Here is a piece I wrote for The New Statesman
When I was a young boy of nine years old I told my mother that I wanted to be a Buddhist monk when I grew up. “That’s nice,” she said, inwardly hoping that in a few months I’d want to be something normal like a policeman, a fireman, or an astronaut.
I never did become an astronaut, and neither did I quite make it to Buddhism. When I was 14 I dreamed of backpacking overland to Tibet. But by 17 I’d only got as far as Berkshire. It was 1974, and what remained of England’s flower people had camped up in Windsor Great Park, audaciously setting up a hippy village in direct view of Windsor Castle.
I wasn’t so much interested in free love and chemical highs, although I did think they were a necessary part of a young man’s education, but I was interested in alternative forms of living where people put philosophy first. And so I arrived there, determined to explore the possibilities for myself.
The Krishna devotees had their own camp where they were staging theatre, handing out free food, and inviting everyone to join in their hypnotic chanting. In a decade when all men wore their hair long, including me, just to see men with shaved heads was quite exotic and somehow challenging. Add to that the smell of incense, the orange robes, and the curious Sanskrit-ised way the devotees spoke, and the total effect was quite other-worldly.
Here were people who, although English, had decided to live their lives in a most authentic, traditional eastern way. For me it was by far the most captivating thing going on. I’d already seen the Krishnas at another music festival, and at that time had stood rooted to the spot in the pouring rain while four of them danced ankle-deep in mud.
This time I had a fresh opportunity to discuss their life with them. By the middle of the week, when 500 policemen arrived to uproot the happy hippies, I had already been spirited away to the Krishna temple in the nearby Hertfordshire countryside.
That was more than 30 years ago. I became a saffron-robed celibate monk and remained happily so for eight years, travelling the British Isles, wherever there was interest in the Krishna teachings. I then lived in tropical Africa as part of a small mission for two years and visited India many times. I’ve never made it to Tibet. My life changed pace dramatically when I became married, and even more so when my three children were born.
I have watched the Hare Krishna movement grow over the years from a small group of early British converts living in a country house donated by George Harrison, to an international confederation with close on a million members, friends and sympathisers.
Since 1974 the teachings of “Krishna consciousness”, as the founder and spiritual master termed it, has revitalised the Vaishnava tradition within India and spread to some unlikely places on the globe.
The movement has great international co-operation and in addition to providing spiritual teachings and guidance, is also, in some areas, a chief source of humanitarian aid.
In the south Indian state of Karnataka over 100,000 children receive their school dinners each day through ISKCON’s Akshaya Patra midday meal programme. This has brought about a small revolution in the number of children that can now attend school and improve their young lives. ISKCON was one of the first organisations to arrive on the scene after the tsunami struck, and has been on hand with food and clothing after earthquakes and floods too.
ISKCON continues to develop modes of rural community life, with some 40 large farms around the world, some of them successfully reviving almost-lost farming methods. Horses and oxen are used for transport and ploughing, and in the Amazon jungle, members run a completely self-sufficient community with water-powered electricity and permaculture growing systems. A dried fruit business provides employment for local members.
Yet the Hare Krishna movement, in keeping with practically all religious and spiritual organisations throughout history, has had its fair share of disappointments. After the passing of its founder in 1977, the spiritual leadership did not always prove as dependable as hoped. Doctrinal differences and succession issues arose, provoking schisms which occasionally led to the formation of splinter groups.
Like the Catholic Church, the Mormons and numerous other groups, ISKCON has recently weathered the storm of child abuse revelations dating back to the 70s and 80s. Millions have been spent in payments to victims. Although the cases took place in the movement’s schools in the US and India, the movement’s centres worldwide each made contributions.
Social issues such as women’s respective roles in traditional Indian/post-modern cultures, and the strains between orthodox practise and “reformist” issues, continue to exercise international discussion.
Yet all this seems to have merely contributed to ISKCON’s internal stock-taking, its strength and diversity, and ultimately its appeal to a greater and wider audience. Doctrinal issues exercise the intellect, and social issues challenge one’s complacency. How do you make a spiritual movement continually fresh and relevant for its members? Certainly not by looking back at a distant past, or merely maintaining a status quo.
The vision must always be on the future and in creating opportunities for all kinds of people to find fulfilment and a sense of purpose. Only five percent of ISKCON’s membership is communal or monastic, meaning that lifestyle discussions and gender issues are largely academic for most members. If the Hare Krishna movement is alive and well, it is not simply on Oxford Street in London, but in more than 15,000 homes across Britain.
For me personally, this is my work, my life and my hope for the future. I believe that many modern social problems can be solved with greater attention to fundamental spiritual principles; and I believe that the teachings of health and practical spirituality found in the Vedas are even more relevant today because we need them more.
My work with the Hare Krishna movement takes me into homes around the country. I teach individuals and families and offer help with their spiritual questions, and I also assist in the formation and growth of small, local sanghas. The rewards are many, and on some days the challenges seem even more numerous.
But a steady stream of people are discovering that the Hare Krishna mantra actually does produce favourable changes for them with a greater sense of peace and spiritual perspective; that the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita provide many intellectually satisfying answers; and that the Hare Krishna movement is so much more than they ever thought possible.
This piece first appeared in the online edition of The New Statesman back in January. Other articles in the series can be read at: