Category Archives: Religion

Five Nights of Wisdom


The Pancharatra is a group of texts as old as the four Vedas and has the same transcendental origin. They were ancient even in the time of the Lord Krishna’s appearance in this world, and are mentioned in the Shanti-parva section of the Mahabharata.

In that portion a description of the transcendental abode Swetadwipa is given, ‘a domain inhabited by devotees of Narayana, whom they worship through their knowledge of pancha-ratra.’ The name pancha-ratra means ‘Five Nights,’ and indicates a series of instructions given by Lord Narayana to His devotees over five consecutive nights. Narada Muni heard them first and shared them with Lord Shiva, Lakshmi Devi, the Kumaras and others. There are said to be around two hundred texts including the Ahirbudhnya Samhita spoken by Shiva, the Lakshmi Tantra, and the Narada Pancharatra. Srila Prabhupada writes:

The scriptures known as the Pañcarātra-śāstras are recognized Vedic scriptures that have been accepted by the great ācāryas. These scriptures are not products of the modes of passion and ignorance. Learned scholars and brāhmaṇas therefore always refer to them as sātvata-saṁhitās. The original speaker of these scriptures is Nārāyaṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is especially mentioned in the Mokṣa-dharma (349.68), which is part of the Śānti-parva of the Mahābhārata. Liberated sages like Nārada and Vyāsa, who are free from the four defects of conditioned souls, are the propagators of these scriptures. Śrī Nārada Muni is the original speaker of the Pañcarātra-śāstra. (Sri Caitanya Caritamrta 1.5.41)

The theology of the Pancharatra is solely focused on the Personality of Godhead. The texts describe the appearance and character of the Lord, and the many avatars He takes for functions such as creation of the world and deliverance of the conditioned souls. It also describes methods of ritual worship, prayer and the employment of mantras.

When Narada Muni visited his disciple Srila Vyasadeva, he told him that although he’d compiled so much Vedic literature, he had not yet composed the ‘spotless glories of the Supreme Lord.’ So the great rishi set about writing the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad Bhagavatam. Its 18,000 verses in 350 chapters all tell of the Lord and His devotees, with a full ninety chapters entirely dedicated to the accounts of Krishna’s appearance and activities in the world. In the 11th book of that great work is described what took place when the Supreme Lord Krishna was about to leave the world and return to His eternal abode. Krishna gave His parting instructions to His friend Uddhava, a conversation which is now recorded in the section known as the Uddhava Gita. In chapter 27 the Lord also explains Pancharatra worship.


Mantra (sacred sound) Yantra (sacred geometry) and Tantra (sacred ritual) are all part of the teaching found in the Pancharatra.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu asked his close follower Sanatana Goswami to compile a handbook for Vaishnava life. The book was to describe everything from the daily activities of a devotee through to temple worship and the celebration of festivals. So with help from the revered Gopala Bhatta Goswami, who’d spent his youth and education as a priest in Sri Rangam, a temple town in southern India, he collected verses from some two hundred scriptures, including twenty-five selections from Pancharatra sources. From this effort was born the manual Hari-Bhakti-Vilasa.

Srila Rupa Goswami also gives credit to the Pancharatra as being one of the legitimate sources of conclusive evidence on the nature of Godhead and the methods of developing our relationship with God. Again, Srila Prabhupada writes:

Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has said in the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (1.2.101):

śruti-smṛti-purāṇādi-pañcarātra-vidhiṁ vinā
aikāntikī harer bhaktir utpātāyaiva kalpate

He clearly mentions in this verse that one must refer to the Vedic literatures and other, supplementary literatures and follow the conclusion of the Vedas. An invented devotional attitude simply creates disturbances in the transcendental realm.

Since the Pancharatra scriptures give directions for the worship of the Lord, particularly in deity worship, and since many of the ancient mantras have been included in the Hari Bhakti Vilasa, they can still be found being chanted today by all members of the Vaishnava sampradayas, including the members of ISKCON.






Filed under Practice, Religion, Ritual

Rabbi Sacks speaks on his new book

The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, launched his new book yesterday. I have not seen it yet, but judging by his other books, and by the important points he makes in this interview with Andrew Marr, it will be a valuable contribution.

In the interview, shown on British television yesterday, the question is raised as to why younger people are tending towards religiosity and losing their adherence to secularism. From the Vaishnava point of view, that is like asking why a fish, washed up on dry land, pines for the sea; or why, in the words of the Bible’s/Torah’s Psalm 42, does the deer thirst for water.

The natural place for the soul is to be in connection with the supreme soul, the source of all spiritual vitality.

Faced with the insanities and vanities of the world, it is surprising that so many more don’t choose God over anything else. The difficulty today is that, with the entire world enslaved to various forms of relativism manifesting as secularism, people are being drawn to more strident declarations of religious view, more extreme forms of religious practise and association. Mixed with a lack of transcendence, the result is not peaceful co-existence but religiously-labelled tribalism, an even more dangerous combination.

Only when we can see, as the Bhagavad-gita says, with the ‘equal vision of a pandit,’ regarding all as belonging to a common source, and equal because we see the soul within and not the exterior race, creed or tribe, only then can we even begin to talk with one another peacefully.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Judaism, Religion

God the Father, God the Mother


With the appointment of the United Kingdom’s first women bishops, Reverend Libby Lane as Bishop of Hull closely followed by the Reverend Alison White being appointed as the Bishop of Stockport, it was never going to be very long before observers of the Church would become interested in anything they said that appeared to be coming from an exclusively female perspective.

These two bishops, and may God bless them, are the first females to hold that title in the history of the Church of England, although the very first in the Anglican Communion worldwide was Katherine Jefferts Schori in the USA back in 2006.

In the UK, the fact that one of the longest-surviving establishment bodies, the Church, saw fit to change a long-standing tradition was the big news of the early part of this year. Many journalists wrote that the Church was ‘finally coming of age’ and ‘doing the right thing’ by removing what they saw as the largely contrived and antiquated block to women holding the post.

The fact is, of course, that 30% of the Church’s vicars are now women, and that proportion has been growing for a decade. Many say that the CofE wouldn’t be able to survive without them. At one-third I can believe them. Christianity, although still popular, has seen falling membership within the established denominations, and less men coming forward to become clergy. The need of the hour has seen women taking up a valued role in the structure of the Church – roles they are more than suitable for.

It is quite common to see a 60/40 women/men split of attendance to religious services. I have experienced this myself. Sometimes women outnumber men by 2-1. It makes sense that women play whatever role is needed within a religious body whose membership is disproportionately women . Their natural abilities in pastoral care and the nurture of faith suggest that their role has been downplayed for a while.

But this post isn’t about the role of women in the Church. Its about what happens when observers think that the changing make-up of the Church automatically produces a change of theology. I was interested in this piece about ‘God the Mother’ and although it might be seen to be appropriate for the changing times, the fact is that the principle of God as Mother has been articulated for many centuries – by men.

Whether Shekinah, the feminine spirit of God in Judaism, or as ‘Mother of God’ in Catholicism, the feminine nature of God and that which emanates from God, has always been there. As a Vaishnava writer, I must also add that the existence of the notion of God and Goddess is much older than both of those religions.

Where there is a missing element in theology, there will always be an unconscious move to fill the gap. Theology changes ceaselessly until it finds a resting place, and that resting place is where perennial conundrums of philosophy are solved.

Whether or not we have female bishops (and I’m glad we do) it seems the right time to welcome back God the Mother.

Hare Krishna

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Judaism, Religion

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





Filed under India, Preaching, Religion, Small Groups, vaishnavism

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.




1 Comment

Filed under Community, ISKCON, Journal, Religion

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.




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

Farewell to the Rabbi



I couldn’t let this week go by without saying a few words of appreciation for Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who has just passed on, aged 89. I met him once, some years ago in London, and he was the father of a friend of my wife who is from Winnipeg, Canada.

My knowledge of him is sketchy, but I do know that he was a teacher of Judaism and brought invigoration to dispersed congregations around North America. Together with Arthur Waskow he created a movement of small groups known as Ruach Havura, whose practise of Judaic liturgy and ritual was creative, experimental – and apparently effective. Many people owe their renewed appreciation for the Jewish culture to his outreach.

After escaping the Nazi threat in 1941 he discovered a USA where Judaism was somewhat accommodated and on the decline. By singing in English, using theatre and alternative forms of presentation, he rekindled interest in spirituality and tradition but in a way that took modern thought and artistic expression into consideration.

When I read his book: “The First Steps” in which he described the key factors of Jewish belief and practise, I knew that he was someone who loved his tradition, but that wanted others to appreciate it too. It was no surprise to me to discover that he was also associated with the Lubavitcher tradition, since outreach is one of their key activities.

Interestingly for me, due to his influences in America and the counter-culture times, he started something called the Jewish Ashram, and was also very favourable to meditation, even chanting the Hare Krishna on occasion. Shalom.


Filed under Journal, Judaism, Religion, Small Groups

Aspects of a Successful Parampara


When one thousand people in the United States were asked the question: “What factors brought you to your present religious belief and membership of your current religious community?” the overwhelming majority, 85%, responded that ‘my friend got me interested,’ or ‘my friend was already involved,’ or ‘I went along to the meetings with friends.’ The findings of this survey suggest that a prime influence in religious self-identification (other than deeply-held personal conviction) is our circle of friends; and what we believe then influences our subsequent choices of friends. The committed relationships we maintain with our circle of friends also seem to be a key ingredient in the expansion, socialisation and sustainability of a religious community.

There will always be highly motivated, self-starting, lone seekers of spiritual wisdom. After a mystical experience, or a deeply heart-warming reading of an ancient text, and armed with only their own initial inspiration, they’ll search out a spiritual practitioner who can share his or her wisdom. They may even join a small, very dedicated, band of austere followers. In India it was formerly quite common for a guru to impart rahasya-vidya, secret teachings, to a handful of such disciples, sometimes only one or two. Those disciples would then pass on the secret mantras and tantras to another two disciples. Over the generations this would form a small and exclusive parampara; perfectly valid and intact, but not one that would have any far-reaching social consequences.

The paramparas associated with the Vaishnava community are, in contrast, dedicated to widespread dissemination of knowledge and practice. They are based upon the compassionate uplifting of humanity with the message of the most merciful incarnations and messengers of God. As such, the mantra – at least the particular parampara’s ‘great mantra’ – is distributed to all comers, irrespective of any material or social consideration. It is this friendship to all – the creation of lines of friendship so important to the socialisation of a religious message – that guarantees the widespread popularity of Vaishnavism and its endurance across the centuries.

Although a parampara is simply the handing down of knowledge from teacher to student – guru to sisya – it also generates a parallel manifestation due to its reaching out in friendship to others: a self-perpetuating community of spiritual friends that forms a distinct social grouping, steadily growing down through many centuries.

The authentic teachings of Vaishnavism in written form have become essential in perpetuating a parampara. For this reason modern-day Vaishnavas of ISKCON have digitized the founder-acarya’s teachings, audio recordings and visual images, and provided bomb-proof, museum-level archives for the original materials. Without preservation of the original teachings there would inevitably be philosophical divergence at some point in the future, threatening the perpetuation of the parampara.

But the other elements that serve to sustain a parampara are those that were amply demonstrated by the acarya himself. Firstly, the personal appearances: individual teaching and lecturing – upadesha and upanyasa – with guidance, correction, encouragement, and enthusiasm given to disciples by a living preceptor. Second, the formation of branches of the community, physical places where, in a dedicated environment, followers may gather together for prayer, meditation, worship and discussions. Third, the utter dedication to reaching out to others in a spirit of friendship: free hot meals of sacred food, theatre and colourful festivals, singing processions and sales of philosophical books in accessible language. It is difficult to imagine the present success of ISKCON without these components so generously arranged by the founder.

The sustainability of the parampara would thus seem to be best guaranteed by the preservation of the teaching; the living presence of the exemplars of the teaching; the proliferation of physical spaces where the practices of spirituality can prosper, and the spirit of reaching out to others. And of course, if everyone can remain friends then success is assured.


Filed under Community, Guru-Disciple, Hinduism, Religion, Small Groups

Rethinking the Church: How ‘tradition’ often impedes necessary changes

Today’s report by the BBC tells of the Church in Wales requiring a radical re-think:

Its no surprise that the Church is in need of a rethinking of sorts. Why? Apparently, there’s not enough young people to sustain its future, too many old buildings that cost too much to maintain, and worship services that don’t quite connect with the hearts of the people.

Periodically, right through history it seems, the Church has had to re-invent itself just to stay alive and relevant. Whether its Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, Billy Graham or any one of the current host of American re-imaginers of Christianity, there is always someone reforming some aspect of the world’s most popular religion.

Sometimes they don’t do a good job, and it all goes horribly wrong. But sometimes they get it right and the reforms last for hundreds of years. Its not always the theology – its harder to change – but the manner of its delivery and the way in which its applied to real life that is required to be reformed.

The difficulty with ‘The Church’ in the UK is precisely that it is THE Church, the established pattern of religious worship that has been with us for centuries. And deep down we may not like to change tradition. And even if we do, no-one really wants to be the one to change hundreds of years of tradition.

The Americans didn’t have that problem. Our country churches and the Protestant form of Christianity that’s taught there go back to the 1540s and before that to the days of the Norman church-building marathon, back in the late 1070s and early 1100s. The great American tradition, by contrast, is one of under 300 years of freedom of religion, no government Church, and a long history of innovation in governance, liturgy and ritual. And quite a bit of interpretive theology, too.

There’s 68 million Catholics, for a start, which helps the Protestants remain keen to get their messages across and be welcoming to converts. Including 16 million Baptists and 7 million Methodists the Protestant congregation in the USA remains the biggest in the world.

Its patterns of worship have not been hindered by old, cold, dark buildings (much as I love churches, they must be very off-putting for people). In fact, it doesn’t seem that America really has the same concept of ‘Church’ as we do over here. Many years ago I was in Minneapolis and followed a street sign for ‘Ancient Church.’ Being British, I forgot where I was for a moment, and somehow expected to see a church site dating back to the Neolithic era. I discovered that ‘ancient’ in America means ‘1876.’

Americans are not confined to ‘King James Biblical speech,’ in their worship services, and their worship songs owe a lot to the dissenting Methodist hymns and the Black singing traditions that have become part of their musical landscape.

We in this country have experienced a growth in American style ‘fellowships’ and ‘ministries’ over the past 25 years, and it is just one more way in which the established Church is feeling the pressure to change. But so much of the Church’s identity is bound up with the legacy of the past it is difficult to see how it will occur, and when.

1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, News Comments, Religion

Srila Prabhupada explains the maha-mantra

Here is the ISKCON founder-acarya’s explanation of the mantra chanted by all the movement’s members. It is the mantra that has helped many thousands of people all over the world to find inner happiness and peace. If you click at the end of this post you can listen to him speak and read along with his voice at the same time. When you reach the website, just click again on the player button. CLICK HERE.

1 Comment

Filed under Religion, The Basics