Africa


The weather was warm and slightly windy.  I picked up the call-box and called Elspeth.  ‘I’ll fetch you at the exit of the station, Michael.  Ask someone to show you where the exit is’, she said.  I struggled with my trunk, but managed to wheel it through the exit on a metal contraption fixed to turning wheels.

Elspeth was waiting in a silver stationwagon.  Her son, Thomas, got out of the passenger seat and helped me with my trunk, ‘Hurry, Mike.  Mom wants to get out of here before the roads get worse’.  ‘Viva! Viva!’, he screamed as Elspeth dodgemed the car out of the station.  Traffic streamed into the city.   The car beetled past Table Mountain, up De Waal drive.  ANC supporters ferried on the back of trucks shouted, ‘Amandla!’ and ‘Viva!’  Women ululated and ANC flags, formerly forbidden, fluttered in the wind.

The stationwagon halted in a leafy driveway in the suburb of Rondebosch.  Thomas rushed out of the car and into the house.  I hung my bag over my shoulder as Elspeth took the other end of my trunk.  ‘You’ll be staying here, Michael’, said Elspeth.  Thomas was in front of the television, watching Mandela and De Klerk walking over the cordoned-off greensward.  Thomas punched his fist into the air and shouted, ‘Viva!  Viva!’  I was trying to make sense of the strange ceremony between the two men in black suits.  A voice sounded in the passageway, ‘Would you boys like a cold drink or tea?

This article is dedicated to Inno, Emina, Simone, Wepener, Ingrid, the BYS students at Wits and UJ and all those who want to know the techniques of mantra meditation.

I first spoke to Hare Krishna devotees in Cape Town in February 1997. Most of the devotees were in their early twenties. They wore eastern clothes. And they seemed to be happy. They were always chanting which sometimes frustrated me because I wanted to speak to them. I had so many questions.

The devotees had something I had been ardently looking for – a method of self-realization that connected them to God twenty-four hours a day. What was this? The chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Yes. It was that simple: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama/Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Their spiritual lifestyle complemented their constant chanting of the mantra. They refrained from intoxicants, meat-eating, gambling and were celibate. Everything they seemed to know – the philosophy, wisdom and practices of Krishna consciousness – was attributed to a teacher named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Aside from the obvious pleasure they derived from chanting, the devotees substantiated their practices with quotes from the Vedas. My second or third meeting with the devotees took place amidst the Parthenon-like architecture of the University of Cape Town (UCT). On this particular occasion, I approached a scholarly young woman named Rati. It was an incongruous situation. I was talking to a western girl, dressed in a sari, about the Ancient Indian spiritual culture. And this conversation was taking place amidst the neoclassical columns and steps of a university campus in Africa!

We philosophized on the Bhagavad-gita before Rati launched into an explanation of the chanting. I asked her, ‘How long should we chant?’ Rati answered matter-of-factly, ‘Twenty-four hours a day’. There was a distant look in her eyes as she quoted a verse from an ancient Sanskrit writing called the Brihad-aranyika Purana: harer nama harer nama/harer nama eva kevalam/kalau nasty eva nasty/eva nasty gatir anyatha. In this age of Kali the method for self-realization is the chanting of the holy names, the chanting of the holy names, the chanting of the holy names. There is no other way, there is no other way, there is no other way’.

After reading Juan Mascaro’s Bhagavad-gita I was convinced that I could become ‘enlightened’ or ‘self-realized’ through spiritual knowledge and principled living. Impressed by my knowledge of Hinduism and my interest in the Vedas, Rati encouraged me to read Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. We spoke again, a few days later, and she asked me if I had gained anything significant from the book. I replied, ‘Determination’. Prabhupada seemed, however, to be repeating the same thing over and over again in his ‘purports’ or commentaries to the Gita – chant Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/Hare Rama Hare Rama/Rama Rama Hare Hare. It was the same message and practice the devotees advocated.

Rati carefully pulled some wooden prayer beads from a cloth bag and, very gently, extolled the glories of chanting the mantra. ‘These are for you’, she said. There was no need for me to chant, I thought. I was quite happy reading the Bhagavad-gita. Sensing my apprehension, Rati said, ‘Just try’. ‘Okay’, I replied. That night I chanted on the beads for about half-an-hour. The chanting had a profound effect on me. Everything slowed down. The mantra seemed to open my perceptions and my ability to see the unity of God’s creation. All the knowledge in the Bhagavad-gita assumed a tangible form in the chanting of Hare Krishna.  Statements of Krishna like, ‘I am the light of the sun and the moon’, ‘I am the strength of the strong’ and ‘of bodies of water I am the ocean’ made perfect sense.  The chanting gave me a sense of God’s presence within and without myself.

I saw Rati the next day. ‘How was it?’ she said. ‘I feel like there is no need to read the Bhagavad-gita now. The chanting seems to encapsulate everything Krishna says in the Gita.’ ‘Well, the two go hand-in-hand’, she said. Rati was very convincing.

My History tutor was a thin man with a black beard. He wore a navy blue V-neck jersey and a plain white collared shirt. He spoke expressively. From time to time, he would make wide, excited movements with his hands. The spirit of the tutor, the design of the buildings and the tutorial itself smacked of Cambridge or something foreign.

‘We will be discussing Historiography and Historicism today’, our tutor exclaimed in a jerky, nervous way. ‘We’ll be taking a look at Interdisciplinary Studies and History’, he added. Then he posed what appeared to be an innocuous question to the students, ‘What is science?’ The initial responses to this question seemed to bes from the perspective of natural science, physics and chemistry. A girl put up her hand, ‘Science is the observation of phenomena based on experimentation and concomittant results’. ‘Yeeesss’ he coaxed. ‘Go on’.

I offered an explanation, on the basis of our Latin Intensive course: ‘The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word ‘scientiae’ which means ‘knowledge’. ‘Knowledge’, itself, is all-embracing. ‘Knowledge’, in its broad sense, cannot be compartamentalized’. While I was saying this, an image of the British neoclassical architecture fixed itself in my mind. It was very Oxford, the whole setting. Even the discussion. Institutions like Oxford and Cambridge had systematized and comparmentalized knowledge into highly specialized faculties. My tutor’s eyes lit up, and his face rumpled into a satisfied smile. ‘Good’, he said, ‘we are trying to see how different branches or sciences are all basically part of a broader definition of ‘knowledge” At that moment I thought of Cicero’s definition of the word ‘abstract’. Cicero defines ‘abstract’ as ‘that which can only be grasped in thought’. We had connected intellectually.

I still couldn’t really see the point of these tutorials, however. They were never conclusive. A topic would be introduced. We would have to read a whole bunch of articles. And then we’d discuss them in a roundabout way, without getting to the heart of the matter. But what was the heart of the matter? I had yet to resolve this question. When would the elusive truth I was seeking manifest to me?

We launched HARI HARI’S VEGETARIAN OASIS at THE CODFATHER VILLAGE 1 1st Avenue, Morningside, Sandton, on Monday the 7th of December with a spiritually inspiring concert by devotional singing sensation KARNAMRITA DASI.

My dear friend Rupa-Raghunatha prabhu said something very pertinent to me on the day of the concert. He said that a lot of people think spiritual life is about themselves; spiritual life is, in actual fact, about everybody. And Karnamrita proved that with her open heart and her all-inclusive wisdom. Karnamrita was most gracious. She encouraged me by saying that, for a brahmacari, I had great sensitivity to detail. Karnamrita liked the venue: ‘It was sattvic, romantic, peaceful and private’.

Rocky informed me that his guest, a young muslim girl who is interested in Krishna consciousness, postponed her flight to hear the concert. Another gentleman, Kishan, saw Karnamrita’s picture on the flyer and could tell from her face and hand gestures that this was a very accomplished artist in the Indian Classical tradition. Our original intention was to host a small concert and restaurant launch, but there was so much interest in the concert that I had to, unfortunately, turn people away. It was a sell-out.

I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude, first and foremost, to Karnamrita Dasi. I honestly think you are the next major force in contemporary music. In saying this, I wish you well in your career. May you carry the wealth of Bhakti to whomever you may meet.

I would like to thank Robyn Higgins, from the Organic Markets, for always being there for us and for having faith in our ablilities. I would like to thank George and Mary-Anne Sinovich of “The Codfather” for providing the facility for “Hari Hari’s” and for providing the wonderful facility for the concert. I would to thank Mortaza Morton for encouraging us to arrange concerts for Karnamrita in Johannesburg. I would also like to thank Gaura Sakti Das, Jacques, Mukesh and Jerry for supporting Karnamrita musically. Rupa, you did a wonderful job as MC. And, thank you for fetching Karnamrita from Lenasia. Jacques, I would also thank you for providing the sound on a day’s notice (I’d also like to extend that thanks to Matthew Fink of The Black Hotels).

I would like to thank all the cooks and kitchen crew for providing wonderful snacks: Gaura Sakti, Madhumangal, Nicole, Vinodhani, Arne, Hansa, Estelle and Karabo. Thank you, Pralambari, for moral support and helping with everything. I would also like to thank Mary-Anne and her staff for assisting us on the night. I would like to thank Anil, Raj and Mala for sponsoring the greenpeppers for the kebabs and butternut for the pakoras. Thank you Urvashi and her husband for sponsoring the wonderful watermelons! Thank you, Charlie, for the wonderful sign-board. I am so stoked with the sign! It made my year! Thanks, Karabo, for the customized aprons. Thanks to the Zoo Lake club for loaning us their cushions; to Mynhart for pick-up, delivery and dry-clean (at discount); and to Paul for helping transport them from the venue (and for transporting the sign to the restaurant). Thank you, Rocky, for your constant support and encouragement. Thank you Prem-Kishore for your consistent friendship, emotional support and encouragement. The same applies to my dear friends and mentors, Govardhana and Tribhanga prabhus. Thanks to all our friends and well-wishers for being there (including you, Teresa). It is your journey too! Thank you all for a stratospheric launch!

All I can say is that Karnamrita’s concert was very touching and very soulful. She has actually re-infused my spiritual life with faith and spiritual longing and, for that, I am most grateful.

My facebook status summed up the concert for me: ‘Beaming faces/Nice to see/Karnamrita/Ecstacy’. Everyone was smiling. And everyone was happy with the concert and the snacks. Here is some of the feedback we received on facebook and via e-mail:

Yashoda Dulal – ‘Awesome Programme! Thank you for inviting us! Inspirational!’

Estelle Crowngold – ‘Thank you for a stunning night’

Reshma Mistry (to Karnamrita) – ‘What an Honour to have you here in SA! Thanks for such a beautiful, soulful concert on Monday Evening 🙂 I Loved it to bits!’

Jacques Fourie – ‘The Ritz would have been happy with a launch like that!’

Michelle Clifford – ‘Thanks for the lovely evening on Monday. Pete and I so enjoyed it!’

Rossana Pancaldi – ‘Thank you again for organising such a wonderful concert and lovely food last night. Please pass on to Karnamrita Dasi that the evening was truly inspiring and beautiful, and we will be sure to look out for her albums if they are available here in future…I also have a yoga teacher who is about to go to India for a short stay to study singing in the Carnatic tradition, and thought she might like to hear Karnamrita Dasi too. Thanks. Kind Regards. Rossana Pancaldi’

HARI HARI’S VEGETARIAN OASIS WILL BE FULLY OPERATIONAL IN FEBRUARY 2010

Thank you everybody.
We are here to serve you.
Mukunda Charan Das, Gaura Sakti Das and Bhakta Arne

While Bhakta Arne is saturating himself in bliss in Sri Vrindavan Dhama, MCD and G-Man (Gaura Sakti Das) are holding the fort here in Rosebank. We are still cooking up a storm with ‘Krishna’s Vedic Emporium’ foodstalls at the Killarney Mall Organic Market on Thursdays and The Wholefood Market at Blu Bird (Atholl Oaklands) on Sundays. Actually, we held a stall at Blu Bird today and Yelena, the wife of Branco, who sometimes fetches me from the airport, bought a Bhagavad-gita and took a whole lot of pamphlets on Krishna Consciousness. Another lady, Corinne, bought a Spiritual Warrior IV by Bhakti Tirtha Swami and another took a Higher Taste.

Prema Kishore prabhu led us on our third regular Harinam though the streets of Melville last Friday (see http://www.vediccity.co.za for details). I rounded off our very successful Cooking Course on Saturday with Pizza, Khichari, salad and salad dressing. We sponsored the chef, Joseph, from St James (a vegetarian school) and the headmaster wrote a letter praising Joseph’s new cooking skills. I realized that what we take for granted, in this case our training as chefs, is of great value to others. That evening we cut vegetables for Sunday’s market. On Sunday we sold Prashadam at Blu Bird again and held our weekly Sunday programme. It was very encouraging for me to have Gaura Das and some of his friends at the programme. Another friend, Marcelle, arrived just as the guests were leaving. Gaura Shakti showed her some basic mridanga beats, then she sat and chanted a round of the maha-mantra with us. Oh…and we also gave her some chickpea fudge (which she’d had before).

Monday. We teamed up with Nandarani – who was in the Temple with me in Cape Town – at the University of Johannesburg Bhakti Yoga Society (BYS) from 12-2:30pm. We taught the students how to chant on beads last time. This time we held a basic cooking demo: Simply Wonderfuls and Nimbu Pani. The demo went well. Prema Sarovara Mataji’s friend, Grace, bought a Bhagavad-gita. Seven students bought chanting beads at the previous session. That they took beads was a very positive sign from the point-of-view of chanting. They told me at this session that the chanting was really helping them find peace and happiness. I returned to the flat, took a brief nap, then Gaura Shakti and I went to Dwarakadish prabhu’s place for the Marlboro Namahatta. It was humbling to be with such hospitable and respectful devotees.

Tuesday. Market and shopping for the stalls in Fordsburg. We dropped in at “Cater Commercial” to pick up some kitchen utensils kindly sponsored by Bhakta Rakesh and his family. We got in at around 4pm. Gaura Das came in the evening for a Mantra Meditation Session. He brought some of his friends and people he’d met on book distribution – Lebohang, Matthew, Claudia and Mortaza. I delivered 30 pieces of Laddhu (Chickpea Fudge) to a juice-bar in Woodmead on Wednesday morning, rushed back to the flat, then gave a talk on ‘Jyotish And Its Relevance To Spirituality’ (Jyotish is Indian Astrology) at the Wits BYS at from 1-3pm. I bought some slop-chips at “Kara Nicha’s” before trundling back home, back to Pancha Tattva. That night Gaura Das invited us over to his mom’s place for supper (in honour of his wife Jamuna’s birthday). I still had to cut veg for Thursday’s stall when we got back to the flat. Thursday means Killarney Mall Organic Food Market. Self-explanatory. Mother Prema Shakti came to the stall and informed me that there was a GAD (Gauteng Administration and Development) Sub-Committee meeting about Education at her flat with Keshava Krishna prabhu and some other devotees. The meeting touched on various important areas of education – for children, youth and adults. Another late night. Friday, I went on Sankirtan at the airport and Eastgate. Saturday, Sankirtan at Menlyn. Sunday, Blu Bird and Sunday programme.

Tonight we read from Bhagavad-gita and then chanted Damodarastakam Prayers. This week has been quite a busy one, compounded by Arne’s absence. (All the guests left with Chickpea Fudge). We are offering lamps every night to Lord Damodara and chanting the Damodarastakam. Kartik is a month of mercy. May the Lord be kind upon us.

Your servants at the Vedic City Project.

A friend of mine, Emina, asked me, ‘What do you do?’ I don’t know why, but I had to think about it for a while (I am fairly busy believe it or not). ‘What did you do today?’, she asked. An easier question. I didn’t have to think. ‘I went to the market to buy vegetables and other goods for our food stalls’, I said. ‘Oh, and I was uploading pictures from my camera to my hard-drive.’

‘What do you do to become happy?’ I pondered this question a while, then gave my answer, ‘Well, I chant Hare Krishna.’ But then I thought that was not a complete answer. ‘Before I became a devotee I used to drink and smoke. And I had radical mood swings. But I stopped that after some time and I also became a vegetarian. Since then I stopped having mood swings. And the chanting also helps, of course’. I proceeded to tell her a story from my book distribution days in Cape Town. The one day I was distributing books in St. George’s Mall. It was a cold winter’s day. I wasn’t feeling that great. In fact, I thought I must have looked miserable. Then a person came up to me and said, ‘You look so happy!’ When I got back to the Temple I reflected on the day’s occurrences and realized that although I had not been in a particularly joyful mood, I was happier than most of the people around me. The gauge for this happiness was my former tendency to manic-depression and not a sense of smugness or superiority.

So what have I been up to? Well, on Thursday we had our vegetarian food stall at the Killarney Fine Food Market, which I helped set up with Arne from 9-10:30am, and I went out distributing spiritual literatures with Rupa Raghunatha Prabhu from 10:30-4:45pm. Friday, after two hours of chanting, I also sold books and raised funds at Sandton City, 10:30am to 5pm. On Saturday we went to the Yoga Camp at Zoo Lake and conducted a little Harinama Sankirtan (processional chanting with traditional musical instruments) from 9:30-11:30am, with Lerato doing firedancing and Poobal playing sax. Gaura Shakti and I taught our third session of our Vegetarian Cooking course from 12-3pm the same day. In the evening, I cooked kichari. Rupa and I took kichari with nkomasi (a kind of yoghurt), lemon and rotis. Sunday was Blu Bird Wholefood Market, prashadam distribution, followed by a simple Sunday Programme at the Vedic City project. Rupa and I went out on Sakirtan again, this time to Clear Water Mall. Rupa spoke, and the last of our guests left by around 7pm.

Monday, giving out kichari to my friends at David Krut, admin and a talk at the University of Johannesburg 11am-2pm. The talk was very nice as there was a good turnout of intelligent, spiritually inquiring youth. We then chatted with the devotee students and Nandarani, at Nandarani’s office. I bought some soya burgers and we had burgers and salad, and a cold drink. Went on facebook for a while and posted some e-mails. This morning we chanted from 5:30 for two hours, performed some worship and conducted a little class (this is our routine when we don’t have markets). I made some important calls and went online to see if there was any news of the consignment of books I ordered from America and received a call from Steve Newman, the accomplished guitarist and fellow yogi (we are going to have lunch at the ashram on Friday). I went to the market at 9:45 with Gaura Shakti, returned around 1pm, mooched around the hood a bit, went online, uploaded photos, chatted to Emina and now I am finishing this blog. Hare Krishna.

Here is just a little update, dear readers, of the activities of ISKCON Johannesburg North. The highlight was, naturally, Deena Bandhu prabhu’s visit on Saturday the 22nd August. Otherwise, just fighting the good fight, I suppose…

The Janmasthami/Prabhupada Appearance Day weekend blew the wind into our sales, then promptly out again. All those late nights. A weekend of loss for my devotee friends: Jacques’ ex, a single mother of a seven-year old boy, was mercilessly shot by thugs; Krishnadas and his family lost their beautiful home; and the South African Vaishnava Community lost Madan Mohan prabhu, one of my dearest friends, on Janmasthami morning (Friday 14 August).

In the wake of Janmasthami, we were blessed with three programmes by His Grace Deena Bandhu prabhu – Krishna-Balarama Youth Group, Tuesday 18; Nandakishore’s Nama Hatta, Friday 21; and our very own ISKCON Rosebank on Saturday 22nd August. Hansa, “Krishna’s Florist”, kindly made a garland for Deena Bandhu prabhu. On each occasion, Deena Bandhu prabhu shared heart-warming stories of Prabhupada, Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Nandalala, Krishna. On Saturday night, he said you can go to Vrindavan without paying airticket or visa. Too true. There was a fair turnout of about 15 devotees and friends. I was thinking that the pastimes of Krishna in Vrindavan might be a little too much for the newcomers, but they were very appreciative of Deena Bandhu prabhu’s charming descriptions of Vraja and his sweet brijbasi bhajans.

Gaura Shakti and I gave our second Cooking Class that Saturday morning, much to the delight of our students. We kind of flopped the panir, but more than made up for it with the puris. Gaura made a perfect dough, got the students to roll their own puris and then had them throw the puris in boiling oil. It was one of those “Kodak moments”, with everyone cheering and exclaiming…nearly all the puris came out perfectly.

Gaura and myself went through to Lenasia again, to get darshan of His Holiness Bhakti Caru Maharaja on Tuesday 24 and Wednesday 25. It was thrilling, but a little sad also, to hear Krishnadas and Sharm matajis realizations after the fire in their house. I was amazed how bright-faced they looked considering the trauma they had been through. Krishna certainly favoured them. Thursday night we went to the Temple for Radhastami. Nrsimhananda prabhu gave a wonderful class, we took the feast with our friends Giridhari and Estelle, and left. Another hectic week, with food stalls wedged inbetween.

We had an intimate programme on Sunday the 30th August with Damian, Janine, Tamar, Lungile, Arne and Gaura. Janine said she had chanted with the devotees in Cyrildene about 20 years ago. ‘They would chant for hours. I loved it’, she said. It was very encouraging to have such an enthusiastic chanter in our midst. I kept the talk simple, explaining the Vedas and the importance of sabda-pramana. Tamara, a yogi in her own right, was also very enthusiastic. ‘Thank you very, very much’, she kept on saying to me. Lungile described some of his personal Kurukshetres with us…he is a spokesperson and representative for the National Postal Services…which was recently on strike. It was nice to chant in the association of such sincere souls.

When we are not going out on Sankirtan or to the market, I cook and invite neighbours and friends for lunch. That is how I spend my downtime (aside from internet or reading). Premkishore and I are planning to conduct weekly Friday night Harinams in the northern suburbs of Joannesburg, like Melville and Parkhurst. In honour of World Holy Name Week we will be having a Harinam procession at the Zoo Lake Yoga Camp on Saturday 5 September.

Forthcoming attractions at The Vedic City Project (ISKCON Johannesburg North) include: His Grace Partha Sarathi prabhu speaking on his experiences as a soldier and a monk on Sunday 20 September; and His Grace Vrishabanu prabhu speaking on Sunday 27 September.

Bhakta Arne is off to India at the end of September. We are also expecting Radhanath Maharaja’s Autobiography, ‘The Journey Home’, to arrive any day now. ‘The Journey Home’ is R250.

Jaya Srila Prabhupada! Jaya Sri Sri Panchatattva! Jay Sri Sri Nitai Gaurahari! Ki Jaya!

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