Here’s a newsworthy event. A new Krishna-themed charity shop / thrift shop has opened up in a small town on the Thames river not too far from London. You can hear all about it in this short film.
Every year the disciples and followers of Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acarya of ISKCON, compose written tributes in celebration of the day of his birth. This year I was asked to write ‘The Meaning of Vyasa Puja’ for the international book. Here is what I wrote:
Earlier this year, I visited the city of Kolkata and was taken by a kind devotee to an old building on a short backstreet known as Ultadanga Junction Road. I had never been there before, but had heard about the place for forty years. The square, brown brick, rather plain three storey building was formerly known as Bhaktivinoda Asana and it was here, on the flat roof-top, that Srila Prabhupada met his spiritual master for the first time. I had always been intrigued by the idea of a sacred meeting place up on a roof, and it had a special relevance for me, too. In September 1977, Srila Prabhupada came to Bhaktivedanta Manor on what was to be his last visit. I had been sitting close to Srila Prabhupada when, during the Vyasa Puja ceremony, Tamala Krishna Goswami began recounting events from his spiritual master’s early life. He faltered when he couldn’t recall the date of this roof-top meeting. Even though Srila Prabhupada had said nothing until this point, and was in some obvious physical discomfort, he smiled and said “1922” drawing a cheery “Jaya!” from all of us disciples. I was a direct recipient of what had developed since that meeting, and it was because of what transpired on that Kolkata roof-top that I was now sitting before Srila Prabhupada.
The connection of guru and sisya comes after much searching on the part of the disciple and much compassion on the part of God. Srila Prabhupada explained that for the meeting of the disciple with his guru, God Himself makes the arrangements. He said:
“So guru is also incarnation of God, mercy incarnation of God. Guru means that… God is within you, caitya-guru, the guru, or the spiritual master, within your heart. Īśvaraḥ sarva-bhūtānāṁ hṛd-deśe ‘rjuna tiṣṭhati. So this Paramātmā is also incarnation of God. And the same Paramātmā, when He comes before you, being very much merciful upon you, to teach you from outside, that is guru.” (Lecture on SB 1.3.26 October 1, 1976)
“Therefore God is called caitya-guru, the spiritual master within the heart. And the physical spiritual master is God’s mercy. If God sees that you are sincere, He will give you a spiritual master who can give you protection. He will help you from within and without. Without in the physical form of spiritual master, and within as the spiritual master within the heart.” (Conversation on May 23, 1974)
On Vyasa Puja Day we worship Srila Prabhupada as the manifested compassion of the Supreme Lord, and we give thanks for the day he appeared in this world, as well as the blessed day we met him and heard his words for the first time.
* * *
And what are those words? The spiritual master teaches everything we need to know about the Lord who dwells within us, that one supreme person who is unseen by our eyes. As the external manifestation of the Paramatma, the guru teaches the Vedas, the sound manifestation of God. He teaches the Vedas, the Vedanta, the Puranas, and he does it as a messenger of the Lord’s incarnation, Srila Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa. Srila Vyasadeva is the original spiritual preceptor for all men. And all other preceptors are to be considered his representative.
Only by learning, understanding, living and teaching the Vedas is a person a spiritual master; and only being voiced through the spiritual master can the Vedas become fully manifested and understood in this world. The result of this successful combination – between God, the Vedas, the guru and the disciple – is that the cleansing of the heart takes place; the hard knot of material attraction is loosened; lifetimes of karma-phala are dissolved and the happiness of loving service to the Supreme Lord is established.
The spiritual master is a guru because he is heavy with knowledge and unmovable by any other, lighter arguments. He is an acarya because he moves and lives completely in accordance with the Vedas and teaches the deeper meanings of the scriptures to others. As the Manu Samhita states:
upaniya tu yah sisyam veda-madhyapayed dvijah
sankalpam sa-rahasyam ca tam acaryam pracaksate
One who confers the sacred thread, trains his disciples in sacrifice and teaches them the confidential meaning of the Vedas is known as an acarya, according to saintly authorities. (2.140)
Such a spiritual master is a rare personality indeed, and is someone whose very life contributes the best of all fortune to all those who seek his company. His presence in our life is so valuable because it gives us the greatest possible life: a life lived as a preparation for returning to our eternal home. Through the gifts of knowledge, guidance, encouragement and correction, the spiritual master takes us personally over the darkest valley of repeated birth and death and sets us up in the highest, most glorious place.
When the great Sri Vaishnava poet, Vedanta Deshika (1268-1370) was writing a book about the transmission of spiritual knowledge, he was trying to think of an analogy for the importance of the acarya, the foremost spiritual preceptor, when he remembered something his nephew, Mudaliyantan, had said to him:
“When a lion leaps from one hill to another, the little ants on its body are transported with him. Similarly, when Ramanujacarya leaped over this world of repeated birth and death, we were saved because of our connection with him.”
Srila Prabhupada has similarly leaped over the world of repeated birth and death, and we tiny souls have somehow or other been transported with him.
On Vyasa Puja Day we try to understand our incalculable good fortune of being connected with such an acarya as Srila Prabhupada. He not only carried the message of Srila Vyasadeva but showed us how to live it. He continues to personally lead us from this world of darkness to the world of eternal light. We give thanks for his boundless compassion and never-ending efforts to save us, and we think that through him, we have come to understand the meaning of the term ‘His Divine Grace’.
* * *
‘The juiciest, sweetest mango is always in the sunshine at the very top of the tree.’ Thereby begins the classic analogy of how the highest spiritual teachings are brought down from ancient times to today. A chain of ‘fruit-pickers,’ sitting in the branches of the mango tree, carefully hand down the delicate fruit from higher to lower branches until it reaches the ground. Similarly, the compassionate preceptors always ensure that the teachings are handed down to the next generations. Yet it is no easy task, and even Lord Krishna says that He must come to the Earth, age after age, to re-establish the teachings that have been lost. One essential component of preserving the living message is therefore the chain of teachers – the parampara.
The greatest spiritual master is moved by compassion to make the teachings of the Vedas accessible to as many as possible. Without compromising their integrity he renders them intelligible and accessible to contemporary listeners, protects them from adulteration, and preserves them by creating the next generation of teachers. Srila Vyasa codified, compiled and protected the entire Vedas and is therefore known forever as the ‘literary incarnation of God.’ The Srimad Bhagavatam provides a description of how the sage divided the responsibility for the preservation and extension of Vedic knowledge:
“Paila Rsi became the professor of the Rg Veda, Jaimini the professor of the Sama Veda, Vaisampayana protected the Yajur Veda, and Angira Muni the Atharva Veda. Romaharsana Suta was entrusted with the Puranas and historical records.” (1.4.21-22)
The illustrious son of Romaharsana Suta, the grand-disciple of Srila Vyasadeva, Suta Goswami, then assumed responsibility for protecting the Puranas.
Without teaching his disciples, empowering them to become advanced in spiritual practise and also engaging them in teaching and preaching, the acarya’s work is not complete. Only when he has safeguarded the message of the Vedas for the next generation – both in precept and example – can he be satisfied that he has offered the world what his own preceptor offered him. As the Vayu Purana explains:
Acinoti hi sastrarthan acare sthapayatyapi
svayam acarate yasmad acarya stena kirtitah
“The acarya is thus called because he has studied and understood the meaning of the scriptures, he practises what he preaches, and he establishes this meaning in the behaviour of others.”
The spiritual master not only comes in parampara, but he ensures that the parampara continues by making the Vedas accessible and intelligible, the essential spiritual techniques practicable, and by fully initiating and training his disciples. He encourages his students to do the same for their countrymen and the next generation. In this way the ancient knowledge and tradition is preserved yet always kept fresh. Thus the sacred mango gets passed down the tree to the next level and to the human society that is yet to come.
On Vyasa Puja Day we honour Srila Prabhupada as one who preserved Vedic knowledge and made it accessible to a fresh, new audience. We honour him as one who explained the deeper meanings of the scriptures and demonstrated by his example the efficacy of the spiritual techniques described in them. We honour him as one who walked through the Earth establishing the sacred arca-vigraha, restoring brahminical culture and arguing for cow protection – the hallmarks of civilized human life. We give thanks that he initiated and trained many disciples to carry forward his messages and preserve the chain of teachers.
* * *
On February 5th, 1919, just three years before Srila Prabhupada met him, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur performed one more duty of an acarya. He gave a human and organisational shape to the mission to perpetuate the parampara. Although the parampara will continue to exist whenever and wherever there is teaching of the Vedas, training and mantra-giving, it is such a delicate structure that sometimes it may not even be located by those who are any less than supremely dedicated. When an organised mission is established there can be greater strength. When disciples gather into groups, each with a specific task, the mission to serve the predecessor gurus can be done with improved efficacy. Yes, there is always danger that the power so accrued by such an efficient organisation may turn the heads of even the most devoted disciple, but done well and with devotion to the spiritual master, it will serve his purposes well.
The Six Goswamis of Vrindavan had similarly organised themselves and their followers and called their assembly the Visva Vaisnava Raja Sabha. Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur had also revived the mission of the Goswamis as a human organisation. In 1919 Srila Saraswati Thakur gave a human shape to what he described as the ‘third descent’ of the Visva Vaisnava Raja Sabha. Speaking at the property known as ‘Bhaktivinode Asana’ at Ultadanga Junction Road in Calcutta, before a large assembly of Vaishnavas, he said:
“Even though this Sabha is eternally established, it has descended into the world three times. Eleven years after the disappearance of Shri Mahaprabhu, when the world was beginning to darken, six wonderfully bright stars arose in Sri Vraja-mandala and were engaged in the service of Gaurachandra…
“Sri Chaitanyadeva is Krishnachandra Himself—the King of all the Vaisnavas in the world (Visva Vaisnava Raja). The gathering of His devotees is the Sri Visva Vaisnava Raja Sabha; the foremost ministers amongst the members of the society are Sri Rupa Gosvami and his honoured Sri Sanatana Gosvami. Those who consider themselves to be the followers of Sri Rupa are the members of this Sri Visva Vaisnava Raja Sabha.”
A guru lives to give systematic knowledge, relevant guidance and inspirational encouragement to all who wish to receive it from him and who are qualified to become disciples. He gives whatever he has with compassion, love and discipline, and he sets before his grateful receivers a living example of what it means to be in consciousness of God and His laws. To better share his gifts with others, the guru invites them to come and live with him.
Yet the guru’s mission is also to broadcast and propagate the teachings to as many newcomers as possible. Even to those who cannot live with him. That enormous task requires the training of future travelling teachers, preparation of various types of publications, and the building of temples and other venues so that people can congregate and become educated and inspired, no matter what their level of spirituality or commitment and no matter where they live. It involves organising groups and devotee farms and villages so that future would-be disciples can be part of a social network and helped toward discipleship. Existing disciples and their families can also live peacefully and be supported through the inevitable challenges of life. The disciple’s role in all this is to help the guru and to alleviate his burden. When this larger mission of the guru is understood by the disciple, he or she will participate in the mission of the guru by offering energy, time, intelligence and resources.
It is a privilege to be even a small part of such a glorious movement for the spiritualisation of human society. Although to mundane vision ISKCON may be perceived as merely a human institution, with transcendental vision it can be seen as a compassionate vehicle of Srila Prabhupada’s divine grace, the most important institution in the world, and an excellent means to accomplish the complete manifestation of the desire of the Six Goswamis.
Vyasa Puja is an opportunity for all of us gathered here today to reflect upon the mission and movement of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It is a movement of inspired devotees of Krishna, established to make tangible the hopes of all the predecessor acaryas. It began on a suburban Kolkata roof-top in 1922 with a simple instruction to teach the message of the Vedas in the English language. Our appreciation for everything we have received from Srila Prabhupada, of how it has transformed our life, and our display of gratitude, must surely be to continue the mission and message of this most extraordinary of all representatives of Srila Vyasadeva. May we honour him today and always, and work together to share him with the world.
* * *
Just in case you’re not familiar with the country’s location: this is Slovenia on the Europe map
Last week my wife and I were guest speakers at a summer camp for Vaishnavas in Slovenia. Slovenia is north of Croatia and part of it borders Italy. It has a population of around two million and 60% of it is forest, which makes it rather scenic and gives the people there room to breathe and move around. As a result the people are very friendly. It was one of the first countries to declare independence from the former Yugoslavia.
My wife and I had been invited to come and spend a few days at the annual summer camp held on a devotee’s farm. Because there are many young families, we were to speak on marriage, family, raising children and building community. We spent two days in the city at the temple situated in an old school. The Pancha Tattva deities there are quite the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere. There is a very good Govinda’s restaurant that seemed to be popular with the locals, serving up healthy prasadam, and we stayed in an apartment above the restaurant.
The other guest for the camp was Hari Sauri prabhu who served Srila Prabhupada as a personal assistant for almost two years. He is an expert story-teller and writer and has a great memory for details. When you’re with him you feel as if you’re getting to know Srila Prabhupada personally, as he did.
The devotees arranged for us to see a bit of Slovenia while we were there and took us to a scenic place known as Bled, a popular spot with tourists. It was a large lake surrounded by imposing mountains and forest with an island in the middle that had a fairy-tale castle built on it. The water was crystal clear so we went for a swim and chanted Gayatri while half-submerged, just like we do in India.
We were also taken to a deep, mile-long ravine, where the icy mountain river water rushed down in swirls, pools and rapids. We were able to walk along a wooden platform edging the entire length of the cliffs above the thundering water. Again the water was the cleanest I’d ever seen and the air pure. It was a great spot for yogis.
The summer camp was some miles to the south of the country, just a short distance from the border with Croatia. Although there was another camp running simultaneously in that country, some of the Croatian devotees chose to drive up north and camp with the Slovenian devotees instead. The drive there was uncharacteristically stormy, and the car was lashed with heavy rain while thunder pounded the skies and lightning flashed every few seconds. As a result, the campsite was muddy but the devotees very warm and welcoming.
My job was to lead kirtans and to give classes, but to also encourage the families, some of whom are separated from other devotees by many miles of countryside. The landscape of Slovenia may be beautiful, but the geographical distances between families can sometimes serve to lessen their spirits, particularly amid all the challenges of raising children and pursuing a career. Spiritual life is made less arduous when we have the company of fellow travellers, and this camp was one way to inspire each other and to share useful knowledge. My hosts seemed almost apologetic as I began my first talk, sitting in a white plastic tent with the rain lashing down, but I explained that my first experience of Kirtan forty years ago was in a similar tent in the rain, in a muddy field, so I was actually happy to be with them in similar circumstances.
The sun shone the next day and after the morning talks we were served delicious hot meals cooked in the camp kitchen. I am always amazed at just how expert devotees are at preparing food under challenging kitchen conditions – and how they can cook for 100 or more at a time!
We stayed for two nights in a small bungalow in a vineyard, surrounded by more vineyards stretching out to the horizon where they met forested mountains. I didn’t see any of the bears and wolves this area is known for, but chanting japa out on the dirt road each morning was remarkable, possibly the quietest place I’ve ever been in. It was another superlative for Slovenia. On our last night we stayed at the campsite in a small, locally-made caravan.
Rising at 3.00 am on our last morning we got up ready to be driven to Venice to catch a flight for Belgium. Early as it was, the devotees still got up to see us off. I can’t remember ever being given so much affection. The temple president of the Ljubljana centre, Ananta Das, a long-term brahmacari monk, happily drove for three hours as we sped through Slovenia and crossed the border into Italy at Treviso then on to Venice. We talked the whole way about education for devotees.
The violence against the Jews of France, which has escalated as feelings have boiled over against the war in Gaza, is shocking and terrifying.
A mob of mainly Muslim demonstrators in Paris, reportedly armed with knives, axes and iron bars and chanting “Death to the Jews,” tried on Sunday to storm the Don Isaac Abarvanel Synagogue within which nearly 200 congregants were praying for the safety of Israel.
The attackers were kept at bay by members of Jewish defense organizations. A French Jewish journalist said: “Thank God they were there, because the protesters had murder on their minds and it took awhile before police reinforcements arrived.”
The previous day, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a synagogue at Aulnay-sous-Bois, a Parisian suburb. At Asnieres, another suburb, the police said a Muslim mob of 300 gathered in front of the synagogue and shouted anti-Israel slogans. A firebomb was hurled at a synagogue in Belleville. A Middle Eastern man shot pepper spray at the face of a 17-year-old Jewish girl on a Paris street shouting: “Dirty Jewess, inshallah you will die.”
Muslim attacks on French Jews long predate the current hostilities in Gaza. Earlier this year, a 59-year-old Jew was beaten up on a Paris street by three North African men who screamed “Dirty Jew’ and scrawled a swastika on his chest.
In 2006, Ilan Halimi, a young Parisian Jew, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. In 2012, a radicalized Muslim murdered a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse.
Muslim attacks on Jews are spiraling across Europe. In May, four Jews were killed in an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels; the suspect, another radicalized French Muslim, was said by the Belgian state prosecutor to have confessed to the attack “against Jews.” In Sweden, Jews have been driven out of the city of Malmo by Muslim attacks, harassment and intimidation.
All this goes virtually unreported by mainstream Western media. Street protests are routinely described as “anti-Israel.”
Everyone is therefore missing the big story: the tsunami of anti-Jewish hatred rolling across Europe. In Paris and elsewhere, the always paper-thin “anti-Zionist but not anti-Jew” excuse has been stripped away.
“Death to the Jews” is the cry that resounds through the Middle East. Nazi images demonizing Jews pour out of the Arab and Muslim world. The Tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which alleged that the Jews formed a conspiracy to take over the world, is widely published and believed as historical fact. Iran’s leadership claims the Jews are trying to destroy Islam. Islamist ideologues from Syed Qutb to Osama bin Laden, Hamas and beyond have taught millions of Muslims that the Jews are behind all the ills of the world.
Palestinian society is suffused by this lunacy.
Palestinian Media Watch reports that the “moderate” Palestinian Authority presents Jews as inherently treacherous, corrupt, deceitful and unfaithful. Forgeries and fiction masquerading as history are used to document and support the libel that Judaism is in essence racist and evil. Jews are said to be planning and executing heinous crimes, including burning Palestinians in ovens, murder, using prisoners for Nazi-like experiments and more.
A few days ago, Yahya Rabah of the Fatah Leadership Committee in Gaza was but the latest Arab to recycle the medieval blood libel when he wrote in the official PA daily Al-Hayat al-Jadida that the “Jewish God” demands Jews offer sacrifices during Passover in the form of matza “made from the blood of our children.”
Last year, a PA TV show for children taught them that the devil and the Jews were on the same side. Earlier his month, Al-Hayat al-Jadida wrote that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “confirms the Talmud’s teachings, [according to which] killing others – the insects (gentiles) – is a good thing.”
It is astounding that neither the media nor any Western leader has sounded the alarm over this epidemic anti-Jewish madness in the Islamic world. But neither political nor cultural leaders want to join up the dots.
Partly this is due to the cultural confusion over “Islamophobia” and third world-ism. But mainly it is because anti-Semitism is now the prejudice that dare not speak its name. It’s the big one, the crime of crimes, the knockout blow. If the Muslim world is driven by anti-Semitism, all the excuses being used by Western leaders to appease that world and limit the push-back against it are invalidated.
It would mean it is being fueled by something which is utterly immune to reason or negotiation. So it would mean there could be no half-measures against it. It would have to be identified as a source of evil in the world and utterly defeated.
But of course, that hardly sits with the dominant Western narrative that says the Palestinians are entitled to a state and that Israel is to blame for the conflict. So the Jew-hatred pouring out of the Islamic world is simply ignored.
Worse, all those in the West who trumpet their progressive support for the “oppressed” Palestinians are thus tacitly supporting this frenzied anti-Semitism.
The Palestinian strategy is to efface Jewish history altogether: denying or destroying the historic evidence of the biblical Jewish Kingdom of Judea, obscuring the Jews’ unique right to settle what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza enshrined in treaty obligation in the 1920s by the international community, and inverting the Holocaust to claim that Israel is committing genocide. When London demonstrators and British intellectuals declare that Israelis are the new Nazis, colonizing land to which they have no historic connection and which they have stolen from the Palestinians, they make themselves accessories to an infernal creed which is inciting violence and murder against Jews.
Anti-Jewish hatred is not just directed against Israel and the Jews of Europe. It is fueling the Islamic war against the West. It is often said that the Jews are the “canary in the mine.”
Those who turn against the Jews in their own societies invariably deal a death blow to those societies themselves.
Written by Melanie Phillips
The other day I told you about my 40th anniversary of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. Now here is an old friend of mine who has probably sung thousands more kirtans than myself, who has involved hundreds of thousands more people, and who tours the world introducing kirtan to countless people for the very first time. He never – ever – tires of sitting down with a small pair of cymbals and singing. To see the effect he has on others while he’s singing, have a look at this very short film:
I couldn’t let this week go by without saying a few words of appreciation for Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who has just passed on, aged 89. I met him once, some years ago in London, and he was the father of a friend of my wife who is from Winnipeg, Canada.
My knowledge of him is sketchy, but I do know that he was a teacher of Judaism and brought invigoration to dispersed congregations around North America. Together with Arthur Waskow he created a movement of small groups known as Ruach Havura, whose practise of Judaic liturgy and ritual was creative, experimental – and apparently effective. Many people owe their renewed appreciation for the Jewish culture to his outreach.
After escaping the Nazi threat in 1941 he discovered a USA where Judaism was somewhat accommodated and on the decline. By singing in English, using theatre and alternative forms of presentation, he rekindled interest in spirituality and tradition but in a way that took modern thought and artistic expression into consideration.
When I read his book: “The First Steps” in which he described the key factors of Jewish belief and practise, I knew that he was someone who loved his tradition, but that wanted others to appreciate it too. It was no surprise to me to discover that he was also associated with the Lubavitcher tradition, since outreach is one of their key activities.
Interestingly for me, due to his influences in America and the counter-culture times, he started something called the Jewish Ashram, and was also very favourable to meditation, even chanting the Hare Krishna on occasion. Shalom.
Above: Wakey wakey campers! Reading Music Festival, 1976. After two years on tambourine, I had been promoted to chief drum-banger.
This year, on a sunny afternoon in August, I will be celebrating my 40th anniversary of kirtan. On the sunny afternoon of August 24th, 1974 I sat down with a group of Hare Krishna devotees and had my first ever kirtan experience. They’d camped up in a field and, like they do, let me sit with them and try to follow along with the words.There are only three words, so it wasn’t too hard to sing along, but you do have to remember to sing them in the right order.
At some point, just when I was becoming filled with all sorts of new feelings I couldn’t yet comprehend, someone handed me a tambourine.I’d been accepted, I felt, as part of the group and thought to myself: “I’m playing tambourine with the members of the Radha Krishna Temple – cool.” (Or whatever word like ‘cool’ was in vogue at the time)
So for the past 40 years I’ve been singing kirtan. I have to tell you something: it works. Yes, it doesn’t quite make sense, just repeating three words over and over again. And yes,it should have driven me to distraction by now. But it hasn’t. Quite the reverse.
In fact, kirtan has been the solace of my life, the undisputed mood-lifter, the peaceful sound and the sonic energizer – all at the same time. I have been in kirtans in fields and forests, up mountains, down streets on foot and up rivers in boats. I’ve sung kirtan on the telly, in the homes and halls of the great and good of the land, and ‘performed’ it at pop festivals. I’ve sung in the pouring rain and the scorching sun. Its been the soundtrack of my life and of many thousands who I’ve known.
The Great Vishnu, transcendentally situated in a place beyond winning and losing
Three weeks ago I was in Cologne, Germany. We were celebrating the 10th annual Hare Krishna chariot festival there. For four hours we sang and danced our way round the town in the sunshine while members of the team threw rose petals from the top of the wagon, and another handed out smoking sticks of incense. The locals loved it.
It was a Saturday, and the German football fans were getting ready to watch their national team play another game in the sun. Luckily the fans were happy enough to take part in our singing as our procession passed them, standing in groups or filling the pubs noisily to bursting point. They may not have been so accurate with their choice of lyrics to sing back at us, but they cheered us on.
Last night those fans would have been enjoying something close to religious ecstasy, with their 7-1 defeat of Brazil. And last night the Brazilians would have been feeling, no doubt, considerable pain of loss, as their national team passed into football history as losers of the greatest defeat of the World Cup. What an upset for such a footballing nation.
Yet although football is a religion for some, it does not contain all the ingredients that a religion does. Religion, ultimately, is to help us not to become too depressed in our sad moments, and not too elated during our happy ones. Too much of emotional extremes – and not being able to cope in between – is one of the factors leading to stress; and from stress comes depression.
With 53 million prescriptions for depression being handed out in the UK in 2013, there’s an awful lot of people that could do with something to help them get through life. I don’t know what its like in Germany for depression (although there’s probably significantly less depression nationally this morning) but no doubt its comparable. So without medication what is the solution for stress-induced depression?
Religion can also be a cause for mood swings – especially when the religion is the man-made type – as many religions are, but genuine religion, as found in the Bhagavad-gita, will always take us above the ups and downs of life, the winning and losing and the happiness and distress of changing fortunes.
So the people of Brazil can change their fortunes immediately – or their perceptions of their fortunes – by taking to the other thing they like to do, singing and dancing in the streets, and by adding the Hare Krishna chant to their music.
Boyton in Cornwall. It was a small village with two places of worship – one at either end of the main street. One was a church and the other a chapel, a situation which posed an existential question.
“Are you Church or Chapel?” was the question posed to my mother one day after we moved into a house in a small Cornish village. We’d moved there from our previous home – also in a small Cornish village.
Church or Chapel? It was an important question, for it defined the social circle we would be joining, our emotional support team, and ultimately our chances of salvation. The Church of England and the Methodist Chapel were the two places of worship in the village, one the establishment religion and the other dissident. The chapel stood at one end of the one street in the village, and the church was firmly at the other end. The blacksmith’s shop, with its fiery orange furnace, the heavy clink of hammer on anvil and the burning smell of sizzling horses’ hooves, stood right in the centre.
Half a century later, I still live in a small village, this time just four miles from the edge of the north London suburbs. You can’t get horseshoes made in this village, but there are still variant theologies poised at either end of the high street, not only Christian but Jewish, too. Quite literally at opposite ends of the parade of shops lies the United Synagogue and the Reform Synagogue. Which reminds me of an old Jewish joke. When rescuers finally discover the lone Jewish survivor of a shipwreck on a desert island, they find that he’s used bamboos and coconut leaves to build himself two synagogues, one at either end of the island. “Why two?” they ask, “There’s only you here.” “Oh, this one is where I pray,” he replies, “and that other one is the synagogue I wouldn’t be seen dead in!” I think you have to be Jewish (or married to one) to fully grasp the sad irony of that joke, but the meaning is clear: human beings tend to pull any religion in two, and for as much as they love one they tend to spite the other. The reality is not far from the joke. Some years ago, the Jewish population of the island of Bermuda was a mere 110 – and there were, indeed, two synagogues.
Just last week I was in Liverpool where there are two grand cathedrals, both built over many years and at enormous expense. They are connected by one short street that runs between them – Hope Street. Although named after a local merchant, the theological implications of the name have not been lost on the local clergy. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England live in hope of a full reconciliation between their respective denominations. Sadly, they have been trying for centuries without success. Religion, you see, would be so easy if it weren’t for human beings. We are influenced predominantly by raja and tama guna, the two forces of nature that ceaselessly pull us apart and then set us against each other. In this condition we are almost bound to project our own selfish concerns onto the pure messages of God. In doing so we appropriate the Divine and fashion Him in our own image then, because we are all individuals who, mostly, can’t agree with anyone else completely, we enter into conflict. Whatever the reason may be, we become heated in our opinions, find friends to support us, and then pull apart into distinct groupings.
What divides religious people? Often, it can be the very small things: bells, smells, decorations and robes, priests and songs, or whether being baptised with water is for babies or adults. Or the bigger things of which these are parts: Theology, liturgy, governance, gender issues, and whether God has a living representative on Earth and so on. But it doesn’t end there. History has shown, in every religion, that each division becomes rent by fresh divisions and the two become three, four and more. New theologies are developed to support human preferences, and the clear water of pure revelation becomes muddied by tribal thinking. In this way, the one great man who spoke the Sermon on the Mount is now represented by 41,000 different Christian denominations. The one Catholic Church, presumably in a bid to stave off the debilitating effects of multiple splintering, has given permission for no less than 23 different ‘Rites,’ 38 separate ‘Orders,’ and 272 distinct ‘Congregations,’ all with different costumes, customs, prayers and organisational structures.
The ‘Great Schism’
The tendency to divide is, of course, seen everywhere. We have become so accustomed to it that we may hardly even notice it at all. If we do, it may not even alarm us. Take sport, for instance. It wasn’t long after I joined my school rugby team that I learned that there were, in fact, two games of rugby: Rugby Union and Rugby League. The game originated in 1823 but only 72 years later, in 1895, the ‘Great Schism’ had taken place, never to be repealed. The ‘working class’ northerners had felt it necessary to separate from the ‘upper-class’ southerners, and the League and the Union were created accordingly. The game of rugby was itself an ‘upper class’ separation from the original game of football, played by all boys. In that game, the pulling apart continued to be a long-standing tradition of the game. Footballers were often pulled into two rival teams. A fan had to make his mind up who to support. There was, for instance, Liverpool and Everton in the same city; Rangers and Celtic in the same city of Glasgow, the two teams split along religious and social lines; and Manchester United and Manchester City, all rival teams for one town.
1895: Even the great game of Rugby football divides into two factions
But it is when the divisions occur in religions that the potential for rivalry can escalate into something far more serious. Religion is no game, and the issues involved are all of the ultimate importance. The issues are so serious to the adherents of denominations that strongly opinionated members of opposing religious tribes can often go to war with each other, each convinced that they have the blessings of the Divine. In my own lifetime I have personally experienced street battles between Catholic and Protestant in the towns of Northern Ireland and have witnessed tensions between denominations of Jews. I have read of open conflict between factions of Tibetan Buddhists, and I am all too aware of the immense chasm that exists between Sunni and Shi’a strands of Islam, with periodic warfare between them in different parts of the world. Vaishnavism has not always been immune from these schisms. The followers of the teachings of the great Ramanujacarya (1017-1137) were united for seven centuries, but then succumbed to conflict over cardinal philosophical points, eventually becoming the Tengalai (Southern School) and the Vadagalai (Northern School) sometime in the 17th or 18th century.
Two Vaishnava forehead markings for two schools of thought
In the Hare Krishna movement, the splintering tendency was regularly subjugated by the single, commanding voice of its founder-acarya who confessed “I am always afraid of this crack.” His urgent and repeated pleas for peace and unity amongst his followers didn’t stop some from splintering away during his life, and certainly hasn’t prevented them from doing it since. And, just as in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, where all fractures are done in the name of God, his son, prophet or blessed and inspired rabbi, in the Hare Krishna movement it was, and continues to be done, in the name of ‘what Srila Prabhupada really wanted.’ So it was that the ‘true’ followers of Srila Prabhupada began a campaign against all his other followers when they failed to support their views on how initiations would be conducted after his physical demise.
It was also how the similarly ‘true followers’ of Srila Prabhupada justified their transformation of a hitherto unknown Indian sannyasi into an international figurehead of messianic proportions. For them, who needed him to be so, the sannyasi became ‘the real inheritor of Srila Prabhupada’s legacy.’ The little-known sannyasi was preened, styled and re-branded by those who had left ISKCON as ‘Srila Prabhupada’s very dear friend who has come to give us the knowledge that he did not.’ The fame of the sannyasi followed a predictable arc. After some time, as his original supporters left him, he became convinced that he’d been used, and fell victim to fits of anger against ISKCON. It presumably didn’t occur to the ‘very dear friend’ that, when he told his excited and impressionable followers that ‘ISKCON must be smashed,’ that he might be stretching the limits of his much-vaunted friendship with A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami. Now deceased, the rifts that he managed to create, pulling apart communities, marriages and families, are all but impossible to heal. ISKCON has thus lost hundreds of members to this and several other breakaway movements – movements of varying degrees of integrity and endurance – all of which claimed to have adopted their stance because of a more refined understanding of the founder-acarya’s instructions. Such is theology, and such is life.
ISKCON members could help themselves by learning a bit more of religious history. They should know that all of this has happened before. They need to learn sufficient Vaishnava theology to identify and understand the veracity of ideas that arise from time to time within their own community. They should be aware when someone seeks the imposition of Judaeo-Christian notions upon Vaishnavism, such as the ‘ritvik’ idea of a truncated parampara, or the deification of an ordinary sannyasi as a moshiach (messiah). Splintering of a religious grouping is also exacerbated by poor spiritual leadership, sexual and financial scandals, poor governance and managerial ineptitude. ISKCON would be helped greatly by putting measures in place to prevent all of these. In addition, and because members of any group will periodically enter into conflict, the ISKCON machinery must allow room for overheated members to find their place, always using the oil of reason to reduce friction, and the water of understanding to cool things down.
Like the Vatican and its shepherding of a disparate flock of many-hued sheep, we may end up with several dozen ‘orders’ within the Hare Krishna movement, but at least they will be working under the same name and style. Theologies have a tendency of variation according to the very genuine physical needs and faith-levels of their proponents. As such, they won’t always mesh together, and practices may not always conform to strict orthopraxis, but splintering might be prevented, and we may all be spared the debilitation of any further reduction in size and influence. Splintering diminishes the strength of collegiate effort and repeated division is a scourge that ultimately ends in a loss of power and increased apathy. If people can be united to do good in the world it is helpful for everyone concerned.
So, was it church or chapel? It was chapel. Actually, to be more precise, it was both. I went to the Methodist chapel on Sunday where I enthusiastically sang Wesleyan hymns and learned the elements of faith free from unnecessary rituals, bell-ringing or stained glass, and then I went bell-ringing every Monday evening in the Church of the Holy Name, where I pulled thick, well-worn ropes beneath the bell tower to my heart’s content, sending loud, thunderous peals throughout the village.
Sunrise in England. Hard to catch it, sometimes, but always worth the effort.
This week I have been thinking about the Gayatri mantra and how it is chanted at sunrise, noon and sunset. Although the Hare Krishna maha-mantra can be chanted without following any ‘hard and fast rules,’ the Gayatri does have rules attached to it, and they must be followed in order to achieve the full effect. When I was living in the tropics, in East Africa, it was very easy to chant the Gayatri mantra at the same times every day. That’s because the sun always came up at six in the morning and went down at six in the evening. And when I was living for a few months on the equator, noon was easy to calculate because it was when the sun was directly overhead.
In England the sun rises and sets at different times each day, and its a little bit harder to chant at the right times. In this month of November, sunrise does not happen until around 7.30, and sunset comes upon all of us quite unexpectedly, right in the middle of the afternoon!
But a brahmana is meant to chant the Vedic Gayatri according to the movements of the sun, and so becomes a bit of a sun-watcher. However, brahmanas have almost a one hour period in which to chant their mantra, so there’s a bit of laxity allowed in their precision timekeeping. The old Vedic lengths of time are the muhurta, which lasts for 48 minutes; and the danda, which lasts for half of that, 24 minutes. A brahmana wanting to chant the Gayatri in the morning can do so any time from one danda before sunrise (24 minutes before sunrise) all the way through until one danda after sunrise (24 minutes after sunrise). Let us say that it is late November somewhere in England and the sun rises at precisely 7.36 am. The brahmana can chant his/her Gayatri at any time from 7.12 am until 8.00 am. The same rule applies for the evening Gayatri at sunset.
Punctilious brahmanas will also tell you that the most preferential time for chanting the Gayatri is slightly before sunrise, before the first glimpse of the sun disc can be seen; and slightly after sunset, when the sun has disappeared but before the stars can be seen.
For those who chant the Hare Krishna maha mantra, any time is a good time. However, it has been proven by thousands of years of experience that chanting any mantra is particularly efficacious during the early morning Brahma-muhurta period. That’s not because the mantra becomes any more powerful – its because the chanter can listen to the mantra with more concentration! The Brahma-muhurta is a golden period every morning before sunrise and it is highly recommended to take advantage of this little celestial secret of Mother Nature and to use this time to our great advantage. When is it, and how long does it last?
You’ll notice from the word muhurta that the golden period lasts for 48 minutes. It begins two muhurtas – or 96 minutes – before sunrise. So let us say, again, that sunrise is at 7.36 am. Counting back 96 minutes (or one hour and 36 minutes) from 7.36 am brings us to 6.00 am. That means that the Brahma-muhurta begins at 6.00 am and will last until 6.48 am. This will be the best natural time for meditation or any kind of contemplative or transcendent activity.
In the summertime it will naturally be difficult for English people to take advantage of this golden period as it falls very early in the morning. Take the month of June, for instance. On the 6th of June, 2013, sunrise in England was at 4.46 am. Counting back 96 minutes from sunrise brings us to 3.10 am. That gives us a Brahma-muhurta from 3.10 am until 3.58 am. Taking into account getting up out of bed, brushing your teeth, having a shower and getting dressed, that would mean your alarm clock going off at 2.30 am. Which, if you want to get any beauty sleep at all, means that you would need to go to bed by 8.00 pm the evening before. Not easy with three children.
What it does mean is that as far as early morning meditation is concerned, the darker winter months in England – beginning right now – are the best. They’re an even better opportunity than living in India would give you. So I warmly recommend my readers to take full advantage and grab at least a few minutes of that golden period in darkest winter.
If you want to know the rising and setting times of the sun and moon throughout the year, this site may be helpful.