Ravindra Svarupa Dasa

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa

BY 9.00 P.M. THE CLUB is packed, maybe 500 kids crowding this industrial loft of 150 feet by 40 above an auto parts warehouse. On a stage at the far right four shirtless men, the skin of their elaborately tattooed torsos shining blue and red under the spots, push through towering twin stacks of speakers a driving punk cacophony well into the range of permanent inner-ear destruction. As I pause at the entrance to put in ear plugs, Ekendra Dasa, Shelter's drummer, sees me and offers obeisances. He's dressed for the show in a worn white T-shirt bearing the crudely hand-lettered message "5 DOLLARS: ONE DOZEN ROSES." I recognize it as an off-cast from Muktavandya, who for years sold flowers in Harrisburg to maintain the Gita Nagari farm.

"It's an honest T-shirt," Ekendra says.

"Painfully," I joke (and realize a moment later: saturated with Mukta's devotion and sacrifice). My appreciation for Ekendra's taste in T-shirts increases. One at an earlier show vowed: "WAR ON MAYA."

In the area before the stage the pit, it's called a tight crush of kids carry on what looks like a contained riot, complete with occasional flying bodies. Here where I stand in calmer mid-club, boys and girls crowd at round tables, most of them scarfing down huge helpings of Krsna prasadam on paper plates. The boys favor T-shirts (over-sized), baseball caps (usually worn backwards), and full, wide pants, as loose and baggy as, well, dhotis. Everywhere I see the new Shelter T-shirt. On the front Ananta Sesa in full color torches the universe, while the back enjoins: "SELF-REALIZATION NOT SENSE GRATIFICATION." I envision these shirts filling the halls of American high schools.

Behind the bar to my left I spot Kaulini Devi Dasi from Gita Nagari serving out to ever-famished youth a feast from stainless steel pans: creamed potatoes, carrot halava, apple juice, fried potato crisps, powdered-milk cookies, curd in tomato sauce all kosher for this grainless Ekadasi-fast day. Next to her stands Bhakta Steve amid a display of books (final score: 3 soft Gitas distributed, 20 Civilization and Transcendences), bead bags (8), japa beads (12), neck beads (40), as well as assorted Shelter T-shirts, records, and tapes. Next to him, Kate sells the new Equal Vision Fanzine & Journal (150 go out); it contains her article, "I was a Teenage Frankenstein or How I was Saved from Political Correctness" and Bhakta Steve's "Animal Life 101: Eating, Sleeping, Mating, and Defending."

As I wait for a plate of prasadam, a kid named Sammy hands me his new red-covered fanzine Trial, with Radha and Krsna on the cover and an interview inside with Vraja Kisora Dasa (formerly Bhakta Vic of 108) and a page explaining "Who is Krishna?" and "What are they [the devotees] trying to do?" The inside back cover displays an ad for Gita Nagari's Adopt-A-Cow program. Sammy has been coming to the Philadelphia temple for about three months. In the mid-club crowd I see devotees from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Potomac, and Gita Nagari. Incredibly, a great deal of preaching is going on, everyone signaling and shouting over the band's din. I see Pete a senior in a school for problem kids, whose own problems disappeared when he began chanting 16 rounds a day distributing assorted small books (total: 14). There's Kevin selling his new literary magazine Better Than A 1000: A Collection of Krishna Conscious Writings, and Glenn and Stain (the graffiti artist), who both have poems in it. Mikey Concern flashes me his heavy-metal grin; he's got a Christmas marathon going at Pennsbury High School (final score: 1 hard Gita, 3 soft Gitas; 10 Perfection of Yogas, 5 Renunciation Through Wisdoms).

I find a chair at the end of the bar near the back of the club, which is dominated by a huge "half-pipe" a skateboard ramp, about eight feet high and twenty wide, shaped like a flattened U. Here virtuosos of the board perpetually rise and fall and rise again, at the apex hanging far out over the lip of the law of gravity. Here they pause impossibly long, pitched up on one axle, before falling back into the pipe, or sweep laterally across the ramp edge, or spin around with the board in the air as if glued to their feet spinning sometimes forward and sometimes backward, now and then grinding the axle of their board on the edge.

Vraja Kisora joins me, and we try to talk about his study of Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura's Madhurya-kadambini. But the rumbling of the skateboards and the crashing of the band tries conversation. Vraja Kisora goes off to preach. I reinsert my ear plugs and chant on my beads. Once in a while a kid comes up to say hello and ask a question. The perennial favorite: "How do I explain Krsna consciousness to my parents?"

When I first confronted that question twenty some years ago, parents all seemed mysterious and formidable beings, but now the parents are my age or younger, and considerably demystified. We are often familiar to them, too. Brian tells me that the first time his father came into his room and saw Brian's posters and altar, he said: "Oh, you're into Krsna, huh? Well, I was into that once. You'll get over it!" I hope not, Brian says. He feels sorry for his father and mother.

Twenty-five years ago Krsna consciousness first spread in America through a network of youth who were particularly open to its message "hippies" to the outsiders, "freaks" to the in. Now history's repeating itself, with variations. Here is another youthful social protest movement, originally called "straightedge," that was itself part of the broader movement called "punk" by outsiders, "hardcore" by the in. While the 60s counterculture was ideologically fairly united, the punk counterculture was unified only by rage at established society, and allegiance to a certain style of music. Otherwise, hardcore has ranged from neo-Nazi skinheads on the right to gay-liberation groups on the left. The various parties are given to viciously assailing one another in print through the huge numbers of periodicals called "fanzines" (the heavy, blunt language being part of the hardcore style) and sometimes physically in clubs.

As near as I can find out, the straightedge scene was born in the Washington, D.C., area in the early 80s. Somehow or another, a group of kids formed an allegiance to a credo that vehemently rejected all intoxicants as well as indiscriminate and casual sex. I don't know the immediate impetus for this commitment. They were not driven by any religion. Were they simply rebelling against the practices of their parents members, after all, of the 60s generation? In any case, a band named Minor Threat announced their credo in a song called "Straightedge," giving the scene its now somewhat dated name. The straightedge kids adopted as their symbol a large black X, frequently drawn on the back of the hand. This was taken from the sign stamped there at club entrances if you're underage and can't be served liquor.

Straightedge died down in D.C., but a tiny following of eight or ten kids sprang up in the New York area. Among them was Ray Cappo, whose band Youth of Today, formed in 1985, revived straightedge (its first song sold 50,000 copies) and added vegetarianism to the creed. Members of two New York hardcore bands, Cro Mags and Antidote, had already become interested in Krsna consciousness, and they got Ray and some friends involved. Now, as Raghunatha Dasa, he heads Shelter 
as well as Equal Vision Records, both based in the Philadelphia temple. Vraja Kisora, originally Shelter's lead guitarist, is starting a second band called 108. Now their fans have gathered this December night at this club in Reading, a dying industrial town fifty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia.

As the headline band, Shelter comes up last, a little after 11:00 P.M.

I go up to the stage the safest place to watch the show and take up station on the left, just behind the bass guitarist, Bhakta Chris, and the four-and-a-half-foot-tall speaker he will blast through. The players set up their instruments and start tuning, already rattling the boards. Jake Hain, the club's owner, springs up onto the stage and starts darting about, hooking up and testing mikes. Even Ekendra's drums, just to my right, get miked.

I give Jake a tap on the shoulder. He turns around and grins and puts out his hand. "Haribol! Haribol! Good to see you here! This is going to be a great show!" Jake is a big Shelter fan. He likes their message. "There's a lot who say but don't live it," he tells me after the show. "Shelter's different. They practice what they preach." A 43-year-old sound engineer, Jake has worked a lot with young people. "I saw all the kids after fourteen go another route: we'd lose 'em to drugs." Wanting to help them, he opened the Unisound club four years ago. The club rules: "no drugs, no alcohol, no prejudice." Jake also knocked on 4,000 doors and got elected to the Reading Board of Education, about which he now has many horror stories to tell. When his term expires he's planning to run for city council. But right now he's running around setting up the mikes for Shelter and is clearly up for the occasion. Earlier in the day, Bhakta Jason had answered the Equal Vision phone at the temple. Jake was asking him to bring up some vegetarian cookbooks. He had made up his mind, he said.

Chris says to me, "We're going to have a kirtana before we play you wanna lead?"

"On stage?"

"We better check with Raghunatha." A bunch of us head back stage, where Raghunatha is standing by himself, concentrating, gathering psychic energy for the show. He radiates intensity. After some discussion we decide the kirtana will be in the pit "just like we did in Europe" and Ekendra and I will lead together, for volume. "Let's start heavy and stay that way," I say. "Great," says Ekendra. Jake keeps running in and out. Tony is frantically making copies of the set list for the band members, who are disagreeing about whether they're ready to play one of the songs. Jake runs in and pops a cassette into a machine: Prabhupada singing Guruvastakam booms out in the club.

I take the drum; cymbals are distributed; we're ready. Suddenly Jake jumps on stage and grabs a mike. "Before we start," he announces to the crowded pit, "I just want to tell everybody I want all of you here to know that Kathy and I have decided we're not gonna eat meat anymore." Wild cheers and applause. "We've been thinking about it, but finally something happened. I was driving behind a truck that was hauling baby pigs to the slaughterhouse in Lancaster. And the pigs were happy! I mean, their pink noses were all sticking out in a row through the slats, and they were just enjoying the air, and they were happy! They didn't know they were going to be slaughtered. They just thought they were going for a nice ride. And that was it! I made up my mind! No more meat!" Cheers again.

Then we're running across the stage and down into the crowded pit Chris, Porcell, Raghunatha, Norm, Ekendra all the band members and a host of other devotees and we rip into the kirtana, Ekendra and I in the middle, everyone else tearing around in a circle. It starts intense and gets more intense. Ten minutes later when it's over, I'm hoarse, my arms ache, and my hands feel like fielder's mitts. I'm too decrepit for this scene, for sure.

We're on stage again, and the pit's packed tight. The rest of the club the tables, even the half-pipe looks abandoned. Porcell on lead guitar lays down a gradually building pulse, and then Raghunatha rushes on stage, crouches with his back to the pit, and then spinning around and jumping up, launches into "Quest for Certainty" and launches himself straight out over the heads of the crowd. Raghunatha, the crowd, the band have all erupted simultaneously in an awesome crash of sound and motion. Curled in fetal position and screaming into the mike, Raghunatha is passed along over the heads of the audience and dumped back on stage. He springs back up, leaps into the air, spins around, leaps, spins, and his foot topples Ekendra's drum set. As Jason and Vic scramble to set the drums back up, Ekendra doesn't miss a beat.

The crowd is flooding onto the stage, and one after another fans dive from the stage into the writhing pit and are passed along overhead by many hands. Everyone is leaping, jumping, diving, slamming into one another, and all the while screaming at the top of their lungs. What they are screaming is the lyrics to "Quest for Certainty," right along with Raghunatha. "So many people teach! So many people preach!" everyone is screaming together, "And make a claim to authority! But I've seen their lives! They compromise! So why should they be teaching me!"

Under the raging storm of guitars and drums the words are nearly inaudible, but the words are the point, and everybody has studied them, thought about them, memorized them. What we're seeing here is not an audience being entertained but something more vital and profound the enactment of a living rite that gathers everyone in, the forging of a bond centered on the ritual affirmation of a message. Everyone's chanting together: "College! Money! Family! Will these things set us free? Make up your mind! Soon you'll be dead! The world's like a dream! It's not what it seems! You think it's solid! But it fades instead!"

The whole thing looks wild and dangerous. The crush, the squeeze, in the pit looks life-threatening. So do the bodies hurtling about, limbs flailing the air. But the beat of the music infuses a kind of order into the melee, making it look like a choreographed riot. The slamming of body into body, the physical roughness of it, itself creates solidarity, the roughhousing typical of activities of male bonding. And indeed the scene is intensely masculine; there are no girls to be seen in the rough and tumble of the pit. It makes me think about what Camille Paglia says about transcendence being normally a male project. The chant builds up: "If there was a place where you didn't lie! Cry! Die! Would you come with me? It's my quest! My quest for certainty!"

The song crashes to a stop. Raghunatha is covered in sweat, and strips off his top layer of shirt. The whole band in fact is soaked. Jake rushes back on stage and starts repairing the damage to mikes and cords. "Hey," Raghunatha says to the cooling-down crowd, "how many people think it's great that Jake's becoming a vegetarian?" Cheers and whistles. Someone shouts from the pit: "How many people believe it?" Jake grabs a mike: "Hey, you know I always keep my word! I've never let anyone down!" More cheers. Raghunatha: "That's true! That's true!"

And then the band and crowd explode into "The News," another anthem for the youth of America: "Been caught up so long! In all of life's hype! I haven't had time to see! That beneath the disguise! The real self lies! Which needs a soul-satisfying activity!" Veins bulge in his neck and forehead as Raghunatha leads the kids through the song. He leans out over the pit, puts the mike before one chanter and then another, as all the young faces, smooth and unmarked, scream out together: "Beneath the smiles, profiles and styles! Lies individuality! No more immense pretense! I'll take down my fence! I want to know the real me! No more acts! I just want some facts! On the soul's real personality!"

Eight more numbers, explosions of intense energy, and the show ends, Raghunatha down to his last shirt, the rhythm-guitar amp out. Two numbers in the set are brand new, from an album still in production one a version of Sri Caitanya's verse na dhanam na janam na sundarim, the other based on a poem by Bhaktivinoda Thakura. For these, Raghunatha recites the words first, and the crowd in performance is fractionally more subdued, listening. When the album is out, they will study and memorize the words like holy writ, and chant them later in concert.

Jake has videotaped the whole show, and as the exhausted band packs up, and the happy crowd filters out, an instant replay begins on monitors and powerful speakers, opening with the kirtana, as loud as the original. Some people seem settled in to watch the whole thing again.

It's 1:00 A.M. as we drive through the dark Pennsylvania countryside, locked in winter. I find it amazing that such a group of young Americans should be so spontaneously attracted to the regulative principles of Krsna consciousness. The scene born as straightedge is certainly more supportive of the principles than the earlier 60s counterculture, with its glorification of drugs and sex. This group is starting out from a higher platform. How did that happen? Where did they come from?

I've thought about this before, and have always concluded that social or psychological causes remains insufficient. The following explanation has occurred to me: Enough time has now passed since the beginning of our movement for people, probably older people, to have had some exposure to Srila Prabhupada and to Krsna consciousness to have honored prasadam, chanted in kirtana, rendered some service and then to have died and again taken birth. And here they are.

Earlier this year Maha-Visnu Swami from England was visiting our Philadelphia temple. Sitting in my office, he was relishing the enthusiasm of these young people. Although he is elderly and Gujarati by birth, the Maharaja was able to appreciate this young American generation fully. Hesitantly, I put forward my hypothesis to him, calling it a "speculation."

He listened and smiled broadly. "Oh, no," he said, "it's not a speculation, not at all. It is the truth! Devotional service is carried over from a previous birth. How else could it have happened? So many attracted from such a young age? It is the only explanation! Srila Prabhupada, you all, have sewn the seeds, and now the harvest is coming up! It is the only explanation!" He had no doubt about it.

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa is ISKCON's Governing Body Commissioner for the United States mid-Atlantic region. He lives at the Philadelphia temple, where he joined ISKCON in 1971. He holds a Ph.D. in religion from Temple University.