A disciple of Srila Prabhupada recalls some cleanliness practices that Prabhupada prescribed for a life in Krishna consciousness.
By Krishnanandini Devi Dasi
Cleanliness is next to godliness – and an essential part of our spiritual practice.
Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acharya of ISKCON, repeatedly emphasized the importance of cleanliness in serving the Lord and others. And he made sure we understood that cleanliness refers to both internal and external cleanliness. In the scriptures this is called bahyabhyantara-suchi: “clean within and without.” In this article I’ll examine the significance of the principle of cleanliness.
In Kali-yuga, the current iron age of increasing arguments, cheating, and deceit, cleanliness is a huge challenge because the age itself is a time of contamination and impurity. Pollution of both the environment and of people’s minds and hearts is an unfortunate reality for much of the world. Lusty, greedy, petty, vindictive, envious, lazy, and fearful thoughts are all symptoms of internal dirt, or anarthas – unwanted, troublesome things. But we can have internal cleanliness if we keep our mind full of purifying thoughts by regularly and steadily calling the sweet names of the Lord. He is supremely pure and purifying, and because His names are identical with Him, chanting His holy names sincerely and regularly washes away impurities and unclean thoughts gradually but permanently.
According to the Bhagavad-gita (2.64), by practicing “the regulative principles of freedom” we can speed up our spiritual progress. The fundamental religious principles are truthfulness, austerity, compassion, and cleanliness. Adhering firmly to these four basic principles or pillars of religion is liberating.
I became a devotee when I was a teenager and received many instructions about cleanliness from Srila Prabhupada via his books, lectures, and disciples. In the early days of the Hare Krishna movement, Srila Prabhupada instructed us to clean the cooking pots immediately after cooking, and our plates immediately after eating (or, as we say, “honoring prasadam”). He informed us that the outside of Krsna’s cooking pots should be just as clean (suci) as the inside, that paraphernalia used in worshiping or serving the Lord should be cleaned daily, and that the temple and kitchen should always demonstrate first-class cleanliness.
The word muci, or “contamination,” was used often. It means being unclean, and we were to carefully avoid being muci, especially in the temple and the kitchen. In the kitchen, where food is prepared for offering to the temple deities, devotees were instructed not to eat or drink and not to speak idly or about topics not related to Krsna consciousness. We learned to use the right hand for touching sacred things and for eating. (In general, the right hand is considered the cleaner hand, the left hand being used for washing one’s private parts.)
Our clean eating habits included prohibitions against garlic and onions, which are never offered to the deities and thus not eaten by the Lord’s devotees. These foods are said to excite the baser emotions and do not elevate the consciousness like foods in the mode of goodness.
Srila Prabhupada’s instructions on cleanliness covered a wide range of things. In a letter to his disciple Rishi Kumara Dasa in 1971, Prabhupada wrote, “Krsna consciousness means a clean bead bag.”
Our practice was to bathe if we napped for more than an hour during the day. We were taught to wear fresh, clean clothing to the temple every morning, to wash our mouth, face, feet, and hands after honoring prasadam, and to wash our hands often – thus establishing some simple but very important rituals and hygienic practices that served us well in the endeavor to be clean and healthy.
Having grown up in a serious Christian home, I was already in the habit of bathing at least once a day, routinely cleaning our house, and washing my hands and mouth after eating. But Srila Prabhupada added washing our face and feet after eating, and this and other instructions took cleanliness to higher level. I could immediately feel the benefits.
The Importance of Cleanliness
Why is it important to keep everything –body, mind, house, car, temple – clean?
Every morning in every ISKCON temple, devotees sing a song glorifying the spiritual master that includes the phrase mandira–marjanadau: “cleansing the temple, and so on.” The spiritual master, along with his disciples, is always engaged in serving the deities in the temple, and that service includes cleaning the temple.
If cleanliness is neglected, it is a sure sign of laziness. If one is lazy – “Just let me sleep” – one doesn’t keep his environment clean. This is the mode of ignorance, tamo-guna. We have to overcome tamo-guna.
Srila Prabhupada taught us that our heart has to be pure if we want to receive Krishna and allow Him to pleasantly reside there. He taught us that when we are clean we are in the spiritual world and when we are dirty we are in the material world. Cleanliness, inside and out, takes us to the spiritual world. The more we clean the temple or our devotee homes, which should also be temples, the more our hearts become cleansed.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu exemplified the cleanliness principle when He showed how to cleanse the Gundica temple in Jagannath Puri in preparation for its annual Rathayatra festival. The deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra ride on huge chariots from the Jagannatha temple to the Gundica temple, where they stay for seven days. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu cleaned the Gundica temple several times in one day, finding more and more subtle evidence of dirt with each thorough cleaning. The cleansing of the Gundica temple is a metaphor for cleansing the heart of gross and hidden dirt, or anarthas.
An important way to have internal cleanliness is to resist being a “garbage can” by refusing to let others gossip or put negative, materialistic conversations in our head. By being selective about what we hear and the conversations we choose to take part in, we can keep our minds clean and protect ourselves.
Srila Prabhupada wanted his students to develop brahminical standards of cleanliness and to understand that cleanliness is one of the primary qualities of a pure devotee.
In his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.2.14–15, he writes, “Those who do not regularly bathe are supposed to be in association with ghosts and crazy creatures.” Regular bathing is essential to physical and mental health. For the aspiring devotee, bathing in the morning and evening and after defacating is a necessary part of the cleanliness regimen.
Cleanliness in the Kitchen
In a 1971 letter, Srila Prabhupada wrote:
In India it is the custom that the kitchen is not even in the same building where the living rooms are because living rooms are contaminated. After cooking, all the [unbaked clay] pots are thrown away. This is not possible in your country. Therefore you have to keep the utmost cleanliness. Krsna does not require opulent offerings. He appreciates the sincere endeavor. A clean kitchen is more important than an opulent offering. If the kitchen is neat and clean, then the offering will be good. If the offering is a so-called “opulent offering” but the kitchen is not clean, Krsna will not like it.
To further show how serious this principle is, Srila Prabhupada once wrote to a devotee in London, “Each room should be clean as a mirror, otherwise you invite the rats.” In other words, cleanliness is powerful pest-prevention.
Also, the state of cleanliness of our surroundings reflects our general internal cleanliness. Besides, we naturally feel better in a neat, clean, orderly space than one that’s cluttered and dirty. A clean place or a clean vehicle is welcoming and refreshing.
Clean with Enthusiasm
Knowing that there are so many exquisite, empowering benefits to committing to a spiritually clean life, an aspiring servant of the Lord will learn how to be clean at home, in the temple, and outside and then endeavor to clean with enthusiasm.
One of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples who seriously took his instructions on cleanliness to heart was Yamuna Devi, who passed away in 2011. In an article about her, Giriraja Swami recalls:
Around the time of the first Bombay pandal , when we were staying in Akash Ganga, a high-rise apartment building in an affluent part of central Bombay, Yamuna would stay back and clean. She would clean the whole place for hours. And while cleaning, she would sing in a very ecstatic mood. The rest of us were going here and there . . . and she was staying back and cleaning; she put her whole heart into it.
“In Bombay,” he continues, “she told me, ‘I learned to take joy in that cleaning. Whether you are serving the spiritual master or the arca-vigraha [the deity of the Lord], the cleaning is external and internal. It is a very spiritual engagement – as powerful as distributing books.”
Giriraja Swami concluded his sharing by saying that thirty years after being trained in first-class cleanliness by no less than the founder-acharya of ISKCON himself, Yamuna told him, “I can honestly say that I engage in cleaning joyously. In our ashram [in Saranagati, Canada] we sometimes sing and clean for hours and hours. Our place is very primitive – we have a dirt floor and walls, and a lot of earth outside – very simple, but we like to clean a lot. We enjoy cleaning for Srila Prabhupada and the deities.”
Don’t Be Intimidated, Start Somewhere
A new devotee, an interested spiritual seeker, or even an older devotional practitioner who has gotten slack in cleanliness shouldn’t be intimidated by the extensive list of things we are instructed to do to be clean and which are a part of our sadhana, or devotional practices. With some sober thinking we can appreciate that spiritual life is a science and to progress in it there are practices that are scientifically beneficial. Just becoming aware of the advantages of having a clean body and mind and acknowledging its great importance are the first steps. Gradually add more clean practices and don’t be too hard on yourself if you are not able to observe all of them right away. Once you adopt a practice, try to keep going forward and don’t go backwards. Be patient with yourself; give yourself time to make each item in your cleanliness practice a habit. Because of your sincere efforts, Krsna will help you from within and without:
“To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (Gita 10.10)