The Hare Krishna movement in England


From a recent article on the “Espresso” national newspapaper in Italy by Tiziano Fusella (Tulsi Das)

The new British prime minister Rishi Sunak has brought a large community and their estate of Bhaktivedanta Manor near London back into the spotlight. The park is home to the headquarters of the Hindu cult in the West and politicians are increasingly passing through it.


Translated from Italian: In the hours following the appointment of Rishi Sunak as British prime minister, a meme rebounded on Indian social media, or rather one of the many photomontages circulating on the Net. It showed the door of Number 10 Downing street, the residence of the prime ministers, surrounded by neatly deposited. A way to celebrate the new leader, the first of Indian origins to lead the country: in fact, in Hindu houses and places of worship, it is forbidden to enter with shoes, considered contaminated by the outside world. Although he is of the Hindu religion, the British prime minister will hardly be able to enforce this rule in Downing Street, where dozens of people move every day. And he probably won’t even make a case of it.

Although he is a faithful practitioner, Sunak does not like to talk about religion in public. When he was chosen as chancellor of the exchequer (minister of finance) of the government of Boris Johnson, he swore on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text of Hinduism and in particular of the Hare Krishnas. He was seen several times in the London temple of Bhaktivedanta Manor, Krishna’s cult headquarters in Europe: here it was also a few weeks before his appointment, on the eve of the Hindu celebrations for Krishna’s birthday, the Janmashtami holiday.

Rishi Sunak, 42, is very close to the Hare Krishna community. He and his wife Akshata Murthy along with their two daughters Krishna and Anoushka often visit the Manor. Whenever they go they are garlanded with flowers and greeted by the sound of large conchshells being blown. His visits, with or without photographers in tow, usually end with a refreshment of hay from the 62 cows of the community, a Belgian Friesian breed, sacred and pampered according to Hindu dictates.

But who are the Hare Krishnas? The official name is actually International Society for Krishna Consciousness (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), or Iskcon: the group was founded in New York in 1966 by the Indian spiritual master A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who died eleven years later. His teachings, which are still followed today, are based on those of the Bengali mystic Caitanya (1486-1534) and are grafted onto the variegated bed of the Hindu religion, but with a strong monotheistic meaning.

The group has its headquarters in Mayapur, India, and among other things asks its members to follow a vegetarian diet, to avoid the use of alcohol and tobacco, no gambling, to abide by celibacy until marriage, and to live centered on devotion. Today Iskcon is mainly made up of members who reside outside the temples or rural communities, and can also renounce the traditional orange (the color of the celibate) or white (that of the married) clothing: it has four hundred centres, fifty rural and farm buildings and ten schools around the world.

In the past, the Hare Krishnas were very popular: they could be found on the streets of major European cities. Most of the followers were Westerners who had chosen to live according to the dictates of the Hindu religion. Now their presence has dwindled, but the cult has not disappeared. This is precisely demonstrated by Bhaktivedanta Manor, a 31-hectare estate with a nineteenth-century mansion thirty minutes from central London, a perfect mirror of the ups and downs experienced by the movement in its half-century of history.

Donated to Iskcon by George Harrison of the Beatles in 1973, today about seventy dedicated monks live there. But what attracts the attention of politicians of both left and right is the large and wealthy congregation. That is, those, mostly of Indian origin, who live outside the Manor and participate in temple activities on their free days. In 2020, a large structure was inaugurated which houses a school attended by 4,300 pupils mostly from the congregation.

Returning to the story, «in the 1970s the movement in England grew rapidly thanks to the charisma of the founder – Radha Mohan Das, of the communications staff of the Manor, explains to us via e-mail -. For the boys of that time, living in a monastery was an experience to be had». Then came the 80s with their ruthless consumerism: some gurus left the cassock. And many disciples left, feeling cheated. “Few took vows, but in the meantime Bhaktivedanta Manor became increasingly popular among the Indian community here in England,” Radha Mohan Das details. The result is today’s 33,000 “official” devotees in the United Kingdom and 250,000 faithful in general. Numbers that explain why in recent years the Manor has become a “living room” increasingly taken into consideration by the various party leaders.

Close to the elections, former prime ministers James Cameron and Boris Johnson passed through the Manor. Labor Kier Starmer met India’s High Commissioner to the UK Vikram Doraiswami in October during a visit to the temple where they discussed the UK-India Free Trade Order (FTA).

«It is clear that the politicians who pass through here are looking for votes – admits Visakha Devi, 74, president of the Manor, answering our questions in writing -. But some are genuinely interested in spirituality.” The current prime minister, born into a Hindu family and therefore of the same origin as the Hare Krishnas, can be included in the latter category.

As a child Sunak attended the Southampton Temple, 70 miles (110 km) south of London. But a couple of details suggest that today he prefers the closest Manor, in the suburb of Letchmore Heath. The fact that to one of his daughters he gave the name “Krishna”, which is indeed a divinity of the Hindu pantheon common to many temples but pre-eminent to the Manor, is a clue to be grasped; it also seems that he confided that in the evening he usually discusses the verses of the Bhagavad Gita with his wife, the favorite writing of the Hare Krishna branch. Elements that would confirm the thesis of the preference of the Sunaks towards the Manor. However, it remains a topic on which London devotees love to joke, aware that some VIPs are better not to pull too much by the jacket. “When I told them that, in my absolutely impartial opinion – adds Visakha -, our adorable statues of deities were undoubtedly the most beautiful in the United Kingdom, Mr and Mrs Sunak laughed heartily”.

Even President Visakha, like Sunak, can boast her own personal primacy within Iskcon: she is the first woman to hold the position of president in a large temple. She was born in New York with the name of Jean Papert, she has been a photojournalist since the age of 18 with some successful publications. In 1970 she met Prabhupada and from her convinced atheist she adopted the path of spirituality together with her husband who was also a devotee and documentary filmmaker. After the death of the founder Prabhupada in 1977, the movement hardened on the role of women, who remained in the rear. There was no record of female spiritual leaders or female temple presidents. In a 2019 Guardian interview, Kalakantha Das, a large community leader in Florida, said that Iskcon was afflicted with “latent misogyny,” and that “many sisters grew up feeling like they had to stand aside, not being able to such as giving public lectures.’

The appointment of Visakha as president of the Manor, which took place two years ago, marked a turning point, even if she prefers to gloss over the subject today. “Maybe it’s a sign that we can turn the page on the past,” she just says. The subject is delicate: devotees in India or of Indian origin represent the more conservative wing. Western devotees, on the other hand, have a more liberal bent.
In London we prefer not to talk much about this: the emphasis in recent weeks, as well as on Sunak, is concentrated on the fiftieth anniversary of the Bhaktivedanta Manor temple. Big parties are expected for 2023: and it’s easy to guess who will be the guest of honour.


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