In the aftermath of last month’s riots opinions were divided as to their cause. “Existing criminals on the rampage,” pronounced Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, while, in a display of party disunity, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith declared the problem to be “selfish bankers and MP’s ignoring the plight of the poor.”
Whatever the cause, the riots certainly made for some shocking footage with the police apparently losing control of our streets. Fires blazed everywhere, shop fronts were kicked in and cars turned over as marauding gangs realised that no one was going to stop them. Personal violence was also meted out with a number of brutal incidents being reported.
I felt a deep sense of sadness at seeing all this, but I was not particularly surprised. Vedic knowledge points out that a man lacking spiritual practice will eventually tend toward brutish behavior and the number of non-practitioners in society is certainly considerable. If it’s anything to go by, less than 5% of the UK now attends church, for example.
The Vedas define the distinction between man and animal as the former’s quest for religious meaning and truth. Sensual gratification is common to all species but only humans can practice religion. Such genuine practice, according to the Srimad Bhagavatam, will ultimately imbue a person with “all the qualities of the gods,” while its absence results in one losing all gentility and becoming a danger to everyone including himself. Given the right set of circumstances, such as we saw recently, this tendency rapidly rises to the surface.
Animals take whatever they want as and when they can, restricted only by their power, and a person without spiritual guidelines will likely act similarly. The only restriction will be one’s personal capabilities and opportunities, or the constraints of law, which as we have just seen do not always work.
Iain Duncan-Smith’s suggestion that selfishness lay at the root of the riots was right. It was the ugly face of selfishness run amok as people grabbed whatever they could while the going was good. Obviously it was also rampant criminality, as Mr Clarke pointed out, but in the Vedic analysis anyone not God conscious is a criminal to a greater or lesser degree, stealing the Lord’s property.
Naked came we to the world and naked we shall depart. Whatever we think we own was here before us and will remain after we are gone. We falsely claim ownership for a brief period before everything is snatched away by death. Really it belongs to its creator and maintainer, and that is Krishna or God. Spiritual practise aims to awaken this perception and its consequent gentle behaviour of using all property in divine service while taking for ourselves only what we need, that which is ordained for us by God.
Ever increasing consumerism and the all out pursuit of wealth stand in stark opposition to this godly paradigm, but does our present society direct people toward anything else? Who are our heroes and role models, for example? Film stars, musicians and football players, for the most part, all of them flaunting obscene quantities of disposable income and quite often a converse degree of morality. Saints and sages hardly get a look in, with religion generally making the media only when it is time to decry the fanatics.
And what do schools offer in the way of spirituality? You’re lucky if you get an act of collective worship these days, while RI lessons merely examine religion from the viewpoint of objective academic interest. God is a dirty word in science lessons, and let’s face it scientists are the new priests of our modern age.
Hardly surprising then that we should see godless behaviour breaking out all over. Especially when we add to the mix the fact that society is producing an underclass of people for whom hope and opportunity simply do not exist. Two and a half million are now unemployed; nearly half of them young people, many coming from families where no one has a job or any realistic hope of getting one. But like everyone else they have been programmed with consumer society’s ideal of having it all now, and are continually tantalized by an all powerful marketing machine driven by insatiable corporate greed.
Without spiritual practice we are all victims of the same desires; all of us becoming thieves of God’s property to feed a lust that knows no satisfaction. Fair enough, most of us have enough control to not rush out and seize everything in sight when the opportunity presents itself, but as long as we remain fixated on material enjoyment who knows what we might be capable of doing if the going gets tough enough? Even those at the top of the heap have shown themselves to be quite capable of profligate seizure, as the recent banker’s bonuses and MP’s expenses debacles demonstrated.
Unless we find some way of increasing genuine spiritual consciousness in our society soon we can surely expect the madness to continue, from top to bottom.
These were delivered over the last 3 weeks on BBC Radio 2
Week 34 – Music
This weekend I am hoping to make it to the Notting Hill Carnival, helping a few friends with their environmentally friendly ox-powered float, and adding my voice to the general din by chanting a few ancient Sanskrit mantras. The carnival is a musical affair so we will bring our instruments and try to chant as harmoniously as possible, which is more than I would say for a lot of the music I hear these days.
I guess that’s always the case though, like everything else music moves on and leaves its lovers behind. The raucous racket blasting out of our kids’ rooms today has us reaching for the ear plugs, while the sweet and melodious sounds which we enjoyed in our youth are generally viewed by them as old fashioned rubbish.
Oh well, each to their own I suppose, but it is a rare person who does not enjoy some sort of music. As the poet said, music has charms to soothe the savage breast. The composer Thomas Beecham put it even more eloquently when he said that the function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought. I would second that, but with a certain proviso, that it be a part of one’s spiritual practises.
For me music is an intrinsic element of my spiritual life. In Hinduism and particularly the Krishna faith, the process of kirtan, congregational glorification of God, is a key practise, and should you visit a Krishna temple you will very likely encounter groups of worshippers engaged in enthusiastic singing, and quite often dancing too. Music serves to attract us to the prayers and spiritual chants, but it is these that actually free the mind from tyranny.
In fact the word mantra means just that – ‘mind freeing’ – particularly from those thoughts which keep us bound up within this world. The mind is described in my scriptures as the vehicle carrying the soul, and if it is absorbed in materialistic thought it will oblige us to remain within the material or mortal realm. Only when the mind is absorbed in the divine can the soul be liberated and returned to its spiritual position. This is generally known as meditation and the easiest way to do this is chanting.
That’s where the mantras come in. These generally consist of God’s names which are divine sound vibrations. Therefore simply by joining in with the singing we effectively meditate on the Supreme and move towards liberation. It doesn’t matter what name we chant, after all God has many names, but by this simple process we can quickly free ourselves from all the stress and anxiety of life and achieve the highest happiness.
Week 35 – Lessons learned
As Ramadan draws to a close our Muslim friends will no doubt be reflecting on the lessons they have learned from their religious observances over the last month. Challenging the urges of the senses and mind always teaches me lessons. The first thing I notice is how powerful these urges are. It is like being swept along in a boat by a fast current. You don’t notice the movement or the force that moves you, until you decide to row against it. In a similar way we normally let ourselves be carried by our sensual and mental desires, submitting to them as far as we can in our quest for enjoyment. We hardly notice how they dictate our lives until we try to control them. Then they fight back with a force we never realised they possessed
My spiritual master once said that taking to spiritual life means declaring war on the force of illusion, on the urge to indulge the body and mind in material pursuits. It is illusion because we are spiritual beings, entirely separate from matter and meant to enjoy a superior spiritual happiness – but that means controlling and ultimately ending our attempts to exploit and enjoy this world.
Tough prospect perhaps, but surely we can see how such exploitation – certainly when taken to excess – leads to problems. This is a lesson we tend to learn the hard way as we reap the results. For example eating or drinking to excess leads to pain. Excessive or in other words illicit sex is fraught with trouble. Any of our senses can afford us only so much ephemeral pleasure and then we become bored or worse. On a larger scale our profligate rape of the earth in pursuit of increased consumption has produced numerous well documented calamities.
All of this should hopefully lead to us learning a larger lesson. We want unlimited enjoyment but neither our bodies nor our available resources will allow it. We need to look in a different direction. This is the direction given by God and found in all faiths and scriptures. Turn from matter, or Mammon, or Maya as I would call it, towards spirit or God. He is the unlimited Supreme and in his association we can enjoy the supreme pleasure we seek.
It is not that easy of course. I know I am still learning that lesson after so many years of trying. Our desire for sensual indulgence runs deep and as I began by saying it presents us with a formidable obstacle. The only answer is prayer and doing our best to follow the Lord’s directions. Even the most powerful foe can be conquered with his help, and the biggest enemies we face are our own unbridled senses.
Week 36 – Back to Reality
At last the holidays are over and it is back to reality time for the kids as a new school year begins. Discussing this happy event with my teenage daughter last week and attempting to instil in her an appreciation for the value of a good education, I was told, “Well Dad, the reality is I hate school. Simple.”
There’s no arguing with that and it’s probably true for many of us, that we grapple with the realities of our day to day lives. We do live in quite stressful times it seems. According to the Mental Health Foundation 1 in 4 British adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year, and 1 in 6 experiences this at any given time.
Reality can be hard to face at times but according to the ancient sages of India the root cause of anxiety is to not understand what reality really is – in other words to accept the unreal as real. The Bhagavad-Gita defines reality as being that which has no termination, and conversely the unreal as that which has no permanence. For example ourselves – in reality we are said to be eternal spirit souls. The soul’s temporary covering in the shape of our bodies is merely a passing combination of elements. They take the shape of a body for a short time and then disintegrate, again to reassemble into another form in due course of time. But the soul, the actual person, endures this change and continues to live, accepting another form.
All material phenomena are in a state of constant flux, forever moving from one state to another and thus the forms of this world have no substantial reality. As eternal beings we are not happy with this state of affairs. We therefore strive for security, for some sort of permanence. However, it is a losing battle. All things must pass, as George Harrison musically pronounced. Our homes, relationships and everything we possess, including our very bodies, will be taken away by the force of time. Therefore we are anxious on account of struggling vainly to avert this inevitability.
That anxiety can be entirely dissipated when we focus on true reality, on our spiritual self and our undying relationship with God. This cannot be taken away at any time. When we see the world and everything within it, including ourselves, as belonging to the Supreme, in the ultimate analysis as his energy, then we become situated on the platform of eternity, where we belong. The problems of life may not vanish, but they will be cut down to size, seen in their proper perspective against the reality of our immortal spiritual existence. That’s the only reality I can face.