Thursday, 22 February 2007
Alex Horne – 22nd February 2007
“God fulfils our desires”, said Pranadikha in the latter stages of our interview and I found it impossible to argue with the sentiment. Firstly, and generally, because she’s as calm and hypnotic as you’d expect somebody with an important job in London’s Hare Krishna hub to be and I couldn’t imagine her arguing with anybody. But also, more specifically, because after three trips to the temple over the past month, we’d finally been granted a Croatian willing and very able to tell the story both of her own journey to London and that of the Hare Krishna movement itself.
After our previous visits, two phone calls and several emails, Owen and I were relieved when the ‘receptionist’ at the Soho Street Temple told us we were expected and should ring the bell by the black door three buildings up the road. It was all fittingly mysterious.
That is, until we were let into what was actually an exceptionally bland office building (especially compared with the golden shininess of the shrine a couple of doors away) with the legend ISKCON emblazoned on the wall as if it belonged to some faceless American chemical corporation.
Pranadikha met us with a smile and a remarkably firm hand shake on the first floor, gave us a glass of water each and sat us down in her office while she made sure her busy schedule was clear for the next hour. We sat expectantly on two of those swivelly chairs with wheels, trying our best not to fidget, like kids about to meet Father Christmas (if that’s not too inappropriate a simile).
We weren’t disappointed. One of Pranadikha’s two jobs (the other being the surprisingly bureaucratic sounding post of ‘property manager’ for the equally official International Society for Krishna Consciousness, whose abbreviation we’d noticed before) is to talk to children in various primary schools around the capital about Hinduism and she proudly handed us a folder full of bright and heartfelt thank you letters the kids had made to show how much they appreciated her story-telling. Over the next sixty minutes we got our very own adult (and slightly more personal) version of the Krishna tale and by the end of it we too felt like making some sort of card to say thanks. I guess this is it.
She started by telling us the four principles of the Krishna belief; no meat, no intoxicants, no sex before marriage and no gambling. Even before hearing these ground rules, Pranadikha had already unintentionally made me feel a little like an interloper when, despite the pile of footwear lying by the office door (the only sign that this was no ordinary workplace), she’d told us we needn’t remove our shoes. At the time I’d quite wanted to. I thought I could probably blend in pretty well here. I’m a fairly peaceful bloke. Casting my mind back to the previous typically boozy Saturday night, however, I realised that we still had a way to go before revealing our socks would really be an appropriate thing to do.*
Reassuringly, Pranadhika told us that she herself had taken quite some time to adapt to this more abstemious (and much healthier) way of life. Whilst still at school in the north of the country she, like most of us, had seen Hare Krishna devotees around, they’re hard to miss, and by her eighteenth birthday she’d actually met a few and learnt a little about their philosophy. But she wasn’t interested in ‘the East’, and was just about to start training as a vet. Yes, a vet. And maybe that’s not necessarily worthy of repetition but for me, for some reason, it sounded unlikely and exotic. In fact I think she’s the first qualified vet I’ve met in London. So there.
Back then Pranadhika was much more interested in living in London than making any sort of Krishna-inspired pilgrimage to India and applied for a post as an au pair in England after she’d qualified (as a vet!). In the meantime she began to meet a few more followers and visited her local Krishna temple the odd time but still, she says; “I didn’t like it. I wasn’t attracted to it. I was in another mood. I had other interests. And I was a Catholic” (like 87.8% of Croatians).
In her fifth and final year at veterinary school, however, she met two men (not unlike Owen and myself) (no, sorry, probably nothing like Owen and myself) who changed the direction of her life for good (yes, in both senses). The first, a spiritual teacher, invited her to come to the temple once again and listened patiently as Pranadhika asked yet more questions. Her curiosity grew, she invited him round for tea and he invited her back to the temple. She eventually started to truly appreciate his beliefs but still didn’t like the food or the music: “Croatia is very different to England, remember. If you saw someone with black skin you’d say, ‘wow!’ It’s not a cosmopolitan place, so all this spicy food was very unusual”, she laughed.
Still, the philosophy was powerful enough and inspired by the persuasive logic of his answers, she started going to the temple more regularly. She’d even given up meat by then (“just like that”, she said, but without the standard Tommy Cooper gesture or expression) although she was still smoking.
Not for long. Soon she was to meet another Croatian teacher, a Krishna devotee and professor of physics with an IQ of 170 who plied her with scientific answers that appealed to her own medical background. The combination of philosophy and fact proved impossible to resist. “I found it the perfect marriage of religion and science”, she told us, before listing off names like Mandel, Einstein, Newton and Faraday to demonstrate illustrious and religious scientists of the past.
By the time she was meant to be looking after other people’s children in England, she had fallen in love with the faith and forgotten all about London. She started actively practising Krishna consciousness in 1991 before giving the four solemn vows the following year. It was then that she moved into the temple in Split and was given the name Pranadhika. Legally she is still called Natalija but, like Pope Benedict, she is now known only by her spiritual moniker (which, by the way, is the same name as Krishna’s wife and means ‘She who is dear to Lord Krishna more than his own life’ but with Dasi on the end, meaning ‘servant’).
“Of course that was a very big moment for me”, she explained as candidly as ever. “When you move into a monastery you feel extremely fired up and you have to think ‘can I do this for the rest of my life?’. It’s a massive thing and of course it is hard at times. But we’re not as strict as some religions. You can live in the temple for a bit, then change your mind, move out, get married, it’s not a big deal”.
Indeed after five years living in her Croatian temple she did decide to move away, live outside and enjoy a little more privacy. First, however, she made that trip to South India where, unlike Croatia or London, four in every five people are Hindu and the orange robes of the Krishna community don’t stick out quite so much.
Hinduism, and the Hare Krishna movement in particular, was fairly limited to India until the mid 1960s, Pranadhika told us. Then, at the age of seventy, one man, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (or Prabhupada for short) brought Krishna Consciousness to the west. Well, one man and the British Empire. “Remember, Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion. We’re not trying to convert people. That’s why we’ve never caused wars in the past. But by the grace of the UK, it was spread all over the world”.
“Thanks” to colonization, Hindu workers were taken from India to Fiji, Kenya, Uganda and the West Indies and the faith was subconsciously spread to all corners of the globe. Prabhupada, in the meantime, headed off alone to America. “This was back in 1965, there was no internet, he was seventy, he didn’t have a clue what was going to happen. He had no money, just a few rupees – such dedication, it’s amazing”, she said, eyes wide. “But step by step he did it”.
He lived in New York, close to Tompkins Square and would meditate on a bench in the park. A stranger once asked him what he was doing there and he replied, “I have so many temples and followers”. “Where?” the man asked. “They are here, just waiting to be manifested” came the assured response, a typical display of faith that was indeed fulfilled.
“This was the 1960s and he was advocating an ethos entirely opposite to the lifestyle at the time”, continued Pranadhika. “Everyone was smoking and drinking, it was the sexual revolution. But it was deeper than that, people were really looking for a change of consciousness, a different way of thinking”. If we ever do this same experiment in New York, we’ve promised to go to the temple at 26, 2nd Avenue and pay homage to a plaque on a tree in Tompkins Square set up by one Mayor Guiliani in honour of the philosopher.
Prabhupada then sent six disciples from USA to London who famously got in touch with Lennon and Harrison, and inspired the latter especially to spread the reputation of Krishna with an album and number one single which was played on Top Of The Pops and allowed Krishna devotees to travel all over Europe chanting the names of Vishnu (Hare, Rama and Krishna). The first (tiny) temple was set up in Bury Place in 1969 but thanks to Harrison’s celebrity endorsement the movement rapidly swelled and after Bhaktivedanta Manor was built in Herefordshire, the London sanctuary was moved to Soho Street in 1977, with Mick Jagger sponsoring the marble on which the main Deity stands.
About twenty years later Pranadikha herself came to England, moving to Oxford in December 1998. Just six months later, however, she moved back to Croatia and worked as a vet for two months, still questioning herself and her faith, but finally deciding that her life was now devoted to Krishna.
In 1999 she made her final move to London and is now a British resident. “I was thinking about why I like it here and what would be interesting for you guys”, she said a little coyly. “Now, this is probably mundane for you but I’m a big tennis fan…” Mundane? Not at all! After desperately trying to find some common ground with nearly all of our previous forty six discoveries by clumsily crowbarring sport into our conversations, we’d finally got the chance to discuss it in perhaps the most unlikely of settings.
“I’m a big tennis fan”, she continued as we nodded enthusiastically. “When I was growing up I always wanted to go to Wimbledon – that was my dream. But when I didn’t come and work as an au pair I forgot all about it. I was so engaged in Krishna consciousness. Then when I came here for the first time in 1998/9 it didn’t feel foreign. I immediately felt comfortable here”. Having traveled round the globe once already, she was used to being in strange places but this time it was different. “I was sitting there in the car with my friend thinking, ‘I’m where I’m meant to be. God fulfils our desires’. And then suddenly I realised I’d forgotten all about tennis!”
Just two years later, in 2001, Croatia’s most famous sportsman, Goran Ivanisevic, unexpectedly reached the final of Wimbledon after qualifying as a wildcard. Pranadhika had just returned from a trip to L.A. and was in the capital. What’s more, because of some surprising rain (in the summer? Yes, in the summer!) the match was to take place, for the first time ever, on a Monday – People’s Monday, meaning that ‘normal’ fans could come along and queue for what are usually highly exclusive tickets. And what a final it was. Arguably the most nerve-racking and exhilarating contest in open era history, won, of course, by the honorary Londoner and Croatian hero Goran, born and raised in Split – the same town as Pranadhika herself. He was not only the first wildcard but also the first Croatian in history to claim the Wimbledon title.
Pranadhika didn’t go.
“But I had the chance!” she chuckles. “I had the chance to fulfill my desires.”
Owen and I both loved the fact that Pranadhika was a huge tennis fan but I’m not quite sure why we were so surprised - I know quite a few vicars who like cricket. But I guess I probably went into the meeting a little prejudiced, expecting to meet some noble hippy and possibly be preached at. Neither of those things happened. Her belief, she explained (in a very non lecture-like way) was that; “God lives in three planes – all around us, in the hearts of living beings and in the spiritual world. We should therefore respect the environment and each other (a typical service will begin and end with the word ‘namaste’ meaning ‘I respect you’) and have fun in life”. And according to her interpretation of the faith, having fun can definitely mean watching tennis.
As we left her office Pranadhika handed us a couple of books by or about Prabhupada, thus doing her bit to keep up ISKCON’S impressive statistic that “every seven seconds one of Srila Prabhupada’s books is distributed somewhere in the world”. I’d been given one several years earlier by a monk in Chichester but had never even removed its unnecessary cling-film-like wrapper. After today’s chat, however, I’m definitely going to try get a little further - especially after her conspiratorial whisper of, “I’ve always regretted not going to that final” on our way out. Namaste.
* On a very enjoyable trip to the greyhounds in Walthamstow followed by a birthday in a bar in Crouch End we’d certainly consumed both meat and intoxicants, definitely gambled and while I’m no longer able to have sex before marriage, there’s a fairly good chance that at least one couple in our party broke rule number three too. Full House. And even that’s a gambling term.