Vicitravirya Das (front) leads a kirtan down a street in London
I wanted to write something about an old friend who passed away just recently after a long illness. He was one of those friends whose life was inextricably intertwined with mine, such that many of the good decisions he made had repercussions upon my own, and lasting and beneficial effects on ISKCON here in Britain.
Vicitravirya Das heard Srila Prabhupada’s call way back in 1971, making him one of the earliest to join our fledgling movement here in the British Isles. He came from Cardiff , Wales, and worked as an industrial chemist, yet also had a successful and colourful alternative life as a singer in a soul band. He had a wide circle of friends who, by all accounts, looked up to him as a charismatic leader and a bit of a mystic. The young Ian Cheverton, as he was known then, used his musical abilities to publically sing mantras that he’d read in a book by another Indian guru. This was long before he met the first Krishna devotee, and heralded a long life of singing the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.
It wasn’t long after that Kulasekhara Das, the first English disciple of Srila Prabhupada, made the first Hare Krishna street procession in Cardiff. The long-haired (very long!) Ian was captivated and within days his long locks were gone and he joined the temple in London. Receiving the name Vicitravirya Das from his spiritual master, he began to take on responsibilities within the temple community and went out into the streets regularly to meet with the public and to sing the by now famous mantra.
However, quite early on, ‘Vitchy’ as he was always known by his friends, showed his intelligence in thoughtfully planning out new strategies to help the British public understand and appreciate our movement. At first glance the devotees could be easily mistaken for work-shy hippies with unusual haircuts and a penchant for cheesecloth shirts. They could also be misunderstood as a whimsical and slightly bizarre sect and consequently a danger to impressionable young people. Newspapers and magazines of the early 70’s had a field day with the Hare Krishnas as soon as the novelty of the devotees being friends with one of the Beatles had worn off. As the Beatles collectively faded from the attention of the media and the Top of the Pops fame was a dim memory, the devotees were on their own in the light of public scrutiny. Always confused with the Transcendental Meditation group, or any one of a number of new ‘eastern guru groups,’ we were routinely arrested while out on sankirtan or while distributing books. We needed some new thinking.
Vicitravirya was wonderfully inspirational in a temple kirtan, and could have the whole room wildly dancing. He was colourful and creative when acting in dramas, which he loved. But he was soft spoken, charming, persuasive and a thoroughly well-mannered gentleman when it came to dealing with the media and government institutions. He saw the need for a group so misunderstood as ours to cultivate good relationships with journalists. In a world where most people believed what they read in the newspapers he knew the value of explaining the facts to an influential national columnist or a story-hungry local hack. And so he created lines of communication which helped reporters to write about what we were really doing, and to not be tempted to craft a lurid story for cheap titillation. By thinking in this way, Vitchy set down a pattern that helped us greatly over the years, and one that has survived to the present day.
The British Government’s Charity Commission is the body which supervises the activities of all altruistic organisations in the country. These organisations are what is known in the USA as ‘not for profit’ and the Government monitors charities to ensure that they are performing the charitable activites for which they were initially registered. Religions are understood by the government to be doing valuable work because, in general, they encourage their followers to carry out good deeds for others and this welfare work is valuable in alleviating suffering, which is naturally a concern of the Government. In return, the registered charities are given tax benefits. Yet when some groups, founded upon eastern texts, seemed to be neither helping British society nor their own followers very much, and when the notion of ‘dangerous mind-snapping cults’ came to this country via America, it was important to reassure the British Government that ISKCON – although ostensibly similar in shape – was quite different in its modus operandi. Unfortunately we did have our own ‘cultic’ and at times foolish behaviour, not uncommon in groups of zealous new converts, and Vitchy would often have to have long phone calls or write detailed explanatory letters in order to extract our young movement from some tangle or other.
That is not to say that he would compromise with either the teachings or our basic values in order to gain the approbation of the establishment. He was very firm in communicating both of them to whoever needed to hear. Its just that he was an expert in sounding like a member of the establishment while he was doing it, someone people could trust – and consequently they did.
Vicitravirya performed another service to ISKCON in this country for which he deserves to be remembered. He successfully organised teams of book distributors and provided for their needs by creating a fleet of vehicles that became their travelling homes as they criss-crossed the country. In 1976 he organised the most successful ‘Christmas Marathon’ event that resulted in the UK distributing more books than any country in the world – a coveted prize in the Hare Krishna world! His calm and reassuring presence back at the headquarters enabled many devotees to feel they were part of a caring and developing organisation.
Vitchy’s long-lasting and equally valuable contribution to our movement’s sustainability was his outreach to London’s Indian community. He knew that Srila Prabhupada had already indicated that the 100,000 Hindus in the British Isles might, if they were approached respectfully, wish to contribute to the aims of a struggling young mission dedicated to Lord Krishna. Vicitravirya gave shape to that suggestion of his spiritual master and requested devotees to set up the very first Indian community preaching office. He saw to its development and had the vision which saw the first Janmashtami festival at the Manor attract a grand total of 250 people of Indian background. Both the festival and the community have never looked back since that day. He said that he thought it was a good idea that Srila Prabhupada’s movement was running on ‘two tracks’ in the UK – the book distribution and outreach to those who knew nothing of Krishna, and the outreach to those who had been brought up to respect Krishna and the Vaishnava tradition. Looked at now from 2010 it is an obvious idea – but someone had to do it.
During Srila Prabhupada’s last visit to Bhaktivedanta Manor in 1977 – the final visit to any of his western temples – the idea was that he would continue his journey to the USA where thousands of disciples were waiting to meet him. It was not to be. During his time at the Manor he asked Vicitravirya to arrange for his return to Vrindavan.
I pray that my godbrother’s service in this life has already resulted in Srila Prabhupada’s arranging for his own return to the eternal Vrindavan where Vicitravirya can now sing forever. Hare Krishna.