, the Vedic culture's standards of cleanliness are demanding. Even the local health department would endorse the Vedic rules of cleanliness; they're excellent measures for controlling disease and maintaining health. But theVedas themselves have a larger purpose in prescribing these standards of cleanliness: to make ourselves fit to approach God.
India's original culture is a spiritual culture, and spiritual life depends on cleanliness. Cleanliness is one of the four pillars of religion and the chief quality of a brahmana. As the common saying goes, "Cleanliness is next to godliness." Or, as Srila Prabhupada says, "Unless we are clean, unless we are pure, how we can approach the Supreme?"
Even to this day, people in the villages of India follow a routine of cleanliness and spiritual life. Prabhupada describes, "In India, especially in the villages, you'll find cleanliness. [The villager has] one cloth, … but that one cloth is washed daily. And early in the morning, even in chilly cold, they will take bath, taking water from the well, … then go to some temple and see mangala-arati [early-morning worship]. Chant the Hare Krsna mantra. Ring the bells. … In the shops also, they'll cleanse everything very nicely. Even the weighing scale they will wash every day."
But as the spiritual focus in life diminishes, so does the level of cleanliness. Many Indian families are now giving up these habits as outdated, in favor of a more Western way of life. Instead of getting up in the morning and showering at once, people get up and head to the kitchen for tea and breakfast. Cooks routinely taste food while cooking, and mix dishes used for eating with those used for cooking. People forget to wash their mouths after eating, and don't shower after evacuating. All these habits make a person muci, or unclean.
When life has a spiritual focus the regulations for cleanliness become natural and enjoyable. We'll want to take a shower after rising, so we can go to the temple and present ourselves before the Deity. We'll automatically refrain from tasting food while cooking, because we know we're cooking for Krsna's pleasure. And we'll naturally keep our home clean, making it an inviting place for the Lord to reside.
To approach Krsna, however, external cleanliness is not enough. "If you remain unclean within the heart," Prabhupada says, "simply washing your external body and cleansing your cloth is not complete cleanliness. That may be called hygienic. But real cleanliness is internal and external." After all, how can we approach Krsna, the purest, when we have things like lust, avarice, and envy in our hearts?
To clean the heart there is a simple, one-step process: chanting of the holy names of Krsna. As Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu says in His Siksastaka prayers, "Glory to the chanting of Krsna's names, which cleanses the heart of all the dust accumulated for years and extinguishes the fire of material life." The holy name of the Lord is the best cleansing agent for all unwanted desires in the heart.
Before worshiping Deities of the Lord, devotees often chant this verse from the Garuda Purana:
apavitrah pavitro va
sarvavastham gato 'pi va
yah smaret pundarikaksam
sa bahyabhyantare sucih
"Whether one is pure or contaminated, and regardless of one's external situation, simply by remembering the lotus-eyed Personality of Godhead one can internally and externally cleanse one's existence." The holy names make one fit to approach the Lord.
And what is the ultimate benefit of cleanliness? We can become qualified to go back home, back to Godhead. Prabhupada says, "By following this principle of cleanliness, it will one day be possible to see the Supreme Personality of Godhead face to face."
So while we wash the dishes and mop the floor, let us chant: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Ravi Gupta turned seventeen in April. In May he graduated from Boise State University with a B.A. in mathematics and philosophy. He'll now attend Oxford University in England for his post-graduate studies.