My first connection with the Hare Krishna maha-mantra happened during the “Summer of Love” in August, 1967 in the course of a wedding within a three-room apartment in Powelton Village, the budding hippie district in Philadelphia. The wedding epitomized the time and place.
The groom and I had become close friends during our travails as fellow philosophy majors at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. Thin, angular, his pale beak-nosed face densely hedged with a curly black beard, Steve presented “the Jew” with a delicious hint of self-parody. His bride Catherine was black and beautiful and very pregnant. Behind the altar—a massive wooden table, knobby legged and claw-footed—a goateed United Church of Christ minister of progressive views officiated. As recitations from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tao Te Ching sounded out, a mottled cat manifested itself on the altar and began weaving balletically through a maze of objets, sacred and profane.
Then the reception: with our mirth and good wishes amplified by the herb of choice, our hearts soon swelled to the mighty anthems of the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and Buffalo Springfield. We lit our fires. We fed our heads.
Some of us—the philosophy B.A.’s there—formed ourselves into opposing cheer leading squads for the football teams of two rival high schools: Husserl High and Heidegger High. We cheered our teams on: “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Husserl!” “Hi! Hi! Hi! Heidegger!”
At some point Steve lead a group of us down a step into the bedroom. He had something special to reveal. As we made ourselves comfortable on the big bed and floor cushions, Steve leaned over a reel-to-reel tape recorder perched on a dresser.
“This is far out. You got to dig it. It’s really far out.” He diddled with the machine. “A friend from Buffalo sent me this.” Steve had been a student at SUNY-Buffalo before he’d transferred to Penn.
Satisfied, he turned and faced us with his signature look: serious, searching eyes peering over a small, tentative smile. “Ahhh—here . . . .” A click.
A drum tapped with fingers, some kind of cymbal, wooden sticks knocking together, a single twanging string—a simple beat . . . and then a deep voice, the voice of an older man, singing something, not English.
“The Swami,” Steve announced. “Sanskrit.”
I try to follow the complicated words, sung by the Swami with both ease and precision. I am fascinated. And then the music seems to shift gear, and the words suddenly become simpler, just a few words in some kind of repeating pattern:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
I had already been exposed to the media icon “Hippies Chant Hare Krishna” but now for the first time I hear the mantra chanted, and it is astonishingly different from what I had imagined. But before I can think about that, I am startled by the entrance of young voices repeating the mantra in unison, their vowels clearly American, their chanting a little tentative, a little—well—lightweight. Then the Swami takes it up again. After a few repetitions, I notice that the Swami sings the melody with some subtle inflections and modulations, but the chorus seems unable to reproduce them.
Then Steve begins to chant along with the chorus, and gradually we join in with him. As I chant and listen, my mind boggles. The chant is as simple and naive as a nursery rhyme, yet it plumbs profound depths, evokes uttermost seriousness. How? And what is it expressing? I have no idea, so I quit worrying about it and absorb myself in the chanting. There is no change other than a gradually increasing tempo. I do not know how much time passes.
Then a strange feeling takes hold of me, and an image forms in my mind: There is a ship, a ship lost at sea, lost utterly in the dense dark of night and in waters whipped wild. And from far away come the sound of a foghorn—not warning, but calling me back, drawing me back to safe haven. A lighthouse stands fast on the edge of the foaming ocean, casting its beacon and its horn out across the tempest. And the voice of the Swami seems to be calling, calling to me, calling me from far far away.
And I call back . . . .
And it is over. Quiet. “Well,” says Steve, “Far out, huh? Wasn’t that something?”
I nod. It was indeed. Whatever it was.
That was my first connection, yet the experience quickly became covered over. In those days we had many ‘far out’ experiences. Soon after the wedding, I began studies for a PhD at the new Department of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. Several more years were to pass before my next encounter with the maha-mantra. All the same, the image of being lost at sea and of being called or summoned through the dangerous darkness stayed with me. Though I was lost and covered, gradually, without my knowing it, I was answering the call and turning toward home.
—to be continued—