It was in 1968 that Acharya A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), sent six of his disciples as representatives to establish a UK branch of the Hare Krishna movement. Prabhupad himself had his upbringing in the British Empire and had a keen desire to spread the movement in the UK.
These pioneer devotees had limited financial means. With the support of the generous local Indian community, they overcame financial constraints to some extent and settled in a warehouse complex in Covent Garden, which also served as their temporary temple.
These devotees began performing their missionary activities like kirtans, attending notable public events, distributing promotional leaflets – especially on the busy Oxford Street, and adding new members. The public appearances in Oxford Street of the devotees soon received national attention in London’s Times newspaper. The article carried a quote from Gurudas that read: “Hare Krishna is a chant that sets God dancing on your tongue. Try chanting ‘Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth’ and see the difference.
The message of the movement needed to grow stronger, much like it had in North America, specifically the United States. One of the devotees, Shyamsundar, thus approached George Harrison, the Beatle most interested in Indian philosophy and culture, to introduce the Hare Krishna mantra, or Maha Mantra, into their songs. Harrison was aware of the devotees of Krishna, having first experienced kirtana while in Vrindavan in September 1966. He had also enjoyed Prabhupada’s album Krishna Consciousness and had begun chanting the Maha Mantra, sometimes with John Lennon.
In July 1969, the devotees got an invite to make a recording of the Maha Mantra for release as a single. Harrison produced and performed on the song with other devotees. Released by Apple Records in August and credited to Radha Krishna Temple (London), ‘Hare Krishna Mantra’ peaked at number 12 on the UK’s national singles chart and was a commercial success around the world. The Radha Krishna Temple devotees were invited to perform in concerts all over Europe and became celebrities overnight. The single established the ancient mantra in the cultural mainstream and helped in attracting many new members to ISKCON’s centres. The London branch was now buzzing with activity.
Prabhupada was pleased with his disciples’ progress but had stated that he would only visit London once they had established a formal ISKCON temple. Mukunda, one of the six devotees, with the help of Harrison, leased a seven-storey premises at 7 Bury Place, near Bloomsbury area.
In September 1969, Prabhupada finally came to visit the new UK base, reuniting with his disciples and meeting Harrison and Lennon for the first time. In December 1969, Prabhupada and the key devotees moved into the new Radha Krishna Temple at Bury Place after its ISKCON’s London chapter continued to grow during the early 1970s, such that the temple at Bury Place became too small to accommodate all its members by 1972. Harrison once more offered to help, and donated a 17-acre property renovation. The location allowed for easy access to Oxford Street Harrison came to revere Prabhupada as a teacher and a friend as well as “a perfect example of everything he preached”. When Prabhupada heard Harrison’s orchestrated version of the Govindam prayers for the first time, in Radha Krishna Temple (London)’s 1970 single ‘Govinda’, he was moved to tears and asked for the song to be played every morning during the daily greeting of the deities, or darshan arati. This practice continues today, at all ISKCON centres around the world.
ISKCON’s London chapter continued to grow during the early 1970s, such that the temple at Bury Place became too small to accommodate all its members by 1972. Harrison once more offered to help, and donated a 17-acre property close to London in Hertfordshire, to the movement in February 1973. It was subsequently named Bhaktivedanta Manor. In addition to serving as the new UK headquarters, Bhaktivedanta Manor has since become one of the most popular Krishna temples in Europe. Out of appreciation for Harrison’s various contributions, Prabhupada called him ISKCON’s “archangel”.
The London temple hosted a visit by Prabhupada in July 1973. Shyamsundar arranged a procession through the city to celebrate the annual Hindu Ratha-Yatra festival. From Marble Arch and ending at Trafalgar Square via Piccadilly, the acharya walked the whole route, dancing and chanting in front of a chariot carrying the deities of Jagannath, Balarama and Subhadra. Prabhupada’s strength amazed his devotees, since he had been diagnosed with dysentery the previous week, while in Calcutta, and was considered to be too sick to travel.
In 1979, following legal proceedings over the use of the Bury Place site, the Central London temple moved to new premises at Soho Square. The Radha-Krishna deities were installed there and became known as ‘RadhaLondonishvara’.
Ever since, the Hare Krishna movement has only grown in the UK and all over the world. The recently appointed Indian-origin UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited the Bhaktivedanta Manor temple on August 18, 2022 along with wife Akshata Murthy to ring in Janmashtami celebrations. Talking to twitter, Sunak wrote, “Today I visited the Bhaktivedanta Manor temple with my wife Akshata to celebrate Janmashtami, in advance of the popular Hindu festival celebrating Lord Krishna’s birthday