New Generation of Music inspired by India’s Mahabharata

Inevitable Time

I may be hopelessly biased, but I think Inevitable Time is one of the most important new albums to have come out this year. Its from a new generation of musicians who take classical themes – in this case the Mahabharata of India – and breathes new life into them with a sound that is completely contemporary.

Ananda Monet was trained in Russian folk singing – which gives her a dynamic and at times unearthly edge to her powerful yet emotional voice – a sound that lifts the lyrics to a new dimension. The collaborative trio of Jagannatha Suta, Pete Booker and Andy Baldwin (The Who, Florence and the Machine, producer) make sure the sound is superb.

I witnessed the launch of the album with the full stage performance in London, but with the astounding new visuals supplied with the album and the website to support the story behind the album, you won’t be missing out if you didn’t see it there first.

Don’t take my word for it, read reviews, see the story and hear clips here on the dedicated website. Best if you buy it before it runs out by clicking here.

 

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The great legacy of Bhaktivinode Thakur

Bhaktivinode Thakur02

Bhaktivinode Thakur left us all a great legacy of devotional songs and poetry. Today being the day he passed away in 1914, it is an opportunity for those of us whose lives have been enriched by his words, to take a few minutes and read one or two, or sing them as well.

This morning I sat with my daughter and we sang the song beginning Atmanivedana… from the Saranagati collection. Each song in that book is a nuance of devotional theology; the songs progressing from one aspect to another so that every thought and theological conclusion involved in surrender to God has been expressed. It is a wonderful library of hymns.

The Thakur was writing at a time when much of his thought was regarded as antiquated and merely a remnant of India’s long and beleaguered history. The intellectuals of the day, the English-educated bhadralok, were mostly involved in appeasing their British overlords in order to secure the best paying jobs. The theological aim of the day was to form a Hindu-Christian syncretism so that Hinduism would not be seen as backward.

Bhaktivinode Thakur was fixed in his understanding of the perennial value of devotional bhakti, and taught that it was not something subject to the vagaries of the age. In defiance of many of his contemporaries he wrote his songs and published them.

Thirty-three years after his death the British left India for good and perceptions of India’s philosophical history began to change. In 2015 India is enjoying a resurgence in many ways. People are more proud of India and its traditions, and the Thakur’s songs are being sung by his modern followers all over the country.

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Rabbi Sacks speaks on his new book

The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, launched his new book yesterday. I have not seen it yet, but judging by his other books, and by the important points he makes in this interview with Andrew Marr, it will be a valuable contribution.

In the interview, shown on British television yesterday, the question is raised as to why younger people are tending towards religiosity and losing their adherence to secularism. From the Vaishnava point of view, that is like asking why a fish, washed up on dry land, pines for the sea; or why, in the words of the Bible’s/Torah’s Psalm 42, does the deer thirst for water.

The natural place for the soul is to be in connection with the supreme soul, the source of all spiritual vitality.

Faced with the insanities and vanities of the world, it is surprising that so many more don’t choose God over anything else. The difficulty today is that, with the entire world enslaved to various forms of relativism manifesting as secularism, people are being drawn to more strident declarations of religious view, more extreme forms of religious practise and association. Mixed with a lack of transcendence, the result is not peaceful co-existence but religiously-labelled tribalism, an even more dangerous combination.

Only when we can see, as the Bhagavad-gita says, with the ‘equal vision of a pandit,’ regarding all as belonging to a common source, and equal because we see the soul within and not the exterior race, creed or tribe, only then can we even begin to talk with one another peacefully.

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God the Father, God the Mother

vladimir-borovikovsky-a-vision-of-the-mother-of-god-with-the-christ-child-amongst-the-angels-18231-e1276364627314

With the appointment of the United Kingdom’s first women bishops, Reverend Libby Lane as Bishop of Hull closely followed by the Reverend Alison White being appointed as the Bishop of Stockport, it was never going to be very long before observers of the Church would become interested in anything they said that appeared to be coming from an exclusively female perspective.

These two bishops, and may God bless them, are the first females to hold that title in the history of the Church of England, although the very first in the Anglican Communion worldwide was Katherine Jefferts Schori in the USA back in 2006.

In the UK, the fact that one of the longest-surviving establishment bodies, the Church, saw fit to change a long-standing tradition was the big news of the early part of this year. Many journalists wrote that the Church was ‘finally coming of age’ and ‘doing the right thing’ by removing what they saw as the largely contrived and antiquated block to women holding the post.

The fact is, of course, that 30% of the Church’s vicars are now women, and that proportion has been growing for a decade. Many say that the CofE wouldn’t be able to survive without them. At one-third I can believe them. Christianity, although still popular, has seen falling membership within the established denominations, and less men coming forward to become clergy. The need of the hour has seen women taking up a valued role in the structure of the Church – roles they are more than suitable for.

It is quite common to see a 60/40 women/men split of attendance to religious services. I have experienced this myself. Sometimes women outnumber men by 2-1. It makes sense that women play whatever role is needed within a religious body whose membership is disproportionately women . Their natural abilities in pastoral care and the nurture of faith suggest that their role has been downplayed for a while.

But this post isn’t about the role of women in the Church. Its about what happens when observers think that the changing make-up of the Church automatically produces a change of theology. I was interested in this piece about ‘God the Mother’ and although it might be seen to be appropriate for the changing times, the fact is that the principle of God as Mother has been articulated for many centuries – by men.

Whether Shekinah, the feminine spirit of God in Judaism, or as ‘Mother of God’ in Catholicism, the feminine nature of God and that which emanates from God, has always been there. As a Vaishnava writer, I must also add that the existence of the notion of God and Goddess is much older than both of those religions.

Where there is a missing element in theology, there will always be an unconscious move to fill the gap. Theology changes ceaselessly until it finds a resting place, and that resting place is where perennial conundrums of philosophy are solved.

Whether or not we have female bishops (and I’m glad we do) it seems the right time to welcome back God the Mother.

Hare Krishna

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The True Value of Wood

sandal wood

A grove of Indian sandalwood trees

Once, a long time ago in India, there was a poor man who lived with his wife in a small cottage deep in a forest. Every day the man would pick up sticks from the forest floor, make them up into bundles then stack them carefully in a circle. Covering them over with earth he would burn them slowly until the wood had charred black. The result was charcoal – a fuel that was very light to carry but excellent for cooking. He made very little money from this trade but was satisfied with what he had. Not many visitors came into the forest because it was filled with wild animals, so sometimes the man and his wife felt lonely, but the forest was peaceful and they were happy.

One afternoon a stranger arrived at the door of the cottage. He was visibly exhausted and his brow was damp with sweat. “Can you help me please?” he asked the man, “I was out hunting and my horse galloped off – I’ve been walking for miles and I’m lost.” The charcoal-maker immediately gave the stranger a place to rest and some water to drink. His wife set about cooking a meal and the stranger began to feel at home, so much so that he fell asleep and spent the night as the guest of the man and his wife.

The next morning the stranger asked to be escorted to the edge of the forest. It was quite a distance to walk, but the charcoal-maker happily obliged. As the dense forest gave way to a path, the stranger revealed his identity. “What I did not tell you, my friend, is that I am actually the king of this region. I could see that you didn’t recognise me, and that all the kind hospitality you offered was from your heart. I am very grateful and I would like to offer you a gift. Please walk another mile with me.”

Walking on, they came to a forest from which came a wonderful fragrance. “This is my sandal-wood grove,” explained the king, “fifty of the oldest and finest trees – and I want you to have it.” The charcoal-maker was astonished that his guest had been the king, and even more surprised that he was being given his own personal wood. He thanked the king profusely and they parted company.

One year later, the king visited the sandalwood grove and discovered, much to his surprise, that all the trees had gone. Not one tree was left standing. Curious, he went deep inside the forest to visit the charcoal-maker. “So I see that you have made good use of the sandal-wood?” he asked the man. “Oh yes,” replied the man, “I made all of the fifty trees into charcoal.”

“But did you not realise,” exclaimed the king, quite aghast, “that just one twig of a single sandal-wood tree can be sold for the price of a hundred bags of charcoal? That the fragrant oil inside the tree is worth much more than the wood that contains it?” “No,” replied the man, “I’m a simple charcoal-maker…”

Moral: In ordinary consciousness we attribute a greater value to the body than the soul within. Not even knowing the value of the soul, we use our body as fuel and burn through it in seventy years, never capitalising on the sweet fragrance that could have been ours. The guru is the teacher who explains the difference between body and soul; then shows us how to obtain the real value of life.

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When just being disgusted is not enough…

lie-to-me-disgust

This week we discussed disgust. Or should I say we were discussing the phenomena of being disgusted. It seems that we all get disgusted by something – at least sometime. Some of us are disgusted by Brussels sprouts; for others it’s Marmite that brings on the feeling of nausea.

Disgust means: ‘A strong distaste; nausea; loathing, a repugnance caused by something offensive; a strong aversion.’

That’s a pretty intense emotion, and for a good reason. Disgust protects us from eating the wrong things, such as food that is stale, putrid, or poisonous. Or it protects us from walking into harmful situations. Its a good emotion in the long-term, too, helping us to decide moral choices that will lead to beneficial conditions for ourselves and those that depend on us. So let’s not knock disgust. Being disgusted can be good for you.

The teachings of the Vedas have it that there are two movements of the mind: sankalpa and vikalpa. The first, sankalpa, means to make a willed, mental determination to have something, to enjoy something, to be someone. It means to want something very strongly because you think it will make you happy.

Vikalpa, on the other hand, means to reject something, to move away from something, to break a relationship or affiliation with someone. It means to understand that something is no longer to your liking, that it won’t make you happy.

Sankalpa allows you to begin a chain of events, a chain of actions, that will ultimately bring about the state of happiness you imagine. Vikalpa makes you take action to prevent something happening, or to begin a chain of actions that will separate you from longterm sadness, unhappiness or pain.

Both sankalpa and vikalpa begin with an imagination of a future state closely followed by strong remembrance of a past event when there were feelings of happiness or pain. We remember the taste of ice-cream on a hot day last summer – and move towards the ice-cream van today; we remember the sickening turbulence of a previous plane flight – and become filled with the anxiety of apprehension as we board the stationary plane.

Every soul that’s got stuck in a material body – from a single-celled microbe up to a complex human being – is coming up with sankalpa and vikalpa every minute. Its the movement of the flickering mind that propels us to eat, to protect, to move out of harm’s way.

But there’s always a chance that we might become confused. We might forget, for instance, that drinking too much alcohol on a Saturday night gave us pain and nausea on the Sunday morning. The memory of past pleasure dominates the memories of past pains and we drink too much yet again – and repeatedly suffer. This is called maya. This happens again and again until we realise, through much painful experience, that material pleasure always results in trouble of some kind. That’s when the next level may arise within us. It’s called nirvinna, or disgust. Not nirvana. That’s a different word. Look at the spelling.

Strong Aversion

Nirvana means being liberated and nirvinna means being disgusted. Being disgusted makes us permanently reject something. If something disgusts us, even something we were previously fond of, we avoid it.

Of course, a philosopher might say that if you feel nirvinna it might help you on the way to nirvana. Certainly being disgusted with the false, temporary happiness provided by material pleasure will make you stop trying to enjoy it and as a result you’ll become detached from the material world. That will help you change the way you look at the world and what you want from it. You’ll change the parameters of your sankalpa, and move towards a type of happiness that will be more permanent.

But just being disgusted at the world may not take you further in spiritual life. In and of itself, disgust is just one facet of our response to repeated disappointment in material life. And just being free from desires for material enjoyment doesn’t bring you closer to being reunited with Krishna.

In His conversation with Uddhava, known as the Uddhava-gita, in the 11th Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam, Lord Krishna says as follows:

“My dear Uddhava, because I desire that human beings may achieve perfection, I have presented three paths of advancement – the path of knowledge, the path of work and the path of devotion. Besides these three there is absolutely no other means of elevation.”

“Jnana-yoga is recommended for those who are disgusted with material life. Those who are not disgusted with material life, having many desires yet to fulfil, should seek perfection through the path of karma-yoga.”

“If somehow or other by good fortune one develops faith in hearing and chanting my glories, such a person, being neither very disgusted with nor attached to material life, should achieve perfection through the path of loving devotion to me.”

Srimad Bhagavatam 11.20 6-8.

So whatever our condition, whether we are fully disgusted with material life, or whether we have many desires left to fulfil, we can choose bhakti and move closer to the joy of Krishna consciousness.

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Closet Krishna

closet krishna
‘Closet Krishna’ the ISKCON charity shop in Rochester, Kent

Last night I spoke to a gathering at Closet Krishna, the charity shop and meeting space down in Rochester, Kent.

The name of the shop is borrowed from George Harrison’s description of himself as a private, secret devotee of Krishna, a ‘closet Krishna.’ In the days when he said that, ‘coming out of the closet’ was a term used by gay people to describe the often harrowing moment when they chose to declare to the world their sexuality.They faced criticism and rejection, often from those they loved most. ‘Coming out’ was one of the bravest choices they could make.

Telling those we love that we’re a person with spiritual leanings can be equally nerve-racking. It can be just as difficult a conversation, and we never know how they’ll react. It’s a secret, private, part of us, and one that is not always appreciated by our nearest and dearest.But eventually it has to come out.

Yet the first person we have to admit our spirituality to is ourselves. Often we fail to accept that its there, or we put it down as another opinion which may come and go like all the others we’ve ever had.So we’re wary of our opinions, sometimes, particularly the small but persistent voice of our soul.It seems so impractical.

We are all creatures of sweeping belief systems. We don’t always realise how many of our opinions have been shaped by the powerful forces of social discourse, media influence, and political rhetoric. In our bid to be popular with others we may refrain from saying anything that may jeopardise our acceptability. And how many times do we articulate views that are fashionable, rather than those we actually feel to be correct?

We may deny our attraction to our spiritual side, or opt for a spiritual path that is more fashionable or acceptable, but there is a point at which it becomes unhealthy to do that any longer. Its the point when we realise that our affinity for the concept of Krishna is more than a product of mere passing curiosity. It makes too much good sense to us, and allows us to experience feelings much more profound than usual.

That is the point where we must ‘come out,’the point when we must have the courage of our convictions and declare to others our affiliation. When we do that we find that the universe responds and lifts us up in all ways.

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How Shankaradeva spread bhakti in Assam

assam

People in traditional attires play their drums during an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of World Record at a field in Titabar town in the northeastern Indian state of Assam January 6, 2013. A total of 14,833 Assamese people attempted to enter the Guinness Book of World Record by playing the drums for 15 minutes non stop, organizers said. (Photo by Utpal Baruah/Reuters)

Assam is a state in the far east of India which has an interesting history of Vaishnavism. Practically every village in the state has a small, covered arena for the performance of daily nama-sankirtan. Hardly a day goes by without the residents coming together for singing the names of Krishna.

Probably the most famous expounder of bhakti was Shankaradeva, born in 1449. In 1481 he went on pilgrimage and visited Vrindavan and many other places. He spent some years in Jagannath Puri then returned to the far east of India in 1493.

Almost as soon as he returned, a teacher named Jagadisha Mishra visited him from a distance and gave him a copy of the Bhagavata Purana with a commentary by the 13th century scholar Sridhara Swami. He also stayed long enough to teach him.

Shankaradeva became inspired to teach devotion to Krishna, kirtan of Krishna’s names, and a path of initiation known as ekasharan. His teachings, plays and songs became very popular and remain so until today. The story of Shankaradeva and the results of the proliferation of his teaching over several hundred years are a remarkable example of how one person can spread bhakti to thousands. There is a well-known story about his abilities:

The story of the Elephant in the Lime-pot: The King held many debates in his court between the Pandits and Shankaradeva. King Naranarayan once asked the court poets to give him, in one day, a condensed version of the entire ten cantos of the Bhagawat Purana. When all Pundits said it was not possible to do so in such a short time, Sankara took up the challenge and accomplished the feat in one night.

After he had condensed the substance of the ten chapters of the Bhagawat Purana into a small booklet, he put it into a small wooden box. Then over this, he painted with hengul-haital (yellow and red) an elephant squeezed inside a circle. He called it Bhurukaat Haathi- meaning an elephant squeezed into a lime-pot! This scripture was Gunamala. The pleased King Naranarayana honoured Shankaradeva.

Below: The state of Assam in modern India

514px-India-ASSAM.svg

 

 

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What is the relationship of the small group of devotees to ISKCON?

home-tree

Does the small group in ISKCON serve the local temple, or does the temple serve the small group? Who serves whom?

 It’s a question that’s often asked in organisations, especially in charities or campaigning groups:  Does the local branch of a charity serve the national office, or does national office serve the branch? Do finances and resources flow from the branches back up to the head office, or from head office down to the branches?

In many organisations that are not functioning all that well, there will be complaints about head office by the branches, while head office will complain that the branches don’t seem to be performing well. Who is right?

The answer lies in the organic way that organisations grow, and the very word “branch” provides a clue to the answer. Back in the days when our English language employed more colourful expressions drawn from nature, we used to favourably compare organisations to trees.

The reason is of course, because when people agree to work together and function as one unit, they do grow like trees. They grow from a single idea – a seed – by a passionately committed individual; the intensely focused dedication of early co-workers, and, when successful, they grow up straight and strong, producing many branches.

Yet although the trunk of a tree, being the biggest, looks the strongest part, it can only remain strong if all of the trees smallest parts, the leaves, are also doing their job.

How a tree works is ingenious. The leaves of the tree trap the energy of sunlight with their green chlorophyll, and the astonishing process of photosynthesis then transforms water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen that pass down into the trunk. Invigorated by this, the trunk soaks up water and sends it back up to the leaves. Every part of the tree is working and the entire structure is functional. It continues to grow.

If the trunk doesn’t do the big stuff, like raising water from deep underground all the way up to the top of the tree sometimes fifty or more feet in the air, the tree will die. And if the leaves don’t do their sunlight catching, the tree will also die. The trunk serves the leaves and the leaves serve the trunk. Biological symbiosis makes a completely functional system.

Any organisation with many branches functions like this. That is, any functional, growing, balanced organisation.

The original roots of an organisation – the regional headquarters or a national office – serve its branches and the branches serve the head office, or in our case the head temple or national ISKCON structure.

If the head office provides nothing for the branches, they become weak and stop growing. If the branches provide nothing for head office it also becomes weak, or in many cases, begins to conserve valuable resources for itself. It gets weak all the same; it just takes a little more time. Only by each part of an organisation performing mutual service for the other parts can natural growth happen.

How do they work together?

Every organisation is different of course. There are those that are very ‘Trunk and Roots’ orientated. The branches simply serve as agents to collect money for the big stuff that is conceived and executed from head office. Many charities work that way. Oxfam, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, the Red Cross, all operate with their numerous branches raising funds which are sent to a head office that makes campaign decisions and then disburses the funds accordingly. Religions can be like that too. All decrees, innovations, directives and appointments come from a supreme governing body, and funds flow from the supporters in the branches to a central body from where they are apportioned and disbursed.

Other organisations have a very small head office and leave it up to the branches to be innovative, self-funding and locally directed. Some religions function like this too. They expect their branches to run on enthusiasm, to be self-sustaining, and to have a wide spectrum of theological understanding.

Observers comment that these different styles of religious organisation suit different types of people. Each has inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Our question, as followers of Srila Prabhupada is: “What kind of organisational structure did Srila Prabhupada want? Luckily for us, Srila Prabhupada was an extremely intelligent organiser as well as a scholar and a saint.

His many instructions for running ISKCON are well documented and were put into effect even in the early years of the movement. He considered that “organisation and intelligence” would preserve the movement he’d started, and that these two essentials, as well as spiritual strength resulting from: ‘rising up from sleep before four in the morning, chanting sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra, gorgeous deity worship, going out on the sankirtan party, holding festivals and scrutinisingly studying and discussing my books’.

Srila Prabhupada not only translated the scriptures from Sanskrit into English for the first time in history, and travelled constantly guiding his early followers; he managed all the affairs of his movement through correspondence and telegrams. So ISKCON functions with balance between trunk and branch, with a good deal of regular reciprocity between them, yet tending towards complete autonomy for the branch when it reaches the level of ‘ISKCON centre’.

Yet for each group to prosper, it is essential for it to have a great deal of spiritual nourishment flowing up from the trunk of the ISKCON tree. Preachers, teachers, book distribution, local festivals and good advice in both personal spiritual practise and outreach activities, will all help the group members, and through this the group will grow strong.

The group leader can invite preachers to come until the group members themselves are knowledgeable and proficient enough to conduct the courses that are recommended for a good understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s books. Some funding is required for this, but if each member can contribute to the transport cost of the preacher this will be very helpful.

(Taken from The ISKCON Small Groups Handbook)

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Festival of Colors

Holi / Festival of Colors 2013

We are scheduled to be featured for three minutes on tonight’s edition of BBC’s ‘The One Show.’ It will probably be at the end as the show plays out. Expect lots of throwing of colored powder.

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