Friday, 15 July 2016

My evening at the Hari Krishna Temple: A Few Theoolgical Thoughts

This week I was invited to Bhaktivedanta Manor, the Hari Krishna Temple donated by the Beatles guitarist George Harrison in 1972, in what was then the idyllic Hertfordshire village of Letchmore Heath. I had driven past the sign pointing to the temple many times, as my parish is just ten minutes' drive up the road from there, but I had never visited, so I was delighted to accept the invitation. I was aware, as I read the details of the event, of how very little I know of Hari Krishna, and as I drove up the winding driveway past polytunnles filled with flowers and vegetables, into a car park facing a quintessentially English country manor house with a signpost leading to George Harrison's garden and the Women's Ashram, I knew I had arrived somewhere unique and beautiful.

During the evening I chatted with, and listened to, some fascinating people. One, a Professor of Religious Studies and Holocaust specialist, film-maker, broadcaster and Director of Strategic Planning for the United Nations Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, was one of the first devotees (I shall return to that word later) of Krishna at Bhaktivedanta. We talked about his books on the Swami who was so influential on George Harrison in the 1960s and on the Holocaust and the complex nature of witness testimony. Within minutes we were talking about the concept of testimony in early Christian martyrdom, and the dating of the Gospels, and I was making the first of many connections of the evening, as I realised that the questions we ask as humans, and the ways in which we relate to the history of our faith communities, are far more interconnected than the particularity of our religious vocabulary would suggest. 

Another fascinating person was the Baptist minister who spoke compellingly of his conversion to Christian faith as a first-year Chemistry student at university, having rejected his Hindu upbringing, complete with visits to Bhaktivedanta, in his late teens. He spoke in clear, evangelical language, of his conversion of both head and heart, and of his ongoing relationship with Christ. I didn't quite agree with all that he said, but that is so often true of people following the same faith. Hearing him speak reminded me of the question which I haven't heard for years; 'What is God doing in your life?' Here was someone who could speak, honestly and confidently, of the movement of the Spirit within his life and the impact of a living prayer relationship. We Anglicans don't tend to probe each other's inner lives too deeply; like the archetypal Anglican Queen Elizabeth I, we choose, more often than not, not to open mirrors into men's (and women's) souls, maybe, I found myself wondering, to all of our loss. The very word 'devotee' conjures up images of a person who is, by definition, devoted to God; do we, as Christians, see ourselves and each other as devotees? 

I chatted with two people from Roman Catholic backgrounds who both saw no conflict or compromise in embracing Krishna with holding on to their Christian faith. Jesus, for them, was their first Guru. One of them, the Director of The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, spoke of the spiritual practice of Bhakti, translated as 'devotion' or 'sharing'. I learnt a lot from his presentation, in which he suggested that although our bodies are temporal, our inner selves are eternal, as eternal as the divine, and therefore utterly free as only the eternal can be, so that every act of service and kindness is a truly free choice. One thing he said grabbed my attention: 'You can call yourself a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu, a Jew, whatever. But show me what you do, and I'll work out what kind of person you are, and how I want to associate with you.' What a challenge! It took me instantly to the words of James in the New Testament; 'I by my works will show you my faith.' 

The other person from a Roman Catholic background, an American woman, talked of finding not one but two spiritual homes in the UK, Bhaktivedanta Manor and Wells Cathedral. We talked over dinner of the theological implications of this religious dual-nationality; it was suggested that, as the Judeo-Christian tradition has no distinct philosophy of its own, but rather reflects on Greek philosophy, seeing Jesus through the lens of Plato and Aristotle, it could be valid to see Jesus through the lens of Hindu philosophy. There are, of course, big questions to do with the uniqueness of Jesus as the God-Man, the various statuses of divine beings and the non-negotiability of monotheism within the Judeo-Christian tradition. I could understand the argument, but was not entirely convinced that these questions could be easily put aside. 

Nonetheless, the conversations sparked off thoughts which were either new, or long-forgotten, to me: as Christians, we think and talk a lot about life after death, but what about life before birth? The Hindu notion of the eternity of the human self calls into mind the question of where we are before we are born. Why do we not ask this more in Christian theology? The implications for the ethics of abortion are obvious, but a deeper and richer theological exploration of what 'life before birth' means in Christian theology would be a profound enrichment of our ethics. 

And what about our bodies? At first glance, it could be assumed that Hindus would be less concerned with the wellbeing of their bodies than Christians, given the belief that the body is something lesser than the real, eternal self. But, in all honesty, the Hindus take far better care of their bodies than most Christians do, eschewing caffeine and alcohol, and being very clean living. The Christians and Hindus present shared the sense of the human body as the temple of the divine; I found myself wondering if we Christians have somehow lost sight of that concept despite its clear Biblical precedent. I, for one, found the idea of living without caffeine and alcohol a bit challenging!

Finally, back to the subject of the evening, devotion. For the Vaisnavas at Bhaktivedanta Manor, devotion means, among other things, getting up around 4am for prayers. Devotion means ritual bathing every morning. Devotion means hard work looking after animals, especially cows. Devotion is a way of life. As a Christian priest who has recently finished teaching a course in Christian Spirituality which started with the Desert Parents and Benedictine monasteries and ended in Catholic Worker Farms, I found myself reflecting candidly on myself; how devoted am I? What does devotion look like in my life? Show me what you do. Those words will stay with me for, I hope, a long time. And I hope that, like James, I will be able to say, 'I by my works will show you my faith.'