Krsna Culture in Music
BY: JAHNAVA DEVI
Sep 4, CANADA (SUN) Shortly after Srila Prabhupada's arrival in the West a most astonishing phenomenon took place in the world of music. In the United States, Europe, South America and elsewhere on the planet, the Holy Name of Krsna manifested in musical offerings by devotees and non-devotees alike.
Without question, the Beatles' interest in Krsna Consciousness helped to spark this revolution. But it was also the presence of the devotees, who brought Lord Caitanya's Sankirtana mission to towns and villages on every continent, that caused this Krsna Conscious musical proliferation to occur.
By the early 1970's, many records had been released that included song titles or lyrics featuring Sri Krsna or the maha-mantra. These records manifested in all genres of music, from classical to jazz, blues, folk, pop, rock, and psychedelia. There were even releases of Beatnik poetry and comedy that played on the Hare Krsna theme.
Many of those who became followers of Srila Prabhupada in the 1960's had connections to the counterculture movement. The counterculture comprised not only the hippies, but also the beatniks who preceded them, the yippies, and the anti-war peaceniks. The Krsna Consciousness movement was comprised of elements that were a common denominator amongst all these groups: sharing love and food, chanting, dancing, advocating peace and self-realization, and delving into the mysteries of the ancient eastern arts.
Personalities like Allen Ginsberg and George Harrison kept popping up in the popular media, and their association with Srila Prabhupada's movement created important visibility for the Hare Krsna explosion. The devotees also gained attention by showing up at counterculture events, peace gatherings, be-in's, and musical events that showcased personalities who are now famously associated with that era. Collectors of early relics of the Hare Krsna movement can find an endless number of fascinating artifacts from these days. Event programs, concert posters and handbills, news clippings, audio and video recordings and other types of media preserve impressions of the widespread impact Srila Prabhupada's mission had on the world through the milieu of music.
Over the course of this Sun series, "Krsna Culture in Music", we will explore a number of these relics and look at the widespread imprint Srila Prabhupada's movement had - and continues to have -- in the field of popular music. We will begin with a few interesting examples of the Hare Krsna crossover into the 1960's counterculture.
The New York Scene
While the devotees in Boston and Pennsylvania enjoy some precedence, Srila Prabhupada's presence was first significantly manifest for the general public in New York City, where he arrived shortly after disembarking from the Jaladuta. In his letter to Hanuman Prasad Poddar, written 2-05-70 in Los Angeles, Srila Prabhupada tells some of the history of his arrival in New York:
"I was with them for three weeks in Butler, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then I came to New York. I was getting some money by selling my Srimad-Bhagavatam, thus I was maintaining myself in New York. After some time, I rented one apartment at number 100 71st Street West, but after a few months, all my things--typewriter, tape recorder, books--were stolen. Then for some time one of my students gave me shelter at Bowery Street.
I then rented one store-front and an apartment at 26 Second Avenue for $200 per month, but without any source of income. I started my classes and sometimes, on Sundays, I used to chant Hare Krishna Mantra in Tomkins Square Park from three to 5 P.M. During this time, all the young boys and girls used to gather around me, sometimes poet Ginsberg would come to see me, and sometimes a reporter from the New York Times came to see me. In this way, the Hare Krishna Mantra chanting became very popular on the Lower East Side."
Tompkins Square Park has long been known as being the center for political demonstrations and radical thought in New York City. Over the years, protesters and activists have gathered and marched in Tompkins Square on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to police brutality, immigration, gay & lesbian rights, homelessness, affordable housing, and poverty.
East-Village.com provides a walking map of New York which shows that the first Hare Krsna gathering outside of India took place at Tompkins Square Park in 1965, with poet Allen Ginsburg in attendance. On November 18, 2001, Srila Prabhupada's Disappearance Day, a plaque was placed beside what has come to be known as the Hare Krishna tree, commemorating the spot.
On the musical front, the Grateful Dead also did their first East Coast gig at Tompkins Square Park, in June of 1967, where they played a famous half-hour "Dancing in the Streets" that was reminiscent of street sankirtana. This writer was one of many to be introduced to Krsna Consciousness through the Grateful Dead. I first saw the devotees at a Dead show at Madison Square Garden in 1971, where I happily received the mercy of Krsna prasadam in the form of a Simply Wonderful, along with a copy of "Easy Journey to Other Planets". All I could say at the time was "far out". It took many years before I was surrendered enough to join this transcendental party.
Another major 'coming out' event the Hare Krsnas appeared at was the 1st International Psychedelic Exposition, held in 1967 at Millbrook Woods, Dutchess County, New York. The catalog describes the exhibition as follows:
"The purposes of the First International Psychedelic Exposition are manifold. On one level we hope to give the general public a glimpse of the psychedelic world and the beautiful creations it has inspired. On another level we hope that open and forthright exposition of psychedelic phenomena by the people it has inspired will facilitate communication between those who are somewhat fearful of the mind expansion experience and those who have had the experience and found a method to present what they found most worthwhile, be it through music, art, visual techniques, or group events." The catalog also promoted "a common drug available to anyone with $5.00 to spare - lysergic acid diethylamide".
The list of exhibitors at the 1st International Psychedelic Exposition includes: League of Spiritual Discoverers, Timothy Leary, Louis Abolafia, Trina Williams of the Broccoli, who coordinated a fashion show, The Blue Rock, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The catalog also mentions Yoga and chanting, HUM-M-M-M-M as meditation, Swami A.C. Bhakti Vedanta, Sri Ram Ashrama, Sri Aurobindo, Ahimsa-Non Violence, Blue Dome, Triplopedia by Peter Stafford, Society for Organized Mind Expansion, Artists: Peter Max, Peter Fosso, Robert Selby, Lawrence LeClair, Charles Giuliano, Martin Carey, Brothers Eckstein, Parks and Delsarte, Al Bonk, Bali Ram and David Stoltz, the Meher Baba Workshop, Neo-American Church, the magazines I-Kon and the Realist, along with shops including the "U" store, the Psychedelicatessen head shop, Paranoia, Illuminations, A Fly Can't Bird But a Bird Can Fly, and The Fourth Dimension.
There's an interesting listing for ISKCON in the Exposition catalog, which describes the Hare Krsnas as being "one of the best publicized psychedelic groups".
Following is an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript entitled "The Acid Years" by author Merril Mushroom, describing her experiences at the 1st International Psychedelic Exposition. One can only imagine what New York's weatlhy country club set thought when they first saw the yellow and saffron-clad Hare Krsnas amidst all the hippies. Merril Mushroom's narrative about the Expo makes it easy to imagine what it was like for the devotees who attended this event.
"Our van-load of laughing, colorful beaded hippies was an unlikely sight to be seen driving through the gates of the Forest Hills Country Club, but, then, we were arriving for a rather extraordinary happening -- an event billed as "The First International Psychedelic Exposition."
We were going to set up a sort of historical village of hippiedom on the country club premises. There we'd provide an experience for all (and sell souvenirs to) the primarily white, rich, straight American people who were curious about this newest breed of weirdos emerging out of the 1960s. My two cohorts and I had a store in New York City's East Village. It was called Paranoia, and we sold only handmade craft items which we took on consignment from local artisans. We also served free food and provided free clothing and a place for grounding and networking to neighborhood hippies and street kids.
One afternoon, this dude I'd seen before at IFIF [International Federation for Internal Freedom] meetings and at the Paradox [macrobiotic restaurant] came strolling into the store, checked out the items on the shelves, then moved in on the three of us where we sat behind the counter. "I'll get right to the point," he said. JJ held up his hand. "Wait a minute, my friend. Who are you?" "Name's Dennis," the dude says. "My partners and I are doing a psychedelic exposition- sort of like a World's Fair of the hippie culture. Most of the other shops here in the East Village are gonna have exhibits, plus some folks from uptown and the West Side, and we were hoping you guys from Paranoia would join us." "Only one of us is a guy," Maria interjected. "We're thinking like a five-day event," Dennis continued without batting an eyelash. "We have this place, see, and you all will have, like, so much space in it to set up a replica of your shop. You can do some kind of experience if you want, and you can sell merchandise. Clean merchandise," he emphasized. "The idea is to make the place look like a hippie village. We draw tourists from Long Island- the hip rich folks who come to the East Village to go slumming and have an adventure- and we give them a little atmosphere, sell our products, and have some fun."
"Sounds sort of like a gigantic Be-In with an audience," said JJ. "Where were you planning to have this party?" Dennis smiled smugly. "The Forest Hills Country Club." "Yikes!" Maria yelped. "Come on," I said, "this has to be a put-on. That snooty place wouldn't allow the likes of us anywhere near them." "Trust me, it's for real. They want us to do this. They're curious about us. Hippie is becoming fashionable." I shook my head. "It's an awfully long commute from here." "Hey, then listen to the best part: They want us to create a total environment, so we'll be allowed to live on the grounds and use the facilities during the whole expo. We can either camp out or sleep in our shop spaces. We'll have a cooking tent, so we can do our own health food if we want. We can use all the facilities- swimming pool, showers, sauna, gym. Man, it'll be the Ritz!"
It was the Ritz. Paranoia was assigned a long room with an L-shaped alcove and a door at each end. We set up a little light show at the L and the customers would enter there, then continue through the room where merchandise was displayed, and exit by the cash register at the other door. Enormous crowds of straight people showed up, and every day several of our buddies came out from New York City, dressed in their hippie drag, to help us.
I had never seen so many hippies in one place outside Central Park. We were all over the grounds and buildings, setting up tents and campsites outdoors and inside, utilizing the communal kitchen, and playing together everywhere. Perhaps what amazed me most during that week was how careful we were to keep the place clean, how nothing was trashed or damaged, how all of us were committed to leaving the grounds as we'd found them or even better.
The one matter above any other that we all had on our minds, the unspoken agreement we shared, was that there would be no dealing in substances on those premises. Even conversation about drugs was discouraged, at least with the straight people who were often disposed to ask us drug-related questions. We were all quite clear about the risks to everyone; we understood that there would be agents and law-enforcement officers mingling among us to obtain information, that thrill-seeking tourists would try to lure us into supplying. So the drug portion of our hippie culture was not on display during the days when sightseers swarmed the grounds. But at night, when the country club was closed to the public, we discreetly used what we had brought, hidden in the privacy of our own spaces, with people we knew and trusted."
Part of the Cultural Fabric
The Hare Krsnas entered the pop culture not only through the hippie/rock backdoor, they also walked in the front door of straight-up America. Numerous Americana compilations like the following have included Krsna Conscious relics.
The presence of the devotees was memorialized on "The New York City Album", published by Clark Records in the late 1960's. The album was a collection of quintessential New York sounds including fire trucks, the subway, protestors, garbage collectors, the St. Paddy's Day parade - and the Hare Krsnas chanting in the Bowery.
A similer compilation was published by Great American Audio, whose 1960's collection includes audio artifacts from kids 'finding themselves' in the Hare Krsnas.
The Hare Krsnas also manifested in the Record Song Book, which was comprised of piano scores for tunes by popular artists. Here, the Radha Krishna Temple kept interesting company with the likes of Mary Hopkins, Bob and Marcia, The Tremeloes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Blue Mink, Jim Reeves, Val Doonican, and Creedence Clearwater. We're not sure what song was included in this book, but it was very likely "Govinda" from the Apple label.
While Srila Prabhupada exhorted his followers to avoid drugs and take up the brahminical life of a Vaisnava, drugs were a fundamental element of the counterculture. In 1969, the two were blended together in the lyrics of "Hare Krishna/Be-In", a memorable song from the Broadway musical, "Hair".
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rame, Rama Rama Hare Hare
Love love, Love love, Drop out, Drop out, Be in, Be in
Take trips get high, Laugh joke and good bye
Beat drum and old tin pot, I'm high on you know what
Marijuana marijuana, Juana juana mari mari
High high high high, Way way up here, Ionosphere
Beads, flowers, freedom, happiness
Beads, flowers, freedom, happiness
Not surprisingly, rock stars of the day who were exposed to the Vedic culture and to Krsna Consciousness had a tendency to think that they themselves were God-like. After all, they were surrounded by throngs of ardent disciples. Poster art of the day reflects this phenomenon. In the classic posters above, Bob Dylan fancies himself as the Buddha while Jim Morrison poses in a wishful many-armed form.
The Hollywood Festival
On May 23-24, 1970 an extraordinary music festival was held in Madeley, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, England. This two-day event turned out to be a legendary gathering of some of the biggest names in rock history.
Among the artists featured in the program were the Grateful Dead, who gave their very first UK performance at the Hollywood, Black Sabbath, Free, Family, Ginger Baker's Airforce, Traffic, Mike Cooper, Quintessence, Mungo Jerry, Screaming Lord Sutch, Jose Feliciano, Colosseum, and the Radha Krishna Temple. The program for this festival has become a high ticket collector's item. The Hare Krsnas are included on the events bill in the Festival program
The devotees who attended the Hollywood Festival were from the Radha Krsna temple located at 7 Bury Place, which preceded both Bhaktivedanta Manor and the Soho temple. The devotees were billed under the name "Radha Krishna Temple" at many other music gigs in the UK, as well.
The devotees at Bury Place had built their own temple, which was an interesting architectural structure that's been described as being like the inside of the hull of a ship. The devotees were making absolute maximum use of every inch of space there. They had built little lofts, and people were sleeping in the corners. It was just packed out, and Srila Prabhupada's sankirtana parties were in high gear.
The Radha Krishna Temple devotees came out in force for the Hollywood Fesetival, and had the distinct honour of opening the festivities on stage. Following them was the first rock music act, UK's Screaming Lord Sutch.
While little video footage exists of this rare gathering of the tribes, a four minute film was made by Bob Colover, who captured shots of the devotees along with the Dead, Family, and Lord Sutch. Following are still pictures from that video footage.
Various archival collections have been put together on the Hollywood Festival, including oral histories from festival-goer's. One concert goer remembered the devotees opening the show, saying he recalls "the Radha Krishna Temple doing a large chanting, dancing performance dressed in Indian clothes and swirling incense in front of the stage that created a nice vibe." Steven Thornton, said: "I vividly remember the [Hells] Angels bashing up the Radha Krishna temple in the early hours of Sunday for making too much noise."
A vast quantity of information about this festival (although little else about the devotee's presence there) can be found here.
In Part two of this series, we'll look at concert posters and handbills that feature the Hare Krsnas at various live music venues, where they shared the stage with some of the world's most loved bands.