Conversations Between Srila Prabhupada and Allen Ginsberg
Submitted by Amara dasa
Posted December 29, 2002

In his meetings with Allen Ginsberg, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada sets the example on how a Vaishnava should receive and interact with people who are openly gay.

Allen Ginsberg was a famous poet from the "beat generation" of the 1950's. In 1956 he shocked America by publicly celebrating his homosexuality within the highly controversial book "Howl." A legal challenge by outraged citizens to have the publication censored proved unsuccessful, and thus, for the first time in the United States, homosexually was being openly and honestly expressed in the public arena.

Allen Ginsberg had been chanting Hare Krsna at about the same time Srila Prabhupada arrived in America, although each was unaware of the other. But then one day in September, 1966, the devotees saw Mr. Ginsberg chanting Hare Krsna on television:

"After the (wedding ceremony of Mukunda and Janaki), Mukunda and his wife entertained many of the devotees and guests in their apartment. The evening had put everyone in high spirits, and Hayagriva was reciting poetry. Then someone turned on the television to catch the scheduled interview with Allen Ginsberg, the poet, and much to everyone's happiness, Allen began playing harmonium and chanting Hare Krsna. He even said there was a swami on the Lower East Side who was teaching this mantra-yoga. Krsna consciousness was new and unheard of, yet now the devotees were seeing a famous celebrity perform kirtana on television. The whole evening seemed auspicious."
(Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, Chapter Eight, p. 190)

Allen Ginsberg was the first figure of worldly repute to meet with Srila Prabhupada and to appreciate his fledgling Krsna consciousness movement. He lived nearby and so one day in the autumn of 1966 he decided to visit Srila Prabhupada at his Second Avenue storefront in New York's Lower East Side. Allen Ginsberg was accompanied by his lover Peter Orlovsky, and this meeting is described in the "Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta" by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami:

"Allen Ginsberg lived nearby on East Tenth Street. One day he received a peculiar invitation in the mail:

Practice the transcendental sound vibration,
Hare Krishna, 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.

Krishna International Society for Consciousness
Meetings at 7 A.M. daily
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7:00 P.M.
You are cordially invited to come out and
bring your friends.

Swamiji had asked the boys to distribute it around the neighborhood.

One evening, soon after he received the invitation, Allen Ginsberg and his roommate, Peter Orlovsky, arrived at the storefront in a Volkswagen minibus. Allen had been captivated by the Hare Krsna mantra several years before, when he had first encountered it at the Kumbha-mela festival in Allahabad, India, and he had been chanting it often ever since. The devotees were impressed to see the world-famous author of "Howl" and leading figure of the beat generation enter their humble storefront. His advocation of free sex, marijuana, and LSD, his claims of drug-induced visions of spirituality in everyday sights, his political ideas, his exploration of insanity, revolt, and nakedness, and his attempts to create a harmony of like-minded souls--all were influential on the minds of American young people, especially those living on the Lower East Side. Although by middle-class standards he was scandalous and disheveled, he was, in his own right, a figure of worldly repute, more so than anyone who had ever come to the storefront before.

Allen Ginsberg: Bhaktivedanta seemed to have no friends in America, but was alone, totally alone, and gone somewhat like a lone hippie to the nearest refuge, the place where it was cheap enough to rent.

There were a few people sitting cross-legged on the floor. I think most of them were Lower East Side hippies who had just wandered in off the street, with beards and a curiosity and inquisitiveness and a respect for spiritual presentation of some kind. Some of them were sitting there with glazed eyes, but most of them were just like gentle folk--bearded, hip, and curious. They were refugees from the middle class in the Lower East Side, looking exactly like the street sadhus in India. It was very similar, that phase in American underground history. And I liked immediately the idea that Swami Bhaktivedanta had chosen the Lower East Side of New York for his practice. He'd gone to the lower depths. He'd gone to a spot more like the side streets of Calcutta than any other place.

Allen and Peter had come for the kirtana, but it wasn't quite time--Prabhupada hadn't come down. They presented a new harmonium to the devotees. "It's for the kirtanas," said Allen. "A little donation." Allen stood at the entrance to the storefront, talking with Hayagriva, telling him how he had been chanting Hare Krsna around the world--at peace marches, poetry readings, a procession in Prague, a writers' union in Moscow. "Secular kirtana," said Allen, "but Hare Krsna nonetheless." Then Prabhupada entered. Allen and Peter sat with the congregation and joined in the kirtana. Allen played the harmonium.

Allen: I was astounded that he'd come with the chanting, because it seemed like a reinforcement from India. I had been running around singing Hare Krsna but had never understood exactly why or what it meant. But I was surprised to see that he had a different melody, because I thought the melody I knew was the melody, the universal melody. I had gotten so used to my melody that actually the biggest difference I had with him was over the tune--because I'd solidified it in my mind for years, and to hear another tune actually blew my mind.

After the lecture, Allen came forward to meet Prabhupada, who was still sitting on his dais. Allen offered his respects with folded palms and touched Prabhupada's feet, and Prabhupada reciprocated by nodding his head and folding his palms. They talked together briefly, and then Prabhupada returned to his apartment. Allen mentioned to Hayagriva that he would like to come by again and talk more with Prabhupada, so Hayagriva invited him to come the next day and stay for lunch prasadam.

"Don't you think Swamiji is a little too esoteric for New York?" Allen asked. Hayagriva thought. "Maybe," he replied.

Hayagriva then asked Allen to help the Swami, since his visa would soon expire. He had entered the country with a visa for a two-month stay, and he had been extending his visa for two more months again and again. This had gone on for one year, but the last time he had applied for an extension, he had been refused. "We need an immigration lawyer," said Hayagriva. "I'll donate to that," Allen assured him.

The next morning, Allen Ginsberg came by with a check and another harmonium. Up in Prabhupada's apartment, he demonstrated his melody for chanting Hare Krsna, and then he and Prabhupada talked.

Allen: I was a little shy with him because I didn't know where he was coming from. I had that harmonium I wanted to donate, and I had a little money. I thought it was great now that he was here to expound on the Hare Krsna mantra--that would sort of justify my singing. I knew what I was doing, but I didn't have any theological background to satisfy further inquiries, and here was someone who did. So I thought that was absolutely great. Now I could go around singing Hare Krsna, and if anybody wanted to know what it was, I could just send them to Swami Bhaktivedanta to find out. If anyone wanted to know the technical intricacies and the ultimate history, I could send them to him.

He explained to me about his own teacher and about Caitanya and the lineage going back. His head was filled with so many things and what he was doing. He was already working on his translations. He always seemed to be sitting there just day after day and night after night. And I think he had one or two people helping him.

Prabhupada was very cordial with Allen. Quoting a passage from Bhagavad-gita where Krsna says that whatever a great man does, others will follow, he requested Allen to continue chanting Hare Krsna at every opportunity, so that others would follow his example. He told about Lord Caitanya's organizing the first civil obedience movement in India, leading a sankirtana protest march against the Muslim ruler. Allen was fascinated. He enjoyed talking with the Swami.

But they had their differences. When Allen expressed his admiration for a well-known Bengali holy man, Prabhupada said that the holy man was bogus. Allen was shocked. He'd never before heard a swami severely criticize another's practice. Prabhupada explained, on the basis of Vedic evidence, the reasoning behind his criticism, and Allen admitted that he had naively thought that all holy men were one-hundred-percent holy. But now he decided that he should not simply accept a sadhu, including Prabhupada, on blind faith. He decided to see Prabhupada in a more severe, critical light.

Allen: I had a very superstitious attitude of respect, which probably was an idiot sense of mentality, and so Swami Bhaktivedanta's teaching was very good to make me question that. It also made me question him and not take him for granted.

Allen described a divine vision he'd had in which William Blake had appeared to him in sound, and in which he had understood the oneness of all things. A sadhu in Vrndavana had told Allen that this meant that William Blake was his guru. But to Prabhupada this made no sense.

Allen: The main thing, above and beyond all our differences, was an aroma of sweetness that he had, a personal, selfless sweetness like total devotion. And that was what always conquered me, whatever intellectual questions or doubts I had, or even cynical views of ego. In his presence there was a kind of personal charm, coming from dedication, that conquered all our conflicts. Even though I didn't agree with him, I always liked to be with him.

Allen agreed, at Prabhupada's request, to chant more and to try to give up smoking.

"Do you really intend to make these American boys in Vaisnavas?" Allen asked.

"Yes," Prabhupada replied happily, "and I will make them all brahmanas."

Allen left a $200 check to help cover the legal expenses for extending the Swami's visa and wished him good luck. "Brahmanas!" Allen didn't see how such a transformation could be possible."

("Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta," Planting the Seed, Chapter Eight, pg. 195-198)

When Srila Prabhupada was ready to publish his Macmillan edition of "Bhagavad Gita As It Is," he asked Allen Ginsberg to write an introduction for it. Allen happily complied and wrote the following, which was then published in the book:

> "Swami Bhaktivedanta came to the USA and went swiftly to the Archetype Spiritual Neighborhood, the New York Lower East Side, and installed intact an ancient perfectly preserved piece of street India. He adorned a storefront as his Ashram and adored Krishna therein and by patience and good humor, singing, chanting and expounding Sanskrit terminology day by day established Krishna Consciousness in the psychedelic (mind-manifesting) center of America East… To choose to attend to the Lower East Side, what kindness and humility and intelligence!"
(Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, Planting the Seed, Chapter Seven, p. 105)

On January 16th 1967, Srila Prabhupada arrived at the San Francisco airport for the first time, and Allen Ginsberg was there to greet him:

"Only a few people in the crowd knew Swamiji: Mukunda and his wife Janaki; Ravindra-svarupa; Raya Rama--all from New York. And Allen Ginsberg was there. (A few days before, Allen had been one of the leaders of the "Human Be-In" in Golden Gate Park, where over two-hundred thousand had come together--"A Gathering of the Tribes… for a joyful pow-wow and Peace Dance.") Today Allen was on hand to greet Swami Bhaktivedanta, whom he had met and chanted with several months before on New York's Lower East Side."

"Allen Ginsberg stepped forward with a large bouquet of flowers, and Srila Prabhupada graciously accepted it."

"Then they escorted (Srila Prabhupada) outside into the sunlight and into a waiting car, a black 1949 Cadillac Fleetwood. Prabhupada got into the back seat with Mukunda and Allen Ginsberg. Until the moment the car pulled away from the curb, Srila Prabhupada, still smiling, continued handing flowers to all those who had come to welcome him as he brought Krsna consciousness west."

"San Francisco's largest newspaper, the Chronicle, ran an article: "Swami in Hippie-Land--Holy Man Opens S.F. Temple." The article began, "A holy man from India, described by his friend and beat poet Allen Ginsberg as one of the more conservative leaders of his faith, launched a kind of evangelistic effort yesterday in the heart of San Francisco's hippie haven."

"Srila Prabhupada objected to being called conservative. He was indignant: "Conservative? How is that?"

"In respect to sex and drugs," Mukunda suggested.

"Of course, we are conservative in that sense," Prabhupada said. "That simply means we are following sastra. We cannot depart from Bhagavad-gita. But conservative we are not. Caitanya Mahaprabhu was so strict that He would not even look on a woman, but we are accepting everyone into this movement, regardless of sex, caste, position, or whatever. Everyone is invited to come chant Hare Krsna. This is Caitanya Mahaprabhu's munificence, His liberality. No, we are not conservative."

("Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta," Only He Could Lead Them, Chapter One, p. 2, 3, 6-7)

Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Srila Prabhupada and Allen Ginsberg had a conversation prior to the Mantra-Rock Dance:

"Hayagriva and Mukunda went to discuss the program for the Mantra-Rock Dance with Allen Ginsberg. Allen was already well known as an advocate of the Hare Krsna mantra; in fact, acquaintances would often greet him with "Hare Krsna!" when he walked on Haight Street. And he was known to visit and recommend that others visit the Radha-Krsna Temple. Hayagriva, whose full beard and long hair rivaled Allen's, was concerned about the melody Allen would use when he chanted with Swamiji. "I think the melody you use," Hayagriva said, "is too difficult for good chanting."

"Maybe," Allen admitted, "but that's the melody I first heard in India. A wonderful lady saint was chanting it. I'm quite accustomed to it, and it's the only one I can sing convincingly."

With only a few days remaining before the Mantra-Rock Dance, Allen came to an early-morning kirtana at the temple and later joined Srila Prabhupada upstairs in his room. A few devotees were sitting with Prabhupada eating Indian sweets when Allen came to the door. He and Prabhupada smiled and exchanged greetings, and Prabhupada offered him a sweet, remarking that Mr. Ginsberg was up very early.

"Yes," Allen replied, "the phone hasn't stopped ringing since I arrived in San Francisco."

"That is what happens when one becomes famous," said Srila Prabhupada. "That was the tragedy of Mahatma Gandhi also. Wherever he went, thousands of people would crowd around him, chanting, 'Mahatma Gandhi ki jaya! Mahatma Gandhi ki jaya!' The gentleman could not sleep."

"Well, at least it got me up for kirtana this morning, " said Allen.

"Yes, that is good."

The conversation turned to the upcoming program at the Avalon Ballroom. "Don't you think there's a possibility of chanting a tune that would be more appealing to Western ears?" Allen asked.

"Any tune will do," said Prabhupada. "Melody is not important. What is important is that you will chant Hare Krsna. It can be in the tune of your own country. That doesn't matter."

Prabhupada and Allen also talked about the meaning of the word hippie, and Allen mentioned something about taking LSD. Prabhupada replied that LSD created dependence and was not necessary for a person in Krsna consciousness. "Krsna consciousness resolves everything," Prabhupada said. "Nothing else is needed."

(Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta, Only He Could Lead Them, Chapter One, p. 10-11)

On the night of the highly anticipated Mantra-Rock Dance, Srila Prabhupada arranges for Allen Ginsberg to open with a short introduction and then lead the kirtana:

"As Prabhupada walked through the crowd, everyone stood, applauding and cheering. He climbed the stairs and seated himself softly on a waiting cushion. The crowd quieted.

Looking over at Allen Ginsberg, Prabhupada said, "You can speak something about the mantra."

Allen began to tell of his understanding and experience with the Hare Krsna mantra. He told how Swamiji had opened a storefront on Second Avenue and had chanted Hare Krsna in Tompkins Square Park. And he invited everyone to the Frederick Street temple. "I especially recommend the early-morning kirtanas," he said, "for those who, coming down from LSD, want to stabilize their consciousness upon reentry."

Prabhupada spoke, giving a brief history of the mantra. Then he looked over at Allen again: "You may chant."

Allen began playing his harmonium and chanting into the microphone, singing the tune he had brought from India.

Allen Ginsberg: We sang Hare Krsna all evening. It was absolutely great--an open thing. It was the height of the Haight-Ashbury spiritual enthusiasm. It was the first time that there had been a music scene in San Francisco where everybody could be part of it and participate. Everybody could sing and dance rather than listen to other people sing and dance.

Then Srila Prabhupada stood up, lifted his arms, and began to dance. He gestured for everyone to join him, and those who were still seated stood up and began dancing and chanting and swaying back and forth, following Prabhupada's gentle dance.

(Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta, Only He Could Lead Them, Chapter One, p. 13-14)

Further dealings in San Francisco:

"As Allen Ginsberg had advised five thousand hippies at the Avalon, the early-morning kirtana at the temple provided a vital community service for those who were coming down from LSD and wanted "to stabilize their consciousness on reentry." Allen himself sometimes dropped by in the morning with acquaintances with whom he had stayed up all night.

Allen Ginsberg: At six-thirty in the morning we went over to Swami Bhaktivedanta's space station for some chanting and a little Krsna consciousness. There were about thirty or forty people there, all chanting Hare Krsna to this new tune they've made up, just for mornings. One kid got a little freaked out by the scene at first, but then he relaxed, and afterwards he told me, "You know, at first I thought: What is this? But then suddenly I realized I was just not grooving with where I was. I wasn't being where I was."

"A mustached man standing at the back of the room asked, "Are you Allen Ginsberg's guru?" Many of the devotees knew that the question was loaded and that to answer either yes or no would be difficult.

"Srila Prabhupada replied, "I am nobody's guru. I am everybody's servant." To the devotees, the whole exchange became transcendental due to Swamiji's reply. Swamiji had not simply given a clever response; he had answered out of a deep, natural humility."

("Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta," Only He Could Lead Them, Chapter One, p. 41-43)
from: Goswami, Satsvarupa dasa. Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta. 1993. New Delhi: Rekha Printers