Every Saturday evening, Hare Krsna devotees in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area gather in Georgetown with drums and hand cymbals to perform congregational chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra. Saturday night in Georgetown is a scene of heavy crowds out for entertainment, as couples head for the restaurants, nightclubs, and fashionable shops. Varieties of street minstrels and hawkers appear, and sometimes people gather around a public spectacle, as when the devotees shaven-headed men in saffron or white robes and women in colorful saris dance and sing for hours: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Although devotees have been chanting in America for almost two decades, for many people the sight of a chanting party is still sometimes jarring and unbelievable. One Saturday night a woman stopped before our party and shook her head in disbelief. Finally she exclaimed, "Only in Georgetown!" and walked off in shocked dismay.
But it isn't only in Georgetown. Nor is there need for dismay. The chanting of Hare Krsna is a pure spiritual tradition performed today all over the world by ISKCON members exactly as it has been performed in India for thousands of years. Yet a clashing of sensibilities may nevertheless occur when someone happens upon devotees chanting in public. And the reactions of amazement, alarm, laughter, and rejection illustrate a basic problem in introducing Krsna conscious culture to the West: Krsna consciousness is new and strange.
A. L. Basham, one of the world's most highly respected authorities on ancient Indian civilization, wrote in his conclusion to The Cultural History of India that the Hare Krsna movement "is historically very significant, for now for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire an Asian religion is being openly practiced by people of Western origin in the streets of Western cities." In a recent interview (published in BACK TO GODHEAD, May 1983), Dr. Basham stated that although other Asian movements have appeared in the West, Krsna consciousness is especially prominent because of its strict adherence to its spiritual tradition. Since most people on the street aren't authorities on religious traditions, however, they may dismiss the chanting of Hare Krsna as weird or unimportant.
But not everyone makes this mistake. Former Beatle George Harrison explains his appreciation of the sudden appearance of devotees in London back in 1968: "I knew about Prabhupada because I had read all the liner notes on his record album. Having been to India, I could tell where the devotees were all coming from, with the style of dress and shaved heads. I had seen them on the streets of Los Angeles and New York. Since I'd read so many books and was looking for yogis, my concept of devotees wasn't like that of other people, who think the devotees have all escaped from a lunatic asylum in their pajamas."
So it's mostly a matter of information. To one who knows, Krsna consciousness is an important, serious contribution to world culture. The street chanting, which at first may seem like a political protest or a folk dance, is actually a highly developed form of group meditation. Next time you encounter a chanting party on the street, stop for a moment. Listen to the chanters. You'll hear, above the steady rhythm of the drums and hand cymbals, chorus of voices repeatedly singing, "Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare. . . ."
This chant is a mantra. In Sanskrit, man means "mind" and tra means "freeing." So a mantra is a combination of transcendental sounds that frees our mind from the anxieties of living in the material world. Ancient India's Vedic literatures single out onemantra as the maha (supreme) mantra. The Kali-santarana Upanisad explains, "These sixteen words Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare are especially meant for counteracting the ill effects of the present age of quarrel and anxiety."
Usually a chanting party is also accompanied by a few devotees handing out BACK TO GODHEAD magazines or other Krsna conscious literature. From this literature one can understand intellectually how Krsna consciousness is beneficial for everyone.
Of course, it's natural to view anything new or unfamiliar with a cautious or even cynical eye, and certainly to most Westerners, the public chanting of Hare Krsna is new and unfamiliar. But aside from this, another reason we may be skeptical is that while the chanting of Hare Krsna is pure spiritual sound, our modern civilization is becoming more and more permeated with materialistic sound. Thus the chanting clashes with the very heart of the materialistic culture, which asserts, "You only go around once in life, so grab all the gusto you can get!" The chanting informs us of our real self beyond the temporary display of buy-and-sell in our urban "reality."
The chanting brings us face to face with spiritual reality and prods us to question the materialistic way: Do we really belong to this temporary world and to the "normal" activities of Georgetown-Times Square-Hollywood Saturday nights? Or should we aspire to know our selves more deeply, in our original spiritual identity beyond the time and place of our present bodily existence?
The contention of the Krsna consciousness philosophy is that the clash between the chanting and the normal activities in the streets is actually the clash between spiritual reality and material illusion, between truth and falsity. Moreover, the chanting-meditation is the ideal method of spiritual realization, because one can perform it although living in the hectic modern world. One can live in Krsna consciousness anywhere and under any conditions, even while continuing one's workaday existence with occupation, society, family, and so on. Without going to extreme lengths of renunciation, one can chant the names of God, understand the eternal reality, and go back to Godhead.
A person can chant Hare Krsna at home or with his friends. It's not that the robed, shaven-headed devotees on the streets are the only ones with the privilege of chanting Hare Krsna. Anyone can. If you're interested but too hesitant or shy to try the chanting, you can always stop and watch the next time you see the Hare Krsna devotees chanting in the streets. You have nothing to lose, but the gain is very great. SDG