The chanting of Hare Krsna brings different responses from different people. Some love to chant; others think it's nonsense. By now millions of people have heard devotees chant Hare Krsna, but many still know very little about the chanting. What is it, and how did it get here?
The chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra was mostly unheard-of outside India until His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada introduced it to the West, starting in New York City in 1966. Attracted by Prabhupada's chanting, a few persons joined him and began to take it up seriously. Most people, however, regarded the chanting as alien to Western civilization. One poet-scholar even suggested to Srila Prabhupada that he might to better to invent a more "American" mantra.
But as we often explain in Back to Godhead, the chanting of Hare Krsna is nonsectarian. It does not belong only to the Indians, and neither does it exclude Christians, Muslims, or followers of other philosophies. All the great scriptures of the world praise the holy names of God, even though His name may very from one country to another. According to the Vedic scriptures, the chanting of God's names is the most suitable method for attaining love of God, especially in the present age, when people are unable to perform more difficult spiritual disciplines.
Because most people continue to look upon public chanting as odd or disturbing, even the members of the Krsna consciousness movement sometimes shy away from it. But at heart devotees know that public kirtana is one of the best means of praising the Supreme Lord: it not only purifies the chanters, it benefits all those who hear.
I would like to share my own recent experience of chanting with devotees in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. In addition and in contrast I will include a nondevotee's impression as described by a columnist in the Atlanta Journal, of the same chanting. My account:
We parked the van on the eight floor of Macy's parking building. On the street, the sky was clouded with smoke from nearby smokestacks, and the air was fouled form truck and car exhaust. Balabhadra dasa said, "It's like you said in your class this morning: wherever human beings gather they pollute the place."
"Yes," I said, "They will poison the whole planet…. Will we walk while we chant today?"
"Strolling sankirtana," he said, and he led us off at a slow pace, double file, a dozed men and half-dozen women.
A few devotees went out to distribute magazines, as well as cards with the Hare Krsna maha-mantra and an invitation to the temple on them.
One of the best things was the way Balabhadra sang and waved to people as we passed them. Somehow, "we" and "they" were frozen in two different roles. Balabhadra's friendly wave broke the ice and drew many of them in. A young woman sitting on a park bench smiled shyly; an old black woman waved back grimly. Some people returned Balabhadra's greetings in jest, some were "cool," and some ignored. But Balabhadra just kept playing the drum, strolling, and waving to whoever caught his eye. We knew that by chanting of God's names, everyone was receiving His mercy.
As we approached row of fruit stands, one vendor began shouting at us. I heard, "Bald heads!" and "No Hare!" but mostly he was drowned out by the holy names.
"He's a regular," said Balabhadra, "just a harasser." When I looked back I saw the vendor, who was a black man, say to Haryasva, "Hey, black boy, how come you got that stuff on your face?"
Then a black policeman stepped in and told the vendor, "Don't harass them."
"I know my rights!" said the vendor.
"Don't harass them!"
"It's all right, officer," said Haryasva. "I'll answer his question."
Another black vendor said to Haryasva, "Don't pay him no attention."
I tried to guess what the passersby were thinking. While walking and singing I noticed headlines in the newspapers: "37 American Sailors Die in Missile Attack." I thought, theoretically, that it would be appropriate to die here while chanting.
I thought, We're far away from Vrndavana. In contrast to India, where I had recently visited, the people of Atlanta were dressed in stylish American business clothes, and the buildings all looked new. But whether we chant in India or the West, people receive us with the same mixture of enjoyment and disinterest.
When we reached the park, we posed in front of skyscrapers while Durdarsana dasa took photos. The devotees then chanted and danced just as in the temple only with hundreds watching and hearing while I tried again to figure out what everyone was thinking and how we looked to them. I realized that was a useless speculation, so I joined with the chanting and dancing.
The next day an article about our chanting appeared in the Atlanta Journal, in a column by Frances Cawthon. Her human interest sketch "Cultures Clash on Downtown Street at Midday" told of an old woman's incredulous responses to the devotees' chanting. Some excerpts:
The Hare Krishnas were bouncing around energetically in front of the downtown C&S Bank, their faces covered with joy and strategic makeup, the partially shaved heads of the men gleaming with oily perspiration in the midday sun. Lunch time office workers wove their way past, mostly averting their eyes…
A woman with graying hair and a straining double-knit polyester dress of psychedelic black and white flowers that had managed to survive the 1960's stood aside and stared at them.
"Who are them people?" she asked….
I told her they were Hare Krishnas.
"Hairy Christians?" she repeated in disbelief. "Why, them men have hardly no hair at all. How can they be called Hairy Christians?"
They weren't Christians, I explained; they belong to an Eastern religion.
She looked at me expectantly, and I was embarrassed that despite the many articles I had read about the group, I couldn't really tell her much.
"They are involved in the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita," I said importantly after sneaking a look at the card one of the men had given me earlier.
"I ain't never heard of him," she said…. "Why are they all twirlin' around like that? I ain't herd so much noise and carrying-on since I went to a Holy-Roller revival in Alabama back in the forties…."
"Maybe it's similar," I said. "You know, expressing exultation with your faith."
She didn't comment on that.
"Well I wish I knew what it was that was makin' them so happy," she said.
I looked at the card again. "It says, 'Chant the Mahamantra and your life will be sublime.' "
She peeked over my shoulder at the words: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna , Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare."
She guffawed, causing the black-and-white flowers to writhe over a protruding stomach.
"I knew it. Just like them Holy Rollers in Alabama, talking in tongues that don't make a bit of sense. I guess my life ain't goin' to be sublime, then, 'cause I couldn't remember much less p'nounce all that stuff."
She walked off, a stolid, solid black-and-white floral pattern, shaking her head, while the Hare Krishnas, still smiling beatifically and pounding the daylights out of their instruments, twirled happily in their gossamer silks. SDG