Pitfalls in Approaching Indian Thought

Question:  Having, recently, read Rajiv Malhotra’s Being Different and your excellent, soon be published, commentary to Bhagavat Sandharba I have come to realize that there are some pitfalls for western people approaching Indian thought, including Gaudiya siddhanta, which can lead to 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 Gaudiya siddhanta?

Answer: This is an interesting question raised by you. My immediate thoughts are as follows:

1. Taking things literally. Gaudiya Vaisnavism specifically and Vedic scriptures in general, are not to be taken always literally. There is a great deal of hermeneutics involved.

2. Do-it-yourself attitude. We think that we can study our scriptures on our own and understand them. This is far from truth.

3. Difficulty in grasping the Indian culture. These books were written in an Indian setting and it is important to comprehend that in order to understand Gaudiya Vaisnavism. It is not easy to separate the two.

4. The modern mind is very self-centered (egoistic). It is very difficult for it to have a deep relation with another individual. It is difficult even to grasp what it means to have such a relation. GV is all about relation. Knowledge, bhakti, flows only through relation, especially raganuga bhakti.

I feel these are the big obstacles.

Question: Thank you very much for your reply. In regards to point 3, “Difficulty in grasping the Indian culture”: I think this is an important point, but especially for Western devotees very difficult to comprehend. There is a strong tendency among certain devotees to believe that Krishna Consciousness is an eternal truth and reality, which in essence is not related with its external ethical package, namely Indian culture, which is subjective, limited, changing, and ultimately material.

Answer: My vision is as follows. Although it is a fact that Krishna consciousness, or bhakti, is an eternal truth, it is still related with culture. It is not an abstract philosophy. These eternal principles manifest in a culture. Krishna, Rama or any other avatara all 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 they come in an Indian setting or you think that this Indian setting is the same as that of Their own abode in which They live eternally.

What is the meaning of saying that there is no difference between this Vrindavan and the one in the spiritual sky, and that Krsna’s pastimes are eternal? That means what He did in India, He is doing there also, except the killing of demons. That part is only remembered as a story. For Him and His associate there is no difference between pastimes on earth and pastimes in Goloka. They have no such idea that They come to earth and then go back to Goloka.

What is the meaning of meditating on astakaliya lila? 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, same residence?

So is it not Vedic culture? Are the Vedas not eternal?

I think the problem begins in the Western or modern mind when Vedic culture is labeled as Indian, which makes it look as part of a history, belonging to a specific region called Indian sub-continent. Rajiv Malhotra calls this history centric. This is a major difference between the Western and Vedic or traditional Indian mind-set.

The whole society – call it Vedic or Indian – is based on relation, submission, service, renunciation, sacrifice and tapasya. Whereas Western or modern society (even in India) is based on individualistic attitude, enjoyment, sense pleasure and the idea that this is the only life. The difference is stated in the fifth chapter of Bhagavad Gīta:

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.” (Gīta 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.” (Gīta 5.22)

Similarly, the 16th chapter speaks of the difference between daivic and asuric natures. One who is born, brought up and educated in 5.22 culture will have no samskaras to comprehend 5.21 culture. The very foundation is missing.

Vrindavan today

I do not speak 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 mind sets. I find it very difficult to convey the true message of shastra. The patrata, 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, in India as well as in the West, are losing their samskaras, being heavily influenced by the West.

Yamuna bridge

You can also observe this change in Vrindavan – all the construction and commercialization, degradation and pollution is 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 Keshi Ghat. I told her that we are the cause behind it, not the Government. She was not able to swallow it.

I hope this throws some light on your questions.


Editor’s note: Since the comment function was temporarily not working, I have posted below a comment / question by Vinode Vani Devi along with Babaji’s reply:

Question: I have encountered this opinion in the Gaudiya Math temples as well and more generally, amongst Indian-bodied Vaisnavas. Basically, if you don’t take birth in India, you have no entrance to Krishna Bhakti. Non-Hindu devotees will need to be born in India to fully grasp the subtleties of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Although I can understand this experientially, it goes against everything Lord Caitanya taught, that Krishna bhakti is not dependent upon birth, varna, education, gender. Srila AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada also countered this mindset to preach KC around the world to all the non-Hindus. So 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 Gaudiya Vaisnavism has to be understood from an  Indian (read Vedic) cultural background. I am not saying that one has to wear a dhoti or sari, go shaved head or cover ones head, or you have to eat only Indian dishes.

My point is very simple. If you want to know Gaudiya Vaishnavism, or for that matter any other Vedic theology, you need to understand it in a Vedic set up, Vedic background. 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 the Vedic culture. Where you grasp it and how you grasp it, I did not put any conditions on that. If you can grasp it being in USA that is fine, although I feel it would be tough job – just like to understand a New Yorker’s mentality while being born, brought up and living in Vrindavan is an uphill task, I would say impossible.

I do not know any practical examples of devotees who have understood GV without knowing the culture in which it took birth or rather manifested.

5 thoughts on “Pitfalls in Approaching Indian Thought”

  1. With all due respect, should this really be read as “Indian thought” or rather as “Vedic thought”?

    Yes, India is the place where the Vedic culture was most fully practiced. But it is very important to make a distinction that the modern indian culture is an extremely degraded and perverted condition of the original Vedic culture.

    Just look at all the rapes going on in India. And to say “It’s all the fault of westerners”, well, last time I checked, Bollywood is pumping out all of these sexual movies and videos which make the men very lusty. Either way, people are responsible for their own actions. So to say that all the rapes in India are the fault of westerners is faulty logic.

    Other than that, I agree with you that Krishna has to be approached through the Vedic culture. It’s just important to make the distinction between modern India and Vedic, so that outsiders don’t get confused and think that we support all of the corrupt and filthy modern culture of India.

    1. Editor’s comment: This title was given by the questioner and I just took it over. When we speak of Indian schools of thought we usually refer to the classical darshanas and not to any degraded modern ideas.
      This is not about blaming anyone, but a question which could be asked, however, is where Bollywood has taken its original inspiration from. The name itself suggests its famous Western model.

    2. Babaji’s comment: I am neither blaming the West nor praising India or Indian culture. My point is very simple: The Vedic knowledge systems can be understood only in their cultural setting. If you understand them, you can practice them anywhere, although you will feel most comfortable practicing within the Vedic setting. I made it clear that when i use the word Indian i mean Vedic.

  2. With all due respect to commentators, if i may in my ignorance state my opinions. I am ignorant or have very limited understanding of Vedic literature, bhakti, Vaisnavism, Krishna Consciousness and my material body is female.

    The dialogue, in my ignorant opinion, or debate is to bring light to mutual understanding of the speaker and or blog writer. The versus approach, merely elevates the speaker or blog writer to have a mentality that I am not that.

    In my ignorance, I will tie two concepts as one. In Bhagavad-gita As It Is, 12.4, “Those who fix their minds on My Personal form and are always engaged in worshiping Me with great and transcendental faith are considered by Me to be most perfect.

    In Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 4.5.6, (Patrick Olivelle – Oxford translation),
    “One holds a husband dear, you see, not out of love for the husband; rather, it is out of the love for oneself (atman) that one holds a husband dear. One holds the wife dear not out of love for the wife; rather, it is out of love for oneself that one holds a wife dear…..One holds the Vedas dear not out of love for the Vedas; rather it is out of love for oneself that one holds the Vedas dear. One holds beings dear not out of love for beings; rather, it is out of love for oneself that holds beings dear. One holds the Whole dear not out of love for the Whole; rather, it is out of love for oneself that one holds the Whole dear.

    Krishna’s personal form is husband, wife, Vedas, beings, Whole and lastly all devotees who are also beings.

    In ignorance humbly submitted,
    Sandy Lee

  3. I would also argue that one of the pitfalls in understanding Indian thought is Rajiv Malhotra himself. He frequently misrepresents Indian thought, especially, although not exclusively, Gaudiya Vaishnava thought. He leans heavily toward advaita and some sort of shunyata doctrine, but it is never very well worked out. He takes advaita and shunya as representative of India as a whole, but they aren’t. I’ve written about this here,


    as have other people in this journal and others. Rajiv often misprepresents the West as well.

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