(This first appeared in the New Statesman magazine January, 2007.)
“Could we have a group of Hare Krishnas to appear in The Da Vinci Code?” asks film director Ron Howard in a call to the London Krishna temple one morning.
“We want a typical London street scene for the film.” He wanted “a few seconds” of orange-robed Krishna chanters while Tom Hanks was being chased around the city by a murderous albino monk. I was interested in the offer of instant fame (who wouldn’t be?) and amused to think that the sight of Krishna devotees singing their way down Oxford Street was now considered, along with red double-deckers and black taxis, part of a “typical” London street scene.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised Hare Krishna chanters are part of the capital’s image. They’ve been there for a long time now. They made their first musical appearance on Oxford Street almost 40 years ago, back in 1969 when a Times headline declared: “Krishna chant startles London.”
Since those hip days of Beatles endorsement and Top of the Pops fame, the movement and its chant has spread from London to cities throughout the world, becoming an international confederation of more than 600 centres, organic farms, vegetarian restaurants and temples.
Whether you’ve sampled Krishna food (which is very tasty), opened one of their books, visited a temple, or just seen them singing and playing their drums and hand cymbals (no bells or tambourines), you may have been curious about their belief system, if only for a few moments.
And these days, when we’re all required to know just a little more about religious sensitivities, it’s not a bad idea to have a grasp of the more exotic religions.
So here, for just one week, is a daily blog from me to you. I’ll give you the basics and a bit more. If it does nothing else it will help you bluff your way in Indian philosophy at parties. And there’ll be time to answer some questions at the end. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. When you think of Indian religions, think of a large tree with a big trunk and many large limbs, smaller branches and twigs. The trunk – the part that nourishes everything else – represents the Vedas, the spiritual teachings – written in the ancient Sanskrit language – which are the basis of everything everybody believes in. The trunk is the same for everyone but the twigs are without limit.
Although people who follow these teachings are today known as Hindus, the word “Hindu” actually comes from the Persian invaders who couldn’t comfortably pronounce the name of the river Sindhu. They substituted a harder “H” for the “S”. The land beyond the Sindhu thus became Hindustan, and everyone who lived there “Hindu”.
Roll history on a few centuries and the British – who dominated India for 250 years remember – added the “ism” to form “Hinduism”. People in India still joke that Hindus didn’t know they were called Hindus until the British informed them. The word doesn’t occur anywhere in the Vedas, which use the term “sanatana-dharma” or “eternal path” to describe the religion of the Vedas.
So what do the Vedas have to say about life that’s so good it could have you singing in the streets? Here’s everything in 12 easy points:
1. There’s more to life than this: Sad to say, but like Buddhism, which came later, and many other traditions of spiritual wisdom, the Vedas are quite pessimistic about the prospect of us ever quite reaching nirvana through shopping or sex. Material nature – the stuff that surrounds us – is organised in such a way as to regularly frustrate our plans for finding ultimate contentment with people or things.
As always in Eastern wisdom, there’s a nature-based metaphor for our struggles in the material world: If a fish is taken out of the river and placed on the riverbank, it lies there flapping and gasping until its thrown back into the water. Nothing on land could ever give it satisfaction. Only the water will do. Similarly, say the Vedas, we are spiritual creatures gasping away in a material world; always searching for spiritual waters, our true home. Yet not knowing where we come from, we engage with matter, always hoping that somehow it will produce what we’re looking for.
2. But you won’t find it looking in the same old places: And the reason for this is that the soul, or atma, the real self, is under the misconception that we are these bodies of fat and flesh and that satisfying the demands of the senses will satisfy our craving for bliss. It’s a big mistake. Our mind and senses, the very instruments we use to explore and understand reality, are fallible. We make mistakes and we’re prone to illusions. What’s more, other people’s illusions influence us and we become cheated, or we end up cheating others. The situation becomes compounded. In this spider web of deception we need the sharpness of transcendent knowledge to cut our way free.
3. You are not your body or your mind, but the consciousness within:What you normally think of as “me” is the soul exploring the world through layers of sensory information processed by the brain/mind. In exploring the world from birth onwards we gather many identities. Some of them we give ourselves, some come from others such as parents, educational systems, and society. We think of ourselves as being a certain name, gender, age, sexual orientation, nationality or race, but these are transitory material labels for the spiritual self, deep within. When we choose to distance ourselves from these, and focus on our spiritual identity, we begin the process of self-actualisation or “atma-jnana”.
4. We’re all small parts of something much bigger: Every spiritual tradition has a name for the Origin of Everything, the “Cause of All Causes”. The ultimate platform of existence is variously understood by followers of Eastern traditions as either a nihilistic void, a divine bright one-ness, or an all-knowing and compassionate personal God.
Whatever the concept, that layer of existence is currently beyond our immediate reach. The Vedas speak of a lower world of matter and a higher spiritual world, with layers of subtle energy between them. Matter is the lowest part of that existential hierarchy. It is always in a state of flux, changing shape and composition. That which we know as life is transformations of matter through the illusion known as time. Every living thing passes through stages of birth, growth, reproduction, dwindling and death. But although the body changes the soul remains the same.
The soul, by contrast to the material body, is primeval, existing before our body comes into existence. It is eternal and will never die, even though the body dies. The soul is part of the eternal existence. The soul can enter into another womb at the point of the body’s death.
5. Religion is less important than spirituality: What most people call “religion” (and the reason the world seems to have so many different ones) is the result of climate, language, leadership, cultural conditions and a host of other factors at the time of the religion’s historical inception. Real religion, always, is the esoteric practises – the mystical realisations – that permeate and sustain any spiritual tradition. Not their external forms and terminologies. The Vedas offer many techniques for self-actualisation and these are all collectively known as yoga, or the “linking”. All the techniques of yoga can be seen in adulterated forms in the religions of the world.
6. We’re all at different stages in our spiritual growth, so some paths are good for you, some are good for me: So everyone has to be extremely tolerant, say the Vedas, and that’s the mark of a genuinely spiritual person. Everyone has their own path and is making their own way back to the spiritual nature. You would neither borrow nor condemn someone’s medical prescription – its theirs not yours. Restoring full health is the main thing, not the prescription. Just like a good doctor prescribes differently for different patients, so the Vedas offer different recommendations for different people.
7. But fresh fruit and regular exercise are good for everyone, at all times: The Vedas explain that, while different paths are beneficial for different people, there are nonetheless particular practises that are of universal benefit at all times. Right now, according to the Eastern scriptures and their take on astronomically long periods of time, it’s the Kali Yuga, the “Age of Quarrel and Hypocrisy”, and there is one spiritual technique that is good for everyone, at all times, and in all places. This practise is so powerful that it will act for anyone. It’s known as the Yuga-Dharma, or the “religion for the age.” You can add it to anything else you already do and it will act.
8. Chanting of the Maha-Mantra: In Sanskrit, God is often addressed as Krishna, a word that simply means “The All Attractive”. Hare, pronounced like “Hurray”, and Rama are two other words for the Supreme. When these words are placed together and chanted they are known as a mantra, or a spiritual sound sequence that connects to the inner self, stills the turbulent mind, elevates the consciousness to the spiritual platform, and produces a sense of real happiness and peace. Any other names for God can be used, as they all indicate the same Supreme Being.
9. It’s great to be good: When trying to lead a life of spiritual development, it’s helpful to adopt certain practices that will assist us on the upward path. Practising non-violence, especially refraining from killing or eating animals, is a good start. Keeping away from chemicals which induce artificial highs of consciousness followed by depression is also helpful. While there are many recommendations for making rapid spiritual progress, they can all be synthesised down to a few essential precepts: Austerity, Truth, Cleanliness, and Mercy.
10. It’s helpful to hang out with the holy: Not everyone is the same, despite modern society’s well-intentioned attempts to homogenise us all. Some people, for instance, are miles ahead in the spiritual awakening department. They are knowledgeable, wise, compassionate and friendly. They can stay calm and contemplative even when the world around them disturbs everyone else. They look at life in a detached way and practise a time-tested sadhana – a set of spiritual practises, which can be logically supported by reputable philosophy – or siddhanta. They belong to a community – or sangha – the members of which help to keep them on track. Take at least one of them as your personal spiritual guide, say the Vedas. Ask them sincere questions and try to help them in their mission in life. You’ll feel better for it.
11. God can, and does, periodically make himself known to us: The Vedas speak of many avataras or “descents” of God from the world beyond our senses into the world of matter. Although He/She never has a material form, God can be seen and always acts in order to restore virtue in the world. Historically, these divine appearances are recorded in books such as the Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. One famous conversation which took place is known to us now as the Bhagavad-gita. Sometimes referred to as the Hindu Bible, the Bhagavad-gita has become the most popular and widely-read text in India and throughout the world.
12. Life should be one long party: But a party with God at the centre. If we organise our daily life around Krishna, or God, then all our actions – even the apparently mundane ones – will help bring us closer to perfection. So within the Vaishnava tradition, the tradition based on Vishnu and the numberless incarnations, there are countless ceremonies, celebrations and festivals. There are temples to build and visit; there is dance, theatre, music, poetry, literature, sculpture and singing. And a lot of cooking and feasting. In fact all artistic endeavour can be made as an offering to Vishnu. This is the traditional spiritual culture of India, which has now spread throughout the world