An Indian immigrant in America finds a solution to
the cultural conflicts that challenge Indians in the West.
I AM A DEVOTEE OF KRSNA and have been one for the past seven years. I'm also of Indian origin, and my story is a typical one.
I've lived in North America since I was nine years old. My parents came here to finish their higher education, and upon completion of their doctorates, they decided to settle in Canada, their adopted country. As their family grew, so did their careers, households, mortgages, and so on. Along with material success came several perplexing questions: How to relate to a materialistic Western society without losing Indian values? How to bring up children in the West and yet protect them from the excesses of Western culture? How to teach children something of their cultural background? What goals to pursue? What values to transmit to their children?
For us in the second generation, the questions were just as perplexing. How to balance the clash of cultures? Our parents expected us to behave in one way, our friends, teachers, and colleagues in another. This clash of cultures would lead to some hilarious situations, and to some tragic ones, but always to conflict. How much loyalty were we to give to our cultural origins, and how much were we to imbibe from the culture we lived in? What values were we to take from our parents, and what values were we to find on our own?
I believe ISKCON can play a valuable role in resolving these questions, for both parents and children, because of the nature of ISKCON and the genius of Srila Prabhupada.
Srila Prabhupada did with ISKCON what each of us tries to do individually: He took the essential elements of India's culture, transplanted that culture into the Western environment, and made it work. Srila Prabhupada's genius lay in his being true to the original culture while making the changes necessary for it to flourish in the West. He called ISKCON "a cultural presentation for the respiritualization of society." ISKCON is a culture maybe a very special culture, but a culture nonetheless. It's not just a local temple or an international organization, but a whole culture, with eternal cultural values. Let's look deeper.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Lord Macaulay spoke his famous Minute on the floor of the British parliament in which he belittled Indian language and letters. His speech led to the founding of several schools in India, usually run by missions, with two aims: To expose Indians to the English language (as Indian literature was not seen as having any merit), and to expose them to Western scientific, cultural, and religious ideals (by which, it was hoped, the people would see their own beliefs as backward, superstitious, and hopeless and convert wholesale to the religion of their masters).
But the hopes of the colonists didn't work out as expected. The schools didn't produce many Christian natives. Rather, the students retained the prevailing European doctrines of the time: rationalism and humanism.
The mission schools spared no pains in deriding the native faith. They made every attempt to show its inferiority to Christianity. They condemned it as primitive, superstitious idol-worship, the work of the devil himself. Indians developed an inferiority complex about their own culture and looked for an alternative. The Brahmo Samaj in Bengal and revisionists in other parts of India formulated different versions of Hinduism, usually at the expense of the original faith. This original faith was the path of bhakti,as taught by great saints such as Tulasidasa, Tukarama, Suradasa, Tyagaraja, Mirabai, Jnanadeva, and Kabir. It was also elucidated in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad-gita and rigorously expounded by great acaryas such as Madhvacarya, Ramanujacarya, and Vallabhacarya. The revisionists, however, who aped European philosophies, regarded the saints and acaryas as somehow inferior to the rationalists and humanists of Europe.
Eventually, the revisionists developed a version of Hinduism with a political message. The goal of Hinduism no longer centered on devotion to the Deity; rather, it was about social work to feed and clothe the starving millions. Political Hinduism finally developed to where it's goal became political independence for India.
The revisionists knew that in spite of Western education the intellectuals (and the common man) of the day would not be interested in the revisionists' political philosophies unless cloaked within the garb of religion. The Indian, the most religious of people, would accept traditional authority. So the revisionists cleverly grafted their ideas of political independence and social work upon the tree of Vedanta. The philosophy of Sankaracarya, while much respected but little followed and of interest mainly to a certain class of brahmana intellectuals, became the vessel by which their ideas gained respectability.
My parents' generation was the heir to this ferment of ideas in India. To gain an education in science and technology, they unhesitatingly took to schools that followed the Western model. Their aims were noble enough: they wanted to make India self-sufficient and independent. Through the long years of India's freedom movement, they went to school, eagerly learning everything, waiting to take their place among those who struggled to make India strong and free. They graduated after independence, however, and found that opportunities were few, salaries low, and their services not so welcome by the socialists and communists in the government.
They came West and settled. Meanwhile, the original faith of devotion, ridiculed as irrelevant in the "new" India and contrary to progress, lay neglected and abused for at least three generations. Then, in 1965, as if by a miracle a sixty-nine-year-old saint with a trunk full of books and forty rupees in his pocket set sail for America on a tramp steamer. He came to teach the principles of bhakti on a foreign shore, after many years and many attempts to do so in India had failed.
Though immigrants to North America face a great struggle, the Indian immigrants had some advantages. They were not refugees, and they were educated. They were the dispossessed elite of an ancient civilization. Opportunities came soon, and success was quicker than expected. Of course, this is a generalization. There were several waves of Indian immigration to North America. The most recent ones are those of refugees from Africa and Sri Lanka. But by and large the Indian immigrant has succeeded.
The problems of Indian immigrant parents are, briefly, those of (1) culture, (2) success, and (3) children. The bond to India remains quite strong, with relatives, land, and culture still tying one to the home country. Should we remain here or, upon retirement, return to India? To what extent should the quest for material success influence our lives? How to teach our children the things of value in their own culture and convince them that they should retain them?
Let's see the solutions ISKCON can offer to these questions.
My parents, busy getting themselves established in the West, were not much concerned with questions such as these. Their first contact with ISKCON occurred when they saw the devotees dancing in the street, with shaven heads and tilaka. What a shock to see the familiar in a completely unexpected context! Curious, they visited the temple and quickly recognized it as authentic. Upon attending the Sunday feast lectures, they encountered questions about their culture and faith for the first time since leaving India maybe for the first time in their lives.
First the question of culture. Srila Prabhupada stressed that he was not trying to establish Indian culture or Hinduism. Rather, he was introducing "eternal culture." He stressed that Krsna consciousness was not just for some small sect but was the natural function of the soul. To practice the eternal culture of Krsna consciousness one didn't have to be in India. Krsna consciousness could be practiced right here in North America. For many Indians, ISKCON temples became their home away from home.
Secondly, the question of success. Srila Prabhupada severely criticized Indians who came to North America just to make money. And, if we are honest, we'll admit he was right to criticize us. My personal experience is that wealthy Indian families who place all the emphasis on success and little, if any, on cultivating spiritual and moral values are swiftly traversing the path of corruption and decadence. Alcoholism and drugs, what to speak of meat-eating and smoking, are no longer strangers to such families. ISKCON has always emphasized the need to follow certain basic moral standards and has maintained this standard of purity throughout its history.
Finally, the question of the children's values. My parents' attempts to instill values in their children ended in failure, for several reasons. First, my parents were unsure about what they were trying to teach us. For example, to teach us about religion, they'd say something that reflected the confused, revisionist philosophy they were taught "Deities are just representations of the ultimate reality, but you should worship them." And that was the end of that.
My parents' attempts at passing on their values would involve aspects of Indian culture that were not terribly important or relevant in our lives. While struggling with arcane aspects of classical music or dance, on the inside we'd be singing along with the Beatles or dancing with Michael Jackson.
ISKCON made the essential aspects of Vedic culture available to all of us in English, rather than in Sanskrit or other Indian languages, which we, unfortunately, only barely understood. Srila Prabhupada had already sifted through the vast field of Indian culture and successfully implanted the essential elements of it in the West. It is a successful model, presented by him clearly and logically. To fully take part in the culture of Krsna consciousness is to imbibe the eternal values, the norms, and, most important, the basic attitudes of Vedic culture and integrate them in daily life. There is no question of irrelevancy or confusion in Srila Prabhupada's presentation of Vedic culture.
My father was the first to take me to an ISKCON temple. Aside from the fascination of seeing the devotees, especially the women in saris, I didn't like it at all. I was young, my mind bent on sense enjoyment. I especially didn't like what I considered a "conservative Hindu" philosophy. I wanted to have fun with my Western friends.
My preference for having fun in opposition to my father's concern for values is, of course, the clash of cultures so common in immigrant families. I wasn't familiar with the background or history of my parents' education or attitudes, or why they came to the West in the first place. Yet I had to deal with their attitudes and reconcile them with those of the society I lived in. No one was teaching Indian children how to resolve this conflict. In some ways the reaction of our parents to this problem only compounded it. They would become overly protective, especially with the girls, stifling creativity and causing great resentments.
ISKCON provided a way to resolve this dilemna. About ten years after my father took me to an ISKCON temple, I met a devotee on the street who invited me to visit a center they had near the university I attended. This was my first real encounter with the devotees. My father, who would always encourage me to visit the temple, became alarmed when I actually started to do so. Religion was fine, he said, but it should be practiced at a distance.
ISKCON's greatest help was that it gave me a chance to talk with people my own age, Western and Indian, who shared my concerns. Here were young people putting universal values into their lives. ISKCON was also a bridge between the generations. I could now understand my devoted grandmother in a way my parents could never understand. I saw that I could live in the culture of Krsna consciousness and in the culture of the West.
I now have friends who are Indians, French Canadians, English, and so on, who are all of the same faith and culture. I'm also a part of a worldwide family, so wherever I go I'll always be welcome in the family of devotees.
In the schools we Indian youths attended, and in the cultural activities we were enrolled in, our teachers never discussed values or morality. In stark contrast, Srila Prabhupada was adamant that his disciples follow some basic rules of behavior. This was quite a shock for some of us. There was no ambiguity about ISKCON's standards. For example, take the question of vegetarianism. Our family was completely vegetarian, but my parents never went out of their way to stress its value. When, because of peer pressure, I started to eat meat in high school, my parents didn't discourage me. In fact, they expected that their children would take up this habit, and they even felt that they themselves were somehow wrong in being vegetarians. Once I became a devotee, however, I could easily explain to my peers why I don't eat meat. I've finished my university education and worked for five years in business without having to compromise this ideal.
Finally, and most important, the philosophy of Krsna consciousness transcends all material cultural considerations. It's not that I'm practicing "Indian" culture or following "Hinduism." The path of devotion to Krsna is, as Srila Prabhupada proved, something anyone, regardless of origin or nationality, can pursue successfully. This universality removes once and for all the dichotomy of the culture clash.
So far I've spoken only of the first and second generations. But we should think of the succeeding generations. One reason for my writing this essay is that my wife and I are blessed by Krsna with a beautiful young son. So the circle comes around, but with one exception: Krsna Himself. Because of Srila Prabhupada's Krsna consciousness movement, I'm confident my son will have an easier time imbibing the eternal values of our culture than I did.
Yet I don't feel confident for the future of the Indian community in the West. The second generation has already moved far from the cultural values of their parents. The assimilation will be complete in the third or fourth generation. Fearing this, the Indian community is frenetically building temples and establishing cultural associations. But these well-meaning projects will fail if they don't put real spiritual meaning into people's lives.
ISKCON allows its members to take part in a dynamic, growing society. In ISKCON's early years the members may have been inmature in their attitudes toward several social and cultural issues. But because the central values of the Vedic culture are strong, ISKCON will survive and grow.
I request Indian readers to please take part in this discussion. I also invite Indian parents and children (as well as others) to take part fully in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. To become a full participant in this Society one must become serious about spiritual life. This means more than just attending the Sunday feasts. Specifically, this means that one should accept an authentic guru, follow his instructions, chant the maha-mantra, and follow the basic regulations of the Society. This will start one on the path of devotion. One will find his life transformed and beautifully enriched. This opportunity is open for everyone, for all differences of culture, race, or origin are resolved at the lotus feet of Sri Krsna.
Hari Mohana Dasa was initiated four years ago by Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami. A chartered public accountant with his own business, he devotes half his time to his business and half to serving at the Montreal ISKCON temple. His wife, Radharani Devi Dasi, serves the Deities at the temple.