Is It A Religion? Trying To Explain Something That People Never Quite Seem To Understand.

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My third A-Level was Geography. I viewed it as a bit of a soft option. I never struggled to understand it, it didn’t make my brain melt the way German grammar did. It was very information heavy but that was my speciality – memorising tons and tons of information and regurgitating it on demand. My favourite part was the module on ethnicity. Human Geography that was actually interesting; not just stuff about where traffic lights go, as the Doctor so scathingly says. Ethnicity is commonly used in place of the word ‘race’ but in Geography it has a broader, more nuanced meaning. According to the OED it refers to ‘the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition’. (It’s a bit more than that, but that will do for now.) We looked at deeply divided societies – Sri Lanka, Kosovo and our own – Northern Ireland.

I thought about my own jumbled identity, of feeling like a peculiar patchwork. It would be very nice to have a proper label, to neatly fit into a recognisable category that actually means something to people; something that they actually understand. I suspect a lot of people see the religion I grew up in as some weird, made-up thing; not real. Even I see it as weird but I feel irritated if people don’t understand that it is a real religion. It is in fact ‘formally related to a tradition of considerable historical stature in India’ (Knott, 1986: 86), that of bhakti Hinduism.

I sense that people think there is something very odd about adopting a religion from the East. What do we view as normal with regards to religion? Sticking to the one you were born with? Adopting the predominant faith in the country you live in? Converting because of who you married? We are familiar with Christianity spreading but I’m not aware that other major world religions undertake the same missionary endeavours as the Christians. People do convert to Judaism but it is passed through the mother’s line and efforts are made to encourage the young to marry within the faith. Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion but I don’t really know of any efforts to convert people to Islam. I suppose there’s Sinead O’Connor and Cat Stevens… Buddhism is admittedly practiced throughout the Western world; I perceive it as having a very middle-class image here.

I wonder about the spread of religion and the idea of adopting a faith different to the one you grew up with. In our Eurocentric view of the world, we are very used to the idea of religion moving from West to East, missionaries and colonial efforts to ‘civilize the natives’, the product of cultural imperialism and religious conviction. I listened to an episode of Book Club on Radio 4 where William Dalrymple talks about his book From The Holy Mountain which traces the decline of Eastern Christianity. He claims that Eastern Christianity has largely been forgotten and points out that Christianity is indeed an Eastern religion. Christianity certainly has been absorbed by the Western world, to the extent that Jesus is usually portrayed as a white man with blond hair and blue eyes. One could perhaps therefore say that the spread of religion from East to West is well-established.

Christianity is very much a democratic religion for everyone. The same can be said for Vaishnavism. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu democratised kirtan, the chanting of mantras that had previously been guarded by the brahmin class. His mission was harinam sankirtan – chanting of the holy names in the streets, for everyone to join in. And that was what AC Bhaktivedanta Swami did, sitting under a tree in Tomkins Square Park in New York’s East Village. He was considered quite radical by his peers. Where the British thought they were ‘civilising the natives’, AC Bhaktivedanta Swami’s peers disapproved of him spreading Chaitanya’s teachings to ‘fallen souls’ who ate meat and drank alcohol.

And so we have it, the Hare Krishnas dancing up and down Oxford Street. When I see them, I feel like an embarrassed teenager. I hear the ching, ching, ching of the cymbals and feel the need to hide, maybe in the Zara or the New Look around the corner from the temple. I really don’t like that people’s only point of reference is one that I find so embarrassing. Kim Knott wrote of them: ‘It is a little like sitting in the front row at the circus or walking past a drunk’ (1986: 19). A part of me just wants people to know what it all is. Some brief insight that provides some basic understanding. I’m not sure how much people do know. There is a difference between what I see on Oxford Street and my own experience of kirtan; it is often very different behind closed doors. It’s not supposed to be a performance, simply hearing the names of Krishna is said to bring people closer to God. But I don’t think people know anything beyond the song they sing. It’s odd for me to hear people express their opinions about what they see and hear. Some people love them, some people loudly say that they are crazy. I’m often struck by the bonkers things people reveal they think, the odd questions they ask. Is it a religion? Yes. Are they on drugs? No. They don’t take any drugs and that includes caffeine. Is that where I learnt to belly dance? Most certainly not. (That was my attempt to build some sort of body positivity, a celebration of femininity to redress the sense of shame and repression I felt growing up.) Someone else thought we were nudists. We genuinely couldn’t have been less naked. A friend told me how a lady yelled ‘They’re in it for the sex!’ at a harinam chanting party. Sex? What sex? We made Catholicism look liberal.

Why the clothes? It was what AC Bhaktivedanta Swami wanted. Let me borrow another chunk from Kim Knott:

‘One explanation of the devotees’ appearance is the need to be distinctive, to be recognised,… Before you can interest people in your wares you must let them know that you are there. Their unusual presentation cannot be ignored. Neither can this style of dress easily be confused with the dress of other spiritual groups. While saffron is the colour often worn by other Eastern religions, the shaved head and the tail of hair remain to distinguish the chanting party from the ‘orange’ followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh and the Buddhists.’ (1986:15)

Why do I wear a sari? Because sometimes when I go to the temple, everyone else is and I feel strange if I don’t. I’m enchanted by the beautiful fabrics, the colours, the patterns, the gold trim. I bought red and white bangles when I got married. I wear my ankle bells and feel a bit like a cat with a bell around it’s neck, unable to sneak up on anyone.
Growing up, I observed the types of people who came to the temple. There were the eclectic hippy types who talked about positive energy and angels. Some of them danced wildly, arms snaking above their heads. I think they felt they had found a free welcoming place where they could be uninhibited, which is lovely but we thought they were weird and tried not to laugh at them. As they learnt more, they usually stopped coming. They weren’t looking for a socially conservative, abstemious, prescriptive religion with a focus on celibacy and following scripture. Or perhaps they would still come, but just for the end of the kirtan before the food was served. (Quite a lot of people would do that on a Sunday.) The yoga types brought their foam blocks to sit on but they were taken aback by how much we ate and how deep fried everything was. Sorry, we shook our heads apologetically, we didn’t have anything vegan, raw or sugar free. Sometimes Anthropology students came to the temple to learn more in order to write their dissertation. (Have you ever been the subject of anthropological fieldwork?) We had some rather conventional people with proper jobs who came along regularly. They became very keen and involved and then invariably just disappeared one day. One lady went back to being a Mormon.

A friend told me recently how she was quite impressed with the Hare Krishnas last time she saw them on Oxford St. She said it seemed like a party or a rave. People have commented similar things before. Someone said, ‘They just need some tequila now’. I frowned and felt irritated. Is it the dancing and percussion that confuse people? What do we associate dancing and percussion with? Alcohol? Getting off with someone? Probably not religion. Do we have any conception of dancing without alcohol being involved? Do we have any understanding of dancing, of joy and noise and music being part of the religious, cultural fabric of people’s lives? Christianity, as I have encountered it, strikes me as a rather still religion – they stand and sing hymns. I thought it was was a very boring religion when I first went to school in Northern Ireland. I know the Jews dance, at dry weddings, men and women separately, like we did, to music that grows ever faster. That said, music and joy are a big part of the Evangelical Christian worship and religious experience. I also watched a BBC documentary that showed a sacred candle ceremony as part of the Easter celebrations at the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Celebrated by Orthodox Christians, the ceremony involved lots of drums and dancing.

I remember attending an enormous event in Los Angeles. Men came and tried to talk to us, drawn to the mass of girls dancing, dressed in bright colours. We sent them to the Q&A tent where a kindly but serious man in spectacles and saffron robes would tell them about the Bhagavad Gita. They suddenly seemed less interested.

I’m still left not quite knowing what to say to people. Some people say they grew up with Indian culture but we’re not Indian so I don’t say that and most of the Indian families I knew had quite different values to ours. Hindu doesn’t seem quite right either. (There is of course the question of what Hinduism is, with it being so vast that there is no commonly agreed single set of teachings. They say the British came up with the term to refer to the people who lived on one side of the Indus valley.) Some people say Vedic culture but I’m not sure many people know what the Vedas are. I could say I grew up as a Vaishnava but that would possibly mean even less. I don’t like saying I’m a Hare Krishna because people’s point of reference is so limited. I mostly stick to ‘unusual religious community’ and will reveal more if I feel sufficiently comfortable with you.

No-one’s written much about my bizarre life experiences. So I find myself piecing together fragments and sentiments borrowed from other people’s stories, stories that in many ways have very little to do with mine but are tales of being an outsider. Tales of the search to fit in and simultaneous bemusement at those around them. I read Dina Nayeri with interest. She talks about people’s tendancy to make fun of her in a way that puzzled her, that made it very clear that they knew nothing. She talked of her mother’s cardamom cookies, sweets flavoured with rosewater rather than vanilla and the tussle of wanting to retain your identity but also wanting to fit in, of wanting to fit in but thinking people were daft and unobservant. I related to how she spent her teenage years plotting how best to get into a high ranking university, her conviction that educational success would bring a sense of belonging.

I read Guinevere Turner’s account of growing up in a doomsday personality cult where people took acid and waited to be transported to another planet. I really hope I don’t need to detail for you how far this was from what I grew up with. Yet there certainly are similarities between our experiences of navigating life in the outside world. Her slightly vague response about where she is from, feeling it’s often easiest not to bother telling a very unusual story. She also talked about the positive experiences she cherished and that it wasn’t a simple case of it all being really weird, something to escape, to erase. ‘You don’t know how it was’ she said, with a defensive, protective feeling. I loved the following quote: ‘How could I talk about an upbringing that was so strange to people? How could I make sense of my own history without sensationalizing it, or turning it into a punch line?’

I read and listen in an attempt to make sense of my own history. I got a book about new religious movements out of the library. It didn’t say anything about the Hare Krishnas other than it was a form of Krsna-worshipping Hinduism from the Vedas. I feel it missed a lot about the difficulties of trying to transport a predominantly male monastic tradition from Bengal to the 20th century Western world… You may have gathered by now how much I like Radio 4. I listened to various episodes of In Our Time about creation, the Bhagavad Gita, Lakshmi, the Upanishads. I liked the academic presentation, the erudite discussion of scripture. It’s closer to what I know, all the Sanskrit verses we learned to chant, the hours of talks on scripture I sat through. I’m not sure people necessarily want to hear about this or have Sanskrit verses quoted at them when they start to mansplain or say daft, poorly thought out things. Food and music are certainly more accessible.

I suspect that’s why some of my friends started Kirtan London. We hold kirtan every Friday at a venue in Covent Garden and people come and sing with us. One lady told us that she often went to kirtan in Australia and loved it. She’d looked for kirtan in London but had chosen our event because she didn’t want to go to a Hare Krishna kirtan. How amused we were…

And so I trundle about London, with my cake tin, going from work to kirtan. My kartals clink in my handbag as I rummage about to find my keys. My patchwork existence, I sit on the kitchen floor, playing my harmonium while the dal bubbles away on the stove. People sometimes ask what it is and what it is for, the polished wooden box that sits on the floor, with a keyboard of three octaves, my beloved if wheezy harmonium that my mum lugged back from India for me. I’m usually a bit vague. I suppose I could launch into an explanation – ‘In 15th century Bengal, the chanting of the holy names….’. But I don’t. It’s just too long a story. However, if you would like to come over for kirtan, I am often annoyed by the neighbours playing Christian rock music very loudly. I feel it might be No. 12’s turn to provide some loud religious music that reverberates through the walls.

William Dalrymple on Book Club, discussing his book From The Holy Mountain –
Green, E. (2013) Convincing Millenials To Marry A Nice Jewish Boy in the Atlantic -
Knott, K. (1986) My Sweet Lord: The Hare Krishna Movement. Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press.
Nayeri, D. (2017) The Ungrateful Refugee, published by the Guardian –
Nayeri, D. (2019) ‘I Wouldn’t Be The Refugee, I’d Be The Girl Who Kicked Ass’: How Taekwondo Made Me -The Guardian –
Oxford English Dictionary (2010) Oxford: Oxford University Press
Turner, G. (2019) My Childhood In a Cult from the New Yorker –
Sacred Wonders – shown on BBC One –