I went to a Catholic school, where we were not taught about other religions on the grounds that it would be a waste of time as they were self-evidently false. In those days - prior to the Second Vatican Council - Catholicism taught not just that Jesus was the only way to God, but that the Roman Catholic Church was the only way to Jesus. This seemed immensely unfair to all the people who had never heard of Jesus, and disrespectful to the millions who faithfully followed the respective religions of their births. I felt it could not represent the true teachings of Jesus and I could not wholeheartedly give myself to such a religious path which excluded so many. I wanted to share my religion with the universe. If there was an absolute truth it had to be universally accessible and not bound to any one culture. My God could speak to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
When, at age nineteen, I first read the Bhagavad-gita (in a translation by Christopher Isherwood), I was deeply moved. Here was a book which obviously contained divine truth. The voice which spoke to me through those pages was the same voice which I heard through the Gospels. Yet here, the universality which I sensed in the teachings of Christ was woven into every page of the text. Like others before me, I discovered that the Bhagavad-gita was broad and deep enough to encompass the full range of human religious experience. Here was God speaking to me from outside the Christian, and indeed any man-made, tradition.
It was at this time that I received my first audience with Srila Prabhupada, during a late night chat show on BBC TV called Late Night Line Up, which had a reputation for being well-informed and up-to-the-minute. Tony Bilbow, the presenter, would only interview the most interesting people, and he had a way of putting them on the spot. In the hot seat that evening was a venerable and kindly-looking Indian guru, and I sat glued to the screen. The guru looked and sounded like a genuine spiritual teacher - if anyone could tell me about religion, he could. Bilbow asked Prabhupada what his teaching was, to which Prabhupada promptly replied, 'how to love God. Bilbow appeared to be thrown slightly off-balance by this direct answer (especially on a programme where the word 'God' was rarely mentioned), but he pressed on. 'Which God is this you are talking about - is it the same as the Christian God?' What would the answer be, I wondered. Could this man, clearly not a Christian, be worshipping the same God as me? Whatever his answer, there could be no doubt that he knew God - I could see it in his face. 'Of course I am speaking of the same God,' came Prabhupada's answer, with a knowing smile, and to prove it he sat down on the floor of the studio to chant 'Hare Krsna' with his disciples. The divine sound of Krsna's names left me in no doubt that Prabhupada spoke the truth. Again, that same message! There were other ways to the one universal God. I felt exhilarated.
In the months that followed I acquired a copy of Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita translation and commentary. As I studied it, I became more and more convinced that this was a truly universal scripture.
Throughout the Bhagavad-gita Krsna endorses all religion as part of the search for truth. In the seventeenth chapter He explains the types of faith appropriate to different persons. He supports the aspirations of each individual by steadying their faith so that they could devote themselves to their chosen deity (7.21). Furthermore, He warns against disturbing others on their path (3.26) because, ultimately, all beings were on Krsna's path and received their rewards from Him (4.11): 'Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O son of Bharata, and a predominant rise in irreligion - at that time I descend Myself.' (4.7).
With this famous statement Krsna swept aside all sectarian claims to monopoly on the truth. Prabhupada's commentary on this verse was also significant: 'It is not a fact that the Lord appears only on Indian soil.' Is Prabhupada actually referring to incarnations on this earth other than Krsna and the avatars of Vishnu? Have there been avatars appearing in other lands and giving teachings known by other names? Prabhupada continues: 'Sometimes He descends personally, and sometimes He sends His bona fide representative in the form of His son, or servant, or Himself in some disguised form.' Prabhupada's meaning is clear: we are not to think that Krsna and Lord Caitanya are the only avatars of God to have taught the people of this world, or that the Vaisnava tradition is the only true religious teaching.
For me, the most persuasive argument of all was Krsna's assertion that the path to true knowledge is one that spans many lifetimes. This implies there are successive stages of spiritual development which a soul must pass through, and that these stages may be spread over a considerable period of time. It seems obvious therefore, that different religious paths and different phases within those paths, represent steps on the ladder of spiritual progress. It is reasonable to assume therefore, that the soul progressing through these levels will take repeated births within the same religious environment to further develop along the chosen path.
In the evolution of Western religious thought, I see a corresponding pattern of spiritual development: from the rigid hierarchical religion of medieval Europe (with its widespread corruption), to the liberalisation brought about by Protestantism together with a return to the basics of The Bible; from contact with other religious traditions (often by missionaries), to the influence of Eastern ideas and the gradual breaking down of rigid sectarian thinking (with the corresponding widening of religious horizons in the twentieth century). I interpret this as the spiritual evolution of the Western human family, themselves part of the whole human family, who in turn are part of the family of all life on earth. The coming of Krsna Consciousness to the West is, for me, a continuing part of this process, one for which we, and the rest of our earthly family, have been preparing ourselves over many lifetimes.
If there is any truth to this concept it would also make sense that we have all benefitted by the teachings of Christ and other religions at some time in our existence, if not in the present incarnation, and that these are ultimately all part of a single process of spiritual evolution.
It is interesting to note that, since the days of my school education, the official doctrine of the Catholic Church has evolved. It now teaches that Christ is to be found in all religions. In other words, if I am a good Hindu, I may also eventually find Christ through following the Bhagavad-gita. This is a great step forward, and one that closely parallels the words Srila Prabhupada often spoke about followers of other religions. His view was that whoever honestly and sincerely followed the religion of their birth would find God.
Srila Prabhupada's open hand
Srila Prabhupada often spoke of the oneness of religion. He said that he had not come to convert Christians into Hindus, but to encourage them to properly follow their own religion. In 1971, during a meeting with a Christian nun at the Bury Place temple in London, Prabhupada told her, 'Don't think (Krsna Consciousness) is against Christianity or it is sectarian. Let us co-operate fully. Jointly, let us preach all over the world, "Chant the holy name of God" ... We don't say that you chant Hare Krsna. If you have got name of God, you chant it.' Some may protest that such words, with their broad inclusiveness, are untypical of Srila Prabhupada and must be balanced against other, quite different passages in Prabhupada's writings. However, Prabhupada frequently expressed this sentiment when the context was appropriate.
For example, in 1961, several years before leaving India for the West, Prabhupada was invited to participate in the Congress for Cultivating Human Spirit, an international religious conference on world peace to be held in Tokyo. Sadly, Srila Prabhupada was unable to attend as no one was prepared to pay his fare but we still have Light of the Bhagavata, which he wrote especially for the occasion. In it he included the following remarkable passage:
In this age of a godless civilisation, the sages of world-recognised religious sects who believe in God, must come out of their secluded places and preach the science of God to the people in general. Hindus, Muslims and Christians and members of other sects that have convincing faith in the authority of God, must not sit idly now and silently watch the rapid growth of a godless civilisation . Responsible leaders of religious sects must meet together and form a common platform of a league of devotees of the Lord.
Here Srila Prabhupada talks of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others, as if they all possess equally valid faith in God, and he calls upon the sages from among them to join together. 'Sage' is a significant word and not one Prabhupada would use lightly. Clearly, Prabhupada acknowledges that God is to be found in many religious traditions and that these traditions have their own spiritually advanced souls. To many readers this may seem obvious, but it is worth noting that Srila Prabhupada himself believed this to be true.
Prabhupada asks these sages to come out from their secluded places and give to the world their knowledge and understanding in these times of great need; to 'meet together and form a common platform of a league of devotees'. Where have we heard this phrase 'league of devotees' before? In 1952, Srila Prabhupada launched a League of Devotees in Jhansi, India, aimed at 'all nations, creeds and castes'. At that time the experiment was short-lived, but he continued to pursue the idea; nine years later, he chanced upon the opportunity to participate in a major international spiritual congress. Still thinking of his League of Devotees, he used this term to describe his vision of religious unity. It is inconceivable that Prabhupada could have employed so cherished a phrase accidentally, and it must have been a conscious reference to his own dream of a group of devotees dedicated to living and teaching Love of God.
Inner and outer lives
These broad sentiments of Prabhupada's were normally spoken to members of other faiths, in public lectures etc., and were not aimed solely at his own close followers. In this way Prabhupada set the example for discrimination when preaching - a true essential quality of truth.
Sages, Prabhupada says, have their 'secluded places'. That is to say, they have their own ashrams, monasteries, mosques or other places of spiritual shelter, where they pursue their particular devotions to the Supreme Lord. We all need the spiritual security of such places, where we are free to be with our god-brothers, god-sisters and our personal spiritual guides, in a deep community of the heart. It is through such loving associations (sadhu sanga) that we gain strength and inner nurture; where we hear and speak directly of Krsna's beauty, mercy, wisdom and loving pastimes with His devotees. In this way we deepen our love for Him and for each other.
When we leave our 'secluded places' to go into the world - to teach, to support our families,or simply to follow the call of the spirit - we have to behave differently. In this outer life, when we interact with Krsna's created world and the innumerable individual souls within it there are still many spiritual truths which we can share with others, but we must do so with wisdom and sensitivity. These truths may be of a different kind to those we share with Krsna's devotees, yet they can still be rare and special in today's materialistic world. At such times a teacher speaks to the heart of the listener, not by simply repeating a rigid formula but being alive to the voice of Krsna's inspiration and hearing its echo in the heart of the sincere hearer.
Through such sharing we may be fortunate to meet members of other faiths who are 'sages' with firm faith in God, and who may have something to teach us. We should not think that because we know about Krsna's personal form, and they do not, we have nothing to learn from them.
Always be a learner
The sign of a spiritually developed person is one who is constantly learning from everyone and everything - never deaf to the voice of Krsna from wherever or through whomever He may choose to speak. For example, I have a Christian friend who regularly prays to Jesus, studies Christian writings and worships with other Christians. Yet he has the highest regard for devotees of Krsna and is always open to hear from them - a mark of true spiritual development. However, those whose religious commitment excludes the possibility of learning from those on other spiritual paths and who are unable to appreciate devotees of Krsna, are clearly not on such an elevated platform. These people should be respected but it is preferable, for them and for us, not to associate with them. However, we should be generous in our dealings with those individuals who have firm faith in God (even though they may not know Him as Krsna) and who are loving and open towards others, because many of them can, and do, help, and may increasingly take help from, us.
I find it immensely sad that ISKCON has, in many circles, gained a reputation for being a type of fundamentalist Hinduism always on the lookout for converts and self-advancement; whose members are too busy putting their own point of view to hear what others have to say. I do not believe this is what Prabhupada wanted nor do I believe it is what we originally chose. Many devotees, like me, came to Krsna Consciousness because it embodied the universal principle of Love of God in a way that embraced, not excluded, other religions. Unfortunately many devotees have forgotten, or do not recognise, the difference between being in our own 'secluded place', where we can talk exclusively of Krsna, and being on the wider stage where Prabhupada is calling all believers in God to unite in a league of devotees. In the face of the 'rapid growth of a godless civilisation', how many brothers and sisters would answer such a call if it was put to them in the right way?
A few years ago I participated in the Festival of Faith and the Environment which drew together members of all religions at one of England's great places of worship, Canterbury Cathedral. As one of the organisers, I led a multi faith group of pilgrims, about half of whom were devotees of Krsna, on a six-day walk from Bhaktivedanta Manor to Canterbury.
One Christian member of our pilgrimage group, Gerry Jennings, had come from America with her daughter and was meeting ISKCON devotees for the first time. At the end of our eight days together I asked her what she felt about us. 'I found the devotees very peaceful and warm,' she told me, 'And I learned a lot from them. However, if I were to give any advice, it would be that they should listen to people as well as preach to them. Everyone's enthusiastic about the things they believe in, but they have to realise that the person on the other side of the conversation is likewise enthusiastic about what they want to say. If people of any faith can sit and listen as well as talk, then we are all going to gain this concept of one God earlier than otherwise.'
I have learned from Gerry's well-meaning advice. The mood of appreciation which she describes does not prevent others from receiving Krsna consciousness from me. In fact it allows them to be more receptive and, equally importantly, it allows me to grow in my own understanding of Krsna and His divine mercy.
My hope is that as devotees find the courage, wisdom and love to open themselves to the world in a spirit of humility and trust, the nature of ISKCON will change. Without compromising our inner life, we may discover that we do indeed belong to a 'universal league of devotees'.