Surfin' Swamis: Catching Waves, And Spirituality, In India

NEW DELHI -- Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha paddles hard and drops into a 6-foot wave off the coast of Mangalore in South India.

As the 61-year-old surfer cuts left and races down the face of the wave spiralling toward the wastewater treatment plant up the beach, half a dozen local fishermen look on with bemused fascination at the aging white dude, who also goes by his given name of Jack Hebner.

Though India has 4,500 miles of coastline and gets 20-foot waves during the monsoon season, fear of the ocean and beaches that double as toilets have prevented surfing from catching on. But Hebner and his followers -- who call themselves "the Surfin' Swamis" -- are seeking to change all that with India's first surf ashram, or religious community.

"Surfing isn't just about getting in the water and catching a few waves," Hebner says. "It's about something much deeper than that. It's about a spiritual experience."

Hebner -- a Hindu monk from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, who doesn't drink or smoke and took a vow of celibacy 30 years ago -- isn't exactly what you picture when you think of a surfer.

But it's that weird combination that in 1991 brought Jack to India's southwestern coast, where he's working to start a surfing community that reveres the ocean, helps the poor and wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to chant "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna."

Hebner has been a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna since the early 1970s, when he became a disciple of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the controversial Hare Krishna movement in America.