Category Archives: Family

The Perfect Family

Call the family. Gather friends. Sign papers. Put away bright clothes. Every tradition has its own sequence of events that are set in motion when someone passes away.

In the tradition of bhakti yoga, the first priority is to gather together and sing God’s names. Doing so is part-prayer, part-emotional release, and partly for the benefit of the soul of the departed. It’s an all purpose activity. In a recent kirtan workshop I was helping to run in Australia, I called it the Swiss Army knife of yoga practises. I’m sure it could be put more poetically, but it’s quite true.

So last night, after the morning passing of a dear uncle and member of our temple community, we gathered in the evening to sing. Throughout the day, the news had spread and now hundreds of well-wishers and friends streamed through the temple doors to pay their respects. One of the most touching things was the breadth and diversity of the people that came. For different reasons, groups are usually a bit segregated in our temple community. Over the years, Sundays have been mostly attended by the Gujarati/Indian members of the congregation, whereas a different demographic is represented on other days. But last was one of those rare occasions where everyone you could think of was present – young, old, families and ashram residents, even some faces I hadn’t seen around for years.

In the passing of a loved one, we were united. It was a testament to the breadth of the love he showed, and it brought us together to form what felt like the perfect family. Family doesn’t mean blood or the same last name. The bhakti tradition teaches that we are all the same in essence – and that our ultimate goal – to love God, is the same. In realising this together, sharing our sadness together, praying together, sharing our appreciation for a dear friend and giving each other strength, we felt the closeness of true family. Though it may be too big to fit in a family portrait; it may be more multi-coloured than a Benetton ad; more complex than any family counselor could handle, it felt perfect to me.

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Stop The Clocks

Today began with a 4am drive into central London, where a dear friend and uncle was passing away. It was quite unexpected, as these things usually are. We bundled out of the car into the biting March wind, desperately trying to find the main entrance to the hospital. Lights were out, seats empty – reception desks abandoned in the early hours. Unusual things catch your attention in such moments, and I noticed the chorus of birds singing incredibly sweetly just before we reached the sliding doors.

Upstairs in the ICU, close to fifty friends and family had gathered to say a last farewell. Nurses were even threatening to call security as the number swelled and the hallways became packed with clusters of people. I had a couple of minutes to say goodbye – a strange, dreamlike moment amidst the chaos, then back downstairs to wait. It wasn’t long. Death comes fast, especially when you least expect it. According to the culture of bhakti yoga, the most important thing to do in times of happiness or distress is chant the names of God. In doing so we connect with our Divine source, with each other and with our essential nature. So even though it probably turned some heads on a Wednesday morning in the hospital reception, we sung our hearts out. Tears streamed and voices rose, some ragged, some strong and powerful, determined to make this moment count. We sang for the safe passage of our dear friend, we sang to honour him, and we sang because that is what we do.

My Dad and I sat for a while when we got home, reflecting on the reality of death, and the lessons we must learn and learn again, each time we lose another dear one. He remarked that whilst we spend so much of life worrying about our own happiness and satisfaction, what ultimately matters at the end is how much we did for others. These moments, the times we serve, the times we care, nurture, assist and selflessly give, accumulate like the tiny particles of pollen on the leg of a bee. Though they may seem insignificant, it is these tiny, golden specks that collect in life’s jar to become the honey. No one knows when their time will come, but whenever it does, the jar will reveal how much you made a difference in the lives of those around you.

As much as death is a sad occasion, it is a cause for celebration. The person that leaves us also gives a gift – the chance to reexamine who we hold dear and cherish them, the chance to look again at the things we choose to prioritise and most of all, the chance to come together and sing in kirtan – the beating heart of the bhakti tradition.

Two years ago I wrote a little adaptation of the famous W.H. Auden poem – ‘Stop The Clocks’. It is quite melancholy, and often read at funerals, but this version speaks more of the way I see this last farewell.

Vaishnava Farewell

after W.H. Auden

The sun will rise soon, throw off your sleep,

Today we will celebrate, we shall not weep,

Leave your houses as bells resound,

Let the drums and cymbals be heard all around.

Let unseen aeroplanes circle above,

Let them gather to hear our offerings of love

Hang fragrant garlands around each door

Give rice in hand to the young and poor

The shore bears witness as we honour you today,

May our prayers be your ferry as the ocean gives way

You have nothing to fear as you leave this place,

Run now, run to his waiting embrace!

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Boy Scout Fry Out

Come an emergency, all good boy scouts must know how to: start a fire, tie a reef knot, send messages in morse code, and frankly, knowing how to make puris and pakoras comes in handy in a spot of trouble too.

The other night our whole family was invited to Mali’s scout group to show them how to cook up a full Indian meal: rice, pakoras, puris, chutney, matar panir and halava. The scout leader had been to the temple and wanted the boys to get the full experience!

It was so much fun. Hyperactive boys + hot oil + messy ingredients is always a recipe for excitement, and these boys didn’t disappoint. My team was making puris, and within minutes they were beating up the dough to within an inch of its life, and rolling the puris into hearts, faces, and quite a few unmentionables too (much to their delight when they puffed up).

At the end of the evening, they all lined up for the tasting, jostling and elbowing to go first. My dad said a prayer, and we served until the pots were empty. One boy came up for four helpings of halava, and said he wished he could eat it everyday. Give him a few years – he’ll probably end up living in the temple.

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Daylight Come

Dawn in the Harrison household. The first glow of orange tints the horizon. All is still.

Suddenly, a cacophony of alarms begin to sound. Electric beeping in six discordant tones, crackly self recorded music from mobile phone alarms, ringing sounds – coming from five different parts of the house. They ring for a few minutes, then gradually, abruptly stop. Exactly five minutes later, it all begins again. Someone stirs. Someone calls out for someone else to come and spray water on their face. The minutes pass. The third round of alarms begin.

We are a family with good intentions. We all value getting up early, and we all try, but we don’t always find it easy. Still, it’s much easier now that the seasons are changing. Winter in England is a terrible time to get up, whatever the hour. But now it’s almost May, and the mornings have been fresh, warm, and full of promise. Before the school children and people going to work stir the air, it’s heavy with the scent of spring blossoms, and the fields of yellow rapeseed nearby.

It’s not hard to feel inspired on mornings like this. In fact, I’m grateful for them, as they strengthen my resolve to be up early, no matter the season. In Vedic terms, this early time is called the brahma muhurta, and is considered extremely conducive to learning and elevating thought. I know I can feel it, very tangibly.

Today I came upon a quote I really like about getting up early, from Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’. He said ‘All memorable events … transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say ‘All intelligences awake in the morning.’ Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour.’

I’ve been finishing of the bibliography for one of my university projects today, and I also found this piece of music, commonly sung every morning in the 1800s in Californian Mission churches¬† – El Cantico del Alba. It praises the Virgin Mary, and I think it’s very uplifting and beautiful melody. I could write more about morning music, but perhaps I’ll save that for another blog.

Our cherry tree looks good in the morning too…

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Namamali aged Eleven

Next month my brother will turn twelve. I can still remember the day he was born, waking up in the morning to realise my mum was already gone, and driving with a stomach full of butterflies to the hospital. He was a squished, squirming, tangle of limbs with a funny shaped head, but my sister and I were totally captivated. Our brother. Like no other.

Now he’s on the verge of teenagehood and I can hardly believe that so many years have passed since we sat in that hospital room, laughing that ‘When he’s twelve, Jahnavi will be twenty-two!’. It seemed absurd that I would be so old so soon. But I am, and so is he, and so are we all. Time moves faster than we do.

Here’s some little videos I took of Mali from this month, just for fun. The first is of his second piano concert at the Watford School of Music. He’s been learning for two years now and we’re so proud of him. He’s so musical and even composes his own pieces too. In the second video, he’s talking about his stick insect, who sadly died today. Who’s fault was it? No comment.

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Winter Epiphany

Crossing the frozen field, hard ground and wheat stubble
We chant these sacred names, each syllable clothed in a cloud of vapour.
A pause, and then:
‘This is real life!’ my Dad says.
‘This is real life. Everything else is just maintenance.’

Photo by Berit.

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H is for: Honey, Hertfordshire, Hives, and Herb Walks

Last night me and my mum went to a talk on beekeeping hosted by the Radlett Horticultural Society. My mum has been a member for years, but she’s never really attended any of the meeting or lectures (I don’t get it either). We decided to go though, as I’ve been interested in beekeeping for quite a while now, and we both thought it would be interesting to hear first hand from someone who’s had success keeping bees in this area.

We planned to miss the Annual General Meeting part of the evening, or rather, planned to be fashionably late. It didn’t seem so fashionable when we showed up at the venue (a local primary school) and it turned out there was only one entrance – the front door of the school hall, which now faced into the seated audience of over one hundred people, all with their eyes fixed in our direction. We moped around in the cold outside for a few minutes, trying to find another way in, but finally had to resort to tapping feebly on the door, until one of the leaders of the meeting, looking thoroughly disgusted, came and opened it.

Once we were in there was no turning back. I suddenly found myself sitting in a sea of silver hair, tweed and woolens. I was probably the youngest there by at least forty years. The meeting droned on. Raffles and trips to Highgrove Gardens, discussions about coach tickets and advertising in the Annual Horticultural Review.

Finally the meeting broke for ‘nibbles’ – Ritz crackers, Pringles, orange juice and wine in plastic glasses. Yawn.

Time dragged on. First twenty minutes, then another twenty. We sat at the side of the hall, inbetween the bee display, already set up before the talk, and the ticking clock. We were attracting a lot of curious stares, probably people wondering who on earth we were – we clearly didn’t fit the profile of the average member.

At long last, the bee keeping talk started. It was quite interesting, but after waiting for so long for it, I got a bit fed up.

The Honey Master himself.

For most of the audience, this seemed to be the social highlight of their week, so they were perfectly happy to draw it out for as long as possible.

Still, I learnt some interesting things, like:

  • You can tell what flowers the bees are making honey from by cross referencing the pollen on their legs with a pollen chart. Every flower has a different colour of pollen, and different combinations of flowers also produce further shades.
  • Oilseed rape, one of the biggest crops (especially around here) is a huge draw for bees, but since its widespread cultivation is a modern phenomenon, it brings new challenges for beekeepers. The honey produced from it crystallises extremely quickly, so it has to be removed from the hive very fast, otherwise it becomes useless. Interestingly, without human intervention, it would therefore also be useless as a long term food store for the bees – they are fully dependent on humans now and would probably not survive for more than six months in the wild. Were it not for beekeepers in Britain, there would be no more indigenous honeybees here.
  • Bees are amazingly civilised and respectful toward one another. If a bee within the hive dies, the other bees will pick up the body and fly it away. They’re practical too though. If it’s winter, and it’s too cold for them to go out, they will unceremoniously push the body out of the hive’s front door.

It was fun just to go to something like this again with my mum. We had a tradition when I was much younger – from about eight or nine years old, that I would go along with her whenever she took part in any agricultural/horticutural workshops and talks. I used to go with her on ‘herb walks’ on Hampstead Heath. From the afternoon until late evening, a group of interested gardeners and herbalists would follow a white bearded expert around the Heath as he identified every herb, and told us about its benefits. I loved it. I don’t know how much I understood at that age, but I relished picking little samples and sticking them in a book along with the name. Through that, and being obsessed with the Flower Fairies, I memorised a huge number of the herbs and wild flowers of England, most of which I can still remember. I still love collecting samples now, especially during my summers travelling in America. It’s so interesting to get to know a country by its plant life. I feel quite ridiculous typing that, but there it is.

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