A musician chants and plays music for Krishna and gets slowly enchanted by the melodies
Many devotees come to Krishna consciousness by having a profound revelation upon their first contact with Krishna consciousness. My experience was more gradual. Many encounters in different parts of the world were pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that gradually formed the shape of a life of commitment to Krishna consciousness.
In 1965 I was born in NewYork, only a few blocks from Dr. Misra’s Yoga Studio, the first place where Srila Prabhupada stayed in New York.
I was born in an affluent Jewish family. My family members were deeply interested in the arts. We would often travel for concerts and culture shows, go to art museums, and see Broadway shows.
All of my family members are musical. When I was five, my parents sent me for music lessons. I went to Abe Mandleblat, my future guitar teacher, who taught us to make our own instruments from common household objects like frozen orange juice cans with beans inside for shaking, and guitars made from cigar boxes and rubber bands.
I started listening to the music of the Beatles, which became my favorite music group. I was very much attracted to their guitar player, George Harrison, and I especially liked his song, “My Sweet Lord” in which he chanted the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. So my initial introduction to Krishna consciousness was through the Beatles and George Harrison.
My family had a large bungalow. One room of the bungalow was a music room with over one hundred musical instruments. This room became my favorite playground.
I always had my own room in our bungalow, with my own phone. At sixteen, I had my own car. Money was plenty. I had my own recording studio, many instruments, and a stereo system loud enough for the police to hear half a kilometer away when I would blast out my rock and roll music. My family purchased one of the first personal computers.
When I was 13 years old, my father gave me a paper bag containing $500 dollars in one-dollar notes. I poured it out on my bed and rolled around in it for some time.
Looking for more out of life
Although my life was filled with music and my family was materially comfortable, I was unsatisfied. I was looking for more out of life.
I was going through a lot of stress. I was experiencing depression. I was having difficulty adjusting to the new environment in my new school and making new friends. I even began developing suicidal tendencies and pyromania (I began lighting fires). Like so many American children, I began to visit a child psychiatrist, and my family entered into family therapy, but it didn’t help much.
At that time Transcendental Meditation was becoming very popular, and my mother and father took the course and began to practice it. They also enlisted me in learning the practices to learn to cope with life and I began a daily mantra meditation practice. It helped me to find some peace, but ultimately, I found the Transcendental Meditation experience to be unsatisfying. The philosophy was too vague, and the meditation was too impersonal.
A Spiritual Contact
My first experience chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra was at the age of 12. I was attending a special camp for children and young adults. We participated in a children’s production of the Broadway show called Hair. In this production, the actors on the stage sing: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna, Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
I was playing the guitar as part of the pit orchestra. I sung Hare Krishna along with the actors. I had no idea of the spiritual repercussions that were to unfold in the future as a result.
My sister, Alice, purchased a copy of Bhagavad-gita As It Is and gave it to me as a gift on my 15th birthday.
I kept the Bhagavad-gita on my bookshelf next to my bed. Sometimes, I would open it and look at the text, but I never understood the contents because, as the Bhagavad-gita (2.44) explains:
bhogaisvarya prasaktanam tayapahrta cetasam
samadhau na vidhiyate
“In the minds of those who are too attached to sense enjoyment and material opulence, and who are bewildered by such things, the resolute determination for devotional service to the Supreme Lord does not take place.”
I was a hedonist. I was trying to enjoy my senses to the maximum extent. That was the goal of my life, and I thought by doing that I would get happiness. But I still was not getting happiness and satisfaction.
I passed out of high school a year early. I never attended twelfth standard. When I was in earlier standards, I would get high marks, and was the president of the student honors society. But as I reached 10th and 11th standard, my grades plummeted. I was bored with school. I felt that all the so-called knowledge I was studying was useless. I decided to take one course in the summer to complete my requirements to graduate from high school and get out as soon as possible.
By 17, I left home and enrolled in the College. My calculus tutor introduced me to the idea of attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, one of the most prestigious music schools in the world.
I entered that college, when I was eighteen. Besides studing there, I also took a course in electronic engineering from the world famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In the summer of 1984, I met Koshal Anand, an Australian who had studied tabla in Benaras. He made me an offer that if I let him stay with me in my flat, he would teach me Indian music. I immediately agreed.
One warm Sunday, he said, “Hari Om Brother! Let’s go to the Hare Krishna Temple for the Sunday program, for a free Vegetarian feast.” I was reluctant to accept the invitation. However, with his insistence, eventually, I agreed.
Meeting Srila Prabhupada
As we arrived and entered inside the Hare Krishna Temple, I was struck by the atmosphere. I remember the smell of the incense that wafted through the air it was so fragrant and clean. As we entered inside, I saw a crowd of people sitting on the floor and listening to a devotee giving the Sunday lecture.
I looked around and saw Srila Prabhupada’s murti, and I thought that he was a real person sitting on a throne. I sat down with the other people in the temple and kept looking back at Srila Prabhupada who was sitting near the back of the room. I was expecting him to move. But he never moved. I was thinking, “Oh! He must be a great yogi. He’s not even moving. He’s sitting perfectly still.”
I thought I should also sit up straight like he’s sitting. This was the message that I took from Srila Prabhupada when I first went to the temple. “Sit properly.” Throughout the course of the lecture, I kept looking back at Srila Prabhupada and Srila Prabhupada did not move.
Then it started to dawn on me that perhaps he wasn’t real. So at the end of the lecture, very slowly, I crept up to Srila Prabhupada and I realized that he was a murti.
There was a session of chanting and dancing. Koshal played his tabla and I played my trumpet. It was a big hit. One of the devotees said to me, that the next time I would come there, they would ask me to sing. Before my next visit, I made a point to memorize the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.
To get through the queue for the feast, we had to pass the altar of the Deities Sri Sri Radha Gopijanavallabha, and I remember thinking that I had never seen anything like this before! It appeared to me like one big light. I could not differentiate the forms on the altar, but only saw one big light.
But then, the next experience that I could understand. It was the wonderful prasada: lemon rice with cardamom and cheese, spicy dal, flat bread, yellow and orange nectar drinks made from sweet yogurt, halava, all kinds of nice laddus, sweet rice, and samosas.
Staying with Saivites
We met some Saivites (worshipers of Lord Siva) who had come to the temple, and they invited us back to their ashrama. They said, “Our guru is coming next week, come to our ashrama.” I started going there regularly and they taught me to chant the mantra Om Namah Sivaya on red rudraksa beads. The lifestyle appeared attractive to me. Previously, my goal in life was to become a famous rock star on MTV. Now I was thinking of becoming a yogi. I concluded that perhaps it would be better to become a famous rock star now, and when I got old, then I could become a yogi.
Worship of Lord Shiva was good because at that time I was not following the four regulative principles. Shiva is very tolerant of his devotees. I consider this to be a form of preliminary purification before my taking to the path of Krishna consciousness. I feel that Lord Shiva helped me come to Lord Krishna.
One day their guru, Swami P, came to their ashrama from India. He was traveling around different colleges and ashrama in Boston giving lectures. Koshal and I were his band of musicians. Koshal would sing and play the tabla, and I would play the tambura. The Swami told me that I should follow certain principles:
1. I should become a vegetarian
2. I should chant the mantra Om Namah Sivaya two hours daily one hour in the morning and one hour in evening.
3. I should get a special white cloth that should be worn only during meditation.
4. I should pass stool five times a day and take bath after passing stool.
I managed to become a vegetarian. I was chanting “Om Namah Sivaya” two hours a day wearing white sweatpants and a hooded top. But somehow, I could not manage to pass stool five times a day, no matter how hard I tried!
After some time, this Swami P had an affair with his female secretary and I became a little disenchanted with the Saivites. However, in retrospect, I feel that it was a beneficial experience for me.
During this period, up until the time I passed out of Berklee in 1987, I regularly went to the Hare Krishna Temple, especially for prasada. Sometimes the devotees would try to explain the philosophy to me but I could never understand what the devotees were talking about. They would tell me, “You are not this body.” I would protest, “What do you mean I’m not this body? Look, I’ve fingers, I’ve hands, I’ve arms, and I’ve a head. These people are crazy! I’ve a body, I’m a body!” It never made sense to me.
I received a number of Hare Krishna books as well. I remember looking though Chant and Be Happy with George Harrison. I used to keep the book in the bathroom, as is the practice of Americans, which I later found out was a totally inappropriate place to keep spiritual books. They also gave me many issues of Back to Godhead magazine. The devotees always gave me their literature for free, and thus I didn’t place sufficient value on it to give it a careful read.
However, I kept going for prasada which was always fantastic, and I also liked the clean and peaceful atmosphere of the temple. Gradually after the prasada, I would stay for the chanting and dancing. Then later I would stay for the Bhagavad-gita class. They had a great program in this Boston Temple. Anyone could come on any night at six pm and sit with the devotees and take prasada. It was called the Dinner Program. Just give one or two dollars as a donation, which was a very small amount, and you could come and sit with the devotees for prasada. My favourite preparation was samosas. It was a very good arrangement, and I enjoyed it immensely.
During one visit, I saw a devotee trying to teach another devotee to play a simple beat on the mrdanga drum. I asked if I could try, and was able to pick up the beat in a matter of seconds. I then started chanting Hare Krishna along with the drum. It was my first kirtana.
One time the devotees were distributing books across the street from Harvard University, in Harvard Square. This is the place where all the students and young people would congregate. It was a festive atmosphere with outdoor cafes and street musicians and performers. I was performing there myself as well. The devotees were distributing invitations for the Sunday program, but no one was taking the invitation. I said, “Here, let me try.” I took the invitations from the devotees and I started distributing the invitations and people were taking the invitations from me. This was one of my first engagements in outreach activities. I got a real kick out of it.
I remember a Hare Krishna Festival, The Festival of India, in the Boston Commons. I visited briefly, sat before the main stage, and enthusiastically chanted Hare Krishna with the musicians on the stage.
After college, I traveled around the world for three years as a professional musician and seeker of both thrills and spirituality. I visited more than 25 countries and it seemed that everywhere I went, I would meet Hare Krishna devotees.
During the summers, I became a staff member at The Arron Copeland Music and Arts Program, and the Director of Electronic Music. One of my colleagues, Ira Sakolsky, explained that we should have a list of thirteen choices in our life and that we should meditate regularly on those choices. I saw that on his list was the choice, “Heaven”. I was struck with wonder at seeing this. After some thought, I added to my list, “A personal relationship with God.” After some time, this made it to the top of my list.
I bought a book from a devotee on the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and he said, “You don’t even speak Portugese. How will you read the book?”
I said, “I don’t know, but I like the picture of Krishna on the cover.”
While living as a jazz musician in New Orleans, Louisiana, I used to regularly go to Jackson Square to receive the Food For Life prasada distributed several times a week. I also visited the temple once to receive the Sunday Feast.
There was one devotee I met in New York. His name was His Grace Ariha Prabhu, a merciful Prabhupada disciple, who would go for book distribution every day in the streets of New York City. He would give me prasada whenever he saw me.
Subway Train Sankirtan
At one point in my travels, around 1989, I was in New York City, staying overnight in students’ hostels in New York University and other places. My finances were at an all time low. Sometimes I would see devotees distributing prasada in Tompkins Square Park, the first place where Srila Prabhupada conducted public kirtan, and I would always get some.
I was on the New York City Subway, and a person came into our subway car and made an announcement. He was asking for funds to feed the poor and hungry. I only had a little more than twenty dollars. But I gave him five dollars, about one quarter of my capital at the time! He gave me a Jagannatha sticker. He was a devotee in disguise!
In this way, I performed some devotional service without even knowing it! This is called ajnata sukriti, and by performing ajnata sukriti one builds up a spiritual bank balance. When the balance comes to a certain level, one has enough credit to become a devotee of Krishna.
To be continued . . .
Ekalavya Dasa is a GBC deputy, and co-coordinator of the World Holy Name Week. His devotioanal music group, “Inspiration Explosion,” performs at festivals throughout the world.
Facebook: Ekalavya Das