MRS. MADHU SHARMA, at home in an Indian village, is about to begin cooking the family meal. Her mother is already squatting on the spotless stone floor, dexterously grinding spices and chopping fresh herbs. Her sister minds the children, giving the other women freedom to concentrate on the cooking. Mrs. Sharma's teenage niece runs in, ready to help, a bunch of fresh vegetables under her arm. The kitchen looks bare except for the sparkling iron pots and the glowing tandooris. ** (A small clay oven.)
The women cook for an extended family of fifteen people. When the cooking is done, Mrs. Sharma makes up a special plate, places it on a small altar, and offers the meal to Radha and Krsna, the household Deities.
While the family eats, the women continue making hot buttered capatis ** (Thin, round, unleavened bread.) at tremendous speed, making sure everyone is amply supplied. After everyone is fully satisfied, the women take their meal. When they're done, they distribute the leftovers to the animals and birds, and the leaf-plates to the family cow. They take the pots to the hand pump and take turns pumping water and washing pots, using earth and ash as a cleansing agent. Finally, they sluice down the entire kitchen, which will remain empty and clean until the next cooking session.
This is a typical scene of a family meal in an Indian village, nearly unchanged for thousands of years. It's easy to appreciate how the peacefulness, simplicity, cleanliness, and devotion surrounding this tradition, with roots in the ancient Vedic culture, foster the family's health and, most important, their spiritual growth.
Should we try to re-arrange our kitchen, and indeed the rest of our house, as a facsimile of Mrs. Sharma's? Should we rip out the cupboards with their packets and tins, throw out the machines and gadgets, and burn all the furniture? Now that we are attempting to be Krsna conscious, should we try to squat on the floor, eat with our hands, and wear robes? And no more local, traditional dishes—now our diet should consist only of rice, dal, sabji, capatis, and halva? ** (Dal: spicy pea or bean soups; sabji: vegetables or vegetable dishes; halva: a sweet made with roasted farina.)
I've been eating and immensely enjoying Lord Krsna's prasadam, Indian style, for twenty years, but mention a childhood staple like baked beans, chips, cornflakes, rhubarb crumble, or cheese sandwiches, and my mouth still begins to water. Will Lord Krsna accept a kacauri ** (A spicy, vegetable-stuffed fried pastry-one of Srila Prabhupada's childhood favorites.) and not rhubarb crumble?
Two considerations come to mind.
The first is that Krsna consciousness is a spiritual culture, replete with its own style of art, cooking, and living. Accepting Krsna's culture is good for our spiritual advancement.
The second consideration is that Krsna consciousness can be added to our present life. It is the "one" in front of the zeros, the finishing touch, as Srila Prabhupada used to say. Applying this principle, Srila Prabhupada encouraged us to offer what is locally available to the Deity in the temple. Similarly, in our homes we may offer the Lord food according to our own taste and custom, as Srila Prabhupada once explained to Allen Ginsberg. ** (Conversations with Srila Prabhupada, Vol. 1, p. 324.)
Of course, the Indian, or, more appropriately, the Vedic tradition does offer a wonderful chance to enter another realm of cooking. After all, the preparations are replicas of those enjoyed by the Lord in the spiritual world. We would do well to explore this realm with the help of accomplished ISKCON cooks such as Yamuna Devi and Adiraja Dasa. ** (See Yamuna Devi's column on p. 14. Adiraja's cookbook is called The Hare Krishna Book of Vegetarian Cooking. It's available through local temple stores.)
In the meantime we must work with what we have. Our kids still have a hard time with those "Indian" preparations we are unskilled at preparing. And we still lay out those forks and knives. ** (The Vedic custom is to eat with one's fingers. Srila Prabhupada specifically avoided using forks and knives when he came to the West, explaining that he had come not to take our customs but to give us the Krsna conscious culture. Whether we should all dispense with such trappings of Western society makes for an interesting discussion.) Yet we want our diet to be solely Krsna prasadam, and we want to be Krsna conscious and to center our home on the Lord.
Let's go back to the kitchen and take another look at that shelf of jars, tins, and packets. Are their contents offered or unoffered? ** (Unoffered food is called bhoga ("enjoyment") because it is meant for Krsna's pleasure. Offered food is called prasadam ("mercy") because after Krsna enjoys it, He mercifully leaves it for our pleasure and purification.) Well … maybe some are offered, others unoffered. Perhaps we're not sure if the salt is offered or not. We can immediately make a simple change on our shelves and in our refrigerator—keep (clearly marked) separate areas for offered and unoffered items. And to avoid any confusion, keep items like salt, sugar, butter, jam, and so on, in distinct containers, one kind for offered, and another for unoffered.
Because we are trying to prepare dishes solely for Krsna's pleasure and at the same time cater to the needs, tastes, and perhaps whims of a growing family, we may sometimes feel perplexed. How can we think that we are exclusively cooking for Krsna as we rush to get the porridge and toast ready so that John and Susan won't be late for school?
We have to remember, of course, that Lord Krsna has entrusted these children to us to look after. But they belong to Him; they are His devotees (even if they don't yet realize it). So by serving them in the right consciousness, we are serving Krsna. Krsna says (Bhagavad-gita 9.27) that whatever we do should be done for Him. So as we butter the toast we can think, "I'm doing this for Krsna."
Should we offer every piece of toast to Krsna? No, that's not necessary. Devotional service is simple, easy, and practical. Krsna wants to enhance our busy lives, not hamper them. Srila Prabhupada once told a devotee ** (The devotee was Sarvabhavana Dasa.) who was running a restaurant that he should make a nice offering especially for Krsna in the morning, and then whatever would be cooked during the rest of the day would also be prasadam. We may therefore initially offer the basic items of the breakfast to Krsna, and when requested for more by our family, we don't have to keep making further offerings.
Suppose you are asked for something that is not part of the initial offering. Here are a few possible measures you could take:
a. Don't allow anyone to ask for anything not on the table.
b. Keep a basket of offered fruit or a tin of biscuits or other snack food permanently on hand. In the early days of ISKCON Srila Prabhupada kept a jar of gulabjamuns ** (Round sweets made from powdered milk that are deep-fried in ghee and then soaked in sweet water with a touch of rose essence; affectionately known as "ISKCON Bullets.") always available for his puckish spiritual children.
c. Have a place in the kitchen for quick offerings. In our home we offer the main meal of the day on the altar in our temple room. Other meals, snacks, and beverages are offered in front of a small picture of Srila Prabhupada in the kitchen. If, for instance, one of the children suddenly requests a piece of fruit during breakfast, it does not take long to offer it and bring it to the table.
d. Follow the principle of association: If an unoffered item comes in the close vicinity of something offered, it also becomes prasadam. ** (This is another reason we should be careful to avoid placing offered and unoffered items together.) Suppose you have heated some milk, offered it, and served most of it out. Susan wants another cup—more than what remains in the pot. If you open a fresh carton of milk and pour some into the pot, it can now be considered offered. The same principle can apply to sugar, salt, and so on. We must be careful, however, that such expediency does not lead to casualness and laziness, and as far as possible we should make fresh offerings.
In many ways we are pioneers on a spiritual frontier, and therefore may feel puzzled occasionally about what is the correct way to do things. This column seeks to focus on different issues, discuss them, offer suggestions, and find solutions. The present discussion, which we will continue in the next issue, may have raised questions, or you may have further ideas or points to add. Please write to me at the address below, and I will be happy to reply. We can work together to reach a synthesis of theory and practice.
Rohininandana Dasa lives in southern England with his wife and their three children.