Last night found me sitting in a half lotus – had to make a bit of an effort! – in the midst of evening prayers before the five shrines which house the sacred deities in the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. The impressive and normally silent room, which is constructed solely from Italian and Bulgarian marble, its pillars adorned with gods like Ganesh, all hand carved by skilled Indian artisans, was filled with rhythmic chants. As the monks of the temple prostrated themselves candles were lit and passed around those gathered. I gladly cupped my hands to the flames and pressed the Wisdom offered to my eyes and temples. It was a good beginning to the evening.
This was my first visit to the Mandir, one of several, equally lavish Hindu temples that have been constructed around the world. A stone’s throw from the hectic traffic of London’s North Circular it is truly a sight to behold – it’s as if an Indian national monument has been dropped into Neasden from outer space. As an invitee to this inter-denominational event organized by the Hindu Christian Forum – an organization that will be officially launched today at St James’ Palace under the auspices of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Shri Shruti Dharma Das Ji – I was made most welcome and my somewhat awkward questions readily answered. It did seem something of a mystery as to how such imposing and ornate places of worship had come about when its founder, Shri Swaminarayan, as a youth – as a yoga practicing sadhu – had wandered the length and breadth of India barefoot and with no possessions at all, initially rejecting involvement in any institutions.
Maybe it’s my passion for music or the discipline and rhythm of practice one embraces in martial arts that draws me to explore the ascetic pathways to enlightenment. However, as I’m neither Christian nor Hindu but a spiritual and politically conscious person I recognize the astronomical body count that exists a result of centuries of conflict between organized religions and the threat of violence that still exists today. So, an exchange of knowledge and beliefs, a practical coming together, no matter how small, has to be for the good when aiming to defuse global conflicts or day to day racism.
At the helm of this event was one Kate Wharton, an assistant to the Archbishop Of Canterbury and a former Straight No Chaser scribe. A deep and spiritual asset to the Chaser posse it was Kate who went to live in Alice Coltrane’s ashram in California, and on this night she and I had joined forces to enlist Swifty to do the artwork and composer/clarinetist Arun Ghosh to provide the music for this gathering. Basically, it was a coming together of people over platters of vegetarian food while being immersed in sound and melodies that echoed the Arun’s travels around the sub-continent from Kerala to the Himalayas.
Born in Calcutta but growing up in Bolton, Arun is a new generation musician, inspired by incredibly diverse diverse musics of India and Pakistan but attuned to the continuum of jazz and naturally steeped in dance music and club culture. On this night his quintet took us on a journey via his South Asia Suite and judging by the immediate and spontaneous applause that greeted each composition a deep connection had been made.
In essence, the gathering was simple in concept and the formalities faded into the background overshadowed by the relaxed but spiritual dimension of the exchange – a dimension that was clearly heightened by the music which, as one enlightened speaker affirmed, speaks directly to the soul.
So, if music is – as the late Albert Ayler maintained – the healing force of the universe, let’s put our hands together and pray for more occasions where we can break bread or a couple of popadoms and listen to sounds that can transport us to another spiritual plane.
Arun Ghosh’s latest album ‘Primal Odyssey’ is out now on comoci records.