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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.