Archive for October, 2009

I have been delving into family history of late. It is, it seems a pastime of the middle-aged.

I did not have much to go on save a memory from the age of seven of meeting grand-uncle Larry who fought in the Irish war of independence. I got jaundice during that visit so I don’t remember asking any insightful questions, but rather being annoyed by the smell of turf smoke, the taste of sweets, and the presence of everyone I met.

A few years ago, with my mother’s help I started to meet relatives galore. My sister and I ventured to our family seat, an area I found out my family has been associated with from the 7th century. We recorded a 106 year old, filmed a 90 year old, and met the warmest and most affectionate people – all our own people.

I found out that Julia Roberts played my cousin in the film Michael Colliins, and we heard all kinds of funny, heroic, and tragic tales of people past. Maybe the most poignant was one during famine times when a relative, lost her husband and died in the workhouse. So much history, so many unmarked grave stones.

For me three people stood out especially, three nuns. My Aunt Nuala celebrated her 50th year of being a nun this year and invited me to read at her mass – even though I am a Hindu priest. And cousins Sr Stephen, 68 years a nun, impressed me with her humility and sharp intelligence, and Sr Kathy, 45 years teaching in Pakistan, with her dedication.

Three ladies of virtue have inspired me Lord. Three quiet and well-lived lives, expecting simple grave stones, but who have left a greater mark through their example of humility, strength, and commitment. May I follow in their footsteps. Hare Krishna.

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It all started as a small spillage, a half a cup of water accidentally splashed on the floor. After the usual mopping up we left a little damp for the summer heat to dry.

If you remember the summer you will understand why we were not expecting immediate results – and tolerated the fact that two days later the patch was still damp. Later the patch had expanded but that was no bar to the routine of a busy day. It got larger…and wetter. Then white mould appeared.

Of course Mildew is the death of fabric, so our routine was abruptly turned on its head.  We found the cause to be a pipe quietly leaking for months and forming a pool under our floor. We had to rip up carpets, clear rooms of furniture, and endure blowers, de-humidifiers, and malodorous mould.

This glorious day was the festival of Janmastami, Lord Krishna’s day. It was to be a spiritual retreat, of fasting, and chanting. It was also the beginning of a much needed holiday. To add to the woe, my wife, who has suffered from ME for 12 years, could not cope and I had to bring her to a nearby hotel. I felt like crying – when do you get a break?

At the temple, during the midnight Janmastami service, I realised that rather than being deprived of my desire I was being given an opportunity to serve. My wife was suffering more than I was so I decided to spend the next three weeks caring for her – and I did so happily.

Lord Krishna, my desire is to serve you, and I offer what I think is best. Please let me know what You desire, and bless me with the grace to accept what you think is best. Hare Krishna

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A rare adventure loomed, with twenty Irish pilgrims off to India – our destination, Mayapur, West Bengal. Our first stop in India was Vrindavan, the birth place of Lord Krishna.

It was an emersion in devotion, and often literally so in sacred rivers. Vrindavan is a town of saintly folk, temples, and chanting. So, we prayed, chanted, and prostrated ourselves from morning ‘til night. And then by plane to Calcutta, a train to Krishnanagar, bus to the Ganges (on the roof), a boat to Navadvip, and by foot to Mayapur, nestled in the middle of no where – yet teeming with pilgrims.

I was soon enjoying the grim delights of dysentery, nestled as I was in a room for six but inhabited by twenty. The night before the celebration of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the event we had travelled so far to observe, I went to bed aware that the temple opened at 3am. I awoke at 7am to an empty room.

How had I not heard the clamber of 20 Irish chaps arise, bathe and dress? I jumped up, showered, and raced to the temple to find it practically deserted and decorated with tired flower garlands. I rushed outside and asked the first person I saw where everyone was. He told me they were having the feast. “But it’s a fast day”, I cried. He reassured me that that was yesterday.

Indeed, I had travelled all the way to Mayapur only to sleep right through the festival day and beyond, over 36 hours.

Lord, I dash around with plans and schemes I think are great, but which sometimes go wrong. Although I have no control over my future I will take credit for any good result, which actually comes by your grace. Please help me to wake up. Hare Krishna.

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I hope you don’t mind me asking if you are over weight. If you are why don’t you answer my question in your head – there may be people around you who haven’t noticed yet.

Talk of weight passed me by until my late thirties when years of fried food and a sweet tooth began to catch up with me. It was slow at first, an ounce here, a pound there. Then as my forties caught hold a plate of chips guaranteed a thicker neck. ‘Just one more chocolate’ was my hopeful mantra as I put on two stone in two years.

My nephew, on my knee during a family reunion, snuggled against my chest, then sat bolt upright and announced to all and sundry that Uncle Shaunaka needs a bra. I was forced to face the truth – my nephew is evil. Well, of course he’s not but I knew the real truth to be that I was now officially fat.

Over the next few years as I tried the ‘lose-weight-without-any-change’ method, as I wore ever tighter clothes, and weighed myself to depression, I felt doomed. My lowest point was the day I weighed myself after a haircut.

Then a terrible sickness, loss of appetite and the weight fell off – a revelation. It betrayed a hard truth – my personal lack of discipline, and me a Hindu priest, the shame. It took time but I lowered my food intake, cut out the rubbish, and walked every day. At normal weight again I can say, “My name is Shaunaka. I’m an addict.” And its one day at a time.

Lord, simple truths are often as unpalatable as lack of chocolate. I am responsible to you for maintaining this body, which you have kindly supplied for my life’s journey. I will do so with discipline and gratitude for your gift. Hare Krishna.

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Today is the last day of the Diwali festival and the beginning of a new year. It is a time to make a fresh start in life, to be generous, and to consider how to act with as much goodness as possible.

I must admit that, aside from the religious side of festivals – striving to be a good chap and all – I think religious festivals are really great, whatever the tradition. But Hindu festivals take the biscuit for me.

Whether it’s the profusion of colours, brilliant and bright; the cacophony of music and chanting, laughter, alter bells ringing, and ankle bells tinkling; the smells of spices, food, and incense; the touch of flowers and garlands, of hugs, and rich dress; it’s a tasty dish, light, filling and healthy.

For instance, a few weeks ago, we celebrated the Navratri Festival, nine nights of music and dance centred mainly around God in female form.  Whole communities of grannies, aunties, parents, and the urban cool – our children, all dancing together for hours. They begin slowly in a Morris dancing mode but by the end of the evening it looks a bit more clubbing.

Just after Navratri we had Dushera where a giant effigy of the Demon king Ravana, who has just been killed by Lord Rama is burned to great jubilation. It signifies the hope that the dark Ravana inside us may also be destroyed by the goodness of Rama.

But, in August we had Janmastami, celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna, the mother of all festivals and probably the largest annual religious gathering in this country.

Thank you for these festivals Lord, the mothers of devotion, where we can remember you in all your variety, feel your presence, and have fun. Hare Krishna.

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More Prayer’s For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Broadcast over a week in October 2009. It is a nice slot and an opportunity for me to meditate on life and on connecting it with Krishna, as well as practising writing.

Today is the festival of Diwali, an Indian religious festival that has become famous in this country as the Hindu festival, although it is a special day for other traditions as well.

Originally, it is said, this festival was a vaishya festival, a religious celebration for the merchant, banking, and farming communities. Thus the emphasis on the worship of Laxmi,  the Goddess of Wealth, and the end of the accounting year for so many businesses.  The generosity of the vaishya community is also shown at this time by generous gifts of gold and jewellery, especially to the female members of the family.

But Diwali now has significance in many communities and cultures, not only in India, but around the world.  Last week, Diwali was magnificently celebrated in Trafalgar Square in London.  It has also been a traffic stopper in other parts of London, and in Leicester, and Birmingham.

Only a few years ago we had the first Diwali celebration in the House of Commons.  Now the main political parties are hosting their own vote-winning Diwali events – a few years being a long time in politics.

While I get invited to all of these events, I can still discern, in the mists of memory, a festival that drew family together as no other.  It was a time to spend at home, to think of God, to think of good, to give and receive gifts, and to massage family relationships.

As the Hindu community integrates more in Britain the nature of the Diwali Festival has changed.  It is bigger, bolder, and brighter, but I pray that as we celebrate we will remember to think of God, to commit to goodness in our lives, and to earn the respect of our family. Hare Krishna.

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Published in Business India, November 2009

As we emerged from the meeting, Professor Gombrich asked me what I was doing that evening. I replied that I was giving a talk at Deloitte, in the City of London. With interest, he enquired as to the subject, to which I replied, ‘The Rig Veda and the Credit Crunch’. Professor Gombrich, Sanskrit Professor at Oxford University for 28 years, raised an eyebrow and smiled as he offered me a wonderfully British, understated ‘I see’.

Indeed, how could the world’s oldest philosophical and religious text in continued use— dated by tradition to 3000 BC, and by scholars to between 1500 BC and 1350 BC—have anything to say about an event that only happened last year? Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Or has that ignominy been left to our much maligned banking community?

The Rig Veda is the oldest of India’s literary works, and one of the four principal Vedas, or works of knowledge. But, while it is mainly known for its hymns and its association with ritual performance, there are some very big philosophical ideas hidden in the Rig Veda: the concept of atman, and the concept of rita, from which dynamic world views have arisen—world views that influence Indian and Eastern thinking to this day.

Whereas greed has served as an acknowledged motivating factor for today’s economic wheels, sacrifice has served as the vehicle of gain for performers of the Vedic rituals—a vehicle driven by the idea of rita.

Rita is little known these days, having been superseded by other Vedic ideas such as dharma, karma, varnashram, sattva, dana, ahimsa, yajna, and seva, for all of which it serves as the basis. Rita means ‘cosmic order’, and it also denotes ‘right’. By aligning ourselves with all around us, we can become integrated into the natural order, causing no harm to others, and satisfying ourselves—a nice thought.

I am writing this article here in Oxford, whose strap-line is ‘good thinking’, and indeed rita is a product of good thinking. Some thoughtful person, or collection of thoughtful persons, observed the complexity of the universe, and considering the wonderful simplicity of its organisation, they realised that they were not the creators, controllers, or even fully aware of its depth.

Their realisation was that we are very small cogs in a very large machine, and it is essential for us to find our place in the scheme of things, so that we can make a contribution and not become a hindrance.

One of the essential elements of this worldview is the seeming dichotomy between the concept of being the master of the universe and being the servant of the universe. On the whole, the West has adopted the view that we are the master of all we survey. This is seen to be expressed in scientific perspectives and theories, and through God-given rights to dominate.  India, while developing its relationship with science, western tastes, and global concerns, is still largely influenced by rita, and a view that we are the servant of all we survey.

Well, personally I was always more attracted to being a master than a servant, but on closer examination I am less self-assured. One way of thinking leads naturally more towards giving, another more towards taking. One naturally leads more towards being conscious of others, and the other more towards being more concerned with oneself.  One recognises independence as high virtue, while the other values dependence as a higher virtue.

As you will note, these worldviews seem to be diametrically opposed to each other and this comes into even sharper focus when we consider how these perspectives affect attitudes to community, family, self, politics, and indeed economics. Thus, Indian thought has a very different starting point from the world it does business with.

Rita ultimately provided the inspiration for Gandhi’s thoughtful perspective that ‘earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed’. The banking system of a year ago was as vulnerable as mildewed cloth, corrupted and ruined. After the Lehman Brothers collapse it seemed that any push or pull would ensure its disintegration—and panic ensued. The emperor’s cloth seemed to be tearing apart .

Einstein’s conviction that the thinking that has produced a great difficulty will not be the thinking that solves it, is important for us to now consider—before we slap a few regulations on the dastardly bankers and get back to business as usual. The pollution of mildew is permanent and requires us to weave a new cloth. Patchwork will not hold.

A new weave requires a rethink, a fundamental review of the goals of our economic system. Essentially: is the goal of our economy about gain, or does there need to be an element of giving built in? We obviously don’t mean to build it in simply as a PR exercise, nor indeed to develop a more pious sense of balance—as we only try to balance opposites and unequal partners. The Rig Veda would suggest that taking without giving has no integrity. Giving and taking are not opposites but part of the same whole. To separate them, to create opposites of them, corrupts their integrity and leads to a faulty foundation for future action.

Our current system is built on the assumption that economics is about gain, and we make that more palatable by discussing whether it should be personal or communal gain. Thus the debate about capitalism and socialism that has kept us all hot under the collar for so long. But does this right/left debate present us with a false dilemma? One which ignores a more fundamental question about the value of gain, and greed, its frequent bedfellow; or, indeed, does it perpetuate a nuanced culture of greed—greed with a sense of piety? Basically, does it have integrity?

Using Rig Vedic thinking, we approach each circumstance on its merits and deal with it holistically, considering its integrity and recognising its interdependence—its place in the bigger picture—its connection with our environment, other living beings, and other ideas and cultures.

By this standard I may have introduced another false dilemma into this article by separating the philosophical ideas of master and servant. Both are interesting ideas with their own merit. The fundamental question is which is the more wholesome starting point for a life well lived? Which will form the basis of future self-respect, virtue, and trust?

From the perspective of rita there is no question here, as it would maintain that by a humble approach to all facets of a circumstance we can ultimately gain mastery of any situation—from servant to swami. But without nurturing the concern born of service, learning the value of the world as much as its price, and developing personal principles and subsequent virtue we cannot expect to be respected or trusted, and thus cannot expect to become leaders, managers, bankers, and commentators, etc. Unless our personal and private selves are integrated, we are being duplicitous.

Our current financial system does not acquit itself well under such scrutiny, either individually or institutionally, and government bailouts have not added to a much needed sense of security. Rather they have reinforced the fact that those who are most responsible in the short term, and whose thinking was so short term, live to profit again—a testament to short-termism and lack of reflection. It also gives politicians licence to begin to use words like moral and ethical, which adds a touch of the surreal

Similarly we are ignoring issues of integrity by foisting blame on bankers, as we have been so happy to do. Greed is everyone’s problem, if we are to be honest, and unless we deal with it openly, the financial system we patch together will continue to fail. If the personal challenge of building our giving into our taking—as a matter of principle—translates to institutional policy, we will see the beginning of a more wholesome, sustainable, and dare I say respectable financial system.

So, does the Rig Veda help us understand the credit crunch? In this author’s opinion the answer is “yes”. The Rig Veda is not saying anything any thoughtful person could not conclude, but it excels in the fact that it has said it and has based its conclusions on essential and simple questions. More fundamentally, it helps us to individually understand how we are all responsible for the credit crunch and how we may all contribute to its solution.

Its message? It encourages us to consider our humble place in a cosmic context, to find our principles; to become a servant, a contributor first; and to make our contribution with a heart and a half. That’s what we can do to serve communal and individual need and help us self-regulate greed.

Without self-regulation, without respect and trust, no system we introduce will be efficient or effective in the long term. And, the Rig Veda puts the responsibility for this on the basic building block of the Universe, the individual. We have to individually choose to develop a character that can sacrifice some of its freedom for the common good, extract a give from each gain, and some of its pleasure for the satisfaction of others. The more responsible we are, the greater the sacrifice to be made.

I ended my talk to the Deloitte audience by hoping that they could make an honest attempt at such nobility to build good character and sincere relationships among themselves and their clients, and to become servants in a world which needs such good example.

On the way out I looked in a mirror and hoped the same of myself, and in my head I again heard the voice of my friend Professor Gombrich: ‘I see’.

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