Vanity thought #827. Cultural baggage

It doesn’t take long for any visitor to realize that India is a backward, disorganized and extremely dirty country inhabited by irresponsible and cunning people you can’t trust, and you surely wouldn’t want them for your neighbors. As devotees we try to see past this reality, as educated people we try not to generalize, but come on, you can’t take that country seriously, can you?

Comparing to well groomed Europe and parts of North America it looks like a cesspool. It’s a fact of life.

So, how can we hope to learn anything from them? Why should we even try? What have they got to show for all that allegedly superior knowledge? How can we not see their degradation?

I think every devotee has his own answer to that, we all try to reconcile the reality with what Srila Prabhupada taught us. Some learn to see it as famous bubbles on the surface of the Ganges. Some learn to see spots of goodness in places and in people, some just get used to it so it doesn’t bother them anymore, some learn to see simplicity instead of poverty, ditto for ritual cleanliness vs external hygiene. Some build areas of western like perfection around them, like we do in Mayapur. We all have our own ways, if we want to become devotees we must learn to cope, there’s no other way.

I think the reason for India’s sad state of affairs lies not in their degradation per se but in fundamentally different approach to life and in pursuing fundamentally different goals.

They always put dharma first and leave the rest in the hands of God. They know it’s Kali Yuga and therefore they don’t expect much from it.

Over in the West we think we are firmly in control of our destiny, we are responsible for our surroundings, and so we must take matters in our own hands. Instead of focusing on dharma we are into fixing things that can’t be fixed. Of course our efforts don’t go in total vain and we manage to build oases of sattva and even keep them that way but all our efforts are ultimately artificial.

We waste a lot of our energy on swimming against the current. Kali yuga will eventually prevail, if we stave it off in our neighborhoods it will enter our hearts and corrupt us from inside. It’s noble and heroic to put up this battle but it’s a battle in a war that can’t be won.

Kali won’t be stopped by decorating the corpse of our society, He can only be stopped by chanting of the Holy Name, and even in that case it’s not certain that we can extend victory inside our hearts to victory in our material surroundings.

So Indians take a philosophical approach to this. Just follow you dharma, serve the Lord or whatever it is you are supposed to serve in your position, and the rest will take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, no big deal, your job is to earn a lot of good karma for the next life anyway.

Maybe I don’t have an accurate representation of life in traditional Vedic society but all I read about it paints a picture of people who earn their livelihood by praying and conducting yajnas. They don’t work very much, or very hard, I don’t think they spend more than four-five hours of their day on work.

There are vaishyas and shudras, of course, who need to put hours in taking care of cows and farms but I’m talking about kshatriyas and brahmanas, and general traders here. Those are definitely in the “service economy”, ie they are being served. They spend five six hours every morning on their spiritual duties, then they retire for midday break before noon and they don’t come out until it cools down outside in the late afternoon. They have a couple of hours of evening activities and by six it’s time for spiritual duties again.

They don’t push themselves into what they believe is responsibility of the Lord or of their karma. You know how sometimes things just fall into place and sometimes you work so hard and things keep falling apart anyway? They know it, too, and they simply observe what’s going on. If something sucks they simply take notice of it but it doesn’t urge them into action. Philosophical, as I said.

So, if we see obvious imperfections in the Indian way of life we can try to be philosophical about it, too, and don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are in control of the material nature. Let us chant, the rest will take care of itself. Or it won’t, the important thing to keep chanting.

On the other hand, Srila Prabhupada couldn’t tolerate such irresponsibility. He demanded perfection in everything we do. He demanded the best of us, he wanted us to be even more meticulous in attention to detail than we are at home. He wanted us to be Germans in managing things, Swiss in precision, Americans in creating things, French in cooking, Italians in design, and Russians in dedication to the cause, to paraphrase the popular saying.

Isn’t it a contradiction? I believe not, because all those things are needed for the benefit of Lord Chaitanya’s mission, not for our own comfort.

We should be philosophical about our own lives but we must have a completely different attitude in service to the Lord. This is where we should apply all our energy and all our efforts while maintaining our own bodies can be left to karma’s devices.

This is the basic message of Bhagavad Gita – work done for your own benefit is the source of bondage, so ignore it, while work done for the benefit of the Lord is the goal of life and should never be stopped. And it also brings the highest possible rewards, so no loss.

So, I guess it’s okay to be sloppy in our personal lives, as long as this sloppiness doesn’t affect our service we shouldn’t worry about it. And we shouldn’t worry about other people not worrying about their own lives, too.

Our cultural baggage needs to be left behind, but that has to be done with proper understanding otherwise it will keep following us and forcing us to commit all kinds of offenses. I hope this idea will help, even if only a little.

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