It was on a Saturday afternoon in the late spring of 1969 that I first saw the Hare Krishna people. I was walking with a former schoolmate in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York. Dressed in ankle-length orange robes, the Krishnas danced and sang. One was playing an oblong double-headed Indian drum while others clanged hand cymbals. Their odd dress and behavior repulsed my friend, but I was intrigued. It was as if I were seeing something from another world. Most of the passersby simply ignored them.
I had arrived in New York the previous winter, after dropping out of college and taking a job as a mail clerk in an advertising agency. A rock-'n'-roll fan, I often attended concerts at the Fillmore East theater on lower Second Avenue, and other venues around the City. Later that summer, some friends and I drove to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in upstate New York. Due to logistical problems, the breaks between acts were long. During one such quiet break, a robed Hare Krishna member stood at the rim of the natural amphitheater and released a long, loud French horn-like blast from a conch shell, as if to bless the vast gathering of tribes.
On my lunch hour one day the next fall, I again saw the Hare Krishna people. This time they were chanting and making their special brand of Indian music near where I worked on Fifth Avenue. Back in the office, some of my coworkers complained about what they saw as the Krishnas' outlandish eccentricity. I replied that whatever their dress and behavior might be, at least they had the right to do what they do.
In December, I quit my job and traveled with a friend named John to Berkeley, California, a center of the burgeoning "counterculture." As we strolled along Telegraph Avenue, the commercial center of the area, we came across many political and religious groups as they proselytized the passersby. We stopped to talk to a shaven-headed Hare Krishna devotee who was selling books and incense from behind a cloth-covered card table. The center of his forehead bore a marking that consisted of two thin vertical white lines joined at a point between his eyes in a pattern resembling a tuning fork.
John asked him why he shaved his head. With calm assurance he replied, "Because it has transcendental beauty." His deep-set eyes squinted slightly as he spoke. After a pause, he went on to say that his sect was part of a 5,000-year-old Indian spiritual tradition. Holding up a book entitled Bhagavad-gita As It Is, he pointed to an endorsement on the back cover by the popular beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The devotee declared, "You know, all the really hip and intelligent people are reading this book these days." He made buying a book seem like a natural act. I bought it and took it home, but not being much of a reader — and especially not a reader of books about religion — I never opened it.
Back in New York, I resumed work at my former job and moved into an apartment in a barrio on the Lower East Side. I began to play bass guitar in a garage rock-'n'-roll band. Its leader was a wooden flute player and songwriter from San Francisco named Roberto. He introduced me to Zen macrobiotics, a Japanese philosophy and religion that promotes a strict diet of brown rice and vegetables as the way to physical and spiritual health. I experimented with the popular street drugs of the day, including marijuana, LSD, and magic mushrooms. They gave me what I took as religious or consciousness-expanding experiences.
I mentioned to Roberto my encounters with the Hare Krishnas. He replied that he had seen them often during the heyday of the Flower Children in San Francisco. Their generosity in distributing free food — mainly white rice and Indian sweets — in the city parks had impressed him. He mentioned that for a time they had even passed out free LSD in Golden Gate Park. The drugs posed no problem for us, but we did wonder about the white rice and sugar they served, as neither food was recommended in the macrobiotic diet. Roberto concluded, "If you're going to get it together, you might as well get it together on all fronts."
Having grown up in the Quaker tradition of nonviolence, and being bitterly opposed to the vicious war in Vietnam, I applied for, and received, draft status as a conscientious objector. At a massive peace march in Washington, DC, on May Day, 1971, my friends and I watched as the Hare Krishna people distributed vegetarian food to scores of hungry demonstrators.
When the warm weather arrived in June, I became restless and longed to leave the big, gray city. I decided to travel to Vancouver, British Columbia, which I had heard was a "happening" place for young people. I bought a secondhand Volkswagen stationwagon with some money my father had given me. The first night of my trip, I crossed the Canadian border near Montreal, parked at the roadside, and slept in the car. I began my westward journey the next morning on the Trans-Canada Highway, sharing the driving chore with three Canadian students who were hitchhiking across the country at the start of their summer vacation.
After about three days of near-constant driving, we arrived in Vancouver. There I rented a room in a two-story house in the Seventh Avenue hippie district, and settled in with my new Canadian housemates. I bought my groceries at a natural foods store and took classes in hatha yoga and macrobiotic cooking. I continued to take occasional trips on LSD.
One afternoon, as I played my acoustic guitar alone on the sidewalk at a busy intersection in the heart of the downtown business district, a double column of robed and sandal-clad Hare Krishna devotees marched past, chanting and playing their Indian instruments. The "ching, ching, chi-i-ing" of the brass hand cymbals pierced through the city noise. Five or six shaven-headed Krishna men led the procession. Two or three women with covered heads brought up the rear. A man was carrying a placard displaying the Hare Krishna mantra in large, Gothic script:
I declined their invitation to join them in their chanting.
On another occasion in downtown Vancouver, a devotee told me that they lived together in a temple under strict vows of poverty and chastity. I admired their single-mindedness of purpose, but they made me feel a bit selfish. Perhaps it was true that something was missing from my life, I thought.
While eating lunch one afternoon in a natural foods restaurant, I enjoyed listening to an album of Hare Krishna chanting that George Harrison of the Beatles had produced. I had already heard some of these chants on Harrison's solo records.
That first year in Vancouver, I befriended a thirty-year-old former Chicago police officer by the name of Larry. He smelled like incense and shared my interests in guitars and vegetarianism. He practiced hatha yoga, standing on his hands for hours at a time or cleansing his stomach by swallowing medical gauze.
Most of my other hippie friends were suspicious of older people and rarely did anything that was, strictly speaking, legal. Therefore, they took his advanced age and former occupation with some skepticism at first.
In any case, Larry, too, had seen the Krishnas on the street corners. He once complained, "They're always relating to their guru." Most of our friends "did their own thing," even when it came to something as structured as religion.
On one occasion, as Larry and I were playing our guitars on a street corner in downtown Vancouver, a Krishna devotee walked by with an Indian drum strapped around his neck. He was tall and stocky, with a big, round head that was shaved except for a small tuft in the back. We gave him one of our guitars. He played and sang a spirited, up-tempo version of the Hare Krishna mantra. The beauty and conviction of his voice impressed me. I took mental note of the simple three-chord sequence he was playing. Captivated by the hypnotic simplicity of the song, I often played and sang it at home.
On another occasion in downtown Vancouver, I spoke to a robed and sandal-clad devotee who was selling incense to earn money for a pilgrimage to India. "I'm depending on Krishna to send me the money I need, fifty cents at a time," he said serenely, before inviting me to a "free vegetarian love feast" on Sunday afternoon. I remembered once seeing an ad for a free Hare Krishna feast in the East Village Other, an underground newspaper in New York. He said I would understand more about "Krishna consciousness" if I came to the temple. He added that there I would be able listen to "far-out tapes of Indian music — the kind George Harrison is into."
Several weeks later, a young Hare Krishna woman named Joanie approached me as I walked on a downtown sidewalk. She was wearing the traditional Indian sari, a full-length robe, one part of which covered her head and hair. She spoke to me about their lifestyle, which she called "spiritual communism." She spent her days chanting and serving God, or Krishna, as she called Him. The tone of her remarks seemed unexceptional to me. In those days, young people often spoke openly about their ideals. She had joined the Hare Krishna Movement after attending a ceremony at the temple. It seemed that she was in the state of "bliss" she spoke of so often when describing Krishna consciousness. Listening to her speak, I became concerned that perhaps it was true that my life was a bit too materialistic and self-centered. She sold me a booklet called Easy Journey To Other Planets, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, for fifty cents.
On my way home on the electric bus, I glanced through the booklet, thinking at first that it might be about astral travel, the ability of advanced yogis to travel through space by way of mind power. Although the first few pages were about travel to other planets, the remainder was about a "cowherd boy" named Krishna who lived in ancient India, and the modern International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which the Swami Prabhupada had founded in the mid-1960s. Discouraged from reading further by the many foreign words in it, I put the book down and looked out the window at the sunset above the residential and light industrial landscape of Vancouver.
In my conversations with the devotees, I discovered that many of them were like me. Most were young, middle-class people who had dropped out of college or jobs in an attempt to find greater meaning in their lives. They maintained that the chanting of Hare Krishna had given them a continuous drug-free high. A laudable goal, I thought. It seemed that the growing Krishna Movement was striving toward world peace and harmony. There were, however, no East Indians among the devotees I had met. I wondered why the Swami Prabhupada had failed to attract any members from his own country. Would not their cultural and religious experiences predispose them toward his ideas and programs?
One Sunday in the late summer of 1972, I decided that, after several years of procrastination, it was now time to attend the much-advertised Hare Krishna feast. I arrived at the temple on time at 4 p.m. It was similar to many two-story, single-family houses in that part of the city. Except, that is, for a sign above the front door that read, "SRI-SRI RADHA-KRISHNA TEMPLE."
I removed my shoes, placed them next to several other pairs outside the front door, and entered. The sweet smell of incense permeated the front hallway. It and the other rooms on the ground floor were nearly devoid of furniture. Pictures of multi-armed Hindu gods hung on the walls. Not knowing what to do, I sat cross-legged on the bare, wooden floor. Meanwhile, two barefoot devotees dressed in robes and wearing beads talked to each other in what sounded like a foreign language.
Along with several devotees and another guest, I climbed into the panel van belonging to the temple, as the feast was to be held at another location. No one said much. Perhaps the presence of us outsiders had inhibited the devotees' conversation, I thought. Then another devotee stuck his head into the van and said, "This can be just waiting, or it can be an opportunity for spiritual advancement!" I recognized him as the one who had played guitar on the street a few weeks before with Larry and me. The devotees in the van reached into the cloth bags that hung around their necks and began to mumble like transcendental bumblebees. After a few minutes, we started out for the Vancouver Free University, stopping along the way at a grocery store, where a devotee bought some frozen orange juice.
In the main auditorium at the University, the ceremonies began as a devotee lit a fistful of stick incense and waved it at a poster-sized, full-color picture of Krishna in his form as a blue cowherd boy. I watched from the sidelines as the other devotees began to chant in unison. The tempo, which was slow at first, gradually picked up until they were all jumping about wildly and singing or shouting at the top of their lungs. They were a bit on the fanatical side, I thought, but it was clear that they had committed themselves wholeheartedly to their religion.
After the chanting was over, the devotees served a spicy Indian vegetable dish, some Indian candy, and a sweet, cool, yellowish drink called "nectar." I learned later that it was made from buttermilk, orange juice concentrate, sugar, and ice. I enjoyed the foods and drink, even though I suspected that they contained sugar and food coloring, both of which were anathemas to a natural, organic, macrobiotic eater like me. On the other hand, they were vegetarians who mainly used grains and fresh fruits and vegetables in their cooking. Moreover, Krishna consciousness was similar to macrobiotics in that both philosophies attached great spiritual or metaphysical importance to food.
I spoke little as we ate. On my way home, I thought that this meeting with Hare Krishna devotees was mystical, to be sure, yet innocent enough.
Intrigued with Krishna consciousness, I decided to attend a second Sunday feast a couple of weeks later. This one was held at the temple building itself. In the "temple room," a converted living room that the devotees used for their daily religious services, they presented a short skit involving a devotee and a pair of drunken young men in Sixteenth-Century India. At first, the pair threw rocks at the devotee, but he later converted them to Krishna consciousness. The actor who played the devotee was the same one who had played music with Larry and me on the street several weeks before, and who had urged the devotees in the van to chant.
After the skit, he introduced himself as Bahudaka, the temple president. He was wearing the white robes of a "householder" (married) devotee. He lived near the temple with his devotee wife and their young son, Jacob. Married devotees were not permitted to live in the temple.
After the play, a devotee directed us to sit on the floor in straight rows. I sat next to a young woman devotee who had long, beautiful, reddish-brown hair and refined, angelic features. Her name was Gita-devi. "Gita" means song and "devi" means goddess or saintly person. A lovely name, I thought. As we ate, we talked about Krishna consciousness. I asked, "What were you doing before you became a devotee?" She answered, "Nothing." I wondered how this was possible.
Bahudaka, always the perfect transcendental host, entered the room, carrying a plate of food. A tall man, he was surprisingly light on his bare feet. When he saw me, his face lit up and he handed me a sugar candy known as a "sweet ball." I happily accepted the offering. His round face seemed to glow. He had what the devotees called "effulgence." He said to me with a slight lisp, "You have a blissful face."
A few weeks later, I revisited the temple on a weekday evening. The devotees were performing a ceremony known as arotik, a ritual during which the devotees chant Hare Krishna and other mantras, and offer flowers, water, and incense to the Deities. (The latter are representations of Krishna who are sanctified by the spiritual master and worshiped as God by the devotees.) In this particular temple, the three wooden figures on the altar were known collectively as the Jagganath Deities. Spotlights illuminated a flower-bedecked altar in the otherwise darkened temple room.
I watched as the devotees, dressed in well-pressed orange or white robes, swayed back and forth to the beat of the drums and hand cymbals. The men stood on the left side of the room and the women on the right, as one faced the Deities. Not feeling much like a member of either group, I ended up in the back of the room on the women's side. One of the men took me firmly by the arm and led me to the men's side.
After the ceremony, the curtains in front of the Deities closed. We sat on the floor, and Bahudaka addressed the assembled devotees. As he did so, he often looked at me. I wondered why he wanted so much for me to join the sect. In a way, I enjoyed the attention.
After the lecture, he talked to me alone in the hallway outside the temple room. He said, "Krishna is God. You are a part of Him. You must serve Him, as the part serves the whole. He wants you to become His devotee." He added, "Only Krishna can satisfy your desires. If you join this Movement, all your desires will be fulfilled." His lectures stressed that Krishna consciousness was the answer to all of one's questions and problems. I said little or nothing — his great size and enthusiasm for Krishna consciousness overwhelmed me. When he finished talking, he smiled and said, "You are a good listener."
An inner light seemed to illuminate the devotees, the altar, and everything else in the temple room. On my way home that evening, the grass, the trees, and the sidewalk outside the temple seemed to glow with an eerie, transcendental light. Or was I simply imagining it?
In the late summer of 1972, Larry and I packed our belongings in my car and set out for Gabriola Island, where several of his friends were living on a small commune. We took a two-hour ferry ride to Nanaimo, a small town on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island. From there we took a twenty-minute ferry ride to Gabriola Island, where we pitched my recently bought twelve-foot canvas teepee.
Hal and Ann, one of the couples who had cofounded the commune, were followers of an Indian swami named Shama. His headquarters were in Montreal. Clayton and Ann, the other cofounding couple, often read from the I Ching (also known as the Book of Changes), an ancient Chinese book of divination, and Baba Ram Dass's popular contemporary yoga primer, Be Here Now.
Another man known only by his alias, Tom Jones, had allegedly been involved in the first LSD consciousness-raising experiments in Northern California. He was on the run from the authorities. Michael from Ontario was also an advanced meditator and a devoted follower of the Swami Shama.
Shortly after our arrival, Marguerite and her three-year-old son, Lyle, joined us on the commune. The previous year, following a breakup with Lyle's father, she had nearly joined the Hare Krishna temple in her home city of Montreal. John and Kim, who were from Southern California, joined us later in the fall. They were followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Transcendental Meditation (TM), guru to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and other celebrities. They began to build a cabin using logs salvaged from the beach. We also built a makeshift Native American sweat lodge at the beach. Every week or so several of us purified our bodies in its intense heat.
We transcendental hippies and assorted "freaks," as we sometimes called ourselves, followed many different religious and philosophical paths. We agreed, however, that many different methods, including drugs, meditation, and chanting, could rid a person of ingrained, ignorant habits of thought and action and would lead to the goal of enlightenment and personal fulfillment.
On one occasion, a group from the commune attended a meeting of the Swami Shama's group at the suburban Vancouver home of one of his followers. The disciples meditated silently, chanted together, and cooked Indian-style meals for the middle-aged, silver-haired, turban-clad swami. They believed that he was self-realized and perfect in meditation. His ability to travel outside his body fascinated one disciple in particular. She told us, "When Shama goes up, I go up." Michael added, "Meditating is like sitting there and blowing your mind."
I understood by then that yogic enlightenment involved the renunciation of worldly pleasures. I was, therefore, somewhat surprised and disappointed to see that between, and sometimes during, meditation sessions, the swami was making romantic advances toward some of his young female followers. Unlike the Swami Prabhupada, he neither enforced strict rules of personal conduct nor formally initiated his disciples.
I joined the others in the group meditation sessions. Whenever I tried to meditate, however, nothing happened. I was unable to sit still for more than a minute or two. It was clear that silent meditation was not for me. I left early the next morning and hitchhiked a few miles to the Krishna temple, arriving in time for breakfast. The devotees gently chastised me for having spent time with the man they called "the Swami Sham."
Back on the island again a few days later, I moved from the teepee into a cabin for the upcoming winter season of rain. After settling in, I read a copy of the Krishna Movement's Back to Godhead magazine, which a Vancouver devotee had sold me. The magazine's legend was, "Godhead is light. Nescience is darkness. Where there is Godhead, there is no nescience."
In it, I found a full-page color picture of the young cowherd boy, Krishna, and tacked it onto a cabin wall. I looked out the window at the thick woods and then at the brightly colored picture. It occurred to me as I did so that the Hare Krishna philosophy must indeed be right: Krishna did seem more beautiful than nature. Another photo in the magazine showed the Swami Prabhupada, the guru of the Hare Krishna Movement, wearing a fancy watch. This seemed to me somewhat worldly for a person who was supposedly in touch with Transcendence.
Nevertheless, I wrote a letter to the Swami Prabhupada in which I said that bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion to God) interested me and that I wanted to know how to become more involved in the Movement. A few weeks later, a letter from Prabhupada arrived. In it he invited me to chant Hare Krishna on beads, to follow the rules and regulations, and to visit the temple in Vancouver. He had signed the letter, "A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami," with bold strokes. At the temple a few weeks later, the devotees showed mild interest in the letter, but others warned me never to write him again. They said it was selfish to demand personal attention from a man who was responsible for thousands of devotees, not to mention the fate of the world. I learned later that a devotee asked for nothing of the guru except to serve him obediently.
I wrote a letter to an aunt in which I told her about the wonders of Krishna consciousness, and invited her to chant Hare Krishna. I never received a reply.
When on the island, I ate brown rice, vegetables, and fruits, as I continued to follow my macrobiotic diet. In an attempt to purge my body of poisons, I once fasted for ten days on water and fruit juice.
In February 1973, I flew to New York City, using some money from a trust fund. Walking through midtown Manhattan after my trip in from the airport, I saw the Krishna devotees. Some were showing the passersby a laminated sheet of paper containing endorsements of their Movement by prominent politicians including Mayor John Lindsay and Senator Kenneth Keating. With their round, smiling faces, the devotees looked as blissful as ever. Though the day was brisk, one of the women declared, "We don't feel the cold when we're serving Krishna."
A devotee sold me a set of wooden prayer beads known as the japa-mala. Roughly comparable to a Roman Catholic rosary, it was used to count the repetitions of the Hare Krishna mantra. Another devotee gave me some spicy cooked eggplant, which I ate and enjoyed. A third invited me to the temple, which was then in Brooklyn. When I replied that I had already made plans to visit my mother in Connecticut that evening, she declared, "You don't want to go to your mother's — you want to come to the temple!" Nevertheless, I did not change my plans.
After New York, my next destination was Paris. My first morning there, I played guitar in the Metro. Later, at street level again, I saw what was by now becoming a familiar sight: the Hare Krishna devotees. They were chanting and marching in the streets and selling their Back to Godhead magazines in French and English. Apprehensive at first about chanting in public, I nevertheless quickly succumbed to an impulse to fall into step and sing with them. It felt liberating to sing, chant, and, figuratively speaking, to thumb my nose at the capitalistic, materialistic world.
After the devotees had finished their chanting for the afternoon, they took me with them on the Metro to the temple. They even paid my fare. As we rode, a devotee talked to me about the virtues of the Hare Krishna Movement and the vices of other religions. He criticized other gurus and mystics, calling them "opportunists," "rip-off artists," and "false prophets." Prabhupada, however, was the purest and most humble servant of God. Unlike other gurus, Prabhupada concerned himself only with spreading God's Name, not his own name, my devotee friend said.
To the devotees, the world was a frightening place. It was filled with sinful meat eating and rampant drinking, smoking, drug taking, and illicit sex. Most of what they said seemed a bit exaggerated and farfetched, but it was obvious that I was not going to change their minds. If anything, they would change mine, I concluded.
The temple was in a château in the outskirts of the city. As we passed through the gate, the devotee with whom I had spoken on the Metro sighed heavily and flopped face-first to the ground in prayer. Upon entering the temple grounds or the temple building, and upon entering the temple room itself, a devotee was expected to offer his humble "obeisances" by kneeling or prostrating himself, touching his forehead to the floor, and repeating two short mantras. The first addressed the spiritual master and the other addressed what they referred to as the "disciplic succession" of masters from Krishna to the present. This is similar to the Roman Catholic and Anglican conception of the Apostolic Succession from the Apostles to the current bishops.
Inside the temple building, women devotees served the returning men some hot, runny tapioca pudding on squares of wax paper. A few minutes later, after washing up, we all crowded into the temple room, which was in an outbuilding, for arotik.
When the ceremonies were over, a devotee took me upstairs to a room cluttered with typewriters and papers. He said it was there that the devotees translated Prabhupada's books and magazines into French. He showed me how to chant the sixteen-word Hare Krishna mantra once on each of the 108 beads of the japa-mala. They symbolized Krishna's highest devotees, the cowherd girls (Gopis) who played transcendental games with Him in the spiritual world.
The devotee said, "The mantra is God Himself. By chanting Hare Krishna, you will link up with God. You must control your mind by chanting." A devotee who chanted the mantra once on each of the 108 beads was said to have completed one "round." All devotees chanted at least sixteen rounds each day, he said.
As he talked about Krishna and the Gopis, his eyes glazed over and his voice trailed off. It seemed that the devotees were always talking about Krishna. That was why people called them Krishnas, I thought. Although they could be rational when they wanted, they seemed to prefer being blissed out.
To make conversation, I asked a devotee who spoke English with a North American accent how she liked Paris. She replied, "I'm not in Paris; I'm in heaven." Touché, I thought. When I mentioned that I liked health foods, she said, "Oh, Prabhupada doesn't like health foods, and we don't eat them, either." It was clear that the devotees took seriously not only the master's religious teachings, but his personal likes and dislikes as well.
A few minutes later, a senior devotee entered the room and placed a garland of scented carnations around my neck and the tuning-fork-shaped clay marking called tilak on my forehead. He asked me pointedly, "What are you doing here in Paris?" Suddenly, all my hippie "trips" seemed insignificant. I answered weakly, "I'm looking for musicians." He gestured toward the other devotees and declared, "Well, here we are!"
Leaving the temple that night, I felt uplifted. Walking from the Metro to my hotel, however, it seemed that Paris, which I loved, was a bit drearier, dirtier, and more morally degraded than before, just as the devotees had suggested it was. The neon signs glared a little more than usual and the pedestrians seemed a bit more robotic than before. In my tiny, sparsely decorated room, I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate and chant on the beads, as the devotee had instructed me. I was sure I would never reach the last bead.
While chanting, I remembered that Prabhupada had written that Krishna consciousness was not an artificial imposition on the mind. Rather, it was the natural, original consciousness of the living entity, he wrote. I eventually finished a full round — one complete cycle around the string of 108 beads.
A fortnight later, while passing through downtown Vancouver on my way back to Gabriola Island, I joined some devotees on the sidewalk as they chanted. Bahudaka lead the singing with his clear tenor voice, while accompanying himself on a harmonium. It might be described as a cross between an accordion and a small piano. He played the keyboard with his right hand while operating the bellows with his left hand. Some other devotees played karatals, polished brass hand cymbals about three or four inches in diameter.
As usual, the passersby tolerated our strange behavior without comments. We thought that this was so because they were interested only in materialistic pursuits, as opposed to God consciousness. When we finished chanting, I announced that I was going home. Bahudaka, referring to the company of devotees, replied, "But this is your home!"
The devotees told me that God had chosen me to help Him carry out His Mission on earth. Being among the chosen few felt flattering, but at the same time, saving the world did seem like a heavy burden. Nevertheless, I became passionate about chanting Hare Krishna over the next few weeks and months. Although chanting on beads was hard at first, I persisted and in time was able to complete two, three, eight, and finally the prescribed sixteen rounds per day.
The more I chanted, the more I wanted to become Krishna consciousness. Eventually, I wanted it more than anything else in the world. I had accepted much of the philosophy of Krishna consciousness: the guru (or spiritual master) was not only benevolent and knowledgeable but perfect and infallible; I had been in ignorance of the Absolute Truth before meeting the devotees; constant chanting and service to the spiritual master would reveal the Truth to me. I felt humble and grateful for having met the devotees.
About once a week, Larry and I traveled across the water to Nanaimo, the nearest town, for provisions. On one occasion, as we were driving on our return trip from the ferry to the commune, he spotted a hitchhiker and insisted that we stop and pick her up. A young Gabriola islander named Heather and her black Labrador retriever, Jack, climbed into the back seat.
A few months later, Larry and Heather married in a brief ceremony at the commune, and he moved into her house several miles up the island. After Larry left, I spent most of my days in solitude in a cave high above a rocky beach. On one dreamy and memorable LSD trip at the cave, I briefly became the Universal Teacher and the Source of Spiritual Knowledge.
Though I was spending most of my days on the island, I did visit the Vancouver temple several times a month. As a concession to the ultra-clean-cut devotees, I trimmed my shoulder-length hair to a short ponytail.
On one occasion, I arrived at the temple on a natural high after having chanted for many hours at home and on the ferry. I hoped that Bahudaka would notice that I had been chanting "like a madman," as the devotees would say. He said, "Krishna has sent you here. Soon you will move into the temple and serve Him with His devotees." I told him that I preferred life in the country to life in the noisy, polluted city. He replied that the sect had a big farm commune in West Virginia, and that I could take a Greyhound bus there for about $100. Nevertheless, I liked living in British Columbia and decided not to take his suggestion.
The curtains at one end of the darkened temple room opened, revealing a brightly lit altar and signaling the start of the evening arotik. Three wooden, jewel-bedecked Jagganath Deities, each about three feet high, and each surrounded by a colorful floral arrangement, stood on the altar. The devotees fell to their knees and offered their obeisances to the spiritual master. Some even prostrated themselves. They then rose and, led by Bahudaka, chanted Hare Krishna and other mantras in a ceremony known as a kirtan.
After the ceremony, Bahudaka lectured for fifteen or twenty minutes on the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred dialogue between Lord Krishna and His devotee Arjuna. Bahudaka then played a short tape recording of one of Prabhupada's speeches. I understood little of it because of his thick accent.
Meanwhile, I noticed that one of the devotees was dozing off. I thought it ironic that people who espoused God consciousness were sometimes unconscious in class. Nevertheless, having enjoyed the chanting, I asked a devotee after class if there would be any more chanting that night. He replied, "No, just be patient and wait until tomorrow morning." Another devotee gave me a scented garland that the Deities had worn. I remarked to some devotees, "If everyone else in a group believes something, then soon you will, too." They agreed.
I was becoming more of a regular at the temple services, and some of them even began to refer to me as a "devotee." I knew, however, that I was a long way from being a full-fledged devotee.
A senior devotee took me to an upstairs office, where he typed up the words to some daily prayers for me to take home. Another devotee explained to me that, being a part of the "material nature" (matter), drugs and chemicals, could never lead to God consciousness. I had to admit that this did make some sense, because after several years of intermittent LSD use, I was having increasing difficulty getting high. I decided to quit drugs and to pursue natural forms of consciousness raising, such as chanting.
At about 9:30, a devotee served everyone hot milk and sweet balls. The latter were made with butter, flavoring, and confectioners' sugar. I later learned that devotees called them "ISKCON bullets" because of their effectiveness in bagging new members. I was still dubious about eating sugar, but a devotee reassured me, "You're not eating sugar — you're eating Krishna."
Being accustomed to sleeping outdoors, I asked a devotee for permission to sleep on the roof outside the upstairs bedroom that served as the men's ashram (dormitory). He replied, "It's better to take rest inside, so you can jump up early with the other devotees." I slept inside. A devotee showed me how to point my sleeping bag to the East, the direction of Krishna's birthplace in Vrindavan, India.
I was in a deep, dreamless sleep when a devotee woke me at 4 a.m. and instructed me to shower and prepare for the morning program. A sign on the shower stall read:
Turn on cold water.
Turn off water.
Turn on cold water again.
Get out of shower — another devotee is waiting!
I attended the morning program of ceremonies, which included arotik, followed by the chanting of Hare Krishna on beads and a class on one of Prabhupada's books. After the program, I felt wide awake and highly sensitive to everything going on around me. The chanting of Hare Krishna had given my life a sense of purpose and meaning. I was now on a spiritual trip that was genuine and, as the devotees would say, bona fide.
At the same time, I resented what I thought was a feeling of superiority among some devotees. They were clean cut and highly disciplined, and I wore a beard, lived outside the temple, and often inadvertently broke their rules. I felt spiritually dirty around the devotees.
After the morning program, the devotees "took" (ate) breakfast prasadam (foodstuffs offered to Krishna) in a small room next to the kitchen. Servers placed cooked cereal and pieces of fresh fruit onto one-foot squares of wax paper. The squares were arranged into two straight rows, one at the front of the room, and one at the rear, near the kitchen. Bahudaka sat at one end of the front row next to the vice president. Next to them sat the other senior men, the junior men, and finally the guests. Meanwhile, the women took prasadam at the rear of the room.
A few weeks later, my friend Michael from the commune and I were grocery shopping in Nanaimo when I noticed that Bahudaka and some other devotees from the Vancouver temple were selling books on a street corner. When he spotted me, he demanded, "What are you doing out here in the material world?" I thought, "This must be the 'material world' if he says it is." Then I thought, "Yeah, what am I doing out here in the material world, anyway?" I listened as he talked. He sold us each a hardcover book containing full-color pictures of Krishna and stories about Him. The devotees offered us some food, which we ate. Meanwhile, a black devotee in the back of their van chanted on his beads, his head bent over his bead bag. It seemed that he was psyching himself up for a few more hours of selling books and preaching Krishna consciousness.
Later that evening, sitting alone before the fire in the teepee, I decided to accept the Hare Krishna philosophy. It was around April 1, 1973. I thought, "What do I have to lose by joining, even if they are wrong? If they are right, don't I have everything to gain?" Besides, I had concluded that because I was already chanting Hare Krishna all day, and because I had a desire to purify myself spiritually, it made sense to associate with others who shared the same goals. The devotees' frequent assertion that the material world presented too many distractions from spiritual life seemed true.
Still, I hesitated to move into the temple, because life there seemed too regimented and restrictive for me. I often felt like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It seemed that I was always committing one "offense" or another, as the devotees would say. Shoes and sandals always remained outside the temple building; hands and mouths were washed after eating; foreheads touched the floor and prayers offered upon entering or leaving the temple room; books never touched the floor; the kitchen was off-limits to all but initiated devotees, and so on.
Besides, I enjoyed my life on the island. Nevertheless, I decided to chant at least sixteen rounds every day and to spend as much time as I could at the temple while maintaining my home on the island.
Over the next several weeks, chanting highs replaced drug highs in my life. I often chanted while walking on the beach or standing in a meadow near our teepee. Some days I completed as many as sixty rounds. At fifteen minutes per round, this was about fifteen hours of chanting a day, nearly every waking minute.
On one occasion, Hal and Ann from the commune joined me at the temple for the evening arotik. Later, Ann went upstairs to sleep in the women's ashram, while Hal and I went to sleep in the basement. It reeked of strawberry incense.
A devotee woke us at 4:00 a.m. We showered, dressed, and went upstairs to the temple room. Ann looked quite natural in the sari the women had lent her, I thought. Although to my knowledge she had never chanted before, she seemed to have little trouble completing her quota of sixteen rounds of Hare Krishna before breakfast.
After the meal, Hal and Ann left to visit friends in another part of the city. Later, Hal told me that he, too, disliked the great number of rules in the Hare Krishna temple.
I watched in envy and fear as young devotees ran up and down the stairs and chanted at full volume, while preparing for another day of nonstop devotional activities. On one occasion, a devotee who had observed my idleness asked me to sweep the temple room. As I prepared to do so, he told me, "When you clean the temple, you are cleaning your heart. Devotional service is absolute."
Meanwhile, another devotee looked out the window at the grass, shrubs, and trees in the front yard. He was looking at what they called "Maya," the material energy or material nature. (In Christian terms, Maya is the Devil, the personality who lures the soul away from God.) I wondered what the outside world would look like to a devotee who was advanced in Krishna consciousness.
Then Bahudaka entered the room and said, "Okay, everyone outside for a little sacrifice." We went outside and pushed their van, whose battery was dead. Not wanting to perform menial tasks all day at the temple, I hitched a ride downtown with what they called the sankirtan devotees (those who sold Prabhupada's literature in public places).
On the way, a woman named Anala told me what it was like to take the message of God consciousness into the streets. She said that atheists had spat on and cursed her as she tried to spread the word. I wondered how someone who was doing so much good for the world could provoke such hostility. She added, "All my transcendental realizations come while I'm out on sankirtan."
Until then I had assumed that chanting alone inspired any realizations a devotee might have. When we arrived downtown, I climbed out of the van and walked to Stanley Park, the largest park in the city, where I took a much-needed nap.
A few weeks later, I attended a Hare Krishna wedding ceremony and feast in the park. As at other Krishna festivals, the devotees chanted loudly and danced energetically for several hours before taking prasadam. Bahudaka became so absorbed in leading the kirtan that he had forgotten to eat. Luckily for him, his wife had saved some food for him. For the first few minutes of our trip back to the temple, everyone in the van was silent. Although most of the devotees were tired after a long day, I still wanted to chant some more. For a few minutes I led, if tentatively, the group singing for the first time.
A few days later, I was back in the temple. Not caring to attend the class then in session in the temple room, I stood in the hallway outside the temple room. Chanting quietly before an idyllic painting of the youthful Krishna with a calf, I felt peaceful and contented, as if I were "at Home with Krishna in the Spiritual World," as the devotees would say. I understood why the devotees called pictures of Krishna "windows into the spiritual world."
I found the classes boring and hard to understand. When Bahudaka saw me after class, he encouraged me to attend the lectures, declaring, "You must get this philosophy!" Eventually, I did attend all the classes whenever I was at the temple.
During almost every visit to the temple, I put a ten or twenty-dollar bill into the donation box in the front hall. I also bought several recently published hardcover books that the devotees were reading and studying. These books contained color reproductions of pictures of Krishna that some devotees at other temples had painted. The sect had published a three-part paperback series called the Krishna Book, which contained stories about Krishna in His incarnation as a cowherd boy in the village of Vrindavan, India. George Harrison had contributed the introduction to the series.
In late May, several of us from the commune on Gabriola Island went on a month-long tree-planting expedition to the mountains of west-central British Columbia. On the drive home, I chanted Hare Krishna. While I was away, Stephane, a new member of the commune from eastern Canada, had accidentally set my teepee afire. Luckily, no one was hurt, but my summer shelter was gone. I made plans to leave the island and return to the temple for more chanting, ceremonies, and association of devotees.
On one occasion at the temple, I saw Jose, a man I knew slightly before he joined the sect, when we were hippies. Janaspriha, as he was known in the group, invited me to drive with him and his wife to San Francisco for the annual Ratha-Yatra festival. He described the it as a weekend of chanting, dancing, and feasting in Golden Gate Park with many hundreds of devotees and guests. This sounded like fun and I accepted the invitation.
The first night of our trip we slept at the Portland, Oregon, temple. We camped the next night in an abandoned building somewhere in Northern California. In the morning, his wife, using a propane stove, cooked us a breakfast of halavah, a cake-like preparation made from butter, sugar, and toasted cream of wheat.
Around noon on Friday, the day before the festival, we arrived at the San Francisco temple, which had once been a morgue. I joined a street chanting party of about two dozen devotees from various West Coast and mountain state temples. Meanwhile, the local devotees were preparing for the festival. Except for a short lunch break, we sang and danced all day on the streets of San Francisco. On our return to the temple, most of the devotees showed signs of fatigue. I was, however, full of energy and ready for more ecstatic chanting.
The devotees gathered after nightfall in the high-ceilinged foyer of the temple. Among them were various dignitaries from around the Movement and two swamis clad in orange robes. They had taken the sacred order of sannyasa, or renunciation, which meant that it was their duty to travel from temple to temple preaching Krishna consciousness.
Dina Bandhu, the Portland temple president, and his wife, both of them immaculate in their flowing white robes, descended the grand, curved staircase, as many other devotees rushed to greet them. This was my first taste of the high social life among householder devotees in a big-city Hare Krishna temple.
The events of the day had left me too excited to fall asleep, especially not on the wooden floor of the men's ashram. I did fall asleep eventually, but in the middle of the night, I reawoke, my remembrance of the robust chanting of Hare Krishna and the haunting sound of the karatals reverberating loudly in my head.
The next morning, the swamis lectured and led an ecstatic kirtan in the temple. One looked like a shaven-headed California surfer, but spoke with a thick accent much like Prabhupada's. The other looked like a pug-nosed amateur boxer in incongruous ecclesiastical robes. Both exuded supreme confidence while speaking and answering questions. They and the other devotees impressed me with their sincerity and enthusiasm. I was excited about joining the sect and dedicating my life to the pursuit of Krishna consciousness.
At the festival, hundreds of devotees chanted and danced before three large wooden Ratha carts, each of which carried a Jagganath Deity. A devotee approached me and applied tilak to my forehead. Apparently, he was spending the afternoon decorating the faces of guests who wanted to become devotees of Krishna for a day.
The devotees and guests pulled the carts several miles through the park to a bandstand situated at the end of a large field. Some of the best singers and instrumentalists in the Movement took the stage and led the group chanting and dancing. I was standing in front of a large loudspeaker when a black swami named Sudama began to sing. I wept. He sounded like a child crying for its mother. I had never before heard anyone as "surrendered" as he. The term was used to describe someone who had given heart and soul, mind and body to God.
On Sunday, the day after the festival, Janaspriha and his wife left for the LA temple and Mexico, where his relatives lived. I stayed another night at the San Francisco temple, because there was no room for me in the van belonging to the Vancouver devotees. On Monday morning, however, a San Francisco devotee told me that if I wanted to remain at the temple I would need to "shave up" (shave my head) and become a full-time devotee.
I hitchhiked to Portland and stopped at the temple for the night. There I saw a couple I knew from the Vancouver temple. Also returning to Canada from the Ratha-Yatra festival, they offered me a lift. They were carrying in their car a small, green bush resembling a basil plant. It made the car seem crowded, because one needed to take care not to touch its leaves. For reasons that were unclear to me, the woman fussed over it all the way home. It seemed that the air was always too hot or too cold for Tulsi-devi, as they called the plant. We opened or shut the windows for its comfort, not for our own.
Back in Vancouver my voice was hoarse and my legs were tired from the singing, shouting, and dancing at the festival. Most of the other devotees who were there also had little voice left.
At the temple, I met a young woman who had been hitchhiking around Canada. The free meals at the temple had drawn her there, I speculated. After talking a bit, we walked together to the bus stop. On the way, I said little, preferring instead to chant on my beads. We took the bus to my cheap downtown hotel room. She seemed bewildered when I offered her the bed and got ready to go to sleep on the floor at the early hour of nine p.m. The next morning I rose at three o'clock as usual and walked through the dimly lit, deserted streets of Vancouver and into the bright lights and hum of activity at the temple. I would spend much of the fall there.