From Punk to Monk
“I couldn’t accept that I would be an engineer for the rest of my life, settle down, lead a steady life, grow old. I was bored. What was the point?”
I missed a chance to see Srila Prabhupada in 1969 when he spoke at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, London. I happened to be there before his lecture, and I saw a number of devotees and many other people inside. I was curious to know what was going on. But as I was a skinhead and saw the devotees as hippies, I thought. “I’m not going to get mixed up with this lot.” I just turned around and walked out.
Shortly before that, I had seen a small group of devotees walking in single file down Oxford Street. I was thinking, “This is love and peace I’ll show them.” And I kicked one of the devotees.
Around that time I heard the Hare Krishna maha-mantra for the first time. A recording by the London devotees with George Harrison was played on the television program “Top of the Pops,” which features the successful records of the week. The devotees appeared on the program, but again I was thinking. This is a bunch of hippies, and they’re just interfering with my hearing the kind of music I like.”
I was an avid supporter of West Ham United, my local football team in London. I would tolerate school waiting for the weekend. On Saturday mornings, I’d wake up, put on my skinhead gear. and hurry out the door to join up with the rest of the gang. We’d hang around until the match in the afternoon. Not caring for the finer arts of the game, I just wanted to see my team win.
Girlfriends also occupied my mind. I was always looking forward to the next dance and my next date. My life was divided between West Ham and women.
Then I got my girlfriend pregnant, and I left school to marry her. I got a job with an Irish construction company. Now I had a family to support.
I had a righteous social conscience and sought some kind of intellectual stimulation. I tried various shades of socialism, but all I found was plenty of talk and little action. I doubted whether these socialists would ever achieve anything. I quickly lost faith in the solidarity of the working classes. Like everyone else, they were motivated by greed, and when it came down to it was every man for himself.
I moved to Dublin and committed myself to Irish Republicanism. I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to free Ireland.
But I wasn’t finding real satisfaction in my endeavors. Unite Ireland for what? Life’s the same in Dublin or London. I couldn’t accept that I would be an engineer for the rest of my life (or a businessman or a truck driver), settle down, lead a steady life, grow old. I was bored. What was the point?
I didn’t even consider God. My parents had taught me to pray. I was taught that “God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.” But Christianity seemed so sentimental. If Jesus loves us. I thought why is a child born crippled? How can God send someone to hell for eternity? Why does He allow wars? Why is the world so unjust? Why are some people born into a privileged society while others starve? I didn’t want dogma; I wanted answers.
I’d become very cynical. Why should I trust anyone? People were motivated by their own selfish desires. I wasn’t going to play the society game.
Then in 1976 came punk rock. Now I could shout my feelings. I dyed my hair green. I started a band (named The Threat), wrote my own songs, and told the world how bored I was. Then I told them how boring they were. The band drew a good following in Dublin, and John Peel (a punk mentor) was plugging our first record on English national radio. Now I seemed to have a real goal in life to sing songs saying life was pointless!
* (From “Bored & Frustrated,” by The Threat, Dublin, 1978.)I might just look around me
to see what I can do
to disrupt this monotony
and smash this quiet through
and smash this quiet through
Then at an antinuclear festival, as a more broad-minded punk rather than a narrow-minded skinhead. I met devotees again. This time I was more inquisitive. I wanted to know who the “real me” was. I was aware that people put on false images of themselves, and I didn’t want to relate to people on that platform. I wanted to be real.
I heard the maha-mantra coming from across the fields. The devotees were sitting around a fire chanting. I was attracted. I sat down, listened, and joined in. I happened to be at the end of a frightening experience with LSD, and I felt safe joining in the chanting.
After the chanting, the devotees came around with prasadam. It was porridge, just plain porridge, and a lot of people were throwing it away and saying they didn’t like it. But when I tasted it I thought it was the most delicious food I’d ever eaten. I was used to a breakfast of tea or coffee, and for the rest of the day I’d just eat chocolate biscuits and 7-Up. In the evening I might have some toast and cheese. Then I became a macrobiotic vegetarian, eating brown rice. So this porridge was heavenly. I devoured it. That night I went to sleep in my truck realizing I had just experienced something very special.
The next day I saw the devotees’ exhibit that showed a man in different stages of life, the changing bodies diorama. I thought “This is it” and, in the words of Ian Dury, “What a waste.” I identified myself among the figures and saw that my life up to that point was meaningless. The later stages seemed even more useless and certainly less attractive.
I met some devotees and asked them questions. I found the philosophy interesting. I wanted to understand more about higher principles of life. I was convinced of the idea of mind over matter that we live a kind of a gross life, but there’s something beyond just acting on the gross, sensual platform. I could understand that there was a mental platform, which could control the lower platform. I wanted to be in control of my own body. So I had some attraction toward philosophy. I wanted to know spiritual reasons for things happening, not just the apparent immediate gross causes.
It made sense that I was not this body, which had changed from the form of a baby to that of a youth and would end up wrinkled and then rot. I wasn’t in a child’s body anymore, but I could remember experiencing those early years: I was the same person. I’d spent my whole life relating to the world on the basis of my body, but I am something different. I’m consciousness, or soul! Now I could go on to find the real me. But I was too skeptical to think the devotees had all the answers. I left the festival with something to contemplate, thinking I’d met some interesting people.
My idea to learn more about the devotees faded as I made plans to write more songs, release another single, and tour Europe with my band. Then one day while I was driving my truck. I realized I was chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. It had been some time since I’d met the devotees, and I hadn’t consciously tried to remember the mantra. It was as if I was chanting by higher dictate.
Then I met a devotee on O’Connell Bridge, and he gave me a Path of Perfection. I was still cynical, though, and when I noticed that the name “Krishna” was written with three dots under it I thought that maybe this was some form of advertising or maybe a subliminal trick to get the reader to remember Krishna. [These are diacritics, pronunciation guides.] But then I thought “So what? Even if it is, they’re obviously into Krishna, and everyone else is advertising themselves or their trip. Why shouldn’t devotees stress His name?” Still, I made a mental note to be cautious.
In any case, the book interested me. In it Srila Prabhupada quotesBhagavad-gita (6.7): “For one who has conquered the mind, the Supersoul is already reached, for he has attained tranquillity. To such a man happiness and distress, heat and cold, honor and dishonor are all the same.” Here was an ancient book of knowledge telling me that not only can the body be controlled, but the mind can be conquered, and one can realize satisfaction and truth. Srila Prabhupada talked about the shortcomings of trying to arrive at the Absolute Truth by rejecting untruth or relative truth. I’d been doing just that and I had arrived at the negative conclusion that life was a waste of time. Now here was a positive alternative: through bhakti-yoga I could spiritualize my life and live on the higher, real platform I’d been looking for. Reading the book, I became more and more excited. I had to talk with these people again.
I decided to visit the ISKCON farm in southern Ireland. I was immediately attracted by the devotees. Here were people practicing what they preached. They were trying to dedicate their whole life to serving God. Nobody was getting paid, but they were developing a farm where people could come and live peacefully and learn about God and themselves.
Studying Bhagavad-gita. I found out that the real me. the spirit soul, is a servant of God. Srila Prabhupada writes that we are all serving something or someone, so why not serve the best master God?
I decided to confront my doubts. I spent so me days wandering in the nearby woods, taking notes, trying to figure out for myself if there is a God.
I wasn’t impressed by the Big Bang theory or with the idea that chance combinations led to the evolution of man. If you put all the components of a watch into a box, no matter how many times you shake the box the result won’t tell you the time. Life forms are complex, and they work together in harmony. It seems more reasonable that this world was created by design rather than by chance. As for a bang, big or small, who made it happen, and where did the ingredients for a bang come from?
Yes, I concluded, there is an eternal, supreme being: God, the creator. But how do I know that Krishna is the Supreme Person? The devotees were telling me He was. and obviously they were pushing their line. But I thought, “What if I went to a Christian community? They’d be telling me their way was the only way.”
In the introduction to the Bhagavad-gita, Srila Prabhupada says that if you just accept theoretically that Krishna is God, then Bhagavad-gita will make sense. So I said. “Yes, that’s as far as I’m prepared to go. I’m not accepting Krishna as God. But what Srila Prabhupada says seems fair. I’ll try it out. I’ll assume that Krishna is God while I’m studying Bhagavad-gita.”
Jesus Christ refers to God as “our Father,” and Mohammed calls God Allah, “the greatest.” In Bhagavad-gita Krishna Himself says, aham sarvasya prabhavo mattah sarvam pravartate: “I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me.” This qualifies Him as both the Father and the greatest.
Then I came to this verse: “Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, become My devotee, offer obeisances to Me, and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.” I realized I had come across the essence of religion, the same teaching I had learned in my childhood: “God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next”
I thought how I’d served my family. West Ham, women, Socialism, Irish Republicanism, punk, and so on. And I’d been selfishly serving myself. I felt that what Srila Prabhupada was saying was right: Why not serve the greatest master. God? I decided to commit myself to the practice of Krishna consciousness. Having resolved to give up material life, I prayed, “Dear Lord, please forgive me for my past mistakes. I now want to serve You. Please guide me. You may have other servants elsewhere, but I can see that these devotees are serving You here. Please let me join them.”
Practicing bhakti-yoga, I have gained realizations of the reality of spiritual life, and I have come to learn more about Srila Prabhupada, who formed this international society of devotees. Reading his teachings and life story, I am convinced that he is a great saint Srila Prabhupada spent his whole life as a devotee of Lord Krishna. He knows God and he loves Him. I want to learn from him.
I never met Srila Prabhupada, but I have greatly benefited from his plan to spread the chanting of Hare Krishna, from his prasadam distribution, from his teachings, and particularly from his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, which convinced me to try to become a devotee of Lord Krishna. I am eternally indebted to him.