Read a transcript of Alex Chadwick's conversation with British Hindu convert and religious scholar Ranchor Das about Krishna's place in the constellation of Hindu gods and how the religion compares to Western faith and traditions:
Ranchor Prime: I received that name from my Guru thirty years ago. I'm also Richard, because I was born in England and I was brought up within the Roman-Catholic tradition, so that's very much a part of who I am. But around the age of twenty I met my Guru. He gave me the name Ranchor, which is a name for Krishna. Here in Vrindavan, everyone here knows me as Ranchor.
Alex Chadwick: One of the things that we are trying to get an explanation for, is Hinduism and Krishna consciousness. That is, we would like to know what is Hinduism and where is Krishna consciousness in that?
RP: I always think that for a Hindu, Hinduism is so much taken for granted as the traditional way of life of the people of India, that it is not really perceived as being a religion so much as just, well, that's the way we are, the way we have been have been. As far as I'm aware, it's only when people came from outside India, particularly from Europe, but also from the Islamic countries, that they needed to give an identity to the religion of the peoples of India as distinct from their own. That was how the term Hinduism really became used. Hindus themselves have never called themselves Hindus until really quite recently when they learned to do that from the rest of world.
The Hindu tradition essentially comes out of the Vedic literatures and all the stories which are told in those literatures, many of which were not written down until much later. They were passed down by word of mouth. And central to all those stories, is the story of Krishna. If you look at Hindu art, you see that it's saturated with images of Krishna. Krishna consciousness really is just focusing on Krishna, because Krishna in many ways embodies almost the essence of the spiritual tradition, which we call Hinduism.
AC: But there are different facets of Krishna? Vishnu is part of the same Godhead, but is another aspect of the personality. Is that correct?
RP: Depending on your point of view, some people see Vishnu as the source of Krishna. Krishna devotees see Krishna as the source of Vishnu, but they are different aspects of the same Supreme Being. Shiva is another aspect. Really, the Shiva traditions, which are broadly called Shivism, and the Krishna or Vishnu traditions, which are broadly called Vishnuism, they broadly comprise Hinduism, those two traditions. Other associated traditions have emanated from those.
AC: In the western tradition, we think of God as an awesome, powerful, magnificent figure. That is Vishnu, yes?
RP: That's one part of the Hindu concept of God, absolutely, the almighty Supreme Being who we revere.
AC: Krishna is different. Playful, joyous, blissful, happy. In the Western tradition, I think it's hard for westerners to see that aspect of God's personality as the premier, or as first God, as it were?
RP: So far as I've seen in the Christian tradition, there's plenty of that. But perhaps it's not as popular. For example, baby Jesus. It's very popular in devotional Christianity. In mystical Christianity sometimes Jesus Christ is thought of in intensely personal ways. The Krishna tradition perhaps is unique in the sense that it has really developed that concept, that God, as well as being the embodiment of all power and force and energy, God is also your intimate friend. That's really the starting off point for the Krishna tradition: how to make friends with God. How would you do that? How would you make friends with the Supreme Being who created everything that exists? It could be a daunting, overwhelming concept. The Krishna devotional tradition has tried to bring that within in the grasp of an ordinary person. How can I make friends with God?
AC: And how does the Krishna tradition do that?
RP: Well, really if we go back to absolute basics, the Bhagavad-Gita, which is really the essential teaching of Hinduism, Krishna has said an unforgettable promise which he made, that if you surrender to me in devotion, I will protect you, I will be your friend, and you need have no fear.
AC: I wondered how it is that the Krishna tradition is emphasizing...
AC: …What is the Krishna tradition saying to followers? What I'm struck by is the idea that so many people place primary value on these aspects of God that are somewhat a part of Western Christian thinking, wouldn't be completely unfamiliar, but which wouldn't be primary. You know the primary figure of God in Western tradition, I think, most people would say this is kind of august and awesome figure one could not imagine having as friend, because you'd almost be afraid to have God as a friend, because you'd almost be afraid to have God as a friend, you can't presume to have God as friend. But in Krishna, with Krishna, you can, and those qualities are seen as primary over more the more august and powerful, and what I think in kind of traditional Western thought you would say, well this is God: power, might, omnipotence. Those not the qualities one associates with Krishna, yes?
RP: That's right. To appreciate Krishna, to understand what that experience of Krishna is, the starting point is that Krishna is the supreme powerful, but that supreme powerful entity is extending his hand, and he is saying, I want you to become my friend. And what makes Vrindavan a special place is that if you wish to learn how to be friend of Krishna, come to Vrindavan, either physically or at least spiritually, mentally, learn about Vrindavan, hear about Vrindavan, and there you will find the image of God as your intimate friend, where he became a child in arms of his mother, where he played with his friends, some of them younger than him, some of them older than him, his boy friends, and also his girl friends. And that image of friendship with God has been meditated upon, has been contemplated, has been delved into deeply in Vrindavan for thousands of years. There's a tremendous tradition has built up around that. It doesn't lose sight of the fact that at the same time this Krishna is the all-powerful being, but that's not what attracts the heart. Power is something, it does attract my respect, and to some extent it does attract my devotion, but at end of day, power will not attract my love, and because that's what we're we are seeking, everyone is seeking love.
AC: Krishna fought battles, he killed evil spirits, he was a heroic warrior, some aspect of him, those are the kinds of qualities you imagine being celebrated, and talked about and sung about, this is the stuff of stories at least in the tradition I'm used to. But instead, I hear about those things off-hand, or from time to time in Vrindavan, that's not the aspect of Krishna that people are interested in.
RP: That's because you're in Vrindavan. The people who, and of course for many of us, that will be the primary appeal. We want to feel safe and secure in the hands of the All-Powerful, and so the worship of Krishna in his more majestic aspect, that's also a very strong element in Hindu traditions, as in different faiths of the world, and some faiths emphasize that more than others. Vrindavan is the place where people come who really want to develop that inner relationship with Krishna, the friend, the one who declares, who says, teaches in the Bhagavad-Gita, that "I am always with you, in your heart. I never leave you. Although you may have forgotten all the things you ever did, I was there, along side you, I saw it all. And whatever is yet to come, I will still be with you, I will always be there to see everything you do."
When that desire arises in the spiritual seeker's heart — that I wish to know that constant companion, who is this person who has really brought me into existence and who is offering that hand of friendship? — Then you come to somewhere like Vrindavan and then you would see it through those eyes of devotion, you might start to see what it is that makes Vrindavan special.
AC: You were a young man of about twenty when you encountered Krishna consciousness? How did that come about?
RP: I was a student in an art college in London, and the devotees, my Guru, had sent six of his very early disciples from America which was his first landing point in the West, sent them to London. They made friends with the Beatles and they recorded the Hare Krishna chant. So me and all my friends used to sing Hare Krishna with out knowing what it was. And I saw the devotees once or twice, the Hare Krishna devotees, singing on Kings Road in Chelsea. A friend of mine said, "Why don't you come along, they're really nice people." I met them, and it was one of those moments in life when I knew that I belonged here with these people.
AC: Had you had a good experience with the Catholic Church?
RP: Yes, very good. From a very early age I was saturated with Catholic devotion, I lived in a cathedral, I was choirboy, and I lived with monks, Benedictine monks. I had no disillusion at all with Roman Catholicism. Somehow, I hadn't been touched in the way that I was when I met the Krishna people.
AC: How long was it before you decided that you would become a devotee, and how did you get there?
RP: Well, it took me about three days.
AC: Three days, well that seems very quick.
RP: I just knew this is where I belonged. I was ready to just drop everything, but out of consideration for other people, I went to have a long discussion with the principle of the art college, who told me it's a very bad idea. And I respectfully listened to him and said, "Well, I'm sorry but I must do this." And then my father suggested that I talk this over with the Benedictine monks. So I went on his request and stayed for a week in a Benedictine monastery not far from London, and at the end of the week they sent me to the temple with their blessings.
AC: They said you should go?
RP: Yes, they accepted that that was the right thing for me to do.
AC: When did you first come to Vrindavan?
RP: That was after five years in 1975, I came to India for the first time. I got really quite a lot of culture shock.
AC: Did you get sick?
RP: I got really very sick. I got depressed because I found it a difficult place, actually, to handle.
AC: I think it is difficult for people to come here, and of course now it's not very hard to be here. We're living in a room with running water, and we can get food easily. It must have been different then?
RP: It was quite basic. We didn't have a lot of facilities in those days for Western visitors to India. It was a new idea really, for western pilgrims to come. Some hippies had come, but not really pilgrims in that way. But I persevered, and when I got back to the West it took a couple of years to digest, I think, the experience of Vrindavan. And over the years I came here from time to time until fifteen years later I found myself getting deeply involved in environmental work here, partly because I had such a shock, really, when I saw the divine homeland of Krishna being so dilapidated.
AC: You were concerned about the environment getting dilapidated here and so you began working in environmental projects, and with the local community.
RP: The way I got involved was that I was coming here as a pilgrim for ten or fifteen years. Meanwhile back in England I started working professionally with environmentalists, particularly with WWF, World Wildlife Fund on education programs working with religious networks all over the world of different faiths, how to draw on their own traditional teachings about nature. All religions contain powerful traditions and teachings about how to live in this world in a way that is sympathetic to nature because it is part of God's creation. Every religious tradition has that, so once I started getting involved in that, naturally I began to think even more deeply about Krishna tradition's relationship with nature, so I embarked on writing book on Hinduism and ecology, and that brought me to Vrindavan with a completely fresh pair of eyes. Instead of just thinking, well, this must be the way it is and there's nothing I can do, I began thinking, well, why has it become dilapidated, why is it not being looked after, and what could possibly change things? And I looked for people to talk to, people who lived here, had lived here all their lives, who perhaps may have also been thinking in that way. There were not many, but I did find one or two.
AC: So you went on to help found this group, Friends of Vrindavan.
RP: The first thing we did was approach WWF, in Geneva, World Wildlife Fund, which is also known as World Wide Fund for Nature, and we proposed to them a three year project based in Vrindavan that would try to draw out the lessons which Hinduism had to teach about ecology, and actually try to apply them, in a way that might then have A positive effect on all the millions of pilgrims who come here so they could take away some positive lessons with them — and also then provide a model project that could be applied elsewhere. It took some persuading because World Wildlife Fund is an environmental organization, they're not there to support religious projects, so they had to be persuaded that this was not essentially a religious project, but this was a project about caring for nature, and they were persuaded, and it was funded, and in the end we went for five years. Then, naturally, the funding came to an end, and we started our own charity to continue that work, which is called Friends of Vrindavan, raising money basically in the West to continue supporting work here, and we've had our ups and downs. I didn't think it was going to be simple, and it's going to take perhaps a generation, two generations really to turn the tide I think, but I do believe it will be turned. It's not just us, there are many people now taking up this work, and as the burden, the stress which is largely because of increasing population - in the last 50 years the population of India has tripled, probably the population of Vrindavan has multiplied by more than that — so that creates huge pressures, and it's going to take a long time to change those, but as the pressure increases so does the urgency to find a solution.
AC: Vrindavan is a town that followers believe is sacred, holy, a place of Krishna. But in many other ways it's like other communities that I've seen in developing countries or Third World countries — poor, full of poor people for whom the environment is not a consideration. They don't have city services, they don't have infrastructure. For all its holiness, and temples and the wealth you can see here from centuries and centuries past, its present-day circumstance is not very good in terms of all those things that make a community function in a way that really communities everywhere need to function these days. You need to have sewage treatment, clean drinking water, decent schools, an electrical power grid, something to do about traffic, trash removal, all those kinds of things, very hard to get those. There are development projects all over the world, in all kinds of communities trying to do that and having a difficult time.
RP: Vrindavan is perhaps an extreme example, but nevertheless a fairly typical one of what I would call "pilgrimage town syndrome." Large numbers of people — and they could be tourists, in some parts of the world tourists — attracted to a spot because of the special nature of that spot, they come in large numbers and by their very coming, they threaten its special nature. It's that contradictory, it's that paradox which communities are faced with all over the world: How do you maintain the sanctity of a place where millions of people are coming? And there have to be compromises. Places in Europe, like Lourdes for example, have worked that out over hundreds of years, or in the case of Lourdes, I suppose, 150 years. Vrindavan is really just beginning now to recognize that yes, this is an issue, not just in Vrindavan, there are many places in India which are probably not that different, I would think. It's a whole set of planning and government issues which need to be addressed here. It will be sorted out. It's important that it is, because people come here, ultimately they come here for spiritual inspiration, either they come because they want to increase their faith in Krishna, to grow spiritually, or they come because they have faith in Krishna, and want to be nearer to Krishna, they love Krishna and they want to be nearer. So either way, it is tremendously important that get positive experience while they're here. So, it will happen.
AC: Let me ask you the questions I've been asking people about afterlife beliefs. As someone who was a Christian, and a fairly deep Christian, who stayed in monasteries and had a deep religious background, how was it possible for you to change ideas about something so fundamental as the afterlife, something I think we all think about, it's part of human nature to think about that?
RP: In fact I think it wasn't really a change for me, because I had always believed in reincarnation, it seemed the sensible thing for me, or whatever, intuitively I felt, I believed in the reality of reincarnated before I ever heard about it from anyone. I could never really accept the concept of eternal hell, that made no sense to me at all, so when I first read the Bhagavad-Gita when I was twenty years old, I just stumbled across it in local library, it made tremendous sense to me, and I felt how wonderful that here is the voice of the same God that I've always had faith in, but telling me something more, giving me more information. I didn't feel that this was a different voice speaking than which I had encountered in the gospels of Jesus Christ — just another lesson to be learned.
AC: This is the same God as in the gospels of Jesus Christ?
RP: I heard in my mind, I heard the same voice speaking as I had heard in the Bible, and in New Testament as Jesus Christ, I heard the same voice speaking to me as Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. It didn't occur to me that this is, oh this is another God. I never thought that for one moment, and I was just so glad that I was having confirmed to me, that this divine voice was confirming to me what I had always felt to be true.
AC: When you were thinking of making transition from Christianity to following Krishna, you father told you to stay with some monks for a while. Did you tell them that this voice was the same voice?
RP: I had a wonderful time staying with the Benedictines, this is the Abbey in Sussex, while they were saying their morning rosary, I was chanting Krishna on my beads and I took long walks with most monks in the community, and talked over my decision and told them that I really feel that God is calling me to do this. At end of a week, the Abbot of the monastery heard that I was planning to go back to the temple, to join the Krishna temple, so he asked to see me. I went to see him and he said that "some of the monks, a few of them have come to me and suggested that Richard is going to join Krishna temple, we would like to have prayer vigil through the night to pray for his soul because, we're worried." And the Abbot said, "I told them, there's no need to worry, because he's doing the right thing," and he told me, "If I was your age, I'd do the same." So I never felt any conflict at all between, because ultimately the important thing Jesus Christ was teaching us was to love God — by loving God you can love one another, and that's exactly the same that Krishna teaches. There's no need to be any conflict whatsoever, in my mind.
AC: As a follower of Krishna, when you live daily life now, are you thinking of this life or next life?
RP: I try to live in the present. I don't actually plan too much for future. I remember what Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita, which is that "I am always, I am everywhere, and if you think of me, you will see me everywhere, at all times. I will never leave you." Krishna says he's in everything. He's in taste of water, he's in the light of sun, he's in every breath I breathe. He's in you, he's in me. So in one sense, I'm speaking personally, it's not a huge priority for me where Krishna may take me in future. It's here and now is what matters. If in this present moment, I remember Krishna, I'm with him.
AC: I only ask because people have spoken to me about the next life, about the desire to evolve, and that comes through one's deeds, what one does. I think it was Nandan who said, "I don't think about the next life, I just try to live this life as well as I can."
RP: I do trust in Krishna's words. Krishna says, "Always think of me. Devote your every action to me, whatever one has to do in life. We all have various responsibilities, whatever it is, if you're a family person, or an artist. Always think of me, devote your actions to me, and you will come to me. I promise you," Krishna's words are, "I promise you, because you're my friend, I promise you. If you think of me, you will come to me." So in terms of the future, that's really the, that's the guiding light. How exactly it happens is beyond my control. But I do trust in Krishna in that sense.
AC: I've started asking people if they could offer a prayer for us, and I wonder if there is one that you could offer?
RP: I'll offer a prayer for me, which is that Krishna will increase my faith and love in him, and a prayer for you, that your heart will be open and Krishna will speak to you in this very special place at this very special time.
AC: Thank you, Ranchor.
RP: Thank you.
AC: And what does Ranchor mean?
RP: Actually my full name is Ranchor Das, which means servant of Krishna, and Ranchor means, in Krishna's case, "a person not willing to fight on this one occasion." On one celebrated occasion, he did not want to fight, he left the battlefield without fighting, so he's called Ranchor, he leaves the battlefield with out fighting. That's me (laughs).