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Vegetarianism and the Hare Kåñëa Movement

Bhakti-yoga, the science of devotion to Kåñëa, has been faithfully handed down through the ages for the spiritual health of humanity. The Vedic culture considers a person who caters to the whims of the body and mind, neglecting the needs of the soul, to be infected with the disease of materialism. As doctors prescribe a medicine and a special diet for a disease, the Vedic sages recommend the chanting of Kåñëa’s holy names as the medicine for the materialistic disease, and prasäda as the diet. The Vedic scriptures have predicted that this remedy for human suffering will reach every town and village in the world.
Eager to hasten the fulfillment of this prediction, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupäda, following in the footsteps of his great spiritual predecessors, dedicated his life to spreading Kåñëa consciousness. In 1965, he left India for the United States to introduce Kåñëa consciousness to the people of the West, as his own spiritual master, His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvaté, had requested of him many years earlier. Çréla Prabhupäda was undaunted by his advanced age and the many other obstacles that faced him. Relying fully on the mercy of Lord Kåñëa, he started what was to become a worldwide movement, in the form of the International Society for Kåñëa Consciousness (ISKCON). Between 1965, when Çréla Prabhupäda came to America from India, and 1977, when he passed away from this world, he conveyed the fullness of spiritual life through his lectures, letters, books, and tape recordings, as well as his personal example. He established more than one hundred temples, translated nearly eighty volumes of transcendental literature, and initiated almost five thousand disciples.

Çréla Prabhupäda was motivated by a sense of urgency, because he could see that the world needed India’s great spiritual culture, which was rapidly disappearing. In India he saw that leaders who had neither faith in the Vedic teachings nor knowledge of how to apply them were trying to solve essentially spiritual problems with material solutions. He saw the young generation of Indian people turning away from their sublime spiritual heritage in favor of Western materialism, at the same time that many people in the West, disillusioned with materialism, were looking for a new life with a higher set of values.

Çréla Prabhupäda was keenly aware of the problems of both India and the West, and he offered a sensible solution. He compared India, which still has some spiritual vision, but lacks widespread technology, to a lame man; and the Western countries, which excel in technology but lack spiritual vision, to a blind man. If the seeing lame man sits on the shoulders of the walking blind man, they become like one man who sees and walks. The International Society for Kåñëa Consciousness is this seeing and walking man, using the best of both India and the West to revive Vedic culture in India and spread it to the rest of the world.

Kåñëa consciousness, Çréla Prabhupäda would often say, is not something dry. And prasäda was one way he proved his assertion. He showed his disciples how to cook many kinds of vegetarian dishes, how to offer them to Kåñëa, the Supreme Lord, and how to relish the sanctified food as Kåñëa’s mercy. Çréla Prabhupäda was always pleased to see his disciples eating only Kåñëa’s prasäda. Many times he personally cooked the prasäda and served his disciples with his own hand.

In Volume Two of Prabhupäda Nectar, His Holiness Satsvarüpa däsa Gosvämé describes the mood in which Çréla Prabhupäda gave out prasäda. “He liked to give prasäda from his hand, and everyone liked to receive it. It was not just food, but the blessings of bhakti, the essence of devotional service. Çréla Prabhupäda gave out prasäda happily, calmly, and without discrimination. When he gave to children, they liked the sweet taste of it, in the form of a cookie or sweet-meat, yet also they liked it as a special treat from Prabhupäda, who sat on the vyasasana [seat of the spiritual master] leaning forward to them. Women liked it because they got a rare chance to come forward and extend their hand before Prabhupäda. They felt satisfied and chaste. And stalwart men came forward like expectant children, sometimes pushing one another just to get the mercy from Prabhupäda. To Prabhupäda it was serious and important, and he would personally supervise to make sure that a big plate was always ready for him to distribute... Although now prasäda distribution in the Kåñëa consciousness movement is done on a huge scale, as Prabhupäda desired, it all started from his own hand, as he gave it out one-to-one.”

Çréla Prabhupäda taught that giving prasäda to others is an important part of the Kåñëa conscious way of life. A spiritual movement is useless without free distribution of sanctified foods, Çréla Prabhupäda said. He wanted free prasäda to be part of every Hare Kåñëa function. Indeed, with full faith in the spiritual potency of prasäda to elevate humanity to God consciousness, Çréla Prabhupäda wanted the whole world to taste Kåñëa-prasäda.

The doors are open to the public every day at each of the two hundred Hare Kåñëa temples and thirty-five farm communities around the world, where anyone can take free Kåñëa-prasäda. On Sunday, each center invites the public for a sumptuous multicourse “love feast”, a program Çréla Prabhupäda started in 1966 at the first temple on the Lower East Side of New York City. Every center also has several public festivals a year, such as Ratha-yatra, the Festival of the Chariots, perhaps the world’s oldest spiritual festival. And at each festival, tens of thousands of people see the beautiful form of Kåñëa and eat Kåñëa-prasäda.

In 1979 some devotees in North America created the “Festival of India”, a touring cultural program that cries-crosses the United States and Canada every year, holding 40 festivals in 20 major cities. Under six large tents and at numerous booths and display panels, thousands of people experience Vedic culture as it was presented to the West by Çréla Prabhupäda, through drama, dance, music, diorama exhibits, Vedic literature, and free vegetarian feasts.

The Hare Kåñëa movement also has restaurants in major cities like London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Sydney. As far as possible, the restaurants use ingredients grown on farms run by Kåñëa devotees. The devotees also give courses in cooking Kåñëa-prasäda. In England, the United States, and Australia, the Hare Kåñëa Vegetarian Club on many of the major campuses, provides a humane alternative to the slaughterhouse-oriented college nutrition courses. And having become acquainted with the Kåñëa conscious philosophy, which encompasses all of the ordinary arguments for vegetarianism, and then goes beyond by giving lucid spiritual arguments, most of the people who participate in these clubs become very resolute vegetarians.
Many people have come to know the devotees of Kåñëa through the public congregational chanting of Kåñëa’s holy names. This public chanting, inaugurated in India five hundred years ago, is always accompanied by the distribution of free prasäda.

In some countries, the temples sponsor free prasäda restaurants. For example, at Mukunda’s Drop-In Centre in Sydney, Australia, over one million meals have been given away by the end of 1985.
Another prasäda-distribution program started in 1973, when Çréla Prabhupäda looked out the window of his room one day in Çré Mayapur, India, and saw a young girl searching through some garbage for food. At that moment he resolved that no one within ten kilometers of the Hare Kåñëa temple in Çré Mäyäpura should ever go hungry, and he told this to his disciples. A few days later, looking out the same window, Çréla Prabhupäda was happy to see his disciples passing out prasäda to hundreds of villagers, who sat in long rows eating heartily from round leaf plates. “Continue this forever,” Çréla Prabhupäda told his disciples. “Always distribute prasäda.” This was the birth of the ISKCON Food Relief program, which now distributes more than fifteen thousand meals each week, especially in India, Bangladesh and Africa.

A similar project, Hare Kåñëa Food for Life, lives up to its motto “Feeding the Hungry Worldwide” by distributing over twenty thousand plates of prasäda every day to needy people in both the Third World and the industrialized countries of the West. The Hare Kåñëa movement is one of the world’s leading promoters of a vegetarian diet as a long-range solution to the problem of world hunger. And to relieve the immediate effects of hunger, the devotees of Kåñëa are feeding disaster victims, the homeless, the unemployed, and the hungry through this “Food for Life” program. Working in cooperation with the local officials in different countries, “Food for Life” is often helped with government grants and donations of surplus foodstuffs.
These programs give away more than food, however. Çréla Prabhupäda emphasized that simply feeding the hungry was not enough, that it was false charity to feed someone unless you gave him prasäda and thereby liberate him from birth and death.

It is not surprising, then, that the Hare Kåñëa movement is often called the “kitchen religion,” the movement that combines philosophy with good food. And though some people may not accept the philosophy, hardly anyone says no to the food. In fact, every year more than twenty million people relish Kåñëa-prasäda, food offered to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Kåñëa.

We look forward to the time when unlimited amounts of prasäda will be distributed all over the world and people everywhere will offer their food to God. Such a revolution in this most universal of human rituals—eating—will certainly cure the materialistic disease of mankind.