Handmade magazines and a unique recording help launch Krsna consciousness in the West.
by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
For years Srila Prabhupada had pursued alone his mission to spread Krsna consciousness, first in India and then in America. Now the handful of early followers in New York began to assume duties in preaching on their own. He was not alone any more.
Srila Prabhupada led the chanting of Hare Krsna in a 1966 recording entitled “Krsna Consciousness”
Prabhupada had begun BACK TO GODHEAD magazine in India. Although he had been writing articles since the 1930s, it was in 1944, in Calcutta, that he had singlehandedly begun the magazine, in response to his spiritual master’s request that he preach Krsna consciousness in English. It had been with great difficulty that through his pharmaceutical business he had managed to gather the four hundred rupees a month for printing. And he had singlehandedly written, edited, published, financed, and distributed each issue. In those early years, BACK TO GODHEAD had been Srila Prabhupada’s major literary work and preaching mission. He had envisioned widespread distribution of the magazine, and he had thought of plans for spreading the message of Lord Caitanya all over the world. He had drawn up a list of major countries and the number of copies of the magazine he wanted to send to each. He sought donations to finance this project, but help was scarce. Then in 1959 he had turned his energies toward writing and publishing Srimad-Bhagavatam.
But now he wanted to revive BACK TO GODHEAD, and this time it would not be done singlehandedly. This time he would give the responsibility to his disciples.
Greg Scharf, now Gargamuni since his recent initiation, found a press. A country club in Queens was trying to sell its small A.B. Dick press. Prabhupada was interested, and he rode out to Queens in a borrowed van with Gargamuni and Kirtanananda to see the machine. It was old, but in good condition. The manager of the country club wanted $250 for it. Prabhupada looked over the machine carefully and talked with the manager, telling him of his spiritual mission. The manager mentioned a second press he had on hand and explained that neither machine was actually of use to him. So Prabhupada said he would pay $250 for both machines; the country club did not really need them, and besides, the manager should help out, since Prabhupada had an important spiritual message to print for the benefit of all humanity. The man agreed. Prabhupada had Gargamuni and Kirtanananda load both machines into the van, and ISKCON had its printing press.
On a small press his disciples printed the first BACK TO GODHEAD magazine, one hundred copies, and then distributed them by bicycle
Srila Prabhupada gave over the editorship of BACK TO GODHEAD magazine to Hayagriva and Raya Rama. For so many years he had taken BACK TO GODHEAD as his personal service to his spiritual master, but now he would let young men like Hayagriva, the college English teacher, and Raya Rama, the professional writer, take up BACK TO GODHEAD magazine as their service to their spiritual master. In a short time, Hayagriva and Raya Rama had compiled the first issue and were ready to print.
It was an off night—no public kirtana and lecture—and Swamiji was up in his room working on his translation of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Downstairs, the printing of the first issue had been going on for hours. Raya Rama had typed the stencils, and during the printing he had stood nervously over the machine, examining the printing quality of each page, stroking his beard, and murmuring, “Hmmmmm.” Now it was time to collate and staple each magazine. The stencils had lasted for one hundred copies, and one hundred copies of each of the twenty-eight pages and the front and back cover were now lined up along two of the unvarnished benches Raphael had made that summer. A few devotees collated and stapled the magazine in an assembly line, walking along the stacks of pages, taking one page under another until they reached the end of the bench and gave the assembled stack of pages to Gargamuni, who stood brushing his long hair out of his eyes, stapling each magazine with the stapler and staples Brahmananda had brought from his Board of Education office. Even Hayagriva, who usually didn’t volunteer for menial duties, was there, walking down the line, collating. Suddenly the side door opened, and to their surprise they saw Swamiji looking in at them. Then he opened the door wide and entered the room. He had never come down like this on an off night before. They felt an unexpected flush of emotion and love for him, and they dropped down on their knees, bowing their heads to the floor. “No, no,” he said, raising his hand to stop them as some were still bowing and others already rising to their feet. “Continue what you are doing.” When they stood up and saw him standing with them, they weren’t sure what to do. But obviously he had come down to see them producing his BACK TO GODHEAD magazine, so they continued working, silently and efficiently. Prabhupada walked down the row of pages, his hand and wrist extending gracefully from the folds of his shawl as he touched a stack of pages and then a finished magazine. “ISKCON Press,” he said.
Jagannatha had designed the cover, using a pen-and-ink drawing of Radha and Krsna. It was a simple drawing within a pattern of concentric circles. The first page opened with the same motto Prabhupada had used for years on his BACK TO GODHEAD: “Godhead is light, nescience is darkness. Where there is Godhead there is no nescience.” And on the same page, Hayagriva had not been able to resist giving a quotation from William Blake, approved by Swamiji, which substantiated the philosophy of Krsna consciousness:
God appears, and God is Light
To those poor souls who dwell in Night,
But does a Human Form display
To those who dwell in realms of Day.
Although the editorial spoke of Blake, Whitman, and Jesus Christ, it stressed:
. . . . it is to teach this science [of devotion to God] that Swami Bhaktivedanta has come to America. His message is simple: the chanting of the Holy Name of God: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare . . . .”
Following the orders of his spiritual master, His Divine Grace Sri Srimad Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Goswami Prabhupad, Swami Bhaktivedanta began the initial publication of Bock to Godhead in 1944. This bi-monthly, published from 1944 to 1956 in Vrindaban, India, . . . established Swami Bhaktivedanta as the leading Personalist in India. This issue marks the first publication of Bock to Godhead in the West.
Prabhupada’s first and main instruction to his editors had been that they should produce the magazine regularly—every month. Even if they didn’t know how to sell the copies or even if they only turned out two pages, they had to continue bearing the standard.
He called Hayagriva to his room and presented him a complete three-volume set of his Srimad-Bhagavatam. On the front page of each volume he had written, “To Sriman Hayagriva das Brahmacari with my blessings, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.” Hayagriva was grateful and mentioned that he had not been able to afford them. “That’s all right,” Prabhupada said. “Now you compile this. BACK TO GODHEAD. Work sincerely, and make it as big as Time magazine.”
Prabhupada wanted all his disciples to take part in it. “Don’t be dull,” he said. “Write something.” He wanted to give his disciples BACK TO GODHEAD for their own preaching. Brahmananda and Gargamuni took the first issues out that same night on bicycles, riding to every head shop on the Lower East Side, all the way to Fourteenth Street and as far west as the West Village, until they had distributed all one hundred issues. This was an increase in the preaching. Now all his students could take part in the work-typing, editing, writing, assembling, selling. It was his preaching, of course, but he wasn’t alone any more.
* * *
Alan Kallman was a record producer. He had read the article in The Fast Village Other about the swami from India and the mantra he had brought with him. When he had read the Hare Krsna mantra on the front page, he had become attracted. The article gave the idea that one could get a tremendous high or ecstasy from chanting. The Swami’s Second Avenue address was given in the article, so one night in November, Alan and his wife visited the storefront.
Alan: There were about thirty pairs of shoes in the back of the room—people in the front and shoes in the back. We took off our shoes and sat down. Everyone was seated and very quiet. Front and center was a chair, and everyone was staring at this chair. Even then we felt a certain energy inthe room. No one was saying anything, and everyone was staring at the chair. The next thing was our first sight of the Swami. He came in and sat down on the chair, and there was a tremendous surge of energy. The Swami began chanting, and it was a very beautiful sound. Swamiji had this little drum he was hitting—very penetrating and exciting. One of the devotees was holding up a sign with the chant written on it so everyone could follow. Then the devotees got up and danced in a circle, a special dance with steps to it. The Swami was looking around the room, and he seemed to smile as he looked at you, as if to encourage you to join.
The next day, Alan phoned Prabhupada to propose that he make a record of the chanting. But it was Brahmananda who answered the phone, and he gave Alan an appointment with the Swami that evening. So again Alan and his wife went down to the East Village, which to them was the neighborhood where things were happening. If you wanted to have some excitement, you went down to the East Village.
When they entered the Swami’s room, he was seated at his typewriter, working. As soon as Alan mentioned his idea about making a record, Prabhupada was interested. “Yes,” he said, “we must record. If it will help us distribute the chanting of Hare Krsna, then it is our duty.” They scheduled the recording for two weeks later, in December, at the Adelphi Recording Studio near Times Square. Alan’s wife was impressed by how enthusiastically the Swami had gotten to the point of making the record: “He had so much energy and ambition in his plans.”
It was the night before the recording date. A boy walked into the storefront for the evening kirtana carrying a large, two-headed Indian drum. This was not unusual, as guests often brought drums, flutes, and other instruments, yet this time Swamiji seemed particularly interested. The boy sat down and was preparing to play when Prabhupada motioned for the boy to bring him the drum.
Brahmananda: Swamiji began to play, and his hands were just dancing on the drum. Everyone was stunned that Swamiji knew how to do this. All we had seen was the bongo drum, so I thought it was the proper Indian drum. But when this two-headed drum came out of nowhere and Swamiji started playing it like a master musician, it created an ecstasy a hundred times more than the bongo drum had.
After the kirtana, Prabhupada asked the boy if he could borrow the drum for the recording session the next night. The boy at first was reluctant, but the devotees promised to return his drum the next day, so he agreed and said he would bring the drum the next evening. When he left the storefront that night with his drum under his arm, the devotees thought they would never see the boy or his drum again, but the next day, a few hours before Swamiji was to leave for the studio, the boy returned with his drum.
It was a cold December night. The Swami, dressed in his usual saffron dhoti, a tweed overcoat, and a pair of gray shoes, got into Rupanuga’s VW van with about fifteen of his followers and their instruments and started out for the recording studio.
Brahmananda: We didn’t start recording right away, because there was a group ahead of us. So we went out for a walk in Times Square. We were just standing there with Swamiji, seeing all the flashing lights and all the sense gratification, when a woman came up to Swamiji and said, “Oh hello. Where do you come from?” in a very loud, matronly way. Swamiji said, “I am a monk from India.” And she said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. Glad to meet you.” And then she shook Swamiji’s hand and left.
At the studio, everyone accepted the devotees as a regular music group. One of the rock musicians asked them what the name of their group was, and Hayagriva laughed and replied, “The Hare Krsna Chanters.” Of course most of the devotees weren’t actually musicians, and yet the instruments they brought with them—a tamboura, a large harmonium (loaned by Allen Ginsberg), and rhythm instruments—were ones they had played during kirtanas for months. So as they entered the studio they felt confident that they could produce their own sound. They just followed their Swami. He knew how to play, and they knew how to follow him. They weren’t just another music group. It was music, but it was also chanting, meditation, worship.
Prabhupada sat on a mat in the center of the studio, while the engineers arranged the microphones and assigned each devotee a place to sit according to his instrument. When the engineers were satisfied, they cued the devotees, and Swamiji began chanting and playing his drum.
The first sound was the tamboura, with its plucked, reverberating twang. An instant later Swamiji began beating the drum and singing, Vande ‘ham sri-guroh . . . .
Then the whole ensemble put out to sea-the tamboura, the harmonium, the clackers, the cymbals, Rupanuga’s bells, Swamiji’s solo singing-pushing off from their moorings, out into a fair-weather sea of chanting. . . . lalita-sri-visakhanvitams ca . . . .
Swamiji’s voice in the studio was very sweet. His boys were feeling love, not just making a record. There was a feeling of success and union, a crowning evening to all their months together.
After a few minutes of singing prayers alone, Swamiji paused briefly while the instruments continued pulsing, and then began the mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare. It was pure Bhaktivedanta Swami—expert, just like his cooking in the kitchen, like his lectures. The engineers liked what they heard—it would be a good take if nothing went wrong. The instruments were all right, the drum, the singing. The harmony was rough. But this was a special record—a happening. The Hare Krsna Chanters were doing their thing, and they were doing it all right. Alan Kallman was excited. Here was an authentic sound. Maybe it would sell.
After a few rounds of the mantra, the devotees began to feel relaxed, as though they were back in the temple, and they were able to forget about making mistakes on the record. They just chanted, and the beat steadied into a slightly faster pace. The word hare would come sometimes with a little shout in it, but there were no emotional theatrics in the chorus, just the straight response to the Swami’s melody. Ten minutes went by. The chanting went faster, louder and faster-Swamiji doing more fancy things on the drum, until suddenly . . . everything stopped, with the droning note of the harmonium lingering.
Alan came out of the studio: “It was great, Swami. Great. Would you like to just go right ahead and read the address now? Or are you too tired?” With polite concern, pale, befreckled Alan Kallman peered through his thick glasses at the Swami. Swamiji appeared tired, but he replied, “No, I am not tired.” Then the devotees sat back in the studio to watch and listen as Prabhupada read his prepared statement.
“As explained on the cover of the record album The sympathetic devotees thought that Swamiji, despite his accent, sounded perfectly clear, reading from his script like an elocutionist. “. . . this transcendental vibration by chanting of Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare is the sublime method for reviving our Krsna consciousness.” The language was philosophic, and the kind of people who usually walked out of the temple as soon as the kirtana ended, before the Swami could even speak a word, would also not appreciate this speech on their record album. “As living spiritual souls,” Swamiji preached, “we are all originally Krsna conscious entities. But due to our association with matter from time immemorial, our consciousness is now polluted by material atmosphere.” The devotees listened submissively to the words of their spiritual master, while at the same time trying to comprehend the effect this would have on the audience. Certainly some people would turn it off at the very mention of a spiritual nature. Swamiji continued reading, explaining that the chanting would deliver one from the sensual, mental, and intellectual planes and bring one to the spiritual realm.
“We have seen it practically,” he continued. “Even a child can take part in the chanting, or even a dog can take part in it. . . . The chanting should be heard, however, from the lips of a pure devotee of the Lord.” And he continued reading on to the end. “. . . No other means, therefore, of spiritual realization is as effective in this age as chanting the maha-mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
Alan again came rushing out of the studio. It was fine, he said. He explained that they had recorded a little echo into the speech, to make it special for the listener. “Now,” he pushed back his glasses with his finger. “We’ve got about ten minutes left on the side with the speech. Would you like to chant again? Or is it too late, Swamiji?” Prabhupada smiled. No, it was not too late. He would chant the prayers to his spiritual master.
While his disciples lounged around the studio, watching their spiritual master and the technical activity of the engineers behind the glass, Prabhupada began singing. Again the harmonium’s drone began, then the tamboura and drum, but with a much smaller rhythm group than before. He sang through, without any retakes, and then ended the song (and the evening) with a fortissimo drumming as the hand-pumped organ notes faded.
Again, Alan came out and thanked the Swami for being so patient and such a good studio musician. Prabhupada was still sitting. “Now we are tired,” he admitted.
Suddenly, over the studio sound system came a playback of the Hare Krsna chanting, complete with echo. When Prabhupada heard the successful recording of his chanting, he became happy and stood and began dancing, swaying back and forth, dipping slightly from the waist, his arms upraised in the style of Lord Caitanya, dancing in ecstasy. The scheduled performance was over, but now Swamiji was making the best performance of the evening from his spontaneous feelings. As he danced, his half-asleep disciples became startled and also rose to their feet and joined him, dancing in the same style. And in the recording booth behind the glass, the engineers also raised their hands and began dancing and chanting.
“Now you have made your best record,” Swamiji told Mr. Kallman as he left the studio for the freezing Manhattan evening. Swamiji got into the front seat of the Volkswagen bus while “The Hare Krsna Chanters” climbed into the back with their instruments, and Rupanuga drove them back home, back to the Lower East Side.