Groups of ‘Hare Krishnas’, singing, dancing and chanting with unfettered joy have become a common and arresting sight on some of London’s busiest roads.
In an age of religious wars and news dominated by the most barbaric acts perpetrated in the name of a variety of gods, the Hare Krishnas have come to stand for a fundamental purity and innocence that the world is fast becoming devoid of.
Few capture that purity better than British scholar and author Ranchor Prime, one of the UK’s best-known members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Established in 1966 in New York, the ISKCON beliefs are based on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the spoken word of the Hindu God Krishna. Devotees are taught to develop a love for Krishna – the Supreme Being – through Bakthi Yoga or devotional service.
The movement’s founder Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was a septuagenarian when he embarked on his journey to the United States, armed with some Vedic scriptures and, legend has it, seven dollars in his pocket.
The rest, as they say, is history.
ISKCON today boasts millions of followers (its most famous follower was, of course, the former Beatle George Harrison) and more than 550 physical locations around the world including temples, schools, restaurants and farming communities.
As a long-standing member of the movement, Ranchor holds a unique insight into the workings of ISKCON and its teachings.
Born Richard Prime in 1950 in Leeds, Ranchor was brought up a Roman Catholic.
In the late 1960’s, whilst studying at the prestigious Chelsea College of Art and Design, Ranchor decided to abandon what he described as his ‘materialistic way of life’ and became swept up in the quest for ‘enlightenment’ that pervaded the era: first experimenting with mind-enhancing drugs before joining the Hare Krishna movement.
He would later go on to design Hare Krishna temples in Mayapur in West Bengal as well as Trinidad and London’s Soho.
Prime is also a widely published author, writing on Vedic culture, the Bhagavad Gita and religion in general. Among his most well-known books is an illustrated, English translation of the Gita.
I caught up with Ranchor for a chat about his remarkable journey, his relationship with God, the Bhagavad Gita and, the ‘Quiet Beatle’, George Harrison.
Aashi Gahlot: What does religion mean to you and what has become of it in today’s context?
Ranchor Prime: I would say that its part of the human condition, to seek a connection with the Higher power. It’s not that we seek power, but that we seek connection with a Higher power. That’s what gives my life a meaning and purpose. In essence it’s a service. Religion is serving God. Now when someone doesn’t have that connection then they think that they have to be in control. They lose the meaning of service. When religion becomes about dominating rather than serving – that’s when things begin to go wrong and that’s what has happened.
Ordinary people are innocent so are easily misled. It’s sad to see how they get turned against each other in the name of religion. But real religion is service. If I serve God I will see God in every other creature. And I will serve the God that’s present in everyone. As Jesus said, whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me. That’s religion. Caring for people, being kind because you know that everyone is a child of God. And this of course should be extended to animals.
But sadly in this phase of our Earthly story, for the last 2,000 years at least, both humans and animals have been exploited and harmed in the most horrible ways.
AG: How would you encourage someone who does not believe in God to feel the connection that you feel with God?
RP: I just say practice kindness. Make kindness your religion and you won’t be far off. You’re closer to God than someone who claims belief but does not practice kindness – they are nowhere near God. The nature of God is to be love. And kindness is the manifestation of love. So actually I have no great argument with an atheist as much as I do with someone who is cruel in the name of religion. That’s the worst of all. The very origins of the word ‘religion’ means to ‘bind together, to bring together’.
So when apparently religion appears to divide people, that is not religion. It should be about coming together. I’ve spent a lot of time going to interfaith gatherings where there are people of all different faiths, and experience a great deal of comradeship with a rabbi or with an imam or a priest or a Buddhist monk because we are all sharing this same attention to the idea of serving a Higher principle.
AG: Why do we have so many different religions?
RP: I think it’s because everyone is different. And it’s a very important aspect of religion that it shouldn’t be one answer for everyone. One of the things I like about the Bhagavad Gita is that Krishna says there are many different kinds of faith and I encourage them all. And that’s how those religious tendencies in society that have lasted and have been of benefit have been the ones that have allowed individual variety of belief.
So it’s very good that there are many different kinds of religious teachings and nobody should feel coerced to belong to one and not another. And to this idea of apostasy – which is not unique to Islam. Everyone should be free to do that. It’s very much part of Krishna consciousness.
Shri Krishna Chaitanya composed a beautiful song of 8 verses, “Shikshastaka”. He says to Krishna: “Oh Govinda, you have many names and in each of them you have invested your full potency. You are so merciful that you have given us all these different names and there are no rules as to how to chant your names.”
So that is very specifically in the teachings, to underline the fact that God has many names. There is no one correct name. I would go further actually, the reason that religion has so many different varieties is because, ultimately, for each and every one of us, the one ‘true’ religion is something that each and every one of us experience in our heart.
And so the way I experience it is unique to me. And sometimes occasionally you get a particular individual who has opened up such a profound inner connection that when they speak, it’s just God speaking through them. That’s what we all seek actually, to let God act through us. So when they speak many people are inspired. That is how religion evolves. But that’s only because that person has made that inner connection. Ultimately we are all able to do that for ourselves.
The more I feel that within myself, the less inclined I feel to interfere with someone else’s connection because I have my connection. I don’t require other people to confirm that I have an inner connection by agreeing with me. I don’t mind if you agree with me or not. Because I have my connection. And I’d be happy for you to have yours. And God has a unique connection with every individual – this is very much part of the Bhagavad Gita. The divine inner presence that speaks to each and every one of us in our hearts. The more I have that, the more I am willing to accept each and every person as they are. Wanting people to believe a certain set of beliefs is a sign of insecurity.
AG: What causes suffering and how does the Gita suggest to overcome suffering?
RP: According to the Gita, suffering arises from attachment – particularly attachment to sensory pleasures. That’s how it manifests. It comes from a very deep sense of incompleteness – that there is something missing from my life. And so the material disease is that we all identify with the physical body and try to satisfy that need by enjoying the senses in one way or another. And also by seeking material success, and recognition and fame.
So what Krishna says in the Gita is that of course you will never be happy by attaching yourself to the pleasures of material things because they are temporary, they have a beginning and an end and they also cause suffering. Every type of material pleasure in moderation is fine – but people don’t seem to be moderate: we eat too much, we smoke too much, we drink too much, we have too much sex. And they give themselves pain. And cause pain to each other. Just look at the way the world is – there is so much pain.
And you know, all these wars – it’s very distressing hearing about the goings on in the Middle East and Ukraine. They are all symptomatic of people being exploited for material pleasure – that’s what it all comes back to. The Muslim world in general is in turmoil because they’re feeling that they’ve been oppressed. And they have cause for that. They’ve been oppressed for the last 100 years since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – they’ve just lost everything. It was a great civilisation at one point in the world’s history – but it’s been long since that ended. But they’ve got this permanent feeling of being oppressed. The Muslim understanding of community is strong – the word “Ummah” is entwined with religion and means the whole community of Muslims bound together by Islam. Thus, in the Muslim mind, all Muslims, wherever they may be – in Indonesia or in India or in Afghanistan, Arabia – wherever- they are all one family. So if any of them are suffering they all feel it. It’s like belonging to a country.
AG: And yet religion continues to cause conflicts around the world.
RP: It’s just basic psychology. When true religious teachers are sidelined, they get replaced by fanatics. In any community the loudest voices are always the voices of the fanatics. And fanatics by definition – they get the sense of their ego being satisfied when they get power and influence over people. They just want to take control. So that’s what happens when the genuine teachings are not supported. In a healthy society, religious teachings are not politicized. Teachings such as serving God, a life of prayer, caring for your neighbours, for other creatures – these are taught and understood in the mosque or wherever it is – but when that gets interrupted you get these fanatics who are not interested in religion. They’re just interested in power. Simple as that.
AG: How were you inspired by the Bhagavad Gita personally and what inspired you to write “Talks Between the Soul and God” – directly inspired by the great scripture?
RP: I had a very Christian upbringing. I lived in Westminster Cathedral as a young boy for 4 years. Then I lived with Benedictine monks for another 4 years. My father was a very religious man. So I had all of that. And it was real and important for me. But I wanted more. I wanted to go further. And then I discovered the Bhagavad Gita. What I found in the Gita did not contradict anything that I’d grown up with. But it deepened it.
Through “Talks Between the Soul and God”, what I wanted it to do was to produce a Gita that was two things: One, that it was absolutely true to the spirit of the Gita. And at the same time, showing people that this is the same voice of the same Supreme Being that you may have encountered in your own tradition. God speaks in many languages to many peoples. That it’s the same voice and if this will help you to connect to that presence in your life, then that’s all it is intended to do.
It’s not there to persuade you that this is the one true faith. It’s broad – which is the Gita. So the two things are for it be authentic – I don’t wish to reinterpret the Gita. I wish to present it as it is but in a way that is broad. And also in a way that is simple. Because I have seen so many people in this country who got put off by the thought that they are going to have to tangle with Sanskrit. Also with complicated philosophy and terms they did not understand. And there’s no need for that. Because that’s what scholars do. Scholars love to make things complicated because it makes them feel important – as they “know” more than their audience.
I don’t want to do that. I want to untangle.
AG: Do you have to believe in God to appreciate the Bhagavad Gita?
RP: No. The Bhagavad Gita will help you believe in God. The Gita speaks to the human condition. The beginning place of the Gita is that place of bewilderment and confusion that we all experience at times in our lives. It’s that place that I am actually willing to call for help and guidance. If you don’t feel that then probably the Gita is not going to speak to you. But if you at any point in your life have experienced a wish for some encouragement, support and guidance, a calling out of: God if You’re there, if You exist, tell me what should I do? That’s a thing that I think happens to lots of people. How could you have a real belief in God, a genuine belief in God until you have gone through that? So I would say, somebody who already thinks oh I know God. Don’t bother with the Gita because you think you’ve already got the answers. I can’t help you.
But if you’re willing to be open and to ask for guidance, then read it. The real school for religion is life. We are all experiencing life. I try to get the things I want and then I get disappointed. Life disappoints me – mostly. Once in a while I get something that I want and then I realise, oh that’s not enough? Why doesn’t it satisfy? I want more! And so gradually over time I’m always being nudged to go deeper to look for it – what is it that I’m really seeking? I know I’m seeking something but it doesn’t seem to be here. It doesn’t seem to be here. That’s why I say that the real school of religion is life itself.
AG: George Harrison really brought the ISKCON movement to the world’s attention. What was it like recording with him? What was he like as a person?
RP: I didn’t know George terribly well but I did speak to him a few times. He had a very commanding presence. First of all, over and above everything else, he loved Krishna. I mean, really loved Krishna in a very personal way. And he never made any secret of that. Once he had decided at a certain point, I believe after the Beatles went their separate ways, he decided it was time to speak his heart. That’s when he released his triple album: All Things Must Pass – something that people say was a landmark.
Nobody had ever done anything like the album before. The songs on the record had been with him for many years but he hadn’t been able to record them as he was working with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They had so much stuff and there was only certain room on albums. But if you listen to those songs, almost all of them are really deeply spiritual. So that’s the first thing about George. He was a very spiritual man who loved Krishna.
The next thing about him which was very apparent was he really knew what he wanted. A very focused person. He wasn’t interested in being – he didn’t really waste time with trivialities. He got straight to the point. You couldn’t really have a shallow conversation with George. Everything had to be meaningful. And profound. He had very high standards. So really a very intelligent person – a high quality individual. Not necessarily an easy man I would have thought, because he had such high standards, a perfectionist. What a wonderful man that he could have done anything with his life as an ex Beatle. But actually everything he did especially as his life progressed was just focused on his devotion to God. Yes he had his recreation, he enjoyed motor racing and he liked to smoke cigarettes.
And of course being a big Rockstar, he was a magnet for women. But every rock star has to deal with that. So he had to deal with that – which was probably never easy for him, or particularly for Olivia or his previous wife Patty Boyd. They both suffered a lot for being married to a man who lots of women were in love with. But he was in love with Krishna. I personally think, I would say there were three Krishna devotees who had a profound influence in my life: Prabhupada; Yamuna and George.
The best thing I like about George was that he wasn’t a saint. I think sainthood is very much over rated because it is not a human quality – humans are full of flaws. A human is a combination of spirit and matter. I mean – I’m a pure spirit and as such I am perfect and flawless – everyone of us is. But when we enter this world we take on a role which by nature is going to be defective in different ways. That’s part of the beauty of a human being – that we are not perfect.
AG: What can we expect from you next?
RP: I have a book coming out later this year. Really it is me giving myself permission to speak from the heart and not from any particular religious standpoint. All my books up until now have been about the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism. But my new book is something just from my heart and what I personally experience when I live in this world of nature and how I find the Divine presence in nature. Nature, which includes both the physical and the non-physical. The mind, the wisdom, the heart – this is all part of nature. The whole experience of being alive in this mysterious magical realm, that’s what this book is about. So I’ve called it ‘The Eight Elements’ because that’s the only feature of the book that is not from my heart – because every book has to have some kind of concept – so the concept of the book is to make a journey through the eight elements which are taught in the ancient metaphysics of the yoga tradition – which are earth, water, fire, earth, air, mind, wisdom and ego. These eight elements make up the creation of God, in which I’m living, this mysterious and magical world. So it’s about my personal journey through that. And my observations and some of the experiences I’ve had. That’s what the book is. It’s inviting the reader to come with me on that journey.
To find out more about Ranchor, visit his website at www.ranchor.co.uk