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.