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'The Gita's wisdom has gone mainstream'

February 26, 2011 01:33 IST
My mother arrived in America in 1968, an unmarried nursing student, her ears popping as the jumbo jet touched down in New York.

Packed in her luggage, among her medical texts and notebooks, was a tattered copy of the Bhagvad Gita. My mother wasn't particularly religious, and her choice to bring the Gita along with her was more pragmatic than philosophical. As a stranger in a strange land, she needed something to hold on to, that would comfort her and connect her to her roots.

It turns out that my mother wasn't the only one bringing the Gita west. Three years before my mom's first transatlantic flight, A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977)--the apostle of Krishna bhakti and founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness--had arrived to American shores on a steamship, fueled by his own guru's instructions to broadcast the teachings of the Gita to the Western world. Soon his young disciples would take up the task in earnest --literally taking it to the streets. 

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, these disciples, many of them with shaven heads and draped in saffron dhotis or colorful saris, became a common sight in major American and European cities. By the time I was born in 1978, it was practically impossible for one to live in a city like New York and not bump into a street-corner monk with tilak on his head and a Gita in his hand.          

Growing up, I had mixed feelings about these reverse missionaries. The love/hate relationship continued into my early adulthood, even as my spiritual journey led me to become involved with ISKCON and find my own path in the practice of Krishna bhakti.       

On the one hand, I couldn't help but be happy to see the Gita reach new audiences and witness it transform lives. I believed then, as I do now, that the Gita offers universal truth and wisdom that ought not to be restricted to those born into Hindu households, but rather shared with the world. For some, who are seeking a spiritual path to follow, this might mean adopting the practices of Hinduism; but for others--perhaps for most of the people who receive a book--it may simply mean enhancing their lives in some way. I sincerely believe that the Gita can help to make a Christian a better Christian, or a Muslim a better Muslim, or simply make people better human beings.

On the other hand, I felt less than comfortable with the 'in-your-face' zeal of sidewalk evangelism, and knew that many people regarded the Krishna devotees as annoying, or even fanatical, because of it. I was dismayed that the distribution of the Gita, especially at airports, helped to solidify a negative stereotype of the faith and make the Hare Krishnas the butt of many jokes.

In my own life, I've tried to negotiate the tension and achieve a sense of balance, but I haven't quite figured it all out yet. In some ways, however, things seem to be working themselves out. Today, more than ever, American society continues to accept, and indeed embrace, eastern culture and spirituality. The popularity of yoga, reincarnation, and vegetarianism are all testaments to the fact that the Gita's wisdom has gone mainstream. These days, the average American is probably more likely to encounter the Bhagvad Gita while attending a conference on ecology and spirituality, or while perusing the shelves of their local Barnes and Noble, or by having it assigned as mandatory reading for their twice-a-week yoga class. 

Last year, a hotly debated Los Angeles Supreme Court ruling tightened the belt on solicitation at the massive LAX airport. The ruling effectively makes it impossible for Krishna devotees--or anyone else--to distribute literature there. As much as the attorney in me questions the legal reasoning in the decision, I can't help but see it as more of a silver lining than a dark cloud. There are other ways that the Gita's wisdom can--and will--be shared with the world at large, and 'devotional entrepreneurs' will now have to figure them out. One of these ways, I think, is the project to stock motel and hotel rooms with free copies of the Gita.

Personally, I am thrilled about the project. I think it's creative and reflects a great sort of 'outside-of-the-box' thinking. I like that it pays homage to another faith community's successes by following in that faith's footsteps, while still maintaining a sense of individuality and freshness. I love that it is a grassroots initiative that focuses on relationship-building and approaching things with a 'win/win' outcome in mind.   

Most of all, I think that this project's initial success --and its potential for future success--is proof positive that in the more than 40 years that have passed since my mother and her Gita arrived to America, we've all grown up just a little bit.

Vineet Chander is coordinator for Hindu Life, Princeton University. An attorney and communications consultant, he formerly served as director of communications for ISKCON in North America. The views expressed here are his own.

Vineet Chander