QUESTION: Why can I not be a devotee of Kṛṣṇa without subscribing to Vedic or rather Indian customs? Why do I have to dress like an Indian, which even modern Indians don’t do? This may be alright while one is living in India, but to carry these customs to the West makes one look weird …
QUESTION: Why can I not be a devotee of Kṛṣṇa without subscribing to Vedic or rather Indian customs? Why do I have to dress like an Indian, which even modern Indians don’t do? This may be alright while one is living in India, but to carry these customs to the West makes one look weird and an object of mockery. Bhakti, after all is not dependent on anything external, it is a matter of bhāva. Kṛṣṇa is pleased only with devotion and not with anything else: bhaktyā tuṣyati kevalaṁ na tu guṇaih bhakti priyo mādhava (Padyāvali 8).
ANSWER: Absolute reality has two manifestions, personal and impersonal. The yogīs and jñānīs strive for impersonal realization of the Absolute after attaining perfection in the form of ultimate liberation, ātyantika mukti, they do not have any personal relationship with the Absolute. Therefore, they do not need to follow any specific culture in which they will live after liberation. Devotees, however, follow the path of a personal God.
On the path of devotion, there are two types of devotees. Those who want to have a specific relation with Him in a specific form and those who are not keen on any specific relationship. Those who want to have a specific relation have to know the specific form of God, such as Kṛṣṇa, and His mood and behavior befitting the desired relation. This had to be understood here in the sādhaka body. On the path of a specific relation (ragānuga), the service is done both with one’s physical body and also the aspired spiritual body (sevā sādhaka-rūpeṇa siddha-rūpeṇa cātra hi, Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.2.295). To do this sevā, one has to learn the customs. As far as doing the sevā in the spiritual form, there is no social restriction because it is all done as a meditation, but to do the sevā with the physical body, there may be social restrictions, because one may not live in a society or family that is supportive of devotion. Then one has to make adjustments, but one has to always keep in mind the goal.
As Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, our goal is to be with Kṛṣṇa, therefore it is important for us to understand Him as a person within a certain setting. How much of the rules and customs we can follow can be adjusted if one understands the principles. If one does not understand the principles, then the tendency will be to do what one is accustomed and then gradually one may just follow one’s own mind and not the principles of bhakti. Here it should also be understood that on the path of bhakti, what is most important is bhāva, but that is not something we have, rather it is our goal or object to achieve. And although the customs and process of Deity worship, rules related with eating, greeting, and worship are external to bhāva, they also assist to reach this bhāva.
Thus, unless it is impossible or unfavorable to practice these principles and customs, one should try to follow as much as one can. Moreover, if one has bhāva, which means love, one would naturally do what is pleasing to Kṛṣṇa. Why would one like to do something which is not appreciated by Him?
Krishna is not Indian nor does He follow modern Indian culture. But He is also not Western. He lives according to Vedic culture and customs. If we want to live with Him, then we need to know this culture and follow it as much as possible in our modern setting. If we cannot follow it because of our social situation, we should at least be aware of it, be respectful to it, and not deride it. Those modern Indians who do not follow Vedic culture are not our ideals.
QUESTION: But how can God be so narrow-minded and why would He be partial? God is universal and does not discriminate, so why do I have to follow something which is only known in India and not follow the Western customs and attain God?
ANSWER: Yes, I agree that God is universal and impartial and it is possible to approach God by following any culture or customs. However, as said before, we are not interested in that impartial manifestation of God.
Our goal is to have a specific loving relationship with a specific form of God called Kṛṣṇa who is svayaṁ bhagavān and who is not impartial when it comes to His devotees.
God has two kinds of manifestation—very specific manifestations such as Kṛṣṇa or Rāma, and a general impartial manifestation, called Paramatma, or Isvara. Besides this, He also has an impersonal manifestation, called Brahman. So if one is interested in attaining Brahman, or just Paramatma, then one does not have to follow the specific Vedic custom, culture or life style, because in that there is no need to develop a specific relationship with God. However, if the interest is to be with Kṛṣṇa in Vraja and to have an intimate relation, then one has to know Him very intimately and make oneself qualified to live with Him in the desire intimate relationship.
Kṛṣṇa has His partiality for His devotees, His likes and dislikes. He identifies Himself as a cowherd boy and nothing else. He does not identify Himself as a creator god or one who looks after the maintenance of the cosmos. His mind is very much focused on His devotees in Vraja. He does not think of anything beyond. An example of His mood is when the wives of the brāhmaṇas of Mathura approached Him with food and surrendered to Him, he did not accept them in the same way as the cowherd girls and women because according to Vedic or traditional Indian culture, a cowherd man cannot have any conjugal relation with a brāhmaṇa girl or woman. For this reason, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, who want to have a mādhurya bhāva relationship with Kṛṣṇa, aspire to be born as cowherd-girls and not brāhmaṇa girls. So, Kṛṣṇa in Vraja has the ego of a cowherd boy. Outside of Vraja and in other forms, He has other egos. This has to be properly understood.
Thus, these things are just a matter of custom. Kṛṣṇa behaves according to the ideals of Vedic culture, and therefore we have to learn these if we are interested in a relationship with Him.
One should keep in mind that this is a very specific path and one has to be very clear about one’s goal. And that practice has to be done here. There is no bypassing it.
A sadhu is not elated when given respect nor disturbed when insulted.
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Thank you for publishing on this very time relevant topic. I have a couple of questions:
1) Towards the beginning of the post you write:
“Krishna is not Indian nor does He follow Indian culture. But He is also not Western. He lives according to Vedic culture and customs. ”
And then later in the post you write:
“according to Vedic or traditional Indian culture, a cowherd man cannot have any conjugal relation with a brāhmaṇa girl or woman.”
So, it seems like at first you make the distinction that the Vedic culture is different from Indian culture, and then later in the post the two are conflated and become interchangeable.
* Could you please clarify if Vedic culture is synonymous with “traditional Indian culture”?
2) In the Vedic times horses and chariots were used for transportation. So would you support not using cars and instead switching to horses and chariots for transportation? I’m sure the answer will be “no” since the question is a bit absurd. But this is the exact same logic used to justify cultural elements like cloths and musical instruments. So it seems that only certain elements of the Vedic culture are seen as necessary to practice, but what is the basis of this practice? Why is it not necessary to use a horse and chariot, but it is necessary to wear Vedic cloths and play only Vedic musical instruments?
3) The description of Krishna and his culture match the culture of the time of when the writings about Krishna were composed, or at least when Krishna appeared in this world. So did Krishna bring the culture from the spiritual world to the material world, or did Krishna adopt the culture already present in this world? Also, could it be understood that the writers who composed works about Krishna presented him within the context of modern culture and not an ancient one? If we are to follow the tradition, then doesn’t the tradition show that Krishna is to be understood and made accessible through modern culture and not through an ancient culture which is completely removed from present reality?
4) The demons from Vedic times also wore Vedic cloths and lived the Vedic culture.
* How is it that the Vedic culture is for devotee practicioners when the exact same attire and culture is seen in demons?
Babaji’s reply to your questions is as follows:
2) For this you need to be first clear about your goal. Be very clear about the definition of uttama-bhakti.
Otherwise, I can ask you, why chant even Krishna’s name? Why not use some western names? Why is it that you question only the clothes and musical instruments? You can be dressed in western clothes, use western musical instruments and chant “Harry Chris Harry Chris Chris Chris Harry Harry, Harry Rum Harry Rum Rum Rum Harry Harry”. In fact, why even worship Krishna? He is black. Why not worship some white man dressed in western clothes?
3) First of all, I do not understand why you would worship Krishna. Why bother about Krishna? If I know why you are taking the trouble to follow Krishna, then I can attempt to answer you.
4) Who said that Vedic culture is only for devotee practitioners?
I would just like to also answer one of your questions.
2)If the setting allowed, we would indeed use bullock carts and horses. Once again, as prabhu said, the principle is to follow the culture as much as possible. Like any other aspect of the Vedas, Vedic culture is not accidental, it is calculated and every aspect is filled with meaning. For example, bullock carts and horses do not damage the planet, they are completely sustainable. Also, regularly travelling at the speeds we do in automotive transport is not good for the health of our physical or subtle bodies. You will see in Vaisnava farm communities they do use bullock carts instead of cars wherever possible. Kirshna did not accidentally appear as he did, every aspect of his incarnation is relevant.
the person who introduced krishna consciousness in the west came here wearing indian dress dhoti and kurta and introduced that dress for those who are interested in the path of bhakti and it was required for all his devotees to wear the dress during deity worship. to question him now is to mean that though he was advised to adopt western dress, he ignored, consider him either a fool or reformer who at great risk brought KC. only after less than 50 years we are questioning him for introducing vedic dress during seva.
arjuna asked similar question to Krishna in the 17th chapter for what is the destination of those who disregards shastra and follows their mind. may be it is time to read that verse again and again and contemplate what K was trying to convey in His answer.
Appreciate your insights and explanations which are different than are seen most of the time.
Thank you very much for this explanation. In my experience it is the most thoughtful, reasonable explanation that anyone has offered and nicely balances both of the polarized, west/east points of view.
Hari Bhakti vilas(HBV) has a section for vastra-dhArana-vidhihi! – Rule on how to put on a dress. It give information on how a vaishnava should live, eat, mingle with society.
Unfortunately HBV is neglected or ignored by many people today for 2 not-so-good reasons
1. HBV is not for people in kaliyuga. One can not follow it in today’s world.
2. HBV mentions many things which are part of karma kanda and hence vaishnavas following uttama bhakti can skip what is mentioned in it.
I am not sure how far such claims mentioned above are true and sensible.
Looking at the events mentioned in Caitanya Caritamrita, it appears Sri Caitanya had personally instructed Sanatana Goswami to write a book on vaishnava behavior. Prior to this He had instructed/taught about Siddhanta/Rasa/Philosophy/Uttama Bhakti to Sanatana Goswami. Its quite natural to present a practical application of philosophy and hence a book about daily conduct of vaishnava is important to be written and handed down to the parampara. This book is none other than Hari Bhakti vilasa -obviously aimed at people following uttama bhakti. Therefore to brush away and ignore such a voluminous text, written by one of the Goswamis ,abundant with references from many dharma sastras and tantra highlighting details of vaishnava conduct to such minute level, does not do justice to the text/author/bhakti philosophy.
Hence philosophy and practice must go together.
In my understanding , HBV is guide for all ananya bhaktas within all varnas and ashramas .
Sanatana Goswami mentions( in brhad vaishnava tosani- 10.20.34 verse) that his work HBV is like an autumn season for all people following bhakti process ,within all of the 4 varnas and ashramas .
Autumn season also brings joy to 4 things –
1.It clears the sky of clouds
2. It lets the animals get out of their crowded living conditions(after long stays),
3.It cleanses the earth of its covering of mud, and
4. It purifies the water of contamination
Similarly HBV brings happiness to all 4 varnas/ashramas.It removes the pain of brahmacari in serving his Guru by carrying water or cleaning the places etc. similarly it removes the pain of each person in each varna./ashrama.
Therefore it would be quite ironical to say following HBV brings suffering and pain 🙂 Without HBV , process of bhakti is Shrama eva hi kevalam! Rather one can say bhakti is tough!
Accepting the limitations stemming from today’s society and one’s own handicap one may not be able to follow the book completely. However such a miss must only make one more humble/meek than being proud in claiming one self a vaishnava.Neither must one bring a new book of standards.
Happy to stand corrected if the traditional understanding is that HBV is not so important for a person practicing uttama bhakti and is basically for “outsiders”
Thank you, Scooty. About Vaishnava dress code there will be a separate posting next week.
This article was brought up by Swami Ashrama from our Sri Caitanya Sanga on our FB page: This was my response:
Swami. Dandavats and thank You for bringing this beautiful question. This question comes up very often by devotees and well-wishers..Is Bhakti “dependent” on Vedic Culture? The word dependent infers permanence and being that everything is impermanent nothing really is dependent but always changing. Bhakti resides in the Jīvātmā, Ātmā and Paramātmā. So our ‘devotion’ to Sri Krsna is Omnipresent, Omniscient, and Omnipotent. Where the Vedic Culture piece comes in is that as Bhakti Yogis, we have to honor our Vedic Culture traditions at all times but it is situational, meaning we should honor our Vedic/Hindu/Indian traditions by wearing dhotis, kurtas, saris, and tilaks when going to the temple, accompanying our Acharyas, being in sacred places of Sri Krsna in India, etc….This is honoring our Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Vaishnava traditions. I am very close to Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji and His whole family, from the Jiva Institute in Vrindavan and I feel He summed it up perfectly in His article, ““Krishna is not Indian nor does He follow Indian culture. But He is also not Western. He lives according to Vedic culture and customs. If we want to live with Him, then we need to know this culture and follow it as much as possible in our modern setting. If we cannot follow it because of our social situation, we should at least be aware of it, be respectful to it, and not deride it.” Hare Krsna !!
My obeisances. All glories to Sri Guru and Gauranga!
Here are what I see as good things with this post:
1) It is helpful to practice personalistic Krishna bhakti when one also has an external supportive culture. For example, it’s easier to practice bhakti if there is a government holiday on Janmastami rather than Christmas.
2) For most people, how they earn their livelihood and how they move through their life changes may support or hinder their bhakti even though such things are not directly bhakti.
3) Bhakti-yogis should try to have everything in their life be pleasing to Krishna and mold their life so that they will never forget Krishna.
Here are my problems with this post:
1) equating modern Indian culture with Vedic culture. I would hope that we would all agree that not all aspects of modern Indian culture are also fully Vedic culture. Someone would have to decide which parts of modern Indian culture are fully equivalent to Vedic, which partially equivalent, and which are not at all equivalent. As there is likely not to be universal agreement on these categories, it would be difficult to determine who is the authority who decides what a bona-fide aspirant to Goloka Vrindavana should do culturally while living in various situations in various parts of the world.
2) apparently assuming one Indian culture. Culture is very different in various parts of India. As Gaudiya Vaisnavas, it is not clear whether this article is proposing that it is modern Bengali culture that is Vedic and the others are not. For example, Manipur has been, and still is, greatly influenced by Caitanya Vaisnava practice and philosophy, in the line of Narottama dasa Thakura. However, Manipuri culture is quite different from Bengali culture in terms of kirtana styles, musical instruments, dance, language, diet, dress, forms of etiquette, and so on. For example, Manipuri Caitanya Vaisnavas have traveling kirtan parties of ladies only who go from temple to temple singing in Narotama dasa Thakura’s style. Another example is that in Bengal a woman covers her head when she marries, and in South India a woman starts to cover her head only after her husband dies.
3) an implication, or even a direct assertion, that those who combine non-Indian cultures with bhakti-yoga are impersonalists or worshippers of the Paramatma. The author seems to be saying that one can only worship Bhagavan Krishna (or Visnu) if one also adopts Indian culture. Historically, worship of Visnu (and Krishna) has occurred in many different cultures, such as Indonesian culture, and even Cambodian culture. It seems the author is negating all those ancient societies of Vaisnavas and designating them as impersonalists. The author would also seem to suggest that modern Vaisnavas who keep anything of their native culture (language, etiquette and customs, food, musical instruments, etc.) will not attain to Goloka Vrindavana but only to the Brahmajyoti. It would be interesting to find such propositions in sastra-sadhu-guru. I find this point to be the most serious, and bordering on great disrespect, even offense, towards Vaisnavas who have varied cultural practices.
4) equating cultural practices with angas of bhakti. This article seems to suggset that how, for example, we dress in this life is preparing us for our next life. This assertion seems to at least indirectly, if not directly, support the Sakhi Bheki group, who believe that by dressing as gopis in this body they aid their destination of being actually gopis. Although I would hope that this conclusion is not intended by the author, such a conclusion is certainly a logical and reasonable one based on this article. We do have the 64 angas of bhakti that Rupa Gosvami deliniates, and to my knowledge, following Indian culture is not listed there.
5) confusing principles with adaptations according to time, place, and circumstances. We are told that adapting to time, place, and circumstances is one of the items of knowledge. Srila AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada glorified his own guru with the words, “Oldest of all but in new dress; miracle done, your divine grace.” The sastra, the examples of acaryas, and the words of acaryas *mandate* that eternal principles of personalistic bhakti *must* be presented differently and followed differently according to the time, person, place, and circumstances. An interesting point in this connection is that Rupa and Sanatana became outcastes by being grhasthas working for the Muslim government, whereas Bhaktivinoda Thakura had a respected preaching platform by being a grhastha working for the British government. What is unfavorable culturally at one time and place becomes favorable culturally at another time and place.
6) a conclusion of destruction of local cultures. The article could easily lead anyone who wants to spread Mahaprabhu’s mission all over the world to engage in a program of destruction of all aspects of all local cultures as part of “preaching”. Such would include destruction of regional Indian cultures. This mood of wanting to supplant all aspects of local cultures with a world uni-culture suggests an imperialist violent policy. We have many historical examples of zealous religious missionaries who not only taught their religion’s philosophy and practice, but simultaneously demanded–through violence if necessary–that locals reject all aspects of their culture. I personally find such an attitude scary, and, frankly, repulsive.
Yours in service to Srila Prabhupada,
Urmila devi dasi (acbsp)
Pranam Urmila Devi,
Babaji didn’t even find the time to read your comment since he is so busy with many responsibilities. In the meantime, I will attempt to address these points based on my own understanding of the author’s intention.
1) “equating modern Indian culture with Vedic culture”
Where in this article is the author equating modern Indian culture with Vedic culture?? Quite the opposite. He says: “Those modern Indians who do not follow Vedic culture are not our ideals.” He also already replied to Alexander above that for him Vedic culture means traditional Indian culture. A lot of what is going on in modern India can hardly even be called culture.
2) “apparently assuming one Indian culture”
I also do not see where the author assumes only one Indian culture. He always speaks about the culture in which Krsna was living, not any abstract ancient culture. He says that these things are a matter of custom, and obviously customs differs from place to place. Raganuga bhakti (uttama-bhakti, or Vraja-bhakti) as given to us by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, is defined as following the mood of the inhabitants of Vraja, which means total absorption in one’s object of love, Krsna. To develop a loving relationship with Krsna, a devotee will naturally do what Krishna likes and loves everything in relation with Krsna. Vraja-Krsna lives in a cowherd community, which means a very specific cultural setting. All his associates deal with him according to the social customs and their roles as senior, equals, juniors, etc. All this is part of a specific culture which a devotee will naturally want to emulate. The author says: “To do this seva, one has to learn the customs.” So obviously we are talking only about the customs that Krsna was following. There may be Indian customs that have nothing to do with Krsna and are thus not more favorable to bhakti than any non-Indian custom.
3.) ”an implication, or even a direct assertion, that those who combine non-Indian cultures with bhakti-yoga are impersonalists or worshippers of the Paramatma”
Again, this is misunderstood. He says that those who want to attain Brahman or Paramatma need not follow any specific Vedic custom, culture or lifestyle. They can worship Vishnu, the more generic form of God. Why would a person who has worshipped any other form of God for his whole life attain Vraja Krsna? yam yam vapi smaran bhavan … The author distinguishes between vaidhi and raganuaga bhakti. In raganuga bhakti, the devotees wants to have a specific relation with a specific form of God, namely Krsna. To attain this specific relationship again you need to get acquainted with the customs. In his “Raga Vartma Candrika,” Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakur also describes that in order to enter Krsna’s pastimes, the raganuga sadhaka has to enter the womb of a gopi when Krsna manifests His pastimes on earth. Without taking such a birth, one cannot get proper acquaintance with Krsna’s humanlike pastimes (Text 7). So here again the point is made that one has to born into a specific social structure and customs.
4) “equating cultural practices with angas of bhakti”
There is a lot more to the practice of bhakti than cultural practices, but certain cultural aspects or attire is favorable to the practice of bhakti. Otherwise, why would you yourself wear sari almost every day? Why not jeans and T-shirt”? Just as food has influence on our mood, so also our dress. As Hari Sauri Prabhu says in a recent Dandavats article, “If such things help us to identify ourselves as devotees, why should we reject them?”
So certain cultural aspects nourish the mood the devotee wants to attain. But that does not in any way mean that all devotees (including males) should wear sakhi-bheki or anything like that. I think you are over-interpreting and imaging too many things from the article.
5) “confusing principles with adaptations according to time, place, and circumstances”
Adapting a certain mood or behavior that pleases the beloved has nothing to do with preaching according to time, place and circumstances. Nothing in this text contradicts this principle. As you know, Prabhupada himself preferred his disciples to wear dhotis and saris, even if he did not make in an absolute principle. There are plenty of quotes like this one:
“Now for our practical life we are known all over the world as shaven-headed. Is it not? Now we are becoming hair-headed. We are forgetting shaving because there is little leniency. Immediately faulty things are creeping in. So we should be known as shaven-headed, not long-hair-headed. This is discrepancy. At least once in a month you must be clearly shaven-headed.”(SB class Vrindavan 1975)
6) “a conclusion of destruction of local cultures”
There is no recommendation for that. Those who practice raganuga-bhakti will always remain a tiny minority. Local cultures are already destroyed in our modern globalized society at breath taking speed. If some devotees who are spread around the planet follow a specific Indian culture or even dress in traditional Indian dress, how would that change any local culture? The author of this article is not preaching about change of dress. He has also made it clear that it is not compulsory to wear the traditional dress but to have knowledge about it and not deride it. Even at his place in Vrindavan, the Jiva Institute, most people are not wearing traditional dress. He also does not make it compulsory for his followers to wear any specific dress. When Prabhupada preached all over the world and made his followers go on the streets in traditional dress, did he kill the local culture? The author of this article is nowhere in comparison to Prabhupada’s preaching, and yet you find his attitude “scary, and, frankly, repulsive.” I find your concern unfounded and exaggerated, to say the least.
Yours in seva,
malati manjari dasi
My obeisances Malati Manjari devi dasi. Jaya Sri Guru and Gauranga.
I would have been nice to get a response from the author.
Thank you for clarifying. My only further response is that the original article, by using the term “Indian” instead of “Vedic” and by linking impersonalism with non-Indian cultures, creates many unwanted and unintended misconceptions.
Perhaps this article should be removed and a clearer, less easily misunderstood article could be written in its place.
Your servant, Urmila devi dasi
Thank you, Urmila Devi, for this suggestion. I agree that some of it could have been stated clearer (and added the word “modern” in the 6th paragraph), but please consider this is not a thoroughly edited article, but just Questions and Answers. When the author has more time (and is not in the middle of holding a svadhyaya retreat apart from his regular services), he will surely consider your suggestion.
Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī comments on Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindhu (1.2.295) sādhaka rūpeṇa tu kāyikyādi sevā tu śrī rūpa sanātanādi vrajavāsi janānām anusāreṇa kartavyetyarthaḥ “Following in the footsteps of the residents of Vraja in the physical body means one must serve in adherence to Śrī Rūpa and Sanātana.”
Rupa and Sanatan did not wear Bermuda shorts and baseball caps.
Obeisances. Jaya Sri Guru and Gauranga!
Even the title “Indian culture” is a problem. As we understand from Bhagavatam, Vedic culture was worldwide in various types of manifestations, not just in India. And, frankly, some remnants of that Vedic culture continue to exist not only in India, but also in most of the modern cultures of the world. One can see remnants of Vedic rituals and philosophy in most world religions. Sadaputa dasa was working on publishing a book on this subject when he passed away.
Even to say “traditional Indian culture” is confusing. Which tradition? Which time period? Which region of India? All aspects of that “traditional” culture or just some? Who decides?
Also, frankly, Caitanya Vaisnavas aiming for Vraja (especially those performing raganuga sadhana) would definitely not want to adopt all aspects of Vedic culture, as such persons do not adopt all aspects of even vaidhi sadhana bhakti. Vedic culture includes demigod worship, slavery, men in royal families fighting to the death for a bride, and so forth.
I look forward to a clearer article when Babaji has time.
Your servant, Urmila devi dasi
Babaji says he has absolutely no time for that at present since now he has to work on Paramatma and Krishna Sandarbha, which we will publish next year. So even the other Q & As on Vaishnava Dress have to wait. I can only repeat that when we speak of Indian culture in relation with uttama-bhakti, we refer to the culture and tradition of Vraja that Krsna lived in. But such an article is surely a project to keep in mind for later. Thanks.
i think variation in culture is wrongly measured as the way people in certian regions wear dhoti or sari differently than other region. the essence is that a female devotee should wear a sari and a male devotee should wear a dhoti. now one wears it vary differently from region to region that does not define a variation in culture. it is unity in diversity and not uniformity. please keep this in mind.