By Satyaraja Dasa
The influential Beat poet assisted Srila Prabhupada in significant ways during ISKCON’s earliest years.
A noted award-wining poet and icon of the 1960s counterculture was one of Srila Prabhupada’s earliest followers.
While many people know that Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) – poet, author, cocreator of the “Beat” scene in both New York and San Francisco – played a subdued role in ISKCON’s formative stages and was even deemed a friend to Srila Prabhupada, few realize the extent of his involvement. A careful perusal of the history, however, indicates that he was in some ways pivotal in the early days of the movement.
I met Ginsberg on only two occasions, but both times were inspirational in my spiritual life. The first time, I had gone to see him at Pace University in the 1990s, ostensibly to talk to him about his relationship with Srila Prabhupada and the formative years of ISKCON, though, truth be told, I always admired his work as a poet and was excited to make the connection. I had agreed to do the interview for the editors of ISKCON World Review, ISKCON’s monthly newspaper at that time, and to attract his attention I wore a Jagannatha t-shirt while sitting in the first row. I was there with a friend of mine, Bhakta Marino, who would take pictures. I wanted Ginsberg to clearly see that there were devotees in the audience.
Sure enough, when his reading was complete, he walked over to us, and though we hadn’t yet introduced ourselves, he said, “Let me sit with the Vaishnavas.” Those were the first words he spoke as he sat down next to me and Bhakta Marino. The conversation developed from there. He proceeded to tell me about his travels in India, his attraction to chanting the maha-mantra, and his meeting with Prabhupada. The conversation was short, and we went our separate ways.
Then, a couple of years later, I noticed that he was scheduled to appear at Carnegie Hall. I wanted to go, to see if I could develop the relationship, and I immediately bought a ticket. I decided to arrive early to do some errands on the upper West Side, and right around the corner from the prestigious venue, who by Krishna’s arrangement should I see meandering the streets but Ginsberg himself.
Even though it was somewhat disorienting to see him out on the street, he was easily recognizable with his long hair, glasses, dress pants, and Converse sneakers. I was stunned to see him walking around like everyone else. But what was more surprising was that he recognized me. As we walked toward each other, he reached out both hands to grab mine, in friendly handshake, and said with a huge smile, “Ah, Bhaktivedanta’s disciple.” It warmed my heart, and we chatted until it was time for him to take the stage.
Allen was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Louis and Naomi Ginsberg, two Jewish members of the New York literary counterculture. His trajectory was set in place with parents who bequeathed to him a love for the arts – particularly literature – and progressive political perspectives.
In his youth, Walt Whitman’s poems captured his attention, and as he reached adulthood it was Edgar Allan Poe who became his favorite. Upon receiving a scholarship to Columbia University, he felt deep gratitude for his good fortune and made an internal vow to serve those less fortunate than he, a perspective that was as much a factor of his upbringing as it was the new political paradigm emerging at the time.
During his time at Columbia University, he forged friendships that would define his life: William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac, among others. These personalities, through their work and demeanor, would inadvertently give birth to the Beat Generation, a social and literary movement that centered on bohemian artist communities, creating a new jazz-inflected sensibility in musical tastes, jargon, and worldview.
In 1956 he published Howl, the first “mainstream” poem to articulate the insights of the Beat Generation. It expressed a certain dissatisfaction with the material world, suspicion of the industrial revolution, the inevitability of madness if one were to continue down the road of superficial life, and ultimately the importance of seeing that something “Holy” undergirds all of existence. In short, it was his preparation for Krishna consciousness.
A large part of Ginsberg’s spiritual quest, especially during the 1960s, was his obsession with English poet and painter William Blake (1757–1827), whose mystical work he associated with the bhakti tradition. Blake’s oeuvre served as a catalyst for Ginsberg’s spiritual journey, inspiring him to continue on the path of transcendence. One well-meaning advisor, in fact, suggested that he accept Blake as his guru, a suggestion that, on an internal level, he obviously took to heart.
It should be noted that in the 1960s and 1970s, Ginsberg studied under a number of spiritual teachers and Zen masters, and was somewhat conflicted about his own spiritual path. Prabhupada was aware of this, of course, and yet still engaged him in Krishna’s service whenever possible. He had helped Prabhupada early on, as we shall see, and as a result His Divine Grace felt deep affection for him.
Along similar lines, it should be mentioned that Ginsberg’s political concerns were legion, protesting the Vietnam War and supporting free speech and gay rights as passionately as he pursued the chanting of mantras. So his interests were varied, perhaps even distracting, and he never became a committed or full-time devotee. Overall, he is known for his collections of original poetry: Kaddish and Other Poems (City Lights, 1961), Planet News: Poems, 1961–1967 (City Lights, 1968), and The Fall of America: Poems of These States (City Lights, 1973), which won the National Book Award. But his life was clearly intertwined with the early days of ISKCON.
India Can’t Be Beat
In the early 1960s the Beats were morphing into hippies, a process that would take several years to complete. In the meantime, Ginsberg would travel to India. For the informed, this would not come as a complete surprise, since part of Beat/hippie culture was a fascination with exotic, mystical experiences, and India in particular. Ginsberg had expressed deep frustration with materialistic life, as expressed in Howl, and he was looking for a practical form of spirituality, leaning East. Like many of his generation, he wanted a higher alternative that veered away from mainstream Western culture.
In 1962, when he first arrived in the land of the Ganges, and after a brief stop in Bombay, he found himself in Bengal, the homeland of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. He had not yet heard of Sri Chaitanya, and Prabhupada’s movement had not yet begun. It would be another three years before Prabhupada would journey West. But considering Ginsberg’s already developed predilection for the Beat lifestyle, he would be hosted by a group of Bengalis later called the “Hungryalists”* – anti-establishment, avant-garde poets, introduced to him by controversial poet Malay Roy Choudhury. What the Beats were to America, the Hungryalists were to Bengal. He felt at home.
On this initial trip (he would return a decade later), he stayed in the subcontinent for two years. His personal journals, published later, offer information that might be of interest to devotees. For example, upon temporarily relocating to Benares, he “installed a bright 100-watt lightbulb and a wood statue of Chaitanya” (Indian Journals, p. 126). Choudhury writes that the statue was “collected by him at Nabadwip, the paints on which had flaked off due to overuse.” Somehow, at this early stage, he had developed an attraction for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the combined form of Radha and Krishna at the heart of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
The notes to Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947–1997 define Sri Chaitanya as a “16th-century North Bengali saint, founder of Hare Krishna Maha-mantra lineage, pictured dancing, singing.” So even in the early ’60s he had some rudimentary, incomplete understanding of Mahaprabhu. He would of course learn more when he met Srila Prabhupada several years later.
Along similar lines, Ginsberg informs us in his conversations with Prabhupada, recorded in 1969, that Krishna had somehow directed him to other Vaishnava holy places (besides Nabadwip) during that preliminary trip to India. In the following excerpt, he reveals that he had been to Mathura, Vrindavan, and Jagannath Puri as well:
Ginsberg: I think I told you I had darshana with Jagannatha.
Ginsberg: Yes, I got inside the temple. I was silent and made believe I was a madman. I had long hair and white pajamas.
Prabhupada: Just like some Punjabi.
Ginsberg: So I went inside and when anybody came to ask me anything I was afraid of opening my mouth.
Prabhupada: There is no enemy of the dumb. Boba shatrura nahi.
Ginsberg: So I just kept my mouth closed and got down on my knees and touched their feet, so they all thought that I was crazy and they kept away from me. [Laughter.]
Prabhupada: So you had a nice view of Jagannatha?
Ginsberg: Yes. It was very beautiful. I was there, with Peter also, for about a week. Yes.
Prabhupada: So you were there several times?
Ginsberg: One time. I was afraid to go in and out many times. I figured I got away with it once and I didn’t want to . . .
Prabhupada: In that Aquarian Gospel it says that the Lord Jesus Christ lived in the Jagannatha temple. He was thick and thin with the priests. One preacher was very friendly. And he was discussing philosophical subjects with them.
Ginsberg: So according to the Aquarian Gospel Christ was in Jagannath Puri.
Prabhupada: Yes. And He saw Rathayatra, as we are performing in San Francisco.
Prabhupada: So Lord Jesus Christ saw.
Ginsberg: We went to Mathura also. We were on the road several days. In Vrindavan for about a week.
Prabhupada: You stayed there in Vrindavan?
Ginsberg: Yes, for about a week.
Prabhupada: You have seen Vrindavan nicely?
Ginsberg: Well, we went from one temple to another, sang, sat by the river, went to the little garden where the tree is and met two bhakti devotees I mentioned, Sri Mata Krishnaji and Banki Behari.
Prabhupada: Banki Behari?
Ginsberg: Yes. They translated from Mirabai into English. Good translations. They were published in the Bharati Vidya Bhavan series. They have about four or five books. One sufis, yogis, saints, poets, like Mukteshvara. And then another of Mira, two volumes of Mira and then a life of Mira. And one on the Kumbha Mela.
Prabhupada: They’re good scholars?
Ginsberg: Yes, good scholars. They know Blake also. They know English.
Prabhupada: In which year have you been in Vrindavan?
Ginsberg: Oh, 1962 in Vrindavan.
Prabhupada: Oh, at that time I was there.
Ginsberg: Yes, we probably passed on the street. [Both laugh.] You were there then? 1962?
Prabhupada: Yes, I left Vrindavan in 1965. From 1956 I was there.
Ginsberg: I would like to go and live there for a while and stay. I liked it when I was there. It would be a good place to live.
Despite the mercy bestowed upon Ginsberg in the early 1960s, and the enhanced mercy he would receive upon meeting Prabhupada in 1966, he maintained a lifelong attachment to worldly pleasures, which he admits in his Journals. For example, “I went down for milk & cigarettes – at the tobacco stall always greeted by Jai Guru or Jai Hind – I reply Jai Tamara or Jai Krishna or Jai Citaram & namaste clasped hands to brow or breast, clutching cigarettes & matches in one fist.” (Indian Journals, p. 138) There are other such admissions that need not be reiterated here. So too did he sustain a combined taste for both Buddhism and Vaishnava practice:
I’m not going to eat meat anymore
I’m taking refuge in the Buddha Dharma Sangha
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
(from his poem “Angkor Wat”)
Meanwhile, in the early 1960s, just prior to Prabhupada’s appearance in New York, the East Village had become the world center for hippiedom, and upon returning from India, Allen Ginsberg resumed life on East 12th Street, where he had an apartment – not ten blocks from Prabhupada’s first storefront temple at 26 Second Avenue.
Prabhupada had been living with a friend on the Bowery and needed a more permanent place to stay. Consequently, various well-wishers tried to help him find a more stable location. Mukunda Goswami (then Michael Grant) had picked up the Village Voice and was drawn to a small ad indicating the availability of a storefront at 26 Second Avenue. This was clearly not a product of chance. Prabhupada would move in soon thereafter, and the first Hare Krishna center in the West would finally take its place on the world stage.
Ginsberg happened into Prabhupada’s storefront and was immediately enamored. Big time. He had been preparing for this his entire life. The chanting, as he often said, was sublime, and he was thrilled when Prabhupada suggested that they would be taking it to the streets. “It is Allen Ginsberg,” writes Hayagriva Dasa in his book Hare Krishna Explosion, “who first suggests Tompkins Square between Avenues A and B on the Lower East Side.”
Those kirtanas are now legendary. When a New York Times reporter saw Ginsberg taking part in them, playing his karatalas with wild abandon, the reporter asked for an interview, hoping to seize the moment.
“You shouldn’t interrupt a man while he’s worshiping,” Ginsberg said, and resumed his absorption in the holy name.
Some weeks later, when one of Prabhupada’s early followers was sent to Bellevue Hospital, it was Ginsberg who was able to get him out. As the story goes, Kirtanananda, the follower in question, was one of the first to shave his head and wear a dhoti, the dress of a Vaishnava. Thinking him mentally deficient for this radical change, the hospital staff wanted him committed as a live-in psychiatric patient. Unfortunately, by signing certain papers under their supervision, they achieved their goal.
Ultimately, however, Allen Ginsberg helped extricate Kirtanananda through a psychiatrist friend named Dr. Edward Harnick. It was Harnick who performed the necessary function to set Kirtanananda free. Ginsberg writes:
Peter Orlovsky and I met Harnick at a group that I knew called the GAP, Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. We had been to their conference. They had invited us to talk about hippies and they wanted to know what was this generation thing. It was like a breakthrough between the poets and the new culture and the psychiatry groups. So we’d given a big poetry reading and made friends with a lot of them, and sang Hare Krishna with them, the whole thing.
Over the years Harnick and I developed a pleasant friendship and worked out an arrangement that if I knew anybody particularly gifted among the younger generation that was getting screwed up in the Lower East Side for drugs or busts or madness or whatever, that rather than have them go through the whole horror mill of Bellevue and not know what to do, to put them in touch with him and the Einstein Clinic, so he could intervene to make sure that they had a safe refuge. When Kirtanananda’s case came up, at that time he wasn’t the only one in trouble. There were a lot of hippies going through the same problem, wandering the street, flipping out. It was a question of finding a psychiatrist who had a little political clout in the New York psychiatric community among the hospitals, whom we could talk to and explain what the situation was, that this guy was a devotee practicing traditional Vaishnava practice, and that’s why he looked so funny in the American context, but it was all right, he wasn’t crazy, he was just doing his thing. Harnick was good. He picked up fast and could intervene. (The Beginning, The 1966 New York Journal, September 14)
After all was said and done, Harnick received several volumes of Srimad-Bhagavatam, compliments of Srila Prabhupada.
Ginsberg helped Prabhupada in numerous ways, not least in helping him get his visa.
“Swami Bhaktivedanta,” wrote Ginsberg, “was having difficulty getting a permanent visa. He had a lawyer whom I met. He seemed like a naive local lawyer. Maybe somebody he’d met from Ananda [Ashram]. I couldn’t figure the guy out.”
I met him in the Jewish vegetarian restaurant a couple of times and talked with him on Second Avenue. At that time I was having problems with the narcotics bureau, which was trying to set me up for a bust, and that year, J. Edgar Hoover put me on the dangerous security list, and the narcs made several attempts to frame me. So I went to Robert Kennedy’s office in Washington to put counter-pressure and complain, and to warn them that someone might bring marijuana into my apartment, bust the door down, and accuse me of having it. I had a long talk about this with Kennedy. Later, I’d gone back to see his secretary, and he came back into the office in his shirt sleeves to see one of the secretaries. I said, “Oh, there’s something I forgot. I was going to sing you a little song.” He said, “Okay, I got a minute.” So I sang about eight verses of Hare Krishna mantra and he said, “What’s that?” And I said, “When you hear this, it’s supposed to bring immediate liberation.” So he said, “Well, the guy up the block needs it more than I do,” pointing up to the White House when Johnson was running the Vietnam war. That was Kennedy’s introduction to Hare Krishna. . . . Later on, when the Swami was having trouble, he asked around everybody who could help, and I said, “Well, let’s see now. We could write to Kennedy.” It’s just a normal thing, you know. That’s what senators are for. In this case Kennedy knew who I was and I knew Kennedy’s people, or I was somewhat a celebrated literary figure, so if I wrote a letter saying this swami was good it would be taken seriously. So I wrote Kennedy a letter saying here was this nice swami who was really doing something interesting, bringing Hare Krishna, and his work could only be good; and if he was having trouble, that could only be bad. Is there anything they could do to facilitate and make sure that he didn’t have any difficulties? That he really was a legitimate swami, and was doing something great. I don’t know if it helped or not. (The Beginning, The 1966 New York Journal, September 27)
It did help, at least temporarily. Allen was able to get Prabhupada a six-month extension on his visitor’s visa, which would be enough time to establish his movement in America. Afterwards, Prabhupada took shelter of his newfound center in Montreal while making arrangements for a Green Card, which would allow him permanent residency in the U.S.
Even when Prabhupada spread his movement to the West Coast, in January 1967, Ginsberg worked with the devotees to organize a ‘‘mantra-rock dance’’ at the Avalon Ballroom, which helped in funding the newly established Haight-Ashbury temple. Prabhupada asked Ginsberg to address the audience and speak about the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, which he did. Similarly, Ginsberg promoted Prabhupada’s movement in the fall of 1968 when he appeared on William F. Buckley’s talk show, Firing Line. Clearly, Ginsberg was playing his part to bring the maha-mantra into public view, er, earshot.
Significantly, Prabhupada and Ginsberg also engaged in extensive philosophical conversations in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969, which are available online. Although the two sometimes differed in terms of specific philosophical positions, they supported each other, and Ginsberg considered himself Prabhupada’s follower and friend.
Indeed, his Foreword for Prabhupada’s original edition of Bhagavad-gita As It Is (1968) helped popularize Krishna consciousness in the West. What is little known is that Ginsberg’s introductory essay basically predicts Prabhupada’s success. He writes:
The Hare Krishna mantra’s now a household word in America (through the appointed Beatles among other Musicians and Bards). Or will be before the end of the present decade, “this Prophecy, Merlin shall make, for I live before his time.”
“Covers The Earth,” said an old media advertisement for a household paint. The personal vibration set up by chanting “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare” is a universal pleasure: a tranquility at realization of the community of tender hearts; a vibration which inevitably affects all men, naked or in uniform.
His reference to the movement as “covering the world,” which was his way of paraphrasing the old Sherwin-Williams paint ad, spoke to his faith in Prabhupada and the chanting of Hare Krishna. Sherwin-Williams was the nation’s largest paint manufacturer and known for their slogan “It Covers the World.” But at that point Prabhupada’s movement hadn’t yet achieved such ubiquitous covering. Not by any means. Nonetheless, Ginsberg clearly anticipated it. It seemed to him to be an inevitability. And indeed it came to pass.
Ginsberg himself summarized his interaction with Prabhupada in a 1968 interview with Peter Barry Chowka in the New Age Journal:
Since ’66 I had known Swami Bhaktivedanta (leader of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness) and was somewhat guided by him, although not formally – as a spiritual friend. I practiced the Hare Krishna chant, practiced it with him, sometimes in mass auditoriums and parks in the Lower East Side of New York. . . . Actually, I’d been chanting it since ’63, after coming back from India. I began chanting it, in Vancouver at a great poetry conference, for the first time in ’63, with (Robert) Duncan and (Charles) Olson and everybody around, and then continued. When Bhaktivedanta arrived on the Lower East Side in ’66 it was reinforcement for me, like “the reinforcements had arrived” from India.
The feelings were reciprocal, as Prabhupada indicates in an early interview from the Evergreen Review (February 1967):
“I asked about Allen Ginsberg, who often participates in the evening Kirtan.”
“Allen is our friend, he is a good man and a spiritual man.”
“But I’m sure Allen doesn’t observe the taboos.”
“I know Allen uses intoxicants, maybe LSD and such things. But sooner or later he will give them up. He will have no more need of these contaminating substances. To achieve real spiritual advancement we must become pure.”
In Prabhupada’s association, and under his direction, purity will naturally arise in due course. Indeed, it is only a beat away.
*The word Hungryalism was coined by the Hungryalists from English poet Geofrey Chaucer’s line In the Sowre Hungry Tyme.
Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.