On Cultural Appropriation – by Ekendra Dāsa एकेन्द्र दास


( – On Cultural Appropriation – by Ekendra Dāsa एकेन्द्र दास

What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the term “Vedic culture”?

Do you think of mystic sages of a bygone era? Do you consider the phrase to represent a collection of particular social customs that define, for example, how a marriage rite is performed? Does “Vedic culture” encapsulate a society’s art, food and style of dress?

I think all of these ideas are correct, but come short of expressing the essence of what is meant by the term. “Veda” means knowledge. More specifically, it refers to the knowledge found in the Vedic texts. So “Vedic culture” can be more accurately defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a society centred around Vedic literature.

Essential Vedic literature such as Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (Bhāgavata Purāṇa) are mostly composed of conversations. By hearing (or reading) these discussions with a sincere eagerness to understand them, we place ourselves in a very fortunate position that affords us a life-changing shift in perspective that can’t be impeded by any material circumstance.

Here’s a story of an experience I had around twenty years ago.

In the early 2000s, when the internet was just starting to become an ubiquitous part of our lives, I kept an online blog (archived here). Mostly I would just share passages from things I was reading. At one point, an Indian man from Melbourne, Australia (we’ll call him Mr. Gupta) struck up a dialogue with me over email. He seemed very genuine and eager to discuss Vedānta-sūtra. This was serendipitous because I had only recently begun to read Śrī Baladeva Vidyābhūṣana’s Govinda-bhāṣya commentary on the same text. Drawing from that, and acknowledging my source, I was honoured to feed his desire for Vedic study with Śrī Baladeva’s brilliant food for thought. Mr. Gupta was very appreciative; so much so that, when I mentioned that I’d be travelling through Melbourne for a few days, he was keen to meet up with me. We agreed to meet in the courtyard of the ISKCON Melbourne temple.

So when the time arrived, I took a seat on one of the benches in the courtyard. It was during the day, so there was hardly anyone around, save a few busy pūjārīs. In walked a middle-aged Indian gentleman with his wife, both dressed in western attire. He stood near the entrance and scanned the area, looking directly at me at one point. Giving up, he stood there patiently. I motioned to his wife for them to come over and, with a welcoming smile on my face, asked if I could help. Mr. Gupta hesitantly asked me if I knew where they could find Ekendra Dasa.

“That’s me!”, I replied with a chirpy grin.

Mr. Gupta was not able to conceal the look of disappointment on his face. He actually looked a little shocked and found it hard to come up with anything to say. So I shared the awkward moment with him, reserving any judgement while he acclimatised to the idea that Vedānta could have appeal to someone not born in India.

The awkwardness drew on to the point where I felt the need to acknowledge it, “Is something the matter?”

“Well, to be honest, I expected you to be Indian”, he stated.

His dismay soon turned indignant with his next remark, “I feel you should have told me that you were not from India. I’m quite disappointed that you hid that from me.”

I explained plainly and dispassionately that I never thought to conceal anything from him, that he originally approached me via email to ask questions, and that we’d enjoyed some thought-provoking dialogue in the preceding weeks. Given the high subject matter, the thought of race didn’t seem a significant enough factor to bear mentioning. I mean, what was our previous dialogue meant to look like?

athāto brahma jijñāsā – Now, therefore, one should inquire about Brahman ….
janmādy asya yataḥ – Brahman is He from whom everything emanates ….
śāstra-yonitvāt – He may only be known by the revelation of the Vedic texts ….
tat tu samanvayāt – This fact is confirmed by the Vedic texts themselves.

….. and, by the way, I’m white.

This was not good enough for him. He saw the entire meeting as an insult and attempted to return the gesture by insulting me.

“You have no qualification to study Vedānta. You are of a mleccha (meat-eater) birth and cannot understand these matters. You are using elements of my culture for your own purposes and without any credentials.”

I’m not free from the propensity to react caustically to being insulted, but I honestly felt so sad to hear this that my heart sank. Despite the universal, trans-rational and trans-religious concepts gifted to mankind in Vedānta-sūtra, this previously inquisitive person could not see through the material trappings of bodily consideration. Besides, I was born in the land of meat-eaters, what was his excuse for being here?

So I tried to put together a non-confrontational defence, but failed to reach him. Instead, I thought to gift him the copy of Śrī Īśopaniṣad I had with me. He refused, then stormed out the same way he came in, leaving me in a state of disheartened confusion.

Oxford defines the term “cultural appropriation” as:

The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.

The words in question here are “unacknowledged” and “inappropriate”, neither of which apply to my conception or presentation. I give all credit to my predecessors and try to prayerfully speak, and write, on spiritual subjects as if those exalted personalities in my lineage are looking over my shoulder.

Moreover, Caitanya Vaiṣṇavites aren’t overly hung up on religious rituals and external customs anyway. We are in the school of sanātana-dharma, attempting to rise above any material designation by accepting whatever is favourable in furthering our identity as lovers of Kṛṣṇa.

Sanātana-dharma describes the inherent culture of every living entity. It’s not even exclusive to humans, as it refers to the constitutional nature of the soul. So to try to isolate the subject of Vedānta from its universal context into such a limited scope as belonging just to those born into a specific Hindu caste is actually cultural misappropriation in an extreme sense. Jagannātha means lord of the “jagat” or universe. He’s not called Manuṣya-nātha, Hindu-nātha, Brāhmaṇa-nātha, Bhārata-nātha, Orissa-nātha or Purī-nātha. Jagannātha is the Lord of everyone in the universe, and has historically taken exception to those who misappropriate His culture.


Jaya Jagannātha!

So, Mr. Gupta, please stop appropriating my culture.

In 1973, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda gave an even more specific definition of “vedic culture” at a public gathering in Mumbai, India:

“Vedic culture means Kṛṣṇa consciousness. There is no other meaning of Vedic culture.”

In such an educationally focused Vedic society, individuals of exemplary character with the ability to first understand then explain the teachings of Kṛṣṇa consciousness are valued and cherished. Education isn’t just something for young people. We are meant to embrace a lifetime of learning and seek out a teacher, or teachers, that are living and representing authentically. This is the culture of Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

Stay teachable! If we can do this, our lives will get a whole lot more interesting.


Image courtesy of Radhesyam Dasi

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These words were not generated with or augmented by artificial intelligence; just “flawsome” human thoughts here … with, of course, due homage to The Algorithm that abides over us all.

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