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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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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.

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