India’s gifts to the world are numerous, and Prabhupada delivered the best of them.
By Sarvabhauma Dasa
Srila Prabhupada was a powerful force in spreading many of India’s greatest gifts throughout the world.
Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra has noted, “European subordination of Asia [and in particular, British colonial rule over India] was not merely economic and political and military. . . . It left its victims . . . eager to be initiated into the mysteries of their seemingly near-magical power.” While it can no longer be said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” Western high-tech culture nonetheless still casts a powerful, almost magical, spell all over the world.
Yet in the essay “World Pacificist and Bhagavad-gita,” written before 1967, Srila Prabhupada described another formidable cultural force. “India’s original [Krishna conscious] culture will not only be revived and reestablished, but also will foster India’s indigenous culture in other parts of the world . . . [and] the people of the world will get relieved of the so-called material prosperity terrorized by atomic bombs.”
In an article in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/nov/12/ancient-world-india), Susan L. Huntington, author of The Art of Ancient India and professor of art history at Ohio State University, outlined important ways that India’s age-old spiritually advanced culture still endures and influences today’s world. She writes:
The cultural continuity between India’s past and present is unmatched in the other regions of the world. The modern societies in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, the Americas and China for the most part bear little resemblance to their ancient counterparts. Indeed, what is striking from an overview of the early phases of India’s long and rich cultural development is the fact that so many of the features in evidence through the material record have had a persistent and lasting effect on Indic society and the world. . . . As suggested by artifacts that have survived, and what we know about the religious and philosophical beliefs of the people, the period 2500 BCE to 500 CE in ancient India was one of extraordinary cultural brilliance, with innovations and traditions that still leave their mark on the world today.
Huntington noted that ancient gifts from India “that still leave their mark” worldwide include yoga and Ayurvedic medicine.
In a room conversation in London in 1973, Srila Prabhupada indicated that while the world has always looked to India – not just for wealth but for her wisdom as well – those who have claimed to represent her spiritual culture have not always been ideal representatives.
“The Western countries . . . ,” Prabhupada explained, “they have heard so many things about India’s culture. . . . They respect India’s culture, spiritual culture; they are hankering after it. But unfortunately, the so-called yogis, swamis, come and cheat them. That is the difficulty. This is the first time that systematically we are presenting what is actual Vedic dharma, or bhagavata-dharma.”
Books of Bhagavata-dharma
For precisely that purpose, Srila Prabhupada founded the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) in 1972 – to systematically present bhagavata-dharma, Krishna consciousness. The BBT is the world’s largest publisher of India’s ancient Vaishnava texts, along with contemporary works on the philosophy, culture, and personalist theology of bhakti-yoga. And it has produced and distributed hundreds of millions of transcendental books in numerous languages.
Instead of muddling or misrepresenting India’s Vedic teachings like “so-called yogis and swamis,” these books elucidate the yuga-dharma, the scripturally recommended spiritual practice for Kali-yuga, the current spiritually debilitated age. That practice is sankirtana–yajna – chanting and glorifying the holy names, forms, and pastimes of Lord Krishna. The Bhagavad-gita teaches that we are spirit souls, not Hindus, Muslims, Christians, British, Americans, Chinese, Russians, Africans, or Indians, and while its origin is India, it offers a practical way to rise above all mundane material designations, which – without transcendental knowledge and realization – can lead to discord. Lord Krishna’s message to Arjuna in the Gita is “The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].”(5.18) Lord Krishna never tells Arjuna, “You are Hindu; therefore, you should discriminate against non-Hindus.” Rather He teaches, “You are a spirit soul; act as a pundit (pandita), one who sees with equal vision, sama darshana.”
In a letter to his disciple Rameshvara Dasa in 1973, Prabhupada compared the wide-scale distribution of transcendental Krishna conscious literature such as Bhagavad-gita As It Is to a battle against material illusion. “To distribute books is our most important activity. The temple is . . . a base from which we send out our soldiers to fight with maya. Fight with maya means to drop thousand[s] and millions of books into the lap of the conditioned souls. Just like during wartime, the bombs are raining from the sky like anything.” Although Bhagavad-gita is thousands of years old, the fact that it still affects millions of lives in today’s world is a tribute to Srila Prabhupada’s extraordinary devotion and vision, and to his effort to spread its message far and wide without change.
Unlike many swamis and yogis who come to the West, Srila Prabhupada did not present watered-down or impersonal teachings to attract followers. When advised to call his movement a society for “God” consciousness, Srila Prabhupada refused. Rather, he named it the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, to establish the identity of God, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Prabhupada did not promote sectarian Indian nationalism, or “Hindutva,” yet at the same time he did not artificially do away with important elements of Krishna consciousness culture simply because they might appear to be Indian. For instance, he faithfully introduced the traditional practice of deity worship in ISKCON’s temples in North and South America, Europe, Australia, Africa, and other parts of the world, as it has been performed for centuries by millions of Vaishnavas in India, and he organized large-scale Jagannatha Rathatra festivals in major cities worldwide.
British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975),whose magnum opus, the twelve-volume A Study of History, chronicles the rise and fall of twenty-six civilizations in human history, met Srila Prabhupada in London on July 22, 1973. Like Prabhupada, who tirelessly spread Krishna consciousness to save a materialistic modern world that remains “terrorized by atomic bombs,” Toynbee was convinced that India’s spiritual culture has a crucial role to play.
He wrote, “It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Will Durant (1885–1981) had every hope that, as he put it, “India will teach us the tolerance and gentleness of mature mind, understanding spirit and a unifying, pacifying love for all human beings.”
Like Durant, Professor Huntington appreciates what she termed “the Indic compassion towards all living beings,” which she indicated is relevant today, as it “has been adopted by groups that advocate vegetarianism, animal welfare and environmental activism. Perhaps there is no greater compliment that can be paid to India’s ancient culture than the fact that its sophisticated beliefs and reverence for life can serve as guideposts to the world today.”
Despite the pernicious influence of Kali-yuga and the subjugation of India by predominantly meat-eating invaders such as Persians, Greeks, Arabs, and British over the last several thousand years – as well as an ongoing massive contemporary cultural attempt to conquer India by American fast-food juggernauts such as Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and McDonald’s, which aims to have a thousand fast-food restaurants in India (where it does not serve beef) – vestiges of the Vedic culture endure. While it is difficult to quantify or gauge the magnitude of its impact, the massive distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books in India and around the world is helping to educate people how to counteract the onslaught of Kali-yuga.
Without bhagavata-dharma, or Krishna consciousness, there is always the danger that India will abandon her exalted spiritual culture, including what Huntington described as her traditional “reverence for life.” Although true compassion requires transcendental knowledge or Krishna consciousness, and must go beyond mundane vegetarianism or veganism, Prabhupada did urge the closing of slaughterhouses. He once said that for human beings to be vegetarian is natural. “For a human being to become nonvegetarian is unnatural.” The fact that deadly coronavirus diseases such as covid-19 and SARS likely passed from animals to humans in wet markets – where flesh is sold for food – underscores the relevance of Srila Prabhupada’s efforts to raise humankind from the modes of ignorance and passion.
An Ethical Diet
Despite the influence of Kali-yuga, even today India statistically remains the world’s leading vegetarian country; she has the highest percentage of vegetarians of any nation in the world and numerically more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined. Srila Prabhupada has inspired his followers to promote this traditional ethical diet all over the world, and he jokingly called his Hare Krishna movement the “kitchen religion” because well prepared and spiced vegetarian cuisine offered to the Lord – prasadam – is an attractive part of bhakti-yoga and a popular feature of the movement’s temple feasts and festivals, Govinda’s vegetarian restaurants, and meatless food-relief programs worldwide.
Yet this is not exactly new; for thousands of years India’s vegetarian culture and its unrivaled status as the spice capital of the world, from ancient times right up to the present (India currently is the world’s leading producer, exporter, and consumer of spices) have attracted foreigners – including medieval European explorers like Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus, who sought India’s precious native spices such as black pepper and turmeric.
Srila Prabhupada has also substantially helped revive Vedic cow protection as it is practiced in brahminical, Vaishnava culture – worldwide as well as in India – by inspiring the establishment of Krishna conscious vegetarian ahimsa dairy farms on every continent, a vital mainstay of traditional Indian culture. Faithfully following the previous acharyas, or teachers, in the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya, or disciplic line, according to time, place, and circumstance, Prabhupada brilliantly “revived and reestablished” the essence of India’s Vedic culture, Krishna consciousness. It’s hard to imagine anyone who has done more to influence the world – transcendentally – than he. Indeed, the sun is always shining around the globe on people of all lands, races, and nationalities who are reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, chanting the holy names of the Lord, and performing devotional service in Krishna consciousness.