Śrī Babaji answers question in Pearls of Wisdom –
Question: Having recently read Rajiv Malhotra’s “Being Different” and your commentary on Bhagavat Sandarbha, I think that there are pitfalls for Western people approaching Indian thought, including Gauḍīya siddhānta, which can lead to the gross and subtle misunderstanding of key concepts in Indian schools of philosophy.
In your experience, what are the most common mistakes that Western people make when approaching Gauḍīya siddhānta?
Answer: This is an interesting question. My immediate thoughts are as follows:
1. Taking things literally. Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism specifically and Vedic scriptures in general are not always to be taken literally. There is a great deal of hermeneutics involved.
2. A do-it-yourself attitude. We think that we can study the scriptures on our own and understand them. This is far from the truth.
3. Difficulty in grasping the Indian culture. These books were written in an Indian setting that is important to comprehend, in order to understand Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. It is not easy to separate the two.
4. The modern mind is very self-centered. We are raised to be independent from the very beginning. We are not trained to surrender or to serve. It is very difficult for such a mind to have a deep relationship with another individual. It is difficult even to grasp what it means to have such a relationship. Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavismis all about relationships. Knowledge and bhakti flow only through relationships, especially the relationship in rāgānugā-bhakti.
I feel these are the big obstacles.
Question: Regarding point 3, there is a tendency among certain devotees to believe that Kṛṣṇa consciousness is an eternal truth and reality, which in essence is not related with its external package, namely Indian culture.
Answer: My vision is as follows. Although it is a fact that Kṛṣṇa consciousness, or bhakti, is an eternal truth, it is still related to culture. It is not an abstract philosophy. These eternal principles manifest in a culture. Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, and all other avatāras appear eternally in a traditional Indian setting, which scholars call the Vedic age. So, there are two ways to look at it: Either you think that the avatāras come in an Indian setting or you think that this Indian setting is the same as Their own abode where They reside eternally. People get irritated by the words “Indian culture” because they have the ego of belonging to another country and culture. But just remember that there was no such word as “India” 5000 years ago. I have not studied world history, so I do not know which countries existed at the time of Kṛṣṇa. However, as per our śāstra, the whole earth was Bhārata-varṣa.
What does it mean that there is no difference between this Vṛndāvana and the one in the spiritual sky, and that Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes are eternal? It means that He is doing similar things that He did in India, with the exception of killing demons. The killing of the demons is only remembered as a story in the spiritual world. In the spiritual Vṛndāvan, for Him and His associates, there is no difference between the pastimes on earth and the pastimes in Goloka. They have no such idea that They came to earth and then went back to Goloka.
What is the meaning of meditating on aṣṭa-kālīya-līlā? Is it not what He does here? Does He not wear the same dress there as He wore here, eat the same food, have the same friends, same ego, same cows, and same residence?
So is it not Vedic culture? Are the Vedas not eternal?
I think the problem begins in the modern mind when Vedic culture is labeled as Indian, which places it in a specific historical context, belonging to a specific region called the Indian sub-continent. Rajiv Malhotra calls this “history centric.” This is a major difference between the Western/modern and Vedic or traditional Indian mindset.
The whole society—call it Vedic or Indian—is based on relationships, submission, service, renunciation, sacrifice, and tapasyā. Western or modern society (even in India) is based on an individualistic attitude, enjoyment, sense pleasure, and the idea that this is the only life. The difference is stated in the fifth chapter of Bhagavad Gītā:
bāhya-sparśeṣv asaktātmā vindaty ātmani yat sukham
sa brahma-yoga-yuktātmā sukham akṣayam aśnute
“One whose mind is detached from the external objects of the senses attains the bliss which is in the self. Then, becoming united with the Lord, he enjoys eternal bliss.” (Gītā 5.21)
ye hi saṁsparśa-jā bhogā duḥkha-yonaya eva te
ādy-antavantaḥ kaunteya na teṣu ramate budhaḥ
“The enjoyments born of sense contacts are only a source of misery. O Arjuna, they have a beginning and an end. Therefore, the wise do not indulge in them.” (Gītā 5.22)
Similarly, in the 16th chapter Kṛṣṇa speaks of the difference between daivi and asuric natures. One who is born, brought up, and educated in the culture based on principles described in Gītā 5.22 will have no saṁskāras to comprehend the culture based on principles described in Gītā 5.21. The very foundation is missing.
I am not speaking in theory but from my own experience. I live in India but also travel to the West for extended periods and lecture to audiences with Western or modern mindsets. I find it very difficult to convey the true message of śāstra. The pātratā, or eligibility to grasp this message, is very rare. It is almost impossible to understand this message without having an experience of the culture in which it was enacted. Even Indians, whether in India or in the West, are losing these saṁskāras, being heavily influenced by the West.
You can also observe this change in Vrindavan—all the construction and commercialization, degradation and pollution are an outcome of our mentality and an external projection of it. Once a Western lady came to see me and was lamenting about the bridge at Keśī Ghat. I told her that we are the cause behind it, not the government. She was not able to accept it. These changes are happening because we want them. We want to lead a modern lifestyle and want modern comforts. Then we lament that Vrindavan is becoming corrupt. No one can stop it because we want it.
I hope this throws some light on your question.
Question: I have encountered this opinion in Gauḍīya Maṭh temples as well as among Indian-born Vaiṣṇavas. Basically, if you don’t take birth in India, you have no entrance into Kṛṣṇa-bhakti. Non-Hindu devotees will need to be born in India to fully grasp the subtleties of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. Although I can understand this experientially, it goes against everything Lord Caitanya taught, i.e., that Kṛṣṇa-bhakti is not dependent upon birth, varṇa, education, and gender. Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada also countered this mindset to preach around the world to non-Hindus. I would like to hear the solution, short of taking birth again. Not everyone can move to Vrindavan and directly serve an elevated sadhu.
Answer: I am afraid that I have been misunderstood and my opinion has been lumped in with other Indian-born devotees.
I did not say a word about being born in India. I said that Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism has to be understood from an Indian (read “Vedic”) cultural background. I am not saying that one has to wear a dhotī or sari, keep a shaved head or cover one’s head, or eat only Indian dishes.
My point is very simple. You may be anybody, Indian or non-Indian. You can be born anywhere, live anywhere, and do whatever you do, but to understand any school of Vedic theology, you need to grasp Vedic culture. In fact, this applies to any other religion. If I want to understand Islam or Christianity properly, then I have to understand the environment in which these religions sprang up and subsequently spread. Indeed, if I want to understand the culture of any country, I have to understand it in the setting of that country.
I did not put any conditions on where you grasp Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism and how you grasp it. If you can grasp it in the USA, that is fine, although I feel it would be a tough job, just like understanding a New Yorker’s mentality while being born, brought up, and living in Vṛndāvana is an uphill task. I would say it would be impossible.
I do not know any practical examples of devotees who have understood Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism without knowing the culture in which it took birth or rather manifested.