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Spirit of the Age: Rebirth of an ancient religion

LET ME tell you everything you know already about the Hare Krishna movement. Orange robes. Shaved heads. Tinkly finger-cymbals. Endless chanting in the rainy high streets of Britain's provincial towns. Hare Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Krishna. George Harrison's Tudor manor at Letchmore Heath. Disputes over noise with neighbours. Er, that's it.

Of course, you may know more than that. But if you do, then you are a good deal less ignorant than I was before I set out for the Hampstead Interfaith Group to watch them meet Anuradha Dasi, a young Irishwoman who is one of the representatives of the Hare Krishna movement.

Not that, officially, it is the Hare Krishna movement. Rather, it styles itself the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON for short. Whatever its name, it does not have the best of reputations, with its zealous missionary activity, its internal splits and schismsand reports of child sex abuse by those in authority. But then, I suppose, you could say the same about the Roman Catholic church.

Interestingly enough, Catholicism was the starting point for Anuradha (born Ann, in suburban Dublin) who turned up wearing a green sari and sporting a white blaze (made from dried mud from the holy river, the Ganges) on her nose and forehead. Quite what her parish priest in Ireland would have made of it is anybody's guess. But then it was he who first put her on the path to Hinduism (of which the Hare Krishna group is such an odd, Western manifestation) with his unsatisfactory answer to her childish question about what happens to animals when they die . That, she said, and vegetarianism.

"Are there eggs in that?" she asked politely, pointing to the tomato flan which the Hampstead Interfaith secretary, Eva Tucker, had made. Oh dear, the hostess said, there were - and eggs, now she came to think of it, were the seeds of life. No, said Anuradha, they are, like meat, a form of decomposing matter. She helped herself to the roast parsnips and salad.

I had been, I must admit, a little wary about meeting Anuradha. After all, psychologists in the United States who had studied the Hare Krishnas say their typical recruit was, like that of so many of the new religions, "an emotionally frustrated and dependent person who has a growing sense of alienation and identity confusion", further muddled by yoga and drugs. But that was in the Eighties.

The Hampstead Interfaith Group, which meets once a month for a talk by someone like Anuradha, is a miscegenatious group. Among its number are a Quaker who used to be Jewish, a Jew who used to be a Catholic, a half- Hindu/half-Christian, a Muslim married to a Christian, several not-quite- sures and a solitary Anglican. Anuradha, it has to be said, seemed - apart from her exotic garb - to fit in surprisingly well.

There are, she told them, three branches of Hinduism. The two known as Shiva and Sakta embrace what most people think of as classical Hinduism, with its pantheon of gods, its lexicon of devotional practices and its acceptance of an impersonal force imbuing the universe. But the third branch - which is the biggest, and to which most of Britain's half a million Hindus belong - is the Vaisnava tradition, from which came a swami called Prabhupada, who arrived in the West in 1965 to found what became the Hare Krishna movement.

The Vaisnava sects, in contrast with the Shiva and Sakta, believe in a monotheistic personal God familiar to Jews, Christians and Muslims. So the Interfaith Group found little to argue with when Anuradha set out the Vishnu basics. The soul is unique - it doesn't merge into a one-ness after death; it stays distinct like a spark in the fire - of the same substance as the flames, but separate. God is found in three places: he resides in the hearts of all individuals; he is the all-pervading cosmic force; and, above all, he is a person. The things of the world are not bad, just transient; everything is spiritual if it is used in God's service.

She even made the chant sound reasonable. Hare is Sanskrit for the power of God; Krishna means The Most Attractive One; and Rama is the reservoir of all pleasure in which our happiness resides. "Saying it over is like a child's repeated cry of Mammy-Daddy," she told them. "All I have is the ability to cry out, and the need to reassure myself with the sound of my own voice".

At the end, there were a few questions about re-incarnation, but no serious dissent. This, of course, could be a reflection of the temperament of those attracted to Interfaith gatherings who often seem closer to the Interfaithers of other religions than to the hard-liners each has within their own breed. But it might also say something about the Krishna Consciousness movement.

Those who have studied it closely over the past two decades report a shift. The Sixties psychedelia is at last wearing out. The movement in the UK - never as extreme or blinkered as its US counterpart - has begun in recent years to move closer to the mainstream. Bakhtivedanta Manor, given to the movement by George Harrison in 1973, is now not just the home of a handful of white converts but is visited each year by Hindus from the ethnic community in their tens of thousands.

The vows of its 300 monkish initiates - no meat, no drugs (including coffee and tea), no gambling, no extra-marital sex and two hours mediation a day - keep them separate from the mainstream of secular culture. But there is a growing sense that the Hare Krishnas are forming a useful bridge to Britain's Indian community - and at the same time becoming reasonable and articulate exponents to the English of the Vedic way. Perhaps the Hare Krishnas are coming of age.