For as far back as we can remember, philosophers, theologians, scientists and great thinkers have discussed and debated with a view to understanding the world in a more profound way. The sages of the East were no different. In the ancient body of literature known as the Vedas, they documented a spiritual understanding of the self, the universe and the deeper purpose of life. This is ‘Krishna Wisdom’ – essential principles that underpin universal reality.
Philosophy means ‘the love of knowledge’ and it’s a rational investigation of what’s true and what’s not. Philosophy is about solving problems and creating greater happiness through better principles of living. Something is philosophy when the thought process involves the removal of illusion or deception, and the discovery of a higher meaning of life. The word is often used to describe the search for an ideal way of relating to others, or of discovering an ultimate reality.
You’re right that change in the world takes place because of action, especially when people join together in collective action. But even before action there must be a value system on which we base our opinions and choices of action. Life is given meaning when we decide what is most important to us. Philosophy is the search for what is the most important, and therefore the basis of any value system. When you know what you love, you can speak and act with conviction.
I don’t want to confuse you, but it’s all of them. It is certainly a philosophy, because it contains a system of logical thought that analyses what knowledge actually is, the parameters of knowledge, how we ‘know’ something to be true or real, why we suffer and how we can experience a greater happiness, both individually and collectively.
Philosophy leads to action and a sense of a goal to be reached through that action. Wherever you have both action and a goal, you have a path; and when the attainment of a spiritual goal is at the end, you have a spiritual path. When you join together with others to follow certain practises based on your common philosophical ideas you can describe that as a religion. And when that helps to bring about social change and an improvement in people’s lives you could describe it as a movement. So it’s a ‘yes’ to all of them.
Religion without philosophy is just an unsubstantiated belief. It can easily descend into sentimentality or fanaticism. But philosophy without religion is mental speculation, and easily becomes dry intellectualism followed by inertia. You need both for balance. Religion needs an underpinning of rationalism, and philosophy needs to be expressed in ways that create happiness, morality, and an experience of a higher reality.
It depends where you live. The concept of ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ religions date back to British Empire times. Back in the 1880s the world adopted a system of measuring longitude based on the calculations made by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, near London. That meant that anything east of Greenwich became ‘East,’ and anything to the west of it became ‘West.’ As a consequence, China became the ‘Far East’ and Arabia became the ‘Middle East.’
The descriptions are purely notional – and based on the concept that London, at a notional zero degrees of longitude, is in the centre of the world. In China, for instance, Buddhism is known as a ‘western religion,’ since it came out of India, which is to the west of China. The world is a globe, so no-one owns the right to be called the centre of the world. True wisdom, like the sunshine, has no national, geographic or ethnic boundaries.
What we call India today was once known as Bharata, and its cultural influence once extended all the way from Persia through to Cambodia. Even in present day Greece and Russia, archaeologists are discovering artefacts dating back thousands of years to the Himalayan culture. India has seen the origins of many world religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. Some people even say that strands of ‘Hindu thought’ ended up in the writings of the Essenes, the community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls in what is now Israel. There was a lot of deep thinking in ancient India!
Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna around 3,000 BC is one of the principal texts we follow. It’s known as the Bhagavad-gita, or ‘The Song of God.’ However, 5,000 years ago ‘Hare Krishna’ was already very old, since the same teachings go back thousands of years before that. The name for those teachings is The , which simply means ‘The Knowledge.’
Although many Himalayan sages preserved the knowledge by teaching it verbally to their disciples, who then taught it to their own disciples, and so on, it was eventually written down in the Sanskrit language by ‘the original guru’ whose name was Vyasa. He divided The Vedas into portions to make it easy for humanity to preserve.
Of course we can – writing about spirituality is not limited to ancient sages and prophets. There are many modern authors who write on spirituality. But almost all of them are drawing on the ancient wisdom for their inspiration, too. So why not begin with reading the spiritual classics? If people are still reading a book five thousand years after it was written, you could rightly conclude that it has passed the test of time, and that it contains perennial wisdom. Besides, the spiritual nature and experience of it is the same today as it ever was, so there’s really no such thing as ‘modern spirituality,’ only spirituality addressed to modern needs, in modern language.
There’s more than one ‘Bible,’ actually, and they are all part of a vast library of ancient wisdom. The entire library is known as the Vedas, or ‘the knowledge,’ and the deeper, philosophical parts are known as the Upanishads. The word means ‘sit down closer.’ More than one hundred Upanishads contain a very pithy analysis of the difference between reality and illusion, and the Vedanta Sutra summarises and rearranges their essence into a logical sequence of arguments.
The Bhagavad-gita is the record of a one-hour conversation between Krishna and His warrior friend and disciple Arjuna. It contains all the major concepts of the Upanishads in dialogue form and has been read by millions for thousands of years.
Then there’s another book known as the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad Bhagavatam. It’s both an ancient history book and an exposition of many different levels of reality. In 18,000 verses it analyses matter and the quantum of consciousness known as the atma, or inner self and further explores the reality of an unlimited, eternal world beyond the limits of our perception.
Hinduism is a collective term for the religions of India. When early explorers got to the River Indus, the land on the other side of the water became known as Hindustan, and later, the people were called Hindus. And when the British got to India they placed the suffix ‘-ism’ onto the word Hindu forming the term Hindu-ism. But the word is not found at all in the ancient language of the country or in any sacred text. Hinduism is a relatively new term. It is certainly not one belief system; rather, it’s a word for a family of religions – thousands of them.
All of them can be traced back to the Vedas. Just as all the branches of a large tree can be traced back to the trunk, so all branches of what the world now knows as Hinduism can be traced to these foundational texts.
Hare and Krishna (Hare is pronounced Huh-ray) are the first two words of a great mantra mentioned in the Vedas, and the mantra recited by Krishna people each day. It goes like this:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare
Krishna means ‘all attractive,’ and Hare means ‘the eternal energy.’ The other word is Rama (pronounced like ‘drama’) which means ‘supreme pleasure.’ A mantra is a sound formula with the potency to uplift and enlighten those who repeat it. The word is derived from mana (the mind) and trayate (to protect and free). The ultimate reality is described in the Vedas by many names, and Hare, Krishna and Rama are three of those names. When the first Americans and Europeans saw the devotees of Krishna in the 1960s they termed them the ‘Hare Krishna Movement’ or ‘The Hare Krishnas,’ and the name has stuck.
Because the mantra elevates the mind and allows anyone to tap into the natural, spiritual happiness that lies within them. So it’s good to share. Even if someone doesn’t understand the language of the mantra or its meaning, there’ll be a beneficial spiritual effect. When a mantra is recited softly it benefits only the person who’s repeating it, but when the mantra is said out loud it can benefit anyone who hears it.
If the mantra is sung to a melody then the recitation is known as kirtan, and when sung in a public place, the mantra singing becomes sankirtan. Musical kirtan is an enjoyable way to meditate – even in the middle of a busy street!
Nowadays the word mantra has been borrowed by journalists to describe any repetitive slogan or phrase. They sometimes talk of a politician’s ‘mantra,’ meaning a much repeated claim on the campaign trail. But it’s not just any word that can be a mantra. A mantra is an authentic word or phrase taken only from the Vedas It has intrinsic spiritual power, and when employed correctly, at a time of deep meditation or prayer, will have the desired effect. The repetition of the mantra calms and quietens the mind, sets it free from unhelpful cycles of desire and aversion, and focuses it on transcendence.
Through mantra meditation we rediscover our authentic self deep within the heart, and experience an awakening to joyful inner happiness. The fact that mantras work can be validated by the many thousands who chant them each morning. Genuine mantras are given freely, but come with a set of guidelines so that the maximum effect can be gained.
Not at all. There are so many ways to ‘zone out’ but meditation isn’t one of them. With digital technology, the opportunities for placing the mind in a semi-stupefied state have greatly increased. Virtual reality of different kinds has only resulted in a lack of clarity. The mind is made to oscillate between hankering for something in the future and lamenting for something lost in the past. Very rarely are we in the present reality. As a result, many people spend hours each day in unhelpful states of mental confusion.
For people on a spiritual path, the present moment is extremely important since that is substantial. Mantra meditation places you in that present moment, and then transports you to a timeless state where the mind can be fully refreshed and enlivened. So actually, mantra meditation is a ‘zoning in.’
The definition of a religious cult – at least the modern, pejorative definition – is an organisation with dangerous, invented beliefs; where leadership is consolidated in one charismatic person who is not responsible to anyone else; where the members are not allowed any personal freedom; and where there is a teaching of ‘the end of the world.’
Our community, by contrast, has standard beliefs and practices that have stood the test of thousands of years, and that don’t include any ‘end of the world’ ideas. There’s a wide, varied and supervised leadership, and the community has a largely independent membership. While newcomers to the tradition may not be familiar with it, the Hare Krishna movement is the newest st, global manifestation of the oldest spiritual path.
That’s a question we used to be asked thirty years ago when almost all of our members lived in communities – sometimes in the same house – and wore the same clothing. The success of the movement has meant that we have multiplied in number many times and the diversity in the lives of our membership has broadened as a consequence.
These days, you would be hard-pressed to know who was a devotee of Krishna just by looking at them. Although the philosophy and theology of the movement are common to all, there is a striking variety of ethical and political opinions expressed by our members.
In a very small nutshell they are as follows: The soul is spirit and the body is matter. The body is a vehicle for the soul. The body is temporary but the soul endures. The soul is never born and never dies. It is unchanging, primeval and a spiritual spark of life within the body. The soul is conscious and blissful by nature. When the soul identifies with matter it mistakenly imagines that the body is the self. In its original state the soul is unlimitedly happy, but when it forgets its divine nature it struggles to achieve even temporary pleasure.
The soul is looking for the happiness it once had but in the wrong place. Just as the sunshine comes from the Sun, so the souls emanate from the supreme source. That ultimate reality is known in the Vedas as Brahman, Narayana or Krishna. That Godhead is not merely an impersonal energy, but the energetic source of all existence. The souls are infinite and dependant on Godhead, just as the rays depend on the Sun.
God has attributes such as a form and beauty. God has compassion and love. ll souls emanate from the Supreme Being and share his loving nature, as sparks emanating from a fire share, in a very small degree, the fire’s heat and light. Some souls leave their relationship with the Supreme to experience life apart in the world of matter.
Over countless births, layers of psychic conditioning cover their remembrance of their original nature and the hearts of these forgetful or ‘conditioned’ souls grow hard. By hearing the spiritual messages such as in the Bhagavad-gita, and applying them in their lives, the hearts of those souls will once again become soft and they will return to their original home with the Supreme.
A great sage once said that ‘when a green bird flies into a green tree it may look as if it has disappeared, but it remains an individual bird.’ The idea of merging into a divine substance is a popular idea. Individuality seems to come along with anxiety and pain, and things don’t improve when we share our lives with others – relationships can be a major cause of disappointment.
So when we think of existential freedom, the idea of a divine white light seems immediately attractive. But freedom from problems isn’t the highest happiness, it’s merely a negation. Real spiritual positivity lies in discovering our true spiritual individuality and enjoying it, and that can be best done by experiencing the bliss of our original relationship with the Supreme.
The Sanskrit term nirvana first appears in the Vedic literature, which pre-date Buddhism, so its meaning was originally something slightly different. Vana means ‘wind’ as in being pushed around on a gusty day, or of waves on the sea. Nir means a cessation of, so nir-vana means ‘no more wind.’ The word is used to describe the freedom from being pushed around by the winds of selfish desire and rebirth in material existence.
But it is grammatically negative and, by itself, the word does not signify a positive state beyond the vana. So in the Bhagavad-gita, where the word appears five times, it is prefaced by the word Brahma, a supremely positive word meaning the absolute platform of spirit. Krishna explains that brahma-nirvana means not an impersonal absolute but a mystical union of the soul in devotion, where both God and the individual soul retain their individuality.