Question: To be a devotee, is it really necessary to follow Indian culture? For example, is it necessary to wear a dhotī or sari, shave one’s head, or apply a tilaka?
Answer: Most people do not have a clear concept of God. If you ask them, “what is God?” the most common answer that I have received is that God is energy. If that is their belief, then naturally there is no specific culture associated with God; a God who is merely energy and who is universal would not be associated with a culture.
But, if you want to be devotee of a specific form of God, like Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, or Nṛsiṁhadeva, then you have to do what They like. If you want to be with a specific form of God, then you have to follow the lifestyle which is liked by that particular form.
For example, look at the distinction Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī makes between Paramātmā and Bhagavān. Paramātmā is non-discriminatory, and He is equal to all. He is the controller and regulator of his universe. He is the one who supervises the result of one’s karma. But Bhagavān is a personal God. He discriminates between His devotees and non-devotees. Kṛṣṇa speaks about these two aspects in Bhagavad Gītā (samo ‘haṁ sarva– bhūteṣu). In the first half of the verse, Kṛṣṇa is speaking about the Paramātmā aspect and in the second half about the Bhagavān aspect. So most of the time, when people are using the name God, they are only referring to an aspect of Paramātmā, not even to complete Paramātmā. But Bhagavān is beyond Paramātmā and hence beyond the concept of God that most people have.
So, Bhagavān, a specific, personal form of God, has specific likes and dislikes, some of which are cultural. When bhakti is there, then one naturally does what is pleasing to Him. If one is not born into India culture, one may attribute many of these “likes” specifically to Indian culture which is not quite true. (Of course, one cannot attain Bhagavān simply by wearing a specific dress or adopting particular aspects of Indian culture.)
When Kṛṣṇa came, He appeared on a part of the earth now called India, but which wasn’t at that time. Then the earth was not divided into so many countries. Even in modern times, many changes have occurred. About 65 years ago, Pakistan was part of India and about 45 years ago, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, but now people from Pakistan and Bangladesh would not accept that Kṛṣṇa was born in their country; they would consider Indian culture as “foreign,” even though their forefathers did not.
When the Earth was created, the land mass was one unit, as can be seen from the shape of different continents. As time passed, the earth got divided into separate parts and then divided further into different countries and societies. We think that the culture in which Kṛṣṇa was born was Indian culture, but this is certainly not true. According to the Purāṇas, the whole earth was known as Bhāratavarśa, which is the official name of India.
Some of what you may think of as “Indian,” was common to all the old cultures of this world, for example, Greece, Egypt, and Israel. These cultures all had simple dress, just a plain cloth wrapped around the body.
Bhakti is like asking you to burn your house, but who would like to do that? Bhakti is difficult to follow because you have to change. Krishna says nobody really knows me. I know everybody, and nobody knows me. To know him you have to destroy your palace. And what opens to you is a new world that is most amazing, most wonderful and you wonder why didn’t I do this before? Why didn’t I get rid of this nonsense?
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