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Youth bring Practical Solutions
A group of six young brahmacharis, or celibate monks, living at ISKCON’s Bhaktivedanta Manor near London have had great success in attractively repackaging Krishna consciousness for the “Apple generation.” Their project, Urban Monk aims to conflate the two seemingly contradictory words of its title and present practical spirituality for a modern world.
It was such a presentation that changed the life of team member Ghanashyam-priya Das (right) back in 2006, when he attended a retreat by the Manor’s Pandava Sena youth group.
“I had a pretty good life, and I wasn’t really looking for spirituality,” he says. “But after attending the retreat, and seeing Krishna consciousness being presented as something very ‘with the times’, and very relevant to my life, I was attracted.”
Emerging from Cass Business School with a first class degree in Management Science, Ghanashyam turned down lucrative job offers in London to move into Bhaktivedanta Manor’s ashram full-time.
Immediately, he wanted to give others the gift that Krishna consciousness had bestowed upon his life.
To do so, he teamed up with five other young devotees, an excitingly varied blend of personalities, nationalities, ethnicities, and skill sets, who, despite their dedication to spirituality, are very much ‘of this world.’
Ananda Chaitanya Das, a Cambridge University economics graduate, worked as a banker and trader in Canary Wharf before becoming a monk.
Nrsimha Tirtha Das from Ivory Coast searched the world for answers to the deeper questions in life until he found Hare Krishna devotees in London.
Bhakta Ben graduated from University in New Zealand and came to London looking to make it as a rock star, before his interest in yoga brought him to London’s Soho Street temple.
Engineering graduate Janakinath Das worked in marketing for the Cannes Film Festival and other major events, then spent five years at the ISKCON temple in Chowpatty, India, after being introduced to Krishna consciousness by the Pandava Sena.
And finally, newest member Bhakta John is a London-based stage actor and teacher.
The team has been working together on relevant, accessible and innovative preaching for the past two years.
But their Urban Monk brand, launched just last month, represents another step towards reaching an audience that, just like them, hails from academic and corporate backgrounds.
“We wanted to present spirituality as something that can be lived by everyone and be relevant in everyone’s lives, rather than something that’s only practiced by some strange, unique breed of people,” Ghanashyam says. “To do that, we needed a cutting edge visual identity.”
Urban-monk.com reflects this identity. It’s a trendy, youthful website that taps into the modern interest in yoga, personal development and education and appeals to students’ sense of fun and adventure.
Catchphrases like “Uncommon Sense”—a way to describe the logic and rarity of Krishna consciousness—catch the attention of a generation that grew up on Apple products.
So do the blogs, quirky humor and social video experiements wherein Urban Monks ask people on the streets how they’d define success or what they’d do if they had 24 hours to live. In the future, regular video blogs and podcasts, “thoughts of the day” and a question and answer section will be added.
The numbers speak for themselves. In its first week, urban-monk.com received 10,000 hits, while the project’s Facebook page had 100 likes in 24 hours.
But it’s Urban Monk’s events that are the most exciting. The project may have just been branded, but for the past two years the team has already been holding regular classes at corporate companies, schools, and universities, as well as retreats and overseas trips.
In the corporate sector, they’ve coached and mentored individuals on spiritual leadership, communication, and healthy habits at companies such as Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Ernst & Young, British Sky Broadcasting Group, and Bank of America.
“It’s all about finding the right work/life balance,” says Ghanashyam. “How to manage stress, find peace, and practice Krishna consciousness in the working world.”
Urban Monk also currently works with three schools: Queen Elizabeth Boys’ School; Watford Grammar School; and Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, a highly-regarded London private school.
“After last year’s riots, the government here in London are currently putting a big emphasis on helping children in underprivileged areas, making sure they have opportunities and keeping them away from drugs, alcohol and crime,” Ghanashyam says. “So at schools, we teach students aged between 16 and 18 weekly classes on how Krishna consciousness can help them develop spiritual leadership skills and good values.”
In previous years their seminars have been taught at the University of Cambridge, the London School of Economics, University College London, Queen Mary University, King’s College London, Brunel University, Hartfordshire University, and Imperial College London.
This year, seminars will start this week, and run for ten weeks until December; then, after a Christmas break, they’ll restart in late January and run another ten weeks until March. Each seminar consists of one or two sessions lasting around three hours each.
One of the most popular seminars, “Life Was Much Simpler When Apples and Blackberries Were Just Fruits,” helps people to incorporate spirituality into their everyday lives. It makes the point that while technology is a useful tool, we must also learn to switch it off sometimes, and to reflect and meditate rather than just ‘chasing the dream.’
Another very successful seminar series utilizes famous movies as a springboard to discuss philosophical topics. The Shawshank Redemption, The Adjustment Bureau, Inception and others have all been used to discuss karma, free will, fate, reincarnation, meditation, how to find peace, and more.
Meanwhile other interactive seminars and retreats include “Timeless Meditation for a World with Less Time,” which introduces japa meditation, and Sacred Sounds, a program running alongside Jahnavi Harrison’s Kirtan London project, which introduces kirtan.
All of these are very popular, with most seminars drawing between 25 and 50 students.
As students begin to get more familiar and comfortable with Krishna consciousness, they attend seminars in the peaceful, spiritual setting of Bhaktivedanta Manor, an ISKCON temple in the countryside just outside London.
“Explore,” an introductory course to Krishna consciousness, discusses four “big questions” that trouble people in today’s world, with sessions entitled “What is Happiness?”; “Does God Exist?” “Karma: Good or Bad?” and “The Art of Practical Spirituality.”
Then there’s “Gita Life,” a course focused directly on the teachings of Krishna consciousness, which continues students’ spiritual evolution.
Finally, students that have graduated from university and have attended these courses for three years are encouraged to take a sabbatical and participate in the “Mystic India” program. Urban Monk sends ten advanced students per year to India, where they spend two and half months staying at ISKCON’s Chowpatty temple in Mumbai, traveling to the holy places of Mayapur, Vrindavan and Jagannath Puri, and attending Radhanath Swami’s annual pilgrimage tour. They also do philanthropic work with Vrindavan’s Food For Life project and Chowpatty’s Midday Meal program.
“Then, for the second-half of the program, they return to England and live and serve at Bhaktivedanta Manor for three months,” says Ghanashyam. “It’s something we recommend all our students do to ground themselves in spirituality before moving into the world of work.”
Afterwards, many go on to work in influential positions in society, while still maintaining Krishna conscious practices such as chanting, and a Krishna conscious approach to life. Others join the temple and become full-time devotees.
The feedback for Urban Monk’s courses has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It is so great hearing from genuinely spiritual people,” commented anthropology student Brian Worthington. “Their only interest is to give and help your development. This is so refreshing in a world where exploitation has become the norm.”
Philosophy student Anthony Turner added: “The people, the presentations, the retreats are all so genuine and inspiring. They allow any student, whatever their interest, to connect with a deeper sense of purpose in life.”
Despite all the enthusiasm, as far as Ghanashyam and the other members of the Urban Monk team are concerned, there’s still a lot of work to do.
“In the future, I really hope that we can be invited to speak not only to students but to academics, boards of directors, and CEOs at respected institutions in the fields of business, ecology, training, education and more,” Ghanashyam says. “We would like to be seen as being very relevant and innovative in those arenas. And we would like to give Krishna consciousness a real voice and presence in the outside world, in the media, and in political circles.”
The Urban Monk Team. From left to right - Ghanashyam, John, Ananda, Nrsimha, Ben, and Janakinath
A group of students work on an assignment at an Urban Monk event
Ghanashyam teaches a typically packed class at City University London
Students are absorbed at Eat Pray Love
An inquisitive student discusses Krishna consciousness with Sacinandana Swami
Students learn how to cook prasadam at a retreat
By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON News