A life in the day

Meditation, chanting and ancient scripture define the routine of Krishna devotees

Devotees of Krishna start their day so outrageously early, it's still the middle of the night before. When London’s clubbers are emptying out onto the streets, the members of the Krishna temple down in Soho are already up. Some roll out of bed at 2.30am and some at 3.00. Minutes later they’ve had a warm shower finished with an icy splash to wake them up.

The women wear traditional sarees – nine yards of riotous colour, and the men tie their saffron or white cotton cloth into dhotis and finish the look off with a long shirt, or kurta. In keeping with many religions, the Krishna wardrobe is frozen in history. Round about the Middle Ages to be precise.

They then make up a thin paste of yellow clay in their left hand and apply a "U" shape on the forehead with their right hand, terminated with a leaf-shape on the nose. This, together with the three strands of neck beads made of sacred tulasi wood is the marking of a Vaishnava, one who is dedicating their life to Vishnu or Krishna.

The devotees then gather before the shrine bearing the beautiful white marble forms of Krishna and Radha on the first floor of the London temple. So energetic and musically contagious is the kirtan, or rhythmic chanting and dancing with drums and cymbals, that returning revellers have been known to knock on the door downstairs trying to get in, convinced there’s a party going on.

At 5.00 begins a 90-minute period of cross-legged and determined meditation. Vaishnavas meditate not on the sound of one hand clapping (they prefer two hands) or on silence, or the breath, but on the sound of the maha-mantra.

The Sanskrit words indicating the Infinite are said to be infused with spiritual power and when recited awaken the inner self to higher realisation and pleasure. Maha means ‘great’ and mantra is a compound of the word mana (mind) and trayate (to free). So the Hare Krishna, Hare Rama chant is that sound which provides great freedom for the mind. Both Krishna and Hare are names for God as is Rama which means "the Source of all Pleasure". At only 32 syllables it is quite short by mantra standards, but powerful with it.

The proof of the pudding, however, is in the chanting. Try it at home – around 5.00 on a Sunday morning of course – and see the results for yourself:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

After another exuberant kirtan, by this time in a packed temple room, there comes scripture study (svadhyaya). The books the Krishna devotees read and discuss at this time are 3,000 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Written in Sanskrit, the ancient mother-tongue, they describe a broad and universalistic philosophy, science, history, culture and art, and have been studied like this every morning in India for thousands of years by millions of people.

In the morning the Srimad Bhagavatam – one of the Puranas, or histories, is discussed, and in the evening, the Bhagavad-gita. At 18,000 and 700 verses respectively, there’s enough philosophy there to keep anyone happy.

At 8.30 it's time for something the Krishna people do rather well: vegetarian food. At least customers at the Govinda’s Pure Vegetarian Restaurant downstairs think so. The place is always busy and has been for the past 25 years. Even without an alcohol licence they serve hundreds of meals to happy customers every day. Breakfast at the Krishna temple is quite an event, and well worth getting up early for. The food – no meat or meat products, fish, or eggs – is always "offered to Krishna" or blessed before being given to customers or guests. That ritual turns it into Prasad or "grace". Devotees say that it enhances the taste and contributes to the spiritual experience.

And by then the working day has begun. So how does a Krishna devotee fill eight hours in the day? Well, there’s as many ways as there are people. For a small self-supporting monastic community there’s always so much to do that’s purely practical. Anyone who’s watched The Monastery on television will know that monks (or nuns) can’t walk around praying and contemplating all day. Who is going to peel the potatoes or clean the floor? So it is at the Krishna temple. Except with one important difference. The Krishna temple is completely open to the public at all times and so all visitors must be offered the best hospitality. There’s tuition, counselling, guidance and opportunities to join in worship, prayer and ritual. All these activities are shared out amongst the devotees there.

Every day for the past eight years, around 300 homeless people have been served a hot, nutritious meal in one of four or five locations throughout London. The Krishna devotees work together with the Salvation Army and other groups and agencies to provide this service, and many former homeless people have sworn their undying support to the Krishnas for helping them when they were down.

And then, of course, there is the street chanting party. Every day, as regular as Big Ben, those "orange bed sheets" with their shaven heads (except for a single lock at the back for the men) can be seen and heard jingling, singing and pounding their musical way down Oxford Street. Books are distributed and invitation flyers passed out and as a result of this outreach an endless stream of visitors come to the temple. One West End advertising agency said: “We can’t think of a more mind-grabbing ad campaign than men with no hair wearing orange sheets singing in the streets – no wonder people come and join you.”

Throughout the Vaishnava year, there are many colourful festivals involving celebrations and ceremonies, flowers, incense, theatre, and grand processions. The largest is "The Festival of the Chariots" in the summer, when three red, yellow and black 50-foot high chariots with huge mirrored wheels are pulled from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. 10,000 people attend this one and everyone gets at least one full plate of hot Krishna food.

The aim of this entire endeavour is to fulfil a prophecy made 500 years ago in India; that the chanting of the holy names of Krishna would one day be heard around the world. With devotees of Krishna in every major city of the world passing on their peaceful message, it’s easy to see this becoming a reality.

Raised a Methodist in a small seaside village down in deepest Cornwall, Kripamoya Das met the founder of the Hare Krishna movement and became his student in 1975. He is a qualified Hindu priest.
Photo: Popperfoto
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How the Oval regained its shape: the famous cricket ground hosts its 100th Test

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the stadium in recent years keep coming.

Few stadiums have as rich a sporting history as the Oval. After opening its gates in 1845, it hosted England’s first home football international, the first FA Cup final, and Ireland’s inaugural rugby Test.

Though it took 35 years before a cricket Test match – the first ever in England – was played at the ground in Kennington, south London, it was worth waiting for. WG Grace scored 152 runs, setting the tone for many memorable performances  at the Oval. Among the highlights: Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938, still the highest Test score by an England batsman; Viv Richards’s double century and Michael Holding’s 14 wickets for the West Indies before an ecstatic crowd in 1976; England’s Ashes-clinching match in 2005, when a skunk-haired Kevin Pietersen thrashed the Australian attack.

But just five years later, in 2010, the Oval and its host club Surrey were in a bad way. For the first time since 1986, the first day of the annual Oval Test was not a sell-out, and attendances for county games were down. Finances were so stretched that Surrey made a dozen administrative staff redundant, and there was talk of insolvency. The club, which is owned by its 10,000 members and is a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall, was “very close to a substantial crisis”, Paul Sheldon, then chief executive, said at the time.

Today that seems far away. On 27 July, the Oval hosted its 100th Test, the third match of the series between England and South Africa. The first day was sold out. And Surrey are now the richest first-class county, with £12m of reserves. In 2019, work will begin on a redevelopment scheme that will increase the Oval’s capacity from 25,000 to 40,000, making it the biggest cricket ground in England. (Lord’s, the Oval’s more illustrious rival, can seat 28,000 people.)

“We are in a good place,” said Richard Gould, the current chief executive, one recent afternoon in his grandstand office overlooking the pitch, where a big group of local schoolchildren ran around in the sun.

How did the Oval regain its shape? Gould, whose father Bobby played football for Arsenal and was manager of Wimbledon when the team won the FA Cup in 1988, lists several factors. The first is a greater focus on non-cricketing revenue, taking advantage of the club’s historic facilities. In 2011, when Gould joined Surrey after stints at Bristol City football and Somerset cricket clubs, revenue from corporate events and conferences was £1.3m. This year the projected income is £4.6m.

The second factor is the surge in popularity of the T20 competition played by the 18 first class counties in England and Wales. Unlike Tests, which last for five days, a T20 Blast match takes just three hours. The frenetic format has attracted many people to games who have never previously followed cricket. Surrey, which like Lord’s-based Middlesex have the advantage of being in London, have been especially successful in marketing its home games. Advance sell-outs are common. Surrey reckon they will account for one in six T20 tickets bought in the UK this season, with gate receipts of £4m, four times more than in 2010.

Whereas Test and even one-day international spectators tend to be regulars – and male – Gould estimates that up to 70 per cent of those who attend T20 games at the Oval are first-timers. Women, and children under 16, typically constitute a quarter of the crowd, a higher percentage than at football and rugby matches and a healthy trend for the game and the club.

The strong domestic T20 sales encouraged the Oval’s management to focus more on the county than on the national team. Until a few years ago, Surrey never seriously marketed its own merchandise, unlike professional football clubs, which have done so successfully for decades.

“When I came here, everything around the ground was focused on England,” Gould said. “We needed to put our team first. In the past, county cricket did not make you money. With T20, there’s a commercial business case.”

To raise its profile and pull in the crowds, Surrey have signed some of the biggest international stars in recent years, including Australia’s Ricky Ponting, South Africa’s Hashim Amla, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen, who is now mainly a T20 franchise player. For the players, as with the counties, it’s where the money is.

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the Oval in recent years keep coming. In common with many businesses today, customer data is crucial. The club has 375,000 names on its marketing database, of which 160,000 are Surrey supporters. But since the average T20 purchaser buys six tickets, many people who attend games at the Oval remain unknown to the club. One way Surrey are trying to identify them is through a service that allows one person to book tickets for a group of friends, who then each pay the club directly. Another method is through offering free, fast Wi-Fi at the ground, which anyone can use as long as they register their email address.

For all the focus on T20, Gould is keen to stress that England internationals, especially Test matches, are a crucial part of the Oval’s future – even if the business model may have to be tweaked.

“We always want to be one of the main Test venues. The problem we have is: will countries still put aside enough time to come to play Tests here? In many countries domestic T20 now takes precedence over international cricket. It may be that we may have to start to pay countries to play at the Oval.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue