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.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear