Music is My Path to God
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 niceladdus, 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 theirasrama. They said, “Our guru is coming next week, come to our asrama.” 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 Siva was good because at that time I was not following the four regulative principles. Siva 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 Siva helped me come to Lord Krishna.
One day their guru, Swami P, came to their asrama from India. He was traveling around different colleges andasrama 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 theSaivites. 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 theprasada, 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 prasadain 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.
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In the last issue…
Born in an opulent family, the author grew up to be an accomplished musician. He had all that the world could offer, yet he was dissatisfied. To seek fulfillment he began travelling around the world.
Many people come to Rainbow Gatherings to experience communal living in a natural environment. Usually the gatherings are conducted in a National Forest and people bring their tents, or even sleep under trees. No money is exchanged. People volunteer to take up different services for the community. There are kitchens, educational workshops, trading marketplace, and lots of music around the different campfires at night. Rules: no alcoholic drinks, no buying and selling, and no usage of electronic sound systems.
My last Rainbow Gathering was in Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University. There I welcomed people, helped them park their cars, which was tough due to all the rain, mud and cold. I picked wild flowers and herbs and made hot tea and played music for them. This was also ajïata-sukrti. Because of my helping to give people a good first impression at the front gate, they were more receptive to meeting the devotees down in the main part of the Rainbow Gathering. I served prasada to all the guests at the Krishna Camp.
The Saint at JFK
In 1990, while in transit from New York to Ireland, I met Revatinandana Dasa, disciple of His Holiness Bhakti Caru Swami, at the airport. He was distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Tall and charismatic, smartly dressed in suit and tie, Revatinandana was a young African-American. Later, I found out that he had been a professional dancer before coming to Krishna consciousness.
I was travelling with my guitar, trumpet, and long hair. He approached me and asked, “Do you play with a band?”
I said, “Yeah! I play with the OM band.”
“Do you know what OM means?”
“No,” I replied.
He opened the Srimad-Bhagavatam, part 1. We spent around ten minutes together seeking references and quotes and unpacking the definition of the word. I was impressed. He was very nice, polite, gentlemanly and also scholarly. Somehow, I was inspired to give him a donation.
As I was taking out the money, I accidentally dropped twenty dollars on the floor. While I was walking away with the book in my hand, Revatinandana called out to me. “Hey! You dropped this!” He picked up the twenty-dollar bill and gave it back to me. His display of honesty, his character, and his qualities made a powerful impact on my heart. I was even more inclined to read the book.
I thought to myself: “I like these devotees, I like their music, I like their food, but I don’t know what they’re talking about. Let me read this book from cover to cover and try to understand everything.”
My plane was late, so I sat down in a restaurant in the airport and began to read. I was impressed by the introduction, which is the biography of Lord Caitanya. The climax of the biography was the text of eight prayers written personally by Lord Caitanya, called the SikñañTaka (Eight Intructions).
Of all the prayers, the one that struck a chord in my heart the most was the fourth prayer,
na dhanam na janam na sundarim
kavitam va jagad-isa kamaye
mama janmani janmanisvare
bhavatad bhaktir ahaituki tvayi
“O almighty Lord, I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor do I desire beautiful women, nor do I want any number of followers. I only want Your causeless devotional service, birth after birth.”
I thought, “This is amazing. This personality does not want money, wealth, fame, followers, and he does not want to go to the heavenly planets. He just wants unmotivated devotional service.” As a teenager, I would desire these things. I had so much money, musical talent, fame, and now I was travelling the world. When you have these things, then naturally you are attracted to beautiful women.
I experienced all these things but did not get any satisfaction, nor any taste. I knew there must be something more to life than this. Lord Caitanya explains, mama janmani janmanisvare: “I only want Your unmotivated devotional service birth after birth.” It suddenly dawned on me that this is what I needed to understand. What is this unmotivated devotional service? This is what I should try to understand.
IN A FARM IN IRELAND
I moved to a farm in southern Ireland in the province of Dungarvan. On the farm there were cows and horses. Ireland is a very green and luscious country.
I had a job and worked one day in a week for only two hours I would perform music in a pub, two kilometres from the farmhouse. They would feed me, praise me, glorify my talent and give me enough money to last for a week. The rest of the week, I would sing, read, compose music, and take long walks in the countryside. I also learned to paint.
Who could ask for a better situation than that? I had attained what I thought would be the highest experience: most beautiful place, easiest lifestyle, do whatever I want, no boss. In spite of this seemingly ideal situation, I was still frustrated and unsatisfied, and I felt like I was going mad. I kept on thinking that there has got to be something more.
I then left the farmhouse. I took the Srimad-Bhagavatam, my tent and camping stove and decided to live in the forest. I went into a river valley and lived in the woods for one month. I picked plants growing in the forest like nettles. I cooked them along with the oats and clover.
I read the Bhagavatam and chanted OM and Hare Krishna. I understood that I was at a crossroads, a powerful transitional period in my life. Not knowing what to expect next, I sought clarity of mind and a healthy body. I ran long distances during the day with the aim to improve my health. I was seeking to acquire a very clear mind to best equip myself to understand what would be the next step in my life.
MEETING DEVOTEES AGAIN
One day, my supply of oats ran out. I left the woods for the first time in a month and hitchhiked three hours to Cork. When I reached the main city square, I took out my trumpet, and prepared to play to get some donations for oats.
I was surprised to see devotees distributing books. I went up to one of them and said, “I want to play my trumpet here. Will it disturb your book distribution?” He said, “No no, go ahead.” I played for some time, and collected some donations. I was getting ready to go. He came up to me, and introduced himself as Nitai Candra Dasa. He gave me a magazine and offered me an invitation. “We are having a Sunday Feast program. Please come.” I said, “No, no, it is very far, three hours from my woods.” He said, “Anyway please try to come.”
I hitchhiked back to the woods and started reading the magazine immediately. Srila Prabhupada explained in his article that eating, sleeping, mating, and defending are four animal propensities that humans engage in. However, the human being has an additional ability and that is to inquire about the Absolute Truth (athato brahma jijïasa). I said, “Yes, this fully makes sense. This is correct.”
Another article explained how to offer your food to Krishna so that it becomes karma-free, or spiritual. I started offering everything I made in the woods to Krishna. I also got a special plate to offer the food on.
I read my Srimad-Bhagavatam more and my chanting of Hare Krishna increased. I decided to hitchhike to Cork again to attend the Sunday Feast program. The normal way to travel is for one to be dropped and picked up several times with long gaps between successive rides. But on that Sunday rides came so easily and before I knew it I was in Cork. The Sunday program was wonderful. The prasada was fantastic. I stayed overnight with the devotees and bought some chanting beads. The next morning I chanted with the devotees. They told me to chant one or two rounds whatever is comfortable. I just kept chanting with them until I had completed sixteen rounds. This became my daily spiritual practice.
SADHANA IN THE WOODS
The next day, the devotees encouraged me to return the following week for a program at a local college. I went back to my woods and continued chanting sixteen rounds a day. Mystically, I began waking up early morning, before the rising of the sun, without an alarm clock.
One morning, I went for a long walk to the cliffs overlooking the ocean and just as I finished chanting my sixteenth round, the sun rose over the ocean. It was gorgeous. I felt that Lord Krishna was reciprocating with me, as the experience was beautiful and profound.
I decided to travel again to Cork to participate in the college program, and planned to move in with the devotees. I took all my extra possessions and I went to a nearby city, Dungarvan, where I posted all my unnecessary possessions, as well as some gifts for my family back to America.
I waited for a ride. It usually takes from ten to fifteen minutes to get a ride, but on this occasion, three hours had passed and all I had received from the passing cars were looks of suspicion. Darkness was falling, and I was starting to get uneasy.
All of a sudden an old Volkswagen Beatle stopped. The driver was a hippy with long hair.
He said, “Get in.”
The first thing that he said to me was, “Do you know anything about yoga?” I immediately started telling him everything I knew from reading the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Amazingly, I learned that he was also going to Cork. He was kind enough to take a detour and he drove me back to my woods, helped me pack my tent and my luggage into his car. He drove me all the way to Cork, dropped me right at the devotees’ front doorstep, assisted me with all my baggage and put my stuff in the devotees’ asrama. He then left and I never saw him again. I reflected on the situation and knew that this was obviously Lord Krishna’s arrangement.
A SWAMI ARRIVES
The next day I attended the college program. On the third day that I had moved into the apartment with the devotees, His Holiness Trivikrama Swami, a senior disciple of Srila Prabhupada, arrived. Maharaja took the time to explain to me, and the Chemistry student in whose flat we were staying, all about the Bhagavad-gita and the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. “The important thing is to hear the chanting carefully,” he said. “Focus on the sound vibrations.”
Being a musician, I took this instruction to heart and began trying to hear attentively. Immediately, I could sense a difference in my chanting. My experience was deepening and intensifying.
Maharaja stayed with us for three weeks. During this time, there were many lessons learned, and new experiences had. I felt as if my consciousness was being cleansed and a new phase of my life was beginning.
At the end of the three weeks, Maharaja was preparing to travel to Poland to start a new ISKCON center there. The devotees I had moved in with were also getting ready to get back into their van, and continue driving through Ireland, distributing books. What would I do now?
Maharaja and the devotees suggested that I travel to Bhaktivedanta Manor, in UK.
I decided to think overnight about the prospects of travelling there. In the morning, I was convinced that this was the right decision. I shared the news with Maharaja and the devotees.
“Shave him up boys!” was Maharaja’s gleeful cry.
I was reluctant to relinquish my long curly locks of hair. I gave many arguments. It was a battle. Finally, I agreed to have a hair buzzer take off everything but a short stubble of hair.
I boarded a plane to London and journeyed to Bhaktivedanta Manor. I handed a letter of recommendation that Trivikrama Swami had given me to the temple authorities. My new life had begun. (Concluded)
Ekalavya Dasa serves is a GBC deputy, and co-coordinator of the World Holy Name Week, a global project. His devotional music group, “Inspiration Explosion,” performs at festivals throughout the world.
Facebook: Ekalavya Dasa