Category Archives: Krishna Consciousness

How to Make a Mountain

It’s that time of year again. Today is Govardhan Puja, when we remember Sri Krishna’s incredible lifting of a sacred mountain in Vrindavan. In the Vaishnava calendar there are so many festivals and as the years go by they stack on top of one another like layers of sediment. I imagine my life so far as a rock – each layer a testament to the moments that I spent thinking about Krishna – the thick, densely packed areas,  or not – those are the crumbling parts.

I can remember so many distinct Govardhan pujas – many spent in the soggy English October, inside a white marquee, huddling in front of blow heaters while we listened to narrations of the amazing story. As children one of our favourite parts of the day was the creation of ‘the hill’. This is a giant mound of sweets, dressed to mimic Govardhan Hill – usually complete with ponds of honey, boulders made of milk sweets and bright green shredded coconut for grass. The hill would be covered with plastic animals – deer, birds and lots of cows. After everyone had performed the puja of walking around the hill three times, the sweets would start to be handed out, and along with them, the plastic animals. My toy cupboards at home were full of the most prized- the cows. My small herd grew each year, and I would eagerly look forward to each year’s festival, when I would wait with hands outstretched as a priest plucked animals off the mound and dropped them into the reaching palms of all the kids.

So why build a hill of sweets? It’s definitely fun, but deeper than that, it’s just one way to remember the miraculous activities of Krishna, and help our love for him to grow. It’s also a beautiful way to celebrate Govardhan Hill, also known as Giriraj – the king of mountains. In Krishna’s world, everyone has personality – nothing is just stone, or just a tree. Everything is full of life, full of love, full of desire to serve. Giriraj is considered to be one of the greatest servants of Krishna, since he limitlessly gives the bounty of his forests, waterfalls, minerals and more to the villagers of Vrindavan.

Last year I spent Govardhan Puja in Vrindavan, where it is extra special, since the real Govardhan Hill is only miles away. In the central courtyard of the Krishna Balaram temple, I stood on a raised platform with six other girls, scooping handfuls of scorching, fragrant halava and pressing them onto the plastic covered frame of the hill. Our hands quickly became tender, burnt by the steam, and we slid about as the hot ghee oozed from the mound around our feet. In the meantime, raucous, joyful kirtan thundered away. The following week, I was staying at the foot of Govardhan itself. It was one of the most sacred, deep experiences of my life. Each day I would wake and watch the sun light pass over the rocky face of the hill, and after a day absorbed in chanting and hearing about Krishna, I would sit in a small grove of trees and listen to the night songs of the crickets. I never believed I would really feel that a hill was a person, but after seven days, I felt his deep presence, blessing all who came near him to pray.

At the end of my time there, I built a tiny house of stones. Some people do this to pray to Giriraj for a safe, happy home to live in, but I prayed that however long it took, I may one day live there in that sacred place. These days I stay in Manhattan on the 21st floor. Outside my windows the tops of towering buildings remind me of his ridges and peaks, and I realise that whether here or there, his blessings are near.

 

 

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A Glorious End

Some days remain etched within the mind forever. I think yesterday was one I will never forget.

I’ve only attended a few funerals in my life. None have been for people I was particularly close to, but all were moving in their own way. I’m sure everyone remembers the first time they saw a dead body – that strange twist of fear and morbid fascination and loss. I always felt so uncomfortable at the outpouring of emotion. As a teenager, I felt confused at what I was supposed to do. Should I try and cry, even if I don’t feel it? Would people appreciate it if I try and be lighthearted? Am I supposed to comfort people, or do they want to be left alone?

Yesterday’s ceremony was perhaps one of the most cathartic, moving experiences I’ve ever had. Close to eight hundred people gathered at the North London crematorium to pay last respects. One hundred and fifty crowded the small, sunlit chapel, whilst the remainder watched outside on TV screens. I sat with a few friends in a corner behind the plinth where the coffin would eventually sit. We were there with harmonium, kartals, mridanga, flute and violin to lead the major portion of the ceremony – continuous kirtan. Several family members gave beautiful speeches, glorifying the unique qualities of their father, uncle and brother. They spoke of his generous, unfailingly open heart and his humility. His desire to serve others and his lighthearted, loving nature were celebrated by so many. From my vantage point at the front of the room, I could see heads nodding as they spoke, each a moving testament to the truth of their words. The time line of his life was recited. It almost felt as if we walked through a gallery, examining images and memories, and fragments of a life, mapping his journey up to the present moment. It can be sobering to hear a life summarised. One life seems so short – a fluttering rush of days and months, like a moth falling towards a flame. But even a short life is glorious when lived with integrity and substance.

After speeches the front and back doors were thrown open, the March wind gusting in with the shafts of sunlight. A non stop line of people passed through, holding flower petals which they placed at his feet as a sign of respect. The kirtan began, and the sound carried up to the high ceiling. Watching every person pass, I was captivated by the range of emotions on each face. So many kinds of tears – of love, of pain and loss, of joy. Some were overwhelmed and wept uncontrollably, whilst others looked on his face with a steady gaze and peaceful heart. Children passed, looking dazed or distressed, and teenagers, trying to control emotions they never expected. Old friends, colleagues, saffron clad monks. Perhaps the worst to see were his parents, saying goodbye to a cherished son. They lovingly touched his face and walked away from the coffin with faltering steps. I sat watching, singing and playing my violin – trying to stay present to my task but finding tears streaming down my face at unexpected moments. They dripped down my nose, falling all over my violin. I looked over at my friends to see them crying too. My dear friend sang with her eyes closed, only pausing once in two continuous hours because emotion overwhelmed her.

Despite so many tears, as the ceremony drew closer to the end, an indescribable feeling of joy began to rise within the room. Voices called with such love and focus. The sound was heavenly in a rare way. With an irresistible rise and fall, the mridanga drum picked up tempo, and a few men began to dance. They stood beside the coffin, gazing at their old friend with such love, arms raised, swaying and stepping in time. More joined in and soon almost everyone was standing and moving to the beat – even those looking on from the rear balcony. I wondered if it was disrespectful to dance at a funeral? It certainly seemed incongruous in the white walled, Victorian chapel. But no one cared – in those last moments, all sounds were of loving prayer – every tear stained face decorated with a smile.

Then silence fell, and my Dad recited the final prayers from the ancient Upanishads. ‘Let this temporary body be burnt to ashes, and let the air of life be merged with the totality of air. Now, O my Lord, please remember all my sacrifices, and because You are the ultimate beneficiary, please remember all that I have done for You.’ We repeated the words together, speaking one final prayer that described the glory of kirtan as the garden-like oasis for the weary soul. Then with the press of a button, it was all over. Vacuums were quickly whipped out to clean away the petals and everyone was ushered out.

May we all lead lives rich with love and service, that flower in such a glorious end.

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The S Word

Tonight I was sitting next to my mum and a few people commented that we looked ‘exactly like sisters!’ Compliment for her. Yes, I know I’m not getting any younger. Tomorrow marks one more year of being, and I’m surprised at how meaningless it’s starting to feel.

When I was younger I was all into birthdays. Each year had a different theme, from St Patrick’s Day, to murder mystery, to Hawaii. It was fun. But now that I’m officially an old crotchet, I don’t feel much for the passing of another twelve months – except the realisation that there’s no time like the present to become more determined to live my words – put my thoughts into action.

So many experiences this year have brought me to the understanding that I have to surrender. I know – it’s almost a dirty word in today’s society. Surrender is what you do when you get arrested, or when you realise that you’re going to be stuck in traffic, whether you beep the horn twenty times or not. Surrender means relinquishing control. Failing to take charge of life.

Well, not really. At least not from where I’m standing. To me surrender means being satisfied with the fact that I’m not in control. It means acknowledging the divine source of everything in my life, and having faith that there is a higher plan. It means letting go to whatever vision I have of the way things are supposed to be, and listening, watching and learning as they unfold the way they will.

Tomorrow is a birthday for me, but a funeral for my uncle. We step into this life for a few moments, and walk off through the wings after the play ends. It’s so important to make everything inbetween count. Not in a frantic way. Not anxiously watching the years passing, our bodies changing. But with grace, good humour, patience and faith.

I love the way my dear friend Gaura put it in his song, ‘Surrender’. Heartfelt realisation.

 

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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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Green Fruit

For me, dance is sacred. To separate it from its divinity is like picking a green fruit from the tree. It can be used for something, but it has yet to reach its full, ripe potential – full of sweetness and flavour. To me, dance in devotion is the ripened fruit of beautiful movement – an offering to be placed at the feet of the Lord.

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I Shall Dance!

Tomorrow at midday a huge, colourful procession will move down 5th Ave in the centre of Manhattan. Drums will sound, thousands of voices will sing in unison, praising and celebrating the divine. Three giant carts will be pulled by long ropes, their wheels slowly turning. Atop these carts will sit sacred forms of God, along with his brother and sister. This is Rathayatra – Festival of Chariots.

Its history is widely written about, so I won’t repeat it all here. Suffice to say it’s an ancient festival from India, that was first brought to the Western world by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the late 60s. The best thing about it, is that everyone gets a chance to join in, by singing, dancing, feasting, sweeping, serving and so much more. All of this is in the mood of sincere service to Lord Jagannath, whose name, meaning Lord of the Universe, is one of many thousands of different names for the divine.

I was thinking about the upcoming festival as I sat in a plane a few weeks ago, and was suddenly overwhelmed at the thought of dancing again before the chariot procession. There’s nothing like it.

O my Lord Jagannath!
O Lord whose smile is the curved bow to which I tie my heart-string,
I want to dance before you forever!
Moving in every direction,
tracing sacred lines across the road upon which you travel.
I will throw my arms to the sky
and jump with every last spark of energy.
With joy I will stamp my feet in rhythm,
if it brings you pleasure.
O Lord Jagannath, my heart is filled with supreme bliss to receive your glance,
even for a moment.
Never mind the beating sun,
your gaze sends a cooling sandalwood breeze.
Never mind my tired feet – this body is an imperfect instrument,
but by your limitless grace, I can dance across the hardest of ground.
My dear Lord, by some good fortune, I have the chance to come before you now –
to spin, to stretch, to sway and sing,
whether this sky brings pelting rain, or the fiercest heat,
I shall dance! I shall dance!

This moment is golden and complete, because you are present.
O Lord of my heart,
please allow me to dance before you forever.
If I cannot twist and turn and leap –
if I cannot offer you my every movement in this moment,
I will be lost.
My sweet Lord, descended from the divine world,
please accept my every step
as a dance, a song, a prayer,
forever.

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