The Royal Opera House in London with the arched glass frame of the Paul Hamlyn Hall to the left
I conducted a wedding yesterday in the glass-domed Paul Hamlyn Hall of the Royal Opera House in London. Superb location with, as one might expect in such a venue, excellent acoustics. Around 300 in attendance. At the height of the ceremonies, at the purna-huti of the fire sacrifice, to have hundreds enthusiastically singing the Hare Krishna mantra was an unexpected pleasure.
Earlier, while waiting for the groom to arrive on a white horse, surrounded by dancers and drummers, I was standing barefoot on the pavement outside. I looked across Bow Street to the police station and law courts on the other side. This is the very street where London’s first professional police force began back in 1749, in response to the area having become a red-light district with theives and vagabonds of all sorts.
Back in 1975, at the tender age of 19, I was regularly being escorted by the long arms of the law into the narrow confines of the holding cells of the Bow Street police station. Selling my spiritual master’s books or singing through the streets with clay drums and cymbals was still considered quite a problem by the police. Many Monday mornings were spent lining up with ladies of the night and hawkers to receive a short hearing and a £5 fine from the magistrates.
Less than 40 years later and the police would not think of arresting us for singing and dancing in the streets of London. Indeed, so acclimatised has London become to the sight and sound of the devotees that now they even make jigsaw puzzles for tourists featuring all the ‘traditional sights’ of London: the red buses, the black cabs – and the orange Hare Krishnas. And here I am singing the same songs inside the Royal Opera House.
After two hours of explanatory talks, rituals, and the chanting of Sanskrit mantras, I rested for a while high up on the terrace of the Opera House. There is a commanding view of London from up here, including the old Covent Garden Market. From the 1600s up until 1974 it was a thriving fruit and vegetable market where, in the early morning hours, traders would sell their fresh wares brought in overnight from the English countryside.
It was here, when as a 16 year-old spiritual seeker, I slept on the back of a flat-bed lorry, on a truckload of newly-dug potatoes, having hitched a ride the night before all the way from my home in Newark, Nottinghamshire. For me, London was the place where I could explore all the many ways of being that I had read about in books, and meet spiritual practitioners who could advise me. If only that 16 year-old boy could have looked up from the vegetables, up to the roof of the Royal Opera House, and seen his much older self looking down. I would have told him a thing or two, and helped him along his spiritual path.