The room is gradually filling up as I walk in. Amid all the harem pants and dhotis, I spot a couple of Indian faces. Everyone else is white. The friend who persuaded me to come is late, leaving me feeling entirely uncertain and a little incredulous. There’s no time for misgivings, however; a man draped in white takes his place in front of the microphone and with a lilting accent, starts singing “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna…”
This is (as you undoubtedly have guessed by now) my first introduction to the Hare Krishna movement. As a self-proclaimed atheist and someone who inwardly cringes at elaborate family poojas, I generally steer clear of these kinds of things. Religious preaching? No thanks. But to my immense surprise, as the evening unfolds, I feel my scepticism melting away and my curiosity piqued. Maybe it’s the rather innocuous set-up (a come-as-you-please vibe, very un-cult like), or the humility with which the guest speaker addresses us. Maybe it’s the sheer fact that he’s British. Whatever it is, I am intrigued and want to know more.
The speaker, Bhadrasena, begins by assuring us everything he is about to propose is entirely up to us to accept or reject (instant brownie points in my book for not force feeding us any theories). He questions the concept of happiness (What is it? Why do we strive for it? What if it’s all just an illusion?). It’s all very Morpheus à la Matrix style, but enlightening nonetheless, especially as this is also my first encounter with the Bhagavad Gita*.
Getting to know other devotees’ personal stories over dinner later is fascinating. The diversity of the crowd - I find myself sitting next to a Russian engineer and a German yacht designer! - is simultaneously bizarre and humbling. A question that has been nagging me the whole night comes back to me: why do you know more about this than I do?
My mother once told me that she was taught meditation by a French lady. Thinking back on this, I marvel at the great irony of it - Indians racing towards western values while the latter in turn reach back to discover ours. What is it that compels these foreigners to seek the knowledge that originated in our culture? And not only seek, but to study it and spread the word of the Hare Krishna movement with such conviction and devotion? I’ve seen them battling wind and rain to talk about Hare Krishna on street corners. Are we staying willfully ignorant of our own culture, letting the west take up the mantle? Why does Elizabeth Gilbert have to tell us how great our country’s spiritual essence is?
By the end of the evening my head is buzzing. There’s still much to learn, digest and ponder. As I’m leaving, I pause to thank Bhadrasena for his illuminating talk. He is sitting cross-legged on the ground deep in discussion with other devotees. Up close, with my jeans and jumper and obvious awkwardness, I feel every bit the foreigner. I shake my head.
*The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Hindu sacred text that details a conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna, a warrior prince. Their discussion covers theological topics like the nature of God, the universe, and the path to true enlightenment.