This paper was the ISKCON keynote address at an Inter-faith
conference hosted by our communications group in the UK and devotees
in Bhaktivedanta Manor. Twenty Christians and twenty ISKCON members
took part in the exchange, which was described by Rev. Michael Barnes
SJ as, "one of those rare occasions when head and heart seemed
somehow to be united.... I was left wondering why it is that Catholics
and Vaishnava Hindus get on so well together." Ranchor's paper
was very well received and the sincere realisation and gift of presentation
it displays can serve us as well in our efforts in dialogue with
other faith communities.
My first attempt at inter-faith dialogue was a bit of a disaster.
As a young man of twenty I was out chanting on the streets of the
West End with my newly-found brothers and sisters of the Radha Krishna
Temple. We danced in a double file along the side of the pavement
to the rhythm of drums and cymbals, chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.
Turning from Oxford Street up Tottenham Court Road, we found a place
where the pavement widened out and paused there to allow a crowd
to gather. People began to stop and look on with curiosity, some
of them smiling and laughing, or nodding their heads in time with
A few of us started to sell our magazine, Back To Godhead.
I was one of those, and as I walked among the crowd, offering it
to anyone who looked interested, I noticed a middle-aged man wearing
the white collar and black suit of a Catholic priest. With him were
a young couple, and the three of them stood at the edge of the crowd.
I had grown up as a Catholic, so I thought, 'Here are some friends
from the Catholic church. They believe in God, so I'm sure they'll
understand what we're doing.'
Smiling broadly, I approached them. To my surprise, as soon as
the priest saw me with my saffron robes and shaven head, and a Back
To Godhead in my outstretched hand, he recoiled and declared in
a loud voice so that others could hear, 'You're not singing to God,
you're singing to the devil!' and he indignantly swept away, taking
his young friends with him.
I was puzzled. I had hoped to share a mutual understanding with
the priest: after all, he was committed to the service of God, and
now so was I. In today's materialistic society, I thought, those
who were serving God should support each other and feel solidarity
together. If his reaction was to be typical of other Christians,
then I was going to find it difficult to relate to.
I soon found that not all Christians had his attitude, and thankfully
many were very appreciative of Krishna Consciousness. Nevertheless,
it was clear that inter-religious understanding was not something
to be taken for granted, and this gave me a personal sense of purpose.
With my extensive Catholic background and my present faith in Krishna,
I felt I had a 'mission to explain'.
I have often been asked why I converted from Catholicism
to Krishna Consciousness. My reply is always that I did not convert:
I built on the faith I already had. My roots are in Christianity,
and I cannot change that. I cannot change the fact that for the
first twenty years of my life God appeared to me through Jesus;
that my character and morals were moulded by Sisters of the Holy
Cross and Benedictine monks; and that a Christian church to me is
still a holy place where I intuitively feel at home.
Nonetheless, the question remains: what made me decide to become
a devotee of Krishna? One major attraction was the chanting of the
Holy Name. The simplicity of just chanting was irresistible. Devotees
chant in two ways. One is by singing together, and the other is
by private prayer. My first encounter with the singing was on television,
when I watched the 73-year-old founder of the Hare Krishna Movement,
Srila Prabhupada, being interviewed on Late Night Line-Up in 1969.
Prabhupada explained to his interviewer that he had come to Britain
to teach how to love God. His wise and kindly face and his sincere
voice seemed to tell to me that he knew what he was talking about.
'And which God are you referring to - the same one as Christians
worship?' asked the interviewer. I wondered what his answer would
be. Could he be worshipping the same God as me?
'Yes, I am speaking of the same God,' replied Prabhupada. Hearing
this, my interest deepened. I had always wanted to learn from someone
of another religious tradition about their idea of God.
'And how do you teach that we should love God?'
'The easiest and most direct way is to chant His name,' Prabhupada
replied, 'If you chant the name of God, you can not only love Him,
but you can speak to Him face to face, just as I am speaking to
you.' I was intrigued. He spoke with such conviction, but surely
it couldn't be that simple.
Prabhupada got up and walked across to another part of the studio
where six of his disciples were waiting with musical instruments.
Together they sat in a circle on the studio floor. A rich harmony
swelled up from the Indian harmonium and a stringed instrument called
a tambura, accompanied by small cymbals and a clay drum. Then Prabhupada
began to chant the Hare Krishna mantra, rhythmically, majestically,
while the devotees chanted their response. Together they wove a
mystical web of transcendental sound that seemed to stretch from
the studio right across the country and into my heart.
The closing credits of the programme rolled down the screen and
I prayed that the chanting wouldn't stop, not yet! But too soon
it faded away and the screen went blank. From that day I never needed
to be convinced of the simple truth that just by chanting the Holy
Name it is possible to see God.
Later on, when I met the devotees in person in London, I had another
experience with chanting, this time the recitation of the mantra
using prayer beads. A japa mala has 108 beads; on each bead the
Hare Krishna mantra is chanted. This completes one round. Serious
devotees of Krishna are normally expected to chant sixteen times
round their prayer beads each day, which takes about two hours.
This chanting is done softly to oneself as a meditation. I wanted
to live the life of a devotee, but I hesitated to make such a commitment.
So on my second visit to the temple I arrived in the early hours
of the morning to experience the devotees chanting on their beads.
Let me describe the scene. Outside it was still dark and the pavements
were empty. In the small shrine room a dozen men and women were
praying. The smell of incense filled the air. The curtains of the
shrine were open revealing the sacred images of Radha and Krishna,
from Whom a soft golden light cast shadows between the pillars along
the sides of the room. At the rear of the room a young man, his
beads held out before him and his eyes closed, moved from side to
side in a hypnotic dance, absorbed in chanting. Others sat in the
shadows, some contemplating the forms of Radha and Krishna or the
many devotional pictures hung around the room. Before the shrine
a young woman swayed back and forth blissfully smiling as she gazed
at Krishna and almost sang her mantras. In one hand were her prayer
beads; in the other she held a cord attached to a row of small bells
hanging from the ceiling, which tinkled melodically along with her
chanting. Everyone chanted softly but intently, and the sounds in
the room merged into a harmony of divine sound alive with sacred
energy. I was swept up by the atmosphere and sat down to chant with
my own beads. That morning, with no need of further encouragement,
I completed sixteen rounds without difficulty and knew that I would
become a devotee.
As I learned how to chant Krishna's names on prayer beads, I found
I was able to pray to God in a direct, uncomplicated way I had never
experienced before. I could feel His presence through the sound
vibration of the mantra.
The mahamantra is made up of three names: KRISHNA, RAMA and HARE.
Krishna and Rama are names for God. KRISHNA means the most attractive
person, and RAMA means the source of all happiness. Both of these
names describe God in a very personal way as the focus of devotion
and joy. HARE refers to the loving mercy of God, without which we
could not know Him. This mercy is personified as Radha, Krishna's
eternal companion. She is the female aspect of Krishna, and the
embodiment of pure love and mercy. The mahamantra is a prayer to
Mother Hara to engage us in the loving service of Krishna, the giver
of all happiness.
In the spirit of the chanting, I began to think of God as Krishna.
It made sense to me that God should be eternally youthful and at
play. The wise old man whom I had been shown as a child had never
quite fit my image of God, and had left a gap of uncertainty, which
I had filled with the vague sense of an unknowable, invisible, all-pervasive
Spirit. Now that I had the image of Krishna, I embraced Him through
chanting His name, reading about Him and meditating on His picture,
and for the first time I felt a personal relationship with God.
While visiting the temple I was introduced to the Bhagavad-gita.
I found it quite different from any book I had read before, except
the New Testament. It seemed to me they both had the same authentic
voice of divine wisdom. The teachings presented by Krishna were
profoundly meaningful for me. I had always held an intuitive belief
in God and reincarnation, and here I found them both clearly described.
As Krishna spoke of the eternal self which is never born and never
dies, but which passes from one body to another, I had the feeling
that I was hearing words that I had heard before. It was as if I
was being reminded of things I had once known but had forgotten.
One teaching made particular sense for me. In the sixth chapter
of the Gita Arjuna asks Krishna an important question: 'What
becomes of the one who starts on the spiritual path but who does
not reach the end; who falls away because of attraction to the world
he has left behind?' Arjuna's fear is that if he tries to achieve
his spiritual goal but fails, he will end up losing everything in
Krishna's answer is that one who has begun the path to God is never
disappointed. A devotee who fails to complete the path in this life
will get the chance to carry on in the next life. So, if I have
made a certain amount of progress, and achieved a certain level
of understanding in some previous lifetime, that level will be revived
in my present life. It is Krishna who reminds me of that spiritual
knowledge from within my heart and who makes sure that I am able
to continue on my path from the point where I left off.
When I read this I felt Krishna was speaking directly to me. I
felt that I must have encountered Krishna in a previous life, and
that now He had intervened in my present life to bring me back to
His path. With this understanding I decided to make a commitment
Becoming vegetarian was easy, because the food which the devotees
ate was so attractive it left me with no taste for meat. It seemed
so obvious that meat-eating should be avoided if possible: how could
killing animals, who were also God's children, be compatible with
a life of love and service to God? The other rules for temple life
were: no gambling, no intoxication and no illicit sex. Cigarettes
and alcohol were no problem and I had never gambled. Celibacy was
more of a challenge, but I was ready to give it a try, until such
time as I might get married. I moved into the temple twenty-four
years ago this week.
An important part of my faith since then has been my relationship
with my guru as teacher, friend and guide. He always spoke as an
expert scholar with deep knowledge of the Vedic scriptures, and
his words have been a constant source of inspiration and understanding.
My personal feelings towards him, which are like those of a son
to a loving father, are at the heart of my belief and commitment
When my faith is tested by difficulties or doubts, it is the certain
knowledge that he believes in me, and wants me to stay faithful,
that keeps me going. He always said that most of all what made him
happy was to see his disciples happy in Krishna consciousness. He
defined Krishna consciousness as active service to Krishna, something
which everyone can do, even a child, and he very much favoured preaching.
His one direct and personal instruction to me was, "Somehow
or other, preach." I carry those words in my heart.
It is not just that he wanted this: the whole line of teachers
who came before him, all the way back to Sri Caitanya who founded
the Hare Krishna movement five hundred years ago, wanted the same
thing. It is a myth that Hinduism has never been a missionary religion:
there have been many preachers and reformers in Indian religious
history, among whom Sri Caitanya is very great. So when my guru
asked me, and all his disciples, to preach, he was only passing
on the family values. And he himself practised what he preached.
He always said that his only qualification was that he was carrying
out the order which he had received from his own guru, to teach
Krishna consciousness to the English speaking world.
The knowledge that I have a spiritual father who has asked something
from me, and who is relying on me to carry the message of Krishna
consciousness into my own community, is at the foundation of my
spiritual life. It is mainly because of my feelings for him that
I stay in the religious organisation which he founded. Over the
years there have been many good reasons to leave - poverty, disagreements,
bad leadership and the knowledge that others think I'm crazy to
be a Hare Krishna follower. But what keeps me here is my relationship
with my guru, my desire to please him and not to let him down, and
to pass on to others what he gave to me. How else can a son repay
his father's love?
In the years since becoming a disciple of Srila Prabhupada I have
seen many changes. In the early years of the Hare Krishna Movement
we tended to keep ourselves separate from outsiders, except to preach
to them. The price of joining was high. You had to give up all thoughts
of education or a career. We were drop-outs from mainstream society.
This marginalised our community from the world about us.
There is something about life on the fringes that is quite appealing
in its rejection of materialism and its idealistic spirit. But there
are problems arising from the isolation it brings, such as the dispute
between our community here at Bhaktivedanta Manor and some of the
villagers of Letchmore Heath, which in the past was fuelled by our
own isolation from the village community.
This isolation is now diminishing as more and more Krishna devotees
are family people living in the wider society. I myself now live
as a family man and work for a living as a writer. During the last
ten years I have felt the need to establish my own independence
and make my own decisions after years of semi- institutional living
in Hare Krishna communities. This has made me less dependent on
the movement and brought me more in contact with everyday society.
My children belong to a generation who are growing up with Krishna
Consciousness as their religion in the same way as others are Christians
or Jews. Seeing them growing up in a world full of uncertainty,
I am more than ever aware of their need for a clear set of beliefs
and values on which to base their lives.
In this time of change, the Hare Krishna Movement is very much
in need of its links with those sections of society who understand
it and with whom we have things in common. This particularly points
to the religious community. Some of our most valuable friends come
from other religious groups. They are the first to appreciate the
problems we encounter as a small religious movement new to this
country. We have much to learn from these friends and I hope that
they also feel that we have something of value to offer in return.
I would like to think that every religious group has something
unique to contribute to the world, especially in this age of materialism.
If Krishna Consciousness has something to offer, I think it is the
combination of a clearly articulated philosophy of the soul, karma
and reincarnation as taught in the Bhagavad Gita with devotion to
a very personal God in the form of Krishna: a God of grace who shows
mercy, forgiveness and love. This personal God pervades the universe.
In the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita:
I am the taste of water, The light of the sun and moon, The heat
in fire, The fragrance of the earth And the life of all that lives.
God is not just present in the world about us, He also lives in
the heart of every living being. This mystery is taught by Krishna:
I am in the heart of every being, Giving knowledge, remembrance
and forgetfulness. (BG. 15.15)
Although God dwells in my heart, and although He knows everything
about my past, present and future, I do not know Him. But Krishna
teaches that I can know Him through bhakti, or loving service-a
ceaseless act of love which fills every waking moment:
Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give
away, whatever hardships you undergo-make these an offering to
Me. (BG. 9.27)
This is the basis of our daily life as devotees of Krishna. We
try to relate all our actions to Him, so that even the simplest
deeds, like eating breakfast or putting out the rubbish, become
a meditation upon God. Through such constant devotion, Krishna is
revealed to His devotee. As He says:
To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love,
I give the understanding by which they can come to Me. (BG. 10.10)
This is the essence of Krishna's teachings in the Bhagavad-gita.
When He is served with constant love and devotion He reveals Himself.
He releases His devotee from the karma of past sins and from
all material attachments, filling His devotee's heart with the light
of pure knowledge of Him. Bhagavad-gita teaches us to look
for God as our dearest friend-who knows us better than anyone else,
who accompanies us through countless lifetimes in this world, and
who invites us to live with Him forever.
There are many stories of Krishna which help us understand Him
in a personal and loving way. Krishna lives in the eternal forest
of Vrindavan, the source of all life, where He is surrounded by
His friends, the cowherd girls and boys, and looked after by His
mother and father, Yasoda and Nanda. When He was a small boy, Krishna
and His brother used to go out and play with their young friends.
One day, when they came home for lunch, Krishna's brother and the
other boys complained to Yasoda:
'Mother, Krishna has been eating clay.'
Yasoda caught Krishna's hand and said, 'Why have you been eating
earth? All the boys are complaining about you.'
'Mother,' said Krishna, 'they're all lying. I never ate any clay.
They just want to get me into trouble. If you believe them, why
don't you look inside my mouth and see.'
'Very well, open your mouth.'
So Krishna did as He was told and opened His mouth. Inside His
mouth, Yasoda saw the whole creation. She saw mountains, islands,
oceans and planets; the sun, moon, stars, and outer space; she saw
all the universe; and she saw herself, with her child Krishna on
her lap. She was dumbstruck. She didn't know whether she was dreaming
or was actually seeing something real. She thought she must be mad.
In this troubled state, she began to pray, 'Let me offer my respects
to the Supreme Lord, under whose influence I am thinking that Nanda
is my husband, that I am queen of this village, that the cowherd
men and women are my subjects, and that Krishna is my son. All these
illusions are brought about by the power of the Lord. I pray that
He will always protect me.'
Seeing her bewildered condition, Krishna overwhelmed her with feelings
of love. She forgot her confusion and turned her attention back
to Krishna. Taking Him on her lap, she gave Him a big hug full of
motherly love and thought, 'Krishna is my own child.'
Stories such as this are powerful ways of meditating upon God as
a personal, loving and accessible friend. I should emphasise that
they are not mere stories: they are windows to a higher reality
allowing devotees to actually experience the presence of Krishna.
All over the world in the late twentieth century children of Christians
have adopted Krishna Consciousness as a means to understanding their
place in the universe, and as a way of exploring their feelings
for God. My own view of this phenomena is based on my understanding
of reincarnation as taught in the Bhagavad-gita. As I mentioned
earlier, Bhagavad-gita teaches that God revives a person's
faith in Him from one lifetime to the next, so that the soul may
gradually progress on her path back to Godhead. It is my belief
that some in the West, through repeated births in Christian countries,
have found a personal and devotional faith in God, and that this
faith has brought them to Krishna.
The growth of Krishna Consciousness outside India forms part of
a wider spiritual transition in the West. This transition is from
an age of institutional religion dominated by the duality's of punishment
and reward, heaven and hell, sacred and profane, to an age of holistic
religion which reveals God's presence in the heart of the individual,
in the natural world, in daily life and in the community: a personal
religion based not on fear but on love.
In closing, I must give mention to a man who encouraged me on my
path at a crucial time many years ago. In 1970, when my father discovered
that I was about to move into the Krishna temple, he asked me to
spend a week with the Benedictine monks of Worth Abbey, who had
educated me, to discuss my decision with them. I gladly went down
to Sussex and had a wonderful time chanting in the woods and telling
them all about Krishna. On the eve of my departure back to London
the saintly Abbot, Dom Victor Farwell (now sadly deceased), called
me to his room. He told me some of the monks were worried about
me and were preparing to hold a vigil to pray for my soul. However,
he said he did not share their worry.
'If I was your age,' he assured me, 'I would do exactly as you
are. May God bless you!' So I began my life as a devotee of Krishna
with his blessings, and, I felt in my heart, with the blessings
of Jesus Christ.
This paper was originally delivered at an Inter-faith conference
entitled, 'The Experience of God', hosted by ISKCON and held at
Bhaktivedanta Manor, England, on 10 September 1994.