Social issuesPosted by Akhandadhi das Thu, October 08, 2015 22:06:19
BBC Radio 4 - Thought for the Day
31st August 2000
In 1977, I was part of a group gathered outside a Hindu temple to bid farewell to a renowned spiritual leader returning to India. The mood was sombre. We were all aware that, because of his age and recent illness, this would be his last trip to Britain. Suddenly, someone pushed through the crowd to reach him and vigorously shook his hand. “How are you, Prabhupada?” he asked. Srila Prabhupada smiled and simply responded, “Thank You.”
That man was the local home-beat policeman – on duty. If he were still active today, he’d be receiving The Culture Guide, the Met’s new booklet on London’s ethnic communities. He probably ignored all its good advice – but, at the time, no one minded. The warmth of his feelings made up for any transgression of cultural protocol.
In the mid-eighties, at the Hindu theological college where I was principal, we regularly hosted police trainees from Hendon touring the college and its temple as part of their community liaison week. Although some of our customs and beliefs were totally alien to them, they sincerely tried to understand what it was all about. The objective was not to provide an in-depth education on Hindu culture, but to confront these trainees with the reality that some sections of society, quite legitimately, believe in and do things very differently from the “norm”.
We don’t have to fear a different way of thinking. Neither are the customs of various traditions in competition with each other. For one to be right, it does not follow that anything else must be wrong. Every religion has certain theological axioms that are considered universal and inviolable. But, often, the customs that support and nurture those beliefs are geared to particular people in particular circumstances.
That doesn’t make them less valuable to the adherent – nor to the observer. Enquiring about the outward behaviour of another person’s religious tradition is a great way of discovering their core beliefs. For instance, the Met’s handbook says that most Hindus are vegetarian. Perhaps, this is less radical now, but back then, the trainee policemen would always ask: Why? For Hindus the answer isn’t to do with BSE, but an issue of respecting the life of an animal.
The Hindu text, Rig Veda, says “Let noble thoughts come to us from all directions”. Our society is enriched by appreciating one another’s way of thinking. The police Culture Guide is part of this process; a process that can benefit us all. And, what better example than that home-beat bobby who burst through the crowd. He had evolved from respectful curiosity, through familiarisation, to a warm connection. And that is why Srila Prahbupada thanked him.
© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme Radio 4.
Social issuesPosted by Akhandadhi das Thu, October 08, 2015 19:00:33
Article commissioned for Times2
15th May 2000
When I like other people’s ideas, it isn’t simply because I
already agree with them, it’s because they agree with me. They fit into my pre-existing mind-set. So when a Canadian professor tells me,
“religion is good for your health”, I accept it as gospel. Forget the gym and the fresh vegetables, I am
doing something good for myself - without actually doing anything.
That probably is not the reaction Dr Chandrakant Shah of the
University of Toronto was hoping for.
The whole point of the research of his Department of Public Health is to
highlight the benefits of spirituality for those less interested in the
subject. But, Dr Shah’s research is
likely to go the way of all worthy pronouncements about what’s good or bad for
us – there will be two quite distinct responses. I suspect that those of us who think that
spirituality has value will welcome such robust scientific proof to vindicate
our beliefs and we’ll do nothing; while others will dismiss it as the ludicrous
ravings of some misguided academic mixing psycho-babble, damned lies and
statistics and do nothing.
Leaving aside obvious examples of major religious figures
who died young, Dr Shah has tried to show a connection between the prevalence
of spirituality and the general health and longevity of a population. Despite my predilection towards the thesis,
having actually studied his paper quite closely, I found it difficult to justify
his or my belief. Those of a more
sceptical nature, will have a field-day picking holes in the proof that is
The good professor starts with a major leap of faith. In his own words: “It assumes that there is a
causal relationship between spirituality and mortality; something that has
never been proved.” Also, the only
statistic that he is able to draw on as a measure for spirituality in society
is attendance at a religious ceremony or service in the past year. There are many that would question that as a
proxy measure for spirituality in the Age of Aquarius.
Dr Shah is convinced that 43,000 adult deaths in Canada
every year, (about 20% of the total) are attributable to a low level of
spirituality in the 41% of the population who don’t attend church. Reducing the proportion of non-attendees to
20% would decrease the number of related deaths to 23,000. I had a hard time understanding the data or
placing my faith in his statistics, but the basic premise that a spiritual
outlook may have useful lifestyle benefits seems reasonable, common sense even.
The professor seems on safer ground when he cites three
general benefits that may be gained from a religious dimension to life. He says, “spirituality has been shown to
reduce stress, promote healthy lifestyle choices and increase our feelings of
belonging to a social network – all of which are associated with lower
mortality.” It’s hard to argue against
the value of these particular benefits, and whatever helps us achieve them must
therefore be good for society.
There may be many aspects of human life that inspire us to
greater well-being, but Dr Shah feels that spirituality is especially
significant for a population because of its almost universal appeal and its
ability for profound motivation based on core beliefs. He quickly adds, “we’re talking about
spirituality, not necessarily religiosity.”
This puts him in tune with the contemporary view that religion is
suspect, spiritual is cool. Whereas
religion entails authority figures, pre-set dogma, rules and regulations, and
clear boundaries of acceptable behaviour; “Post-Modern Spirituality” emphasises
intuition, subjectivity and personal realisations; a personal journey to be
lived out in daily life; and is highly pluralistic with individualised and
One of the many attempts to define spirituality is “the
search for direction, meaning, inner wholeness and connection to others,
non-human creation and to a transcendent source”. Spirituality may be the search, but the question
is:- what does it deliver? There are
many who have tried and failed to find anything of value. There are others who seem to be thoroughly
deluded in what they think they have found.
But, it is hard to dismiss the testimony of countless millions from
successive generations who have sought and found an inner experience of
spiritual reality that enriched their vision of existence - particularly, when
those same people manifest transforming characteristics that seem less common
In my years as the principal of a theological college
specialising in Hindu Vedanta, I constantly met people from all backgrounds and
interests who had switched on the spiritual light-bulb. Invariably, they would verbalise their
feelings as peace of mind, inner contentment, and a better understanding of themselves,
often demonstrated by a marked reduction in anger, resentment, or selfish
Dr Shah reckons that these symptoms of wholeness, purpose
and inner contentment provide the most potent “coping-mechanisms” available to
humans to combat the feelings of frustration, anxiety and panic that
characterise harmful stress. They may
also help reduce a person’s reliance on artificial pacifiers such as alcohol,
drugs or over-indulgence in eating and sex.
As India’s ancient text, the Bhagavad-gita, says: those who experience
what it calls “a higher taste” are less needy for unhealthy habits.
Balance, harmony and wholeness are the buzz-words of the new
spiritual lifestyles and sound more inviting than the Puritanical
“temperance”. The Gita recommends that
“those who are balanced in their habits of eating, sleeping, work and
recreation can mitigate all material miseries by practice of the yoga
system”. The body is a temple – a gift
to be cherished and cared for by moderation in all physical activities - rather
than an ancient ruin to be vandalised by the extremes of over-work and wanton
Currently, I manage Buckland Hall, a conference venue in the
Brecon Beacons, which caters to the burgeoning demand for retreats and courses
in the field of personal growth, wellness and spirituality. Recently, we hosted a three-day conference on
Spirituality and the Workplace. The
catch-phrase was “Bring your Soul to Work” – the idea being that you shouldn’t
have to switch off an important part of your personality during office
hours. Rather, your company’s goals will
be more effectively realised by allowing its employees to be consistent with
Dr Shah recommends the same.
On a personal level, he further suggests that developing values and
practices that reflect forgiveness, sharing, kindness, honesty, respect,
altruism and tolerance will open people up to being able to give as well as to
receive and, therefore, to contribute more generously in the care of family,
friends and community. The twin spectres
of loneliness and mortality fuel our eager search for eternal belonging. The attraction of any group is that it offers
an opportunity to bond with like-minded individuals and share an ideology,
mission and sense of fulfilment. In the
spiritual dimension, those connections can go deeper – in the fellowship of a
faith community, in the service of society, in the family of humankind, and in
a relationship with our creator. Within
these connections, both loneliness and mortality can be defeated by the most
inspiring of all realisations – that we are loved for who we are.
Social issuesPosted by Akhandadhi das Sat, October 03, 2015 19:39:12
Perspective on Issues of
For the Mental Health Foundation
by Akhandadhi das
There is a seeming contradiction in Hindu philosophy. Picture some half-naked holy man meditating
in the Himalayas, and it might lead you to conclude that Hinduism is seriously
world-denying. Witness its many rituals,
customs and festivals which proclaim the joys of life, and you get the idea
that it is thoroughly world-affirming.
Hinduism contains probably the most lucid exposition of the
distinction between body, mind and soul; and it also asserts that each of us
should have the opportunity to enjoy good health, the full span of life and the
use of all our physical and mental faculties.
These philosophical issues are often assumed to be opposing and, indeed,
some individuals may be extreme in their personal outlook. But, when the Vedas, (the scriptural source for all Hindus) are taken as a whole,
a balanced resolution emerges. And it is
that broader approach which is at the heart of Hindus’ attitudes towards
Hindu philosophy describes each individual as a
transcendental being, whose existence is not dependant on the material
body. This atma (or soul) is a visitor to the material world. The soul is the conscious person who inhabits
and uses the material body and mind to interact with the world around, but is
in reality separate from it.
Western theology claims that “I, the body, have a
soul”. Hindu theology claims the
converse - “I, the soul, have a body”.
On this basis, it is condemned as ignorance to categorise oneself or
others in terms of the body. To say
someone is black, white; old, young; male, female etc. is a misconception,
because none of those designations describe the atma or actual person.
Similarly it is wrong to term someone as disabled or
diseased since that is a condition of the body and not of the soul, which
remains untouched and unchanged by any circumstance of the body. Hence, someone is not disabled, but is a
whole person who has a body which has a disability. Some strict Hindus stress this in everyday
conversation. They might say, “I am
well, but my body has an illness.”
It is said to be illusion, maya, that convinces us to identify with our body as our very
self. There are two schools of thought
offering different opinions on this illusion of the soul.
One states that the entire external world is an illusion -
everything material simply does not exist.
If someone actually lived according to this philosophy, they would have
no reason to show the slightest concern for their own or anyone else’s
condition. However, this harsh
conclusion is often tempered with the attitude that it is the duty of
enlightened, pious or moral people to offer service to those less fortunate.
The other school states that the world itself is not an
illusion. It exists. Our bodies are real and any disability of the
body is a real condition. The illusion,
however, is that the transcendental soul identifies itself as being the
physical body. Under this illusion, I
will naturally be highly concerned about any imperfection in my body. The Bhagavad-gita
describes the soul travelling as the driver within the machine of the
body. This is a useful analogy. If my car is scratched, I feel very upset
because of my attachment to it being in perfect order, but the scratch has not
touched the real me.
Either philosophy could be taken as an excuse for neglect or
disdain towards those with physical disability.
Some Hindus cite the statement of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita, “the wise lament neither
for the living nor the dead”, as justification for a lack of concern towards
any suffering condition. This misses the
point in its context, that an enlightened person understands that the soul does
not die with the demise of the body and that it has the potential to transcend
even the most trying bodily condition.
It is not a call to be uncaring.
However, despite equality on the spiritual level, or
perhaps, because of it, the Vedas
state that distinction must be made of individual’s abilities and qualities,
particularly in considering a person for specific roles in society. In the scripture, Mahabharat, which is still highly influential for Hindus today,
there is an important example of such discrimination. Although, the eldest son of the previous
king, Dhritarashtra was denied the opportunity to take the throne because of
being born blind. The justification was
that the king was expected to lead the army in battle.
The Manu Samhita, another scripture, seems to
codify such discrimination by stating that the blind, lame and deaf cannot
receive inheritance, though they must be maintained by others. The Manu
Samhita also contains strictures
dealing with a father who gives his daughter in marriage without identifying
any disability she may have. Although,
the Manu Samhita was the basis for Hindu law, many of its tenets regarding
morality are considered wildly impractical in the modern age.
Elsewhere in the scriptures, bodily deformity is linked with
a crooked mind as in the case of Manthara of the Ramayana saga. She is portrayed
as a hunch-back crone who poisoned the mind of Queen Kaikeyi against the young
prince Rama. In contrast to this example
is the story of Kubja, also a lady with a hunch-back. She was marked by Lord Krishna as having the
most devotional of hearts and praised for her service to Him. The moral is that character is more important
All circumstances we encounter are the result of karmic reactions. Karma
is understood as a universal law of nature regulating the circumstances of all
beings. The process as described in the Vedas is highly complex, but in simple
terms we reap the results of our actions.
Human activities are monitored by universal authority and those actions
which are in keeping with the laws of God are rewarded with opportunities for
pleasure and well-being. Those actions
which are contrary to the laws of God are punished by experiencing unwelcome
events. Accidents, disease, mental
problems, legal and other conflicts are all forms of bad karma.
Karma cannot be
understood without appreciating the nature of the soul as an eternal being
moving from life to life. This process
of transmigration of the soul from one body to another is referred to as
reincarnation. The Bhagavad-gita compares this process to how we cast off old clothes
when they are worn out and put on new dress.
Our desires determine the species of body we next receive. Karma
is the process that determines the facility that the new body will provide us.
Karmic action is
like sowing a seed. The reaction is rarely
instant. More likely, it takes years,
even lifetimes, to fructify. Thus, karma is carried from life to life. Everyone is born with some of their karma already manifested. This is called prarabdha-karma - that which has already come to fruition. Thus the body that we have at birth is karma which has come to be. Explaining the apparent inequality of people
even from birth is a challenge for all religious philosophy. Karma
offers such an explanation, and, for most Hindus, that is better than thinking
that their circumstances are the result of blind chance. But it can have negative impact.
The apparently evident conclusion for anyone suffering from a
disability, either from birth or from some event later in life, is that they
are being punished for being bad at some time in the past. It is difficult enough for someone with
disability to deal with their circumstances without the added burden of
thinking that they must be more sinful than the average person. I have witnessed two reactions in Hindus
pondering their situation.
One is someone who feels maligned by the cosmic judicial
process. It is not simply “Why me?” as
“What did I do to deserve this?” The
Vedas discourage us from trying to identify the specific causes for particular
reactions. However, the Manu Samhita
does give a few examples of various disabilities that arise from certain crimes
in previous lives. I know of one Hindu
group in the UK that has shamefully played upon these and similar references to
castigate disabled folk as sinful out-castes and to warn others against the
dangers of sinful life.
Many Hindus who are active in their religious practice take
a different view. More than simply
accepting their fate, they feel cleansed of their karmic past, are enjoying
transcendental pleasure and in such a fortified mood, bear no grudge against a
system that seems to have condemned them.
In reality, most Hindus may find themselves oscillating
between the two views.
In a similar vein is the concept of Asirvat - blessings. So many
of the Hindu ceremonies and rituals are performed to receive the blessings of
God and His deputies, the Devas - the
plethora of demigods or small “g” gods.
Opulence resulting from the blessings of God include “Janmaisvarya srutir sribhir” - good
birth, wealth, erudition and physical beauty.
A person with severe disability may conclude that not only
have they not been blessed, but that they are somehow cursed. This can affect other family members. Parents may see themselves as cursed or
punished for having a disabled offspring.
However, there is enough discussion of this point in the Vedas to lead many Hindus to consider an
alternative view. The four blessings
mentioned above are also labelled a curse and disqualification for spiritual
progress. Although it might seem
strange, even pitiful, to an outsider, a devout Hindu may sometimes even see
their disability as a blessing from God to avoid them deviating from religious
I say that this might seem pitiful because one gets the
picture of a disabled person vainly trying to persuade themselves that they are
better off in that condition. But there
is a real taste and heartfelt pleasure experienced by some Hindu devotees which
amply convinces them that they are as well dedicating themselves to spiritual
life rather than mundane pursuits which can be rather empty and dissatisfying.
It comes back to the original philosophy of Hinduism - Who
are we? and What is life for? As part of
the answer, Hinduism defines four purusharthas
- human objectives. These are dharma (religious sentiment and
morality); artha (economic
development); kama (sensual
enjoyment) and moksha
(liberation). Some individuals may
over-concentrate on a single one of these objectives, but a balanced human life
contains efforts to secure all of them.
The key message, however, is that sense enjoyment is not the most
important. It is a need that requires
some fulfilment, but it must be in moderation, with the understanding that
greater satisfaction will be found in the pleasure of the soul.
This is a comfort to many Hindus with disability. The belief in the transcendence of the real
person may seem to entail dangerous neglect, but it also defines a level
playing field for everyone, regardless of physical ability. The modern social climate proclaims sense
pleasure as the ultimate pursuit for all humanity. How must those who have less opportunity to
indulge in such activities feel? Despite
the best intentions and efforts to create a sense of equality for the disabled,
modern society has defined sensual pleasures as the goal of life and physical
ability and beauty as the pre-requisite for its fulfilment. Traditionally, Hindu teachings would have
contested that attitude. However, even
in India, the message is being eclipsed by hedonistic aspirations.
Economic development is obviously necessary for acquiring
life’s necessities. Hinduism encourages
full employment for everyone. Even those
with the gravest disability may have particular and unique talents, which can
be utilised for earning their livelihood.
This was, and still is, more applicable in the highly devolved social
set-up of India. In an environment that
caters for the one-man business, the disabled artisan or merchant trading on
his skills, has real opportunity to compete in the market-place.
Because artha and kama are two of the objectives of human
life, it is natural to feel sorry for someone unable to participate in those
activities to the full extent. For some
Hindus, making money and gaining physical pleasure are paramount. But many others do believe there is a
hierarchy of importance. Earning money
and sense gratification add some spice to life, but they are not our real
business. The highest purushartha is moksha culminating in love of God.
The Vedic scriptures state that
no disability can deny or delay one’s ability to achieve that greatest of
goals. Many celebrated saints had severe
disabilities, which proved no hindrance to and were often said to be the
impetus or catalyst for their religious pursuit.
There are stories of God responding to the disability of His
devotees, not by curing it, but by celebrating it. Bilvamangala Thakur was blind, but described
his ecstatic visions how he could see the incarnation of Krishna dancing around
him, teasing him to catch Him. Bilvamangala’s books and poetry have inspired
Hindus for centuries.
In Jagannath Puri, there is a temple with the only murti, (temple image) of the deity form
of Krishna sitting down. The story is
told how this deity originally was a standing figure, but the priest of the
temple was getting so old and crippled that he could no longer reach up to
place the flower garland over the head of the deity. In deference to His devotee’s disability, the
marble deity sat down and the priest was able to continue his daily worship.
Although we are not the body, the Vedic scriptures offer many injunctions which encourage us to take
care of our bodies and those of others, because the body is a special gift of
God to facilitate the soul in the journey to achieve liberation from the
material sphere. The soul has entered
the material sphere as an act of rejection of a loving relationship with
God. By overcoming envy of God and
cultivating a service mood, one develops the spiritual characteristics to again
become qualified to be re-instated in the natural home of the soul - the
spiritual world, Vaikuntha - the
kingdom of God.
By definition, we are not sufficiently spiritually qualified
at present, nor is the path quick and easy.
We have to persevere. Hinduism
accepts all acts of religious devotion, regardless of denomination, as being
valid in making spiritual progress.
Keeping the body fit and healthy is recommended to create the conducive
circumstances for life-long devotional practices. It was that intent that developed the system
of hatha-yoga. But, whereas ill-health can often stifle
religious activities, disability need not be an obstacle.
The Hindu scriptures are full of codes and strictures, yet
Hinduism is not actually a religion of proscription. This is evidenced by the infinite array of
individual practices and rituals one witnesses in India. The scriptural codes are not commandments to
be obeyed. They are meant as insights
into universal truths which can assist someone to orientate his or her actions
to take the next step on their path.
Hinduism is individualised and personal, yet universal in application.
Hindus, therefore, do not have specific rules they all have
to follow. However, most choose to adopt
some particular disciplines and practices according to their own beliefs, which
may arise from their family or community traditions or from adherence to a
particular teacher or guru. Some of
these may be highly demanding, or even abusive.
Those with disabilities may also set their own agenda. Even amongst a particular faith group within
Hinduism there is ample scope to vary specific practices. Visiting a temple, either locally or on
pilgrimage is recommended for inspiring one’s devotion, but Hindus do not have
any set regulation for visits. Some visit
a temple daily, others only on special occasions. Those who are not so mobile, may do so at
There is great stress on the benefits of recitation and
listening to sacred sound vibrations or mantras.
Those with speech and hearing impediments are obviously at a disadvantage, but
I have met such devotees who somehow perform these practices anyhow. At one temple in the UK, there is a group
called “Sign on to Krishna” for members of its congregation with aural
The Vedas explain
how all rituals and practices have the purpose of focusing the mind on acts of
meditation, austerity and/or devotion. For most of us, actually performing an
action with the bodily senses engages our mind most effectively. Praise is given to the devotee who uses all
his limbs and senses in the service of God.
However, if one does not have the opportunity or ability to perform a
particular religious action, it may be carried out in one’s mind alone, and
that is considered equally beneficial and meritorious. Many examples are cited of devotees chanting,
offering worship, performing pilgrimage and giving charity solely within their
The moral choices that Hindu families make will be guided by
the depth of their religious understanding and commitment. For example, those with strong religious
sentiments will prefer to eschew the abortion of a potentially disabled child,
because they recognise that life begins at conception, and, to them, abortion
equals killing. Similarly, they may be
exceptionally hesitant to end a loved-one’s life by switching off the life
Seva, or service
to others, is another key element of Hindu life. There is a general prescription that full
protection and assistance should be given to the old, the infirmed, children,
women and animals. Hindu householders
are guided to keep their doors open for all those in need. Service to society is a ritual of atonement,
a merit in itself and more importantly, the natural characteristic of a true
Opportunities for seva
are, therefore, considered gifts of God.
The Hindu community in UK have been enthusiastic in donating for welfare
projects in India - often linked to disabilities. In particular, the Gujarati community has
supported eye hospitals.
Service to one’s elders is an expression of gratitude, also
important in Hindu culture. Although it
is starting to change as the Hindu community loses its cohesiveness in UK, most
Hindus do try to accommodate their dependant parents at home, serving them to the
last as a way of trying to repay the debt we each owe to the parents who made
sacrifices to rear us.
Such families may think they have failed if they are obliged
by circumstances to send their parents to a residential home. And the parents may feel hurt and let down by
being sent away. Their whole experience
and tradition is that the parents and the son’s family stay together
Similarly, the parent with the special needs child may, at
times, see that, although a challenge, they have been blessed with the opportunity to serve the child in
their care more attentively. It will
generally be the Hindu parents’ first choice to care for a child with even the
most demanding needs in the shelter of their own home. I have seen how parents of children with severe
mental health have drawn on their religious belief to recognise the personality
of the soul behind the disability and to enjoy a loving connection with them.
This principle of service to a disabled child has been
celebrated in two theological statements.
One is the description of how God is like a father who loves all his
children equally, but if there is one who, because of some disability, is
particularly dependant on him, he feels a special inclination and emotion
towards that child.
The other is the statement that the nearest we may get to
witnessing the wonderful love of God is in the incessant and unmotivated love
of a mother for her disabled child.