Srila Prabhupada’s kirtans at the Washington square park and the Tompkins square park in 1966 created history. Never before Srila Prabhupada did the Holy Names of Lord Krishna create such an impact in the Western world as it did during the late 1960’s in America and Europe.
His initial kirtans at the twenty six second avenue storefront was attended by a few spiritually interested youth, who were mostly hippies. The group began to slowly grow and classes and kirtans were a regular affair at the ‘Matchless Gift’ storefront.
One Sunday afternoon Srila Prabhupada announced that they would be going to the nearby park for Harinamsankirtana. The devotees were shocked; how could they chant and dance in a park? What would people think about them? These things don’t happen in America. All of them were uneasy and reluctant. Srila Prabhupada however was gently insistent. “Don’t worry; you will love it once you do it” Srila Prabhupada was sure of what he was proposing. With head held high, regally, Srila Prabhupada led his young, confused group through the streets to the park. Seeing the group dressed in traditional dhoti and kurta, and Srila Prabhupada’s saffron robes attracted curious looks from all the shopkeepers nearby, and people sensed something special was going to happen this afternoon.
At the park, Srila Prabhupada sat on the grass and deftly played the drums and began the chanting. Initially the boys looked at each other and nervously followed. Slowly the sound vibration purified them, and their confidence and boldness was awakened. Suddenly Bruce began to dance, and the others followed. Soon the kirtantook the devotees to another realm of existence; they were overjoyed and in spiritual trance, feeling surcharged with spiritual energy.
It was sensational; the usual Sunday crowd of relaxing New Yorkers was taken by surprise. A huge crowd gathered, and some joined the kirtans, while others shared smiles amongst themselves, and few others were amazed and wondered what is this all about. Never before was such a thing witnessed in New York; who is this strangely dressed old man, energetically beating on the drum and chanting a mantra? As some tried to figure out the whole thing, the devotees became oblivious to their surroundings. Gone was their initial fear and apprehension. They were now chanting and dancing with great happiness.
After an hour long kirtan, Srila Prabhupada gave a talk and then more kirtans. While returning back to the storefront, the devotees felt they were flying in air; the ecstasy was indescribable. The onlookers and the strange milieu appeared inconsequential. Srila Prabhupada had broken the American silence!
The news spread; Srila Prabhupada’s chanting was covered on the centre spread of the prestigious New York Times. Srila Prabhupada was pleased with the report, and especially with the fact that the paper had put the whole Maha Mantra in the article. Srila Prabhupada said this would benefit all who read the article. Although the article explained the meaning of the word ‘Hare’ in the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra as ‘bringer of light’ and ‘Rama’ as the ‘prince of responsibility’, and although devotees laughed at this speculation of the newspaper, Srila Prabhupada was happy that the Maha Mantra was printed and people chanted the Holy Names. The hippie newspaper ‘East Village Other’ too carried a long coverage.
Srila Prabhupada was determined to flood the world with the Holy Names of Krishna. As the devotees would excitedly narrate their sankirtana stories at night, Srila Prabhupada would hear them and speak about spreading the Hare Krishna movement in every corner of the world. Srila Prabhupada would preach even as he was lying on his mat, as he retired at night. While conversing with his students, his voice would slowly trail off, and he would mutter incoherently and his eyes would close. Devotees would then quietly tiptoe outside the room. Srila Prabhupada would rest for a couple hours and then rise again to translate the voluminous SrimadBhagavatam.
Inspired by the success of sankirtana in New York, Mike Grant (who had become Mukunda) left for San Fransiscoand made friends with Sam and Roger (soon to become Shyamsyndar and Gurudas respectively). Together they organized a mantra rock dance at the Avalon Ballroom where four thousand youth, mostly drugged hippies gyrated and chanted happily for hours as Srila Prabhupada lead a rousing kirtan. The who’s who of the rock world was there, and sharing the stage with them, in the midst of electric guitars, strobe lights, and pounding drums and bass, Srila Prabhupada had created a sensation.
Soon the Radha Krishna temple at Fredrick Street, San Fransico was flooded with youth, and the HaightHashbury district was overtaken by a spiritual cyclone of the Hare Krishna chanting.
Then there was no stopping…Srila Prabhupada soon sent his three couples to London where they met George Harrison and the Beatles and the Hare Krishna chant soon became a household name in Europe and America. An Indian movie maker, an opportunist that he was, cashed on the chant and made a movie on the hippies titled, ‘Hare Krishna Hare Rama’. Now the Hare Krishna was on the lips of every Indian as well.
Forty five years later, the Hare Krishna chant continues to resound the world over, with thousands accepting the path of Krishna Consciousness.
We have a chance to be the fortunate recipients of this mercy; let us happily chant and dance, as one of the fortunate souls to be saved by the grace of Holy Names, given to us by a pure representative of the Holy Names, Srila Prabhupada.
The author is a celibate teacher at ISKCON ashram at Chowpatty, Mumbai