Fr David Palmer: My life as a Hindu monk

Hare Krishna devotees on the streets

Hinduism is vast, beautiful, terrifying and confusing. Of the world’s great religions, it is the one that we in the West probably know least about. Christians share a history with Judaism and (to a lesser extent) Islam. Buddhism has been fashionable for decades. But Hinduism remains something of an enigma.

It is notoriously hard to pin down. Hinduism doesn’t have a single scripture that fits into one book. It has many holy writings, from the Upanishads to the Vedas, and different groups hold different scriptures to be of differing value.

We tend to think we know certain things about Hindus: that they are polytheists, for example, and vegetarians, and practise yoga. But these are gross simplifications. Yes, many Hindus are polytheists, especially in the more remote villages, but many others see all the different “gods” as manifestations of one divine reality. Not all Hindus are vegetarians (though most would consider it good for your karma). And what we think of as “yoga” is only one of the various physical and spiritual practices that Hindus call yoga.

In Hinduism, the “supreme spirit” is called “Brahman”. His three “aspects” are “Brahma” (the creator), “Vishnu” (the preserver) and “Shiva” (the destroyer). The branch that focuses primarily on Vishnu is referred to as Vaishnavism. One subset of Vaishnavism was founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534), who taught that actually the “supreme personality of godhead” was not Vishnu, but Krishna, one of his avatars (incarnations).

In 1965 an elderly man called AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada gave up everything to travel to America to spread this branch of Hinduism, which we know now as Hare Krishna. When Westerners think of Hare Krishna practitioners, they are likely to picture people in saffron robes (in fact, only celibates wear these) selling books on high streets and chanting the Maha Mantra (popularised by the Beatles): “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.”

As a teenager I came across a book in my school library called Easy Journey to Other Planets, by Prabhupada. Although the title was a tad deceptive, I was hooked. For several years I considered myself a Krishna devotee, consuming the books and regularly visiting their temple. This culminated in me moving into Bhaktivedanta Manor, a former convent in Watford donated to the movement by George Harrison, and having my head shaved.

Londoners will be familiar with the Krishna devotees who sing in Oxford Street. They tend to be based in the temple at Soho Street (a stone’s throw from St Patrick’s Soho), but the manor was the base of operations.

My life as a monk did not last long. The very early starts and two and a half hours of chanting every day were too much for me. I left the ashram, but still considered myself closer to the Hare Krishna movement than anything else, up until the age of 21. That was when I had a conversion experience to Christianity, first to an Evangelical Charismatic Baptist form. Then I steadily went “up the candle”, becoming an Anglican Evangelical (ordained in 1999), an Anglo-Catholic and then, finally, a Catholic. I was ordained as a priest for the ordinariate seven years ago.

Yet my fascination with, and even affection for, the Hare Krishna movement has remained constant. I am a Catholic Christian out of conviction. I believe Catholicism to be true. Yet if Christianity were somehow disproven, then I would very likely make my way back to the Hare Krishnas.

I am convinced that Hinduism, and the Hare Krishna movement in particular, are not actually as far away from Christianity as is often assumed. Indeed, I believe that in many ways the Hare Krishna movement is closer to Catholicism than, say, Islam.

Hinduism in its political form in India has become hostile to Christianity. But this is arguably a relatively recent development. The Hare Krishna movement has never been anti-Christian. Prabhupada often referred to Jesus as a great spiritual leader. (Though it be must remembered that he was trying to convert people from a largely Christian background.)

Krishna devotees highly value celibacy and marriage. They believe that the primary purpose of sex is procreation (they are probably stricter than many Catholics on that one). They also value asceticism: no meat, no alcohol, no gambling and no “illicit” sex. They are, in short, seeking the spiritual world.

Of course, there are differences. In the scriptures Krishna’s behaviour is at times morally ambiguous (devotees justify this by saying that the rules don’t apply to him as he is divine). The Bhagavad Gita, the greatest Hindu scripture focusing on Krishna, contains some truly beautiful passages. But it is ultimately a treatise in which Krishna is trying to convince a warrior prince to enter a battle that will cause the death of many of his family members because that is his “duty”. Finally, of course, Krishna isn’t Jesus.

Nevertheless, the points of potential evangelistic contact between Catholics and Hindus are more numerous than they may at first appear. Next time you see a Hare Krishna devotee (or any Hindu, for that matter) try engaging them. They may not be as far from Christ as you might first suppose.

Fr David Palmer is an ordinariate priest in the Diocese of Nottingham