As many of our readers are aware, every weekday free food is being served during lunch time on our campus. It rivals our much beloved Brunch Bowl, not just in terms of value for money, but also on taste. Not only is it a free meal, it's also very nutritious. The people responsible are the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which runs two closely related programs, called Food for Life, and Food for All.
Having not heard of ISKCON for quite some time, I wasn't too sure what to expect. However, as soon as I entered Krishna Pranadhika's office, I was put at ease as she gave the impression of being a very competent and well-meaning person, eager to answer all my questions. In her role as School Officer, she gives talks in primary and secondary schools, and furthermore is a member of the Westminster Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE).
I don't know how she explains Hinduism to schoolchildren, but the discussion we had on the nature of religion as opposed to the nature of science was clear and objective. We didn't disagree on much, and after a few minutes we found ourselves summarizing by pointing out that knowledge or complete certainty cannot be achieved, and that in a certain sense acts of faith permeate all aspects of our lives. This is less trivial than the uninformed reader may tend to believe, as there is a wide array of literature in the field of epistemology.
This led to her point that blind anti-religionism as proposed, for instance, by Richard Dawkins, is a questionable pursuit. While it remains true that terrible events arose from the actions of religious zealots blindly following ancient writings, this should not be used as a pretense for critiquing religion as a whole. Islam, for example, was a major influence on the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, but at least one nation holds a rather negative view of Muslims. After these general thoughts on religions, we proceeded to discuss ISKCON in particular. It was interesting to learn that every temple acts as an independent unit, and is responsible for generating its own income.
In London, the lion's share stems from the profits of their vegetarian restaurants, while donations, book sales and profits from their shop make up the rest. A look into the ledger would reveal the financial basis of the temple in Soho Street.
On the other hand, the size of the local community is very difficult to determine. Their local mailing list has roughly 3,000 names on it, but there are various levels of dedication of its members. On one extreme, there are currently twenty-five men and eight women, living in the temple as monks and nuns and following a monastic life style, adhering to four regulative principles: lacto-vegetarian nutrition, no illicit sex, no gambling, and no intoxication, which includes caffeine and tobacco. On the other end of the spectrum, things are less austere with members visiting the temple once a year.
However, this does not pose a problem at all for ISKCON, according to Pranadhika, because every one has to decide how to incorporate their spiritual into their worldly life. The latter aspect was also a consequence of the change of the culture of ISKCON from a monastic to a congregational one, which opened it to members of the general public.
Finally,we talked about the Food for Life programme. Since the beginning of the Lent term, LSE students have had the opportunity of enjoying a free vegetarian meal. (Yes, it is really free. No, there are no strings attached.) This programme goes back to A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, who was repulsed by the sight of village children fighting with dogs over scraps of food, and so he proclaimed that "no one within ten miles of a temple should go hungry".
Life is not quite as rough around Houghton Street.Yet, the appreciation is clearly visible. As Krishna Pranadhika elaborated, there are actually two Food for Life programs in operation in London. The temple in Soho administers free serving of food in Lincoln's Inn Fields from Monday to Thursday, whereas another basis in Caledonian Road, Kings Cross runs the Hare Krishna Rickshaw Project, serving areas in Kentish Town, Camden Town and King's Cross.
In addition to that, two campuses enjoy the same service. One is the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), which is being served for eight years now, filling 250 plates and stomachs a day. The latest addition is our campus. This is indeed a very laudable project, and public recognition is not unheard of. In this respect, Krishna Pranadhika proudly pointed out that the project run from Caledonian Road won the City of London's "Sustainable Cities Award" in 2007.
It is a matter of belief whether one might really want to attribute, as ISKCON does, a purifying element to such a diet, and finally "become more evolved as human beings by putting ourselves in our own centre", but this is slightly off the point. More to the point is that there clearly has been a change of consciousness regarding vegetarianism in the United Kingdom, which is the second country after India that has a label on food indicating whether it is "suitable for vegetarians and vegans".
Being a hard-boiled atheist, I cannot help but be impressed by the aura spiritual people exude. The few seasoned veterans of Eastern religions I have had the pleasure to talk to in my life all had a similar effect on me.To give an example: on paper, a statement like "we are all brothers and sisters in the world", or "everyone has to find their real identity" probably sound like mere platitudes. However, uttered from a person that has obviously found her inner balance, these words gain immeasurable weight. (I can't say I have had an even remotely similar experience with any practicians of any Western religion.) Some people just give you an idea what one should aspire to beside material gains.