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


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





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


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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The Sandals of God


During this morning’s lecture I shared with the audience a few verses from the Paduka Sahasram of Sri Vedanta Deshika. Its a mammoth poem of 1,000 verses glorifying the footwear of God.

The work is not something the Gaudiya Vaishnavas recite regularly; Vedanta Deshika is in the line of teachers coming from Sri Ramanujacarya, but his poetry is so inspired and imbued with devotion, the listener cannot help but rise up in consciousness of God by hearing it.

That morning’s Srimad Bhagavatam class described how the devotees of Ramachandra were concerned that His soft feet might be hurt by the thorns of the forest, and our discussion covered the reason why the feet of God are even more important than His face. So I thought some verses would add to our meditation. Deshika was also a great devotee of Ramachandra, so here are a few thoughts of Deshika – in English – from the verses I read.

He says: “I salute my guru and the sandals, both of which are attached to the feet of the Lord.”

“Bharata, the brother of the Lord, was the first to take the Lord’s sandals upon his head. In this way he is the leader of all those who worship the sandals of the Lord.”


Above: Bharata takes the sandals of Rama before his brother leaves for a 14-year forest exile

“When you place the sandals of the Lord upon your head, you also have the foot-dust of the Lord on your head. This means you can distribute this dust to all your disciples.”

“Without any partiality, the sandals are on my head, as well as the Upanishads. There is no discrimination.”

“One who remains standing after seeing the Lord’s sandals (one who does not bow down) will be lowered anyway (by misfortune or death), and one who lowers himself to bow down will be raised up. Why, even the Lord Himself is raised up by His sandals!”

“If the entire sky became writing paper, and the seven oceans became ink, and even if Adisesha with his thousands of heads was the reciter of the poetry, only then would the glories of the Lord’s sandals be recounted.”

“The sandals smell of the Komai flowers adorning the head of Lord Shiva. Why is this? Because Shiva always has his head at your feet.”

“My dear Lord, your feet:
– removed the curse of Ahalya, turning a stone into a beautiful woman;
– destroyed chakatasura;
– measured the universe as you took three steps in your Vamana incarnation;
– brought forth the Ganga river.

“My dear friends, if you wear the sandals of the Lord on your head, you too can wear the crescent moon on your head (like Lord Shiva) and you too can sit on a lotus flower seat (like Lord Brahma) for you will be numbered among the gods.”

“If you have taken the Lord’s shoes just once upon your head, Yamaraja’s servants will have nothing to do with you, for the Lord of Death will keep them under restraint. The lines on your hands will become rearranged so that you have a golden future.”

“When you devotees bow their heads with you upon them, they merely have to reach out their fingers and they’ll be able to touch Vaikuntha.”

“The mercy of the Lord takes the form of these sandals!”

“These sandals serve as the chains to bind the ten maddened elephants of the senses; they are the bolt-rod of the door of Hell itself, keeping it firmly closed; they are the champion of all the surrendered souls.”


Above: Lord Rama’s shoes are placed upon a shatari which the devotees place upon their heads.

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Nemesis in a bag of peanuts


I’m afraid I laughed at the misfortunes of another human being this morning. Its not a Vaishnava quality to laugh at others, I know, and I should be much more compassionate. I’m sorry.

The subject of my laughter was Mrs. Cho, the daughter of the Korean Airways CEO, who ordered the plane she was on to be turned around from the runway and one member of the cabin crew ejected for failing to serve her peanuts on a plate. Apparently she also forced him into kneel in apology before her. Now she is the one who is being forced to bow, as the judge has sentenced her to one year in prison for violating air safety law.

How do people get so above themselves?

The great king Yudhisthira was once asked a series of riddles: “What is it that, when you abandon it, the whole world loves you?”

“Pride,” the king replied correctly.

“And what is that, when you lose it, you become happy instead of sorrowful?”


“What is it that, when you give it up, you become rich?”


That question and answer dialogue may be 5,000 years old but the rules still apply today. The notion of having power over others may provide a temporary gratification, but it starts to unravel pretty soon. Real happiness – and I’m speaking here of ordinary happiness within the world – comes when you are loved, and love comes to you when you think of others first, thinking of their happiness before your own.

Ordinary logic dictates that if you are powerful, then others will serve you, and that they should serve you, so the best course of action is to cultivate power, and specifically power over others. But that only leads to power being the one commodity everyone aspires for, which leads to power struggles. People will serve someone with power often because they want the same power or possessions. It is a service based on selfish aspiration, envy or political flattery.

In Vedic circles, being very highly placed in society then falling to a low position is known as yoga-bhrasta, a hubris followed by a nemesis. Its painful when it happens, but Nature provides us all with these precious opportunities so that we can reform ourselves and develop the key that will open the door to the highest heaven: Humility.


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Salvation Army Bonnets and Tribal Politics

At the risk of being entirely misunderstood, I must clarify for any old friends and for all Vaishnava readers that my post yesterday was not written as a campaigning shot against the traditional dhoti. Neither was it to promote the wearing of any particular item of clothing in place of dhotis. I have personally been wearing a dhoti for over 40 years and do not intend to stop any time soon.

Thank you.

I merely wanted to point out the obvious fact that religious garb, generally, has both a geographical and historical origin. Climate has affected the choice of raw material, for instance, and history, social milieu and fashion sensibilities have all conspired to how such items are worn.

That being the case, religious clothing styles often get a little frozen in the decade – or century – in which they were first adopted. The average monk or nun, when wearing their traditional habits, are more or less wearing the style of conservative clothing that was in vogue when their respective founders were teaching. So anywhere between the 13th to the 15th century. And I already pointed out that the Hasidic followers of the Baal Shem Tov, the great Jewish luminary and mystic have more or less frozen their any-colour-as-long-as-its-black clothing style somewhere in the mid-18th.


Just a few years ago the Salvation Army, the creation of one ‘General’ William Booth in 1865, in London, was confronted with something of a self-made crisis. The Victorian bonnets of the female members had not altered since the inception of the movement, was it alright to bring them up to date without losing the original spirit of the movement? For a short time it became a vigorous discussion, and then everyone relaxed – and changed their hats design.

Now, it could be argued (and I know that someone will) that the dhoti and chaddar, or shawl, are timeless. I agree. You can’t get anything simpler to wear than a single piece of undyed, un-stitched cloth fresh from the loom. It is designed to be free from ostentation and bows to no fashion sense whatsoever. Its a great piece of garb to demonstrate one’s commitment to simplicity and utter disregard for public opinion. And it is a piece of clothing that you can make yourself with some simple tools. The perfect outfit for a neo-Luddite.

But as Mahatma Gandhi found out when he turned up in England wearing one, when everyone else is wearing trousers, the dhoti practically screams: “Look at me!”

Be that as it may, when contemporary Vaishnavas wear the dhoti they do make an emotional connection with their purva-acaryas, their historical preceptors, and that does contribute to their feelings of commitment to the disciplines of their path, and that’s good. It has also become, ipso facto, a religious uniform whereby a devotee of Krishna, or a member of ISKCON specifically, can be recognised by the public.

Anyway, the point of my post was not to discuss religious clothing but rather the need to identify geographical, historical, ethnic and tribal origins of religious traditions. Those origins tend to get completely tangled up with the religion itself, and then have a habit of projecting themselves onto the consciousness of the uneducated observer. And people in general look at the packaging of the presentation first. If Islam has really nothing to do with Arabia, for instance, save for the fact that it was there that the angel Gabriel chose to speak to Mohammed, then let us separate the ideology from its country of origin, the Arabic language and 7th century tribal politics and discuss it. Its hard to do after 1400 years, but it would be a worthwhile exercise.

The ISKCON movement has had to do it. ISKCON has had the task of transplanting teachings originating in the Himalaya mountains to every country, language and ethnicity of the world. In a relatively short time. And in that it has had some success, above and beyond what was expected. The very existence of ISKCON as a world phenomenon has been possible only by making it accessible to a wide diversity of people. We can therefore talk about the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita without once needing to reference the land of India. The ideas presented by Lord Sri Krishna are not ‘Indian’ ideas, but universal knowledge worthy of serious consideration by anyone living anywhere.

Just as Christianity, in order to spread internationally, had to become loosened from its identity primarily as a small Jewish cult, a Middle-Eastern religion, and a power institution of the Holy Roman Empire, so Islam will have to make a similar transition in order to be of greatest worth as a form of pure God consciousness.




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Dhotis, fur hats, burkas and other items of cultural baggage

One of the consequences of modern globalization is that we are all being forced to reconsider the external elements of our respective faith traditions. The religions of the world took birth in different countries and each of them is consequently overlaid with the cultural aspects of that part of the world.

Climate, landscape, diet, customs and local history have all influenced architecture, sacred language, clothing styles and political perspective. Theology, too, no matter how pure the original knowledge, becomes incrementally adapted to human needs and prevailing customs.

As religions move beyond their tribal roots and regional origins, its members and community leaders are being confronted, time and again, with the need to decide whether to retain every aspect of their tradition, or to acclimatise and adjust their religious practise in its new home.

When the Jews were dispersed from their lands in AD 70, and the focus of their religion, the temple in Jerusalem, almost completely destroyed, they were forced to consider new ways to worship, and new methods to preserve their ancient traditions, far from their homeland and the origin of their faith.

Similarly, when early Christians ventured to India, they were forced to consider whether their Roman and European traditions sat well with the local population, and what should be sacrificed for the sake of their message being fully assimilated, as was their wish.

Some things must, unavoidably, be jettisoned as excess baggage and some things adapted if the distinct religious community is to survive. Yet it would seem that some things – essential aspects of the theology, for instance – must be carefully protected if the religion is to continue to exist at all. Full cultural assimilation may completely swallow up a unique religious tradition causing it to disappear, along with any contribution it offered. The questions confronting religions today, spread as they are around the globe yet wishing to preserve themselves, is which aspects can be sacrificed and which carefully guarded?


I lived in Africa for two years, and part of my time was spent with the coastal people of Mombasa in Kenya. Many of them were a mixed race, descended from both Arabian traders and local tribes, and the majority of them were Muslim. With eight hours of sunshine every day and equatorial temperatures hovering in the eighties, our mutual light cotton clothing made sense. The men wore white kikoi and small caps known as walai. The women mostly wore black bui bui and a hijab on their heads. I wore a light cotton dhoti and a kurta shirt.

But in freezing London, wearing a thin cotton sheet around one’s legs doesn’t quite make climatic sense. I have years of experience to testify to the impracticality of such attire on all but warm spring and summer days. And it has not proven its suitability for driving a car on a rainy winter day, let alone for riding a bike. It does, however, form a connection with my religious antecedents.

Those religious antecedents were living in a hot country, though, and the connection is now largely anachronistic: in Bengal, the home of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, dhotis are hardly ever seen these days, and worn mainly by a small group of people on special occasions, not for daily wear. The ubiquitous trousers have long replaced them in many parts of India, although the southern version, the veshti, is still common.

In the cooler climate of London, the black bui bui, or the all-in-one burka, no longer serve to protect a woman’s skin from the scorching sun. Without its climatic purpose, that form of dress also becomes a somewhat impractical body covering.

Similarly the fur hat or shtreimel of the orthodox Jew, particularly when coupled with a thick black woollen coat, and worn in the flaming heat of a Jerusalem noon, serves no climatic purpose. In its Polish and Lithuanian homeland, however, and at the time of its origin in the 18th century, such garb was both highly practical and the height of fashion.

Exoteric and Esoteric

Clothing says a lot about how we think, and wearers of such garb may do it because it connects them to an important part of the world and an important time in their religious history. That’s fine, and everyone, within reason, should be free to dress as they wish, for the reasons they wish. But ultimately, the clothing is part of the exoteric inheritance of that faith tradition – the outer shell or cultural package – and as such could be given up with no great loss to the much more important esoteric aspect.

Of much more concern than clothing are the other cultural practises that have been inherited by religious people. But at this point in history we are cautioned not to be too hasty to judge another’s culture. After the war, the world was confronted with the great tragedy of what can happen when human beings allow an ideology of misplaced categorization of human beings to influence entire populations. Millions died as a result of having their ethnicity or religion determined to be less than human. One of the results of this on the intellectuals of Europe was to usher in a form of thinking in which the very notion of a hierarchy of civilizations was considered unconscionable. No longer would so-called ‘postmodern’ thinkers, construe the people of the world to be divided into categories such as ‘primitive’ or ‘advanced’ or ‘civilized.’ Instead, everyone would be considered equal, and equally deserving of respect. That viewpoint has influenced a generation of anthropology, sociology and other branches of scientific social analysis.

Yet with the hit-and-miss record of the achievements of science, and widespread doubt that the so-called ‘first world’ is really any happier than the ‘developing’ or ‘third world,’ there is a tendency for the average thinker to consider that all branches of human beings must be equally happy, whatever their level of technological development. In one sense that is true and we often find the unlikely opposite to be more accurate: that people in undeveloped countries have happier lives. Extensive research conducted by the United Nations recently found no correlation between industrial development and happiness of the population generally.

Yet our civilization is not sustainable without some form of judgement of human behaviour, both individual and collective. Some human beings do bad things to others, for instance, and we subject their actions to the rule of law and often lock them away so they cannot do bad things to any more people. We don’t consider them less than human, but we consider them a danger to the rest of the population. So we remove them from our civilized society – in order that our society remains civilized. In this way, contemporary society continues to make judgements on groups of human beings while simultaneously paying respect to the idea that all are equal.


Many years ago I was on a sacred walk in India. My travelling companions were a diverse range of people from all over that huge country, including one elderly man from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. He told me of his homeland, a chain of 572 tropical islands lying more than 1200 kilometres out in the ocean, but still a part of India. There were all kinds of exotic flowers, fruits and creatures there, he explained, with some of the largest butterflies in existence. It sounded fascinating, and for a few minutes I had already added a visit there to my bucket list. But then he almost casually explained the prevalence of cannibalism there, and particularly so on the island where he grew up.

I learned that India also has ‘tribes’ that live in the jungle, just as South America has in its own jungles such as the Amazon. It was the first time I had been introduced to the notion of India having jungle tribes, sometimes known as adi-vasis, or ‘original inhabitants.’ “You should not go there,” he cautioned, “it will be dangerous for you.” Despite my European tendency to ascribe nobility to these jungle tribes, I also had to make a value judgement based on the potential harm that might come to a fleshy white man wandering around alone trying to spot enormous butterflies. My categorization of human beings had to be based partially on a hierarchy of perceived threat to life, and the cannibal tribes of Andaman and Nicobar were crossed off my list of friendly folks to visit.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t like them, you understand, its just better that they live there and I live here. I have nothing against them per se, but I have to say that, as civilizations go, I can’t help but consider that cannibalism is something of a marker of being somewhat less advanced as a human being. And yes, I do realise that comment might offend some people.

So when we consider cultures and types of civilization embodied by certain tribes of the earth, I do think we can have in mind some kind of scale ranging from ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced.’ It may not always be accurate or impartial, but at least it may serve to help us make discernment when we need to. And discernment in the field of religion is particularly important because religion influences behaviour.

As my regular readers will know, my daughter Tulasi is a midwife, and has lamented many times the situation of young women she encounters who, at an early age, were subjected to the torment of genital mutilation. We are told that this is not a part of Islam, but a part of a tribal culture from parts of Saharan Africa and Arabia. As such – and if it has nothing at all to do with Islamic theology – it must be firmly rejected as something injurious to health that should have no place in our country.

There is nothing wrong with better use of our faculty of discrimination in matters of religion. Discrimination is not a negative use of reasoning after all, it is one of the marks of a truly civilized life. But it must be based on accurate information and have no prejudice involved. Only when we can understand the difference between a cultural accretion and a vital spiritual principle will we all be able to understand each other and move slowly towards a unity of faith.




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A Sanctuary for the Soul

Back in 1973, George Harrison of the famous popular music group, The Beatles, purchased a large house in the Hertfordshire countryside, and gave it to a small group of devotees of Krishna.

45 years later it has become a well known centre for learning, worship and celebration – a sanctuary for the soul.

Here is a new film, told mainly by visitors and friends of the Manor:

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Hare Krishna and Blasphemy


One subject that has come up in the last week is the notion of ‘blasphemy.’ Its an old word which we hardly use any more in English, except when we’re referring to how religions other than Christianity get offended by cartoons. It wasn’t always like that. We used to take it very seriously.

I’m an occasional visitor to the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, and just a short walk from there is the spot where Thomas Cranmer, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was publicly burned at the stake on the 21st March 1556. He died an excruciatingly painful death because his religious ideas did not sit well with the leaders of the day.

The members of the Krishna consciousness movement are fortunate indeed that blasphemy is no longer a capital crime in Britain. If it were, we would all have been burned a long time ago.
That doesn’t mean it has been easy. In bringing religious ideas from one part of the world to another, particularly if you dress differently and attract attention to yourself by singing in the streets, you soon get to realise the level of tolerance in your own culture.

I remember the first time I was invited to lead a kirtan. I was seventeen and had not long shaved my head and donned the saffron robes of a brahmacari. It was Portobello Road on a Saturday afternoon, and I was happy to have been asked to play the drum and sing, leading the procession along the street lined with market stalls and packed with shoppers and tourists (see picture).


Not everyone shared my enthusiasm, though. It wasn’t long before a freshly chopped chicken’s head, complete with swinging entrails, came sailing through the air, hitting me full in the face. The butcher who threw it laughed loudly, and was congratulated by his friends for his good aim. I carried on singing, after a momentary pause to wipe off the blood.

It was a good introduction to the level of treatment I’d receive from then on. In the years to come I was to experience a wide range of insults and missiles: gobs of spit, Brussells sprouts and other lobbed vegetables, beer cans (sometimes generously half full), empty bottles, clumps of earth with tufts of grass, cups of urine, large stones – and even fireworks!

Not everyone likes religion, you see, and even when they do they like the one they know, not a foreign brand. And something as alien-looking as Hare Krishna with its strange-smelling incense, flowers, ‘tambourines’ and blue-coloured gods is as foreign as they come. Consequently, there are many who just want to express their considered theological opinion by throwing something – and its not always rose petals.

Many policemen, too, chose to express their philosophical preferences by arresting us for singing, usually on the pretext of the Highways Obstruction Act of 1863. Their treatment wasn’t always soft and gentle back in the 1970s. As far as selling books about God, I have lost count of the number of times I was arrested and locked up in a cell with one grey blanket (used).

But a devotee of Krishna has to be tolerant. As followers of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, we have our role model in the example of Nityananda Prabhu, who tolerated even a wine pot thrown by a ruffian, that drew blood from his forehead. Tolerance, forgiveness and determination are qualities that serve messengers of God well.

What happens when the abuse is levelled not at the messenger but at God himself? In the ancient world, a world where they actually believed in a life after this one, and the distinct possibility of heaven or hell, the abuse of God was known as blasphemy. Of course, the idea of blasphemy largely depended on whether you were insulting the locally prevailing concept of God. If no-one around you believed in your God then they would not consider their insults to be blasphemy – it would be your idea of God that was blasphemy. Thus you had to be careful levelling charges of blasphemy against anyone, lest they turn the tables on you. It all got rather complex.

But here’s a question: can someone draw a picture, perhaps a cartoon, of Lord Krishna that would be considered blasphemy? Would the devotees of Krishna ever get so offended they’d go looking for some kind of retribution? I’m not saying never, but its highly doubtful, because the very concept of Krishna involves the understanding that he is quite capable of dealing with any animosity by himself. He forgave Shishupala one hundred times before he dealt with him – and even then it was an inside joke. Krishna may be Almighty God but he’s also the Supremely Compassionate and Ultimate Forgiver. Devotees remembering that will not become over-excited on his behalf.

Except on one occasion, that is. Not so long ago. It was when the American rock band Aerosmith released their 12th album Nine Lives. Their artist took a Bhaktivedanta Book Trust picture of Krishna dancing on the many-headed snake Kaliya and superimposed the head of a cat over the Lord’s beautiful face. The devotees were a little irate at this image theft and wanton manipulation and, it being the USA, they took the legal route and were given a generous settlement. That’s how to deal with blasphemy (and copyright infringement) painlessly.

Since the 1960s, when the devotees of Krishna first appeared in the public consciousness, the movement has undergone a radical shift in perception, at least in Europe. We have been accused of being everything from a witch’s coven (Weekend magazine) to a mind-control cult (The Sun). Like I said, it has not been easy. Its taken perseverance, tolerance and a lot of explaining to get us accepted, and even liked, as part of Britain’s multi-faceted spiritual landscape.

My message to anyone who wants to introduce a way of life and a belief system that is culturally alien to Britain: Have patience – you will need enormous amounts of it. Don’t expect everyone to like you – they won’t, just be happy if even a small number like your message. Don’t get offended if they don’t understand you or even if they insult you or your God. Just remember that you can always let God deal with it, and He doesn’t actually need you to get angry on his behalf. Attract people to your God by showing how happy your God makes you. If you’re not happy, it might be that you’re doing something wrong. Finally remember there’s only one Creator and Ultimate Source, the Origin of All. There’s no point arguing over his name – he has so many.


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