My pilgrimage around Leicester

A very good friend of mine recently gave me a lovely book entitled ‘The Wisdom of the Hindu Gurus’. As I flicked through the first few pages a quote by Sri Aurobindo caught my eye: “That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion because it embraces all others.” I really like this quote because it perfectly sums up the way I feel about God and religion, and the way in which I feel my spirituality has been enhanced in recent months.

On my 30th birthday last week I chose to spend the first half of the day by myself visiting 8 different places of worship around Leicester. My journey began at around 11am and over the course of 8 hours I visited the Progressive Jewish Synagogue, the Holy Cross Priory Catholic Church, the Jain Centre, the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, the Central Mosque, the Nagarjuna Kadampa Buddhist Centre, the Cathedral and the Shree Sanatan Mandir.

At the Synagogue I met a number of people and a gentleman named Alex gave me a tour. We had an interesting discussion about the history of the Abrahamic faiths as he showed me the Torah Scrolls. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Alex was born almost exactly 50 years before I was and that he was planning to celebrate his 80th birthday in March. The stained glass window with the tree of life and the Ten Commandments looked really beautiful, particularly as it was such a sunny day.

After visiting the Synagogue I drove back into the city centre and attended Mass at the Holy Cross Priory Catholic church. I always enjoy visiting this church and I have been here several times before. The building itself is large and imposing and there is a stunning huge crucifix hanging from the ceiling. I walked around, lit a candle and quietly enjoyed the ambience, before taking a seat and observing Holy Mass which began at 12.30pm.

A short walk from the church is the Jain Centre, which like every one of the places I visited on my journey, is fascinating, welcoming and has a very distinct feel about it. The intricate wooden architecture surrounding the temple itself is simply breathtaking and the stained glass windows are a real sight to see. Apart from a lady who was attending to the deities I was the sole visitor in the temple that afternoon and I spent a very peaceful hour without uttering a single word.

The Guru Nanak Gurdwara is about a 5 minute walk from the Jain Centre. The thing I really love about visiting Gurdwaras is the contrast between the wonderful bustling atmosphere in the kitchen and the calm and peace inside the main temple. Again the sun was shining through the windows and again there were friendly people around eager to welcome a stranger in their midst. I wandered upstairs and spent a good while examining the many historical portraits that hang in the lobby of the Sikh museum. The museum is one of the features of this particular Gurdwara and well worth a visit.

A short drive from the Gurdwara is Leicester’s Central Mosque located behind the train station on Conduit Street. This was only my second ever visit to a mosque and unlike the first time where I was given a guided tour this time I was by myself.  The entire mosque was completely empty as it wasn’t a designated prayer time and so I sat alone in the enormous prayer hall as the sun shone through the many large windows. It was silent and tranquil and extremely beautiful and I also really enjoyed examining the Arabic calligraphy on the walls.

The wonderfully named World Peace Café at the Nagarjuna Kadampa Buddhist Centre was a hive of activity on the day I visited. It was really great to see so many people enjoying this delightful retreat on an otherwise busy Saturday afternoon. The meditation room looked magnificent with a collection of deities and a large statue of Buddha as the central focal point. As I looked out of the windows of the meditation room I noticed a wall topped with rather vicious looking barbed wire; a very interesting juxtaposition between the serenity of this Holy room and the outside world.

After a quick chai tea and a visit to the gift shop I walked around the corner to the Cathedral. The Cathedral is one of my favourite places in the city and I’ve been here many times. The building itself is huge and there’s certainly a great deal to see, yet it also feels intimate and welcoming, and it’s hard not to feel at peace when spending time here. I had a long and pleasant conversation with a man named John who works here as a verger. We discussed everything from faith and family to prayer and politics. I hadn’t realised until my visit that the Cathedral is actually open every single day of the year, which I think is absolutely brilliant.

The final stop on my pilgrimage around Leicester was the Shree Sanatan Hindu Mandir in Belgrave. I have been to this temple numerous times and it is one of my favourite mandirs in the city. There was certainly a lot going on when I visited with people praying, talking, laughing and singing. It felt really vibrant and colourful. I always find that Hindu temples are particularly lively and exciting places to visit in the evening, which is when special aarti prayers take place.

I had a most uplifting and enjoyable experience visiting these 8 different places of worship around Leicester. I was warmly welcomed everywhere I went by people I had never met before, and not a single person asked me who I was, why I was there, or what faith I belonged to if any.

The thing that really struck me however wasn’t man-made at all. It was the brightness and the warmth of the sunlight which followed me around the city everywhere I went that day. Just as the sunlight lit up the tree of life at the Synagogue and the images of Lord Mahavira in the Jain Temple; so it also lit up the stained glass windows in the churches and the calligraphy on the walls of the Central Mosque.

The visual symbolism alone really blew my mind and it served to remind me that the life-giving, heart-warming and unconditional love of sunlight doesn’t differentiate between the many paths to God. I may have been wandering around Leicester by myself for 8 hours on that day, but with the sun on my face and with sunlight cascading through the windows everywhere I went, I certainly didn’t feel alone.

Top of the Popes

To honour the State Visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI – Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God – I have compiled this Top 10 list of my favourite, historically interesting Popes:

1.   Pope Urban VII was the shortest reigning Pope in history. He became Pope on 15 September 1590,  and died a mere thirteen days later on 27 September 1590. His brief papacy gave rise to the world’s first known public smoking ban, when he threatened to excommunicate anyone who consumed tobacco in church.

2.   Pope Adrian IV was the only Englishman to ever become Pope. He reigned from 4 December 1154 to 1 September 1159. He was born circa 1100 in Abbots Langley, and his birth name was Nicolas Breakspear. He reputedly died from choking on a fly in his wine glass.

3.   Pope Gregory I is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students and teachers. He became Pope on 3 September 590 and died on 12 March 604. Gregorian chant music is named after him, but not the Gregorian calendar, which was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

4. Pope Pius IX was the longest reigning Pope, from 16 June 1846 to 7 February 1878, a period of 31 years and 236 days.  He formalised a system known as Peter’s Pence; an annual worldwide voluntary financial contribution paid by lay members of the Roman Catholic Church and other persons of goodwill. In 2009, Peter’s Pence raised $82,529,417.00 for the Vatican.

5.   Pope Lando became Pope around July or August 913, and reigned until his death around February or March 914. He was one of several Popes to reign during the Saeculum Obscurum; a period of some 60 years when the papacy was strongly influenced by the  powerful and corrupt Theophylacti family.

6.   Pope John Paul I was the first Pope in more than a thousand years to choose a completely new name for himself. His papacy lasted only 33 days in September 1978, making 1978 a “year of three Popes” for the first time since 1605. He is often referred to as the September Pope or the Smiling Pope. The year 1276 is the only year which saw four Popes on the Throne of St Peter.

7.   Pope Celestine V was the last Pope not to have been elected by a conclave. His papacy lasted five months and eight days, commencing on 7 July 1294, and ending with his abdication on 13 December 1294. He is best known for formalising the process by which a Pope could resign, and then relying on that process to tender his own resignation.

8.   Pope Benedict IX was the only man ever to have been Pope on more than one occasion, having held three separate papacies between 1032 and 1056. He was also the only Pope ever to sell the papacy, which he did briefly in May 1045 to his godfather, who proclaimed himself Gregory VI, before reclaiming the title by force a few months later.

9.   Pope Pius V, who reigned from 7 January 1566 to 1 May 1572, famously excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England on 27 April 1570, declaring her to be a heretic. He is also credited for introducing the wearing of white garments by a Pope.

10. Pope Victor I was the first Pope to have been born in the Roman Province of Africa. He reigned from 189 to 199, and is famous for introducing the Latin mass to Rome, which had until his papacy been conducted in Greek.

Why Labour is losing the Hindu vote

– Written exclusively for Labour Uncut –

There is an expectation within the Labour Party that ethnic minorities will remain loyal to the cause come what may. They won’t. In fact, not only is Labour losing popular support amongst British Hindus, but the Tories are making significant inroads into this once rock solid demographic. The trend is reversible, but we need to act decisively in the coming months and years to shore up our vote with Britain’s half a million strong Hindu community.

First, it is important to understand that Hinduism isn’t just a religion, it is a way of life. There is a great deal more than just religious belief that binds the British Hindu population together. It is also worth pointing out that the British Hindu community is becoming increasingly confident, organised and influential, with the emergence of several major umbrella organisations and think tanks in recent years.

Younger second and third generation British Hindus are at the forefront of a progressive revolution within the community. Traditional socio-political trendsetters, such as priests and “community elders”, have been comprehensively replaced by the likes of property developers, high-flying lawyers, and well-connected business people. One of the unfortunate corollaries, however, is that it’s now no longer seen as unfashionable or disloyal to vote Conservative. In some naïve quarters, it has even become something of a status symbol.

The Tory brand has lost it’s racist connotation and aura of elitism. Instead, the Conservative Party has successfully revamped itself as the party of strong family values, educational attainment and success in business. All of which strikes a deep chord with the average British Hindu voter, and with younger professionals in particular. The Conservatives are acutely aware of the benefits that come with increased support from an aspirational British Hindu electorate. David Cameron’s recent Indian jolly was just the latest in a series of concerted efforts to capitalise on Labour’s complacency.

In 1997, just as the Tories were about to be decimated nationally, an organisation called the British Asian Conservative Link was set up to improve the image of the Tory Party and foster better relations with British Asian voters. Their current general secretary, Rickie Sehgal, is a fine example of how strategic thinking on the part of the Tories has helped to deliver support from prominent Hindus.

Since being appointed ethnic minorities officer for Leicester West CLP several weeks ago, I have been speaking to  movers and shakers in Britain’s growing Hindu community. What I’ve been hearing has not made for comfortable listening.

Take Sanjay Mistry for example, vice president and media spokesman for the Hindu forum of Britain. He told me that research carried out by the organisation prior to the election found that support for Labour had fallen significantly, to 27% for Labour, 26% for the Conservatives, 21% for the Liberal Democrats, and 21% undecided.

The Hindu Forum of Britain also found that voting among British Hindus had become much more issues-focused in recent years. Crime, education, healthcare and the economy were the top areas of concern, with little regard for Hindu-specific issues such as cremations and religious rights and freedoms. Sanjay also told me that in his opinion:

“Hindu voters are more likely to vote for Labour if their policies advocate improvements to the economy, increased jobs and support for businesses. Should the Labour party move backward and more to the left, I believe they will lose support from the Hindu community.”

And I had similar responses from others. This from Sanjay Jagatia, Secretary General of the National Council of Hindu Temples (UK):

“In the early years the Labour government built strong links with the Hindu community, but in later years Hindus were marginalised and ignored. There was less effort and investment in engaging with the Hindu community compared to other faith communities. The economy was one of the biggest issues for Hindu voters at the last election and it remains so. I think that Hindu business leaders, entrepreneurs and economists are already more likely to support the Conservative party, and the Conservatives are generally gaining support from British Hindus.”

Kapil Dudakia, respected columnist and adviser to a number of Hindu organisations, is much more blunt in addressing why Labour has been losing support from British Hindus:

”The Hindu community has given Labour a lot of goodwill over many decades and many elections. However there is now a clear sense that whilst votes are accepted by the party, when it comes to doing something for the Hindu community there appears to be little in the way of substance. We still have serious inequalities and a lack of representation in government departments and other public bodies, there is comparatively limited support and capital funding for voluntary Hindu organisations, and there remains a distinct lack of Hindus being selected by Labour to stand in winnable seats, to name a few examples. Labour would do well to address these concerns by moving forwards into 2010 and beyond, rather than going back to the 1970s.”

So the message to Labour from British Hindus is clear. The issues which matter most to British Hindus are the same ones that matter to everybody else: health, education, crime, the economy. If you get these issues wrong, British Hindus will not support you. When it comes to Hindu-specific issues, though – like funding for community organisations and the selection of Hindu PPCs in Labour seats – British Hindus feel neglected and taken for granted.

Nevertheless, British Hindus still retain tremendous goodwill towards Labour. There is a shared history which still resonates. The party still starts every election with an advantage. But it is an advantage which Labour needs to work much harder to convert into votes. Labour needs to embrace the community again, engage with it directly and show it some respect. It’s not too late to stop the British Hindu slide away from Labour. But it soon will be.