Srila Prabhupada, the spiritual leader of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), brought the Hare Krishna movement from India to the West in the 1960s, establishing the first temple in England at 7 Bury Place in 1969, a ‘narrow skinny building’ that the Krishnas rented near to the British Museum.
Our interviewee told us that Prabhupada ‘always felt that London was one of the most important places in the world as a capital centre and he really wanted Krishna consciousness to be established here because he felt that it’s truly international.’
The Hare Krishnas remained at Bury Place for 10 years and 1977 they acquired their current building on Soho Street – which used to be a nightclub – moving the deities there in 1978. By the mid-1970s the premises at Bury Place had ‘got too small and we were looking for a larger place and one of the members of the community drove past and he thought this would be a nice new larger centre for us to move to.’ Although Prabhpada passed away in October 1977, whilst in London earlier that year ‘he saw the building [on Soho Street] and said, “Okay, yeah, buy it”…he kind of gave us blessings for us to move the deities here.’ First of all the restaurant was opened in 1979, today called Govinda’s – referring to another name for Lord Krishna – but at that time was named ‘Healthy, Wealthy and Wise’.
Prabuphada’s vision had been to open a large temple in central London and back in the 1970s the hope was that
‘with George Harrison’s help that would happen, but George Harrison’s vision was that we should have a nice place in the country and that’s where he donated Bhaktivedanta Manor. Then once we got that new place in the country all the focus had to go there because it was such huge grounds, big facility, so then a lot of focus went there…the plan has always been for the deities to have their own purpose-built temple. This again was also just meant to be a temporary stopover for them that’s been 36 years now that they’ve been here.’
With a growing community of devotees, the premises on Soho Street is now too small and on festival days the queues snake around around the block. However, it has not been possible to extend the building or to find another central location. Our interviewee stressed the importance of being in ‘zone 1’
‘I would never want to get rid of this [temple] because it’s such a wonderful position, I mean we’re able to serve as a bit of a spiritual oasis in the centre of London, so a lot of people who come in are kind of really overwhelmed by the materialistic concept of society.’
The central location means that the temple is accessible to people, drawing in a multicultural crowd with ‘nationalities from over 150 different countries’, but the temple is also part of the fabric of that part of London
‘because we’ve been here so long and in some cases three generations of families have passed through here from grandfather to son to grandson, it’s become part of your life almost, part of your heritage…millions of people around the world know where we are now because of the restaurant so it’s just not possible to let it go.’
ISKCON teaches a style of Hinduism that has traditionally appealed to Westerners, but that also attracts growing numbers of people of South Asian background. One of the attractions is the careful and structured emphasis upon teachings about Hinduism in the English language as well as upon devotional practices (bhakti). Our interviewee explained that some other Hindu temples in the West are not as accessible to those outside traditional Hindu communities nor do they emphasise teachings about the religion to the same degree.
Some devotees live at the temple, a maximum of around 24 at a time, which is divided into ‘houses’ or ‘ashrams’ with ‘a separate floor for the ladies and a separate floor for the men. The style of living is…a communal style [with] bunk beds in shared accommodation on the floors’. The programme of worship begins at 4.30 am in the main shrine room on the first floor of the building, with 8 opportunities throughout the day to see the deities (darhsan) and to take part in worship/offerings (arti) in total throughout the day. People come into the building for these rituals and also to hear teachings on a daily basis. A range of courses and seminars are also held at the temple as well as the celebration of festivals.
Other key Hare Krishna activities, co-oridnated from the temple, include the distribution of books (about Krishna, Hinduism and vegetarianism), street chanting (Harinaam), the Food for Life project that distributes food to the needy and Radha Krishna records, a not-for-profit record label and owned by the Radha-Krishna Temple, producing devotional music about Krishna that can been accessed on Itunes.
Most of the activity at the temple takes place in the main shrine room. This is not a large room and the walls have been decorated with ornately crafted alcoves housing pictures of Krishna and stories about his life. At the rear of the temple room is a shrine with a statue of Srila Praphupada and at the front of the room is the main shrine to the deities.
Our interviewee told us that the deities ‘were brought to England by a Radha Krishna temple that was going to open in Ilford and when they arrived Radha had a chip on her finger’. It is a traditional Hindu custom that if the deity is damaged in any way it can’t be installed and the temple donated them to Srila Prabhupada. He said ‘that this was just Krishna’s trick because he actually wanted them to come here. So then he installed the deities, the deity was repaired and he installed them.’
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of ISCKON and a range of activities have been taking place at the Radha Krishna temple to mark this important occasion. Included in this has been a renovation project, of which phase 1 is complete and a process of fund raising underway, including sponsorship for an 10 km race the president of the temple and his wife are undertaking at the end of May 2016:
‘For the 50th Anniversary, we have ambitious plans to renovate the Temple in order to be able to better serve Their Lordships, Sri Sri Radha-Londonisvara, and our growing community and guests.
ISKCON’s Seven Purposes, written by Srila Prabhupada, show the importance of erecting a place dedicated to the personality of Krishna and bringing the members closer together for the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.
The Temple renovations is intended to support these aims. We want to enhance the quality of service rendered to Their Lordships and also enhance the experience for our community and guests who visit the Temple every day.
If you can help us reach our goal we would greatly appreciate it as we run for Krishna in May !’