Remembering 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.


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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.


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



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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More Devotees, Happy Devotees: The Seven Stages of ISKCON Membership


Material researched and presented by ISKCON Online.

The diagram above is of a generic ‘Sales Funnel’ or ‘Marketing Funnel’ used in the world of business for many years to show how a customer flows through stages from initial awareness of a product to being an enthusiastic advocate of the product. Every business wants enthusiastic advocates, and that’s why its important to keep a potential customer moving from one stage to the next, maintaining and developing their interest and commitment all the while. You’ll see from the ‘funnel’ shape that the number of people exposed to the advertising is far greater than the eventual number of ‘advocates,’ and in between there’s several stages at which its easy to lose the customer.

This general flow from vague awareness to advocacy is also true of missions such as ISKCON, too. Its also true that it takes a lot of awareness creation – thousands of man-hours of it – to bring just one person to the point of ‘Consideration,’ and then a lot of personal interaction to bring them to the point of ‘Adoption.’ And, like any other business, we can lose people along the way.

How many stages are there in bringing a person from vague awareness of ISKCON to active membership? You can describe it in any number of stages, and the diagram above has six, but I counted seven. Here they are, with two things that happen at every stage:

  1. Seeds  – A. Vague awareness of ISKCON by indirect exposure through friends, family or media                                  B. Developing an interest in spirituality.
  2. Contact – A. Further awareness of ISKCON by direct exposure through street chanting parties, book distribution and/or festivals. B. Interacting with ISKCON members through meetings, chatting online or reading a book.
  3. Considering – A. Exploring personal interests. B. Enquiring and Comparing.
  4. Transforming – A. Opening up to change. B. Awakening of faith.
  5. Adopting – A. Beginning the practises of bhakti. B. Making lifestyle changes.
  6. Commitment – A. Accepting the parampara. B. Embracing the ISKCON family.
  7. Advocacy – A. Compassionate sharing. B. Missionary spirit.

The stages are similar to those a consumer would go through in adopting a physical product. First there is hearing about the product through advertising and verbal testimony; examining the product and comparing it with other similar products, considering whether or not to become a customer; trying out the product, and finally becoming a happy customer and telling others about the product.

It may be argued that faith cannot be compared to a physical consumer item such as a can of beans, because it is ‘an unflinching trust in something sublime.’ It is typically arrived at after a long series of intellectual considerations, internal adjustments and spiritual practise, yet the comparisons with observable consumer patterns are not inaccurate.

A person is attracted to the notion of bhakti after hearing about it, examines the concepts involved, tests it by meeting others who have adopted it and then experiments with the daily practises. After finding some satisfaction the person then moves toward ‘advocacy’ of bhakti – the compassionate sharing of it with others.

As a spiritual movement dedicated to increasing its membership, ISKCON’s purpose can be helped greatly by its leading members ensuring that all the natural stages in the flow are complete, and that aspiring bhakti-yogis can easily make a transition from one stage to another. Each stage requires a different kind of engagement with the new member, ranging from the initial conversations and personal example, through teaching of the basic concepts and practises, through to pastoral care and encouraging guidance.

ISKCON’s book distribution is legendary and immense in proportion to the size of its membership. Probably no other organisation can claim more voluntary teams interacting with the public on a daily basis. As a sales force it is unmatched in the business world. The movement’s membership involvement is also funnel-shaped because of the large amount of advertising and initial public contact conducted by the organisation. Thousands buy books, and hundreds of thousands hear the street chanting, and then progressively smaller percentages go on to become involved practitioners and advocates. This is a normal pattern for an organisation, particularly one with a very active marketing division.

To take a person through seven stages you have to make sure they have all the experiences that will gently take them from one stage to the next. Each stage requires its own knowledge and expertise, and it is therefore required that we divide up the responsibilities involved in each stage and make sure that someone is carrying them out. To fully capitalise on all the efforts expended by book-sellers, street chanters and festival-makers, and to ensure that as many as possible process through all the stages – not becoming lost along the way – ISKCON could examine carefully the other levels of its outreach, especially the stages where more direct, personal teaching and guidance are required. ISKCON wants to attract new members as well as retain the existing ones. A fresh look at how we help people in the important stages of consideration and transformation would be helpful. It would also benefit our movement as a whole to examine why members leave us, at what stage, and whether any changes are required in order to better care for our existing members.

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Bengal Milk Sweets


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’

by chance alone

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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