Kirtan Comes to America

 

ATTENDANCE GREW AT THESE SUNDAY CHANTING SESSIONS in Tompkins Square Park.1 One Saturday, Ginsberg arrived with a group of friends including downtown notables, fellow beat poets, actors and playwrights. The group sat on the grass and joined the chanting. A reporter from the New York Times, hoping for an interview, interrupted his chanting. The renowned poet declined.

"A man should not be disturbed while worshiping," Ginsberg said.2

The public chanting prompted a spate of newspaper articles.

New York Times, October 10, 1966

Swami's Flock Chants in Park to Find Ecstasy

by James R. Sikes

Sitting under a tree in a Lower East Side park and occasionally dancing, fifty followers of a Hindu swami repeated a sixteen-word chant for two hours yesterday afternoon to the accompaniment of cymbals, tambourines, sticks, drums, bells, and a small reed organ. Repetition of the chant, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami says, is the best way to achieve self-realization in this age of destruction. Many in the crowd of about a hundred persons standing around the chanters found themselves swaying or clapping hands in time to the hypnotic rhythmic music. "It brings a state of ecstasy," said Allen Ginsberg the poet, who was one of the celebrants.

Ginsberg and Prabhupada

THE SIXTIES WERE, in the words of one commentator, "a generation given over to some of the noblest causes and some of the most indefensible nonsense in history.3 Yet if there was one defensible byproduct of an often nonsensical time it was music, and the Swami's chanting of Hare Krishna fit right in. Thanks to his father's insistence that he receive musical training, the Swami was a one-man band with a strong singing voice and a virtuoso's skill on the single-headed bongo, which was the temple's only drum in those early days. A New York percussionist once commented, "The Swami gets in some good licks." Visitors to the storefront temple brought guitars, horns, metal clappers, anything that made noise and added flavor to sessions which often lasted past midnight. The sound of kirtan spread as jazz musicians picked up the melodies of the Hare Krishna mantra and weaved them into club sessions. Irving Halpern, an instrument maker and frequent attendee at the Swami's kirtans, noted, "Whenever a new musician would join and play their first note, the Swami extended his arms as though he had stepped up to the podium and was going to lead the New York Philharmonic. I mean, there was this gesture -- the pick-up -- that every musician knows when someone else wants you to play with them."4

A year later, James Rado and Gerome Ragni's rock musical "Hair" debuted off-Broadway with a finale that featured the Hare Krishna mantra, and the popularity of chanting grew. Some newcomers mistook the pleasure of chanting for a new kind of drug-induced high. "When I chant," one girl told the Swami, "I feel a great concentration of energy on my forehead. Then a buzzing comes through and I see a reddish light."

"Just keep chanting," he reassured her. "It will clear up."

 

1 To honor the chanting as an event of importance in the history of New York, in 1999 the City's Parks Department installed a plaque at the base of the American elm tree where Prabhupada held his weekly gatherings.
2 SPL p. 214.
3 David Pichaske, A Generation in Motion: Popular Music and Culture in the Sixties (New York: Schirmer Books, 1979), p.xvi.
4 SPL, vol. 2, p. 208.