Thursday, 24 September 2015

Free Speech

We live in an overcommunicated world. The prevailing culture insists we reply to all text messages within 10 minutes, be mindful of the mountain of emails building up in our inbox, and religiously return random ‘missed calls’ on our phones. Don’t forget to regularly post something witty on Facebook, follow your best friends on twitter and utilise all the free airtime minutes on your contract! It is, after all, good to talk. But what is the net result of this web of exchange? Does it foster a greater sense of relationship and community? Is it a case of more connected, but further apart?

Silence, it’s said, is the art of conversation. You may have noticed how we struggle with a quiet moment. When it does arise, most will instinctively grab their smartphone in a desperate attempt to engage their mind. Think about the last time you saw someone, under the age of 30, sitting down and doing absolutely nothing. Rare indeed! Even more unusual is to be with another person and not utter a word. It feels awkward and uneasy. Alien and unnerving. Yet silence is imperative – it forces us to understand, assimilate, reflect and think deeply about what is actually going on. Often times, however, in order to frantically fill those vacant moments, we end up generating substandard content to share with the world: meaningless, inconsiderate and shoddy communication.

Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely room for chitchat, niceties, and light-hearted exchange between humans. It would be unnatural to jump to the other extreme of strictly regulating our every word. The Bhagavad-gita, however, offers the over-arching model to guide speech. Words, Krishna recommends, should be truthful, pleasing and beneficial. How much of our written and verbal communication would make it through this filter? Along with freedom of speech, it may be worthwhile to remind people of their longstanding right to freedom of thought. Think once before you act, twice before you speak, and three times before you post something on facebook.

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something” (Plato)

Wednesday, 16 September 2015


I’d like to make a confession (nothing major). While driving on the M25 last week, I sped ahead on the main carriageway and then abruptly cut into the junction exit road; a convenient way to avoid the huge tailbacks and get to my destination pronto. As you can imagine, I got quite a few angry horns and unsavory looks. It prompted me to think about whether spiritualists need to worry themselves with worldly morality. How important is it to follow social niceties? Is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ simply a subjective and relative worldview based on the prevailing cultural milieu of the day? Isn’t a spiritualist automatically moral? Does following such ethics contribute anything to the divine journey?

Although following a transcendental path, a healthy amount of down-to-earth morality may not go amiss:
  • It helps the world - morals, ethics and conventions govern human interaction, creating peaceful and progressive civilization for everyone. Spiritual or not, we’re all living in the world and it helps to keep things in order
  • It helps us - following moral codes fosters a more considerate consciousness within ourselves. We develop a sense of respect, empathy and thoughtfulness, which supports our spiritual endeavours. 
  • It helps our purpose - Although the average Jo may not value profound philosophical understanding, they will likely be impressed by a ‘good’ person. Immoral spiritualists may find that their lofty presentations only go so far.
Yet is seems that this innate sense of morality, an inherent sense of right and wrong, has a deeper spiritual drive behind it. We have a sensitivity and selflessness programmed into us, which instinctively checks us from madly pursuing what we want and completely disregarding others. It seems there is someone within, prompting that sensitivity and selflessness, reminding us that cultivating these qualities will bring us to a higher state of consciousness and a deeper sense of happiness. The repeated message reverberates loud and clear - "we find ourselves, by thinking of others."

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Divine Grace

On this day (13th August), 50 years ago, an unassuming mendicant stepped onto a cargo ship with practically nothing, and set off for America. It was a humble but historic beginning.

Dear Srila Prabhupada,

You were the local sadhu, the unassuming resident of Vrindavana, humbly residing at your simple but tranquil quarters at Radha Damodara Temple. Then you journeyed to the godforsaken Bowery and lived alongside buzzing acidheads, bearded bohemians, ruined alcoholics and disillusioned dropouts. People were shocked at your strategic relocation to the skid row of New York, but in those alien surroundings you were completely at peace. You were always living with Krishna, living with the order of Guru, and therefore everywhere was home for you. Who can understand your consciousness?

You were a streetwise manager, practical and bold, one step ahead, and as sharp as a saw. “In two things never be shy” you often said, “business and eating!” Yet you were simultaneously a complete saint, generous and kind, fanning the spark without calculation and compassionately bringing out the best in others. You extended yourself beyond the call of duty, regardless of mistakes, weakness or deviation. Who can understand your heart?

You unflinchingly called rich industrialists ‘thieves,’ established scientists ‘rascals,’ and influential politicians ‘demoniac.’ Your speech was often harder than a thunderbolt. Yet you embodied deep humility, offered all credit to your guru, and shed tears of gratitude while thanking your disciples for their sincere endeavours to help. You were, without a doubt, softer than a rose. Who can understand your character?

You lived such a public life – thousands of lectures, hours of meetings, streams of interviews and endless conversations. You were followed, recorded and videoed for most hours of the day. In the glaring spotlight, and found to be completely spotless. Yet your internal life was profound beyond comprehension. In the solitude of the morning hours you bathed in the scriptures, availed of the saintly association of our predecessors, and connected so deeply with the holy names of Krishna. You were in constant communion with God. Who can understand your devotion?

You were grave and serious, chaste and uncompromising. You never fell short of conveying the absolute truth, exposing the material phantasmagoria time and time again. Yet at the same time you knew how to laugh, a sense of humour which had an appreciation for Charlie Chaplain sketches and the amusing statements of Birbal. Full of joy, you showed how to practice spiritual life with a smile. Who can understand your shining personality?

The list goes on… forever and ever. The typing stops here, but my mind is still churning the paradoxical facets of your remarkable personality.

Where there is substantial service, sacrifice, seriousness and sincerity… that’s where we meet you. The spiritual master lives forever in his instructions, and the follower lives with him. I’m praying for the day when I’ll wholeheartedly serve you without hesitancy or resistance. No holding back. Then I have the firm conviction you will call me, and I will see you… face to face – the perfection of life. When oh when.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Double-edged Sword

The Bhagavad-gita likens knowledge to a sword (jnana-asina). Its sharp edge can lop off our doubts and give birth to firm conviction. Yet, the acquisition of knowledge comes with a great responsibility. If one neglects to cultivate the appropriate devotional disposition, the sword of knowledge can actually be misused in one’s spiritual journey. Ancient sages therefore placed immense emphasis on the development of character, especially for those who were receiving the gift of wise words.

Knowledge without humility can give someone a falsely over-rated notion of their own spiritual status. Complacent and proud, their internal growth is stunted, leaving them highly susceptible to attacks of illusion. Knowledge without compassion and soft-heartedness can render one insensitive, condescending and judgmental. It can impair one’s vision of others, and block them from having the necessary discernment to mediate human relationships. Knowledge without a deep sense of selflessness can lead to exploitation, manipulation and deviation, creating a crisis of faith amongst unassuming followers. A leader is not ascertained simply by how much he knows, but by who he is. Knowledge without practical application can lead one into the deserts of dry philosophizing and mental gymnastics, falling way short of the incredible spiritual experiences that come from walking the talk. Krishna stresses that one who is actually in knowledge gives their heart and soul in the spirit of service.

It was Socrates who said that real education is not about filling up a basket, but about rekindling a light from within. The sages who scribed so many verses and offered the world so much knowledge, repeatedly warned us not to simply read the books in a scholarly or academic way, but understand the spirit and call to action of the divine words. Srila Prabhupada repeatedly stressed that real education is character development. His name reminds us of the balance we have to strike – “Bhaktivedanta: knowledge with devotion.” I'm seeking the company of those who have perfectly married these principles, for I have neither. That’s the winning formula.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Good humans

We recently returned from the annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury. The iconic music festival has a remarkable history. What began 40 years ago with one pound tickets, free milk, and a few thousand people, has now grown to a tented city of 180,000 people, high profile performances and a media spotlight bringing an audience of tens of millions. What has remained, however, is the sense of idealism, activism, counter culture and ‘outside the box’ approach. It’s a refreshing contrast to an otherwise conformist world, and I did indeed have several interesting conversations in my short weekend stay there.

At approximately 2.00am on Sunday morning a fairy entered our tent. Well, he was actually an East Anglian insurance broker and father-of-three who was in costume for the weekend! We sat down and spontaneously began exchanging reflections on life, the universe and everything. He appreciated our spiritual contribution, charitable disposition and jolly approach, but confessed he wasn’t a ‘believer.’ He identified himself as humanist, suggesting that people could live happy and meaningful lives through open communication, strong morals, and healthy criticism, without any need for metaphysical or spiritual belief. He found no grounds to believe in God or religion. But, he said, “I believe man – in man’s creative power, in man’s innate goodness, in man’s endeavour to better the world through discovery, discussion, honest hard work and love.” Passionately gesticulating he ended in a crescendo: “for me, humanity is divine, and divinity is redundant!” I appreciated his heartfelt presentation, but, as you can imagine, I wasn’t quite convinced.

For many, the horrors of the world, the war, injustice, crime and suffering through centuries, can only signal the supreme triumph of atheism. After all, who could believe in God in the face of such horrifying acts of violence and brutality? Many more, however, would argue that it is humanity devoid of genuine spirituality and metaphysical worth that creates such problems. Indeed, humanity has been responsible for moral, social and political catastrophes. Sometimes it was humanity that was supposedly inspired by God, and sometimes it was humanity that was entirely and utterly atheistic. The common denominator, however, in the problem: humanity not divinity. We are innately good, but that goodness is only activated through genuine spirituality. We are good, only when we know who we really are. True goodness rests upon a profound and broad understanding of ourselves, the universe, and its ultimate purpose. History repeatedly shows that the net result of atheism and superficial religious belief, is that we inevitably sink into immorality and selfishness. Attempts to foster goodness and purity on the material platform are neither universal nor sustainable.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Public Eye

For most, personal space is an indispensable commodity. While traveling on London Underground recently, I noticed how everyone in the carriage had strategically sat so that there was an empty seat in-between them. Rather than filling the gap, a boarding passenger walked all the way to the other side of the train where he found a reasonable amount of vacant real estate. Interesting indeed. It’s a stark contrast to Indian trains where people can practically sit on top of you without a second thought! Although modern culture prides itself in personal space and privacy, the traditional cultures of communal setup and public life may be more supportive to our spirituality. Close company of others is not only inspirational and instructive, but also highly protective.

Where do your thoughts and actions gravitate towards when you are alone? What is your natural level of spiritual absorption behind closed doors? Good questions to assess our spiritual whereabouts, since our weaknesses are often exposed when nobody else is watching. Monastic life, traditionally a student phase, is therefore highly public. Being surrounded by so many spiritual eyes is actually a great protection, forcing one to function on a higher level. It may seem artificial and forced, but spending a good portion of your life under such supervision gives you a good chance of developing the maturity and stability to do it alone.

Yet privacy has its part to play - how can we hear the soul when everyone else is talking? Quiet time alone fuels our introspection and reflection. When we are away from the gaze of others, with nobody to impress and nothing to achieve, it can help us dig a little deeper and develop more sincerity and genuineness. We can't always be in the full view of others, because while managing their impressions of us, we become addicted to praise and affirmation, unknowingly chained to public opinion. In exhausting ourselves to be somebody in their eyes, we never quite find ourselves... we never find God.

The saints conclude that privacy is a dangerous necessity. Embrace it with caution - it can make you or break you.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Miraculous Meetings

We’re back on the road, traveling the country for the next four months. Every town has its flavour, and every day is unique. It’s quite a task to stop someone in their tracks, cut through the myriad of thoughts, penetrate the bubble of their life and begin a dialogue about deeper subject matter. Some people naturally tune in to the concept of ancient wisdom, while others are sceptical, uninterested and otherwise-engaged. Either way we always have a laugh, a smile and learn something from each other!

Every day we experience a small miracle. Last week, on our way to Torquay, the driver lost his bearings and we accidently parked up in Paignton, a small neighbouring town. As we got onto the high street, we realised we were in the wrong place! I rushed to the car park to fetch the van while the rest of the team waited on the street corner. One of our budding monks, Nikhil, was convinced we had come there for a reason (he was the driver who brought us to the wrong place!). In his two-minute ‘window of opportunity’ he decided to approach the first pedestrian and explain what we were doing.

As he turned to a random passer-by, the man stopped almost instantaneously. “We are the monks, traveling the country and teaching people about meditation and spirituality” Nikhil said. With a sparkle in his eye and a look of disbelief the man replied: “Amazing! I’ve been looking for you guys!” He went on to explain how he had received one of our books, read it cover to cover, and begun practicing mantra meditation… all by himself. He has never had any contact with a Hare Krishna community, temple, or practicing devotee. He simply read the book, became convinced and proceeded to string his own beads. Now he carries those beads with him everywhere he goes, quietly whispering the Hare Krishna mantra to himself.

So there was indeed a reason why we stopped in Paignton that day. A miraculous meeting, likely orchestrated by providence. Here’s a short interview with James, without doubt a very special soul:

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Ego Death

The three biggest fears in life: exams, public speaking and death. Of them, the final is probably the most acute. As that fateful hour approaches, everything we worked so hard for is snatched away, throwing our entire sense of identity and purpose into question. On a subtle level, however, we are regularly subjecting ourselves to this disturbing experience. How so? The world teaches us to base our sense of identity and self-worth on transitory, external and artificial considerations. When we identify with our abilities, facilities and positions of responsibility, then we set ourselves up for crisis. Why? Because the undisputable nature of this world is that such things will almost always fade away over time.

We pride ourselves in our ‘unique’ abilities – but then we witness our own ineptitude, or find someone far more qualified and competent. Painful. We find comfort in karmic gifts like beauty, physique, learning and wealth – but the waves of time callously cause them to eventually crumble. Painful. We feel valuable because of our reputation, influence and position in society – but everyone has their day, after which we all have to make way. Painful. Constant change is the underlying theme of the material phantasmagoria – its unstoppable (cannot be checked), unpredictable (will happen at any time) and uncontrollable (could occur in any way). Thus, we suffer a subtle ego death every time we falsely identify with the temporary.

Thus, wisdom teachers continually remind us to focus on our eternal, unchanging, ontological identity. As spiritual beings, our true ego lies in being a selfless servant. Everything we receive in the journey of life is simply a facility and detail in pursuance of this, with any given situation always offering a unique opportunity for selfless service. In such spiritual consciousness, all anxieties, fear and dissatisfaction disappear. You may have the experience of coming home in the evening after a day ‘in the world.’ Surrounded by our closest family and friends, we can kick back, relax and be ourselves - no artificiality, no acting, no masks. Here we feel completely comfortable, safe and natural. Imagine the satisfaction, joy, and sense of fulfilment we can experience if we live each day with the clear consciousness of who we really are... spirit souls and selfless servants. That’s the ultimate in 'being yourself.'

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