27 January 2003
Syamasundara Prabhu, speaking in the Srila Prabhupada Memories video series, part 27, has this to say about the hippie culture of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco during the 1960s:
You have to realize the context, that there was nothing like this from the fifties. The age of small appliances and Ricky, Ozzie and Harriet. There was this slight clattering from Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation somewhere in the background, but this was a revolutionary time, when thousands and tens of thousands of people were opening the doors of perception and leading a radical new lifestyle that had never been done before. And Prabhupada just stepped right into it and conducted it like a ringmaster. He was right at home right in the middle of it.
In case that statement isn't really clear to the reader, here's some help:
"Small appliances:" transister radios, pop-up electric toasters, Norelco floating-head electric razors, electric eggbeaters, etc.
"Ricky, Ozzie and Harriet:" in America during the 1950s, one of the most popular shows on TV was Ozzie and Harriet, a weekly comedy about the Nelson family. One of the Nelson sons was Ricky, who became a noted pop singer.
"Slight clattering from Jack Kerouac" etc.: earlier in this journal I made mention of the Beat Generation, which arrived in New York City near the end of the Second World War. This was an underground movement of writers and poets who sought the meaning of life by a kind of bohemian mysticism fueled by bebop jazz and street drugs. They chose the name "Beats" for themselves to indicate that 1) they were beaten down by modern society; 2) their goal was beatitude (blissfulness); 3) they moved to the beat of progressive jazz music.
The most famous of the Beat authors was Jack Kerouac. His first best-selling book was On the Road, which he supposedly typed in a clattering burst of creative inspiration onto a big roll of teletype paper, without going back to edit or revise any of it. Allen Ginsberg was a poet. His most famous opus was Howl which like On the Road was published in the mid-fifties. Ginsberg later became a spokesman for the hippie movement; Kerouac didn't care for the hippies. Other seminal figures of the Beat Generation were William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch, banned in the United States for some time after its publication in the late fifties), John Clellon Holmes (author of Go, the first Beat novel), and Neal Cassidy (not an author or poet himself, but being a total eccentric, he was a great inspiration to those Beats who did write).
"Opening the doors of perception:" this is in reference to a poem called The Doors of Perception by the English visionary William Blake (1757-1827). The Beats and the hippies liked this poem because it seems to encourage drug abuse as a method of expanding consciousness. The sixties rock group called The Doors took its name from Blake's poem.
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Someday in the future a historian with too much time on his or her hands will write a book tracing all the conflicts that arose in ISKCON during its first thirty years to tensions between devotees who came from the Beat Generation and devotees who came from the hippie movement.
No, I'm serious. Not that I necessarily agree that such a rift played a major role in ISKCON's troubles, but this is just the kind of speculative scenario academicians like to cash in on.
Last December, when we were in his Vrndavana apartment reminiscing about the early days, Brahmananda Prabhu told me, "I considered myself part of the Beat Generation. The Beats made individual expression into a philosophy of life. They weren't poseurs. The hippies on the other hand were into having fun and promoting a popular youth movement. In New York--at least at first--Beats and hippies were worlds apart. It was Allen Ginsberg who merged the two."
In those days I lived neither in New York nor San Francisco. Being younger, I got into the bohemian scene a little later. But I too was dimly aware of the difference Brahmananda Prabhu pointed out between Beats and hippies.
I gravitated to the Beats. I wasn't looking for membership in a tribe. I wasn't trying to define myself as a social entity. I didn't seek the acceptance of my peers via the length of my hair, the clothes on my back, the drugs that I took, or the music I listened to.
I was looking for myself and God in the medium of experience. And I was trying to express myself and God through the medium of experience--i.e. through all varieties of artistic creativity, but especially writing.
I have to admit that this distinction I just made between Beats and hippies is ultimately just semantics. I think Beat poet Leroi Jones summed it up best in his autobiography. He wrote (I have to paraphrase because I don't have the book in front of me) that the bohemian way of life he took up in Greenwich Village during the 1950s was aimed at the immediate gratification of desires.
That airey-fairy "experience" I was trying to find myself and God in? It was just the experience of sense gratification. What else were the Beats and hippies doing except gratifying their senses?
But still, there was a difference between the Beats and the hippies. It was not about the comparitive validity of their experiences. It was about their mentalities. Quite simply, the Beats were a literary movement and the hippies were a social movement. A writer necessarily works by him- or herself. But if your thing in life is to be a member of a social movement, then you necessarily work within your group.
HH Satsvarupa Maharaja, ISKCON's most productive literary devotee, often writes about his unease with the social side of life in the Hare Krsna movement. And in response, I've heard somewhat uncharitable remarks from devotees who consider the social side to be the one factor that really shows whether a devotee is "on" or "off."
I have no comment about this state of affairs, other than that it reveals the age-old tension between the individual and the group. ISKCON, being a group formed of individuals, is not exempt from this tension. The tension isn't necessarily rooted in the Beat-or-hippie backgrounds of the older devotees. It's just there. Everywhere.
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Nowadays we don't hear as much "for the Society" drumbeating as we used to. Individualism among devotees is much more acceptable than it was in the '70s, '80s, and most of the '90s. Still, a number of the individualists who have fallen out of step with the ISKCON society tell me they'd be eager to get back into step if some sort of change, reform or cleanup takes place. I find that interesting from a philosophical point of view.
The philosophy of the ultimate nature of everything is acintya-bheda-abheda-tattva. I suppose one of the practical consequences of that must be that individualism and collectivism are supraliminally different yet inseparable. (Forgive me if "supraliminally" seems an arrogant choice of a word. It means, "above the threshold of consciousness or sensation;" i.e. "above thought and perception," i.e. "inconceivably.") In other words, the individualist can't ever perfectly be aloof from society, nor can the collectivist ever perfectly fit into society. And neither will be able to perfectly understand why. Still, it is human nature to make up reasons for everything. And so we argue that our fitting in or not fitting in depends upon the presence or absence of social change.
I suppose I am straying. I'm just trying to say that the tension between the individual and the group is inevitable. It's the very nature of things. All political arguments miss that simple fact. In that way, all political arguments are ignorant.
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Syamasundara Prabhu is quite correct. The hippies were unique in American society. And Srila Prabhupada knew how to capture them for Lord Caitanya's mission. At the same time, Srila Prabhupada said to Syamasundra Prabhu, "Well, hippies, they are nonsense. What is the value of their anything? They have no value. They are crazy, mad fellows. That's all. There is no philosophy, nothing of the sort."
And the Beats? They were certainly crazy people. Allen Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, William S. Burroughs and his wife were all placed under psychiatric care during the late '40s and early '50s. I remember picking up from my readings of Beat literature and poetry that it is a good thing, a creative kick or whatever, to be declared insane.
The hippie movement was just a much more popular form of craziness than the Beat movement was.
Thus Prabhupada came in the '60s, not the '40s or 50s, to take advantage of
American craziness at its peak. As Syamasundara remembers, hippies were in a
frame of mind to immediately accept that Lord Jagannatha is God. They were madmen,
but blessed madmen.
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|Yesterday (Sunday 26 January) I spoke to an audience consisting of doctors from the Lotus Hospital and Research Centre and professional people of the Rotary Movement in Kohlapur. This took place at Appa's Complex, a lecture hall opposite Shahaji College. The presentation was in two parts. At noon I gave a talk on stress management, and at 8:30 I spoke on life after death.
|The organizing devotees thought kirtana wasn't advisable. That was a little unfortunate, but understandable. This was ISKCON's first program to Kohlapur's upper class, so the devotees didn't want to challenge their citified sensibilities too much. You see, in Maharastra there is a traditional movement of Krsna-kirtana that expanded from Saint Tukarama (see Cc Madhya 9.282p).
The members of this movement are called Varkaris, and they come from the villages. Such rustic folk are far less inhibited than city folk; they have no reservation about wholeheartedly jumping into kirtana. The city folk also know kirtana and they do respect it, but they identify enthusiastic chanting with the lower classes. So the ISKCON leadership here, Rupa Vilasa Prabhu and Vrndavana Ananda Prabhu, didn't want to put our esteemed guests in an embarrassing position by holding a kirtana. The audience would hardly participate due to worrying too much about how others from their class would see them.
But they liked the lectures and asked many questions. Prasadam was served. All of the attendees filled out "response forms"; in this way their names go into a file for future cultivation.
May the ISKCON yatra in Kohlapur continue to grow and grow and GROW AND G R O W....
All glories to Srila Prabhupada!