The Hare Krishna Explosion

055_-_BTG_Year-1969_Volume-01_Number-26_Page_01

The joyful history of a dynamic transcendental movement
Excerpted from the Back to Godhead Magazine 1969 Vol. 1, Number 26

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare vibrates from a walkup temple on New York’s Lower East Side, from the sidewalks of Haight Ashbury, from Golden Gate Park, from a London flat, from student quarters in Hamburg and Amsterdam, from a storefront in Santa Fe, an exbowling alley in Montreal, a sprawling university campus in Ohio, from Old Vrindaban in India to New Vrindaban in the West Virginia mountains, and from Boston and Buffalo to Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver and across the Pacific to Hawaii.

Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The voices chanting the magic vibrations are invariably young. The chanting, accompanied by khartals (small hand cymbals), tambourines and drums, is often loud and frenetic. The dancing is vigorous. The middle-aged and elderly usually stand in doorways or look through windows, watching in amazement, unaware that they are witnessing a process of spiritual realization that has been practiced on this planet for thousands of years. They do not understand. No one really understands. The chanting just spreads. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna …

The Hare Krishna Explosion
By Hayagriva dasa

Hayagriva dasa

In a brief three years, the chanting of the Hare Krishna Mantra has exploded all over the Western world. Its chief propagator is a 73-year-old Indian monk, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, who came as a nearly penniless stranger to America in 1965 to spread the transcendental message of The Bhagavad Gita. Whoever encounters Prabhupad, as he is called by his disciples, is immediately struck by his sincerity and magnetism.

I first met him in 1966 on a bright July morning in New York City. At the time I was living in a low-rent apartment on Mott Street near Houston, on the Lower East Side. That particular July morning I remember hurrying down Houston and across Bowery, past the numberless bums and drunks, on my way to see friends at Tompkins Square. It was after I had crossed Bowery (just before Second Avenue) that I saw Prabhupad strolling down Houston, head raised, seeming a million miles away. A 70-year-old man, he looked around 50 and ambled along like a man in his 30’s. He was wearing the traditional saffron-colored robes of a sannyasi, monk in the renounced order, and quaint white shoes with points. Coming down the street, he looked like the genie that popped out of Aladdin’s lamp. I was fresh from a trip to India, and Prabhupad reminded me of the many holy men I had recently seen walking the dirt roads of Hardwar and Rishikesh and bathing in the Ganges. But Houston Street wasn’t the Ganges.

I had to stop him, so I asked the most stupid, obvious question: “Are you from India?” and of course he stopped and beamed cordially, “Oh yes. And you?” I thought he mistook me for a Sikh because of my beard. I told him that I had just returned from India and that I was very interested in his country and Indian thought. He smiled happily and told me that he had been in New York almost ten months. Although an old man, his eyes flashed with the freshness of a child’s, and I was immediately charmed.

He seemed to anticipate my questions and took a lively interest in my India trip. Then he told me, “I’ve a place around the corner. Perhaps you can see it and tell me if it’s suitable. I plan to hold some classes.” We walked around the corner of Second Avenue, and he pointed out a small storefront building between 1st and 2nd Streets next door to a filling station. It had been a curiosity shop, and someone had painted the words “Matchless Gifts” over the outside door. At the time I didn’t realize how prophetic the words were.

“How is the area for having classes ?” he asked me.

“I think it’s all right,” I said. I knew he wouldn’t attract wealthy or influential New Yorkers downtown, but I thought the EastVillage hippies would be interested enough in Indian philosophy or whatever he was offering to give him some patronage. I really didn’t know what he intended to do, but I told him that his storefront was suitable just to reassure him. I recalled how hospitable the Indians were to me, and I wanted somehow to return their hospitality. I told him I would drop in to his classes with some of my friends, and he told me to come any Monday, Wednesday or Friday night at 7. Then we parted, and I hurried off to see my friends.

I’ll never forget the first night I went to see Prabhupad. Four of my friends were sufficiently interested to attend his “class.” When we began chanting the Hare Krishna Mantra for the first time that July night, I was reminded of the services of the monks up in Hardwar. We played khartals and answered Prabhupad with the sixteen word chant: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Prabhupad led the chant, sitting on a dais clanging khartals rhythmically.

“It is not necessary to understand the words of the mantra,” he told us.

“Just chant and listen.”

He explained, however, that “Hare” was an address to the universal energy, “Rama” meant Enjoyer, and “Krishna” meant all-attractive and indicated the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Godhead. His lecture was our first introduction to what he called “Krishna Consciousness,” that is, God consciousness. I think at the first meeting my friends were more impressed than I was, for I was afraid his approach was a little too esoteric to appeal to most Americans, but after the first two weeks I didn’t care about his mass appeal. I became conscious that I could learn something. I remember asking him about using psychedelic drugs for self realization.

“You don’t need to take anything for your spiritual life,” he told me. “Your spiritual life is already here.”

I knew he was right. He seemed naturally in a state of exalted consciousness, a state many try to trigger via psychedelics, and he promised he could teach me the same. “Krishna is Absolute,” he told me. “Krishna and Krishna’s Name are nondifferent. They are the same. You may not realize this at first, but the more you chant the clearer this will become. Now everyone is claiming God is dead or that I am God.’ You just chant. Eventually you will have God dancing on your tongue.”

I was willing to give it a try. When he talked about Krishna, he spoke with authority. He seemed the only person who actually knew beyond the shadow of all doubt what was really happening in the universe. He had the Vedas and Lord Krishna behind him, and he certainly made sense. My friends and I attended more meetings, and we found ourselves rising sleepily at 6 a.m. to attend morning classes too.

I hoped to get Prabhupad the support of many of the Lower East Side youth (whom the press was just beginning to call “hippies”), and knowing that poet Allen Ginsberg was in town, I sent him an invitation to one of our “Kirtans,” as the ceremony of chanting and hearing a lecture is called. One evening he arrived in a Volkswagen bus accompanied by Peter Orlovsky. He brought a harmonium—a hand-pumped Indian reed organ—as a gift and joined in chanting. One night he even came with the Fugs, a popular rock group. The East Village Other gave Prabhupad a cover story and then The New York Times printed a story on the “new Lower East Side Swami,” quoting Ginsberg that the mantra was instant “ecstasy.” Prabhupad’s classes were suddenly being transformed into a movement. During the night meetings the small storefront was packed. Kirtans were getting livelier. The music was sounding better and better, and people were loosening up and even dancing. The chanting, khartals, drums and harmonium were so loud that the inevitable complaints from neighbors started coming in. Curious New Yorkers crowded about the storefront window. Some laughed. Some cursed. One even threw a rock through the window, and the neighbors upstairs poured boiling water through the floor. We were in ecstasy.

Srila Prabhupada at the Hare Krishna Tree

Prabhupad had prodigious energy. He was up every morning before any of us. He pounded the drum, exhausted everyone at Kirtan, chanted hymns, danced, delivered lectures, translated books, cooked and supervised all affairs. And he was triple the age of any one of us. To help spread the movement, Ginsberg suggested chanting in Tompkins Square Park where the hippies were starting to congregate. For four consecutive Sunday afternoons we held Kirtan in the center of the park. Prabhupad kept the rhythm of the Hare Krishna Mantra by pounding a small bongo drum somebody had given him. One Sunday he played the drum two hours incessantly, and his disciples practically fell out.

The crowd accepted us at first with mild enthusiasm, but they gradually warmed up, and finally the Kirtans expanded into three-hour marathons. Many of the youth would join in and dance. Some of the old Ukranian and Polish residents would stare uncomprehendingly, then walk away, shaking their heads and grumbling. Many people stood for hours on the hard concrete to join in the chanting. Poet Ginsberg joined every Sunday. I recall one Sunday when a New YorkTimes reporter asked me to bring Ginsberg over to talk to him. Ginsberg was absorbed in the chanting, but I asked him anyway. It was the only time I ever saw him annoyed. “He shouldn’t interrupt a man worshiping,” he said. “Tell him that.” And he went right on chanting.

There were fifteen initiated disciples by that time, and our fervor was fresh. I remember writing up handbills and passing them out at Tompkins Square during our Kirtans. They were glaring, evangelical, ambitious:

055_-_BTG_Year-1969_Volume-01_Number-26_Page_31

Stay High Forever

No More Coming Down

Practice KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS

Expand your consciousness by practicing the

TRANSCENDENTAL SOUND VIBRATION

HARE KRISNA HARE KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA HARE HARE

HARE RAMA HARE RAMA RAMA RAMA HARE HARE

This chanting will cleanse the dust from the mirror of the mind and free you from all material contamination. It is practical, self-evident, and requires no artificial aid. Try it and be blissful all the time.

TURN ON

through music, dance, philosophy, science, religion and prasadam (spiritual food.)

TUNE IN

AWAKEN YOUR TRANSCENDENTAL NATURE!

REJOICE IN THE OCEAN OF BLISS!

The process of Sankirtan (chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare) brings about transcendental ecstasy.

DROP OUT

of movements employing artificially induced states of self-realization and expanded consciousness. Such methods only lead to spiritual laziness and chaos. End all bringdowns, flip out and stay for eternity. Bhaktiyoga has been practiced for many centuries and is authorized by India’s great acharyas. Swami Bhaktivedanta is in the bonafide line of Krishna’s disciplic succession. He has especially come to this country to spiritually guide young Americans.

THE INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS, Inc.

26 SECOND AVENUE (between 1st and 2nd Streets) NEW YORK, N.Y.

Phone: 674-7428

Acharya: A.C. BHAKTIVEDANTA SWAMI

Meetings every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 P.M..

Every morning at 7 A.M.

YOU ARE CORDIALLY IMVITED TO COME AND BRING YOUR FRIENDS

I don’t know what the Polish housewives thought about staying high forever, but most of the young renegades from middle-class suburbia liked the idea. I remember literally throwing those handbills to thousands in ’66 at the November 5th Peace Parade from Tompkins and Washington Squares to Times Square. That was a marvelous parade. Some 30,000 joined the three-hour jaunt for world peace that brisk autumn morning. Poet Ginsberg, wearing white Gandhi pajamas and a stars and stripes top hat and playing a portable harmonium led the Hare Krishna Mantra. Hundreds in the parade took up the chant. Some were so electrified that they continued chanting on into the night, the world peace issue seeming insignificant in the light of the “Maha Mantra,” the Great Hymn. Prabhupad’s injunction came to mind: “Take up Krishna Consciousness and peace in the world will automatically come.”

In January ’67 we descended on Frisco and opened up the Radha Krishna Temple on Frederick Street, smack in the middle of the Haight Ashbury scene. During the spring and early summer of ’67, Haight culture was at its peak. We were flying high with the mantra, and thousands opened up to us. We splashed in the Haight pond with a mammouth mantra-rock dance at the Avalon Ballroom. Prabhupad and Ginsberg danced on stage with upraised hands. Multi-colored lights swirled across huge wall slides of Krishna and Rama. The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape and Big Brother blared away. Even Tim Leary garlanded one of us and salaamed, “A beautiful night, a beautiful night.”

Five thousand hippies, teenieboppers and Hell’s Angels stood reverently when Prabhupad entered and listened attentively while he talked. After the chant, someone in the crowd asked him about death. “Oh, death is not such a wonder,” I remember Prabhupad replying. “Death is there, of course. But it is life that’s the constant wonder. And this is life.”

Later, at the Frederick Street center, Prabhupad told his audience that the real life for which man is intended is “to praise his Creator through song, through dance, through study of scripture, through meditation, through renounced action.” Many of the young found some of the disciplines hard at first, but they were encouraged by Krishna’s injunction in the Gita: “That happiness which is like poison in the beginning and nectar at the end is of the nature of goodness.”

And many tasted nectar at the beginning. Every Sunday we chanted in Golden Gate Park and hundreds joined, holding hands and dancing in a ring. At any time of the day I could walk down Haight Street playing khartals (the small hand cymbals) and chanting and pick up at least a dozen enthusiasts. People were also attracted by our free Prasadam (food) program—we would feed dozens daily. The Radha Krishna Temple quickly became a dynamic influence in Haight Ashbury life.

Shortly after the Frisco center opened, the movement really began to explode. People were chanting the mantra at all sorts of gatherings: sit-ins, demonstrations, be-ins. Prabhupad was whizzing via jet from the West Coast to the New York center. Then some of his disciples began opening centers in other areas: Montreal, Boston, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Buffalo, Seattle, Columbus, Vancouver, Hawaii and in Europe—London and Hamburg.

At Prabhupad’s advice, we purchased some 135 acres of land in the mountains near Wheeling, West Virginia and are now developing a transcendental community named New Vrindaban, modeled after Vrindaban in India, where Lord Krishna sported as a Youth. Last winter The Macmillan Company published Prabhupad’s translation of The Bhagavad Gita As It Is. Throughout last year Prabhupad delivered lectures on Krishna Consciousness at Harvard, MIT, the University of California and innumerable other colleges and universities.

At this point many who have never heard of Krishna, Rama, The Bhagavad Gita or A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, who always equated swamis with crystal-ball gazers, might ask how so many Americans—especially young Americans—are being swept up in a movement whose basic philosophy is spiritualistic.

The answer is simple, though many may not find it credible. There is an old Hindu proverb which says, “By the grace of Krishna one gets Guru, and by the grace of Guru, one gets Krishna.” Krishna, by definition, is all-attractive. As the Supreme, Krishna is the repository of all beauty, all wealth, all fame, all power, all knowledge and all renunciation. Prabhupad has the power to deliver Krishna to his students. This is a spiritual power given by Krishna. When his students dance and chant Hare Krishna, they are actually participating in bliss. They are actually experiencing Krishna Consciousness. There are many swamis who come to America with a familiar storehouse of Oriental claptrap. They woo rich women and take money as favors, or charge for “initiation.” Swami Bhaktivedanta simply delivers the goods.

“How do you know he’s not a phoney like all the others?” one girl at Ohio State asked me.

“How do you know an electric wire’s live?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not an electrician.”

“You don’t have to be. Just touch it and you can feel the current. The real Guru is a transparent medium. You just meet him and you’ll feel the current going through you. That’s because he’s plugged in to the real Powerhouse.”

The girl simply looked at me skeptically, but later I sew her chanting with closed eyes. She was already feeling the current.

“Just vibrate Hare Krishna once,” Prabhupad has often said, “and your spiritual life has begun. There is no expense. And if there is some gain, why not try it?”

Who would want to doubt him?

the hare krishna explosion

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