The Tompkins Square Park Kirtans
Public relations improve, however, with our first big branching out -- the Tompkins Square Park kirtans.
It is Allen Ginsberg who first suggests Tompkins Square between Avenues A and B on the Lower East Side.
“If you hold kirtans there, you’ll interest a lot of people and maybe get better temple attendance,” he tells us. “It’s a kind of Sunday meeting place.”
We promptly get a permit to chant in the park, and on Sunday Swamji leads us down the crowded weekend streets. Kirtanananda also wears robes, and our walk through the Polish, Ukranian, and Puerto Rican neighborhoods is sensational. By the time we reach the park, dozens of curious people are following.
We spread a carpet beneath a large oak in the center of the park. Then we form a circle around Swamiji, who takes up a small bongo drum and begins leading the chanting. At first, the crowd greets us with cold indifference but soon warms up as the words of the mantra become more familiar. Swamiji pounds the drum tirelessly. Thirty minutes pass, an hour. Elderly Polish and Ukranian residents stare dumbfounded, then walk away grumbling. Soon more people stand around us and press forward to better see Swamiji. Stryadhisa and I clash cymbals, and Kirtanananda plays the harmonium given by Ginsberg. Someone brings a tamboura, but it is drowned out in the din. Puerto Rican kids run over from the playground, stare with wide eyes, then laugh happily. A jet booms overhead. The Good Humor man gravitates toward us, ringing his ice cream bells. Acyutananda, Brahmananda, and Greg dance in a circle, and the more venturesome spectators join in the chant.
After a long kirtan, Swamiji begins to give a talk, but since the people can hardly hear him, he takes up the drum and starts chanting again. A little boy throws an egg at Rayarama and runs. Our voices begin to grow hoarse, and I wonder how long Swamiji will last. But his voice seems even stronger after the second hour. As he chants, his brow furrows in concentration, and veins stand out on his neck. “Hare Krishna! Krishna! Krishna! Hare Hare!” Allen Ginsberg joins, shaking his head rhythmically and playing finger cymbals. A New York Times reporter asks me to bring Ginsberg over to talk.
“He shouldn’t interrupt a man worshipping,” Allen says. “Tell him that.”
Swamiji’s fingers continue beating out the rhythm on the drum. How can he keep at it so long? “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna!” he calls out over the cement park of stunted trees, the playgrounds, benches, brownstone apartments, and the locked and empty Presbyterian Church.
“Hare Rama, Hare Rama,” we reply. “Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” A Negro joins in with a saxophone. Someone comes with a bass drum. Tambourines rattle, and people start getting up to dance. To our surprise and happiness, Swamiji’s park kirtan begins to turn into a joyous celebration, an open party for the Lower East Side.
“Hey, man, who’s that old priest?” someone asks.
“He’s not a priest,” someone answers. “He’s a swami!”
“Hey, that’s cool, man. I dig it!”
Rayarama and I hand out leaflets:
STAY HIGH FOREVER
No More Coming Down
Practice Krishna Consciousness
Expand your consciousness by chanting 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 and free you from all material contamination. It is practical and self-evident without artificial aid. Try it and be blissful all the time. End all bringdowns! Turn on through music, dance, philosophy, science, religion and prasadam (spiritual food). Join the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Although Polish housewives throw the leaflets away, the young renegades from American suburbia like the idea of staying high forever. Granted, staying high forever may not be the ideal impetus for pure devotional service, but the message to chant Hare Krishna gets across. Moreover, Swamiji approved the leaflet: “Yes, stay high forever! That’s the idea! Yes! No more coming down to this material world!”
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,” we continue into the late afternoon. Swamiji’s fingers are red from beating the little drum, but he doesn’t slow down. Only he can light the fuse to set off the Hare Krishna explosion.
When dusk approaches, he brings the chanting to a close. We roll up the carpet as people enquire about the temple. The Times reporter, remarkably, returns with us to Matchless Gifts and sits downstairs with Swamiji to talk. Acyutananda brings him a bowl of sweetballs.
The next morning, Monday, October 10, The New York Times prints a photograph of Swamiji seated on the carpet, pounding the bongo drum while Brahmananda and Acyutananda dance in front of him. The headline: “SWAMI’S FLOCK CHANTS IN PARK TO FIND ECSTASY.”
Swamiji smiles broadly when he sees the write-up. “Very nice. Now we can continue this program every Sunday.”
Before our next park kirtan, however, we receive a big, unexpected publicity boost. The East Village Other, a local underground newspaper with a good circulation on the Lower East Side, prints a full front page photo of Swamiji standing beneath an oak in Tompkins Square, a crowd clustered around him. The headlines: “SAVE EARTH NOW! HARE KRISHNA, HARE KRISHNA, KRISHNA KRISHNA, HARE HARE, HARE RAMA, HARE RAMA, RAMA RAMA, HARE HARE.”
We rush the first copy to Swamiji, and when he sees it, he breaks into a smile. We read it aloud for him.
An old man, one year past his allotted threescore 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, acid heads, pot heads and hippies -- that he knew the way to God: Turn Off, Sing Out, and Fall In. This new brand of holyman. 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.
“What are these hippies?” Swamiji asks.
We try to explain as best we can.
“I’m afraid that many people would consider us hippies,” I say.
“No, we’re happies,” Swamiji laughs. “But whatever you once were, Krishna will change you. Right?”
We also have to explain “acid heads,” “pot,” and “fuzz,” and when Swamiji understands, he smiles, and says, “Yes, that is right. Krishna consciousness may seem like poison in the beginning, but it is nectar in the end. So it is sweeter.” Then: “Who is this Dr. Leary?”
We explain that he’s the leader of the psychedelic movement and has just founded the LSD (League for Spiritual Discovery) church.
“He claims that LSD is an easy means to God realization,” Kirtanananda says.
“Then his God is LSD,” Swamiji says. “If he claims that you can reach God through LSD, then LSD is stronger than God. But we do not say like that. His means are artificial. And risky. What will he do when there is no more LSD? Is LSD eternal? Is God so cheap that He can be reached by simply taking a pill? Yogis perform many lifetimes of austerities and still do not see God. And in Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says that He can be reached only by the path of pure, unalloyed devotion. After many, many births, the man of knowledge surrenders to Krishna because he knows that Krishna is everything. But this Dr. Leary is saying surrender to LSD. That is nonsense. Such people are misled and misleading.“
We chant in Tompkins Square Park every Sunday through October, and after each kirtan, more people follow Swamiji back to Matchless Gifts. Thanks to the East Village Other article and these park kirtans, we quickly become known on the Lower East Side as The Hare Krishna People.
(Hayagriva das, The Hare Krishna Explosion, Chapter 5)