Category Archives: My Life

Daily Japa: My Daily Flight

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The first six months of my life were spent on an RAF aerodrome, and as a child I heard the grown-ups talking of military aircraft and of daring aerial battles during the war. No small wonder that I still think of flight as a metaphor for spiritual progress.

As every western devotee of Krishna knows, the daily commitment of a dedicated practitioner is to chant a minimum of sixteen rounds each day. This takes around two hours. The effect of the Hare Krishna mantra is quite remarkable, especially when recited early in the morning with mental focus and without distraction. The meditator feels uplifted by gradual degrees until there is a distinct feeling of lightness; of being free from gravity.

But in order to derive the most benefit from mantra meditation it must be done with determination and a feeling of gratitude and respect. Wherever the mind wanders it must be brought back to the sound of the mantra. That may take some time each morning; the mind still has to struggle with the lingering remnants of the night’s dreams, snatches of remembered conversation or hopes and longings for the future. Eventually, after an extended period of mental wrestling, the intelligence overpowers the mind and a level of absorption is reached.

I think of it as the gradual ascent of an aircraft – a British wartime Spitfire, naturally. So here’s what chanting sixteen rounds feels like in flight mode:

0 – 4 Rounds

The first round is usually accompanied by much coughing and spluttering. The engine is cold, having been out in the field all night. As you turn over the engine it may take a minute or two before it catches and you can rev it up. But once warm, the chocks are kicked aside, your plane turned in the right direction and you begin making your taxi down to the runway. You look at the sky, look at the wind direction, and begin to pick up speed along the runway. You begin to feel an intermittent lift as your plane reaches take-off speed.

4 -8 Rounds

You lift the nose of your Spitfire, but you’re a little too soon, and you jerkily come down to the ground again. Picking up just a little more speed, you see the trees flash past you. Again that feeling of lightness. And then the noise in your head stops: your wheels are no longer bumping along the ground. At first you’re only a few inches above the ground, but slowly, gradually, you lift and the ground sinks away from your eyes. Only the tops of the trees are visible. You’re flying.

8 – 12 Rounds

But you’re still too low to relax. You have to climb because flying low is dangerous. It takes more effort to climb than it does to take off. So you adjust the throttle and pull back on the lever, aiming for the wisp of cloud up ahead of you. Suddenly it goes darker; you are surrounded by cloud. You can’t see anything ahead or to the sides of you. You feel mild panic at having your vision so restricted. But after a few minutes, as you continue to climb, the cockpit becomes lighter and lighter.

12 – 16 Rounds

You break through the cloud cover and watch as it gently retreats slowly below you. The strength of the sunlight up here surprises you. It’s a completely different world; clean and fresh, light and bright. Up here there is only you, the bright blue sky and the Sun. For a moment even the mechanics that got you up here seem to disappear. The aircraft has become only a distant presence. You can’t even hear the engine anymore. You are soaring now, climbing ever higher. Nothing can stop you now. You are free.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— John Gillespie Magee, Spitfire Pilot

 

 

 

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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?

Africa

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.

Cannibals

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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Filed under Christianity, Hinduism, India, Judaism, My Life, Religion, Travel, vaishnavism

An Old ‘Hare Krishna Festival’ poster

Thanks to Cerebral Boinkfest blogspot for this image

This brought back memories today. Its a poster from 1974 when I had just turned eighteen. I remember this poster very well because it was my job to stick them up around Cambridge and to advertise this event to every student at Cambridge university. At least that was what it felt like. For four nights in a row I went from door to door through the students residences telling them about our festival and how great it was going to be. Luckily they believed me and over 500 turned up on the night.

As it was in those days, Tribhuvanath Das was the energy behind the festival tour. Indeed, he was the festival tour. He arranged for the posters and leaflets to be printed, raised the funds for the events (or engaged enthusiastic youngsters like me to do it), mixed up the wallpaper paste and stuck up the posters all around the town early in the morning; then led the street kirtan to advertise the festival, brought cooks to create a feast for hundreds, sang his thundering kirtans from the stage, gave the main address to the audience, then spoke with people afterwards.

Since Tribhuvanath was the person who brought me into Krishna consciousness, both times at pop festivals, I was more or less despatched into his care. I spent a few months travelling the country with him in a converted Mercedes van. It was to be my first ashram. I had first seen Tribhuvanath  in Buxton, Derbyshire, in 1973 then at the Windsor Great Park Free Festival in 1974. He had a very convincing manner about him and had a deeply spiritual presence that everyone felt.

This poster has a mistake that he wasn’t happy about. The printers had put ‘Guilohall’ instead of Guildhall, and he had to change all the posters with a pen. I think he charmed the printers into giving him a substantial discount for their mistake. Later on, I believe that Srila Prabhupada said that Krishna’s hair in this painting was too long. At the time though, and even now, this painting was one of the few paintings we had of Krishna and this image gave us inspiration. The printer had taken the border from an Arabian picture. In those days there were no computers so everything had to be done by hand. Krishna’s peacock feathers were painted on by the printer, and the lettering was all done using rub-down transfer lettering known as ‘Letraset.’ I seem to think that the time advertised – 6.30 – would be considered quite early for an evening event these days.

Inspired by Tribhuvanath those festivals are still going on, in the same style, some 40 years later. Listen to him in top form here:

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The Difference between a Kitten and a Pig

Thirty-eight years ago I became a vegetarian. In all this time I have not eaten any dead animals, and I’ve avoided any food ingredients derived from animal body parts. No cows, sheep, pigs; no fish, no chicken – and, specially here in London, no jellied eels. Are you impressed?

No, I didn’t think so. Neither am I really. In fact, I hardly think of myself as a ‘vegetarian’ at all. Its been such a long time – all my adult life – that I’ve even forgotten the taste of meat. I just can’t remember it. And I never struggle with the temptation to eat meat. The thought just doesn’t arise.

I’ve arranged my life so that its easy for me to cook and eat only with vegetables and grains as raw ingredients. And I don’t have any friends who chomp on dead flesh, either. If I get invited to dine with other families, which I do often, then they are vegetarians, too. And the vegetarian food I eat is delicious, which makes it even easier to be a veggie.

But I still have to be careful. I’ve been so long living in this pleasant veggie bubble that the psychological processes by which I choose to not eat meat have been somewhat dulled. I don’t actively think about being a vegetarian very much. Like a muscle that’s wasted away, the part of my brain that discriminates between meat and non-meat has partially atrophied due to lack of exercise.

I’ll give you an example of my wimpy veggie brain-muscle: Some years ago I was on a train on my way up to Manchester. I hadn’t had any breakfast and I was hungry. Then a fellow passenger walked by with something mysterious in a brown paper bag from the buffet car. The smell wafted across my nostrils and immediately I became interested. It took me a full three seconds of rummaging through long-lost olfactory memories to classify the smell as ‘bacon sandwich.’ At which point my discrimination kicked in and I made a choice: “Oh, I don’t eat those…”

Which is not good enough, is it? As sleepy as I was that morning, I should have been alert and discriminating. Discrimination is good, you see. Discrimination, for so long abused as a bad thing, is actually a good thing. We all have to discriminate between things we can eat and things we can’t. Only babies and mad people don’t discriminate about what they put in their mouth.

Because if you eat things you shouldn’t you might end up with food poisoning, disease, death, monstrous karmic reactions – or all of the above.

And this is something that has always puzzled me: why do we discriminate unfavourably between kittens and pigs? Why do we term one ‘pet’ and the other ‘food?’ Why do we want to stroke one and make cute baby sounds, then pick up the other, slice its rear end and stick it between two slices of bread? I’ve never quite understood that.

And neither has Melanie Joy, who makes quite a good case for preserving and refining our sense of viveka, or discrimination, in the video at the end of this short piece.

So a word to all my friends, specially those who have been vegetarian for a long time: Statistics from the Vegetarian Society reveal that the main reason given for their members abandoning a veggie diet is the bacon sandwich. Yes, that’s right. Do not underestimate that most humble of non-veg dishes.

And to all my Indian friends: I must remind you that bacon is part of a pig, which is an animal, and if you eat one – or sell one – you are betraying all that your grandmother held sacred. Doesn’t matter that all your English friends think you’re foolish for being a vegetarian for ‘religious reasons,’ or that you don’t want to be different from everybody else. Eating animals is entirely unnecessary, bad for the planet, bad for your heart and colon, and morally indefensible.

Here’s the video:

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Zulu! The History of South Africa revised

My daughter Jahnavi reached South Africa safely this morning. She’s over there for two weeks to take part in a Vaishnava youth kirtan event. She’s happy to be out of the dark British winter and, south of the equator, to be playing her violin in the African sunshine. She’s never been to Africa before so it will be a completely new experience for her.

I Iived in Africa for two years – and spent several months right on the equator by Lake Victoria in northern Kenya – but I never went down to South Africa, so she’s travelling further than me.

When I was just a very young boy I sat on my grandfather’s knee and heard about his exploits on the ‘dark continent’. He’d fought in the Boer War in South Africa, been captured, held prisoner and almost starved, and lived in Alahabad, India. At the time, I  was slightly more interested in playing with his enormous waxed moustache, twirled into spikes at either end. A proper Victorian soldier, he’d retained the hallmark of a military youth in his bearing, voice, and fashion.

When I was nine my father asked me if I wanted to go to East Africa to live since he was interested in serving in the police force down there. Kenya was still a colony of Britain but because the Mau-Mau rebellion was taking place we didn’t go. Kenya gained independence that same year.

I still didn’t know too much about Africa but the following year I discovered everything I needed to know. I was ten and it was 1964 and the film Zulu was released. Suddenly, everything became clear. Africa was a very big place where the British soldiers were always being attacked by the local natives. Now, why would they do that?

I thrilled as the film, starring a young Michael Caine, told the story of Rorke’s Drift where a gallant 100+ red-coated infantry men held off over 4,000 Zulus armed with spears. It was a terrifying film and I was glad that Michael Caine won and beat off the natives. And I’m glad that my brave grandpa was there too.

Unfortunately, my 10 year-old’s imagination was matched by the creativity of the Victorians, as the substance of the battle at Rorke’s Drift was enhanced for the English public to compensate for the stinging loss of many British soldiers at Isandhlwana, where the Zulus triumphed. And the Boer War, 1899-1902, fought 35 years after ‘Zulu’ was between the British and Dutch settlers. That too resulted in many British losses and was the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

So my grandfather didn’t fight Zulus. He wasn’t even born then. Still, he did go on to have further adventures in South Africa. He was rescued in a daring raid by General Sir Redvers Buller, and went on to fight again. I appreciate Buller for that. Unfortunately, Buller was not so helpful in Ireland, but that’s another story and I don’t want to lose any Irish friends.

When I was 16, I became a pupil at the Newark Magnus Grammar School, where the character played by Michael Caine in Zulu, Major Gonville Bromhead VC, went to school as a boy. One of the four school houses – Bromhead – was named after him. It seems that memories of Britain’s colonial past and a remorse for a lost Empire live on everywhere in Britain.

Empires, conquests, freedom struggles, battles, independence, apathy, exploitation of the populace -followed inexorably by more empires and more conquests; drawing and re-drawing lines on maps. The only revolution we can create on this Earth which will endure is the Empire of Emperuman, the divine community made of those human beings who have regained their experience of a higher happiness.

May all the kirtans in South Africa serve to give everyone who hears them a taste of that happiness.

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Krishna’s Sunday School Mission

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Children’s Sunday School Mission on the beach.

When I was nine and ten our family used to take week long seaside holidays in a caravan park several miles from where we lived. The fact that it was near a beach was not really important – we already lived only three miles from one of Cornwall’s attractive beaches – but this was in a caravan, and that made it a holiday.

You are never very far away from a beach in Cornwall, but you are always even closer to a Methodist chapel. Yet at holiday time, with beaches swarming with tourists, the chapels and churches would often come out to meet the holiday-makers in the form of various missions. They’d assemble on the beach and begin singing and handing out Christian tracts. And no holiday-maker was too young to ‘come to Jesus today’.

I was already regularly attending our local chapel Sunday school. After the family service all we children – quietly – would be led off to the adjoining room where, in three groups according to age, we’d hear the time-honoured stories of Jesus and his miracles and parables. I can still smell the slightly musty, floor polishy room and see the framed picture of a sun-drenched Jesus under a tree surrounded by children and lambs.

One thing the Methodists always did well was the big teas laid out on long tables, the sports days and occasional outings. The chapel was the social centre in a small village like ours, and most people contributed something to its upkeep and activities.

So even on holiday it was quite natural for me to be ushered towards the Childrens Sunday School Mission and their singing, games and talks on the beach. It filled in a few hours and I got to meet a few kids from London – always a curiosity. One event prepared me for my future role. The leader of the CSSM team decided that it would be a good thing if, on that particular Sunday morning, all the children would form a line, two abreast, and sing hymns while walking through the caravan and camping site. Of course, I had to be at the front of the line.

I’m sure some people that morning liked being wakened by the cheery sound of children singing. Some, apparently, did not. Amongst the smiles there were a few curses and one disgruntled person threw something – a fork, I think – which drew an admonishment from the Sunday School leader. Years later, on a Saturday afternoon in December 1974, when I led my first Harinam sankirtan procession down London’s Portobello Road , a stallholder threw the head of a chicken at me. His aim was good, but I sang on.

Our early experiences prepare us for the rest of life, and if we have God in our lives early on, He is more likely to stay there in adult life. That is why there are so many statements from Srila Prabhupada stressing the importance of children getting off to a good start in life by having their natural consciousness of Krishna awakened through music, art, games and storytelling.

This year, part of our effort is to extend the already existing Sunday school at Bhaktivedanta Manor out to the suburbs. Already running for 14 years and catering at present for 70 children, it is largely due to the dedication of two sisters Vasana-Harini and Syama-Vallabha. We’d like to introduce larger numbers of children to Krishna and we know that many parents are keen for us to do so.

So yesterday and today I met with those who have an interest in setting up more locations where we can begin Sunday Schools. No beaches, unfortunately.

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