Bengal Milk Sweets

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When Lord Krishna played on this Earth as a child, He lived in a community of cowherds in the region known as Vraja, in northern India. He was in charge of the young calves and took them out each morning to the pasturing grounds.

Accompanied by dozens of His friends, and with hundreds of calves each, Krishna would walk through the Vrindavan forest in search of lush vegetation. The cowherd boys’ herding and adventurous play went on all day, stopping only for a picnic, when they’d happily share the contents of each other’s lunch packs. The boys never went hungry because their mothers had prepared all kinds of savouries and sweets for them, using different recipes each day. A plentiful milk supply meant that many of the sweet preparations were made from yogurt, cream and cheese. Placed in pots, wrapped in banana leaves then tied up firmly with grass twine, the packages were a delight to open at lunchtime in the shade of a large tree.

The Bhagavata Purana, the ancient book that gives details about the Lord’s life, even describes the menu of these picnics, and for thousands of years the recipes have been preserved, shared and used. In the Vaishnava tradition, the way of devotion to Krishna, meals are still prepared for child Krishna and offered to Him at a home shrine or a large public temple. There, installed upon a throne and decorated with flowers, the sacred image of the blackish-bluish cowherd boy interacts with His devotees. Just as He did while on Earth, the Lord can accept a lunch pack from His devotees and eat it as his midday picnic.

That is why, for fifty centuries, wherever there are temples dedicated to Krishna, the worshippers have cooked milk sweets and brought them as offerings. They remember Krishna in Vrindavan, and recreate that atmosphere every time they take milk, yogurt, cream and cheese, cook them together with other natural ingredients, and place them on the altar along with their prayers. Each temple has its own speciality milk sweet, and pilgrims can receive a sample from the priest as holy prasad, immediately after the offering has been removed from Krishna’s altar.

Although such delicious dishes are prepared all over India, nowhere is more famous for milk sweets than Bengal, where sweet making has been raised to a fine art. Bengal was once known as Gor-Desh or ‘the sweet country,’ and it is customary in that region, even today, to celebrate all of life’s major events with the sharing of a plate of delicious milk sweets.

From the strained, caramelised yogurt known as Misti-dahi, through the thickened, condensed milks of Khir and Rabri, to the soft, kneaded cheese of Sandesh, the sweetened and spiced fudges of Burfi andPera, and the delicate, sponge-like textured Rasagulla and Cham-cham, the range of sweets and the varieties of flavours is vast.

The British in Victorian India were not immune to the allure of Bengali sweets, and the famous confectioners of the day, household names such as K.C.Das were all patronised by the well-to-do members of the Raj. When the wife of the Viceroy, Lady Canning, celebrated her birthday, one sweet maker came up with a novel design for her. By cooking a traditional rasagulla in ghee, the sweet turned golden in colour and the flavour took on a delicate nuance. Still popular today, the celebratory confection is now known by the Bengali version of the aristocrat’s name: the Ledikenni.

The founder of the Hare Krishna movement, Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, was born in Calcutta in 1896 and grew up with both a Krishna temple across the street and a sweet shop nearby. So he was perfectly placed to experience the best of Bengal’s milk sweets quite regularly through his childhood. When he introduced the traditions of Krishna temple worship to the West he also brought the art of sweet-making with him. His disciples learned how to make traditional sweets and offered them twice a day on the altar – beginning at four in the morning.

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Auschwitz survivor saved ‘by chance alone’

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When we examine the path of our life, we may note that we became the person we are today through a judicious combination of education, the kindness of others, intelligence and hard work. It all adds up, and we are the sum total of all the choices and efforts we’ve made. But then there’s the life-changing power of sheer luck. Something happened to change the course of our life, some random happening that was nothing of our own doing. A meeting with someone that re-directed our life for the better. Call it the mysterious Hand of Fate, Providence, or just being in the right place at the right time.

When Max Eisen looked at his life he could only reflect on the miraculous series of chance encounters that saved his life several times over. As a boy of only 15 he was arrested in Hungary and taken to Auschwitz concentration camp where he was sent to work until the point of exhaustion. Starved and physically injured by an SS guard, he was saved by the kindness of a fellow prisoner, a doctor, who treated his injury and then engaged him as a cleaner inside the infamous camp hospital. In that living hell, he came to learn of the depths to which humans can stoop.

Separated from sixty relatives, all of whom perished, he was forced on a death march in January, 1945 to Ebbensee camp, some 600 kilometers away. He was finally rescued in the closing days of the war when an African-American army tank battalion, the 761st, liberated the camp.

When I met Max at a family wedding, two years ago, his book was still a work in progress. Although he’d been tirelessly travelling and speaking to groups and organisations about his experiences, he’d never completed a written version of his story. I am delighted to learn that his book By Chance Alone, published by Harper Collins, will be launched on 19th April.

It is a sad fact that anti-Semitism is on the rise. In the name of being anti-Israel or anti-Zionism,  many are speaking words that have not been heard since the 1930s in Europe. Even some who are considered intelligent are denying the severity of the holocaust. The generation who survived the holocaust are all too few in number, and it is essential that we hear from them. Democracy is a very fragile thing, and it is all too easy for the same extremes of political thought to arise once again. We should understand where that leads.

At 87, Max Eisen is a living witness to one of the greatest atrocities in history. His book is a testimony of his courage and survival, and of how he coped with the painful aftermath of liberation, a time of physical and psychological healing.

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999th Birthday

Ramanuja Telugu Movie Stills

An actor plays the part of Ramanujacarya in a modern movie from southern India.

Today is the birthday of Ramanujacarya, the great teacher and organiser of the Sri Sampradaya, the human vehicle of Laxmi Devi’s teachings within this world. Actually, today is his 999th birthday, which means that next year will be his millennial celebration. For someone’s teachings to endure for a thousand years and to be an unfailing source of inspiration for millions of people after all that time – means that what he wrote, and what he did, are of perennial use – practically and spiritually.

Ramanuja is remembered for his contributions to an already-existing tradition; contributions that rendered it possible for that tradition to endure through many generations. The world does not always care for spiritual thinkers and leaders. In fact, it is because spiritual leaders often present intellectual challenges to political leaders of the day that they are first to be persecuted.

Ramanuja had to go into hiding for several years when the king of the region saw him as his biggest threat. His followers were persecuted and cruelly tortured. Thousands were slaughtered in one city, years later, in a religious ethnic cleansing that it would serve us well to remember more often.

The great saint wrote books of amazing clarity and logical argumentation, poetry and devotion. He re-organised and upgraded temple worship in hundreds of towns, and created an India-wide human network of teachers and spiritual preceptors. Above all, he was an affectionate guardian to those who took shelter of him; who served him with dedication and love for many years until his passing in 1137 at the grand age of 120.

 

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Post-modern perspectives on the guru-disciple relationship

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Despite the success of Vaishnavism as a worldwide phenomenon, there are yet some persistent difficulties faced by converts in understanding and implementing the ancient guru-disciple tradition. Partial understandings of source texts combined with highly selective use of quotes has only served to exacerbate the divisions of thought. This is particularly true of the writings on the delicate subject of guru-disciple.

This is probably as much as can be expected considering the prevailing climate. Whether we term it ‘post-modernism’ or not, the current intellectual and philosophical climate in the industrialised world has contributed to a particular perspective on the Vedas and the guru-disciple culture which is at its heart. The post-modern paradigm has several elements which may be helpful to the spirituality required to fully understanding the guru-disciple relationship. Conversely, it has some that directly militate against it:

  1. Relational rather than hierarchical – Post-modern people are suspicious of the mainstream in any area of life and much prefer flat or networked organisations to hierarchies. Post-moderns want to humanise the world and are drawn to marginalised people; they are relationship centred. They give a higher priority to building a relationship than maintaining a building or structure. This view of the world probably helped to create the Hare Krishna movement back in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, as the role of the guru in the Hare Krishna movement has become augmented with organisational position and corollary power, there have been more complaints about the ‘position of guru’ being used to preserve the ‘institutional hierarchy.’ As the movement has gone from the social fringes to a more ‘mainstream’ position, the post-modern observers have re-categorized it from a ‘spiritual movement’ to a ‘religious institution.’ Although there is only a difference in size and complexity, that is enough for some to regard the guru-disciple relationship as an instrument of a religious hierarchy – and to react against it.

  1. Spiritual rather than rational – Post-modern people, it is said, are more inclined to honour feelings along with rationality. They are drawn to signs, symbols and mysticism and love to hear stories of miraculous or mysterious experiences. Social psychologists suggest that this may have something to do with the ‘feminisation’ of society – and they may be partially right, since some aspects of masculinity are being challenged – but it may also be because spirituality itself has been subjugated to the principle of mere religious conformity for a prolonged period. The mystical element of religion, the tangible experiences of a higher reality, have been so rationalised away that people now crave this very real dimension of life.

Though all of this would seem to support people entering into the guru-disciple relationship, it has actually led, in some cases, to blind acceptance of self-declared, somewhat under-enlightened guru figures and belief in their pseudo-spiritual revelations. This alarming state of affairs has, by turn, led to the growth of evangelical rationality, as evidenced by the profusion of the ‘anti-God’ books written by neo-atheists. Within the Hare Krishna movement, this post-modern trend has often led to initial credulity of the guru’s qualifications, without any prior checking, followed by disenchantment some time later. Some post-modern Hare Krishna members have consequently become very influenced by the ‘new atheist’ writings and have placed rationale as their new guide to reality, completely foregoing their previous convictions in direct mystical experience. In this condition, some have rejected the Vedas entirely.

  1. Explorative rather than possessive – Post-modern people dislike boundaries. ‘To travel is more important than to arrive.’ To explore is OK, to say that you have arrived is pride, and to then package what you’ve discovered is exploitation. They distrust notions of progress and tend to refuse to judge anyone else. They don’t like the differences between one person and another or between one religious group and another, and tend to want to de-emphasise them, preferring to think of every person and every path as equal. Again, this makes the Bhagavad-gita very interesting reading for them since Lord Krishna speaks of the soul present in every physical form and the inherent equality of all life. But the post-modern mind doesn’t like there to be any superior path to God-realisation because that makes others ‘inferior.’ Similarly, they don’t like the guru to be a person who knows it all and who can teach them. Rather, they want the guru to be more of an equal – a ‘soul friend.’ Of course, the guru is the best friend of the soul, but he is more, and must be regarded as more if the real benefit of having a guru is to be ever obtained.
  2. Inclusive rather than exclusive Because they don’t like to judge or pigeon-hole others, post-modern people tend to want to draw out the possibilities in others and seek to include them. Rather than regarding others in terms of their spiritual commitment or membership of a spiritual group, they would prefer to see them in terms of their potential. They are most likely to find some aspects of religious identity – where a spiritual practitioner chooses the company of like-minded others – as cultural aloofness or elitism. Buildings and organisational structures are not as important as the building of communities based on spiritual relationships.

Again, all of this may sound very good but a rejection of good discrimination can cause ineffectiveness in helping others. Different people have different spiritual needs, for instance, and require different approaches of teaching and guidance. And an extreme example of inclusivity in eating, for example, would see a vegetarian post-modern person sit down for a non-vegetarian meal out of respect for the dietary decisions of a friend. But not everyone’s dinner is suitable for an aspiring transcendentalist, and judgement is therefore required. Krishna speaks of categories of faith, practise, friends, types of personal discipline and stages of mystical revelation, and reality – according to Him, the One who sees reality as it really is – is made up differences between things, at least as much as similarities.

So although inclusivity is important, not everything or everyone can always be included in everything. Social inclusivity is no doubt the hallmark of Vedic culture since no-one is left out and everyone is on the path back to God. However, the disciplines necessary to develop higher states of awareness rest upon the ability to carefully discriminate between what to do and not; what to study and recite and not; what to eat and drink and what to avoid. After initiation the disciple is meant to honour the instructions of his guru above all others; and to practise the disciplines he has been given as a daily choice. Failure to do this – to try to establish a moral and spiritual equivalence amongst all instructions and all people – simply leads to the ultimate loss of regard for the guru and an inability to honour ones vows.

  1. Culture friendly rather than ‘anachronistic’ Post-modern religion, if a person chooses any religion at all, is religion a la carte. People select the ingredients with which they feel most comfortable. That will, inevitably, include elements of contemporary political or philosophical thought, speech, dress and culture being added to traditional time-honoured practises. They tend to view history as progressive and incrementally revelatory, a procession of human enlightenment leading to some ultimate revelation of peace and truth for all humanity. Ideas expressed in the past – simply because they were in the past – are less relevant than those expressed today. What this linear view of history does is to relegate the Vedas to a less enlightened period of human development, a period that produced some good ideas and noble thoughts, but cannot claim to have all the answers.

While intellectually a post-modern thinker may be drawn irresistibly to the logic of Vedanta he will almost unconsciously place a limitation on his beliefs since he anticipates another set of ‘Vedic’ revelations coming along soon. The guru-disciple relationship itself is also subjected to this view of history. The submission required to understand the Vedas may be regarded as an anachronism, as is the guru himself. The spiritual aspirant or disciple regards the guru as a helpful notion – for the people of another country, in another era – but can’t see the relevance of such an antiquated relationship in ‘today’s world.’ After initiation, the ‘post-modern disciple’ may begin to regard the vows he made as historical and therefore less relevant than those he might make today. By constantly reinventing himself in the light of his new experiences and understandings, such a disciple must be extremely careful not to reinvent himself out of his commitment to his guru’s instructions.

The added difficulty for anyone approaching the Vedas and the guru today is that none of us are accustomed to serving anyone in order to gain knowledge. If we need to learn something we simply pay a class or course fee, sit in front of the teacher, listen carefully and make notes. We don’t have to ‘surrender’ to the teacher or ‘make submissive enquiries,’ or make any extra effort to please the teacher by ‘rendering him service,’ all of which are recommended in the Vedas. There is no relationship we are obliged to enter into, and there is no question of ‘obedience.’ Logic also commands us to answer the question: “If the Vedas are written down and are now published in the form of a book, why can I not just pick up the book and read it?”

In the modern world, since 1450 at least, we Europeans have learned about the Divine through the medium of the printed word on paper. Great Protestant Christian martyrs have been publicly burned to death in England for daring to declare that God can be revealed through English language print. They suffered a painful end for insisting that no priest was required as an intermediary. If any lands are totally unsuitable for the guru-disciple method of teaching it must surely be the Protestant countries. These are the countries which rebelled against the notion that a priest was required to pass down messages from God or to take our prayers to Him. The Vedas would agree – to an extent. They explain that God does indeed reveal himself in the form of the written word – but that we can learn even more if we have a genuine guru.

In the early 21st century the internet search engine promises to provide us all the information we can possibly take in. Never before in human history have we been able to access so much information, store it and share it with whomever we like. The invention of information technology has revolutionised human communication in a way never thought possible some decades ago. Surely this has changed the way we can learn and understand the Vedas?

But there is a difference between information and knowledge, and a difference again between knowledge of something and a true understanding of it. The development of a true apprehension of higher reality comes as a result of incremental mystical revelation. And that, say the Vedas, can only be obtained by serving the guru – the one who is speaking the words of God – and serving him as a representative of God.

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Gopala Bhatta Goswami’s gifts to the Vaishnava community

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So today we’re marking the life of a great saint in our tradition who lived 500 years ago. He was the son of a Sri Vaishnava brahmana, Venkata Bhatta, and was born in a village near the famous temple town of Sri Rangam, on the banks of the Kaveri River.

Born around 1500 AD, he was 11 years old when Sri Chaitanya ‘the great master’ came and stayed with his family for the four months of the rainy season. His father served Chaitanya meals and washed his feet out of profound respect for his guest.

During his time with them, Sri Chaitanya told them about love for the Supreme in the form of Radha-Krishna. Venkata Bhatta and his family listened with affection, as did the brothers Trimalla and Prabodhananda. Chaitanya asked the young Gopala to come and meet him in Vrindavan when he could.

When he was 30 years old and his parents had departed, Gopala Bhatta came to live in the Vrindavan region with the two brothers, Rupa and Sanatana, who treated him like a family member. Chaitanya was very pleased to hear that, 19 years later, Gopala had come to Vrindavan. He sent him his wooden sitting place and some of his garments, which the young man was overjoyed to receive.

Sadly, only four years later, Chaitanya himself was to depart and Gopala was deeply saddened. One night he had a dream of Chaitanya who told him that if wanted his darshan he should go to Nepal. Once there, Gopala Bhatta took bath in the cold Kali-Gandaki river whereupon some small black, round stones came into his water pot. Placing them back in the water three times he decided that these Vishnu stones, or shaligram shila, actually wished to come with him. So he took 12 of them with him back to Vrindavan.

On the day of Narasimha Chaturdasi a rich man came to Vrindavan and gave the sadhus cloth and jewellery for their deities. Gopala spread these items before his shilas and prayed that he might have a Lord to whom these items could be offered.

The next morning, after his bath, he saw that the largest stone had changed shape, manifesting as a form of child Krishna with flute-playing hands raised and feet gracefully crossed.

In 1542 Gopala Bhatta opened the temple for his lord Radha Ramana and to this day worship has continued at a very high standard. The continuity of archana has been accomplished by a line of family descendants. Although Gopala had no sons, and his disciple Gopinatha never married, Gopinatha’s brother Damodara had three sons: Harinatha, Mathuranatha and Harirama. From them came the priestly and family line which exists in its 18th generation today.

Gopala Bhatta was asked by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to help Rupa and Sanatana write books, so he took to the task seriously. His contribution was immense. His speciality was the culture of service and worship of the temple image, and the rules and rituals of daily life of the Vaishnavas.

He wrote a treatise on temple worship based upon the ancient Pancharatra procedures he’d witnessed in his youth. It was titled the Laghu Hari Bhakti Vilasa. Later. Sanatana expanded it and kindly put Gopala’s name to it, although Gopala only claimed that he wrote the introduction. This book was the Hari Bhakti Vilasa, and from this, some sections of the later book by Rupa Goswami, the Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu, were formed.

For those with children, Vedic culture has all manner of ceremonies for the various life stages. These involve various rituals and fire sacrifices and are known as samskaras. Although most of them invoke the blessings of the gods, Gopala Bhatta wrote a new treatise on samskaras that worshipped only Vishnu. Indeed the first section of the book goes into great detail as to why only Vishnu is to be worshipped. This book is known as the Sat Kriya Sar Dipika.

One of Gopala Bhatta’s disciples was Srinivasa Acarya, who famously formed the first party of book distributors and preachers along with Narottama and Shyamananda.

Gopala Bhatta Goswami lived for some 45 years in Vrindavan and his legacy lives on today in the form of ISKCON’s temple ritual and ceremony, it’s publications and its daily Vaishnava sadacara.

When Sri Chaitanya was in Sri Rangam, he fashioned vigraha of Jagannatha Swami, or Lord Krishna as he had seen him in Puri. These three small images are still worshipped today, just over the road from the home of the present day descendants of Venkata Bhatta. The Sri Radha Ramana temple is well known in Vrindavan and can be visited daily, and especially for evening darshan. The original cloth of Chaitanya can be viewed on one day every year.

 

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Peace in the Middle East? Not unless the children are peaceful.

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The essential principle of progressive, civilised human life is to restrain negative emotions within oneself and to limit their discharge towards others; and to cultivate positive emotions such as tolerance, compassion and non-violence. Lust, greed and anger are the three gates leading to Hell, reads the ancient Bhagavad-gita.

Perpetuating negative emotions leads to a permanent negative state within a person, and negativity throughout a society when it is made up predominantly of such persons. “So the single rice grain, so the pot of rice.”

We radiate an emotional state when we don’t make efforts to control it; we can’t help it. All others who contact us are affected by our unchecked emotions. And we do a great disservice to our children if we force them to imbibe our negativity.

So imagine the consequences when an entire society cultivates these very negative qualities within its children – through the educational system itself. Peace in the Middle East? Not when the emotions of the children are being systematically slaughtered.

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Taking Christ out of Christmas

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Although I have been travelling around England recently, I’ve been following the ongoing dispute about the Church of England’s attempt to promote prayer by commissioning a 54-second film – a cinema advertisement, so to speak, for The Lord’s Prayer. The  was designed to be shown before the new Star Wars film. At the last minute the cinema chain stopped the film from being shown – even though it had been approved by the relevant advertising body. It gave as a reason that it ‘might be offensive to some people.’

I despair at the state my country has got itself into. Just coming up to Christmas, who on earth would find a short piece about Christian prayer ‘offensive?’ It might be better to show the ad and then let those who are so offended reveal themselves.

Yesterday I was in Leicester, and right opposite the back door of our temple is the Town Hall. The imposing brick building has the very largest, flashing, green neon **Merry Christmas** sign I have ever seen. Leicester has, as many will know, the largest population of Hindus in the country, outside London. As far as I know, not one Hindu has ever begrudged this overt celebration of Christmas. Hinduism is a broad and diverse collection of religious strands, and is inclusive, appreciating all attempts to serve and know God.

Those who recognise that the same God is being worshipped, despite the differences in names used by the worshippers, will acknowledge  and appreciate the paths of everyone, giving them freedom to express their deepest feelings of faith. And those who recognise the importance of religion, generally, in preserving morality and order in society, will welcome the range of human emotions that comes along with worship, particular the celebration of festivals. It is very sad that we seem to have taken the wrong turn in our understanding of freedom of religion and expression.

To make these cinematic religious matters slightly more complex, the short film Sanjay’s Superteam, by Toy Story makers Pixar, is now being shown in some cinemas just before their new film The Good Dinosaur. The short film features, in cartoon forms, Lord Vishnu, Hanuman and Durga. While I’m delighted that the names and forms of the deities are being broadcast, I am troubled that we seem to be relentlessly diminishing the religion that has been the foundation of much good in this country. The problem is that intolerance toward Christianity in the name of preserving the peace will be followed by more intolerant behaviour in the future.

It is understandable that people look for new forms of religious expression as they tire of old forms. The path of Bhakti seems to be attracting the attention of seekers everywhere. Krishna is mentioned by the bad character in the trailer for another superhero movie: X-Men Apocalypse. The anti-hero introduces himself by saying: “I have been called many things over many lifetimes, Rama, Krishna, Yahweh…”

There may be many more occasions where Bhakti makes an appearance in popular culture. Certainly, there is a great variety of rich culture to be mined in the search for new forms of spiritual expression. I do feel, however, that religion itself must be protected, so that even the concepts preserved by those faiths do not disappear from our conversations. That would be a sad world. Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Visiting the Ashram

For some years I have had a collection of books from a variety of religious traditions. I also have a few from the community I was brought up in, the Methodist Church. One book – one amongst many – is this volume, by one John J. Vincent.

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As life and fate arrange it, I went to Sheffield last week and was introduced to the author himself. The Ashram Community Trust is a Christian organisation in Sheffield, Yorkshire which was founded in 1965. The group runs many welfare, educational, and health food projects in the city. Its founder, the Reverend Dr. John Vincent, former head of the Methodist Conference, has made a lifetime study of the theology of discipleship according to the Bible. He is also a doctoral advisor on a PhD course run by the Urban Theology Unit, also founded by him.

He has been quite prolific in his writing and tireless in his community building through the years. Now in his eighth decade – but still going out for a morning run – he continues to help others with his depth of wisdom and experience. On a visit to Sheffield I presented him with a copy of my The Guru & Disciple Book which he said he would read with great interest.

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Guru and Disciple: Hundreds of copies already sold

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So I published my book in August, just a modest run of 500 copies. They’ve almost all gone. Thank you to all those who showed me support and bought one. And congratulations to you if you bought one as a gift for a friend.

Just to stimulate discussion, and to perhaps interest you, dear reader, in buying one before they all go, here are the Contents pages. You’ll see I have not flinched in discussing some controversial topics, chiefly because there’s a readership for those types of subjects. The Guru & Disciple Book is available on Amazon – now at a reduced rate – in both UK and USA.

Contents

Part One: Putting first things first

  1. You are Here – Why our home-made map of life may require updating.
  2. Five Tales – Classic tales from the Upanishads suggest that a change of perspective may be necessary before spiritual life can begin.
  3. Understanding the Vedas – There are two classical ways of gathering knowledge; only one is good enough for spiritual transmission between the guru and the disciple.
  4. What are the Vedas? – A look at the numerous components of a vast library of wisdom.
  5. The Vedas and other religions – Ultimate reality is one, perceived differently only due to the different consciousness of the seers.
  6. Discussing and understanding the Sources – Original texts, commentaries and mystical revelation. How to avoid fuzzy thinking.
  7. Postmodern Views – Postmodernism affects everything – even the guru-disciple relationship.
  8. The Necessity of accepting a Guru – Why other ways of gaining higher knowledge are incomplete.

Part Two: The ancient culture of learning

  1. A is for Acarya – The meaning of the word and the ancient culture of how acaryas lived and taught.
  2. Siksha, Diksha, and Semantic Drift – More meanings of words and how they’ve gradually changed.
  3. Diksha – The history of giving mantras; what happens at the diksha ceremony; and what has changed in a thousand years.
  4. Qualities of the Guru and the Disciple – A classical description from the Nyasa Vimsati, the lifetime experience of the mediaeval Vaishnava saint, Vedanta Deshika.
  5. What does a guru teach? – Guru means ‘teacher,’ but what is he supposed to teach you, and how often? How do you know if he is teaching you correctly? How do you know if you are a good student?
  6. Teaching techniques of the gurus – Gurus employ a diverse range of time-tested techniques in order to help their disciples on their spiritual journey.
  7. The Reprehensible Delusions of Guruship – Four ways the guru should not think about himself – or his disciple. Wisdom from the ancient sage, Pillai Lokacarya.
  8. Where can you find a guru? – Lord Krishna told Arjuna to ‘approach’ a guru. But where can you find one? Here is what Krishna said years later, as recorded in the eleventh canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam.
  9. Within You, Without You – How God manifests as the guru, both inside and out.
  10. Little Ants on a Leaping Lion – Who is more important for the disciple – the physically manifest guru or the historical acarya? The discussion continues after 900 years.
  11. The Parampara Family Tree – How the best fruit is gently carried down through the branches of the tree.
  12. A Very Different Diksha – Misconceptions and movements. How the grandfathers of contemporary Vaishnavism tackled ‘mission drift.’

Part Three: Creating and sustaining community

  1. The Guru spreads his Arms – His ashrams, sanghas, missions and movements.
  2. Not Everybody likes Organisations – Why we don’t like ‘organised religion,’ and prefer small groups to big ones.
  3. Sustainability and Governance – Why hierarchy and ‘due diligence’ are essential – even in spiritual movements.
  4. Are you Church or Chapel? – Religious groups constantly divide and splinter, but by keeping a tradition spiritually dynamic, we can avoid the temptation of separation.

Part Four: Shades of saffron

  1. Sannyasa Dharma – Ancient rules for a renunciate and the ten vows he must make.
  2. Sannyasa – the Real and the False – Real sannyasa is internal, and goes beyond the wearing of saffron robes. So why was it important for Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakur?
  3. Undercurrents – The Gaudiya Mission was enormously successful, yet beneath the surface there were already swirling currents.
  4. White Skin, Orange Cloth – The many challenges in setting up a western sannyasa order from 1967 to 1977.
  5. Saffron Cardinals – An order of renunciates as ecclesiastics, and the phenomenon of ‘clergy burnout.’
  6. Reflections and Reforms – Sannyasis who became gurus share their private thoughts.

Part Five: Gurus, scandals and issues

  1. Why would anyone be a guru? – Discussing why, and how, the decision is made to accept disciples.
  2. Gurus of the Future – Srila Prabhupada speaks clearly on how he wants his disciples to become gurus after him.
  3. The July 9th Letter – In the 1980s certain members of ISKCON raised this one letter to the level of a religious text.
  4. So what went wrong? – The turbulent years after the passing of the founder-acarya threatened to wrench his movement apart. What mistakes were made?
  5. Stepping into their father’s shoes – Some of the complications of being a young guru in an even younger spiritual movement.
  6. Diksha Lite – In a bid to attract followers, some gurus offer initiation without training.
  7. Diksha and Drugs – In the name of ‘compassion,’ some gurus try to have disciples without discipline.
  8. Guru and Disciple in Therapy – In which we subject the guru-disciple relationship to an hour on the therapist’s couch.
  9. When the Wise become Weak – It does happen, sadly, so what should be our response? How can it be avoided?
  10. Loyal Disciple…or a mouse? – The guru repeats what he’s heard or loses his power.
  11. Leaving a Guru – Can you ever leave? What are the legitimate reasons?

Part Six: Becoming a disciple today

  1. Steps towards the Big Step – Spiritual life is a journey of a thousand steps. Where is initiation on that journey, and how do we prepare for it?
  2. Are you ready for a guru? – What should you look for within yourself before initiation? What doubts and myths about the guru have to be dissolved first?
  3. Serious to find a guru – Srila Prabhupada and his own guru write on how to find one.
  4. Testing the guru – No-one should blindly accept a guru. The candidate is first meant to test the guru. But how, exactly, and for how long?
  5. The Path to Initiation – How to become initiated in ISKCON today. Stages in the procedure and the support you’ll need to have in place.

 

 

 

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Wolf in sheep’s clothing

WOLF-IN-SHEEPS-CLOTHING-2

I’ve been reading the news about the increasing violence in Jerusalem this week, and it seems to be surpassing much of what’s been happening for years. The wave of horrific daily stabbings is far more brutal than ever seen before, and the number of people being killed at bus stops by crazed car drivers far outstrips the former randomness of such crimes. Why the sudden escalation?

It’s almost as if the activities of the IS in Syria and Iraq, made well known by their warped publicity department, has made other Islamists in the region much more brutal. And Mahmoud Abbas raising the Palestinian flag in a garden near the UN, and his constant inflammatory rhetoric, no doubt fanned the flames.

It’s not my business to comment on politics, especially of those countries I’ve never visited. But it is my business – at least I make it my business – to comment on religion-related issues. The Middle East is a political phenomenon disguised as a religious issue. As in most cases of this kind, it is not that the most pious and religious people are involved in making the political decisions. More often, it is the angriest politicians that cloak themselves in religious rhetoric that rise to the top of the social heap.

The so-called religious flashpoint is the Temple Mount / Al Aqsa Mosque, supposedly the ‘third holiest place for Muslims.’ Even though the location of Mohammed’s ‘night journey’ is nowhere mentioned in the Koran, and even though it was probably an invention of Saladdin to bolster his reasons for invading Jerusalem; and even though it is most surely a legacy of the historical Islamic preference to build mosques over the most sacred places of other people’s religions (please see Bethlehem, Ayodhya, Mathura, and numerous other sites in India).

The Bhagavad-gita is a conversation about religion that was recorded before the beginning of Islam. It therefore has absolutely nothing to say about Islam. But it does have an interesting take on how a mental state can spread among people, inducing the masses to share an emotion that by themselves they may never have experienced. Socialised emotion, you might call it. The Gita explains that the enemy of all of us is lust, the intense desire to reach out with one of the senses and control a material object (or a person who has been objectified) and enjoy it. The concomitant emotions are greed and anger. Indeed, says the speaker of the Gita, Sri Krishna, those three emotions, lust greed and anger, are ‘the gates leading to hell.’

Anything that inflames lust, greed and anger is the antithesis of religion and the enemy of spiritual progress. Anger-inducing religion is thus the very opposite of factual religion – a wolf in lamb’s clothing – and is the enemy of spiritual progress.

I also read this and thought I’d share it you: http://www.wsj.com/articles/palestine-the-psychotic-stage-1444692875

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