Published in The Independent, August 2002
Ordinarily many of the Hindu temples which are nowadays to be found dotted throughout the UK are quiet and contemplative places where sweet melodies and incense dominate. Next Saturday however they will all have the bustle of a train station as they are filled to overflowing for one of the greatest of all Hindu festivals, Janmastami, which commemorates the birth of Krishna.
Krishna, literally ‘the all-attractive one’, is the centre of worship for most Hindus in Britain. To his devotees he is the same God that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other monotheists adore. There is no one equal to or greater than Krishna. He is the original, unborn, eternal person, the most
ancient, completely independent, and the cause of all causes. And yet his figure is that of a beautiful sweetly-smiling cowherd-boy, traditionally depicted with a blue skin, who lives for the love of his friends. He is God in a form that we can fall in love with. And as a cowherd boy, Krishna
doesn’t care too much for religious and cultural distinctions. When Krishna throws a party everyone is welcome.
Some people live for this festival. Bands play, ladies wear their finest silk saris, children are made to look sweet, tons of flowers will be strung into garlands, mantras are chanted, prayers are offered, blessings are given and received. Many devotees will fast till midnight and all will feast on the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dishes prepared.
Forty years ago all this didn’t happen here. It is a reflection of how much Britain has changed that the largest annual pilgrimage in the nation’s religious calendar is a Hindu festival. Crowds of more than 60,000 gather at one temple, Bhaktivedanta Manor in leafy Herts, on Janmastami every
year. And that too is a revealing index of change, for the Manor is a temple of the Hare Krishna movement, a group of Western converts to Hinduism which in the Sixties and Seventies was regarded with some misgivings by both indigenous Hindus and a sceptical general British public
When Hindus first came to Britain they were Indian. Hindu meant Indian. They were part of that strange, threatening, inconvenient ‘other’. Now, often as not, they identify as British. There is a distinctly British-Hindu community and it is flourishing. More than that some of these British
Hindus are white. Once upon a time we westerners would go off to strange lands and convert the natives, but some of them came back and converted us. Bhaktivedanta Manor, the largest Hindu place of pilgrimage in the UK, Europe even, is a Hare Krishna temple, is of the Vaisnava tradition: a strictly non-sectarian, highly orthodox, school of Hinduism. Some of the priests are white, some are brown, some are black. But then Krishna is blue, so what does he care?
Hinduism is not new to Britain. What is new is that it has cross-pollinated. It has its own flavour distinct from that of the subcontinent. It is confident. Perhaps most importantly, it is throwing off the shackles of ethnicity. Today we have Brahmin priests named Smith and, we learned this week, that it is proposed that Britain should have its own sacred river ? there are plans to consecrate the River Aire, which runs through Bradford, as a holy water for the performance of Hindu rites including the dispersal of funeral ashes.
There is a paradox here. Many ethnic-religious communities dwindle as they watch their young becoming absorbed into western ways. The Hindu community has found many of its young enlivened in their faith by western Krishna devotees, who, like them, are more familiar with the East End than the Far East. The wise among the Hindu elders understand the importance of the common language in teaching their children. The common language is English and it has a British accent. In turn western adherents are inspired to find themselves accompanied by devotees whose families have been worshipping Krishna since forever.
Evidence of this new mutual acceptance is clear from the large numbers of Hindus whose families originated in the Indian sub-continent who now turn to Hare Krishna movement temples for their celebration of Janmastami. Of course there are differences in modes of practice. But instead of being a cause of amusement, fear, intolerance or revulsion these now prompt us all to examine why we do things in a certain way and be challenged to become more thoughtful about what the essential importance of our faith really is. A true theist isn’t challenged by variety in faith ? but is inspired by it. I learned that when, having adopted a Vaisnava-Hindu faith, I discovered the writings of the Catholic theologians I never read in my upbringing as an Irish Catholic and found they are speaking about the same struggle for spiritual life.
Janmastami is an opportunity for everyone to discover that. It is a chancemeet the neighbours. Hindu temples now abound in the UK. Most welcome visitors, phone your local one and enquire. Discover the familiar that hides in the seemingly strange. And have some fun. Happy Janmastami.