Rock On, With Care

Memories from travels with a realized soul

It was in the summer of 1973, shortly after George Harrison bought Piggott's Manor (later renamed Bhaktivedanta Manor) for Srila Prabhupada and his movement in the UK. The mock-Tudor mansion came with 17 acres of land (it has expanded to more than 70 acres now) in Watford, a village north of London in Hertfordshire. Hertfordshire is an elegant suburb that features historic estates and sprawling properties owned by England's oldest aristocratic families. Needless to say, the neighbors were not thrilled seeing their bucolic village transformed into a place of pilgrimage.

Prabhupada and Yogesvara
1974, morning walk

A young London devotee had the idea of mounting a "posh" event, to show that devotees were cool and neighbors had nothing to fear. We were in perpetual poverty in those days, yet somehow he found enough money to hire a large stage and professional sound system, decorate the acre-wide backyard with colored lights, truck in tables and chairs and fine linen, print engraved invitations, and pay a crew of people to hand-deliver the invitations to every resident within ten miles of the Manor. The evening of the event, a rock band played on stage at full volume, blasting out hits from the '60s and '70s loud enough shake the windows.

Srila Prabhupada's room was located on the second floor of the Manor. His were the windows that were shaking, since they faced the backyard. The live music streamed and bounced full-force around his living room. He sat on a cushion behind a low desk, his back leaning against the wall, his hand in bead bag and he chanted "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna..." I sat cross-legged on the rug across from him, chanting along on my beads, but the noise was too loud to ignore.

"Srila Prabhupada, is this okay with you?" I asked, nodding at the window and the loud band outside.

He stood up and walked over to one of the windows and looked down on the stage and the musicians and the colored lights. He listened for a few moments to the fracas of guitars and drums. Then he looked at me and asked, "Are they going to chant Hare Krishna?"

"That's the idea, from what I understand. Get the neighbors interested in the party with rock'n'roll, then switch to the maha-mantra."

Without taking much time to make up his mind, he nodded his head back and forth, "Then it's okay," he said.

I had not expected that. Rock'n'roll? Disco lights?

"But I don't understand," I said. "Just a few months ago, you shut down the traveling Road Show." The Road Show had been put together by two of his senior disciples, Tamal Krishna and Visnujana Swamis, and a group of musician-devotees. The group traveled to college campuses across the U.S. in buses that had been customized to fold out into a stage. The Road Show featured rock music and theatrical performances with devotional themes, and the exciting rock-musical had motivated dozens of young male students to give up their college careers, shave their heads, and go touring with the devotees. Why Srila Prabhupada shut it down had been a bit of mystery, at least to me.

"Oh, that was different," he said matter-of-fact. "I stopped that because it wasn't being properly managed."

I did recall some rumors that the late nights and constant travel had begun compromising the Road Show devotees' daily sadhana. But that was all he said. He came back to his desk, sat down, and we continued on with our japa.

I was flabbergasted. Among all of the distractions that the material world had to offer, I could not imagine anything stronger than rock'n'roll. It was as powerful as drugs. Maybe more powerful, since there were treatments for drug addiction but not for rock'n'roll. Yet Srila Prabhupada had given the Manor party band his okay without so much as blinking an eye, on two conditions: one, that the music serve as a prelude to chanting Hare Krishna, and two, that the program be properly managed -- which I took to mean minimal damage to daily devotional routines. Nothing, it seemed, lay outside the purview of Bhakti Yoga, provided those criteria were respected.

I must have seemed silly, sitting there staring at Srila Prabhupada with my jaw down to the ground, head nodding slowly back and forth in wonder.

He just looked at me and smiled.