As Anjli Raval begins to questions her faith, she finds herself at Bhaktivedanta Manor, discovering her spiritual side through the ancient teachings of Hare Krishna.
“Namaste.” I said tentatively to the tall, white-robed man who had been sent to greet me and who knew more about my religion than my entire family put together. Being brought up as a Hindu has meant that religion has always played an inescapable part in my life, and the fact that my grandparents live with me has meant that certain traditions and customs from generations ago have been practised year after year unquestioned. It was only recently, however, that I started to question my faith and examine my religion, with its various sects and affiliations, a little closer.
This is what led me to Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire, the UK headquarters of The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), more commonly known as the Hare Krishna movement. I expected tambourine-banging, arm-waving, enthusiastic groups of people chanting the fairly well-known chant of “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare”, so I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted warmly by a priest called Radha Mohan Das. All holy men in this sect receive a Sanskrit name (one of the many names of God) plus the suffix ‘Das’ (‘Dasi’ for women) which means ‘servant of’. Incidentally, ‘Hare’’ addresses the energy of God, and ‘Krishna’ means ‘all attractive’, a reference to one of the many Hindu Gods.
This is how Hare Krishna differs from the mainstream polytheistic Hindu religion, as it teaches that Krishna alone is the Supreme Being. Krishna Consciousness propagates the teachings of ancient scriptures known as ‘The Vedas’, which were written in Sanskrit in about 3000 BC. The Vedas describe ‘Sanatana-Dharma’, the eternal and natural inclination of mankind towards spiritual activity. The two main sections of The Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam, form the foundation of the Hare Krishna philosophy.
The Manor, donated in 1973 by The Beatles’ George Harrison, is not simply a retreat for those wanting to get away from the stresses of daily life; it is also a theological college with a school for the children of its followers. I met three girls who were students at the Gurukul (the school) – Narayani Koyle, 15, Shari Macnamara, 17, and Nadia Mani, 19 – and asked them what life was like growing up within the confines of the temple. All three agreed that although they live relatively sheltered lives, the opportunities they have to meet new people and travel the world were second to none and they would never consider changing their lifestyle.
ISKCON itself has two divisions: an order of monks and priests who live at the temple (who number 35) and those that live offsite. Radha Mohan Das had been a devotee for 14 years, and although he currently resides at the Manor, his upcoming marriage to another devotee will mean he has to move to a house outside to carry on his devotional work.
The most devoted Hare Krishna followers live at the Manor. Male monks must shave their heads leaving a central patch of hair called a ‘sikha’, and wear saffron-coloured robes called ‘dhotis’ to signify celibacy. Married monks, or those to be married, wear white robes, whilst female devotees wear simple, traditional saris. All monks take an oath wherein they vow to abandon mind-altering substances such as cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, reject activities like gambling, and follow a peaceful vegetarian diet. Illicit sex is prohibited, and sexual activity for married couples is solely for procreation.
I was invited to attend the 12.30pm ‘aarti’, an opportunity for the public to come and worship the deities of Krishna. As the room slowly began to fill up with people, I realised how unbelievably ignorant I had been. I had expected a sea of brown faces, but there was a variety of nationalities and backgrounds, all worshipping together.
Despite Hare Krishna’s association with mainstream Hindu philosophy, ISKCON do not describe themselves as being affiliated solely to this one faith.
The priest offered food, water, incense, an oil lamp and even flowers to the deities. The Hare Krishnas put emphasis on ‘bhakti’, which is yoga and meditation through the repetition of the infamous Hare Krishna chant. Whilst I was admittedly hesitant to join them by closing my eyes and waving my arms about, the aura in the room was astounding; I felt like I was in a trance.
I think what appeals to people the most is that the Hare Krishna movement is about spirituality rather than religion; it’s about your own personal connection with God. Kripamoya Das, another priest at the temple, said: “Real religion is the esoteric practises – the mystical realisations – that permeate and sustain any spiritual tradition, not their external forms and terminologies”.
For me, the appeal of the Hare Krishna movement lies in the fact that the philosophy is accessible and understandable (it’s in English, at least). Although I won’t be giving up booze and hair-straighteners any time soon, I do feel I’m one step closer to getting some answers.
A spiritual brand? Hare Krishna in popular culture
The Hare Krishna movement has begun to penetrate popular culture, as evidenced by Russell Brand’s “Hare Krishna” sign off at the end of every episode of Big Brother’s Big Mouth, and the devotees’ appearances as pedestrians in videogames such as Grand Theft Auto. Its rise in prominence in the UK has clearly been helped by celebrity endorsements (like that of Brand, a regular at Bhaktivedanta Manor whose ‘faith’ reportedly helped him ditch heroin), and the inclusion of the Hare Krishna mantra in songs by the Beatles, Boy George, Stevie Wonder and Tenacious D have helped to boost the practitioners’ profile. Today, aspects of the Hare Krishna lifestyle, such as yoga, meditation and vegetarianism, have been incorporated into the mainstream.