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Looking for the Dearest Friend  

Ranchor dasa

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 the music.

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 the process.

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 to Krishna.

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 to Krishna.

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. (BG. 7.8-9)

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.

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