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REtoday magazine

May 2009, by Shaunaka Rishi Das

If you have ever been invited to a Hindu wedding or religious gathering you will have noticed the discrepancy between the time printed on the invitation and the time that the event actually begins.

I have spoken to many Indians about this phenomenon and they all declare how upset they are about their community’s attitude towards time. “It can be very embarrassing”, said my friend, Jayesh, “especially when British people are attending. They don’t understand our ways and must find our ways very shoddy indeed”. Yet, the same fellow had arrived half an hour late to the event he was commenting upon, suspecting that it would not start on time.

The tendency towards embarrassment about “our ways”, is quietly experienced in classrooms throughout the country among children, and expressed in quiet frustration in later years. Yet, the Hindu community in Britain is also quietly proud of its ways, as is evidenced by the fact that they host very large religious and cultural gatherings – and the fact that family ways are still such an important factor in their decision-making.

The consciousness of every Indian is infused with stories of gods and demigods, sages and holy men, warriors and weddings, and action and reaction. Ethical choice, their elders tell them, is less about religion and more about personal virtue, personal dharma. They are nurtured to believe that there are many sacred writings, many spiritual teachers, many religions – and all are to be respected. Kama, pleasure, is as important as moksha, salvation, depending on your stage of life. Yet, when they walk outside their front doors they encounter a different world with different stories and different conclusions – but mostly without the tools to analyse and make sense of the differences.

So, let’s go back in time – back 2000 years – no, let’s make it 3000 years. Back to a forest in India and a small gathering of sages who have come together to consider the nature of the self, the cycles of life, and the theory of evolution. The sages, after offering respect to each other with joined palms, sit in a circle on kusha grass in a small clearing beside a river. They open their discussion by considering a conversation between a Yaksha, a benevolent nature spirit, and Yudhishthira Maharaja, the Pandava king. The Yaksha had asked Yudhishthira four questions the last of which was, “what is the news”. Yudhishthira answered that the news is that this world is like a pot. The sun is the fire and the days and nights are the fuel. The months and the seasons are the wooden ladle, and Time is the cook that is cooking all creatures in that pot.

One sage remarks that later in the Mahabharata Krishna says, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all assembled here – nor in the future will any of us cease to be”. All assembled agreed that this was a good connection.

Right, let’s come back and connect with our own time. As we say in Ireland, “there’s eating and drinking in that” – so, a time to digest. We have heard the sages, and Krishna say that we, all creatures, are eternal by nature, that we have no beginning and no end. This perspective is very different from one where we are created. In fact Krishna’s statement confirms an eternal relationship between him and others – but in this view it seems there is no creator, there is no time, and the limits of space are irrelevant. Yet, as we have heard, Time’s dietary regime is making a stew of us.

Back to the river bank, and the sages are now discussing the song of Krishna, where he speaks of the difference between the living self, atma, and matter. The self is eternal, and matter is temporary, as it is called into being and into dissolution, and is subject to time and space. The body is referred to in Sanskrit as a yantra, a machine, which has a life span of 80- 100 years. So, now we have eternity as one energy, one reality, and time as another, albeit inferior reality. Thus for the manifest world there is a creator after all, Time is cooking, and space limits our world, or should I say, the pot.

A sage remarked how our eternal self could take no material distinction seriously, how different views of religion, different ways of thinking, different cultures, genders, and species are not views of the eternal but of the temporary. Thus, they deduced the tolerance and the pluralism of the holy men they had met.

As they nodded appreciation for the contributions to the conversation one sage asked about the cycles mentioned in Yudhishthira’s reply to the Yaksha. He noted that aside from the cycles of the days, months, seasons, and ages, there are also cycles of happiness and distress, and pleasure and pain. The sages concluded that everything they knew worked in cycles. By accepting the law that for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction they discerned a cycle. Why, they reasoned, would they not thus consider the possibility of the eternal self inhabiting more than one machine, or body, during its journey – its cycle – through the material energy, through time? Even thoughts came around again and again, a fact they depended on in their meditations. By deepening a meditation they attracted that pure thought to return more frequently and thus improve their virtue, their dharma.

And now back to our time, to the Beatles, who sang, “It’s getting better all the time”, or further to Leona Lewis, who depends on things getting “Better in time” – and we see a pattern of linear time. Gone is the cycle and in is the progressive path to perfection. We inherit this hopeful worldview from Abrahamic thinking and the many philosophies that have grown up in its shadow.

The cyclical view does not credit things as getting better by default of time, but also allows for a realistic bit of worse. The eternal self’s journey through the cycles of nature is a process of evolution of consciousness – the evolution of bodies and minds being less significant – the object being to evolve into enlightened, loving, and knowledgeable souls, in spite of the cycles of nature.

The sages in the forest received no invitation, thus no one was late. Virtue, loving relationships (bhakti), and thoughtful understanding had always dictated their lives and they would never allow time to interfere. This is the mood and thinking behind their ways, and this is their legacy. Despite Jayesh’s frustration with himself he will not change easily as his script was written millennia ago, and until two world views begin a serious dialogue he will have to manage his embarrassment himself.

Jayesh will continue to arrive ‘late’ to functions but I do pray that his children may meet a religious educator who helps them value their world view as equally as others do, and encourages them to explore their tradition deeply. Thus the dialogue may begin – although, we could say it will be late in starting, better late than never.

This essay was originality broadcast as one of The Lent Talks, BBC Radio 4, in February 2002. There is a recording of the broadcast on the BBC website – listen

I’ve an Indian friend who when he was seven moved with his family from India to England. Where he was enrolled at a new school. On his first day he was asked to speak to the class about a saint from his Hindu tradition. Enthusiastically he began to tell the story of the saint called Ishu, who was born in a cowshed, was visited by three holy men, performed many amazing miracles, walked on water and spoke a wonderful sermon on a mountain. Of course, he was telling the story of Christ. But he was bewildered to hear that the teacher laid claim to Ishu for herself and her friends and she let him know that this was her Lord and her story, not his. He was very upset about this, because Ishu’s tale was his favourite story.

You see, in a sense, Hindus don’t really see Jesus as a Christian at all. (Of course Jesus didn’t either because the term had not been used during His lifetime). In Hindu thought church or temple membership, or belief is not as significant as spiritual practice (which is called sadhana in sanskrit). As there is no Church of Hinduism everyone holds their own spiritual and philosophical opinions. It is difficult then to understand someone’s spirituality simply by looking at their religious trappings. So, in India it is more common to hear someone ask, “What is your practice (or sadhana)?” than, “What do you believe?”

Then when we ask how we can see spirituality in Hindus, the answer comes, by behaviour and practice. We can ask are we humble, are we tolerant and are we non-violent, and can we control our senses and our mind? Are we aware of others suffering and are we willing to give up our comfort to help them? Looking at these criteria Jesus measures up as a Sadhu, a holy man. He preached a universal message, love of God and love of brother, which was beyond any sectarianism or selfishness. Jesus was one of those people who appealed from heart to heart, and that’s what makes him such a good Hindu Saint. In my particular tradition, and among other Hindus, He is seen as much more, as an Avatar, specifically a Shaktavesha Avatar or an empowered incarnation. This means that God has sent Him to us for a specific mission to fulfil God’s will on earth.

When I was 14 I began a personal and serious study of the New Testament. I wanted to understand what Christ had to say about things so I paid particular attention to the words of Jesus Himself. I can see now that the whole direction of my life was determined by this formative study and by the thoughtfulness invoked by it.

I read such passages as Luke 5: forsake all and follow me. I remember distinctly, as a 14 year old developing my own understanding of what that meant. I had formed a sense of mission and vocation by reading the Bible, seeing that the love of God should be shared with others. The greatest commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our words and all our deeds, and love our neighbour as ourselves struck me as an instruction, as a plea and actually, as a necessity. Considering how to do to that, how to forsake all and follow God out of love, has provided me my greatest challenge in life.

As a young boy, that meant giving up sitting in front of the TV with my cup of coffee, 2 sugars and a biscuit (these were the comforts of my life at that time). It meant to go down to the town centre of Wexford, my hometown, stand in the Bullring, and preach the glory of love of God to all who wanted to hear it. From my reading of Christ’s words and the example of his life, I knew that is what I was called to do, but did I do it? No, I couldn’t. That surrender to God I had to postpone. The instructions and teachings of Christ were crystal clear to me but I wasn’t having an easy time trying to follow them. (Isn’t it funny how it sometimes seems easier to fight for our principles than to actually follow them). Thus my script was written, the challenge laid down, a challenge that Christ had posed to the whole world. “He who has ears let him hear”, he would say. I seemed to have those unfortunate ears.

Christ was different. He was radically different. He preached for three years and got killed for it. He gave everything. A friend betrayed him. We have all had some experience where someone we trust turns on us but imagine how we would feel if a friend betrayed us to death? Does the word forgiveness spring to mind? Not in my case, but it comes a close second. In Hindu scripture it says that forgiveness is the principal quality of a civilised man, and civilisation is measured in terms of spiritual qualities rather than economic or scientific advancement. Its quite clear to me where Jesus hung his hat on that issue.

For instance in our civilised world who would get away with going to a funeral, approaching the chief mourner and asking him to surrender everything to God NOW, as Jesus did. When the chief mourner replied, “But I’ve got to bury my father”, Christ said, “let the dead bury the dead”. (I wonder what the tabloids in those days had to say about that?). Of course, Jesus didn’t get away with this either but he had the courage of His convictions, He spoke the truth, the absolute truth to a materialistic society and risked life and limb for His mission. I wonder how He might fare today with His uncompromising stand on Hypocrites and whited sepulchres? For instance if he was to visit Belfast he might have problems being heard unless He declared first if he were a Catholic or a Protestant Christian.

And how did an Irish chap like me become a Hindu priest? Why not a Catholic priest or at least a Christian of some sort. There is certainly a great range of Christian sects to choose from these days. Maybe they are becoming as diverse as the Hindus? Anyway, I first encountered Hindu spirituality through the Vaishnava tradition of the great medieval saint Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, that’s a lot of words that boil down to mean I met the Hare Krishnas. At the age of 18, in Dublin I bumped into a shaven headed, saffron robed fellow and visited his temple ashram, his monastery, so to speak. I had been visiting all kinds of religious groups – Christian and otherwise but these were surprisingly serious chaps.

They rose at four in the morning for prayer, study and chanting. By the time breakfast came at 8.30am I felt like I had done a full days work only to find that the full days work was just about to begin! The captivating thing for me though was the fact that every act was to be offered to God with love, every word spoken in His favour, every song sung for His pleasure, every dance for His eyes and all food prepared and offered first for His taste. Along with this went an ancient philosophy that answered more questions than I had ever asked. But what got me about these devotees of Krishna was what I saw as their practice of Christianity, even though they didn’t actually call themselves Christians.

They banded together in small groups, sung the praise of God with drums and loud clashing cymbals, wore flowing robes, abandoned the material world and preached in the public market places. That’s actually a description of the early Christians but the Krishna’s did this as well. I loved the chanting of Hare Krishna. I’m sure you have seen the devotees chanting in public somewhere. They chant Sanskrit names of God Hare, Krishna and Rama, meaning ‘spirititual happiness’, ‘all attractive person’ and ‘reservoir of pleasure’. Lovely names and they form a prayer to be engaged in the service of God.

The idea of chanting Gods name, any name we choose to chant, is that we come into direct contact with God Himself, as his name and His Person are not different, the Hindu story goes. (But don’t take my word for it. The proof of the pudding is in the eating). I think it was the spontaneous happiness produced by the music, the chant and the dancing that touched my heart so much and it continues to do so to this day. For me it was “Hallowed by thy name” in practice. The practice may look strange to some but that is not the point. I suppose it depends on our cultural view but nuns may look just as strange as naked Sadhus. Is that a reflection of their spiritual qualities or just their dress sense? To me this spiritual practice was being performed in the essential spirit of Christianity.

If we look in the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad-gita , we hear Lord Krishna asking us to abandon all our sectarianism and just surrender to Him, in love. He vows to protect us from evil and from fear. I hear the same “forsake all and follow me” message, the same call to surrender and the same reassurance.

Jesus shows this struggle of surrender during his evening in the garden of Gethsemane. His sincere appeal to the Lord to let the cup pass from him, although He was willing to go through with His Father’s command. I have always found myself in this kind of dilemma, although without the same willingness to do the needful that Christ had. All of us who struggle with spirituality wonder if we are capable of making the effort, or if we are doomed to failure and hypocrisy? Can we meet the challenge? Christ’s example is so relevant for all of us who want to practise a spiritual life, and even for those who just want to be good. But how many of us are willing to sacrifice our desires in favour of the will of God, even in small ways .

When we look at his experience during his traumatic arrest, trial and crucifixion we see a man at peace within Himself and with the world. He was condemned for his zeal and for his perceived threat to society, because he was misunderstood. I have experienced that to a lesser degree in my life – being condemned for being a Hare Krishna, for being different and incomprehensible. I have been spat at and derided, but not crucified. I have no idea what Jesus had to give up, in His early thirties, so that I, in my early forties, could be inspired to follow the Godly path.

The fact is I can see myself in Jesus. I recognise and empathise with His life, His temptations and His suffering. But I can see a lot more in Him than my faltering attempts at spirituality. I can see someone transcending the materialism of this world. Hindus as much as anyone talk much about this noble ideal but it is a true celebration when someone, anyone of any tradition begins to make sense, spiritually. And so many of us don’t seem to make sense spiritually.

We can acquire a religious reputation, be addressed by religious titles. We can easily learn to say the right thing and wear the appropriate clothes and chant the right passwords for all religious occasions, and look passably good. But the example of Jesus and other saints challenge any insincerity in our heart, any duplicity and hypocrisy. They display another level of faith, a level called love and their love is beyond our need to be right about everything, to dominate others and to demand them to conform to our perception. They are humble.

Its about a deep change of heart. Its about knowing God as a friend and as a lover. Its about being happy to love God with the full trust that He will take care of us in all circumstances, just as a small child will trust their father or mother. It’s about accepting absence of god in our lives as enthusiastically as His embrace.

Its difficult for us to neatly categorise Jesus, this lover of God, as a Christian or a Jew. He talked only of His Father and he was not enamoured of politics, religion or wealth as He experienced them. God’s service was His life, His love and his religion.

Remember my Indian friend who loved Ishu so much? What about him? Was he a follower of Christ? Could he have a personal relationship with God? Would he have to “bath in the blood of the Lamb” first? (a terrible option for vegetarians). These are important questions though, “Can a Hindu follow Jesus?”; “Can a Hindu love god with all his heart and soul?”; “Do you have to be a Christian to follow Christ?” ; even “Who owns Christ?.”

The Sanskrit word acharya means ‘one who teaches by example’. For Hindus, Christ is an acharya. His example is a light to any of us in this world who want to take up the serious practise of spiritual life. His message is no different from the message preached in another time and place by Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya. It would be a great shame if we allowed our Hinduism, our Islam, our Judaism or indeed our Christianity to stand in the way of being able to follow the teachings and example of such a great soul as Lord Jesus Christ.

Prayer 6 – Hope

The final Prayer for the Day broadcast in this series.

I didn’t know the man admitted in the bed opposite me in the ward. He had arrived in the morning with his wife and 12-year-old son.

Later my neighbour came over to say hello. He announced to me that he had pancreatic cancer and had three weeks to live. I was shocked, and I didn’t know how to respond, aside from a weak commiseration.

After some time I remembered that when I was fourteen years old my father died of pancreatic cancer – and the connection dawned. I approached my neighbour and told him that before my father passed away he gave me very sound advice, based on his life’s experience, which has sustained me to this day. I suggested that it may be important to offer his advice now, reviewing his life in these terms for his son.

My neighbour grabbed two chairs and we sat down and spoke of his need to communicate with his son something substantial of his life. It was a moving exchange where he did most of the talking.

Later I had the opportunity to be introduced to his son and I was able to share with him my experience that at his age my father had the same disease and how it was important for him now to listen to his father’s advice and perspective so that he could reflect on it his whole life, as I have. He was wide-eyed and appreciative and I know it gave him hope.

When my neighbour left we embraced and said we would meet again but we know we won’t, not in this life.

Lord, not every story ends happily, but even in the worst circumstances we will find hope. Please guide us to see the hope and to our part in this play. Hare Krishna.

Prayer 5 – Example

I think we can all admit, at least to ourselves, in the privacy of our own homes, with the doors closed and the windows barred, that sometimes we can be a bit selfish. Or is that just me?

Anyway, one advantage of the present financial crisis has been the wonderful scapegoat of the financial ‘fat cats’. They make my selfish moments seem like episodes from a Disney film.

It’s a real mess, speculation and gossip, predictions of gloom, with every man, institution, and country for himself. Not very inspiring, and the realisation has dawned on me that with the same temptation as the ‘fat cats’, with my inclinations to enjoy, I may adopt the same short term and self-centred vision that got us into this mess.

Well then, this final day of the Hindu festival of Dwali would seem to be a good time to mention the example of Lord Rama. Rama was a prince, who, for the sake of peace, his Father’s honour, and for his people, accepted fourteen years of exile to the forest. He accepted sacrificing his comfort for others without reservation. Rama didn’t line his pockets but emptied them. Lord Rama did this specifically to give us an excellent example of leadership – and we are all called to give good example to others, to be leaders.

It’s the example we need to keep striving to do the right thing, to bring out our good.

Dear Lord Rama, I sometimes envy those who have more than I do, but, by your grace, I will accept less to give more to those who have less than I have. Thank you for your example. Hare Krishna.

Prayer 3 – Diwali

All over the UK today Hindus are celebrating the festival day of Diwali. Diwali is perhaps the most well known of all Hindu religious festivals, as it, uniquely, has special significance for almost all of India’s many religious traditions.

Hindus will visit temples today; they will spend much time preparing food and sweets; presents are exchanged among family members; and displays of fireworks will end the celebrations.

The Sanskrit word Diwali refers to a cluster of lights, and one of the most popular stories associated with Diwali is the journey of Lord Rama from Lanka to his kingdom of Ayodhya, in Northern India. The journey began in the evening and Rama’s subjects lit the way by placing rows of lamps in their windows to guide Him.

Rama was returning home after winning an epic battle which symbolised the victory of goodness over selfishness and conceit, of light over darkness. Rama returned to His coronation and a rule typified by truthfulness, justice, service, and devotion – thus the endurance of His story.

Rama, as the embodiment of morality and right-living, is attractive to everyone who aspires to be good. We all need inspiration in our struggle to make wise and proper decisions. Diwali serves as a nurturing mother to our good desires and aspirations.

This evening, in homes all over the country, candles will be lit to guide Rama on his way – to usher in a new beginning, a new year and a new commitment to the principles of goodness.

Dear Lord Rama, during this year please guide me through the fog of my passions, and the demands of events. Help me to see the right thing to do, and help me to do it right. Hare Krishna

Prayer 2 – Laxmi Ethics

Yesterday the five-day festival of Diwali began with the worship of Laxmi, the Goddess of Fortune, the custodian of wealth and prosperity – and in our present uncertain financial climate Laxmi may find many worshiping at her altar.

At this time many Hindus will ritually wash coins, symbolising their wealth, and offer it back to Laxmi, to purify their use of her boon, and to attract more. It is a commitment to become good custodians of our acquired wealth.

Any banker will tell you that money makes the world go around – but who listens to bankers anymore. Our gurus, the Beatles, have advised that money can’t buy us love – and still we want it, loads of money. We hope for it, pray for it, and work for it.

While promoting the worship of Laxmi, Hindu texts caution that wealth can degrade us. If we want it we can have it, but there is a price. When we get it, sages suggest, we become more susceptible to pride and greed. Our peace of mind evaporates as we now have more to worry about; and our ability to trust is compromised as we can’t tell who likes us and who just likes our money.

Importantly, Laxmi is unattached to wealth or prosperity of any kind, a fact which leads the capitalist in me to ask, “If, Laxmi, the Goddess of Fortune has no interest in money, what does she have that is more valuable”? Well, Laxmi is totally in love with the Main Man, the Supreme Lord Himself, Vishnu. She considers love of God to be the most valuable gift.

Dear Laxmi Devi, please help me achieve real prosperity by introducing me to the All Attractive Person, your Love. Your words of introduction will be more valuable than gold. Hare Krishna.

BBC Radio 4 commissioned me to broadcast six prayers in their ‘Prayer for the Day’ slot again. They are being aired over the week of Diwali so most will reflect on themes associated with this festival.

I had to go to hospital recently to have an operation for – well, something to do with my bottom.

I had survived for thirteen years with this condition without anyone knowing and I thought I could have a simple operation without anyone guessing that I ever had such a malady.

Unfortunately the surgeons performed a more serious procedure and I ended up having three operations. So everyone found out and the jokes start piling in, so to speak. Did they get to the bottom of it? Can you put it behind you?

But the serious side was severe pain which even morphine was unable to fully alleviate. The situation was out of my control, and I realised that the only thing I could control was my response. In a mercifully timely reading of the Bhagavat Purana, a Hindu text, I found a verse which advised that the devotee of God sees everything as being a gift from God, whether it be pleasure or pain, happiness or distress, fame and infamy.

So, I could choose to respond like a devotee, even if I was having difficulty responding like a man. I realised, as I took my gaze from my own pain that others around me were suffering more. I became more thoughtful, more willing to be compassionate, less demanding of my needs and comforts, and so happy to find God in adversity, accepting suffering as a necessary and productive part of my life. My distress was now a gift.

I think I did get to the bottom of it and I will put it behind me.

Lord, Thank you for your gifts. Thank you for the pleasure – and the pain. I learn so much from both. Allow me to always accept your gifts with grace. Hare Krishna.