Recently, at the ISKCON centers in West Virginia and Washington, D.C., I witnessed with pleasure thousands of Indians coming to visit. And I know the same phenomenon is occurring at dozens of other ISKCON centers throughout North America and Europe, wherever there is a large Indian population. In India, an average of one thousand persons daily and five thousand on Sunday visit the ISKCON temple in Bombay. And ISKCON's centers at the sacred sites of Vrndavana and Mayapur draw similarly large crowds. Unlike other visitors to ISKCON centers, who are encountering Krsna consciousness for the first time, Indians recognize this as their traditional culture, as something they have learned from their parents and should continue to uphold. Visiting Lord Krsna's temple, they feel, is a pious act, a religious duty. The temple also provides an amiable atmosphere for families and friends to socialize. But beyond these personal reasons for coming to the temple, is there a higher motive?
Generally, people execute religious duties for material ends. That is, they pray, perform rituals, and so on, in hopes of attaining temporary goals: better health, a good marriage, success in business. But in the Bhagavad-gita, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna, advises that those who practice religious life by seeking material boons are missing the real point. Material life is always temporary and filled with unhappy reverses. The real goal of spiritual life is to attain pure love of God (bhakti), which alone enables us to transcend the inevitable sufferings of material existence. By keeping this transcendental goal in mind, we can attain the highest spiritual result from our visits to a Krsna conscious temple.
Some Hindus customarily follow the religious practices of yajna (sacrifice), dana (charity), and tapasya (austerity). Indeed, the Bhagavad-gita recommends that one never give up these practices. One should not, however, perform them blindly, but in a way, that helps develop devotion to Krsna.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam informs us that, because of a lack of wealth and qualified worshipers in the present age of faithlessness, (Kali-yuga), many sacrifices of former ages are not possible. For this age, the sankirtana-yajna, or the congregational chanting of the holy names of God, is the recommended form of religious sacrifice. To come into a congregation of devotees and chant the maha-mantra Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare and at the same time to view the Deities of Radha-Krsna or Sita-Rama, is certainly easy and pleasant. Yet the spiritual results it brings are greater than those gained from any other method of yajna. Of course, one may chant Hare Krsna in any place or circumstance, but by chanting in the temple with others, one becomes inspired and determined to chant more regularly and seriously.
As for dana (charity), in India pious Hindus often perform such publicly charitable acts as establishing schools and hospitals, digging wells and planting trees in public places, and making public parks. It's also popular for a father to give charity at the birth and marriage of his children. But if charity is given with a motive to increase one's own name and fame as a benefactor, or if it is given only in support of projects of temporary value, then neither the donor nor the recipients benefit spiritually. Charity should be for pleasing Krsna; therefore, one should contribute to the maintenance and expansion of a Krsna conscious temple or to the cause of spreading transcendental knowledge through projects such as the printing and distribution of spiritual literature.
Some people may think that the practice of tapasya, or austerity, was only for a past age when yogis performed penances in the Himalayan Mountains. Or some people perform the austerity of fasting on certain days, although such austerity is usually for some material end and can hardly be considered a pure devotional practice. The appropriate spiritual austerity, however, is to refrain from bad habits like illicit sex, meat-eating, and intoxication. This austerity will help us quickly advance in spiritual life. By visiting the temple and taking the pure food offered to Krsna (krsna-prasadam) and by hearing the purifying words of Lord Krsna from the Bhagavad-gita, one avoids indulging in unnecessary vices. And through the association of devotees one can find the personal resolve to gradually adopt these austerities in one's own life.
Although Lord Krsna appeared in India, Krsna consciousness should not be viewed in a sectarian way as an "Indian religion," just as Christianity should not be viewed as a "Mideastern religion." Spiritual values are universal and are transcendental to all designations of nation, race, or sectarian creed. But because the Vedic culture flourished in India for so long, the people of India today still evince the vestiges of that advanced spiritual culture, a culture that should be shared with the world. Because of centuries of foreign rule as well as the mad chase after materialism, India is drifting away from these original values. Some Indians are even ashamed of their original culture, as if it were primitive or in other ways inferior to other cultures. The fact is, however, that India never flourished so much as when Vedic culture was fully intact; and even today she can make the most glorious contribution to world culture by rediscovering the roots of her Krsna conscious culture.
The scriptures state, "Those born in the land of Bharata-varsa (India) have the special responsibility to help others by distributing spiritual knowledge." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 9.41) Although this responsibility is shared by all Indians, few have taken it seriously. Most notably, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada humbly came forward with Krsna's pure message, journeying to the West in 1966 to single-handedly spread Krsna consciousness. It is only because of his work in forming the Krsna consciousness movement that the authorized process of bhakti-yoga is now established within the cultures of all of the different nations of the world. Now, people the world over can avail themselves of India's rare gift of spiritual culture.
Life in the present age is very demanding, and just to eke out a living in today's precarious economy takes a person's full endeavor. It may appear, therefore, that to visit a temple or to take up spiritual practice is a luxury or a waste of money and endeavor. But to think that way is a mistake. Even it you're struggling full-time with worldly responsibilities, still it is wise to take the time to visit an ISKCON center. And if you feel unable to fully surrender to Lord Krsna's lotus feet, you can still chant His holy names, hear His immortal words, and honor His prasadam. And it you learn how to make even a brief visit to the Krsna conscious temple a visit of pure devotion, then Lord Krsna, by His inconceivable grace, may bring you close to Him sooner than you imagine. SDG