In the late 60s, The Beatles began a short-lived flirtation with Hinduism. The Fab Four even made a pilgrimage to Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, India, to learn about the religion and, in particular, Transcendental Meditation. For John, Paul, and Ringo, the experience seemed to be something of a passing counter-cultural fling—but for George it stuck. He went on to explore Hinduism further, recorded "My Sweet Lord", a song about Krishna Consciousness, and ended up purchasing a large estate in England for the movement.
That estate, Bhaktivedanta Manor, is now a sanctuary for members of the Hare Krishna movement living in London and the UK. The manor was set up by Swami Prabhupada, the religion's figurehead, thanks to generous support from George.
In fact, the manor and Krishna Consciousness itself became no strangers to musicians. British music icon Poly Styrene of the 1970s punk band X Ray Specs made it her home from the late 80s to the mid-90s. While there, she changed her name to Mahrani Das and fully embraced the culture and philosophy of the religion. In the US, the Hare Krishna ethos was also adopted by punk bands of the early 80s involved in the straight edge and hardcore scenes; it was popular among them due to its strict vegetarian dietary requirements and prohibition to intoxication from alcohol or drugs. John Joseph, frontman for the hardcore band Cro-Mags, got into the religion and its ethos in a big way, and still follows its practices.
In order to better understand the draw that the Hare Krishna movement has for its adherents, I recently made a journey up to Watford, just north of London, in order to check out the food-based, spiritual practices of prasad and goshala carried out at the manor. Although I'm not religious, it's easy to understand why people find peace and sanctuary here. There is an openness and relaxed feeling to the place; everyone's friendly, happy to talk, and always helpful.
I headed for the New Gokul, the dairy farm at the manor. There, I spoke to Syamasundara Das, the farm director, to get an insight into the unique way Hare Krishna devotees treat their livestock. "We do things that dairy farms don't even consider doing, like actually giving the calf it's share of the milk," he said. "On our farm, we recognise that milk is meant for human beings but milk is also meant for the calf. Dairy farms don't consider this at all. With them, it's done for pure economics."
When I entered the milking area, the differences from traditional dairy farms I've seen in England were quite clear. Tranquil devotional music is played from a sound system. The cows were provided with a huge bucket of mixed vegetables and grains to eat as they were being milked. It seems that here the comfort of the animal comes before anything else.
All the milking at the farm is carried out by hand, by a range of devotees. Milking the cows by hand demonstrates the level of kindness that the cows at the farm receive. "We really take care of them here," said Bali, one of the milkers who has been coming to the manor for over three years. "The cows give us such good milk. Why should we kill them?"
The New Gokul is central to the daily routine at the manor. Milk from the cows is used for yoghurt, paneer, and sweets, which are then served in the temple as prasad—blessed food.
Lalita Sakhi is in charge of turning the raw cows' milk into edible dairy produce. I asked her if the gentle treatment of the cows would affect the taste of the produce it yields—almost like a vegetarian equivalent of the approach taken by the Japanese cattlemen who pamper their cows, play them music, and go on to produce the world-renowned (and eye-wateringly expensive) Kobe beef.
Sakhi agreed 100 percent. "Once I started making butter here, the butter that I ate from a commercial supermarket tasted like plastic," she said. "All of our cows are milked by hand, and because of the way they are treated, they feel safe."
In heavy agricultural dairy farming, after five to sever years the cow has been milked so intensively that it is no longer of any use; it's then slaughtered and ends up in burgers. "The cows here will never be killed. They'll live out their full life here," manor director Syamasundara told me. "We find on average our cows live for 18 to 20 years—some older, some younger."
At the manor, I met up with Radha Mohan Das, one of the devotees. Radha explained to me the importance of food within the Hare Krishna faith and tells me the meaning behind Prasad: "'Prasad' means 'Krishna's Mercy', so when you're eating this food you're eating something spiritual."
Food at the manor is always offered to Krishna first. In the main room of the temple, there is a beautiful and elaborately decorated shrine where the food is placed. Once offerings are made, it can be eaten and enjoyed by devotees.
From the moment I arrived at the manor, I was particularly keen on trying some of the sweets that had been made from the dairy produce at the New Gokul, and also to finally find out for myself if the treatment of the cows affects the flavour of the products. In the manor's shop, Radha selects one of the sweets and invites me to share it with him. It's incredibly tasty—almost like a fudge or toffee, managing to be both light and rich at the same time.
Agribusiness gets milk and cheese to you cheaply, but if you can manage to taste the Krishna alternative and forget religion, you'll transport yourself to a dairy heaven where brutality is forbidden.