What is the Spirit?

sea

A few years ago I narrated a compilation of selections from the Upanishads. Music was added and it became track 7 on the Chakram album. Now some friends have created a video around the track. I’d like to share it with you, please click here.

 

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Renunciation Personified

Gaurakisora_dasa_Babaji_ca.1900

Today is Gaura Kishor Das Babaji’s appearance day. In our line of gurus he comes after Bhaktivinode Thakur and before Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. He is a very important person because his life was an example of vairagya, or renunciation.

His life was an example of an authentic detachment from sense gratification and the utmost attraction to spiritual gratification. He lived alone most of the time, often on the bank of the Ganges river in Mayapur. He ate very little, and spent his time chanting the maha-mantra. For clothing he simply picked up discarded items, and for food he begged a little rice which he would soak in Ganges water.

When anyone came to become his disciple he would refuse. When they came to ask him questions he would reply that everything  could be found in the songbook of Narottama das Thakur. When they came to him and asked for ‘secret mantras’ he said that everything would be revealed by the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra, which in itself was the highest of all mantras.

When they weren’t trying to become his disciples, some of them would try to imitate him. One time a man camped just down the riverbank from him, dressing like him and trying to chant like him. At times the man would let out cries of “Oh Krishna!” as if he was experiencing spiritual ectasy. However, the Babaji could see that the man was trying to attract followers with his behaviour. His comments were typical: “Sometimes a woman cries out with all the sounds of the labour of childbirth – but she is not yet pregnant even! Similarly a man thinks he has developed love of God, but the seed of love has not yet grown within him!”

Gaura Kishor Das Babaji was leading a life that was only possible because he had factually realised the pleasure of chanting Krishna’s names, and simply could not be bothered to cater for his own eating, sleeping and comfort. It is not a life that could be imitated prematurely.

But as much as he shunned public attention, even refusing to have his photograph taken (there was only one picture ever made), he was a regular visitor to the home of Bhaktivinode Thakur. There in the garden they would discuss the Srimad Bhagavatam, and the Thakur was very impressed with his company.  At the side of the house was a small brick shed, and the Babaji  would sit inside there on rainy days, the holy name reverberating off the brick walls.

The Thakur insisted that his son, Bimala Prasada, take initiation from the Babaji, but he was educated and the Babaji was illiterate. But the father was so strict he told his son: “If you do not take initiation from him – don’t return to this house!” Repeatedly, Bimala Prasad asked until the Babaji simply said, “Alright, but I will have to ask Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. If he says ‘yes’ then I will initiate you.” The next week, Bimala came and asked what had been the reply. “Oh, I forgot to ask,” responded the Babaji. But eventually Bimala became the one and only disciple, and went on to become, years later, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur.

However, at first he was confused. His father, Bhaktivinode, was a great preacher, writer, and publisher of books. He moved in high social circles and had a large following. But his guru lived alone, had no followers, was a renunciate and a constant chanter of the name. Who should he follow – his father, a great devotee, or his guru, a great devotee?

He decided to first chant more than 100 rounds of Hare Krishna japa every day, and lived in a simple straw hut, even though the roof leaked. After some years he received the inspiration to begin his preaching mission, the result of which, through his dear disciple Srila Prabhupada, is now in cities all over the world.

Some years ago, I learned that the original shed where the Babaji chanted had been knocked down to make way for a concrete shrine built in his memory. Such things happen in India. I was able to salvage a few chips of one of the original bricks, and still have them for inspiration. Gaura Kishor Das Babaji’s body is now interred in a Samadhi shrine in the grounds of the Chaitanya Math, the original headquarters of the Gaudiya Mission.

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Kirtans from the Attic

Here’s some old recordings of kirtans from thirty years ago. Although 1985 was a great year for cassette tapes, time had taken its toll on them and they were sounding pretty rough. Now they’ve been given new life by Jaggi of Radha Krishna Records.

Jaggi has done a great job in restoring them. Using a Bang & Olufsen tape machine, he cleaned the tape heads, played it back through a BBC analogue desk, and enhanced the recording. Hopefully you will find a use for them.

They arrived just in time for my 60th birthday. If you enjoy them please say a prayer for my continued good health and spiritual progress. Hare Krishna.

 

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Remembering Aberfan

aberfan

On this day in October 1966 I was ten years old and living in a small village in Cornwall. I’d gone out for a walk in the afternoon and wherever I went, people were talking to each other about a terrible thing that had happened that morning in a Welsh village.

I don’t remember hearing about disasters very much when I was young, so this made a deep impression on me. It was as if the whole village felt it. News travelled a little slower back then, but the grainy images on a neighbours black and white television set was showing hundreds of people trying to rescue children from a school that had been covered in an avalanche of mining waste. Thousands of tons of slag, made unstable due to the rain, had slid down a hill and covered houses and an entire primary school. Many children my age had died, I heard.

One neighbour shooed me away, saying to her husband: “He’s too young to listen to this; these are kids his age. He’ll get affected by it.”

Affected I was. For days afterwards we were told harrowing stories of the little children who had been at their lessons when the hill simply slid down on top of their school. The black slag came in through the windows of their classrooms, covering them and everything else. We had bad dreams about it, and wrote letters to ‘The children of Aberfan’ to show our support and solidarity. A collection was taken up, and I brought a threepenny bit from home.

News wasn’t just ‘the news’ then, where you could choose to distant yourself from all the bad things in the world. This was real children who had died, 116 of them within a few minutes, in a small village just like ours, and in a primary school just like ours. We were connected.

Aberfan, 21st October 1966

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‘Locker Room Talk’

Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

Who would you vote for? How do you make your choice?

When it comes to political leaders, does it matter if their language is sometimes harsh if they get the job done? Must they always tell the whole truth and nothing but?

What about their ethical behaviour – how important is that?

Here’s Akhandadhi’s recent take on it on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04bxgfp

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The Appearance Day of Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur

bhaktivinode (1)

Today is the appearance day of Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur. On this day in 1838 he was born in Birnagar, Bengal, India. He was to become a prolific author of books on the philosophical teachings of devotion to Radha-Krishna, a masterful songwriter, and the great-grandfather of the present day Hare Krishna movement. By his monumental, single-handed efforts the pure bhakti taught by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was rescued from the hands of numerous false teachers, charlatan yogis, and Anglicised Hindus.

He redefined the Gaudiya Vaishnava path, created a very popular movement with over 500 branches, and put the teachings of Rupa Goswami into English for the first time. His son was to later become Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Goswami Prabhupada, whose dear disciple was our Srila Prabhupada.

He once predicted that the sound of the mridanga and karatals, and the sound of the holy names of Krishna, would one day resound in the cities of the world. On another occasion he said that he would personally accompany anyone who took the harinam sankirtan to a new town.

His last song, composed in 1907, was an exposition of his personal meditation and daily spiritual principles. Here they are, in English translation, as well as sung in Sanskrit and Telugu, the language of Andhra Pradesh / Telangana.

 

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National Geographic Channel highlights ISKCON Kitchen

I went to the Bhaktivedanta Manor this afternoon. It was a hot summer’s day for England, but a team of dedicated volunteers were underneath a marquee surrounded by chopping tables and hot gas stoves, preparing food for the 30,000 pilgrims that will be arriving on Thursday for Lord Krishna’s birthday. Just last month our teams prepared hot meals for 17,000 in Trafalgar Square. In Glastonbury the Hare Krishna tent fed 15,000 hungry mouths over the festival, and the same team prepare 900 meals daily for the homeless and hungry students.

Besides singing and dancing in public places, or distributing books, giving out blessed food or prasadam is the activity for which ISKCON is known. Today, 50 years after it started, that essential activity of cooking in large quantities has been raised to a fine art. It takes some feat of organisation to prepare food for thousands of people but it seems to be one thing that ISKCON does well.

Here’s how the National Geographic Channel picked up on one such ‘mega-kitchen’ this week:

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My Condolences to the Followers and Disciples of Pramukh Swami Maharaja

pramukh swami

I would like to offer my condolences to all the many followers and disciples of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaja, who passed from this world on Saturday, 13th August at the age of 95. His contribution to their lives is immeasurable, and I know this will be a time of great pain for them.

Pramukh Swami Maharaja took the vision and mission of his own gurus, Shastriji Maharaja and Yogiji Maharaja and developed it into a worldwide network of more than one thousand temples and hundreds of thousands of followers. He carried the message of Lord Swaminarayana and gave countless talks, wrote thousands of letters, and inspired his devotees to perform great educational and humanitarian endeavours.

I had a memorable lunch with Pramukh Swami in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1980, and visited him again just a few years ago at the magnificent white marble temple in Neasden, London. He was always gracious with his visitors and seemed to have time for everyone. I feel blessed to have had his company for a few moments and although I am saddened by his passing, I know that he is now, as always, in supremely blissful company.

 

 

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Learning from a Tree

garden opening

Two weeks ago at Bhaktivedanta Manor, a new garden was dedicated to Srila Prabhupada and his disciples. Since it was the week in which we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the formal establishment of ISKCON, I gave the following speech:

If you would please look up and cast your eyes behind me towards this sequoia tree. It’s at least 100 feet high. It was planted here in the 1880s by a gardener who never got to see it the way we can see it today. This tree is one of 183 trees here at the Bhaktivedanta Manor. I’d like to think it has its own personality. Certainly it has heard more kirtan than most sequoias.

At sometimes 200 – 300 feet high, the sequoia tree is one of the largest living things in the world and can live for more than three thousand years.  A tree like this can produce 250 seeds from every cone. And a mature tree can produce thousands of cones.

Now, the seed of the sequoia is tiny – only 5 millimetres long. Yet inside a tiny seed is everything needed to grow an entire tree. Think of that for a while. An entire tree inside a tiny seed. Something that will live for three thousand years, inside a tiny seed. Inside the cone is a special chemical which only allows the seeds to fall when the moisture level is just right. Inside the seeds there are so many working parts with wonderful names: vacuoles, ribosomes, mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum. And inside them there is intricate coding – every single detail of the future tree is there.

So within the seed is both the essence of the sequoia tree – the essence that will make it different from all other trees – as well as the specific coding that will form the trunk, branches, twigs and cones, coding that will help the tree to grow, stand tall, and endure for centuries. The essence and the structure – both are needed.

In any area of human life, when someone begins an endeavour  – especially one they hope will endure for a long time, they are, in effect, planting a seed. By their aspirations, their vision of the final result, and by their determination, they plant a seed. And, provided the conditions are right, it will grow.

The growth of a spiritual movement, such as ours, depends on the flow of grace from the divine source and the aspirations and channelled energy of the spiritual seeker. It is said that God reaches down to the soul and the soul reaches upwards to God. And where they meet is called the guru.

The interplay between guru and disciple allows for the transmission of intricate spiritual coding. By sincere enquiry and service, by following the compassionate guidance of the guru and making himself a vessel for the guru’s wisdom and grace, the disciple can begin to grow upwards. But through the disciples the guru also grows. His ability to help the world grows as his disciples reach out to others. They multiply his ability to give Krishna. Guru and disciple together make a spiritual movement.

In the case of a tree, in the beginning there is but a small stirring in the soil. But as the years pass the small sapling grows into a magnificent, tall tree with many branches and hundreds of twigs on every branch. In the case of a spiritual movement, inspired followers attract more followers and a small band of disciples grows into a movement. It takes time, and the growth may not always be apparent, but it grows.

seed

From this small seed comes a tree that can grow to three hundred feet and last for thousands of years. With the establishment of ISKCON Srila Prabhupada planted a seed for centuries to come.

50 years ago, our founder and acarya His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada planted a seed. He brought into existence a society whose specific name he chose and whose specific shape he carefully formed. The original group of early followers might have been bemused to learn the name of the organisation typed up on the deeds of incorporation: the International Society for Krishna Consciousness – ISKCON. There were no assets to speak of and with only one room in a back street of New York there was no way it could be described as even the New York State Society for Krishna Consciousness, what to speak of the American Society for Krishna Consciousness. And international? What a preposterous and utopian idea!

Yet with the signing of that document – the planting of the seed for his future organisation – Srila Prabhupada gave all the natural coding for the growth that was to come. The love and gratitude of his disciples, their enthusiasm to do his bidding, and his daily teaching and careful guidance, all formed the perfect setting for growth to take place.

There is an old Irish story of a farmer who looks up from his field towards the nearby road and sees a saintly man walking. “Where are you going, sir?” he asks. “Oh, I’m going to start a religious movement,” replies the saint. Then the farmer sees the devil walking some yards behind and asks him: “Why are you following the saint?” “Oh, I’m going to help him organise his religious movement,” he replies with a grin.

We don’t trust organisations. They can be very tricky things. It’s not always easy for human beings to work together as an organisation – we are all independent and we are needy in so many ways. Yet an organisation is, in effect, nothing more than a living organism- like this tree – but made up of humans. An organism is something alive that contains organs – parts that perform certain functions for the welfare of the whole body. An organisation is an organism where those organs are made up of teams of humans working together.

Now, it is true that sequoia trees, or anthills, or beehives, function much better as living systems than humans do when they try to work together. We just don’t get along like ants or bees, or like the living organism of the tree. A survey conducted by Yale University found that in the 20th century the lifespan of the average S&P Index listed American company fell from 67 years to just 15. So at 50 years old, ISKCON is already bucking the odds by a factor of three.

Our company, ISKCON, is by ordinary calculation a company that should either be struggling or have gone out of business already. Consider the fragility of an organisation that promotes education in spiritual values, pays its members no dividends and depends mainly on voluntary contributions; that extols virtues that most of the world considers vices, and that runs counter to many of the intellectual notions held sacred by the world. Surely such an organisation should have collapsed by now.

Yet against all the odds, and despite some irregularities, Srila Prabhupada’s movement has endured, grown and prospered – and has reached its half century. This is something to be applauded. The secret of ISKCON’s success so far is an open secret: Srila Prabhupada planted the seed and the information content of that seed was very high. Not only the Sanskrit texts and teachings of ancient wisdom, but the careful guidance of how the structure was to grow, flourish and expand. How the members of his movement should work together, and how the resulting movement would spread and sweep up many more people in its embrace.

At the heart of it is the relationship of those early disciples with their master; a special friendship grounded in the sincere exchange of enquiry and revelation. From the master came wisdom so encouraging that it changed their young lives, and they offered grateful service to a person who they knew loved them. It was the oldest of all relationships, the guru-sisya sambandha.

Disciples gave their entire youth to Srila Prabhupada. The years normally spent in learning and making a home were sacrificed so that the seed of his divine tree, ISKCON, could be planted. We who enjoy membership of ISKCON today know that without those early disciples and their love for their spiritual master, we would not be here. So today we salute them and we thank them for their life of service. Some of them are gathered here today. We thank you and applaud your gift to us. This garden, this guru-sisya udyana, is dedicated to you and your relationship with Srila Prabhupada. Let this garden always remind us of how you served him, of the divine exchange between guru and disciple, and of the efforts you took to bring us all to Srila Prabhupada, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

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Dangerous Kite Flying: Mundane and Transcendent Religion

kite

 

Every year on January 14th comes the Spring Equinox. Known in India as Makara Sankranti, it is a holiday that is often accompanied by gusts of wind. One on occasion, a young prince was on the flat roof of his palace, hoping to take advantage of the strong breeze. In his hands was a brightly-coloured kite made of bamboo and paper. After a few attempts to launch it, the kite lifted into the sky, dipped a few times, then soared and twisted, edging slowly upwards. The young prince smiled with joy, and his gaze held fast to his kite, lifting higher and higher into the sky as he tugged on the string.

The roof of the palace was several floors up, and the prince was not looking around him as he moved, step by step, towards the edge of the roof. Despite being warned never to go up to the roof he had managed to escape the watchful eye of his nanny, and was there all by himself. Down in the street, a man passing by happened to hear the squeals of delight and looked upwards. Alarmed, he saw that the child, although enjoying himself, was only looking upwards to the kite and was about to walk off the edge. Surely he would now fall to his death?

Without thinking whether it was correct for him to raise his voice to a prince, the man shouted out a warning. At that very same moment, the palace nanny came onto the roof, looking towards the young prince, who was still laughing with joy. She was so absorbed in the prince’s laughter, she too could not see the imminent danger he was in. Hearing the loud shout from the street, yet not knowing the reason, she called back in response: “Hey you! Who are you to shout at this child? Do you not know that he is a prince? Know your place!”

Moral: The young prince is the materialistic enjoyer, looking up to the source of his pleasure yet unaware of the danger; the nanny is the religionist, protective yet interested in preserving the status quo of mundane happiness; and the man in the street is the guru. The guru sees the actual situation and, though he speaks strongly, he does so with the best intention. Both the materialist and the religionist may not thank him, but his message is the best.

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