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Srila Prabhupada Books

Vaisnava Culture, Etiquette, and Behavior, Vol. 1


A Chapter from the Book Titled Vaisnava Culture, Etiquette, and Behavior authored by His Holiness Bhakti Vikasa Swami

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Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu instructed Sanātana Gosvāmī:

tathāpi bhakta-svabhāva—maryādā-rakṣaṇa

maryādā-pālana haya sādhura bhūṣaṇa

maryādā-laṅghane loka kare upahāsa

iha-loka, para-loka—dui haya nāśa

It is the characteristic of a devotee to observe and protect Vaiṣṇava etiquette (maryādā). Maintenance of Vaiṣṇava etiquette is the ornament of a devotee. If one transgresses the laws of etiquette, people make fun of him, and thus he is vanquished in both this world and the next. [i]

Maryādā, often translated as “etiquette,” means “that which clearly defines a boundary or limit.” Culture, etiquette, and proper behavior distinguish men from animals, advanced persons from inferiors, and developed civilizations from those of barbarians. Vedic culture is the highest because it operates according to specific, detailed knowledge of the ultimate purpose of life and the means to attain it, all under the rubric of dharma, a concept that, although essential to spiritual progress, is largely unknown to societies that lack roots in Vedic culture. As Śrīla Prabhupāda often quoted:

āhāra-nidrā-bhaya-maithunaṁ ca

samānam etat paśubhir narāṇām

dharmo hi teṣām adhiko viśeṣo

dharmeṇa hīnāḥ paśubhiḥ samānāḥ

Eating, sleeping, fearing, and mating are equally engaged in by both animals and humans. That which is special to humans is dharma. Persons without dharma are equivalent to animals.[ii]

The highest stage of dharma, and therefore of human attainment, is Vaiṣṇavism, the culture of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Therefore it is essential that every devotee learn and imbibe Vaiṣṇava culture, etiquette, and behavior—collectively known as sadācāra, or śiṣṭācāra—without which a devotee, even though intently engaged in activities of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, remains incomplete, similar to a beautiful person devoid of ornaments.

Of course, ornaments are not the essence of a person, who may perform his regular functions without any such decorations; similarly, it could be argued, devotional service can be executed without caring for the fine details. Certainly, whoever in this degraded age attempts to seriously practice Kṛṣṇa consciousness is certainly a special soul; still, the very spirit of bhakti is to do everything as pleasingly as possible for Kṛṣṇa – kṛṣṇārthe ‘khila-ceṣṭā.[iii] Thus the gopīs, although constitutionally the most beautiful women in existence, nevertheless don ornaments and further decorate themselves so as to be further attractive to Kṛṣṇa. It is not their ornaments per se that satisfy Kṛṣṇa but their spirit of service to Him, manifested (among other ways) as their ornamentation, which the gopīs consider to be very important in their efforts to please Kṛṣṇa. Aspiring servants of Kṛṣṇa follow the path of exalted devotees (among whom the gopīs are the exemplars) by accepting the practices of Vaiṣṇava sadācāra, as revealed by Kṛṣṇa in śāstra and demonstrated by great devotees in tradition. Just as the ornamentation of the gopīs is inextricable from while not constituting the essence of their devotional service, Vaiṣṇava sadācāra is intimately intertwined with the core activities of bhakti that begin with śravaṇa and kīrtana –  as this book aims to demonstrate.

Lord Caitanya descended to this uncultured world to reveal the path of the gopīs, the highest pinnacle of spiritual rasa – a subject so exalted as to transcend even the regulations of the Vedic varṇāśrama system, which is itself the highest manifestation of human culture. That Śrīla Prabhupāda, the deputed emissary of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, distributed topics of spiritual rasa among mlecchas is astonishing and unprecedented, for Vedic knowledge, especially the advanced level, is traditionally imparted only to the highest section of Vedic society. Indeed, it is forbidden to teach the Vedas to persons who are not twice-born, lest those not trained in brahminical culture create havoc by misusing the Vedas.

Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was extraordinarily liberal in desiring to impart spiritual rasa even to the most uncultured persons, yet He did not want that those who came to His shelter should remain uncultured. For the benefit of His future followers, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu instructed His intimate disciple Sanātana Gosvāmī (who is a gopī in the spiritual realm), to write a rulebook, beginning with minutia such as danta-dhāvana (cleaning the teeth)[iv] as well as the essential procedures of devotional service: acceptance of a guru, Deity worship, observance of Vaiṣṇava festivals, and so on. Although anyone, in any condition, may be induced to chant the holy names, and although Lord Caitanya said that chanting alone is sufficient to attain all perfection,[v] the same Lord Caitanya wanted that devotees be trained in Vaiṣṇava behavior, beginning with cleaning the teeth and other basic activities of civilized humans. This underlines the importance of following the details of standard Vaiṣṇava behavior, as a necessary accompaniment of chanting and other primary devotional undertakings that lead to the awakening of rasa.

Rules of Vaiṣṇava etiquette provide a code so that persons who desire to become purified may systematically regulate their life and mold it after the behavior of the predecessor ācāryas, whose behavior is naturally perfect.[1] To act in accord with the tenets of Vaiṣṇavism helps a sādhaka come to the purified stage of identifying himself as a servant of Kṛṣṇa rather than with the behavioral tendencies that he has accrued over lifetimes of associating with nondevotees (and presently manifested within the current body and mind that he has received under the laws of karma). In other words, a devotee should learn to think and act as a servant of Kṛṣṇa, rather than identify himself as an American, Russian, Indian, or whatever, and with the cultural baggage that accompanies such mundane designations.

Just as following the codes of Vaiṣṇava behavior is favorable for cultivating devotional service, neglect of them will lead to obstructions in devotional life. The first two principles of surrender to Kṛṣṇa are ānukūlyasya saṅkalpaḥ prātikūlyasya varjanam, “to accept everything favorable for devotional service and reject everything unfavorable.”[vi] Thus: “One must learn how to discriminate between actions which may be pleasing to the Lord and those which may not be pleasing to the Lord.”[vii] This knowledge, and its practical application, is known as sadācāra, or Vaiṣṇava culture, and is central to the process of surrender to Kṛṣṇa. As stated in the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa: “Since nothing can be successful without sadācāra, every action must be performed with sadācāra.[viii]

Thus all devotees—and particularly those designated as brāhmaṇas, sannyasis, and gurus, who are directly responsible for teaching the details of devotional service—should be well conversant with and adept in this subject.

It is the duty of a Vaiṣṇava ācārya to prevent his disciples and followers from violating the principles of Vaiṣṇava behavior. He should always advise them to strictly follow the regulative principles, which will protect them from falling down.[ix]

Ācārya means one who teaches sadācāra.[x]

Particularly in India, no one will respect a sadhu if he is not properly behaved, for dharma-sthāpana-hetu sādhura vyavahāra: “A sadhu’s behavior establishes the true purpose of religious principles.”[xi]

A sādhu, a saintly person, must be saintly in his behavior (sādhavaḥ sad-ācārāḥ). Unless one adheres to the standard behavior, one’s position as a sādhu, a saintly person, is not complete. Therefore a Vaiṣṇava, a sādhu, must completely adhere to the standard of behavior.[xii] [2]

Pious persons are inclined to respect sādhus, and also expect that the behavior, religious knowledge, and outlook be clearly above that of ordinary people. It is hypocritical to accept the honor accorded to a saintly person without acting in an indubitably saintly manner. Conversely, one who assumes the responsibility to live and behave as an actual brāhmaṇa can do tremendous good for human society.

Śrīla Prabhupāda envisaged a global civilization led by Kṛṣṇa conscious brāhmaṇas.[xiii] Therefore, “there must be a portion of the population well versed in brahminical culture.”[xiv]

The king or the executive head of a state, the father and the school teacher are all considered to be natural leaders of the innocent people in general. All such natural leaders have a great responsibility to their dependents; therefore they must be conversant with standard books of moral and spiritual codes.[xv]

Śrīla Prabhupāda directed his disciples to establish varṇāśrama communities,[xvi] and the usages described herein are particularly suitable for introducing into such communities. Indeed, a major premise of this book is the supposition that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s desires for varṇāśrama-dharma communities throughout the world can, must, and will be fulfilled, and that the ideal cultural model to be aimed at in those communities will be as close to pristine traditional Indian life as is both feasible and conducive to Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

Varṇāśrama entails designating and training persons according to varṇa—as brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas, and śūdras—and āśrama, as brahmacārīs, gṛhasthas, vānaprasthas, and sannyāsīs. The culture of each varṇa is sufficiently distinct as to comprise its own subset within the general category of Vedic culture, yet traditionally it was the brāhmaṇas who received the most extensive intellectual and cultural education; and Śrīla Prabhupāda also especially stressed the importance of training persons to become perfect brāhmaṇas.

Although devotees who engage as brāhmaṇas are not intrinsically better than those who serve Kṛṣṇa in other roles, it is the brāhmaṇas who must be qualified as spiritual leaders. By deep, realized knowledge and by their ideal character, brāhmaṇas must function as teachers and guides to the whole human society. Moreover, brāhmaṇas are entitled to worship deities in public temples, a service that requires optimum cleanliness, purity, regulation, and dedication. Hence, more than others, brāhmaṇas are meant for rigid adherence to Vedic principles.

There are prescribed duties for all the inhabitants of this material world, especially for the brāhmaṇas but also for the people in general.[xvii]

Particularly the brāhmaṇas must be conversant with all details of Vaiṣṇava practices and must maintain high standards of cleanliness and purity. Furthermore, because they are meant to train others, brāhmaṇas must not only know and be fixed in these ordinances but must likewise also know the purpose behind them. Therefore, although this book is intended for all devotees, it is primarily meant for those who aspire to become genuine brāhmaṇas.

Nonetheless, Vaiṣṇava culture is not meant only for the brahminically engaged. The principles and practices of Vedic culture are meant for all devotees, regardless of āśrama, level of advancement, or social or ecclesiastical position. There is little meaning to being a devotee unless one observes the basic praxes of devotional service, such as regularly chanting the holy names, applying tilaka on the body, and respecting one’s gurus and others. Furthermore, whatever his engagement may be, a devotee is supposed to develop all good qualities and to know and practice the precepts of Vaiṣṇava etiquette.

In establishing Kṛṣṇa consciousness worldwide, one of the many obligations of the followers of Śrīla Prabhupāda is to prepare codes of conduct suitable for present and future generations of Vaiṣṇavas. All orthodox Vedic sampradāyas have their own specific smṛtis (treatises that describe the daily and other duties to be performed by its members and indicate the general behavior, attitude, and qualities that they are expected to develop). Smṛtis mostly serve as reference books, with actual behavioral usages being ingrained by habit and uniformly followed within a sampradāya. Usually these smṛtis are compiled shortly after the establishment of a sampradāya and consist of scriptural injunctions (and in some cases also traditional usages) selected according to the ultimate spiritual goal of the sampradāya—the attainment of which is the purpose of the practices—and with consideration of the eligibility of the performers. Such sampradāya-specific smṛtis also contribute to the definition of the sampradāya relative to the broader Vedic ethos within which it operates (a role that primarily pertains to literature that establishes the siddhānta of a sampradāya).

The Hari-bhakti-vilāsa of Sanātana Gosvāmī and Śrīla Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī is accepted as the original authorized smṛti for Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. Its objective was to outline behavioral guidelines for what at the time appeared to be a new sect within the Vedic culture. Still, it is clear that not all of Hari-bhakti-vilāsa is suitable for Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas today.[3]

Sanātana Gosvāmī wrote his Vaiṣṇava smṛti, Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, which was specifically meant for India. In those days, India was more or less following the principle of smārta-vidhi. Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmī had to keep pace with this, and his Hari-bhakti-vilāsa was compiled with this in mind.[xviii]

The importance of Vedic culture for attaining Kṛṣṇa consciousness can be estimated by reflecting that, prior to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s venturing to America, the establishment of Kṛṣṇa consciousness overseas was largely considered impossible, since the goals and outlook of Western civilization were so remote from those of Vedic norms. Śrīla Prabhupāda could not have accomplished what he did without making certain concessions with the Western way of life. He compared his contribution to the act of transplanting of a tulasī plant.[xix] In doing so:

Prabhupāda did not ignore the cultural differences between India and America. Rather, he preserved the Vedic plant and fed it according to the conditions of the Western soil and environment. Always his concern was to preserve the plant. Therefore he was willing to adjust his preaching to suit the Western mentality, yet without altering the purity and authenticity of Kṛṣṇa’s message.[xx]

Although the “soil” (the cultural background) of India may be inherently more nutritive for tulasī plants than that of the West, tulasī flourishes wherever there is devotion. “Śrīla Prabhupāda was the embodiment of a whole culture, and he implanted that culture in the West;”[xxi] he transmitted the essence of all Kṛṣṇa conscious directives to the contemporary world along with the vital nutrient of genuine devotion. He adeptly made adjustments that would allow the original culture to thrive in a different atmosphere yet without losing its distinctiveness and inherent quality. He expertly bridged the gap between East and West and traditional and modern by emphasizing the essence: surrender to Kṛṣṇa. Nonetheless, while giving the essence he did not disregard the details. In the words of an appreciative academician: “Śrīla Prabhupāda’s efforts were directed not at providing a simplified, easy Hinduism, attractive to Western customers, but something much nearer to the traditional model.”[xxii]

That Śrīla Prabhupāda intended the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement to gravitate far closer to the traditional model is evident not only by his plans for varṇāśrama but also by a particular significant statement – that he had trained his disciples in pracāra (preaching) but had not had time to train them in ācāra (proper behavior).[xxiii]

Consequently, in the wake of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s worldwide spreading of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, there is a major need for a compilation of behavioral codes suitable for contemporary Vaiṣṇavas. Such a compilation must not only be grounded in the eternal principles of Vedic culture, by being based on guru, sadhu, and śāstra, but also be suitable for devotees living in an ethos that differs considerably from that in which the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa was written. The composing of a modern Vaiṣṇava smṛti may be possible by careful study of and commitment to the directions and mood of Śrīla Prabhupāda, who was empowered by Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu to distribute Kṛṣṇa consciousness to the modern world.

Undoubtedly, it is a difficult assignment to compile a book on Vaiṣṇava behavior. It takes much time, patience, and insight to gather the often considerable number of instructions available from various sources, to select those most suitable for the target audience, and to then organize them, explain any seeming anomalies, and offer further pertinent guidelines.

Being derived from śāstra and tradition, with close attention to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s instructions, this book is an attempt to systematically render a compendium of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava behavioral norms and usages, describing how devotees of Lord Kṛṣṇa should conduct their lives. It is meant to provide practical guidance for aspiring Vaiṣṇavas, especially followers of Śrīla Prabhupāda, in the modern age, and to help aspiring devotees to better understand Kṛṣṇa’s Vedic culture so as to enter deeply into it by thinking and acting in the manner of genuine Vaiṣṇavas of previous centuries.

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s many instructions on diverse aspects of Vaiṣṇava conduct are dispersed throughout his books, lectures, letters, and conversations, so it is hardly expected that all of his followers could be familiar with them in full. Indeed, it is unsurprising that even some of his most qualified disciples are unaware of all the details of Vaiṣṇava behavior that have been enunciated in śāstra and through tradition, and by Śrīla Prabhupāda.

This book also describes and sometimes prescribes certain practices that Śrīla Prabhupāda did not personally observe or stress but which are traditional śāstric procedures, with the understanding that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s intention of introducing varṇāśrama must entail a substantially more traditional approach to Kṛṣṇa consciousness than that which he introduced to the barbaric West.[4]

Although none of the praxes mentioned herein are unimportant, some are clearly more significant than others, as can be adjudged by considering the relative importance of early rising and chanting of the holy names vis-a-vis whether or not men should wear earrings. As in all facets of Vedic cultural life, whether or not various practices should be adopted by an individual, community, sampradāya, or sub-sampradāya is not meant to be decided arbitarily, but under the guidance of brāhmaṇas and gurus. This manual is intended to assist brāhmaṇas and gurus in discharging their duty of instructing individuals and communities, yet it cannot be a substitute for the cultural training that they are supposed to impart.

This volume is submitted as a first attempt at redressing the current tremendous lacuna within Vaiṣṇava society of that cultural training which is so necessary for spiritual advancement. It may even help gurus to become more aware of the details of Vaiṣṇava traditions and etiquette and to accordingly instruct their disciples. Encouragingly, many devotees are eager for guidance in these matters. And that such directions are required is apparent by the widespread unawareness within today’s ISKCON of many of the simple standards practiced and taught by Śrīla Prabhupāda (such as those concerning kīrtana) or of basic cultural norms, to the extent that anyone who promotes these principles may even be deemed odd or fanatical.[5]

It has been more than half a century since Śrīla Prabhupāda first came to the West, the initial step in what he foresaw as a “cultural conquest” whereby India’s original culture (“Kṛṣṇa culture”[xxiv]) would not only be revived and reestablished but also “foster India’s indigenous culture in other parts of the world.”[xxv] It is understandable that most devotees during the early days of ISKCON, having been raised in an entirely different ethos than the Vedic, were hardly ready to adopt the finer points of Vaiṣṇava praxis. But it is now long overdue for devotees to seriously attempt to understand and implement Vedic culture, which Śrīla Prabhupāda so much spoke about and wanted to reestablish. Hopefully after the release of this book, devotees will gradually adopt many of the practices cited herein and thereby uplift Vaiṣṇavas everywhere to a markedly higher level of culture. Particularly ISKCON devotees and centers should become known and respected for their advanced spiritual culture. At least devotees whose present birth is in an Indian family should gladly adopt the advice given herein, recognizing it as the highest manifestation of their cultural heritage. And, as the cultural climate gradually becomes more favorable, not only those living monastic lives, but devotees from all sections of the Vaiṣṇava community should be able to adopt these practices, and it is hoped that some devotees will take up these instructions fully and establish Vaiṣṇava communities based on them.

Commitment to Vedic culture entails an understanding (sambandha) and a lifestyle (abhidheya) that profoundly influence everything one does in pursuit of the ultimate goal (prayojana) of Vedic civilization, namely individual and communal revival of pure Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Although the present generation of devotees is not very familiar with the intricacies of that culture, it is hoped and expected that in the future (as was in the past) no one will be accepted as a brāhmaṇa or guru unless he is intimately familiar with and personally observes the details of Vaiṣṇava behavior. This book aims to inspire and educate devotees toward that goal, and to thereby initiate a cultural revival for counteracting the pernicious effects of Kali-yuga.

Admittedly, it is hardly expected that there will be sudden widespread enthusiasm for incorporating all of these procedures and principles, for “one cannot suddenly change a community’s social customs.”[xxvi] Indeed, during the early twenty-first century, many of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s followers have been more inclined toward assimilating Kṛṣṇa consciousness within the prevailing culture rather than toward providing a social alternative that is both spiritually uplifting and clearly authorized. Both approaches have their merits and need not be mutually exclusive.

Nevertheless, this book is especially meant for devotees who are committed to promoting Kṛṣṇa consciousness as a distinct substitute for today’s misdierected civilization, rather than seeking accommodation within it. While offering some guidelines for making adjustments suited to contemporary life, it focuses mainly on the kind of cultural usages that are prescribed by śāstra and have been accepted over countless generations by Vaiṣṇavas in India. These directions are meant to point the way toward, and help to lay a foundation for, the worldwide reestablishment of Vedic culture that Śrīla Prabhupāda repeatedly urged, with increasing specificity in his later years. This volume may also be useful for future reformists who attempt to uncover pristine Vaiṣṇavism subsequent to the transmogrification that it had undergone when the Vaiṣṇava world was dominated by practitioners who had no moorings in Vedic culture.

Even those devotees who feel unable to relate to the gist of this book might still gain from it a better understanding of and regard for the sophisticated culture that throughout eternity has formed the substrate of the devotional path that they have adopted. Presumably, most devotees of Indian ethnicity will herein recognize a delineation of the tradition that they naturally accept to be concomitant with Kṛṣṇa consciousness, and thus they will happily endorse and embrace the various usages described. And devotees who visit India may avail valuable advice for better appreciating and relating to the complex and very different culture that they will find themselves in.

My attempt is to convey the behavioral instructions and guidelines that form the essential underpinning of the Vaiṣṇava tradition, which have been mercifully bestowed via śāstra and the Vaiṣṇava ācāryas for our purification and upliftment and which offer all mankind the opportunity to attain the topmost stage of love of Godhead. Hence, this book contains profuse quotes from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books and other accepted sources of evidence.

Yet there are some details of Vaiṣṇava behavior that might not be specifically defined by textual sources (for instance, consideration of suitable apparel for Vaiṣṇavas who are active in the modern secular world), and particularly in such cases I have ventured to express my own realizations and preferences. In doing so, being cognizant of my disqualifications, and of the wide variety of circumstances that devotees today may find themselves in, and of a contemporary widespread reluctance to submit to spiritual authority, my approach has often been to suggest rather than to adopt the prescriptive tone that typifies the dharma-śāstras (lawbooks within Vedic culture). Wherever I have used the word suggest it may be understood that the practice therein stated is my own preference, but that I accept that not all devotees will agree with my preference nor be ready to follow it, and that my preference for that usage is not so vital that it need be followed invariably but taken as a guideline subject to adjustment. Throughout India’s history, there have have always been variations in practice between different social groups and sampradāyas, and individual gurus also invariably impart certain details of behavior somewhat differently.

This book necessarily incorporates my own stance on levels of acceptability; for even devotees who accept that as far as possible Vedic culture should be introduced, differences remain regarding how possible is possible. In Kali-yuga it is difficult to find a balance: few people can be very strict, yet without strictures, people become animalistic. This is a book about rules and restrictions; it is meant to steer persons away from bestiality and toward divine life, and the emphasis is on application, not avoidance, of rules.

This compilation of regulations that are especially meant for a brahmanical lifestyle will almost certainly be disparaged by a certain class of devotees—which underscores the reality that many Vaiṣṇavas in the modern world are far distant from the consciousness required for developing brahmanical culture as it has been accepted and practiced since time immemorial. Worldwide propagation of Kṛṣṇa consciousness has been largely among people unconversant with both the spirit and details of Vedic culture, but to seriously practice Kṛṣṇa consciousness necessitates living, acting, and thinking in a manner much different from that considered normal by most people in this world, especially those raised in cultures that are far from the Vedic.  Nowadays even in India almost everyone who takes to Kṛṣṇa consciousness has very little knowledge of or training in sadācāra. Most of ISKCON provides little more than cursory training in Vaiṣṇava behavior, and many unnecessary and harmful departures from traditional and śāstric norms are now normalized within ISKCON, to the extent that to some devotees, certain practices and principles described herein may seem strange, unnecessary, or even undesirable. Some devotees may summarily dismiss this whole book as unrealistic, impractical, and even detrimental.  In attempting to address and rectify some of these anomalies, this book features some comparisons with contemporary Western culture, which has been tremendously influential in today’s world.

To counter the inevitable contention by some neo-Vaiṣṇavas that devotional life should be stripped of all but the most basic rules and conventions, as well as to edify amenable readers, I have devoted several introductory chapters to explaining the meaning and principles of Vaiṣṇava culture and to its relevance and application today. The rest of the book is more practical, covering four interdependent categories of Vaiṣṇava culture, etiquette, and behavior:

1) Specific individual activities. Spiritual life is based on the execution of certain scripturally ordained activities (broadly known as sadācāra), which help a devotee to advance in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. To persist and progress in spiritual life, a devotee must know how to conduct himself. Hence, detailed descriptions of sadācāra are given in śāstra and have been summarily presented herein.

2) Social intercourse. This encompasses dealings with various categories of persons according to social rank, blood relationships, and other factors. Such dealings are also conducted according to scriptural guidelines, but can be defined only generally, due to the unlimited varieties of interactions that could possibly occur.

3) Personal qualities.

4) Attitude. A person’s consciousness determines, to a large extent, how he will act within the overall framework of accepted behavorial norms.

Because devotees should understand why they should do what they should do, many explanations and much evidence from śāstra has been provided.

This compilation is neither small nor concise, yet it represents only a simplified and truncated examination of the multiple usages, customs, rituals, and other facets of traditional Vaiṣṇava society, and gives only a glimpse into the extraordinarily rich heritage of Vaiṣṇavism. Although not an inclusive guide to procedures such as those for performing pūjā or saṁskāras, it includes some comments on the proper performance of such procedures. Many of the subjects discussed herein overlap with topics examined in publications such as The Spiritual Master and the Disciple, The Nectar of Devotion, and Method of Worship. Several primary facets of the Vaiṣṇava way of life, such as hearing and chanting about Kṛṣṇa, have been treated principally in regard to how they should be practiced, since theological considerations concerning them have been discussed extensively in many other Vaiṣṇava writings. Several more themes, some of which have been outlined in this work, could be, or already have been, better reviewed in comprehensive books that present Vaiṣṇava perspectives on temple management, cooking, kitchen management, cow protection, dhāma-sevā, saṁskāras and other rituals, Ayurveda, drama, sculpture, architecture, knowledge derived from phenonema such as omens and physiognomy, and many other arts and sciences.

Some topics that are tangential to Vaiṣṇava culture, such as those concerning astrology and ghost lore, are also touched on herein, as are several asides about various details, so as to provide information and perspectives that hopefully will prove useful to many devotees.

Apart from this general guide to Vaiṣṇava behavior, directions are also needed in regard to social duties within the varṇāśrama system. Toward this end, I envision a series of manuals. I have already published Brahmacarya in Kṛṣṇa Consciousness, and plan to compile similar books on Kṛṣṇa conscious family life and sannyāsa. My already published book Glimpses of Traditional Indian Life is meant to portray how various aspects of Vedic culture interrelate as a coherent whole.

General advice regarding how to live in this complex world may be found in various smṛti works such as the Hitopadeśa, dharma-śāstras, and nīti-śāstras (moral and civic codes), among which the collected ślokas of Cāṇakya Paṇḍita are especially well known and were often quoted by Śrīla Prabhupāda (who described Cāṇakya-nīti as “very useful for daily affairs”).[xxvii] [6]

As stated in Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, there are many fine points regarding etiquette in devotional service which can be understood only by those who have received the mercy of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Upon receiving instructions from Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu for compiling that book, Sanātana Gosvāmī joined his palms and said:

My Lord, You ordered me to write a directory about the activities of Vaiṣṇavas. I am a most lowborn person. I have no knowledge of good behavior. How is it possible for me to write authorized directions about Vaiṣṇava activities? Please personally tell me how I can write this difficult book about Vaiṣṇava behavior. Please manifest Yourself in my heart. If You would please manifest Yourself within my heart and personally direct me in writing this book, then, although I am lowborn, I may hope to be able to write it. You can do this because You are the Supreme Personality of Godhead Yourself, and whatever You direct is perfect.[xxviii]

Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu replied: “Whatever you want to do you will be able to do correctly by Lord Kṛṣṇa’s favor. He will manifest the real purport.”[xxix]

Concerning this, Śrīla Prabhupāda commented:

Sanātana Gosvāmī was a pure devotee of Kṛṣṇa. A pure devotee has no business other than serving Kṛṣṇa; consequently Kṛṣṇa is always ready to help him. This benediction was given by Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu to Sanātana Gosvāmī, who was authorized to write Vaiṣṇava smṛti. Sanātana Gosvāmī was a pure devotee of the Lord, and through the blessings of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu he was able to write the book perfectly.[xxx]


The blessings of the authorities are one’s power of attorney. One should not try to write anything about Vaiṣṇava behavior and activities without being authorized by superior authorities.[xxxi]

In the preamble to his own commentary on his Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, Sanātana Gosvāmī submitted:

To the best of my ability, I am writing a commentary on the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa named the Dig-darśinī (“a commentary that shows the way”), which explains some parts of the book. As the author, hoping for the success of the difficult task ahead, I first take shelter of the supreme spiritual master and my worshipable Deity, Lord Caitanya. I take shelter of Him so as to describe the obligatory duties of the saintly Vaiṣṇavas. I have discussed these topics with devotees who are dedicated to saintly behavior. The intention behind this composition is the highest joy of these same Vaiṣṇavas. Regardless of my lowly status, this attempt can be succesful because I take shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is endowed with all opulences and is the possessor of all good venerable qualities, beginning with mercy. The purport is that anything can be achieved by taking shelter of Mahāprabhu, the Supreme Lord. Moreover, I am writing this book on His strength, on His order, or due to His glory, and not out of my own whim marred by pride and so on. Lastly, my personal opinion is that “Śrī Caitanya-deva” is the celebrated name of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Since I am His surrendered servant, I experience no hardships in my service, for everything is easily accomplished by the glorious influence of His mercy.

Although I am nowhere near the level of a pure devotee like Sanātana Gosvāmī, I aspire to follow in his footsteps and those of other surrendered servants of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Therefore I pray for the blessings of Lord Caitanya and Sanātana Gosvāmī, as received in paramparā from Śrīla Prabhupāda, to be able to compose this book as perfectly as is possible within the limitations of my material conditioning. Considering my own lack of proper etiquette, it may be deemed presumptuous that I promulgate instructions meant for the entire society of Vaiṣṇavas. Yet despite my many disqualifications I have taken upon myself this grave task, considering that no one to date has attempted to compile a compendium of Vaiṣṇava etiquette in the depth that will be required for establishing Vaiṣṇava culture within the world. Furthermore, as a sannyasi, it is my duty to instruct. With this in mind, I have spent many years collecting instructions regarding Vaiṣṇava behavior, so as to systematically present them for the benefit of devotional aspirants.

Some devotees opine that because I am based in India and am relatively unacquainted with contemporary Western life, I am disqualified from giving normative instruction to Western devotees. In reply, my familiarity with much of traditional Indian culture is itself a major advantage for teaching devotees how to live and act. Furthermore, to compensate for my possible lesser cognizance of the current Western mentality, the manuscript of this book has been critically reviewed by several Western-based senior devotees. An overriding consideration is that Vaiṣṇava culture is sanātana-dharma (the eternal occupation of the jīva) and that all other modes of human interaction are are not only ephemeral but unhelpful for cultivating the consciousness of being an eternal servant of Kṛṣṇa. Therefore, devotees who are unaccustomed to Vaiṣṇava culture should attempt to adjust themselves to it rather than expect that it should be adjusted for them.

Although it is impossible to provide directions that address every situation, sufficient guidelines and details have been given so that an aspiring devotee may become well cognizant of Vaisnava behavioral standards. I request the indulgence of my readers for the inevitable overlapping of themes. After all, “Repetition of something is necessary in order that we understand the matter thoroughly, without error.”[xxxii] I trust that sāragrāhī Vaiṣṇavas will accept this contribution as being valuable and authoritative and not reject it due to its inevitable discrepancies and oversights, what to speak of the manifest disqualifications of its compiler. In the words of the renowned lexicographer of yore named Hemacandra:

pramāṇa-siddhānta-viruddham atra

yat kiñcid uktam mati-māndya-doṣāt

mātsaryam utsārya tad ārya-cittāḥ

prasādam ādhāya viśodhayantu

May the noble-minded scholars, instead of cherishing ill-feeling, kindly correct whatever errors have been committed through the dullness of my intellect in the matter of wrong interpretations and misstatements.

Notwithstanding my manifest imperfections, all that I have presented herein is offered in a spirit of service to Śrīla Prabhupāda and his followers and mission. Throughout most of this lifetime, I have seriously endeavored to abide by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings and example, and I have personally observed much of the still-prevalent culture of India while meditating on how to communicate these points to devotees worldwide. Granted, even among those who concur with the general thesis that devotees should gravitate toward traditional behavior, there may be disagreements over details, yet I am confident that on the whole this contribution will be welcomed by the many devotees who desire specific guidance in such matters and who tend to prefer an orthodox, rather than a modernized, approach to Vaiṣṇavism. Much of what I have presented is especially suitable for devotees who aspire to adopt the best of traditional Indian culture in as pristine a form as possible.

I seek the blessings of all Vaiṣṇava ācāryas upon this work, especially those of my most merciful spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, who represents all previous ācāryas and without whose grace I would never have even heard of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, let alone have attempted to compose a compendium of Vaiṣṇava directives.

vande śrī guru-devaṁ taṁ karuṇā-varuṇālayam

yat kṛpā-lava-leśena pāmaro ‘py amarāyate

I offer obeisance unto my guru, who is an ocean of compassion, and by merely a drop of whose grace even a lowborn person becomes immortal.[xxxiii]

Many of the guidelines herein may appeal to non-ISKCON and even to non-Vaiṣṇava adherents of Vedic dharma who wish to learn more about and to adopt the cultural norms of their antecedents. Additionally, this book might be of some interest to certain anthropologists, scholars of religion, and other academicians. However, it is particularly meant for devotees who are committed to the service of Śrīla Prabhupāda and the service of his servants. I seek the blessings of all such great souls, and also those of Śrīla Prabhupāda and all the previous ācāryas, especially Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmī Prabhupāda and Śrīla Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī Prabhupāda. I further seek the blessings of Śrī Gauracandra, who introduced the chanting of the holy names to save the wretched souls of Kali-yuga, who are described as asaṁskṛtāḥ kriyā-hīnā rajasā tamasāvṛtāḥ, “lowborn people not purified by Vedic rituals, not following regulative principles, and covered by the modes of passion and ignorance.”[xxxiv]

May this volume be pleasing to and accepted by Śrī Gauracandra, and by the devotees whose very life is service to the lotus feet of His servants.

Hare Kṛṣṇa.

Bhakti Vikāsa Swami


 Foot Notes:

[1] See Bg 3.21, 4.15. (back)

[2] What constitutes that standard behavior is the subject of this book. (back)

[3] This topic is further discussed on p. XXX. (back)

[4] This topic is further discussed on p. YYY. (back)

[5] As just one of many examples, even some senior devotees from the West regularly do such things as removing their socks and then picking up a śāstra without first purifying their hands, which to them might seem to be at most a minor infringement but would shock any cultured Indian. (back)

[6] Śrī Cānakya-nīti, Sanskrit Text and English Translation, is published by Bhakti Vikas Trust. (back)


 End Notes:

[i] Cc 3.4.130–131. (back)

[ii] Hitopadeśa, prastāvikā (Introduction) 25. (back)

[iii] NoI 3, ppt. (originally from Bhakti-vinoda-ṭhākua’s Bhaktyāloka, Six Qualities Enhancing Bhakti). (back)

[iv] Cc 2.24.324–345. (back)

[v] Cb 2.23.78. (back)

[vi] HBV 11.676. (back)

[vii] SB 1.15.24, ppt. (back)

[viii] HBV 3.4. (back)

[ix] Cc 3.13.133, ppt (back).

[x] Lecture, 22 May 1976. (back)

[xi] Cc 2.17.185. (back)

[xii] SB 7.7.31. (back)

[xiii] For instance, see: letter, 17 Oct 1968; SB 4.12.48, ppt; SB 7.11.17, ppt. (back)

[xiv] Lecture, 4 Dec 1968. (back)

[xv] Bg 3.21, ppt. (back)

[xvi] For instance, see Śrīla Prabhupāda’s conversation of 12 Mar 1974 re varṇāśrama. (back)

[xvii] SB 8.16.4. (back)

[xviii] Cc 2.23.105. (back)

[xix] Gosvāmī, Satsvarūpa Dāsa. Remembering Śrīla Prabhupāda, p. 223. Port Royal, PA: GN Press, Inc, 1992. (back)

[xx] Satsvarūpa Dāsa Goswami, BTG 30–03 (May-June 1996), p. 50. (back)

[xxi] SSR Foreword. (back)

[xxii] Prof. A.L. Basham, The Australian National University, Canberra. (Source of quote unascertained) (back)

[xxiii] Stated by Rājendranandana Dāsa (Memories, vol. 3, p 127); also independently stated by B.V. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja. (back)

[xxiv] Conversation, 2 Nov 1973. (back)

[xxv] From a pre-1966 document typed by Śrīla Prabhupāda, featured in Vedabase. (back)

[xxvi] Cc 1.7.31–32, ppt. (back)

[xxvii] Lecture, 24 Nov 1976. (back)

[xxviii] Cc 2.24.324–27. (back)

[xxix] Cc 2.24.328. (back)

[xxx] Cc 2.24.328, ppt. (back)

[xxxi] Cc 2.24.345, ppt. (back)

[xxxii] Bg 2.25, ppt. (back)

[xxxiii] Quoted in Śrī Stava Kalpadrumaḥ, p.6. (back)

[xxxiv] SB 12.1.40. (back)


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