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Published: November 22nd 2008
Krishna has never been a God I could easily relate to. Out of all the Indian Gods and Goddesses, he was the one I never paid much attention to. Partially, this had to do with over-exposure through the Krishna movement in the UK. Taking it down to the most basic (and biased) level, I always thought that the Hare Krishna movement, and in particular the 'Hare Krishna' chant you'd hear on a Sunday in towns across this country, was a bit ‘naff’. Quite irrationally, my sense of irritation towards Krishna-related places, and resistance to Krishna the God, accompanied me throughout my stay in India, although I hardly knew anything about him. It went so far that, on an ashram outing to a big Krishna temple in Rishikesh, I was close to walking out during the evening ceremony. Everything about the place annoyed me: the priests who tried to extract money from us before we even set foot in the temple; the militant security guards; the chants; and it was particularly Krishna I could not connect with. Why, I reasoned, would I want to worship a flute-playing, mischievous, womanising God? I’d stick to Shiva, my three-eyed serpent God, thank you very much.
But then something happened, shifted ever so slightly, towards the end of my stay in India. Without realising it at first, I lived out parts of the divine love story between Krishna and Radha in the Himalayas, becoming aware of it only when I was back in Europe. Consequently, Krishna began to cross my path everywhere, lurking, so it seemed, in every corner of my awareness, winking at me, teasing me. From the moment I left India, every person I met seemed to have some link with Krishna. At Delhi airport, a German Iskcon (International Society for Krishna consciousness) monk approached me (out of all the people he could have approached) and invited me to his temple in Stuttgart; the German man sitting next to me on the plane was a Krishna devotee; and everywhere I went thereafter, be it Germany, Sweden, England or Wales, I came across talks about Krishna & Radha, and people with names like 'Krishnaprem'. I began to joke that he was trying to ensnare me and that this was my karma for my less-than-pious behaviour in the Rishikesh temple. And, despite my resistance, I grew curious. Who was Krishna, this youthful blue-skinned God, and
what was behind his relationship with the beautiful Radha? What was their love story really
about? Was there more to him than playing around with countless milkmaids in the meadows? And, was Shiva really Krishna's greatest devotee, as the people at Iskcon tried to tell me? I began to read the Bhagavad Gita (a sacred Hindu scripture, considered to be one of the most important religious classics of the world), visited Iskcon Temples, remained skeptical (why, for example, does Iskcon prohibit 'illicit sex' - meaning all sex outside of marriage and not for procreative purposes - when the Radha-Krishna legends celebrate illicit love in its full glory?), but after a while, Krishna, and particularly Radha, began to draw me in.
So, I'm not surprised to see that, inadvertently, I've been led to one of his abodes once again. I've come to Glastonbury to celebrate the Celtic festival of Samhain and decide that it would be a nice touch to stay at an ashram. I choose Shekinashram () without knowing much about the place, and start to laugh when I set foot into their temple: on the altar, and pretty much everywhere else in the ashram, are statues, pictures and dolls of Krishna and Radha. Ok, I smirk, I get the message. When I relay my experiences to Draupadi, a new Glastonbury friend, she laughs knowingly. ‘Once he’s shot you in the heart, that’s it. It'll only get better!' Here's to hoping - I'm excited already!
Glastonbury can be an intense place, to put it mildly, but Shekinashram is like a little oasis of harmony contained within the strong energies. It is set in a quiet lane beneath Glastonbury Tor, and encompasses a beautiful garden complete with a cosy yurt and wood cabins, a temple, gorgeous rooms, and most importantly, a whole lot of integrity. All food, apart from being delicious, is completely vegan and organic (where possible), and the ashram's vision is to establish a vibrant, living community founded on a total commitment to Truth. Co-founder Elahn and his partner Radhe are involved with and support a number of Indian charities, such as schools, social development organisations and The Tulsi Trust, a registered charity that is aiding, organising and fundraising for an Indian jungle health and education project. The ashram also distributes free prasadam (pure vegan food prepared lovingly with consciousness especially for the Divine) every Wednesday afternoon in Glastonbury town as an offering to Krishna, Radha and Amma.
During my week here, I meet interesting and inspirational people all the time, mostly around the ashram's kitchen table. Many of them are in a similar situation to me, spiritual travellers drawn to living in community with like-minded people, for however long it feels right. Some of them come for a week or two as part of the ashram’s karma yoga programme, others come for personal retreats or simply to get a taste of ashram life. It is here that I meet shamanic belly dancer Draupadi; monochord sound healer Ilyana; Joe (who, interestingly, has been part of the Osho Leela-affiliated Humaniversity programme for eight years); travelling accountant and masseuse Linda; and Kundalini Yoga teacher Anjali, who guides us through a fantastic Shakti Dance session on a Wednesday night. Shakti Dance is the ‘yoga of dance’ - 'the conscious practise of dance, infused with the wisdom of yoga to develop awareness and understanding of body, mind and emotions'. It's a lovely practice, during which we dance through a blend of flowing postures and mantras - it is believed to work energetically to develop the art of intuitive, free movement.
One of the things I like most about Shekinashram is that it is aligned to the Radha-Krishna consciousness, the interplay between female:male energies; and not just to Krishna, as is often the case, especially in the rather patriarchal Iskcon movement. There is evidence of this unity everywhere in the ashram, both symbolically and actually. ‘Really, we’re devotees of Radharani’, explains Elahn one morning in the temple when I comment on it, adding, 'and we like Krishna because Radha likes him!', with a playful smile. In fact, the ashram was inspired by the love of the Divine Mother, and Elahn found his way to Radha-Krishna via female Indian gurus Amma and Mother Meera.
Shekinashram has a strong emphasis on bhakti (devotional) yoga, with a morning programme consisting of puja (daily worship of the deities through offering of flowers, incense, candles, sound and mantras); kiirtan chanting, and meditation. It is these morning pujas that are the absolute highlight of my day - mainly due to watching the Shekinashram temple pujari, or priest, perform the daily devotional ceremony for Krishna-Radha in the temple. There are ways and ways of performing puja, and I’ve experienced many, ranging from the flamboyant to the militant to the plain boring. Yet, his way is something else, a bhakti meditation extraordinaire. I've never seen puja performed with so much grace and intent in all of my life. I can’t take my eyes off this priest. Each of his movements is measured, thoughtful and flowing as part of a sacred performance. He cleans and blesses every statue on the altar with angelic reverence whilst chanting the appropriate Sanskrit mantras and bending his long fingers into elegant mudras.
My favourite part is his offering of fresh flowers to the deities. With intricately delicate movements he devoutly hand-picks each flower from the silver bowl, gazes lovingly at the statues as though conversing with them as to where they would like their flowers placed today, and consequently positions the petals gracefully on the most suitable spot. When he turns from the altar to mark our foreheads with tikka powder, he literally dances his way towards us with a glint in his eyes, always mindful not to turn his back to the altar. He does this with so much fluidity and refinement that I am convinced he must have been an Indian temple dancer in a previous incarnation. In fact, he is so authentic that Linda is adamant that he is Indian (although he doesn’t look so in the slightest) and is subsequently saddened to learn that he is an Englishman called... Derek.
My Indian experience in the UK is complete when I catch a bout of food poisoning. Monday is the ashram's fasting day, so I decide to eat a vegan salad in a nearby cafe, feeling exceptionally virtuous about sticking to raw food. I wake up at 2 am with an incredible sense of nausea, and make it just in time from my yurt to the ashram toilet before throwing up violently. Who said you have to go to India for an authentic travel experience?! It's all here, in the charming British countryside: Indian temples, puja, yoga, fire ceremonies, snake charmers, oriental dance, yurts, and gastronomic upsets. I am sold.
To read more about my journey in India, my book 'Meeting Shiva - Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas' is available via Changemakers Books from 30 August 2013. Read the first few pages on Amazon UK and Amazon US !
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