Chakra Discussions

Changing Times And Places: the Holy Name In the East Village Other

by Premananda dasa (Boston, MA)

Posted April 10, 2006

Among the first articles written about ISKCON was a one-page item in a New York City counterculture publication called the East Village Other (October 15-November 1, 1966 issue). The front page shows a photo of Srila Prabhupada leading kirtan in Tompkins Square Park beneath the banner headline, "Save Earth Now!" Below the photo is the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.

I recently procured a copy of this edition. I am reproducing below the full text of the article, including the spelling and punctuation errors. Of course, we cannot verify the accuracy of the quotations. For example, the statement attributed to Srila Prabhupada likening the effects of chanting and LSD may seem uncharacteristic to many of us.

What is especially interesting is the use of experiential theological language couched in the vernacular of the counterculture. In short, Srila Prabhupada's disciples were speaking about their experiences of chanting in language that they felt spoke to the interests and needs of their peers.

This is an essential aspect of promoting the mission of the Holy Name - to convince modern audiences in modern times and cultures to chant because the Holy Name is relevant to their interests and aspirations. Of course, the language and concepts of the mid-sixties drug culture are no longer relevant. People are not looking to "drop out" of society. Spiritual hunger in the United States has changed. People are eager for spiritual experience integrated into the fabric of their daily lives. The Holy Name - as a form of prayer - is ideally suited to meet this need: anyone can chant anytime, anywhere.

So this article is more than nostalgic. We should learn from it the importance of communicating our message in the language and within the context of the needs of the larger culture. It seems ISKCON in North America has during the last 40 years moved its focus from the counterculture to the Indian immigrant population. It's a generalization, but we went from a society of hippies to Hindus. After decades of leadership failures, scandals, and declining vocations, our mission appears to have retreated to a safe ethnic haven.

And while we should also cultivate the spiritual lives of people from India, we are missing that dynamic adaptation that was the root of Srila Prabhupada's success - the ability to speak and act in ways that are suitable to inspiring different audiences in different times and places. It is in this spirit that I offer this article.

East Village Other Volume 1 No. 22, October 15-November 1, 1966 by Irving Shushnick

Once upon a time, a bunch of theologians jumped a poor old man in a darkened church, bashed his head in, and left him for dead. The next morning, the press was running long obituaries which identified the corpse as being that of the late, beloved God. Some people, however, didn't believe the story so they went to the graveyard, secretly exhumed the corpse and, to their relief, found that it had all been a case of mistaken identity. For, reposing in glorious decomposition in the golden casket was not the body of God, but that of his PR man: organized religion.

At once, the good tidings swept across the wide world. "GOD LIVES!" became household words in the palaces of Popes and Presidents; politicians repromised Him to the poor. The Vatican Council, after having just recovered from the death of Christ, breathed a sigh of relief. Priests and ministers withdrew their resignations. Someone started a war. Everything was gonna be groovy again.

But where was God? No one could find Him. They chased a rumor to Argentina but found only six Dachau dykes selling Torahs in a jungle village. A full page ad in the New York Times, offering a reward for information leading to the discovery of the whereabouts of God, and signed by Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan, brought no response. People began to worry and wonder again. "God," said some people, "lives in a sugar cube." Others whispered that the sacred secret was in a cigarette.

But while this was all going on, an old man, one year past his allotted three-score-and-ten, wandered into New York's East Village and set about to prove to the world that he knew where God could be found. In only three months, the man, Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta, succeeded in convincing the world's toughest audience - bohemians, acidheads, potheads and hippies - that he knew the Way to God: Turn Off, Sing Out and Fall In. This new brand of holy man, with all due deference to Dr. Leary, has come forth with a brand of "Consciousness Expansion" that's sweeter than acid, cheaper than pot and non-bustable by fuzz. How is this all possible? "Through Krishna," the Swami says.

For the cynical New Yorker, living, visible, tangible proof of this can be found at 26 Second Avenue (between 1st and 2nd Streets) any Monday, Wednesday and Friday night between 7 and 9 p.m. when the sounds of cymbals, drums, bells, voices, harmonium and the innards of an old piano waft across the slums of the East Village like incense. One glance through the storefront window reveals the Swami seated on his dais leading "Kirtan" surrounded by some 30 young barefoot disciples who sing, dance, chant and listen to his lectures on the Gita, the principal scripture of Hinduism handed down some 5,000 years ago by Sri Krishna, an incarnation of God. Sitting crosslegged in his golden robes, the swarthy complexioned Swami tells his followers in a soft voice that "Krishna is everything". "We see now His maya," he says, "His illusory energy which is the entire material universe, Krishna is behind this. He supports everything. But this material universe is full of suffering. Let us return to Krishna's true abode, His spiritual universe. It is His spiritual kingdom that is eternal."

Many of the Swami's new disciples, who include Allen Ginsberg, feel that the Swami's greatest contribution is the "Kirtan," form of meditation which leads to consciousness expansion. The uniqueness of the "Kirtan" lies in the fact that it is a rhythmic, hypnotic 16-word chant ("Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare Hare") sung for hours on end to the accompaniment of hand clapping, cymbals and bells.

"The Kirtan," says the Swami, "is as natural as the cry of a child for his mother. It is a meditation of body and spirit through the senses. It is feeling the presence of God and crying out to Him for help."

One of the Swami's disciples confessed, "I started chanting to myself, like the Swami said, when I was walking down the street: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare Hare over and over, and suddenly everything started looking so beautiful, the kids, the old men and women... even the creeps looked beautiful... to say nothing of the trees and flowers. It was like I'd taken a dozen doses of LSD. But I knew there was a difference. There's no coming down from this. I can always do this, anytime, anywhere. It's always with you.

"Everybody's trying to get high and stay there," another young disciple stated. "Everybody's looking for an exalted state of consciousness, a way to flip out and stay out. But there's something bringing you back to the old miserable routine. Not with this. This has a snowballing effect. You can chant your way right into eternity." "Into eternity... and beyond," the Swami adds.

The cosmic or expanded consciousness, called "Krishna concsciousness" by the Swami, is an awareness of a soul present within the body. "It is also," he preaches, "the same awareness of life as when taking LSD. It is partly the constant awareness of the Lord living in all things - in the insects, and animcals [sic], in the earth, in buildings and sidewalks, cars and machinery, and in men, and in the sun and boundless universe. It is the state of bliss and of love in all life."

After Turning Off and Singing Out his disciples in this way, the Swami makes everyone Fall In to a special diet which forbids the ingestion of coffee, tea, meat, eggs and cigarettes to say nothing of marijuana, LSD, alcohol and illicit sex. The energetic old man maintains that the human body requires only natural, healthy food products, such as grains, fruits, vegetables and milk. His students seem to agree.

The Swami met his first guru (teacher) in India in 1922 and was instructed to spread the way of Krishna in the Western world. Last year he came to America and, after a stay in the Philadelphia area, he traveled to New York and succeeded in establishing his society called The International Society for Krishna Consciousness. In addition to handling the affairs of the Society, lecturing, and conducting meetings, he works on a mammoth project involving an English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, the principal scripture of Hinduism, and a proposed 60-volume edition of the Srimad Bhagavatam. These, in addition to his newspaper "Back to Godhead," establish the Swami as a leading exponent of the philosophy of Personalism, which holds that one God is a person but that His form is spiritual. "Since man is part and parcel of the Supreme," says the Swami, "he can come to know something of God through self-knowledge. It is like gaining knowledge of the ocean by inspection of one drop of its water.

The Swami, whose title means one who is master of the senses, is quick to point out that his Society is not a religion seeking converts. "There is one God," stated the Swami, "and I bring my students here not to convert them to Him, but simply to convince them. I do not seek to change any man's religious practice."

In order to convince more people that the Way is through Krishna Consciousness, the Swami and his followers have begun to sing the "Kirtan" in Tompkins Square Park every Sunday afternoon. There, in the shadow of Hoving's Hill, God lives in trance-like dance and chant.