Singing in the streets

Hare Krishnas have become a typical part of London life

“Could we have a group of Hare Krishnas to appear in The Da Vinci Code?” asks film director Ron Howard in a call to the London Krishna temple one morning.

“We want a typical London street scene for the film.” He wanted “a few seconds” of orange-robed Krishna chanters while Tom Hanks was being chased around the city by a murderous albino monk.

I was interested in the offer of instant fame (who wouldn’t be?) and amused to think that the sight of Krishna devotees singing their way down Oxford Street was now considered, along with red double-deckers and black taxis, part of a "typical" London street scene.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised Hare Krishna chanters are part of the capital’s image. They’ve been there for a long time now. They made their first musical appearance on Oxford Street almost 40 years ago, back in 1969 when a Times headline declared: "Krishna chant startles London."

Since those hip days of Beatles endorsement and Top of the Pops fame, the movement and its chant has spread from London to cities throughout the world, becoming an international confederation of more than 500 centres, organic farms, vegetarian restaurants and temples.

Whether you’ve sampled Krishna food (which is very tasty), opened one of their books, visited a temple, or just seen them singing and playing their drums and hand cymbals (no bells or tambourines), you may have been curious about their belief system, if only for a few moments.

And these days, when we’re all required to know just a little more about religious sensitivities, it’s not a bad idea to have a grasp of the more exotic religions.

So here, for just one week, is a daily blog from me to you. I’ll give you the basics and a bit more. If it does nothing else it will help you bluff your way in Indian philosophy at parties. And there’ll be time to answer some questions at the end. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

When you think of Indian religions, think of a large tree with a big trunk and many large limbs, smaller branches and twigs. The trunk - the part that nourishes everything else - represents the Vedas, the spiritual teachings - written in the ancient Sanskrit language - which are the basis of everything everybody believes in. The trunk is the same for everyone but the twigs are without limit.

Although people who follow these teachings are today known as Hindus, the word "Hindu" actually comes from the Persian invaders who couldn’t comfortably pronounce the name of the river Sindhu. They substituted a harder "H" for the "S". The land beyond the Sindhu thus became Hindustan, and everyone who lived there "Hindu".

Roll history on a few centuries and the British – who dominated India for 250 years remember – added the “ism” to form “Hinduism”. People in India still joke that Hindus didn’t know they were called Hindus until the British informed them. The word doesn’t occur anywhere in the Vedas, which use the term "sanatana-dharma" or "eternal path" to describe the religion of the Vedas.

So what do the Vedas have to say about life that's so good it could have you singing in the streets? Here’s everything in 12 easy points:

1. There’s more to life than this: Sad to say, but like Buddhism, which came later, and many other traditions of spiritual wisdom, the Vedas are quite pessimistic about the prospect of us ever quite reaching nirvana through shopping or sex. Material nature – the stuff that surrounds us - is organised in such a way as to regularly frustrate our plans for finding ultimate contentment with people or things.

As always in Eastern wisdom, there’s a nature-based metaphor for our struggles in the material world: If a fish is taken out of the river and placed on the riverbank, it lies there flapping and gasping until its thrown back into the water. Nothing on land could ever give it satisfaction. Only the water will do. Similarly, say the Vedas, we are spiritual creatures gasping away in a material world; always searching for spiritual waters, our true home. Yet not knowing where we come from, we engage with matter, always hoping that somehow it will produce what we’re looking for.

2. But you won’t find it looking in the same old places: And the reason for this is that the soul, or atma, the real self, is under the misconception that we are these bodies of fat and flesh and that satisfying the demands of the senses will satisfy our craving for bliss. It’s a big mistake. Our mind and senses, the very instruments we use to explore and understand reality, are fallible. We make mistakes and we’re prone to illusions. What’s more, other people’s illusions influence us and we become cheated, or we end up cheating others. The situation becomes compounded. In this spider web of deception we need the sharpness of transcendent knowledge to cut our way free.

3. You are not your body or your mind, but the consciousness within: What you normally think of as “me” is the soul exploring the world through layers of sensory information processed by the brain/mind. In exploring the world from birth onwards we gather many identities. Some of them we give ourselves, some come from others such as parents, educational systems, and society. We think of ourselves as being a certain name, gender, age, sexual orientation, nationality or race, but these are transitory material labels for the spiritual self, deep within. When we choose to distance ourselves from these, and focus on our spiritual identity, we begin the process of self-actualisation or “atma-jnana”.

4. We’re all small parts of something much bigger: Every spiritual tradition has a name for the Origin of Everything, the “Cause of All Causes”. The ultimate platform of existence is variously understood by followers of Eastern traditions as either a nihilistic void, a divine bright one-ness, or an all-knowing and compassionate personal God.

Whatever the concept, that layer of existence is currently beyond our immediate reach. The Vedas speak of a lower world of matter and a higher spiritual world, with layers of subtle energy between them. Matter is the lowest part of that existential hierarchy. It is always in a state of flux, changing shape and composition. That which we know as life is transformations of matter through the illusion known as time. Every living thing passes through stages of birth, growth, reproduction, dwindling and death. But although the body changes the soul remains the same.

The soul, by contrast to the material body, is primeval, existing before our body comes into existence. It is eternal and will never die, even though the body dies. The soul is part of the eternal existence. The soul can enter into another womb at the point of the body’s death.

5. Religion is less important than spirituality: What most people call “religion” (and the reason the world seems to have so many different ones) is the result of climate, language, leadership, cultural conditions and a host of other factors at the time of the religion’s historical inception. Real religion, always, is the esoteric practises – the mystical realisations – that permeate and sustain any spiritual tradition. Not their external forms and terminologies. The Vedas offer many techniques for self-actualisation and these are all collectively known as yoga, or the “linking”. All the techniques of yoga can be seen in adulterated forms in the religions of the world.

6. We’re all at different stages in our spiritual growth, so some paths are good for you, some are good for me: So everyone has to be extremely tolerant, say the Vedas, and that’s the mark of a genuinely spiritual person. Everyone has their own path and is making their own way back to the spiritual nature. You would neither borrow nor condemn someone’s medical prescription – its theirs not yours. Restoring full health is the main thing, not the prescription. Just like a good doctor prescribes differently for different patients, so the Vedas offer different recommendations for different people.

7. But fresh fruit and regular exercise are good for everyone, at all times: The Vedas explain that, while different paths are beneficial for different people, there are nonetheless particular practises that are of universal benefit at all times. Right now, according to the Eastern scriptures and their take on astronomically long periods of time, it’s the Kali Yuga, the “Age of Quarrel and Hypocrisy”, and there is one spiritual technique that is good for everyone, at all times, and in all places. This practise is so powerful that it will act for anyone. It’s known as the Yuga-Dharma, or the “religion for the age.” You can add it to anything else you already do and it will act.

8. Chanting of the Maha-Mantra: In Sanskrit, God is often addressed as Krishna, a word that simply means “The All Attractive”. Hare, pronounced like “Hurray”, and Rama are two other words for the Supreme. When these words are placed together and chanted they are known as a mantra, or a spiritual sound sequence that connects to the inner self, stills the turbulent mind, elevates the consciousness to the spiritual platform, and produces a sense of real happiness and peace. Any other names for God can be used, as they all indicate the same Supreme Being.

9. It’s great to be good: When trying to lead a life of spiritual development, it’s helpful to adopt certain practices that will assist us on the upward path. Practising non-violence, especially refraining from killing or eating animals, is a good start. Keeping away from chemicals which induce artificial highs of consciousness followed by depression is also helpful. While there are many recommendations for making rapid spiritual progress, they can all be synthesised down to a few essential precepts: Austerity, Truth, Cleanliness, and Mercy.

10. It’s helpful to hang out with the holy: Not everyone is the same, despite modern society’s well-intentioned attempts to homogenise us all. Some people, for instance, are miles ahead in the spiritual awakening department. They are knowledgeable, wise, compassionate and friendly. They can stay calm and contemplative even when the world around them disturbs everyone else. They look at life in a detached way and practise a time-tested sadhana - a set of spiritual practises, which can be logically supported by reputable philosophy - or siddhanta. They belong to a community - or sangha - the members of which help to keep them on track. Take at least one of them as your personal spiritual guide, say the Vedas. Ask them sincere questions and try to help them in their mission in life. You’ll feel better for it.

11. God can, and does, periodically make himself known to us: The Vedas speak of many avataras or “descents” of God from the world beyond our senses into the world of matter. Although He/She never has a material form, God can be seen and always acts in order to restore virtue in the world. Historically, these divine appearances are recorded in books such as the Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. One famous conversation which took place is known to us now as the Bhagavad-gita. Sometimes referred to as the Hindu Bible, the Bhagavad-gita has become the most popular and widely-read text in India and throughout the world.

12. Life should be one long party: But a party with God at the centre. If we organise our daily life around Krishna, or God, then all our actions – even the apparently mundane ones – will help bring us closer to perfection. So within the Vaishnava tradition, the tradition based on Vishnu and the numberless incarnations, there are countless ceremonies, celebrations and festivals. There are temples to build and visit; there is dance, theatre, music, poetry, literature, sculpture and singing. And a lot of cooking and feasting. In fact all artistic endeavour can be made as an offering to Vishnu. This is the traditional spiritual culture of India, which has now spread throughout the world.

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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.