Krsna Consciousness On the Emerald Isle
Through a clearing in the trees, Prthu dasa points north across the windswept lake to a green mountain rising in the distance above the rolling Irish countryside. On that mountain, he says, a fifth-century Christian ascetic practiced austerities for forty years. Early Christians, Prthu continues, were also drawn to the security and seclusion of the many islands scattered along Lough Erne, as the lake is known. Saint Ninian, Saint Patrick, and Saint Colombo are said to have visited the island of Devinish, forty miles to the north, which was a center of Christian learning early in the Middle Ages. Ruins of a church and monastery still draw visitors to Devinish.
Prthu dasa, the leader of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Ireland, is giving Niranjana Swami and me a tour of Inish Rath ("island fort"), ISKCON's own twenty-two acre island on upper Lough Erne. We are walking on a dirt road that circles the island, a road that Prthu and the other ISKCON devotees here built, hauling two hundred fifty truckloads of graveltruck and all-across the lake on the island's ferry. The road is three quarters of a mile long, cutting through thick woods on the north side, skirting the spacious lawns of the island's eighteenth-century manor to the south.
Prthu pauses to show us a towering redwood and a gnarled, 450-year-old oak, then leads us to the road's southernmost stretch, where, looking up across the lawns, we have a picture-book view of the manor. Two young men are climbing about, fixing brightly colored penants to the roof. Below, another devotee paints an iron gate in the garden wall, while others raise a long tent to house Sunday's festivities in case of rain. It's raining lightly now. One of the island's peripatetic peacocks loiters near the open glass doors on the manor's front terrace.
"This is my favorite spot," Prthu says, standing near a wooden folding chair on a graveled apron at the side of the road. "When I get time, I come sit and plan how to use this beautiful property in Krsna's service. From here you really get a feeling of how peaceful the island is."
With a nod of his head and a slight cordial wave of his upturned palm, Prthu offers the chair to Niranjana Swami. It's a weathered, rickety old piece of furniture, but if I read things correctly Prthu is offering Niranjana not just a chair but an honored seat on Inish Rath's planning board.
Up the lawn a stone's throw from us a group of enormous rabbits are nonchalantly hopping and nibbling. Niranjana and I wonder aloud at their size. They're as big as dogs. "Not rabbits," says Prthu instructively. "Hares."
Ignorant American tourists, we.
* * *
Prthu returns to supervising preparations for Sunday's festivities. It's Friday afternoon, and the handmade gold- and silver-plated altar from ISKCON's farm community in West Virginia still hasn't arrived. The shipping company sent it to Belgium instead of Belfast. If, as the shippers have apologetically promised, it arrives tonight, there will be only one day to unpack and assemble it.
Although alive with cooking, construction, and last-minute landscaping, the island is certainly very peaceful, a clear contrast to the bustling city of Belfast, where I have spent the previous two days.
The Belfast ISKCON temple, of course, is pleasant and anxiety-free. The graceful suburban house, which the devotees purchased earlier this year, was built at the turn of the century by a prominent Irish architect for his family. The grounds include a carefully designed rose garden, a fountain, and a pond.
Praghosa dasa, the Belfast temple president, took me on a tour of some less than-tranquil parts of the city. On Falls Road, in the heart of Belfast's best known Catholic neighborhood, where murals on the roadside walls exhort, "Brits Quit!" Praghosa pointed out a grayish armored truck with narrow bullet-proof windows a Belfast police car. Following it was an almost identical vehicle, greenish with a turret on top, where two helmeted men with rifles stood watch. This was an army truck.
Joint patrols, with the army protecting the police, are apparently the norm, even in the most routine situations. When a local policeman came to the door of the Belfast temple to ask about a parking violation, I looked over his shoulder and saw at the end of the driveway three British soldiers in camouflage uniforms. The men carried rifles and were accompanied by a large black dog.
Belfast police stations are fortresses. One down the road from the temple occupies an entire block and is surrounded by a forty-foot-high corrugated iron fence topped with barbed wire and mounted with surveillance cameras. Three months earlier at another station IRA mortar shells killed nine policemen.
Walking through the downtown shopping district past the bright and crowded stores, I asked Praghosa if there was any way to tell which shoppers were Catholic and which Protestant. He shrugged and shook his head.
Inish Rath, this tranquil little island, is a two-hour drive west of Belfast. I keep wondering what Ireland's early Christian leaders would have to say about the Protestant-Catholic fighting. Irish missionaries, beginning in the fifth century, spread Christianity not only in Ireland but throughout Europe. Something of the original Christian spirit to serve the Lord with heart, mind, and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself must have been lost over the past fifteen centuries. Of course, relatively few people are involved in the fighting. Most are sick and tired of it.
Reporters asked Prthu about the logic of establishing Krsna consciousness in Ireland when the prevalent religious traditions were already the source of so much violence. "Religious people are not fighting," Prthu replied. "Only hypocrites are fighting. If a person is at all serious about religion whether he's a Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, or Muslim he would never think of harming any of God's creatures."
The Irish people appreciate this perspective on the conflict in their country. They might balk, though, to hear devotees describe what "serious about religion" means.
First of all devotees don't touch a drop of Guinness [beer] or any other intoxicant, including coffee, tea, and tobacco. And since animals are also God's creatures, devotees don't eat meat, fish, or eggs. Members of ISKCON also refrain completely from extramarital sex, and even within marriage they have sex only to beget children. Devotees do not gamble. They engage their body, mind, and words in devotional service to God, especially in chanting the Lord's holy names and in hearing His glories. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who founded the modern Krsna consciousness movement five hundred years ago, taught that constant chanting of any name of God whether it be Christ, Krsna, Allah, or Jehovah quickly elevates the chanter to God's transcendental kingdom. Chanting is a sure bet. No gambling needed, and no sectarian discrimination.
* * *
The island's grand opening is tomorrow. Visitors have been welcome, of course, ever since ISKCON purchased this place two years ago, and they'll be welcome from here on, too. But a well-publicized festival gives those who wouldn't ordinarily visit an excuse to come.
Most importantly, tomorrow marks the arrival and installation of the Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead and His eternal consort. Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, the ISKCON Governing Body Commissioner for Ireland and spiritual master for most of the devotees here, is here at Inish Rath to preside at the installation ceremonies. Afterwards he will entrust the elaborate daily worship of Radha and Krsna to his many Irish disciples.
The Deities, who will be known here as Radha-Govinda, are four-foot-high marble statues carved in India according to strict guidelines in the ancient Vedic literatures. God's form is spiritual, not material, but when devotees model and worship a Deity following the directions of scripture, God consents to appear in the apparently material form of wood, stone, metal, etc. God is the omnipotent controller of both material and spiritual energies. He can therefore appear in stone or wood and spiritualize it, and He does so if His devotees make the proper arrangements. The Deity installation will be something very new and wonderful for the people of Ireland, although I'm sure we'll hear some uninformed charges of idol worship.
* * *
I'm sitting by the window in a second-floor room at the back of the manor. The green Irish mainland beyond the lake is enchanting, but the cool, damp weather is getting to me. I could catch a cold even in Tahiti, I'm sure. So I won't blame Ireland. Niranjana Swami is under the weather too. Between us we have exhausted the island's Kleenex reserves.
I watch somewhat guiltily as the Irish devotees, hearty and red-cheeked, install a fountain in the little pond out back.
Some firemen in a big red fire engine arrived on the ferry half an hour ago to check on a fire in one of the manor's chimneys. The fire was already out when they got here, but they have stayed to pump the muddy water out of the pond so the devotees could line the bottom with plastic sheeting. As I look down, the fire hoses are in the pond, the pump engines are chugging, water is spraying into the woods, and devotee children are running excitedly from firemen to red engine to pump to spraying water.
Prthu is out there in overalls, talking with the fire chief. Prthu is a big man. "Stout," "stocky," "husky," "rotund," "burly," "brawny" none of these hit the mark. He's big. He has graying hair and red cheeks and looks very distinguished, even in overalls. With his arms folded across his chest he's having a relaxed, friendly conversation with the chief.
* * *
A light rain is falling, and the pond is almost empty. The children have disappeared. But the firemen are still standing by in their raincoats and boots. Prthu and half a dozen other devotees, most all of them in shirt sleeves, are unfolding large sheets of black plastic. From this scene I gather that Irish people, at least these Irish people, are more rugged than I. One of the devotees has rolled his trousers up above his knees and is wading happily through the remaining pond water to keep the end of the pump hose submerged. In the whole crowd there doesn't appear to be one sneeze, shiver, or blue lip. Caspar Milquetoast, here in his cozy second-floor room, is peeping out from the side of the window, an empty box of tissues at his feet.
Another thing I gather from the pond scene is that the family spirit, which I've heard is still very strong in Ireland as a whole, has rubbed off on the ISKCON community here. Prthu, as a staunch and affectionate senior devotee, might very well have generated such a spirit elsewhere, but it seems he got a running start in Ireland. Like a family, he and his men have greeted the fire chief and his crew. And like a family they are fixing the pond, Prthu out there with everybody else, getting soaking wet. From a handful of devotees in 1978, when Prthu first arrived in Dublin, Ireland's fulltime family now numbers seventy. Congregational members number about five hundred.
The rain has stopped. Devotees and their fireman guests are standing around the fire engine eating hot raisin cake and drinking lemon tea.
* * *
The altar arrived at midnight last night and was unpacked immediately.
The empty crates sit outside the front door, while the altar itself lies in pieces on the temple room floor. A devotee from New Vrindaban, West Virginia, is here to direct the assembly. The sounds of hammers, drills, and saws vibrate through the building.
The kitchen is packed with cooks and helpers. Last time I passed by it looked like all burners were lit. But these are just preliminary steps. The real cooking will have to begin tomorrow morning. And they're already cooking two big meals a day for the fifty or so of us on the island now! Lunch was fresh-baked bread and a thick, steaming soup made with split peas, rice, and vegetables. Forget my cold. The meals here are too good to pass up.
After lunch I walked around the circle road, stopping to help unload a boat at one of the piers which the folks here call quays (pronounced "keez").
On this, the big day, the sun finally broke through at mid-morning and has been out most of the time since, evoking fresh shades of green from the grass and trees. Corridors of light falling from between the broken clouds are opening new vistas on the mainland.
Ferryloads of Hindu families from Dublin and Belfast, the women dressed in bright saris, began arriving early this afternoon. Many mainland neighbors are here as well, responding to invitations printed in the local papers. Everyone troops up the hill from the main quay, passing the pond and fountain. A peacock watches from a pondside flower garden. The hares are in hiding.
A BBC camera crew has interviewed Prthu and others. A helicopter hired for the day is taking newsmen aloft for a birds' eye view of the island.
Parents of the devotees are here too. Aniruddha's mother is making vase arrangements to decorate the not-yet completed altar. As I pass by she enlists me to find her son.
"Ask him where my leaves are," she says.
I find Aniruddha helping to put the dome on the altar. But he stops and reports to his mother. "Can't you pick them yourself, Mum? The altar's not finished, and I'm supposed to help with the Deity installation too."
Mum is adamant, so I volunteer to gather leafy branches.
The first thing I gather is Irish nettles a big leafy handful of them. Realizing my mistake, I start again, snipping branches from a hedge of rhododendron-like bushes. Upon my return, Aniruddha's mum calls me a dear.
Nettle stings are like mosquito bites with a prickle added.
* * *
I sit eating lunch with Jim MacNulty and his girlfriend, Ellen, two students from Belfast. As we sample our plates of krsna prasadam, they question me about ISKCON. They especially want to know about the devotees' lifestyle. Ellen finally gets to the heart of it: "You're all celibate, aren't you?" she asks, leaning forward in her chair.
"No," I reply. "Only the unmarried members. I've been married for eight years. I have three children."
She nods and looks at Jim as if to say, "Well, how about that?"
Scheduled speeches this afternoon followed the program of Indian music and dance. Speakers included leaders of the Hindu community, a Franciscan friar, and professors of religious studies a varied crew, but all full of sincere praise for ISKCON, for the sun-dappled island, for the multinational, multidenominational gathering.
Prthu was one of the speakers. He emphasized that the only way we can have brotherhood is to realize we have a common father. Brotherhood means a common father. The Krsna consciousness movement, Prthu explained, is offering detailed knowledge of the common father His name, address, activities, and so on. Knowledge of the father will help break down the sectarian barriers men have erected.
Prthu's talk is helping me to see how Inish Rath, the "island fort," has now become a fortress in the highest sense. In Belfast the police stations were fortified with high walls and barbed wire to repel IRA attacks. But the police, the IRA, the British troops and British government, and all other parties involved in the ongoing conflict were themselves under attack from yet another source: maya, or illusion. They were surrounded by the illusion that they belonged to different families, nations, and religions. And that ignorance was pelting all of them, defeating their hopes for eternal meaning in the temporary world of birth and death.
The principle is universal. Our familial, national, and religious designations are temporary, because they are based on our temporary material bodies. Within each body, however, resides an eternal soul, an indestructible individual person who is part and parcel of God. The eternal function of the soul is to serve and glorify God. When we properly execute this function, all our temporary designations fall into perspective. Thus we can interact with each other on the spiritual platform, no matter how greatly we may differ materially.
So Inish Rath is a fortress against sectarian illusion, a place where devotees of all faiths can meet to glorify the Supreme Lord and to enjoy the ongoing discovery of our common interest in serving Him.
I'm driving back to Dublin with Uddhava, president of the Dublin ISKCON temple. My flight to New York leaves tomorrow.
We pass the town of Kells, once home to the intricately illuminated Book of Kells, an eighth-century copy of Gospels written in Latin. Such a valuable Christian heritage here in Ireland, now deluged with sectarian ignorance and two million daily pints of Guinness.
The Irish branch of ISKCON was founded in Dublin in 1978, but when the government removed ISKCON's charitable status a few years later, devotees were temporarily forced to concentrate their efforts in Northern Ireland. Petitions from the Hindu community, as well as from scholars, religionists, and politicians familiar with the movement, quickly rectified the situation, and again ISKCON is expanding here. Uddhava shows me the architectural plans for remodeling a downtown building the devotees are arranging to purchase and use as a temple and restaurant.
This evening the BBC of Northern Ireland aired coverage of the Inish Rath opening. I missed the show. Now, on the evening news I hear talk of Prince Andrew's wedding in two days. The London police are alert to see that terrorists whether Irish, Lebanese, Libyan, or whoever don't spoil the festivities. They've even engaged a pair of dogs to sniff the wedding chapel for plastic explosives. Sectarian violence grips the world, not just Ireland.