In Krishna's Kitchen

Mrs. Madhu Sharma, at home in an Indian village, is about to begin cooking the family meal. Her mother is already squatting on the spotless stone floor, dexterously grinding spices and chopping fresh herbs. Her sister minds the children, giving the other women freedom to concentrate on the cooking. Mrs. Sharma’s teenage niece runs in, ready to help, a bunch of fresh vegetables under her arm. The kitchen looks bare except for the sparkling iron pots and the glowing tandooris.

The women cook for an extended family of fifteen people. When the cooking is done, Mrs. Sharma makes up a special plate, places it on a small altar, and offers the meal to Radha and Krishna, the household Deities.

While the family eats, the women continue making hot buttered chapatis at tremendous speed, making sure everyone is amply supplied. After everyone is fully satisfied, the women take their meal. When they’re done, they distribute the leftovers to the animals and birds, and the leaf-plates to the family cow. They take the pots to the hand pump and take turns pumping water and washing pots, using earth and ash as a cleansing agent. Finally, they sluice down the entire kitchen, which will remain empty and clean until the next cooking session.

This is a typical scene of a family meal in an Indian village, nearly unchanged for thousands of years. It’s easy to appreciate how the peacefulness, simplicity, cleanliness, and devotion surrounding this tradition, with roots in the ancient Vedic culture, foster the family’s health and, most important, their spiritual growth.

Should we try to re-arrange our kitchen, and indeed the rest of our house, as a facsimile of Mrs. Sharma’s? Should we rip out the cupboards with their packets and tins, throw out the machines and gadgets, and burn all the furniture? Now that we are attempting to be Krishna conscious, should we try to squat on the floor, eat with our hands, and wear robes? And no more local, traditional dishes—now our diet should consist only of rice, dal, sabji, capatis, and halva?

I’ve been eating and immensely enjoying Lord Krishna’s prasadam, Indian style, for twenty years, but mention a childhood staple like baked beans, chips, cornflakes, rhubarb crumble, or cheese sandwiches, and my mouth still begins to water. Will Lord Krishna accept a kacauri and not rhubarb crumble?

Two considerations come to mind.

The first is that Krishna consciousness is a spiritual culture, replete with its own style of art, cooking, and living. Accepting Krishna’s culture is good for our spiritual advancement.

The second consideration is that Krishna consciousness can be added to our present life. It is the “one” in front of the zeros, the finishing touch, as Srila Prabhupada used to say. Applying this principle, Srila Prabhupada encouraged us to offer what is locally available to the Deity in the temple. Similarly, in our homes we may offer the Lord food according to our own taste and custom, as Srila Prabhupada once explained to Allen Ginsberg.

Of course, the Indian, or, more appropriately, the Vedic tradition does offer a wonderful chance to enter another realm of cooking. After all, the preparations are replicas of those enjoyed by the Lord in the spiritual world. We would do well to explore this realm with the help of accomplished ISKCON cooks such as Yamuna Devi and Adiraja Dasa.

In the meantime we must work with what we have. Our kids still have a hard time with those “Indian” preparations we are unskilled at preparing. And we still lay out those forks and knives. Yet we want our diet to be solely Krishna prasadam, and we want to be Krishna conscious and to center our home on the Lord.

Let’s go back to the kitchen and take another look at that shelf of jars, tins, and packets. Are their contents offered or un-offered? Well … maybe some are offered, others un-offered. Perhaps we’re not sure if the salt is offered or not. We can immediately make a simple change on our shelves and in our refrigerator—keep (clearly marked) separate areas for offered and un-offered items. And to avoid any confusion, keep items like salt, sugar, butter, jam, and so on, in distinct containers, one kind for offered, and another for un-offered.

Because we are trying to prepare dishes solely for Krishna’s pleasure and at the same time cater to the needs, tastes, and perhaps whims of a growing family, we may sometimes feel perplexed. How can we think that we are exclusively cooking for Krishna as we rush to get the porridge and toast ready so that John and Susan won’t be late for school?

We have to remember, of course, that Lord Krishna has entrusted these children to us to look after. But they belong to Him; they are His devotees (even if they don’t yet realize it). So by serving them in the right consciousness, we are serving Krishna. Krishna says (Bhagavad-gita 9.27) that whatever we do should be done for Him. So as we butter the toast we can think, “I’m doing this for Krishna.”

Should we offer every piece of toast to Krishna? No, that’s not necessary. Devotional service is simple, easy, and practical. Krishna wants to enhance our busy lives, not hamper them. Srila Prabhupada once told a devotee who was running a restaurant that he should make a nice offering especially for Krishna in the morning, and then whatever would be cooked during the rest of the day would also be prasadam. We may therefore initially offer the basic items of the breakfast to Krishna, and when requested for more by our family, we don’t have to keep making further offerings.

Suppose you are asked for something that is not part of the initial offering. Here are a few possible measures you could take:

  • Don’t allow anyone to ask for anything not on the table.
  • Keep a basket of offered fruit or a tin of biscuits or other snack food permanently on hand. In the early days of ISKCON Srila Prabhupada kept a jar of gulabjamuns always available for his puckish ("hungry") spiritual children.
  • Have a place in the kitchen for quick offerings. In our home we offer the main meal of the day on the altar in our temple room. Other meals, snacks, and beverages are offered in front of a small picture of Srila Prabhupada in the kitchen. If, for instance, one of the children suddenly requests a piece of fruit during breakfast, it does not take long to offer it and bring it to the table.
  • Follow the principle of association: If an un-offered item comes in the close vicinity of something offered, it also becomes prasadam. Suppose you have heated some milk, offered it, and served most of it out. Susan wants another cup—more than what remains in the pot. If you open a fresh carton of milk and pour some into the pot, it can now be considered offered. The same principle can apply to sugar, salt, and so on. We must be careful, however, that such expediency does not lead to casualness and laziness, and as far as possible we should make fresh offerings.

In many ways we are pioneers on a spiritual frontier, and therefore may feel puzzled occasionally about what is the correct way to do things. This column seeks to focus on different issues, discuss them, offer suggestions, and find solutions. The present discussion, which we will continue in the next issue, may have raised questions, or you may have further ideas or points to add. Please write to me at the address below, and I will be happy to reply. We can work together to reach a synthesis of theory and practice.