Labels and Logos


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Shambo the bull. You can add your signature to the petition at http://www.skandavale.org

I went to hospital this morning for what should my final blood test of this current illness. While I was breaking my fast with a home made cheese and pickle sandwich, a young medical student came up to my table and asked if he could speak with me.

“I saw your hair at the back” he began, “and was wondering – are you a Hindu?”

“Yes I am,” I replied, smiling, “a white one”. He laughed, sat down, and continued, “Its just that I thought you might be from that Hindu temple in Wales that’s been in the news recently. I’m heading up a campaign at my university to gather signatures to protect their sacred bull.”

He referred to the Community of the Many Names of God, a Tamil Shaivite temple which, up in the Welsh Hills, has been in the British national news recently because of their valiant attempts to protect Shambo, one of their bulls, threatened with slaughter by local government officials because of his being diagnosed as having TB.

I expressed my gratitude to him for his campaign, giving the reason that protecting bulls, cows, and other innocent creatures was the foundation of Dharma. I explained that some of my colleagues were giving assistance to the campaign for Shambo, and then asked him more about his life at university. He ran the students Hindu Society, he said, but was more interested in the spiritual aspects of Hinduism than the cultural. “I was raised by parents who were strict Hindus” he continued, “but it wasn’t until quite recently, when I travelled in India for some months, that I felt really connected. I took a vow of brahmacarya while I was there.”

I raised my eyebrows and complimented him. “That’s the best possible thing you could have done for your spiritual life. It will give you great determination and the necessary power for spiritual growth.”

He seemed a little taken aback that an Englishman – albeit Hindu – should have demonstrated such enthusiasm for his undertaking and replied: “You really think so? Do you know something about brahmacarya?” When I replied that I had also been a brahmacari monk for eight years and looked upon that period of my life as my happiest time, he leaned forward and listened intently.

“But any vow (vrata) you undertake – especially for spiritual development – must be supported by a group of friends who are also on the same path,” I began. “Keeping to such vows without supportive sadhu-sangha is quite difficult.” He nodded his head and agreed that his fellow medical students could not understand his enthusiasm for the spiritual life. And for taking the vows of a monk while everyone was partying around him.

“That’s because spiritual life is all about discovering the transcendent reality above all the labels of this world,” I continued. “Everyone around you projects their mental labels and logos onto you according to how they see the world, how you fit into their world and what they passionately want from you. If you are not strong in your own identity and your spiritual goals, you can end up taking on those projected labels. You’ll believe yourself to be the sum total of everything other people tell you that you are, rather than who you actually are.”

Unfortunately, its even more acute for animals,” I went on, “On one living being we project the label ‘pet’ and upon another we project the label ‘food.’ Both four-legged creatures with fur and a face, but one is the object of our affections while the other is the object of our knives. Nobody would dream of killing a pet dog, but killing a cow or bull – or paying someone else to – is done without a thought.”

Then, somewhat conspiratorially, I also leaned further forward and said, “You know, even the term Hindu and Hinduism is a label given by others”. He nodded in agreement. “What we are all interested in, every believer of every ‘ism’, is reaching the spiritual level where all the artificial designations disappear and we understand the essential unity of all life.”

I invited him to come to Bhaktivedanta Manor, which, as it turned out, he’d only remotely heard of, coming from the north, and I gave him some website addresses to visit through which he could connect with more students on the spiritual path. “Nothing happens by accident does it?” he said as we shook hands. “Nothing at all” I replied.

I had another similarly uplifting conversation with the nurse/counsellor stationed at the Cancer Backup office. I’d first chatted with her before my operation and she wanted to know how I was adjusting to the next chapter of life. That was cue for another spiritual discussion. We talked feelings and emotions and the spiritual side of marriage, and I also invited her to come to the temple.

I had no sooner turned the corner into the corridor when I saw a devotee I had not seen for some years. He was old in years now and a little unwell, and I was glad to sit with him and his wife and offer them some positive scriptural thoughts for the weeks ahead.

Then to round off an enlivening day I returned home to discover that the Back to Prabhupada editors had not only given me a whole two pages in their magazine, in which they’d featured one of my blogs, but they’d also given me a large yellow by-line on the front cover as well. I shall have to reciprocate their recognition of me in another piece, on another day…

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