is Hare Krishna?
Events: Kirtan Festival
2004 - Hansadutta das
this story to a friend Printer
Part I: New York, 1966
By Hayagriva das
September 8, 1966. Janmastami. Lord Krishna, we learn,
is not born like an ordinary child. He appears. Five thousand years
ago, in Mathura, India, He appeared as four-armed Narayana, attired in
His transcendental garments. At His mother’s request, He assumed a
two-armed form, like an ordinary child. Sri Krishna is most obliging to
“Today we will fast,” Swamiji tells us. “Normally we do
not fast all day. Krishna consciousness is not for one who eats too
much or too little. Gandhi fasted many days for political reasons, but
we don’t. In Bhagavad-gita, that kind of fasting is considered rajasic,
or passionate. We fast according to regulations: Ekadasi, the eleventh
day of the full moon, we take no grains. That is a partial fast. And
Janmastami, there is complete fast all day until midnight. So today we
will fast and chant, and tomorrow there will be initiation.”
There are eleven of us to be initiated. Roy buys us
beads for chanting, a hundred and eight round wooden beads the size of
marbles. Standing in the courtyard behind the temple, I string them
into a rosary called a japa-mala. While chanting, I carefully
slide each bright, red bead up the string and then knot it. It takes
hours to complete knotting all the beads. When I ask Swamiji why there
are a hundred and eight, he tells me that they represent the gopis,
the Vrindaban cowherd girls beloved of Lord Krishna.
In the afternoon, Stanley and I walk over to the Orchard
Street flea market, buy cotton cloth, and dye it saffron in Swamiji’s
bathtub. We then cut the cloth in lengths of about four yards for
robes. Stanley even goes so far as to shave his head, but the rest of
us balk at this, especially after seeing what happened to Keith.
Besides, many of us wear long hair with a certain perverse pride,
considering that it identifies us as members of the hip scene. We are
the Hair Generation.
“In Kali-yuga, people think they will be beautiful just
by wearing long hair,” Swamiji says. “That is the verdict of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
We deliberate on this. Mercifully, Swamiji does not
insist on our shaving, nor on the wearing of robes. When, in the late
afternoon, some of us become restless and hungry from fasting, Swamiji
tells us that there’s fruit in the refrigerator.
“If you are feeling weak, take,” he says.
We don’t, but allow ourselves some water instead. For
most of us, fasting until midnight is the most severe austerity we have
After evening kirtan, we request Swamiji to read
from his new manuscript, and he sends Roy upstairs to bring down his
translation of Bhagavad-gita. This, we feel, is a special
event. At last we won’t have to hear the impersonalist Radhakrishnan
translation! As in the First Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam,
the translations are supplemented with Swamiji’s elaborate purports
explaining all aspects of the verse in the Vaishnava personalist
After the reading, Swamiji relates the story of Lord
Krishna’s appearance some five thousand years ago.
“Those who can understand the nature of Krishna’s advent
are not born again,” he says, “but attain the abode of Krishna. That is
Sri Krishna’s promise to Arjuna in the battlefield.”
He then tells of the midnight birth of Lord Krishna in
the prison of His demonic uncle, King Kamsa.
“The Lord’s appearance can be likened to the rising of
the full moon in the sky,” he tells us. “He appeared to His
devotee-parents, Vasudeva and Devaki, fully decorated, dressed in
yellow silks, holding in His four hands the conch shell, club, disc,
and lotus flower, and wearing beautiful ornaments. Since the evil King
Kamsa was killing all of Devaki’s children, Vasudeva took Krishna to
Vrindaban, where He was raised as the son of Nanda Maharaj, a wealthy
owner of many cowherds.”
After describing the birth of Lord Krishna, Swamiji
begins to talk of tomorrow’s initiation, telling us that there are four
basic restrictions for all initiates: No meat eating (including eggs
and fish), no gambling, no illicit sex, and no intoxicants (including
alcohol, cigarets, LSD, marijuana, tea, and coffee).
“For spiritual advancement, purification is necessary,”
he says. “Some so-called devotees smoke and drink and talk about
Krishna, but this is a mockery. To really understand Krishna, we must
be pure inside and out. Only pure chanting can bring real spiritual
advancement. Beginners may tend to relax their efforts, but to advance,
we must constantly increase our efforts and devotion. It is difficult
for a beginner to follow these regulative principles and keep his mind
on Krishna if he associates with skeptics; therefore we’ve established
“Years ago, when one of my God-brothers went to England,
one certain aristocrat asked, ‘What can I do to become a brahmin?’
My God-brother told him that first of all he must refrain from meat
eating, intoxication, gambling, and illicit sex. ‘Impossible!’ the
aristocrat replied.” Swamiji laughs heartily. “He was thinking that
this is impossible because material life revolves around these four
sinful activities. People are working hard day and night just to enjoy
these four pillars of Kali-yuga. Kali-yuga is the most degraded age,
and Maharaj Parikshit restricted the personality Kali to live in places
where these four sinful activities take place. So you must very
carefully avoid them. By chanting regularly and maintaining these
regulative principles, you can make progress. There’s no doubt.
All the rules set us pondering, but no one says
anything. What are we
to do? Object? Complain? How will it be possible to change overnight
the habits of a lifetime, or several lifetimes? If we truly desired to
change our lives, we would throw ourselves at the feet of Lord Krishna
and rely on His protection. But what do we know of Krishna? We can only
look toward Swamiji. “Whatever impedes Krishna consciousness should be
rejected, he says, “and whatever helps should be accepted.” Before his
purity, sex, meat eating, intoxication, and gambling seem nasty indeed.
They are anarthas, unwanted things.
“Your sinful karma is like a revolving fan,”
Swamiji explains. “By chanting Hare Krishna, you turn it off. The fan
may still revolve for a while after being turned off, but since it is
getting no more juice, it will soon stop.”
“When it stops, does it stop for good?” someone asks.
“You know where the switch is,” Swamiji says. “You can
always turn it back on.”
Despite reservations and anticipated difficulties, we
place our budding faith in Swamiji. By chanting and hearing him discuss
Bhagavad-gita, we trust that the rest will
follow. if not, what’s there to lose in trying?
“In this effort there is no loss or diminution,” Krishna
tells Arjuna, “and a little advancement on this path can protect one
from the most dangerous type of fear.”
“We are all trying to squeeze some enjoyment out of
these material bodies,” Swamiji says. “But instead of enjoying, we’re
suffering. Have I told you of the camel? Sometimes the camel eats
thorny branches, and his mouth bleeds. Tasting his own blood, he thinks
that the thorns are very savory, and so he just keeps on chewing.
Material pleasure is like that. We think we are enjoying, but actually
we’re drinking our own blood. This is due to ignorance.”
We continue chanting on our new beads all evening. None
of us has ever
before chanted for such a long time, and, despite fasting all day, we
feel mysteriously energized. As midnight approaches, we hungrily
envision the great birthday feast of Lord Krishna, mountains of
succulent prasadam: cake and kachoris, halava
and puris, sabji, sweet rice, samosas and gulabjamuns.
Just a few minutes before midnight, Swamiji finally descends from his
kitchen with the prasadam. But our faces drop. There is only a
platter of cut fruit.
“Oh no!” I whisper to Wally. “Is this all we get after
starving all day?”
The expression on everyone’s face reflects the general
disappointment. Without saying anything, Swarmji gives the plate to
Roy, who passes it around.
“We’ll never make it,” Wally says, taking a slice of
apple and half a banana.
But to our surprise, the small serving of fruit
satisfies us perfectly.
Whether fasting or feasting, when we are with Swamiji,
we are having fun—that’s all we know. For us, he is a sage,
grandfather, spiritual master, and favorite uncle all rolled into one.
Sitting on the dais, eating a little fruit with us, he chats about
seemingly mundane topics, and laughs.
“Chanting, dancing, eating prasadam,
philosophizing,” he says. “That is our process. Who would not like it?”
Yes, who would not like it, eternally, in Swamiji’s
company? Though we do not say it, we feel in our hearts that he is our
only link to Krishna in a dark and lonely world.
“Now that you have beads,” Swamiji says the next
morning, “you should
chant sixty-four rounds every day.”
“Sixty-four rounds?” To pronounce every word of the mantra
distinctly, we require five minutes to chant a round. Sixty-four rounds
would take over five hours. “Impossible!” we say. “We’ll never have the
“All right,” Swamiji says. “Thirty-two rounds.”
“‘Impossible,” we say. “We’ll never be able to do it.
It’s way too much.”
“All right,” Swamiji says. “Sixteen rounds. No less.”
After the kirtan, Swamiji requests us to chant
one round, and the little storefront vibrates with the mantra.
It is most soothing. It drowns out even the constant Second Avenue
cacophony of traffic, kids, and barking dogs. “It is best to chant all
your rounds early in the day,” he says. “Actually, before the sunrise.
Perhaps this you cannot do, but at least try to have sixteen rounds
chanted by midday. Of course, chanting should go on all the time. There
is no restriction.”
“Even when we go to the bathroom?” I ask.
“Yes,” Swamiji laughs. “Even then. Of course, you must
not take your beads into the bathroom. But the mantra you can
chant all the time.”
That afternoon, Wally and I again visit Keith in
Bellevue. He is glad
to hear that we’ve cleared everything up with Swamiji.
“Tonight we’re taking initiation,” I tell him. “There’s
to be a fire sacrifice.”
“I’d give anything to be there,” he says. “I finally got
to see a psychiatrist today, but no word yet.”
“Swamiji says that we’ll have a special initiation for
you when you get out,” I say. “He really needs you to help with the
“I try to sit down and read Narada,” he says, “but the
wards won’t let me sit still. They keep harassing me for some reason.
I’ve gotten a few boys to chant, though. They don’t know what to do
“Careful, don’t antagonize them,” Wally advises.
“Remember that you want out. Swamij’s waiting for you.”
Despite laughter and words of encouragement, we don’t
succeed in cheering him up.
In the afternoon, following Swamiji’s directions, we
prepare for the
initiation by getting soil, sticks, flowers, clarified butter (ghee),
sesame seeds and barley, various colored dyes, and bananas—all, we are
told, for the fire sacrifice.
That evening, Stanley and I put on robes for the first
time. Swamiji shows us how to wrap the dhotis around our waists
and tie them Vaishnava style. Since my material is unusually long, I’ve
difficulty keeping the dhoti from falling down. Seeing this,
Swamiji pulls the knot tight, like a ship’s captain securing lifelines,
determined not to lose a man in the ocean of maya. He approves
of the turtle-neck saffron T-shirts we bought on Orchard Street to
match the robes.
When all eleven of us are assembled in his apartment,
Swamiji leads us into the altar room and shows us how to put on tilak.
Following his example, we carefully mix the fuller’s earth in our palms
“This should be mud from the holy river Jamuna,” he
tells us, “but here, this will have to do.”
Then we put the moist clay on our foreheads before a
little hand mirror. Somehow I can’t make the Vaishnava “V” as Swamiji
did, and I wind up with a smeared variation. Seeing this, Swamiji
swiftly runs his finger down my forehead, and I look in the mirror and
see a perfectly formed tilak marking.
“My Guru Maharaj would never use a mirror,” Swamiji
says, “but his tilak was always perfect. He would never see a
disciple unless the disciple was wearing tilak.”
Although the complex ritual is mysterious to us, Swamiji
somehow makes it seem perfectly natural and proper. All we really know
about the initiation ceremony is that it is to be a fire sacrifice (agnihotra-yajna)
in the ancient Vedic style. This in itself captivates us.
In the center of the room stands a small mound of earth,
and placed beside it are bananas, kindling, incense, a pot of ghee,
sesame seeds, barley grain, and colored dyes. Swamiji sits on the floor
in front of the mound and gestures for us to sit on the other side.
Since the room is small, the eleven of us fill all the space, sitting
cross-legged, knee to knee, on the floor. Only three of us wear robes;
the others are dressed casually in dungarees and T-shirts. Some guests
stand in the back room and stare curiously through the opened door and
partition. We chant Hare Krishna softly in order not to disturb the
neighbors. At eight p.m., Swamiji lights the incense and softly begins
to recite Gayatri mantra, offering obeisances first to the sun
“Om bhur bhava sva tat sabitur...”
He indicates that we are all to chant Hare Krishna on
our beads, and suddenly the room is buzzing with mantra.
Then Swamiji takes a spoon in his left hand and drops
water thrice into his right hand from a tiny silver goblet. He sips the
water, places one more spoonful in the right hand, and flicks it on the
floor. He passes the goblet and spoon around, and we follow suit.
Despite the simplicity of the act, some of us place the water in the
wrong hand or sip it at the wrong time, and he patiently corrects us.
After we get the knack of it, he begins chanting.
“Now repeat after me,” he says, invoking the
om apavitrah pavitro va
sarvavastham gato ’pi va
yah smaret pundarikaksam
sa bahyabhyantarah sucih
sri-visnuh sri-visnuh sri-visnuh
We try our best to pronounce the words after him.
Translation: “Unpurified or purified, even having passed
through all situations, one who remembers the lotus-eyed Supreme
Personality of Godhead is cleansed within and without.”
After we thrice repeat the Sanskrit, Swamiji raises his
hand for silence. He then reminds us that we should never fret when
confronted with adversities, for we should always know that Lord
Krishna is driving our chariot.
“Krishna and Arjuna sat in the same chariot,” he tells
us. “But Arjuna knew that Krishna is the Supreme. We are also in a kind
of chariot with Krishna. That chariot is this material body, and within
the heart Lord Krishna is present as the Supersoul, witnessing all our
activities. Even though He accompanies us within the material world,
Krishna is never attached. He does not act out of need because He has
no desires. He is Paramatma, the Supersoul, and we are jiva-atma,
the individual fragmental souls. In the Upanishads, these
are compared to two birds sitting in the same tree, the tree of the
body. One bird, jiva-atma, is enjoying the fruits of the tree,
while the other bird, Paramatma, just sits and watches. These two birds
have an eternal transcendental loving relationship, but the one bird
has become so absorbed in enjoying the tree’s fruits that he has
forgotten his Friend. This forgetfulness of Krishna is called maya.
Still, His love for us is so great that whenever we transmigrate from
one body to another, Krishna goes with us to see what we are doing. He
is simply waiting for us to turn our face toward Him. As soon as we
turn our face toward Krishna, He says, ‘My dear son, come on. You are
eternally dear to Me. Now you are turning your face to Me, so I am very
“Krishna is always fulfilling our desires. If we want to
turn away from Him, He allows us. And if we want to suffer, He lets us.
But an intelligent man will ask, ‘Why am I suffering? I do not want to
grow old and die, but I must.’ Why are we undergoing all this
suffering? For a little sense gratification, that’s all. Here, everyone
is simply mad after sense gratification. Over and over, people are
chewing the chewed. You have chewed sugarcane? After sugarcane is
chewed, there is no more juice. It is to be spat out. But still,
thinking there is some enjoyment in this material world, people are
chewing the chewed. And what is the result? Although people are
searching for eternal pleasure, they are only suffering. When you begin
to question this suffering, it is time to approach a bona fide
spiritual master who can teach you how to put an end to suffering.…
“We are not meant for suffering but for eternal
enjoyment. We are not this dull matter, but Brahman, spirit soul, part
and parcel of the Supreme Brahman, Lord Krishna. And when we realize
our nature as Brahman, we become joyful. Brahma-bhutah
His talk continues for some thirty minutes. Legs aching,
we try to modify our cross-legged positions, even as Swamiji tells us
that we are not these bodies. But at no time can we take our eyes off
him. With his words, he captivates us. Once again, he reminds us to
follow the four basic regulative principles against meat eating,
illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling.
“These are the four trademarks of this age of Kali,” he
says. “In this age, men are short-lived , ignorant, quarrelsome,
forgetful, and always anxious. So let us put all this nonsense aside,
chant Hare Krishna, be happy and go back home, back to Godhead.”
As the lecture ends, Roy passes out small wooden neck
beads, called kanthi beads, and we put them on one another,
tying them in back.
“Hey, how do you get these off?” Wally asks.
“You don’t,” Stanley says. “They’re collars for
Then, one by one, Swamiji takes our japa beads
and chants on them, reciting the complete Hare Krishna mantra
on each one of the hundred and eight beads. We chant also, and the
drone of our voices fills the tiny room. Then we individually receive
our beads and our new spiritual names. Mike Grant becomes Mukunda, Jan
becomes Janaki, Wally becomes Umapati, Carl becomes Karlapati, Stanley
becomes Stryadhisa, Roy becomes Rayarama, Stan Moskowitz becomes
Satyabrata, Jim Greene becomes Jagannatha, Bill Epstein becomes
Ravindra-svarupa, Janos, visiting from Montreal, becomes Janardana.
Swamiji beckons to me, and I move forward and hand him
the large, red japa beads. After chanting the round, Swamlji
gives the beads back. They are now sanctified.
“You start here,” he says, “and chant around like this
to here. Don’t cross over. Then back around like this. Sixteen rounds a
day. And your name is Hayagriva.”
I take the beads with my right hand, hold them tightly,
and bow to the floor, reciting the mantra: “Namo om
vishnu-padaya krishna-presthya bhutale srimate bhaktivedanta-svamin iti
“I offer my obeisances unto His Divine Grace A.C.
Bhaktivedanta Swami, who is very dear to Lord Krishna, having taken
shelter at His lotus feet.”
While reciting this, I sense everything becoming lighter
and brighter, as if the whole room is brightening and the burden of
many lifetimes is being dispersed. Out of compassion and mercy, the
spiritual master absorbs the sinful reactions of his disciples’ karma.
“The word guru means heavy,” Swamiji had told
us, leaving it to us to understand why.
After chanting on all eleven sets of beads, Swamiji
colored dyes up and down and sideways on the mound of earth before him.
We all strain to watch each move. He dips the twigs and wooden
splinters in clarified butter, then lights them with a candle. One by
one, he takes up the splinters and builds a small fire on the mound. He
then mixes the sesame seeds, barley, and clarified butter in a bowl and
passes it around, telling us to scoop up handfuls. As he recites the
Sanskrit prayers, we repeat the words:
vande ham sri guroh sri yutapada-kamalam sri-gurun
“I offer my obeisances unto the lotus feet of my
spiritual master and unto the feet of all Vaishnavas.”
In Sanskrit, we also offer obeisances unto the major
teachers in the disciplic succession. Each prayer is ended by the word svaha,
thrice repeated. When we say “sva-HAH,” we throw the sesame
seeds and barley onto the karma-consuming fire. Meanwhile,
Swamiji continues pouring on butter, sesame seeds, and barley, and
piling up kindling until the mound is blazing. The prayers flow on with
rhythmic svaha’s, seemingly endless, and as we continue the
litany, the flames rise, and the room heats up. When the prayers
finally end, we can hear only the crackling of the fire and popping of
sesame seeds. Someone distributes bananas, and Swamiji tells us to put
them on the fire. We do so, and the bananas quickly begin to smoulder.
As the smoke thickens, some guests begin coughing and retreating into
the hallway. Swamiji calmly pours the remaining butter and seeds onto
the fire. We wonder if someone will panic and call the fire department.
A strange sight indeed for New York firemen: Swamiji, unaffected amidst
the smoke, sitting in front of the fire, beaming with pleasure at his
eleven new disciples.
“This kind of smoke does not disturb,” he says, as
Mukunda and Janaki rush to open windows. “Other smoke disturbs, but
this kind of smoke does not.”
Smiling broadly, Swamiji stands up, claps his hands, and
chants Hare Krishna loudly. Placing one foot before the other, he
dances beside the fire. We also dance and chant, and the smoke slowly
abates. Our sinful karma burned to ashes!
The sacrifice completed, Swamiji mixes some ashes with
the remnants of butter and places a little on our foreheads. I ask him
the meaning of my new spiritual name.
“Hayagriva is an incarnation of Krishna who comes in Satya-yuga, the
Golden Age,” he says. “Hayagriva means bird-horse. As Hayagriva,
Krishna has a horse’s head and wings like a bird. When He breathes, the
Vedas come out.”
Trying to picture Hayagriva, I imagine the Greek god
Pegasus, logotype of the Mobil filling station outside.
“Not that you are Hayagriva,” Swamiji quickly warns.
“But Hayagriva-das. Das means servant, servant of Hayagriva. We
are all servants of God. Mukunda means Krishna, the giver of
liberation. Therefore, Mukunda-das-brahmachari.
Rayarama-das-brahmachari. Brahmachari means celibate student.”
While prasadam is distributed, Swamiji talks to
the guests, urging them to follow the example of his new disciples. He
laughs and jokes happily, explaining the meaning of each name.
As midnight nears, we all leave for our apartments,
eleven previously unacquainted people by destiny chosen out of a city
of millions, joined by a strange holyman from another land, perhaps
another universe, bound by his desire to spread Krishna consciousness
End of Chapter 4
is Hare Krishna?
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Krishna Consciousness -
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Society of Devotees -
Disciples of Srila Prabhupada
Spiritual Master -
Rittvik - Initiation
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