The Pizza Effect
By Satyaraja Dasa (Steven J. Rosen)
It’s become a tradition at the Brooklyn Hare Krishna temple that my friends and I regularly engage in a particular game of words. It goes like this: Since Krishna consciousness is all encompassing, having relation to all material and spiritual phenomena, we choose a word at random and see how it connects to our philosophy. For example, at a recent Sunday feast, one of my friends said, “ice,” noticing that the lemonade in each of our cups contained large ice cubes. As quickly as the word emanated from his lips – we were off, thinking how “ice” might possibly relate to Krishna consciousness.
“Ice,” one devotee offered, “is an illusory state. Water is naturally liquid, and only when placed in certain below-temperature conditions will it turn to ice.” We all laughed, knowing where this was going. “What he means,” another devotee added, “is that water in the form of ice is temporary. As soon as conditions even out, it resumes its liquidity.” I brought it home: “Similarly, the living being in the material world is in an unnatural condition. And when placed in a Krishna conscious environment – seeing the Deity, chanting, studying scriptures, taking prasadam [vegetarian food offered to Krishna] – a person resumes awareness of his or her original nature as a pure spirit soul. Our spiritual amnesia is gone and we awaken to our true Krishna consciousness.”
The main course arrived: pizza. The devotees were thrilled, since this is a much loved treat in these parts – but only when offered to Krishna, natch! “Hey,” one devotee quipped, “What about pizza? How does this relate to Krishna consciousness?” Luckily, I had been writing about just such a subject in a recent project for a major academic press. I am writing a high school reference book on Hinduism, and in my research I came upon an interesting reference to pizza. “Surely, you’ve heard about ‘The Pizza Effect’” The devotees hadn’t, and I found myself explaining it to them.
Originally, pizza was looked down upon in Italy as the poor man’s food: it was just simple unleavened bread with a little tomato sauce for taste. Then, accompanying the early emigrants, it made its way to America, where it was garnished with cheese, olives, peppers, various meats, and so on, totally transforming the original into a kind of delicacy. Years later, when it made its triumphant return to the land of its origin, it became a highly respected dish on the menu of even the most eminent restaurants. The new product was eagerly accepted and even given pride of place in Italian cuisine.
Similarly, when Hinduism was first conceived in the West as a monolithic religious tradition, around the turn of the twentieth century, the tradition that returned to India caught everyone’s attention, and Hinduism as a single religion caught on. Originally, in India, of course, no separate religion called Hinduism ever existed. Rather, there are numerous religious traditions, from Vaishnavism, which is the eternal function of the soul – the religion of transcendental principles brought West by Srila Prabhupada – to Shaivism, Shaktism, and a host of other sectarian religions. When invading British Imperialists lumped all these religions together for convenience, many indigenous “Hindus” embraced the idea as if it were something that existed there all along.
Lack of confidence in one’s own culture, combined with the blind acceptance of all things new and foreign, often results in a phenomenon that social scientists call the “Pizza Effect,” a phrase that was coined in as late as 1970 by an anthropologist named Agehananda Bharati.
At this point, our ice melting and other food preps appearing one by one, a particularly witty friend claimed that the pizza effect analogy was a bit cheesy. We all got a good chuckle out of that one. “What does it really have to do with Srila Prabhupada and our mission of Krishna consciousness?” he asked. “After all, we are not Hindus in the usual sense of the word. As you said, we adhere to Sanatana Dharma, the innate function of the soul – this originated in the Vedic texts. Actually, it originated in the spiritual world, and by the Lord’s mercy, it comes to us through the Vedic literature and the great souls who form a lineage throughout the annals of recorded history. No Pizza Effect here.”
My friend was only partially correct. Actually, Srila Prabhupada was trying to cast a Pizza Effect of his own. He had hoped that by successfully establishing Krishna consciousness in the western countries – a region whose activities are emulated in India even to this day – he might reinvigorate the Vaishnava tradition in his own country. I ran to get a copy of Srila Prabhupada’s biography, written by his early disciple, Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, to clarify my point:
Prabhupada’s idea was that when Indians saw young Western people adopting the principles of Krsna Consciousness, the faith of the Indians in their own culture would increase. Prabhupada explained to his disciples how formerly, during the time of Maharaja Yudhisthira*, India had been a Krishna conscious state. For the last thousand years, however, India had been under foreign subjugation, first under the Moguls and then under the British. As a result, the intelligentsia and, to a lesser degree, the masses of India had lost respect for their own culture. They were now pursuing the materialistic goals of the West, and they saw this as more productive and more practical than religion, which was only sentimental. . . . Westerners living as renounced Vaisnavas could, as Prabhupada was well aware, turn the heads and hearts of the Indians and help them regain faith in their own lost culture.
Prabhupada’s “Pizza effect” strategy has proven anything but half-baked. The initial success of Krishna consciousness in the West has now been surpassed by its ever-widening acceptance in India, the land of its birth. The Vrindavan and Mayapura temples – central to the Krishna conscious tradition — continue to flourish, and projects in places as diverse as Mumbai and Chennai are increasing day-by-day. The major temple complex in New Delhi is magnificent in numerous ways and efforts in as far north as the Himalayas and in as far south as Ramesvaram show that the entire subcontinent is engulfed in Prabhupada’s mercy.
As for those of us in the Brooklyn temple, our pizza was now getting cold, but our Krishna conscious word game is always a good way to break the ice.
* Yudhisthira was a great Vaisnava monarch in ancient times, renowned for his honesty and virtue.