Meeting the Krishna Monks for the first time
Everyone remembers their first meeting with a Krishna monk. Tomorrow evening I’ll be presenting at a small Hare Krishna festival evening down in Southampton. While refreshing my memory on what I said to the audiences on many previous occasions, I came across this amusing, and heart-warming, account by a first time visitor to a similar event. He describes attending a festival in a warehouse, just opposite the building site of what would become the Emirates Stadium, the new home of the Arsenal football team. The ‘white-robed one’ is me.
Meeting the Krishna Monks by Chris Proctor
‘There are special spiritual places all over the world,’ Hare Krishna’s white-robed host told us. ‘The mountains of Tibet, the foot-hills of the Himalayas – and, tonight, here!’
He moved his arm in a slow wide arc and I followed its direction around the paint-peeled grubby-walled freezing-cold North London disused warehouse in which we had gathered.
I confess, I had my doubts.
You see, I’m not really a Hare Krishna person. Or I don’t think I am. So it was particularly unsettling when he then asked us to tell the stranger next to us why we’d given up a Thursday evening to come here. That’s not an easy question for someone like me.
I started to mumble something about the fact that I’d been invited, but even as I said it I was appalled at how inadequate it was. Within the last few days I’ve been invited to change my gas supplier, buy a time-share in southern Spain, have my windows replaced and make a donation to a political party. I didn’t snap them up: so why did I take up this one?
I suppose I’ve felt some warmth toward Hare Krishna since George Harrison sang about them being OK thirty years ago. Oh, and then three Hare Krishna people moved in next door to me about fifteen years ago when I lived in Drayton Park, just over the railway track from where I sit tonight. Two parents and their young son. I seem to remember her name was Radhapura. I went round a couple of times and ate with them. One day he offered to help me lay a carpet in my front room but at the time I lacked the ability to accept gifts.
One day my mother and my aunt were visiting. They stood in the bay window and watched the threesome emerge, orange robed, from their car. The Hare Krishnas waved and smiled in our direction, as they always did. The jaws of my relations dropped.
‘What are they?’ enquired my aunt feebly.
‘Protestants,’ declared my mother with assurance.
To her, there were only Catholics and Protestants: so these people were Protestants.
Then, at the end of last year, my partner spoke to me about the benefits of meditation, which she’s done for years. Apart from helping her mental balance, it had also had physical effects, like stopping her cat allergy. I was feeling particularly anxious at the time, so I thought I’d like to try it. So where should I go for information?
A day or so later my daughter came in with a calendar the newsagent had given her. It was from the Hare Krishna manor. It hung around for a while, and eventually I thought I’d clear it up. I put it in the bin. Or I tried to.
It kept popping out. It unwound itself and poked back up out of the top of the swing-bin lid. It did the same thing three times before I decided to go to the Oxford Street temple to ask about meditation. I mean, I may be slow, but I’m not stubborn.
Coincidentally, or inevitably, I arrived just as a service was starting. At the end I spoke to Sanatana who had led the event. I asked him about meditation. He led me up to the library where we chanted together for a while. He advised me to repeat once a day, and I’ve done this for the intervening two months.
For some reason, I left my address. And for some other reason, the Hare Krishna people invited me to this north London warehouse. And I came. Now I’m trying to tell a stranger why I did.
‘Because I was invited,’ I tell him.
He looks at me in some surprise. ‘Everyone’s invited,’ he says.
I’m still bothered about not being able to explain why I’m here when Krishna’s impresario calls us together for a gig. It’s a relief to be told I don’t have to think for a while. Just shut your eyes, and listen, he says.
We sit in silence as four monks play musical variations on a Krishna mantra. We do nothing except give it a chance to see it if touches us. And of course it does. By repetition, by restatement of the soon- familiar, by the collective cooperative experience – or by magic – some deeper sense emerges. It feels as thought we have tapped into some undercurrent of other sensations, experiences or worlds. None of us want it to stop, or have any idea of how long they played. Time was playing tricks, and I notice that I’m breathing easier. Maybe it doesn’t matter that I don’t know why I’m here.
I felt a bit of a fraud on my way in, because I’m not really attracted to the art or culture of the East in any particular way. In fact, my religious inclinations are rather negative. I’m deeply aware of the failings of formal Christianity – the cynicism of the intellectual Machiavellian Jesuits, the deep conservatism of the Papacy, the burning of ‘heretics’ like the Cathars – but I’m not comfortable with the lurid art of India. On top of this, I find the whole idea of coming to an understanding of god logically impossible. By definition, because he or she is god I cannot know him. But then I’ve got no idea how the process of meditations can do anything to calm my soul – yet it does. Maybe I just have to accept that some things happen of which I am unaware, but it doesn’t stop them being helpful and calming. I decide to just welcome it.
Even as these thoughts are turning over in my mind, my white-robed chum appears to be mind reading. He wants to know who reads about eastern mysticism – and then who interests themselves in Western spiritual traditions. And he says something remarkable. He says it doesn’t really matter.
The sun, he said, may rise in the east but to get there, it has to come round from the west. So it is all part of continuum. East, west, truth’s best. I rejoice in this positive nature of the Hare Krishna ideal. It doesn’t seek to mock or attack others ideas or traditions, but to add their knowledge to some General Store. There is none of the arrogance of western organised religion, where the lower orders are supposed to snatch at the crumbs of dogma laid down by pompous bishops. In fact the whole experience is wonderfully self-deprecating and liberating. Krishna’s host tells us some people call them the ‘Happy Harrys’. He smiles. Why not? Call us what you will, listen if you want …
So we listen.
Three devotees tell us some stories from their lives, about how they came to be involved. This is a splendidly human and touching interlude. With humour and good will a former ballroom dancer from Eastern European says he contracted a serious medical problem which western medicine could not cure, and so he sought other, alternative solutions. These led him to a healer, a vegetarian restaurant and eventually to a life dressed in orange in London. An American brother was sucked into the whole philosophy by a picture that showed the stages of man – almost re-creating Shakespeare’s lines – where we change from helpless infancy to the final stage ‘sans everything’. The difference in the picture that touched the monk was that it had a light extending throughout the whole human journey – and then burning on as brightly at the end as at the beginning: and then moving on again into a new life Then a woman devotee tells how she was led to Krishna by an academic and research route, journeying until she saw its practical application in a remote Indian village and even in a whole train compartment ringing out the Krishna mantra together.
By this time, the warehouse is starting to warm up. I find a smile upon my face that is difficult to resist. And now it’s going to burst.
‘OK,’ says the white-robed one. ‘Let’s chant.’
We begin tentatively, reciting the words of the Krishna mantra and doing little more. There’s a little embarrassment, but it only lasts for a minute. Then an impetus grows within the room, which reflects itself in the volume and the enthusiasm. A new spirit seizes the group, no longer distinct strangers gathered for some esoteric gathering, but a group with a purpose, a solid team. It is even more special when we realise we have no common understandings, or even shared goals – but here we are expressing it together.
By now, I’ve given over looking for explanations. We’re chanting! We’re crying out words of liberation, and dancing the steps of freedom! We’ve cast out our self-imposed restrictions, and we’re laughing at our own excesses! Boy! Are we having fun! We’re like children coming off a roller-coaster ride by the time we finish.
All that is left is to sit down and eat some splendid food kindly Krishna’s passed on, and chat to our hosts. And then it’s back outside, into this north London street.
Just opposite our ware-house, as if to demonstrate some final lesson, Arsenal’s new stadium is rising – a cathedral being erected to honour the twenty-first century’s new religion, football. Soon grown men in short trousers will kick inflated cow hide for wages that exceed each week the annual income of entire Indian towns.
One thing’s sure: Holloway Road will never look the same again.