Hola! Feeling inquisive?
We’ve tried to answer some frequently unaswered questions here. But if you’ve got more, why not ask one of us monks and we’ll back to you as soon as possible (we can’t really get back to you sooner than possbile anyway)
The world today promotes instant gratification over long term spiritual achievements. It is often a mystery and even more often a dilemma about how one can practice any form of spiritual practice in the world where spirituality is sometimes even looked down upon. If one looks deep enough, it becomes apparent that the externals have nothing to do with one’s internal spiritual practice. Often, it is just a matter of adjusting one’s activities and environment to complement one’s inner principles.
What are the main things that I need to do to be spiritual?
There are thousands of things you could do to lead a more spiritual life. But if you want practical suggestions of the best things that will give you results quickly in a minimum time, then just remember these letters: A B C D E F G.
A is for Association. Whatever you keep company with – the food, music, books, movies, television, websites and newspapers you consume, your phone conversations, your work colleagues – are what you associate with. By choosing carefully you can create a favourable environment for your mind, a great foundation for spiritual life. Be with positive people who lift you up and give you positive, life-affirming thoughts. Avoid those who don’t.
B is for Books. Whatever you read becomes a voice in your head, and will affect how you see the world and make choices of direction. Books like the Gita and Bhagavatam are full of powerfully spiritual messages that will help you see the world around you from the soul’s point of view.
C is for Chanting. Although we all have to work late nights these days, it’s worth getting to bed earlier, waking up slightly earlier, and getting in some morning mantra meditation before breakfast. Chanting of the maha-mantra is the greatest way to experience a quite remarkable transformation of consciousness. Do it regularly and you’ll never look back.
D is for Diet. The path of Bhakti-yoga begins with the tongue, with chanting and sacred food. If you avoid three types of food you’ll feel better, create no karma, and become connected with Krishna:
- Foods that are the product of violence, such as red meat, poultry, fish, lobster, crab and shellfish.
- Foods that are considered impure, such as eggs, whether fertilised or not, and some fungi.
- Foods that agitate the mind, such as onions, garlic, alcohol, chilli and foods with high sugar.
E is for Enthusiasm. You’ll do well on the spiritual path if, once you’ve decided it’s for you, you throw yourself into it with all your enthusiasm, without reservation. Don’t wobble or waver in your spiritual life – be determined and enthusiastic.
F is for Friends. We all have an intimate circle of friends. They’re the ones who’d support you through hard times, who’d visit you in hospital, and who care about what you’re into. For rapid spiritual growth, we’d recommend having at least two spiritual friends in this inner circle, and more if you can. Why? Because we tend to listen to our close friends and if they are also practising bhakti-yoga it’s a powerful friendship to have.
G is for group. You can join a group for any interest under the sun. A weekly or monthly group meeting helps to keep your interest alive. There’s probably a bhakti-yoga group very near you. You’ll learn more, have fun, and find inspiration if you join it. You’ll be taking part in kirtan, talks and discussions, and if there’s a free meal at the end of it, that’s another problem solved.
Why do you put such an emphasis on chanting Hare Krishna?
The main practise in awakening our spiritual nature is known as yagya, the turning around of our consciousness from self-centred to God-centred. It involves offering our words, wealth, time and intelligence to God. Some of this is done as part of daily life, and some is done in powerful ritualised practises. There are four main ingredients for yagya and they have been practised, say the Vedas, from the very dawn of creation. The universe has four seasons that revolve over many millions of years. Each one of the four yagya activities is most appropriate for a particular season. The Spring of Satya Yuga requires meditation on Vishnu within the heart; for Treta Yuga fire sacrifices are most important; in the Dwapara Yuga opulent temple worship is the recommended process; but in the Winter Age of Kali Yuga the chanting of the ‘Names of Hari’ is the most effective yagya process. Indeed, the Brihan-Naradiya Purana says hari-nama eva kevalam: ‘the chanting of the holy name of Hari (Krishna) is the only way.’ When Sri Chaitanya appeared in India he promoted the chanting of the names of Krishna as both a personal practise and a collective, congregational and musical practise. The result of his teachings, and of those who followed him, is the modern-day Hare Krishna movement.
Why do you worship idols?
The ‘idols,’ as you call them, are the essential point of focus within a temple. Although the Abrahamic faiths proscribe the worship of ‘graven images’ and subject anyone who does so to punishment, it is important to understand the reasoning behind this form of worship. Firstly, it should be noted that imaginary images, conceived in the fertile mind of a man and executed by an artisan in wood or stone, are also forbidden in the Vedic tradition. No good can come from worshipping an imaginary God. The devotees of Krishna are in complete agreement with Judaism, Christianity and Islam on this point. But God does have an actual form, and this revealed form can be worshipped. The archa-vigraha is the form of God fashioned in a material element such as wood, stone or metal and installed with authorised rituals and mantras. Krishna can turn spirit into matter and matter into spirit, so His consecrated statue should never be mistakenly identified as being made of matter. The sacred image is one way that the invisible and untouchable God makes Himself available to the senses of the devotee.
How can you revere human beings as gurus?
Reverence should be given wherever reverence is due. Vedic culture is one of respect and gratitude. Parents and other elders are honoured, older siblings are given respect, and everyone offers gratitude to teachers of any kind. The highest level of respect and reverence is given to that teacher who gives the highest knowledge and guidance. When a guru, or spiritual teacher and guide, repeats the words of Krishna, the guru becomes as honoured as Krishna. Although the guru is a human being, since the devotee hears the words of Krishna from the guru, the devotee feels a connection with Krishna through those words. A police officer may be a mere human being, but is obeyed because he represents the law; similarly a guru is a mere human being – and always thinks of himself as such – but is revered because of who he represents.
If you are spiritual, why do you use technology?
We would much prefer that the messages of Krishna were already heard, understood and honoured all over the world. Our motto is ‘simple living, high thinking,’ and we much prefer sustainable, natural devices to technological ones. But since practically no-one knows about Krishna, we are taking the opportunity to use any invention to disseminate the information. Devotees of Krishna thus run radio stations, both analogue and digital, run television studios, and naturally produce millions of books – both in print and electronic formats. At the same time, we also create sustainable communities where members can live off the land, and horse and oxen provide the transport.
Why do you spend so much money on temples? Why not use it to help others?
Temples and the worship that goes on inside them have a powerful and positively uplifting effect on people. For this reason, in any major European city, you’ll find that the cathedral or church was right in the middle of the population. From the religious centre came education, medical care, hospice facilities, food distribution and help for the poor, morality, arts and culture, including music, writing, architecture and many other aspects of progressive society. In India it was the same: the temples performed unlimited amounts of social service.
I always thought that meditation was done silently, with closed eyes?
The most ancient forms of authentic meditation have always involved the recitation of sound formulas, or mantras, but they may be spoken out loud, murmured, or heard within the mind with no sound at all. The meditation known as japa – the repetition of the Hare Krishna mantra – is actually far more absorbing than silent meditation. Proof of this is that a regular chanter can meditate for two hours at a time. So-called silent meditation simply means that an observer cannot hear a sound, but the meditator can. After the advent of Buddhism in India, other forms of meditation developed, later spreading to Tibet, China and Japan. But even many of them involve focusing the mind on sound. It is difficult – almost impossible – to focus on nothing.
Why is a mantra more purifying than any other sound?
A mantra is a spiritual sound vibration. Its origins are not in the world of matter. All mantras come from God and have been passed down by a chain of rishis (seers) and gurus (teachers). Although when listening to a mantra we hear only syllables made by the tongue, and vibrated as sound waves, it would be incorrect to think that the syllables themselves are the sum total of the mantra. The sounds are invested with potency beyond our imagination. Their true power becomes evident upon chanting with attention.
Do I have to give away all my money to be a Krishna devotee?
The Isha Upanishad says that everything is controlled and owned by the Lord, but that we can use what we have been allotted as our quota. If we remember those facts and work in that consciousness we may live happily for one hundred years. Others are preparing their way to the hellish worlds. So when we transform our God-given talents into hard work and success we have a right to do that; but the fruits of the work belong to God. We are allowed to use them, being mindful of His ownership. Wealth and poverty are therefore neutral; you are not closer to God by being poor or further away from Him by being rich. You are closer to Him by using whatever you have in His service. You can give your money to a good cause, particularly a saintly person or a temple – or you can do God’s work in the world, and become a saintly person yourself!
Why are there 108 beads?
There are so many occurrences of the number 108 in ancient civilisation it is difficult to know where to begin. In modern mathematics 108 is considered an ‘abundant’ number and one with which a small computation produces the Golden Ratio. In ancient mathematics it was considered an ‘auspicious number.’ In modern astronomy the ratio of the diameters of Sun, Moon and Earth are all calculated to be an average of 108. There are 108 pressure points in the body according to the Indian martial art Marma Adi. There are said to be 108 Upanishads. And of course, it is said that Lord Krishna had 16,108 queens. The number 108 also adds up to 9 in numerology, the number of the guru principle. There are 108 holy places in Vaishnavism and of course, 108 beads on a set of japa-mala. In today’s India the 999 emergency telephone number is also – 108!
Many people decry the idea of God because of the suffering in the world. They ask why, if God is all love and compassion, should anyone have to suffer, especially the innocent. And why is there evil in the world at all, if God is all powerful? This age-old question, known as theodicy in Christianity, receives an enlightening treatment in the Vedas. Vedic sources introduce us to the concept of justice and mercy applied over multiple lifetimes. Heaven and Hell are real places, the Vedas say, but not permanent. They are both merely temporary places for the onward soul to gain limited reward and punishment – and then move on.
Does the soul go to heaven? Is heaven a real place?
Of course, but it doesn’t last forever. Both heaven and hell are places where we experience the accumulated reactions from our life and we enjoy or suffer according to our stock of good or bad deeds. Once having experienced this we then take birth in this world again with a fresh opportunity to choose our activities correctly and make spiritual progress.
So if the soul doesn’t finally go to heaven, where does it go?
The source of all heavenly experiences is the realm of God Himself. That place does not involve any coming back down to any form of life. It is the highest heavenly place. In Sanskrit it is known as Vaikuntha, the ‘place without anxiety.’ Once there, we never return to this world of birth and death. In the kingdom of God there is no pain or fear; there is only an unending, blissful awareness of His presence. In that Spiritual Sky we live with God and enjoy with Him eternally.
That sounds very nice, but what about all the suffering in this world?
The are very stringent. When we break them there are consequences. When we stand in the rain we’ll get wet, and may catch a cold. And when we put our hand into the tiger’s cage there’s a very good chance we’ll be bitten – we can’t blame God for our foolish choices. In the same way, when we use our phone while driving we break the law. If we’re caught there’ll be consequences and we’ll be punished. Suffering comes as the inevitable consequence of not following the laws of nature, or the laws of the country. But what if we’re travellers and don’t know the laws of a country? There are no excuses; we should have known the laws before visiting that country. In the same way we are all travellers in a strange land. We may not know all the laws of karma, but still there will be consequences. We can make this world a heaven or a hell, just by choosing our response to it. Nothing belongs to us; it all belongs to the supreme source One who made it, so we can only take what we need, and no more. When we take more than we need, we suffer. Suffering may be regarded as a way for us wayward souls to be corrected. We are constantly being put back on the straight and narrow by a compassionate higher power who wants us to return to him. We can’t really change what happens to us in this life as most things are beyond our control. What we can change however, is how we react to it. Happiness and suffering are inevitable in this world, and our best approach to solving these problems is changing our attitude towards life. When we understand that both happiness and suffering are temporary and focus instead on cultivating our relationship with God that brings us eternal happiness, then we can rise above the problems in this world. The suffering of this world is a prompt for us to aspire to leave it. This is not our real home.
But why do children suffer when they haven’t done anything wrong?
Every soul creates its own future, action by action. Sometimes an entire life goes by with no reactions to bad deeds; that soul does many bad things, but he seems to escape any form of karmic reaction. Then, in the next life, from his very childhood, he begins to suffer. When we see that life we can’t understand why bad things are happening to an apparently innocent child. There seems to be no apparent cause or reason for their trouble. However, our response should never be a self-righteous one of attributing blame to anyone for their suffering; that is the prerogative for a much higher order. Rather we should be thinking compassionately: “How can I help this person?” So the reason for someone’s distress is their karma, but our response must always be dharma.
It still doesn’t seem fair. My aunt was very religious but she died of cancer, why?
We can never know all the intricacies of karma, samsara and the grace of God. Neither can we know what happened to your aunt in her next life. It is sad, but true, that life is indeed short, painful at times, and the remote causes of the things that happen to us – the detailed reasons we suffer loss and pain – often remain hidden. God has infinite compassion and helps each one of us in different ways. Ultimately He draws every soul towards Him along his own path.
If we create our own karma and are forced to enjoy and suffer, how can we stop it?
We are born with what is termed sanchit-karma, the aggregate of accumulated reactions to all previous deeds. The portion of that accumulation that has now manifested in our current bodily form and tendencies is known as prarabdha-karma. Our previous karmic reactions will gradually manifest as we pass through life, and at the same time, as we continue to act, we will generate fresh reaction. The results of previous activities appear in three concurrent stages. One is called bija (the root), another is called kutastha (the desire), and another is called phalonmukha (about to fructify). The manifest stage is called prarabdha (already in action). Karmic reaction causes us to become attracted to certain activities, and our activities then create fresh reactions. But the fact of the matter is that this chain of action and reaction can be interrupted by the process of bhakti-yoga.
How does Bhakti-yoga interrupt the chain of action and reaction?
The chain of cause and effect is a system of education over many lives. It continues for as long as it takes for us to re-orient our focus from selfish action to selfless activity. Yoga provides us a meditative experience and allows us to see the difference between our mental desires and our real selves, so that we can effectively control our thoughts and subsequent actions. Meditation and prayer also connects us immediately to God, the ultimate source of the cause and effect and creates a by-pass to the painful educational process. It is therefore a direct method of re-directing our future.
In a world where short-lived physical enjoyment is the goal, and accumulation of material goods the means, we should expect that people are at least happy some of the time. Yet the reverse seems true – restlessness and frustration are all too common and the world now seems unable to produce sufficient resources to support our increasingly materialistic lifestyle. Our existence as spiritual beings is an idea that stands in need of investigation. If true, our happiness may lie just beyond the range of the senses, and meditation may just provide the means to achieve it.
What do you mean by the word ‘soul?’
The word ‘soul’ is an English version of the Sanskrit word atma, which means ‘the self.’ The atma is the source of consciousness in the body. The body is a complex arrangement of chemicals, none of which are conscious. The body is the unconscious, external covering of the conscious soul.
Isn’t the brain the source of consciousness?
The brain is an organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull and it functions as the coordinating centre of sensation and nervous activity. But since scientists cannot adequately explain how unconscious chemicals become conscious, they admit that consciousness, as a phenomenon, must be considered separately from the functions of the brain. That is why ‘Consciousness Studies’ has now become a distinct area of scientific research. It has been shown that the consciousness has the ability to observe distinct, remote phenomena without the intermediate brain and senses. In laboratory experiments, detailed drawings and designs were viewed and reproduced by the subjects at a distance of several miles from their targets. The results all point to a conscious observer that exists outside the brain. No one is quite sure how that works, but the phenomenon has been investigated for two decades now.
So you’re saying that the soul is consciousness?
Consciousness is a symptom of the soul, and the soul is conscious. The soul is the life within the body, and its power pervades the entire body. The soul is the ultimate level of the self and the real perceiver of the world. The soul enters a bundle of cells at conception and when it departs from the body – when the soul and the body separate – we call that death.
Does everyone have a soul?
Actually, it’s the other way round: you don’t have a soul. Rather, you are the soul and you have a body. You’re not a human being that has spiritual experiences; you’re a spiritual being that has human experiences. But to answer your question – yes, everyone is a soul within a body, including every animal and plant.
What real difference does it make if I think of myself as a soul?
If it’s true then it makes an enormous difference. Thinking of yourself as something you’re not is unhelpful, especially in the long term. It’s like turning left when you should have turned right: every mile further down the road you go you’re more lost. If you are actually much higher than the physical body and mind then you won’t be able to find physical pleasure satisfying. You’ll always be looking for something more, buying more and working harder to get money to buy it. With limited resources on the planet we could all do with less stuff – and more real happiness. So thinking of yourself as a soul could immediately help you and help the planet.
How would you define ‘real’ happiness?
When the pleasure is material it’s temporary, it has a beginning and an end, and it results in frustration. Because of this, material pleasure can never lead to a sense of fulfilment. We’ll always be left wanting more – and that’s a shame, because there’s a much better way to be happy. The Bhagavad-gita says that we’ll be happier enjoying a permanent pleasure that comes from deep within and which doesn’t depend on external things.
But I’m generally happy enough as it is. Why should I try for more?
Happiness is something we experience in different amounts, and much of what we call ‘happiness’ is simply the temporary relief of suffering. That’s a poor form of happiness. But there’s more, a happiness so great that it goes beyond any delights of this world – an ocean of happiness compared to a puddle – wouldn’t you like to experience that? The Bhagavad-gita offers the alternative: a world beyond our perception, a world in which we can experience something called ananda or ‘bliss.’
OK, so how would I ‘transform’ my consciousness?
It begins with meditation, the gradual drawing of our consciousness away from the mundane and temporary to the transcendent and infinite. Meditation can be done at any time and in any place, but the easiest method is to begin each day with a dedicated period of meditation.
What is meditation?
Meditation means to hold one thought within the mind for a period of time; to deeply contemplate it, even to become absorbed in it to the exclusion of all other thoughts. The original yoga texts say that the mind is constantly fluctuating from thought to thought. One thought leads to another, and another – a chain of thoughts. These thoughts come from sensory stimulation from our current environment, or they can come, unexpectedly, from incidents in our past lives. The total effect is like ripples on a lake of water. The yogis say that the bottom of the lake is where you have dropped a precious golden ring, but the constant waves of thought prevent you from seeing any deeper than the surface. Meditation stills the waves of thought and allows you to see your deeper self.
Why is it important to meditate?
Our life is a spiritual journey. That’s what we’re made for. It’s not just about getting educated, working, having a family and then dying. So every day we need to take a few small steps along that journey. That way, as life goes by, we’ll become spiritually awakened. But our tendency is to do things that really don’t help us on that journey. Our minds are always dragging us here and there and we fall prey to bad habits. Meditation helps us to be peaceful and brings our lower self – the mind and senses – under the control of the higher self – the soul. When that is done we lessen the risk of committing unhelpful actions and we become spiritually stronger.
Should I sit quietly and do silent meditation?
You can do that, of course. You can find a method of meditation that works for you. In an increasingly noisy world, where every bleep and ringtone is a clamour for your attention, there’s great value in just switching everything off and listening to the silence. Your mind needs a break sometimes. You might even want to extend your silence over a weekend in the country. The sages say that the sound of birds is very good for helping the mind be peaceful. However, you may be interested to know that the classic texts on meditation don’t actually recommend silence as an active meditation. Mantras are said to give us access to the greatest silence: the transcendental platform that is illuminating, all-blissful and permanently free from noisy distractions. That’s why classical meditation mostly prescribes mantras. They are not ordinary sounds, and they lead the mind to the greatest peace.
How does the mantra work?
There’s an old poem that says that your mind is like a mirror. You look in the mirror but it’s grimy from many layers of dust, placed there by your actions over many lifetimes. You can just about see your own reflection, but only very dimly. The mantra works by gradually cleaning your mind of all that dust, enabling you to see yourself as you truly are. That’s why the process is called self-realisation.
If each of us is a quantum of consciousness inside a steadily changing physical body, a spiritual passenger in a DNA-engineered vehicle, what exactly determines our personal rollercoaster ride along the way? The materialistic worldview would have it that we are all helpless victims of some inherited biological coding, and that everything else is random coincidence. But perhaps the karma of life is simply a science waiting to be discovered.
I’ve heard the word karma before, does it mean bad luck?
The word karma means ‘action.’ Everything we do, for any reason, is known as karma. Every action creates a reaction known as karma-phala or ‘the result of action.’ When we experience the results of our actions it creates further desires, which makes us act again. So there is an endless chain of action-result-desire-action. This chain of karmas and karma-phalas can be either helpful or a hindrance, according to whether our actions are good or bad.
What would you describe as a ‘bad’ action?
If our words or actions give anxiety, pain, fear or misery to others; or if we take something that doesn’t belong to us, that’s bad action. It affects our present, because doing bad things to others lowers our spiritual focus, and it affects our future, too, because all our actions – both bad and good – come back to us sooner or later and we’ll have to deal with the consequences. Bad action is also when we act in any other way that spoils our chances of transforming our consciousness and achieving higher, spiritual happiness.
You mean like bad karma?
Both good actions and bad actions – good or bad karma – will come back to us in the form of karmic reactions. Good deeds come back to us as good reactions, and when that happens we’ll experience pleasure. Bad reactions come back to us as anxiety or pain. The long chain of good and bad reactions is known as .
But aren’t ‘good’ and ‘bad’ relative? Isn’t it OK if we all just follow the laws of the country we live in?
There are variations of good and bad, for sure. Driving on the left-hand side of the road is certainly a bad deed in the USA and will get you arrested, while over here it won’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. Similarly, having several wives is considered a crime in Great Britain, while in other countries it’s not. But there is a universal right and wrong, good and bad, that is understood the world over. That is because the laws of karma are universal and don’t always resemble man-made laws or popular opinions of what is good and bad. Like the law of gravity, these laws of karma are universally applicable.
How do we know what are bad and good karmas?
They are listed everywhere in the Vedas. For instance, a short list is given by the sage Manu: Perseverance (dhriti), forgiveness (kshama), self control (dama), sanctity or purity (saucam), control of senses (indriya-nigrah), reason (dhi), knowledge or learning (vidya), truthfulness (satya) and non-violence (ahimsa). Lord Shiva echoes these and also adds the cultivation of compassion (daya), generosity (dana), and austerity (tapasya). Another great yogi, Patanjali Muni, adds: ‘do not covet what others have’ (aparigraha), ‘do not steal anything’ (asteya), ‘cultivate satisfaction with what you have’ (santosh), ‘serve a teacher of sacred lore’ (guru-sevanam), and ‘surrender to God’ (ishvara-pranidhan). In the Bhagavad-gita Sri Krishna further explains that intense desire, greed and anger are the three gates that lead to darkness. To understand what a bad action is, you just imagine the exact opposite of any of the good actions. For instance, the opposite of forgiveness is vengeance, and the opposite of self-control is self-indulgence and so on. Good deeds are collectively known as dharma and bad deeds as adharma.
That’s a long list! Is it possible to be such a good person?
Bad actions begin with bad thoughts and feelings, and good actions begin with good thoughts and feelings, so it all begins with cultivating good thoughts and avoiding the bad ones. And holding on to good thoughts throughout the day means that you have to begin the day with good thoughts. That’s why people start the day with meditation. If you meditate before breakfast, and before you start work, you’ll have a very good chance of thinking, feeling, willing and acting good all day. It is said: ‘The mind is a very good servant, but a very bad master,’ so being in control of your mind, and not allowing it to wander as it tends to do, is essential.
Do you believe in more than one life?
Yes. If we have not exhausted our stock of karmic reaction before the end of one life, we take birth again and continue in another life. This is sometimes known as transmigration of the soul, or reincarnation. So the soul passes through one life after another. The soul is the passenger in the body, and the body is the vehicle. The soul remains the same but the bodies change. In each life the soul passes through successive stages of birth, youth, old age, dwindling and death, and each time the soul mistakenly identifies with the body. In one life the soul thinks: “I am a man” or “I’m quite rich,” and in the next “I am a woman and a mother, and this is my husband.” In yet another, the soul thinks: “I am a horse,” and “I quite like this grass.” The soul may go down through many species of life before coming up again to the human body. It is like being pinned to a wheel, a wheel of changing bodies – a revolving wheel of reincarnation.
So you believe that a man can become a horse in his next life?
A soul can enter into the body of any species of life, according to the activities of his previous life. It is not that a man becomes a horse, merely that the soul temporarily inhabits the body of a horse. The soul never becomes a horse – the soul remains the same in every life. If the soul has performed a lot of good karma, then that soul may even take his next birth as a god in a heavenly region. But the human life is the crossroads where you decide where you want to go – and you must choose to act accordingly.
I still don’t see why I would even want to become a horse though – or anything else. Can’t I just stay as me?
You’re still you! In every lifetime you’re always you. You never change, and you’ll never be anyone else apart from you. Think of it this way: you wear a suit to work, and then you come home and change into something casual. You are not your clothes, you’re the person inside. In spite of having changed your appearance you remain the same. Or another example: You drive an old, cheap car, and then you sell it and buy a new and more expensive model. You were the driver of the old vehicle, and now you drive the new one – but you remain the same person. Similarly you, the soul, is inside a vehicle made of flesh and blood. It lasts for some time, then you get a new one – but you always remain the same person.
Why can’t I remember my last life – or any life?
Sometimes it’s difficult to remember what we were doing yesterday, what to speak of many years ago. But the trauma of being squeezed through a birth canal has an effect on us, as does the identities provided by those around us, such as parents, siblings, relatives, teachers and other adults. Forgetfulness is relatively easy in such conditions, and our identification with our new body, and the drives to experience pleasure and avoid pain, all conspire to lock us in tight to this new physical and mental package. Sometimes children do remember their past life, usually before the age of eight, but if the parents don’t accept the reality of a previous existence the child also rejects its memories as nothing more than a .
If I can’t remember my previous life, what can I learn from it?
We may not always have recollections of specific incidents, but the aggregate of all previous experiences is accumulated in the form of impressions. This is known as samskara and creates strong tendencies in our present life. There are abilities passed from life to life, such as an aptitude for an area of knowledge or a particular physical skill. Then there are irrational fears that get transmitted due to previous life trauma. Thus one person appears wonderfully blessed as a child prodigy while another is crippled by an unexplained phobia. So although the learning does not come in the form of individual lessons learned from recollected incidents, they do come as unconscious internalised learning.
How can anyone be sure there’s life after death?
These days there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that consciousness can exist outside the brain. People are regularly reporting out-of-body experiences while under anaesthetic or at times of physical trauma. Experiments conducted at research laboratories suggest that ‘remote viewing’ – the ability to view detailed information at a distance of many miles – is a scientific fact. Other researchers have delved into accounts of ‘past lives’ from around the world. People have been sharing clear memories from their previous life, then having those facts checked – even in other countries. Most of these people did not believe in reincarnation, and had no religious affiliation. If consciousness can exist outside the brain, it can survive the ‘death’ .
What’s at the end of the chain of lives?
Each life is like a classroom in a long learning experience. Ultimately, the soul must learn all the lessons from an almost limitless number of experiences over thousands of lifetimes. The cumulative effect of this is that the soul becomes exasperated with repeated attempts to find lasting happiness in the world of matter. Only when this material exhaustion takes place does the soul begin to explore an alternative method of achieving a deep and lasting satisfaction. This gradual search for moksha, or freedom, is known as yoga.. The philosophy taught by Sri K Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita recommends path dedicating all one’s actions to the supreme as the most efficient means of speedily perfecting the human form of life.
What is yoga – is that a kind of meditation, or a set of postures?
The Sanskrit word yoga means ‘to link’ and describes activities by which someone can awaken perception of their spiritual nature, and through that, bring about their gradual awareness of God. Since everyone has different inclinations and abilities, there are several kinds of yoga. Action-yoga is for the physically active; knowledge-yoga is for the scholarly; meditation-yoga is for the mystical. The Sanskrit terms for these are karma-yoga, jnana-yoga and dhyana-yoga. The physical postures and breathing exercises taught as Yoga in many modern cities is a part of Dhyana-yoga.
Which yoga do you practise?
In the Bhagavad-gita the different forms of yoga are all described, compared and contrasted. Ultimately, Krishna sums everything up by describing a form of yoga that delivers the best results of all three. It is known as the ‘most secret of all secrets’ and ‘the perfection of yoga’ and is known as Bhakti-yoga. Bhakti means a life where the practitioner orients life so that the Absolute Truth is in the centre. A gradual awareness of one’s relationship with the supreme is achieved at the same time as self-realisation takes place. The liberated soul is one who has reawakened the original love of the soul and this journey culminates in a deep feeling of being loved in return This perfection of yogic practise is cultivated by the different aspects of mantra meditation, pure habits, study, ritual and personal disciplines Bhakti-yoga thus means linking with God through all actions, gradually leading on to an uninterrupted consciousness of Krishna, or God.
Does the soul have a form?
The soul has an eternal form and identity, and a relationship with Krishna, but in the conditioned state the soul forgets this identity. Sometimes it is said that the soul in this forgetful period is only present in a ‘seed form’ and as it progresses it regains its identity. Other saints have explained that the individual soul in this forgetful stage has none of its eternal characteristics, and that they must again be given by Krishna in response to the devotion of the soul.
What is the soul doing in this world?
Souls possess free will, and that means they can decide to love God or to turn away from Him. God never forces the souls to love Him, for to do so would nullify their free will and render the love null and void. It is a fact that the souls within this world are in a state of rebellion against God, having used their minute free will to reject His company. Becoming enamoured with this world, they are born again and again until they realise that their true home lies elsewhere.
What happens if you die and there’s actually nothing there?
In modern western philosophy, betting that God actually exists because it involves less risk is called Pascal’s Wager. The argument is named after the seventeenth century French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62) who said that every one of us is in fact betting that either God exists or that He doesn’t. He urges us to bet that He does, since if we do, and He does exist, it will lead to eternal life. We will have led a good life and only have lost a little income or perhaps some personal pleasure along the way. But if we use our life in denial of Him – in effect betting that He doesn’t exist – we may lose everything in the life after this .
For as far back as we can remember, philosophers, theologians, scientists and great thinkers have discussed and debated with a view to understanding the world in a more profound way. The sages of the East were no different. In the ancient body of literature known as the Vedas, they documented a spiritual understanding of the self, the universe and the deeper purpose of life. This is ‘Krishna Wisdom’ – essential principles that underpin universal reality.
The Krishna people talk of philosophy. What do you mean by philosophy?
Philosophy means ‘the love of knowledge’ and it’s a rational investigation of what’s true and what’s not. Philosophy is about solving problems and creating greater happiness through better principles of living. Something is philosophy when the thought process involves the removal of illusion or deception, and the discovery of a higher meaning of life. The word is often used to describe the search for an ideal way of relating to others, or of discovering an ultimate reality.
Surely practical action is more important than philosophy for solving the world’s problems?
You’re right that change in the world takes place because of action, especially when people join together in collective action. But even before action there must be a value system on which we base our opinions and choices of action. Life is given meaning when we decide what is most important to us. Philosophy is the search for what is the most important, and therefore the basis of any value system. When you know what you love, you can speak and act with conviction.
So is Hare Krishna a philosophy, a spiritual path, a religion or a movement?
I don’t want to confuse you, but it’s all of them. It is certainly a philosophy, because it contains a system of logical thought that analyses what knowledge actually is, the parameters of knowledge, how we ‘know’ something to be true or real, why we suffer and how we can experience a greater happiness, both individually and collectively. Philosophy leads to action and a sense of a goal to be reached through that action. Wherever you have both action and a goal, you have a path; and when the attainment of a spiritual goal is at the end, you have a spiritual path. When you join together with others to follow certain practises based on your common philosophical ideas you can describe that as a religion. And when that helps to bring about social change and an improvement in people’s lives you could describe it as a movement. So it’s a ‘yes’ to all of them.
I like the idea of a spiritual path, but I don’t like religion.
Religion without philosophy is just an unsubstantiated belief. It can easily descend into sentimentality or fanaticism. But philosophy without religion is mental speculation, and easily becomes dry intellectualism followed by inertia. You need both for balance. Religion needs an underpinning of rationalism, and philosophy needs to be expressed in ways that create happiness, morality, and an experience of a higher .
Isn’t Hare Krishna an eastern religion?
It depends where you live. The concept of ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ religions date back to British Empire times. Back in the 1880s the world adopted a system of measuring longitude based on the calculations made by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, near London. That meant that anything east of Greenwich became ‘East,’ and anything to the west of it became ‘West.’ As a consequence, China became the ‘Far East’ and Arabia became the ‘Middle East.’ The descriptions are purely notional – and based on the concept that London, at a notional zero degrees of longitude, is in the centre of the world. In China, for instance, Buddhism is known as a ‘western religion,’ since it came out of India, which is to the west of China. The world is a globe, so no-one owns the right to be called the centre of the world. True wisdom, like the sunshine, has no national, geographic or ethnic boundaries.
OK, but it’s a religion originally from India?
What we call India today was once known as Bharata, and its cultural influence once extended all the way from Persia through to Cambodia. Even in present day Greece and Russia, archaeologists are discovering artefacts dating back thousands of years to the Himalayan culture. India has seen the origins of many world religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. Some people even say that strands of ‘Hindu thought’ ended up in the writings of the Essenes, the community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls in what is now Israel. There was a lot of deep thinking in ancient India!
So if Buddha is the founder of Buddhism, who’s the founder of Hare Krishna?
Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna around 3,000 BC is one of the principal texts we follow. It’s known as the Bhagavad-gita, or ‘The Song of God.’ However, 5,000 years ago ‘Hare Krishna’ was already very old, since the same teachings go back thousands of years before that. The name for those teachings is The , which simply means ‘The Knowledge.’ Although many Himalayan sages preserved the knowledge by teaching it verbally to their disciples, who then taught it to their own disciples, and so on, it was eventually written down in the Sanskrit language by ‘the original guru’ whose name was Vyasa. He divided The Vedas into portions to make it easy for humanity to preserve.
Do you have to read teachings that are so old – can’t you read modern spiritual books?
Of course we can – writing about spirituality is not limited to ancient sages and prophets. There are many modern authors who write on spirituality. But almost all of them are drawing on the ancient wisdom for their inspiration, too. So why not begin with reading the spiritual classics? If people are still reading a book five thousand years after it was written, you could rightly conclude that it has passed the test of time, and that it contains perennial wisdom. Besides, the spiritual nature and experience of it is the same today as it ever was, so there’s really no such thing as ‘modern spirituality,’ only spirituality addressed to modern needs, in modern language.
So what is your main book – your Krishna Bible?
There’s more than one ‘Bible,’ actually, and they are all part of a vast library of ancient wisdom. The entire library is known as the Vedas, or ‘the knowledge,’ and the deeper, philosophical parts are known as the Upanishads. The word means ‘sit down closer.’ More than one hundred Upanishads contain a very pithy analysis of the difference between reality and illusion, and the Vedanta Sutra summarises and rearranges their essence into a logical sequence of arguments. The Bhagavad-gita is the record of a one-hour conversation between Krishna and His warrior friend and disciple Arjuna. It contains all the major concepts of the Upanishads in dialogue form and has been read by millions for thousands of years. Then there’s another book known as the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad Bhagavatam. It’s both an ancient history book and an exposition of many different levels of reality. In 18,000 verses it analyses matter and the quantum of consciousness known as the atma, or inner self and further explores the reality of an unlimited, eternal world beyond the limits of our perception.
What’s the difference between Hinduism and Hare Krishna?
Hinduism is a collective term for the religions of India. When early explorers got to the River Indus, the land on the other side of the water became known as Hindustan, and later, the people were called Hindus. And when the British got to India they placed the suffix ‘-ism’ onto the word Hindu forming the term Hindu-ism. But the word is not found at all in the ancient language of the country or in any sacred text. Hinduism is a relatively new term. It is certainly not one belief system; rather, it’s a word for a family of religions – thousands of them. All of them can be traced back to the Vedas. Just as all the branches of a large tree can be traced back to the trunk, so all branches of what the world now knows as Hinduism can be traced to these foundational texts.
What does ‘Hare Krishna’ mean?
Hare and Krishna (Hare is pronounced Huh-ray) are the first two words of a great mantra mentioned in the Vedas, and the mantra recited by Krishna people each day. It goes like this:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare
Krishna means ‘all attractive,’ and Hare means ‘the eternal energy.’ The other word is Rama (pronounced like ‘drama’) which means ‘supreme pleasure.’ A mantra is a sound formula with the potency to uplift and enlighten those who repeat it. The word is derived from mana (the mind) and trayate (to protect and free). The ultimate reality is described in the Vedas by many names, and Hare, Krishna and Rama are three of those names. When the first Americans and Europeans saw the devotees of Krishna in the 1960s they termed them the ‘Hare Krishna Movement’ or ‘The Hare Krishnas,’ and the name has stuck.
Why do you sing in public?
Because the mantra elevates the mind and allows anyone to tap into the natural, spiritual happiness that lies within them. So it’s good to share. Even if someone doesn’t understand the language of the mantra or its meaning, there’ll be a beneficial spiritual effect. When a mantra is recited softly it benefits only the person who’s repeating it, but when the mantra is said out loud it can benefit anyone who hears it. If the mantra is sung to a melody then the recitation is known as kirtan, and when sung in a public place, the mantra singing becomes sankirtan. Musical kirtan is an enjoyable way to meditate – even in the middle of a busy street!
What is a mantra, and how does it work?
Nowadays the word mantra has been borrowed by journalists to describe any repetitive slogan or phrase. They sometimes talk of a politician’s ‘mantra,’ meaning a much repeated claim on the campaign trail. But it’s not just any word that can be a mantra. A mantra is an authentic word or phrase taken only from the Vedas It has intrinsic spiritual power, and when employed correctly, at a time of deep meditation or prayer, will have the desired effect. The repetition of the mantra calms and quietens the mind, sets it free from unhelpful cycles of desire and aversion, and focuses it on transcendence. Through mantra meditation we rediscover our authentic self deep within the heart, and experience an awakening to joyful inner happiness. The fact that mantras work can be validated by the many thousands who chant them each morning. Genuine mantras are given freely, but come with a set of guidelines so that the maximum effect can be gained.
Don’t you just zone out when you chant mantras so much?
Not at all. There are so many ways to ‘zone out’ but meditation isn’t one of them. With digital technology, the opportunities for placing the mind in a semi-stupefied state have greatly increased. Virtual reality of different kinds has only resulted in a lack of clarity. The mind is made to oscillate between hankering for something in the future and lamenting for something lost in the past. Very rarely are we in the present reality. As a result, many people spend hours each day in unhelpful states of mental confusion. For people on a spiritual path, the present moment is extremely important since that is substantial. Mantra meditation places you in that present moment, and then transports you to a timeless state where the mind can be fully refreshed and enlivened. So actually, mantra meditation is a ‘zoning in.’
Is Hare Krishna a cult?
The definition of a religious cult – at least the modern, pejorative definition – is an organisation with dangerous, invented beliefs; where leadership is consolidated in one charismatic person who is not responsible to anyone else; where the members are not allowed any personal freedom; and where there is a teaching of ‘the end of the world.’ Our community, by contrast, has standard beliefs and practices that have stood the test of thousands of years, and that don’t include any ‘end of the world’ ideas. There’s a wide, varied and supervised leadership, and the community has a largely independent membership. While newcomers to the tradition may not be familiar with it, the Hare Krishna movement is the newest st, global manifestation of the oldest spiritual path.
Don’t you lose your individuality by becoming a Hare Krishna?
That’s a question we used to be asked thirty years ago when almost all of our members lived in communities – sometimes in the same house – and wore the same clothing. The success of the movement has meant that we have multiplied in number many times and the diversity in the lives of our membership has broadened as a consequence. These days, you would be hard-pressed to know who was a devotee of Krishna just by looking at them. Although the philosophy and theology of the movement are common to all, there is a striking variety of ethical and political opinions expressed by our members.
What are your basic teachings?
In a very small nutshell they are as follows: The soul is spirit and the body is matter. The body is a vehicle for the soul. The body is temporary but the soul endures. The soul is never born and never dies. It is unchanging, primeval and a spiritual spark of life within the body. The soul is conscious and blissful by nature. When the soul identifies with matter it mistakenly imagines that the body is the self. In its original state the soul is unlimitedly happy, but when it forgets its divine nature it struggles to achieve even temporary pleasure. The soul is looking for the happiness it once had but in the wrong place. Just as the sunshine comes from the Sun, so the souls emanate from the supreme source. That ultimate reality is known in the Vedas as Brahman, Narayana or Krishna. That Godhead is not merely an impersonal energy, but the energetic source of all existence. The souls are infinite and dependant on Godhead, just as the rays depend on the Sun. God has attributes such as a form and beauty. God has compassion and love. ll souls emanate from the Supreme Being and share his loving nature, as sparks emanating from a fire share, in a very small degree, the fire’s heat and light. Some souls leave their relationship with the Supreme to experience life apart in the world of matter. Over countless births, layers of psychic conditioning cover their remembrance of their original nature and the hearts of these forgetful or ‘conditioned’ souls grow hard. By hearing the spiritual messages such as in the Bhagavad-gita, and applying them in their lives, the hearts of those souls will once again become soft and they will return to their original home with the Supreme.
Isn’t the Supreme Being you speak of more of a spiritual oneness we merge into?
A great sage once said that ‘when a green bird flies into a green tree it may look as if it has disappeared, but it remains an individual bird.’ The idea of merging into a divine substance is a popular idea. Individuality seems to come along with anxiety and pain, and things don’t improve when we share our lives with others – relationships can be a major cause of disappointment. So when we think of existential freedom, the idea of a divine white light seems immediately attractive. But freedom from problems isn’t the highest happiness, it’s merely a negation. Real spiritual positivity lies in discovering our true spiritual individuality and enjoying it, and that can be best done by experiencing the bliss of our original relationship with the Supreme.
Buddhism speaks of a nirvana, an extinction of all desire and consequently the illusion of individuality. What do you say to that?
The Sanskrit term nirvana first appears in the Vedic literature, which pre-date Buddhism, so its meaning was originally something slightly different. Vana means ‘wind’ as in being pushed around on a gusty day, or of waves on the sea. Nir means a cessation of, so nir-vana means ‘no more wind.’ The word is used to describe the freedom from being pushed around by the winds of selfish desire and rebirth in material existence. But it is grammatically negative and, by itself, the word does not signify a positive state beyond the vana. So in the Bhagavad-gita, where the word appears five times, it is prefaced by the word Brahma, a supremely positive word meaning the absolute platform of spirit. Krishna explains that brahma-nirvana means not an impersonal absolute but a mystical union of the soul in devotion, where both God and the individual soul retain their individuality.
What we eat not just satisfies us, but becomes part of us. As the saying goes “You are what you eat”. Diet has a big part to play in a spiritual practice, as it not just affects how we look, but even how we think. Having the right diet can improve our ability to make decisions and even empower us to do better in meditation and other spiritual practices.
Why are you vegetarian?
There are so many reasons! Where should we begin? Firstly, we practise ahimsa or non-violence, so we don’t kill animals for food – and neither do we pay others to do it for us, such as butchers or fast-food chains. Eating meat is both cruel and unnecessary. There is no good reason to eat animals for food; there are so many other sources of protein and minerals. Good old-fashioned rice and dahl, for instance, when mixed together, can provide all the essential amino acids that make up protein in your body. The meat industry is responsible for wastage of precious land, water, transport fuel, and produces more greenhouse gases – something we can all do without. The main reason for devotees is that we only eat food that has been offered first to Krishna – prasadam – and Krishna does not want to eat dead bodies.
I don’t eat beef anyway. Isn’t that good?
Well done, you are to be congratulated. However, sheep, goats, chickens and fish are all equally sentient creatures that feel pain. We have no right to take their life since we didn’t create that life. By taking part in an industry of mass-slaughter we create a dark future for ourselves, since every animal we kill – or pay for someone to kill for us – will result in sinful reactions that must be endured by us at some time in the future.
You’re still killing plants when you’re vegetarian, no?
Yes, killing is required with vegetables although not with fruits. Since life is sustained by life, and we must continue to live, we must take life from something. But in doing so, we must choose foods that involve the least amount of pain as possible. Plants are much less sentient than an animal with a spinal cord. In addition, plants can be offered to Krishna.
Why do you not eat eggs?
Eggs are a product of the menstrual cycle of the chicken. Whether they are fertilised or unfertilised, we do not eat them because they are not considered to be clean. They are also produced by chickens kept in cramped conditions where they have no freedom or light.
What’s so bad about onions and garlic?
Onions and garlic are certainly neither animals nor the products of menstruation but there is a third reason why we do not eat them. These two vegetables, although tasty for some tongues, contain oils that are not conducive to maintaining a fixed level of meditation. They make the mind wander – even when you are trying to fix it on one point. Consequently, anyone who has a job of concentration to do would do well to avoid them.
What’s wrong with mushrooms?
If you pick them yourself – and you make sure you’re picking the non-poisonous variety – there is no harm, although fungi are also considered to be in the food group that tend to cloud the mind and reduce the capability of clear thought. In addition, many mushrooms are commercially produced in soil made from chicken droppings. They are hardly something to offer to Krishna.
And what about alcohol – not even at weddings or celebrations?
There was a time when no-one at an Indian wedding would even have dreamed of drinking alcohol. It wasn’t considered necessary for having a good time. Now all types of alcohol are widely available and served at functions, and being a non-drinker is considered something unusual. Just in one generation! Alcohol is always bad news and regularly wrecks families, destroys livers, and causes addictive behaviour resulting in loss of promotions and a successful career. Just make a promise to your children to avoid it and see what a difference it makes.
Someone told me you don’t drink tea and coffee?
That someone was correct! Although they are only mild intoxicants, they are unhelpful to the system, over-stimulate the brain, produce an acidic after-effect which is the foundation of disease, and their over-cultivation in some countries destroys the fine balance of agriculture leading to food deprivation. And they’re expensive, too.
Please don’t tell me that I can’t even eat chillies!
Alright, I won’t. But I will tell you that over-consumption of chillies inflames the stomach and the blood circulation; leads to inattention and enhances the raja-guna – the passions – making you irritable and anxious at work and with your family. But I didn’t say you couldn’t eat them.
Why do you drink cow’s milk if you don’t eat beef?
Milk can give us all the ingredients of meat without ever having to harm the cow. We believe in a mutually helpful relationship between humans and cows. The bulls plough the fields and provide transport, and the cows provide milk which can be made into yogurt, butter and ghee. In return, humans can protect cows as they would their other pets. Milk is a wonder food with all health-giving properties.
But most cows are factory-farmed and their calves killed. Why do you use commercial dairy milk if it’s the product of such cruelty?
You are right about factory-farming and milk bought from the supermarket. Our response has been to create our own farms where our cows can live out their lives without any cruelty. Such milk is ahimsa, or non-violent. Of course, this way of caring for cows cannot be undertaken by everyone, but we would like to see it more widespread. We do produce some ahimsa milk for sale, but not enough that everyone can choose to have it. So some of our members have decided to avoid commercial milk altogether; others offer milk to Krishna in the understanding that both the giver and receiver of the milk will be purified by this devotional offering.
What’s your message to the world?
For us, human life is all about gradually waking up to our spiritual nature and working towards spiritual freedom. Everything else should serve that end. When spiritual needs are given priority, everything else can be achieved: peace, food, water, prosperity, education. We can all help each other towards that. We need to work on our compassion and respect for others. To do that we need to know that happiness can’t be gained from an incessant march towards greater levels of materialism. Without that basic understanding we’ll compete with others for limited resources, over-indulge at the expense of other communities, and eventually fight with them. To overcome this tendency takes yagya – the spirit of sacrifice. Our message is that much of this can be accomplished if we join together in kirtan, the joyful singing of mantras. We humbly ask everyone: “Please chant Hare Krishna and be happy.” So self realisation, spiritual freedom, compassion, respect, personal restraint, sacrifice, and singing together – those are a few values we believe in, and that is our message to the world.
What would you change, if you could?
One of our principles is ‘simple living, high thinking.’ It’s based on the idea that when you simplify your basic needs you’ll find the time for more important activities. There is much about modern life that is unnecessarily complex. Finding somewhere to live has been made needlessly hard with planning and building restrictions and the ‘housing market,’ for example. Working at what you love is becoming difficult, and education often means training for a career that may not exist in a few years. Even eating has now been made dependent on factories and vast transportation networks. We believe that we’ve gone quite far enough with social complexity. The petrol-driven, industrialised society is now dangerously short term. There are many practical and spiritual benefits if we can simplify our approach to basic essentials. Food can be grown locally and transported a minimal distance only. Smaller towns and villages can become the norm, and the growth of overcrowded, polluted cities can be reduced. Our animal-based diet and level of consumption is cruel and unsustainable, and a plant-based diet is much healthier. We’d keep food real, and do away with all the unnatural flavourings and additives, the fats and sugars, that make us all unhealthy. That would save money for our hospitals. A shift from sedentary, machine-based occupations to ones where we use our innate propensities and skills would keep us all happily engaged and rewarded.
People often judge others at first sight. Is it at all favourable to dress different? Does appearance have anything to do with one’s spiritual practice? Well, just like you wouldn’t wear boxer shorts to work even though it does not affect your ability to work, it does affect your relationships with other colleagues around you. A spiritual appearance not just helps you bond well with other practicing spiritualists – which is one of the most important necessities of sustenance, but also helps you maintain a steady practice and consciousness. It can also open up a world of opportunities for you to spread the word!
Why do you wear the robes?
Some male devotees wear the traditional robe, known as a dhoti. It’s one piece of cloth, five metres long, cotton or silk, sometimes jute, and can be folded in different ways. It’s worn for simplicity – both in the production of the garment and the wearing of it. It’s warmer than it looks, and comfortable, too. There’s a matching shawl known as a chaddar. A thicker shawl made of wool is often worn on cooler days. The thigh-length shirt is known as a kurta.
So do you have to be a priest to wear a dhoti?
No, anyone can wear one. Those who live in the temple as monks, and the men who serve as priests on the main altar wear them, and it’s also worn in the home at times of private worship.
What is the meaning behind the haircut the men have?
The lock of hair is known as the sikha. This translates as ‘summit’ or sometimes ‘flag,’ like the top of a temple dome with the flag flying. Shaving the head is said to reduce vanity, and the sikha reminds the wearer that his own body is itself a type of temple. The monks wear their hair like that, and some of our other members like to wear it too. The sikha is a requirement for conducting all types of sacred ritual.
Why do you have that mark on your forehead?
The mark is known as tilak or pundra, and it’s made of a kind of yellow clay known as gopi-chandan. The twin lines on the forehead are said to depict the outline of Krishna’s foot, and the mark on the nose represents a leaf of the sacred Tulasi tree. In India there are many different varieties of pundra, each revealing the religious community of the wearer. Tilak markings are another way the devotee is reminded that the body belongs to Krishna.
What do women wear?
Many women like to wear the traditional saree, a patterned cloth of some six metres in length – sometimes even longer. These come in all colours and designs, and are available in all types of fabric. Perhaps it’s slightly easier for a woman to wear a saree than for a man to wear a dhoti! But again, the main point is to dress in what you feel is appropriate for a sacred space.
Some people wear orange. What does that mean?
Those are the monks. After a period of preparation, some men, usually younger, opt to live a simple life of discipline including celibacy. They practise their spiritual life as a religious community, and they can often be seen working hard around the temple, performing worship on the main altar, or teaching classes.
Can monks get married?
Yes, this form of celibate life comes with the option of getting married if that becomes more suitable. In that case the devotee goes from the life of the brahmacari, or monk, to the married life of the grihasta.
Why do women have to cover their hair?
They are not obliged to, but it is customary in many traditional cultures for women to cover their most attractive features when in the presence of monks. Some women tie back their hair, and others choose to cover it with the end of their saree or a scarf. It is not a rule, however, merely an optional and additional observance.
You said that orange means a monk, what does white mean?
White is simply the colour of bleached cotton. It has no other significance. Many married men wear white, but they are not restricted from wearing any other colour they choose. Single men who are new students in the community also wear white.
There is a notion that belief in God is intellectually immature or philosophically naïve, and that what we call religion is nothing more than the enactment of ritual and mythology. Faith in a transcendent reality is routinely challenged by those who claim that God is no longer relevant. The market has become flooded with elaborately worded and stylishly packaged books propounding the death of religion. Such propositions have entered mainstream culture without much robust challenge heavily influencing the unassuming and trusting layman.
Spirituality, the Vedic teachers remind us, has an entirely logical and scientific basis. Whereas some spiritual paths culminate in faith, Bhagavad-gita explains that faith is only the beginning of one’s journey to Krishna. As one undertakes spiritual practices with enthusiasm, patience and determination, we can begin to directly perceive the spiritual reality. From the hypothesis we undertake the experiment, and eventually we arrive at an observation and conclusion.”
You mentioned Krishna or God – do I need to believe in God to do yoga?
‘God’ is an old English word coming from a German word Gute, meaning ‘that which is good.’ Ultimately it comes from the Sanskrit word Huta, which means ‘to whom we offer.’ Usually, when we say the word ‘God’ the image of the aged man with a white beard appears in our mind. That’s an artistic image but not a concept that stands up to philosophical discussion. God is infinite and eternal, the controller of everything, and both the transcendent and the indwelling witness within us. God is the entirety of all existence, the origin of all but one who has no other origin. There are many names of God, in all the languages of the world, but ultimately God is one. Real religion, the process that helps us to be improved versions of ourselves, is not man-made but comes from the ultimate Source. So yoga and the concept of an ultimate personal God have always been intrinsically related. The author of the ancient yoga text Yoga Sutra, sage Patanjali Muni, says emphatically that the culmination of the yoga path is Ishvara-pranidhan or ‘surrender to God.’ Yoga actually means ‘union with God.’
But why do I ultimately need a religion? Can I not just be a good person?
Theoretically you don’t need a religion. You can be a good person without religion. But how would you know what is good and what is bad? You would have to sit with others and come to a joint decision as to what is good and bad. And this might change from one year to the next, as we often see. The result is that both good and bad become arbitrary values. It is hard to derive lasting virtues from endless discussions. The net result is that both virtue and vice become meaningless terms. That is why most cultures derive their understanding of ethics and morals from a scripture that is either God-given or God-inspired. Even if there is no such thing as God, there is a great value in religious scripture because the moral principles contained within it have endured within human society and have been proved of great value to millions of people, generation after generation. And once you agree to share common values with others, and strive together to follow them, you have a religion of sorts, even though you wanted to avoid it.
In your opinion, what should everyone be striving for?
According to the Vedas, the goals of a progressive and civilised life are to follow moral and ethical principles (dharma), to work according to one’s occupational duties in order to secure everything necessary to health and happiness (artha), to enjoy the legitimate pleasures which flow from these (kama), and to move towards spiritual emancipation (moksha). The Puranas state that further than this, everything should be done in a spirit of service to God. When human beings fail to do this life is ‘simply a waste of time.
How can we know that God exists?
You can be convinced intellectually by studying the logical arguments given to explain His existence, but these in themselves are not proof. You won’t know for sure. You could be swayed by the attractive emotional features of a religious path, or be moved by the sentiments expressed by others, or the good works generated by those who say they believe in God. But you still won’t know for sure. The only real way is through your direct experience. Ultimately, it is only when you have direct experience of God that you can say that you ‘know.’ But along the way, you can feel your progress and receive assurance from Him that you are on the right path.
But if God exists, why doesn’t He just show Himself to everyone?
He is already showing Himself to you – but you need help to see Him. Don’t be surprised if you can’t see everything with your two eyes. For example, your brain exists – but you’ve never seen it. You have faith that it’s there, but you can’t actually prove it. The MRI machine at your local hospital can show it to you, of course, but with your unaided eyes you can’t prove that your own brain exists. So it’s more a question of your ability to see God rather than His willingness to show Himself.
It would solve the question if He showed Himself to us though, wouldn’t it?
The Queen exists, doesn’t she? But she reserves the right to show herself to whoever she pleases. You’ll need an invitation and an appointment to go and see her – you can’t just turn up and expect to see her. Similarly, the Upanishads state that: “The Supreme Reality reveals Himself to whom He .”
Why does God only show himself to a select few?
He shows himself to everyone. No-one gets left out. God doesn’t have any chosen people or favourite tribes or countries. There’s no race or ethnicity that is specially blessed, and no particular religion, either. God is not a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain or Buddhist. He has no religion himself, but is always ready to give himself completely to whoever is interested, no matter who they are. In the Bhagavad-gita it is described that everyone – all souls – are on exactly the same spiritual path. The difference is in how much they choose to show themselves to God. It is not God that is not ready to show himself, but we ourselves.
Isn’t religion just a psychological crutch?
If you mean to ask: ‘isn’t religion just a product of the human mind and God a product of human hopefulness, an idea to help us when we feel weak,’ then the answer is no. When you feel hungry, you’re not imagining it; you are actually hungry. When you eat, you are not using a ‘psychological crutch,’ – you’re doing the right thing. It isn’t your imagination that creates your hunger – you actually do need to eat! Similarly, when we feel hungry for spiritual nourishment we reach out for spiritual food. It is an entirely legitimate need – because spiritual nourishment is real food for the soul. The proof of this is that when we have this in our life we feel our spiritual hunger disappear, we enjoy spiritual feelings, and we become spiritually nourished. So although traditional religion may not be enjoying popularity, people still have spiritual needs. They become ‘spiritual’ instead of ‘religious’, and may choose to refer to themselves as ‘spiritual seekers,’ but they still have the same aspirations.
Can’t I just be spiritual and not religious?
It is a phenomenon of our times. Over the last fifty years we’ve all become quite fatigued with the systems and structures of conventional religion. We point at religion as lacking in solid scientific foundation, as being the root cause of problems between communities; and as a product of a pre-modern world. We have concluded that we can now do without it, so we don’t bring our children up with religious education – even in schools it is fading away – and attendance at places of worship are at an all-time low. But people are still drawn to spirituality. They read many books about it and take courses, go on retreats, form friendships with others and meet up regularly. Yoga is enjoying popularity as never before, and teachings such as the Bhagavad-gita are known by millions. So although people say they are not ‘religion-seekers’ they still have such a hunger for the same thing in new forms. So if you’d rather think of yourself as a ‘spiritual-seeker’ that’s fine. Don’t let the labels prevent you from moving forwards.
But wait, aren’t we all striving to experience our own divine nature? Aren’t we all God, in essence?
In quality yes, we are; in quantity no. We are eternal, never born and always existing; God is eternal, never born and always existing. So we share these important spiritual qualities. But we are spiritual sparks whereas God is the great fire. The sparks radiate from the fire, not the fire from the sparks. God is completely independent whereas our existence is dependent on His existence. A gold ring and a gold mine are the same in quality, namely pure gold; but they are hugely different in quantity – and the ring comes from the mine!
God is often a very debated topic. Even though atheists don’t believe in God, yet they dedicate their entire life in discussing the topic itself. Amongst various traditions and cultures, Krishna is also one of the most debatable. Thinking from a logical perspective, one would expect God to be an example and be the most moral and saintly character and be an inspiration for all followers. Krishna however seems to do just the opposite! Is this a sign that someone got it wrong? Or is there a very deep meaning that we don’t understand unless we expand our boundaries?
Was Krishna human?
No. A human being is a spirit soul inside a material body. Krishna’s body is spiritual, not material. Our body is made of material bones, muscles and blood but the soul inside is spiritual. Our body and soul are completely different – one made of matter and the other spirit. Krishna’s body is all spirit – all the way through. His body and soul is one and the same thing. Our body is born, lasts for 70-80 years, and then it disintegrates. That’s because every material thing is a temporary combination of molecules and perpetually in a state of flux. It comes into being, remains for some time, and then disappears. Krishna’s form always remains the same. It never becomes old and never changes. It is eternal. So Krishna is eternally in that form of Krishna, whether on the Earth 5,000 years ago, today, or 5,000 years in the future. Those who think that He is like them don’t understand Him, He says, because they imagine Him to be a mere human being with a body of flesh like theirs.
But Krishna has a human shape – doesn’t that mean that someone has imagined Him?
It’s the other way round. We have a Krishna shape. Krishna isn’t a creation of human beings who imagine a God shaped like them. Humans are a creation of a God shaped like Krishna. Imagining God to be like a human being is called Anthropo-morphism; understanding that we are shaped like God is called Theo-morphism – two very different ideas. Many people think that humans create God with their imagination, but it’s the other way round – God creates us with His.
How do we really know what Krishna looks like?
So many people saw Krishna while He was on this planet for more than one hundred years. There were millions of eye witnesses. Images of Him were drawn and painted, and realistic sculptures created. These were later installed in temples. Other than this, there was poetry written and detailed descriptions of the measurements of His divine form. These were compiled and the measurements are still in use by members of the shilpi community, those who carve images from marble or mould them from bronze. But Krishna Himself has revealed His form and nature to sages and saints even before He appeared in this world. So the main way we know is by studying all the descriptions that appear in scriptures such as the Srimad Bhagavatam and Brahma Samhita. In the pages of those texts there many detailed descriptions
There are many different religions in the world. Why do you say they all worship Krishna?
Everyone who acknowledges the existence of God and worships Him actually worships Krishna, but some don’t know Him by that name and form. When we say ‘God’ we mean the origin of creation, the all-pervading, supremely sentient, most powerful, beautiful, all-knowing and attractive person. By definition there can only be one God because there can only be one origin of everything, one supreme source. Since everyone, by whatever name they call God, is indicating the same person, everyone actually worships Krishna. In the Bhagavad-gita, the Lord says that everyone is on the same path towards Him, but as they surrender to Him, He reveals Himself accordingly. Knowing that ‘God is great’ is one thing, knowing Him in truth is more, but serving Him with devotion is better. Those who abandon all selfish interest get to understand Krishna as He is.
But some religious people think of God as a ‘mystery’ or a ‘divine white light.’ Are they wrong?
No, they are also right, but if there is beauty, love, compassion, form and personality here in this world, and if God is the origin of all of that, then surely these attributes must be present in Him. The rays of the Sun are made up of heat and light, so the Sun itself must have heat and light. The closer you get towards the Sun, the more heat and light you get. So the closer you get to God, the more you experience the divine attributes. If you say that God is a ‘mystery’ it means that you don’t know, and if you say that God is a ‘divine white light’ it means that you’ve begun the journey towards Him. The divine white light is merely the preliminary stage of God-realisation – the sunshine of the absolute sun. As you progress towards Krishna His personality is revealed.
Don’t all religions take you to the same place?
Although everyone is on the same path, it may take many lifetimes for a person to become completely free from selfish desires. Along the way, he may attain to the divine white light and spend thousands of years there before taking birth again. Or he may worship other powerful celestial beings, the demigods, and spend thousands of years with them before coming back down to this world. Taking birth in a rich family, he may become distracted by wealth and beauty. All of these obstacles delay a soul from finding its ultimate resting place. Some religions proclaim that their particular vision of heaven is the ultimate resting place of the soul, and their followers consequently strive for nothing more than this. That’s why rational philosophy is required before making a choice of religion.
If Krishna is a God of love, why does He send people to Hell?
For the same reason that a government might send someone to prison: to safeguard the good people and to reform the wayward people. A prison is intended to be a place of reform, where people learn the error of their ways, so Hell is also a place of learning lessons about your previous karmas. Hell is not permanent; it’s a short chapter in the otherwise long book of life. Once the soul has been reformed in Hell, he returns to the world to start again with a renewed perspective on life.
Why is Krishna blue?
Krishna has no cause. He is the cause of all causes. So there is no ‘why’ for anything that He is. Everything He is, and everything He does is perfect and complete – and if we adjust our perception to the reality of Krishna we can directly become attracted to Him and rapidly make progress on our spiritual journey.
If Krishna is God, why is He immoral in His behaviour?
Yes, you would rightly expect that the God who is the origin of moral principles would follow them Himself! During His time on Earth, Krishna performed many compassionate deeds such as protecting His devotees and subduing demons. But He also stole butter and the clothing of maidens while they were bathing, and He danced with girls in the moonlight! But we would be wrong to conclude from this that Krishna is immoral, or that He is a hypocrite, asking us to follow rules that He doesn’t follow. The nature of the soul is infinitesimal and the nature of God is infinite. His position is eternal and unchanging, while our position has changed. We imagine ourselves to be God and, trapped inside temporary bodies, attempt to recreate the eternal enjoyment of God in a world of decomposing matter. Krishna, or God, is the supreme enjoyer and we, the souls, are the enjoyed. Our attempt to change the parameters of this primeval relationship has been a failure. In order to regain our original position we have to accommodate a new set of realities. God does not have to conform to the morality He requires of us; neither does He need to demonstrate it for our upliftment. Krishna is unchanging – and we are the ones who are required to change.
Krishna asks everyone to bow down to Him – that doesn’t seem to be humble.
It may seem as if Krishna is a supreme egotist, demanding our offerings, our meditation on Him and His name, and asking us to engage in conversations about Him – even to bow down to Him. We would not tolerate any human being making these demands of us, we should declare them to be a dictator – why then should we accede to Krishna’s requests? That would be a good question if Krishna was just another human being, or an historical or imaginary figure. The surprising truth is that He is none of these. Krishna is, in fact, the only person qualified to ask us to do these things, and He asks not for Himself but for us. Krishna doesn’t need our bowing down, or food, or conversation, or the recitation of His name. Krishna only asks us to do anything at all because He is infinitely kind, and wants us to be completely free to be with Him and enjoy ourselves eternally. In order to qualify ourselves, we must train our self-centred consciousness to the level of liberated God consciousness. And when we do that we’ll find that Krishna is not an egotist but our best friend.
I’ve heard we all have a specific relationship, or rasa, with Krishna. How can I know what rasa I have with Krishna?
Everything comes in its own time, through the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. Although the maha-mantra is the mantra given to beginners on the path of bhakti, you should not think that it won’t take you all the way to the highest perfection. That is why it is known as the ‘Great Mantra,’ and it is a mantra for the most spiritually advanced saints. In it Krishna has invested all potencies. If you chant diligently, avoiding any offenses and bad habits, all possible results will come to you, step by step. At a certain point in your life an intense pleasure will come as you chant. You won’t even be able to imagine not chanting. After that, you will hear the sounds of the spiritual world. Then the features and activities of Krishna will become visible to you, along with your particular service to one of His eternal devotees. In this way, your relationship with the Lord is gradually revealed. There is no need for any additional training or mantras.
Has anyone seen God?
Of course, there are so many who have seen God. Throughout history great persons such as Prahlada and Dhruva, Suka and Vyasa have all seen the face of God. Their careful directions reveal how they got to have their transcendental visions – and how we can, too. Such visions are not the result of sentimentality or imagination, but the result of philosophical discrimination, disciplined eating, sleeping, breathing, rigorous discipline of the mind and unalloyed devotional service. To see God means to take complete shelter of Him, understanding that He is your maintainer and protector. It entails doing all things that please Him and nothing that displeases Him; dedicating your very soul to His service. This is known as saranagati, or the path of attaining divine grace.
Why do you worship the guru like you worship God?
In our temple you will also see a sacred statue, or murti, of the spiritual teacher or guru of the devotees of Krishna. Our spiritual master’s full name is His Divine Grace Abhay Caranaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada or Srila Prabhupada for short. We do not worship him as God, but as the servant of God. The pure devotee is dear to Krishna, having completely surrendered to Him, and through his blessings we can come closer to Krishna. He is always with Krishna, and serves Him eternally. Just as we might pray to Krishna, so we also pray to the pure devotee of Krishna. Each morning, lamps, incense and flowers are also offered to him, part of a daily ceremony known as guru puja.
Practicing a spiritual lifestyle is one thing, but dealing with current affairs in a spiritual way is another. Sometimes the question is asked that although it must have been OK to practice spirituality in bygone ages, it may be pretty irrelevant now. After all, we have advanced quite a bit. Furthermore, it may just create complications. There are issues existing now that are not discussed in ancient wisdom books as they did not exist then. Can we extrapolate the principles to provide an answer, or are there deeper principles in there that we can turn to for advice?
Is the Gita a book of peace or violence?
Neither. It is the record of an enlightening, hour-long conversation between Krishna and His warrior friend Arjuna on the battlefield. Krishna urges His friend to fight the upcoming battle, reasoning that it is a legitimate fight and that it is his duty as a soldier to do so. But the inner revelation of the Bhagavad-gita is that whatever one does, if it is done purely for the satisfaction of God, at His request, then the actions taken are free from any question of immorality. Neither a self-serving peace nor a selfish violence are the subjects of the Gita.
Does Krishna promote the caste system?
What we call the ‘caste-system’ is more or less a debilitated version of the original varna-ashram social system described by Krishna. The modern form has not worked properly for a long time, and has given rise to much human suffering. Originally, it was meant to accommodate the psycho-physical propensity of every human being in work that was conducive to personal progress; in work that was peaceful and beneficial to all other members of society. Varna indicates the work-orientation and skill-set of a person, across all types of labour and profession. Ashram indicates the life-stage and commensurate duties, from youth to retired life. The ‘system’ is simply the way in which humans of all types can most beneficially work in cooperation with one another to advance the whole of society.
Isn’t it better to help people instead of practicing religion?
Helping others is important and is the duty of all human beings. For many different reasons people suffer – from poverty, abuse, war and disease – and it is in everyone’s interest to help wherever possible. Helping others relieves suffering, develops our compassion and contributes to a peaceful society. It also helps our destination after this life ends. A life devoted to helping others means that we will be re-born in fortunate circumstances – or even attain heaven. Unfortunately, any promotion to the heavenly regions, or birth in a fortunate family in the next life, is still only temporary. Sadly, the relief of suffering we can provide in this world is also temporary. The soul is eternal, and only when we become reunited with God, in the eternal abode, will we or anyone else be free from suffering. Devotional service to Krishna is therefore the all-encompassing activity that will result in helping people in all conditions, in this life and the next.
In Hare Krishna do the men look down on women?
Not at all, in fact the Vedic scriptures are very direct in describing how women are to be respected by men, especially by men on a spiritual path. The following is taken from the Lakshmi Tantra, chapter 43. The goddess Lakshmi is speaking:
“A man of piety, free from sin, consistently adhering to the precepts of the sacred scriptures, performs those deeds that are not condemned by women and that please them. A yogi should never abuse a woman, either in deed, speech or thought. He who abuses women, abuses me, He who abuses me abuses the entire three worlds. Knowing women as my direct manifestation, how can a yogi refrain from revering them? One should never hurt women, and should never even think of wronging women. A yogi who wishes to attain the fulfilment of yoga should always act to please women. He should regard all women as mothers, as goddesses, as my very self.”
Why does God allow evil?
For the same reason that He allows gravity. The natural force of gravity is neither good nor bad, but you must understand it and be respectful of it, otherwise it can harm you. There are invisible laws of nature that must also be understood in order to protect ourselves from present and future harm. Just as a child may not know the rules of driving on the road, but may learn them as she grows up, so we must enquire as to what are the rules of ‘driving’ our own biological vehicle, the human body. There are good and bad deeds and the reactions to these will come to us in the life after this one. Just as there is a consequence when we throw a stone high in the air, there is a result for every action we throw out into this world. We need to learn the laws and obey them. When we disobey God’s laws and act against them, that is the path to greater evil. Just as we immediately see a shadow when we turn away from the Sun, so we immediately see darkness and may commit evil actions when turn away from God.
Is blood donation OK? What do you say about organ donation?
Yes. Blood donation is a great act of charity that may allow someone else to heal, or to survive an accident or operation. Organ donation is in the same category. Since we do not believe in resurrection of the body, our beliefs do not require that the entire body be buried as in the Abrahamic faiths. Therefore, the arrangement of donating one’s organs after death is a final act of charity enabling someone else’s life to be enhanced.
Do I get the karma if they commit sins with my organs?
No. No more than you would be charged with burglary if a burglar stole your car and used it one night.
Can I have medicines with alcohol or gelatine capsules?
There are often medicines available which do not come in a tincture of alcohol. It is best to use these if you can. Although you are using alcohol for medicinal use, there can always be room for unscrupulous use at some stage. It does happen. Regarding gelatine capsules, these are directly made from the results of animal slaughter so it is best to avoid them if you possibly can. There are many vegetarian capsules that can be taken as an alternative. Try always to find the ahimsa or non-violent alternative if you can. If it is not available, the more people ask, the more manufacturers will respond to customer demands. That’s the way the market works.
Are leather and animal products OK if I’m a vegetarian?
Not really. They are the products of extreme violence, mainly towards cows, and if you can avoid them please do it. Leather shoes and leather sofas are the two most common items found in the homes of otherwise strict Hindu vegetarians. There are always alternatives if we look a little harder and try to avoid the hidden violence in everything we buy. We don’t eat beef, and we call the cow our mother, so why do we wear her skin on our feet and sit on her skin in our homes? It is not logical and it is not free from karmic reaction.
What do you think of racism?
Our philosophy teaches that there are numberless souls, each unique but spiritually identical. Each soul lives inside a body with different characteristics. Like passengers inside different vehicles. Just as some of us have small or large cars, trucks or vans, coloured ones or metallic ones, new models or old bangers, English, German or Japanese ones, so we also have biological ‘vehicles’ or different types. If someone forgets they are the driver of a car and instead starts thinking they are that car, telling friends: “You know, I’m actually a Honda,” their friends would think they’d temporarily lost touch with reality.
Similarly, if someone says, “I am a young black man,” or “I’m an old Japanese woman,” they have also lost touch with the actual reality of their situation. The only real identity is: “I am a soul, and this body I’m in is temporary.” Thinking of oneself as belonging to a particular ethnicity, tribe or nationality is therefore an unhelpful designation. Either it is falsely imposed by others, or we impose it on ourselves. Whatever the situation, it is a case of wrongful labelling. Racism is where this mistaken identity is further compounded by negative discrimination directed towards someone because of those external labels. It produces only tension and conflict.
So how would you solve the problem of racism?
Although the reality is that everyone is eternal in nature and spiritual in identity, only a few can remember this at all times. The majority of people will identify very closely with their race. They will then join others to form collective identities such as community, tribe, nationality and religion. The culture of the Vedas describes that these temporary bodily and mental designations – which most people experience as real – can be best accommodated in a social system that fosters affinity between people of like temperament. Physical and psychological propensities, and their subsequent work-life preferences, can best be engaged in a system that recognises and honours differences, not artificially ignores them. This is known as the varna-ashram system. It conceives of society as being a body with different organs, each playing their own role, each with its own set of rules. The difficulty in modern society is that we’ve taken a spiritual idea – equality of souls – and are very busy trying to homogenise everyone into one-size-fits-all society. The spirit behind this is noble, no doubt, but it’s not working. In varna-ashram society tolerance, compassion and spiritually upward mobility are all important. It doesn’t work properly without those vital elements.
What are your views on homosexuality?
Sexual orientation is another artificial designation of the soul. Each soul is born into the world with a stock of karma from the last life, and will enjoy a variety of happiness and distress accordingly. Some are born with ambivalent gender, and some experience passions for those of the same sex. Both of these are considered karmic complications which may make life harder for that individual. Homosexuality is not a new phenomenon, and thousands of years ago the Vedic culture named homosexuals as prakriti tritiya, or ‘the third sex.’ According to the Vedas it is not a major issue, merely a phenomenon that must be dealt with by the respective individuals. The difficulty for homosexuals in modern society is that they have been first persecuted and criminalised, then pushed forward for special treatment as fashionable victims. Neither approach is recommended by the Vedas. Homosexuals are to be treated with the respect and understanding afforded to everyone else.
So would you perform a gay wedding at the temple?
The vivaha-yajna – the wedding ceremony – is a ceremony witnessing the giving of a daughter by her father to a young man, not merely a consecrated union of two adults. It is for the blessing of procreation and creating the next generations in human society. Hence this would not be an appropriate form of wedding service to be conducted at the temple. Traditionally, members of the prakriti-tritiya have their own ceremonies – and their own priests. Our respectful suggestion would be that this service of lifetime commitment is best conducted under the auspices of a gay priest at a venue of their mutual choice.
Is there divorce in the tradition?
Marriage is a sacred bond, witnessed by God, the family and the community during the wedding ceremony, upheld by family, friends and the law during life. As to divorce, there are a number of commentators on ancient scripture and they have differing opinions. There does seem to be allowance for re-marriage under certain circumstances. While some say a widow should not re-marry, there are other authorities who say that it is permissible. The following circumstances also enjoy some favour: if the husband has disappeared from the family home for more than four years; if it is proved that husband can produce no children; if the husband has become an ascetic; and if the husband has been expelled from his caste.
What are your views on abortion?
The codes of dharma hold that life should be respected from conception through to delivery of the child, and right through life up to a natural death. Abortion of a child is therefore considered very sinful. There may be extreme cases where the mother’s life can only be saved by such an act, and in those cases only it may be that a sinful act saves at least one life. However, it has been seen in Britain that many terminations are performed in the name of the ‘mental health’ of the young mother, resulting in the current situation of ‘abortion on demand.’ We condemn abortion on grounds of ‘sex-selection’ as practised in some communities, and disagree that abortion is the only option when pregnancy is the consequence of rape. We feel that with around 180,000 abortions per year in Britain, the practise has become simply another form of contraception.
What are your views on suicide?
The taking of any life is wrong, including your own. Suicide should never be an option to dealing with emotional pain. The growing suicide rate in the UK – one death every four hours – is just one effect of a depressive modern life. Striving for unrealistic goals, unsustainable working conditions and long hours, fractured relationships and a lack of community support, all contribute to the long-term stress that results in poor mental health and ultimately severe depression. Our body is on loan to us and we must take care of it while we use it for this one life. The lessons we learn as we cope with pain are exactly what we need. Suicide cuts short that learning process, and no matter how unloved we feel, the final act leaves behind many grieving family members and friends.
What happens to someone who commits suicide?
Suicide is the interruption of the course of life by ones’ own actions. Death takes place not by accident, disease or any natural causes, but because of the intense desire to bring that life to a close. It is very unfortunate. Normally, someone who takes their own life does not immediately receive another birth but has to wait for some years for re-birth. The soul needs a body to interact and perform more good deeds for its own elevation. Suicide means that no new body is provided, since the last one was intensely rejected. The lesson to be learned by the soul is that the human body is a precious opportunity to make progress and should never be minimised. However, there is one clause: one who has performed bhakti-yoga and who perfected their life to some degree will immediately begin another human life at the same level. Why would someone who has perfected their life to any degree wish to commit suicide? We are all born with an accumulation of residual karmic reactions from scores of previous lives. Sometimes, despite taking to the practise of bhakti-yoga, the burden of this weight can prove too much to bear.
What do you have to say about euthanasia?
Euthanasia, or ‘mercy killing,’ may at first seem noble-spirited, as the idea is to bring a sick person’s life to an end by administering an overdose of painkillers. Death is hardly ever without pain, and family members may wish to bring about an end to pain for a loved one, especially if death is anyway immanent. But any form of intentionally bringing about the end of a life is killing, and is always wrong at any stage or condition of life.
But what if a person has a terminal disease?
According to ancient tradition, in the face of incurable illness, someone may choose to end his own life by choosing prayopavesh, or death by fasting. Although this is a form of suicide, it is neither abrupt nor an act of the desperation borne of depression. It is, rather, a choice which provides a gradual approach to death, and adequate time to prepare oneself. The difference is that this can only be chosen by oneself, not by others.
Would you agree that overpopulation is a problem in the world today?
We would not agree. The current population of the world is around 7.3 billion. Even if the population were 9 billion, you could fit everyone – with a house and a garden – into Alaska. There is an enormous amount of land available – we just don’t use it wisely.
But how could everyone eat if there is overpopulation?
Of course, it is not space for them to live that is the problem, but water and food. Yet currently there is enough land under cultivation that could supply enough food for the entire world – and more. The difficulty is that a huge percentage of land is set aside for cash crops such as coffee, or for growing grains for feeding to cows for the meat industry. This industry also takes millions of gallons of water. A far more sensible solution to ‘overpopulation’ is to fully use agricultural land for plant-based protein. This will result in millions more being fed adequately.