Kitchen Cleanliness by Kurma Dasa
Kurma Dasa: Here’s an essay I wrote a while back.
While teaching Sanatana Gosvami, Lord Caitanya described twenty-six qualities of the Vaisnava. A devotee of Krsna, he said, is clean, suci. Everything about a devotee, inside and outside, should be clean – his mind, heart, intelligence, body, clothes, living place, place of work, place of worship, and his personal and business dealings.
Personal cleanliness can be divided into two types – internal and external. Srila Prabhupada once explained that , “simply if we take bath with soap outside, and inside all rubbish things, that is not cleanliness.” Cleanliness, he explained, meant bahyabhyantara. Bahya means outside, and abhyantara means inside. Internal cleanliness can be cultivated by rising early, attending the morning program, beginning with seeing the Deity at mangala-arati, chanting sixteen rounds minimum every day whilst avoiding offences, studying Srila Prabhupada’s books, eating only krsna-prasadam, and most importantly, following the four regulative principles. As far as external cleanliness is concerned, Srila Prabhupada , while instructing his disciples in establishing the first Iskcon school in 1972, spoke of something quite revolutionary.
“ The future preachers of the Krsna consciousness movement must learn to be suci, absolutely pure in all respects, and for this, practical cleansing is the basic teaching, e.g., not touching anything dirty to the mouth…Water itself is more antiseptic, so soap is not always required. The boys should be taught to wash their own dishes, hands, mouth, – that means always washing. They should be given what they will eat, so that nothing is left over, and while bathing they can wash their own cloth. Your country, America, will become so much degraded, but they will appreciate if we are revolutionary clean.”
The standard of cleanliness that Srila Prabhupada wanted us to establish in our daily lives was the standards of brahminical life, and for untrained westerners, this was certainly something revolutionary.
My first understanding of just how clean Prabhupada wanted us to become in February of 1973. Prabhupada had given me my second initiation a year previously, and had told me that now I should learn to possess the qualities of a brahmana as mentioned in the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, and that I should take bath at least twice a day to maintain external cleanliness. I was worshipping the small Deities of Radha and Krsna and cooking daily in the kitchen of our very cramped, ten-room converted terrace house temple in Melbourne’s sleazy St. Kilda district. Prabhupada had just arrived for his second visit to Melbourne.
We were particularly ecstatic because Prabhupada’s servant and secretary Srutakirti and Bali-mardana had, under Prabhupada’s watchful supervision, carried with them on the plane beautiful large marble Deities of Radha and Krsna that would be installed in a few days time.
The day before the proposed installation ceremony, Srila Prabhupada sent Bali-mardana down to the kitchen for an inspection, and he didn’t like what he saw. He spoke disapprovingly of its poor and dirty condition. He was especially concerned that the pots had a large accumulation of black on their bottoms. “How can the new Deities be installed tomorrow,” he said, “with the kitchen so dirty”. He reported his find to Srila Prabhupada.
We were shocked, especially since we thought that the kitchen was quite clean. Looking back, of course, it was as Bali-mardana had described it – very dirty. After a successful lecture at Melbourne’s Palais Theatre that night, Prabhupada returned and took some hot milk. Bali-mardana came down to the kitchen and broke the grave news. “Prabhupada”, said Bali-mardana, “will not go ahead with the installation tomorrow unless the kitchen is thoroughly cleaned”. We rallied for an all-night cleaning marathon.
But the Deity installation was still in doubt. Bali-mardana had also informed Prabhupada that there were insufficient brahmanas available to perform the daily worship. That night, all the kitchen fittings were removed, dismantled, and fully cleansed, the walls scrubbed, scraped and repainted. By early morning the kitchen had been totally transformed. Bali-mardana gave a final inspection and, albeit reluctantly, gave his permission for the installation.
Although we thought that Srila Prabhupada was being strict, in fact he was very lenient. He had written to Bhadra dasi in 1971 and pointed out that in India, the system was that the kitchen should not even be in the same building as the living quarters because the living quarters are contaminated. Of course, since so many Iskcon temples, like our Melbourne temple, were not “custom-built”, but rather transformed buildings, we had to make do with the facilities we had.
In the same letter to Bhadra dasi. Prabhupada touched on other ‘sensitive’ issues for cooks. Cooking pots, he said, were supposed to be thrown out after each cooking. Since disposable clay pots were not a practical item in the West, Prabhupada explained, then the highest standard of cleanliness must be applied to cookware. In this connection Prabhupada wrote:
“In Bombay even the poorest man is clean. I have been to a Parsee kitchen. So nasty, all the pots are black, nothing is clean. For eating they use china – clean or unclean cannot be understood. Even our pots, handled by our European devotees, underneath it is black. You should not even be able to see a black spot. It is not clean. A single black spot and it is not clean.”
Prabhupada related to Pusta Krsna how strict his mother had been in his childhood days. She would check each and every utensil to see if there was any spot of dirt.
“The maidservant had to surrender. Examine. Then it is no spot. Then it is finished. Otherwise, she has to do again. Everything should be neat and clean. The kitchen should be …washed twice daily, opened nicely and smeared with water and gobar. And if you see the kitchen, immediately you’ll feel comfortable. It is very cleanly prepared, then offered to the Deity. Then you take. Automatically your mind becomes cleansed.”
Prabhupada also explained that if a water pot was clean, then naturally one would like to drink out of it. And he recalled how in his school days the seats were so clean that “you liked to sit down”.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness” is not just a homely proverb, but a fact. The verse Sri vigraharadhana-nitya-nana-srngara-tan-mandira-marjanadau confirms this. The spiritual master and his disciples cleanse the temple as a regular daily function. Prabhupada would often chastise his unclean disciples for their neglect of basic standards of cleanliness. “Want of cleanliness ”, Prabhupada explained, “means laziness. If you are lazy, you can’t keep clean. Let me sleep for the time being. This is the mode of ignorance, tamo-guna. We have to conquer over tamo-guna. Satvam visuddham vasudeva sabditam.”
Since everything that is prepared in temple kitchens is offered to the Deity, then naturally the kitchen must be as clean as the Deity room.
The high standard of cleanliness in worshiping the Deity in the temple indicates the worshiper’s devotion. Caitanya-caritamrta gives the account of Raghava Pandita, who went to great trouble to offer very clean coconuts to Lord Krsna in the temple. If there was the slightest discrepancy, Raghava Pandita would not consider the coconut suitable for offering to the Lord
Srila Prabhupada has cited Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura as saying that Raghava Pandita “was not simply a crazy fellow suffering from some cleansing phobia. Rather, he was an eternal servant of the Lord, who, out of pure devotion, wanted to make the best and cleanest offering of worship to the Lord. Srila Prabhupada encouraged us that when we are cleaning the paraphenalia of the Deity (like the cooking pots), then we are actually cleansing our hearts. Cleanliness, then, is the topmost and over-riding principle in all kitchen affairs. Prabhupada told devotees on several occasions that “Krsna doesn’t need a nice offering. He appreciates the sincere endeavor. A clean kitchen is more important than a nice offering. If the kitchen is clean and maintained nicely, then the offering will be nice. If the offering is so-called nice, but the temple is not cleansed, then Krsna does not like that offering.”
Naturally this means that not only the floors, benches, walls, and equipment in the devotee’s kitchen must be clean, but also the heart and mind of the devotee-cook also . It is quite conceivable that one could be in bad consciousness and still have a so-called clean kitchen. I’ve seen some spotlessly clean kitchens in non-devotee establishments, but undoubtedly the consciousness of the cooks who worked there were fixed on many things other than Krishna’s lotus feet.
The consciousness of the cook must be as crystal-clear as his kitchen. In this way, not only will Lord Krishna like to accept the offering, but also those who taste the remnants of the offering will be infused with the Krishna consciousness of the cook. Therefore, Prabhupada wanted that only brahmana initiated disciples do the cooking in Iskcon kitchens. “Others,” he said, “can assist”.
In order to assist in the high standard of cleanliness expected in a devotee’s kitchen, those supplying the kitchen with equipment should select the highest quality materials as can be afforded. This means that stainless steel cookware is always preferred over aluminum. A devotee told me that she heard Prabhupada once say that aluminium “was not fit to pass stool in ”.
Cooking and Deity worship go hand-in-hand. In the same way that the pujaris bathe before entering the Deity room, the cook should take full bath before entering the kitchen. Unless one puts on clean, uncontaminated cloth after his bath, then he is like the elephant who takes bath and then goes back on the land and rolls in the dust. “Don’t roll in the dust of wearing dirty clothes after showering”, Prabhupada said.
What to speak of kitchen equipment, all paraphenalia used in the service of the Deity should be treated with great respect. Prabhupada once criticized a devotee for being in the habit of touching her feet to items that were both clean and sacred. The devotee replied “I might as well cut my feet off ”, and Prabhupada said, “Yes.”
When a devotee asked Srila Prabhupada in Boston in 1971, “While we are cooking in the kitchen, if we touch our clothing, should we wash our hands?” His Divine Grace answered, “If the clothing is clean, you don’t have to wash your hands. If the clothing is dirty, you should not even be in the kitchen.”
In Dallas and Edinburgh, the devotees complained that there were rodents in the kitchen, and asked if they should be killed. Srila Prabhupada said, “No, you should be killed, because you have taken a vow of cleanliness and have not kept that vow.
Finally, some practical points. Clean as you cook. All pots and utensils should be washed as they are used or straight after. Prabhupada said, “Half the cooking is cleaning.” If footwear has to be worn in the kitchen at all, then it should be strictly used only in the kitchen.
Offered food, if at all possible, should never return to the kitchen in which it was prepared. In other words, unoffered bhoga should not come in contact with prasadam. And, if both offered and unoffered foods must share the same refrigerator, then clearly marked areas should be set aside for each.
Kitchen cleanliness is essential in our war against maya. By preparing sumptuous offerings with a clean heart in a spotlessly clean kitchen, then the prasadam will be a potent blessing to help those who partake of it to advance steadily in life. This will enable them to purify their body and mind, and to create fine brain tissue to always think of Krsna, and never forget him.