Swami in Hippyland
Sunday, January 29. The night of Krishna consciousness at the Avalon Ballroom. Haridas, Mukunda, Shyamasundar, Janaki and Malati go early to see that everything’s set up. The ballroom is large, surrounded by mirrors. It boasts the latest in strobes and slides. Two movie projectors whir full time, and the sound system shakes the floor and walls. The Avalon and the Fillmore are the two homes of the new San Francisco rock: Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Janis Joplin. All young, white, and LSD oriented.
“I think what you are calling ‘hippies’ are our best potential,” Swamiji says. “Although they are young, they are already dissatisfied with material life. Frustrated. And not knowing what to do, they turn to drugs. So let them come, and we will show them spiritual activities. Once they engage in Krishna consciousness, all these anarthas, unwanted things, will fall away.”
When the Avalon’s doors open at seven, hippies, teenyboppers, and Hell’s Angels begin pouring in. By eight o’clock, when The Grateful Dead begins playing, the ballroom is packed. A barrage of rhythm, shrieks, and blasts, amplified by speakers bigger than most closets, shake the ballroom. There’s a roar of approval, and strobes flash off and on, illuminating a sea of gyrating, pulsating bodies.
Swamiji leaves Frederick Street at 9:30. He is dressed in fresh saffron silks. As he discusses translating Chaitanya-charitamrita, the sweet aroma from his gardenia garland fills the car. By ten, he walks up the stairs of the Avalon, Kirtanananda and Ranchor flanking him as he enters through the main ballroom doors. Cigarette smoke mingles with incense. Janis Joplin bellows into the microphone. Steel guitars, voices, drums, and strobe lights bombard the senses. Yet Swamiji floats through it all, making his way along the walls of the ballroom to the stage like a swan navigating through lotuses.
Suddenly Janis ends her song, and the slide show changes. Pictures of Krishna and the demigods are flashed onto the wall. Krishna and Arjuna in the chariot. Krishna eating butter. Krishna subduing the whirlwind demon. Krishna playing the flute.
There’s a spontaneous roar of approval, and as Swamiji sits beside Ginsberg on the front center stage, the roar turns into an ovation. The bands also come on stage. Swamiji is garlanded again and again.
Allen begins his introduction, commanding attention with the expertise of a Pied Piper. Swamiji sits quietly, his head held high, appearing like a golden Buddha -- regal, transcendental, saintly -- a strange contrast to poet Ginsberg.
Allen tells how his own interest in Hare Krishna started in India five years ago. Then he recounts how Swamiji opened his storefront on Second Avenue and chanted Hare Krishna in Tompkins Square Park. “Now, Krishna consciousness has come West, to the Haight-Ashbury,” he says, inviting everyone to the Frederick Street temple. “I especially recommend the early morning kirtans,” he adds, “for those who want to stabilize their consciousness on LSD re-entry.“
Although this is hardly devotional Vaishnavism, the audience maintains a reverential silence. After Allen’s introduction, Swamiji speaks, giving a brief description of the history of the mantra, beginning with Lord Chaitanya. “It is particularly recommended for this age,” he says. “Kali-yuga is an age in which men are short-lived, ignorant, quarrelsome and always in difficulties. Yet regardless of our position, we can always chant the maha-mantra.”
The Hell’s Angels stare with mute incomprehension. Wearing denim jackets, caps, leather regalia, chains, tattoos, long, dirty hair, they seem prime candidates for the ghostly hordes of Shiva.
Swamiji doesn’t mention the rules and regulations.
“Anyone can chant the maha-mantra,” he says. “There are only three words -- Hare, Krishna and Rama. ‘Hare’ is the energy of the Lord..."
I doubt that very much of his speech is understood, but everyone stands politely and listens respectfully. As Swamiji explains the mantra, slides flash the words on the walls. Then the chanting begins with Allen slowly singing his hurdy-gurdy tune into the microphone: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. The Big Brother band joins in, then Grateful Dead and Moby Grape. Gradually, the chant spreads throughout the audience. People begin holding hands and dancing. Standing in front of the bands, we can hardly hear the audience, but above everything is Allen’s voice, shouting, his “Hare” sounding more like “Hooray!” Swamiji stands up and starts dancing, and the chanting builds steadily to a climax. On the wall behind, a slide projects a towering picture of Lord Krishna, flute in His hands, peacock feather in His hair. A maze of color whirls to the rhythm of the mantra, a rhythm that accelerates to a frenetic presto, the words merging, punctuated only by Allen’s whooping “Hooray! Hooray!” Through the flashing strobes, I see people dancing and shaking tambourines.
Then suddenly the chanting ends, and all that can be heard is the loud buzz of microphones.
Swamiji offers obeisances to the gurus. “Ki jai! Ki jai! All glories to the assembled devotees! Ki jai!”
It is all over. As people meander to the soda stand, Allen announces that the rock groups will shortly resume the concert. Swamiji descends from the bandstand and walks straight through the heavy smoke and crowds to the front stairs. Again, Kirtanananda and Ranchor follow.
“This is no place for a brahmachari,” Swamiji proclaims, leaving.
The dance nets us fifteen hundred dollars, barely enough to resolve the temple debts.
In the morning, the temple is crowded with celebrants from the Avalon. They never went to bed.
Swamiji lectures on the eternity of the spirit soul.
“It cannot be drowned by water, burned by fire, nor dried up by the wind,” he says. “And these everlasting souls are to be found everywhere -- on the earth, in the air and water, even in the sun. Souls can acquire bodies adaptable to the atmosphere of all planets, but none of these bodies in the material worlds can continue to be fresh. That is the material limitation. The element of time is so strong that it breaks down everything. Whatever you create, though it be very beautiful and fresh now, will eventually fade away just like a flower. In time, flowers grow very beautiful, but in due course they wither and vanish. Similarly, you are all now young and with such beautiful bodies. And so you say, ‘Let us enjoy.’ But your bodies will also wither and perish. Nature’s course is like that. Therefore Krishna tells Arjuna not to deviate from his duty by fleeing the battle.”
Later in the morning, Kirtanananda and I drive Swamiji to the beach, where he chants a mantra we’ve never heard before.
“Govinda jai jai, Gopala jai jai, Radharamana Hari, Govinda jai jai.” He chants slowly, yearningly, in a low baritone mingling with the peaceful falling of the waves.
“Govinda is Krishna, who gives pleasure to the cows and senses. Gopala is Krishna the cowherd boy, and Radharamana is Krishna as the enjoyer of Radharani. These are the words of this mantra.”
He chants a longing, haunting melody that seems to reach out and then fall short, and so must reach out again, like the perpetual mounting, crashing, and mounting of waves striving to envelop the shore.
As he chants, he walks slowly along the boardwalk. The January breeze is fresh and cool. I peruse some kelp washed up on the beach and decide that the long, hollow whips with their bell-shaped heads would make good trumpets for kirtan.
Kirtanananda gets a blanket and puts it over Swamiji’s shoulders. Swamiji looks out over the Pacific expanse.
“Because it is great, it is tranquil,” he says.
"The image of eternity,” I say.
“Nothing is eternal but Krishna,” he says. Silence. Then: “In Bengali, there is one nice verse. I remember. ‘O, what is that voice across the sea, calling, calling, Come here... come here?’”
For a long time, Swamiji sits on a boardwalk bench, looking out across the ocean and singing Bengali songs to Gopinatha, Lord Krishna, Master of the gopis. From time to time, he stops to translate a verse for us. “O Gopinatha, please sit within the core of my heart and subdue this mind, and thus take me to You. Only then will the terrible dangers of this world disappear.”
Then he sings another verse, looking out on the ocean as if it were his audience. It is a rare, peaceful moment, beyond everything material, and I wish it could go on forever. But after a while, Swamiji stands up, sighs deeply, as if beckoned by duty, and says, “Back to the temple.”
Hayagriva dasa (The Hare Krishna Explosion, Chapter 7)