Govinda Swami, a senior member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, during his recent visit to Hong Kong.
With a famous DJ as a father, and a grandfather who worked as a missionary in Africa, it’s not surprising Govinda Swami chose a path that balances music with religion.
“My dad was a disc jockey in Tennessee. He was Elvis’ first producer and managed him for a while,” he says matter-of-factly about his father Bob Neal’s relationship with the rock ’n’ roll star. Music producer Neal also helped launch the careers of Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. “Elvis often visited the house; he would babysit me. He called me ‘younger brother Sean’.”
Today, Sean Neal is better known as Govinda Swami and is a senior member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), founded in 1966 in New York by Srila Prabhupada.
He joined in 1971 and his devotion to the movement has taken the 64-year-old around the world, including to Hong Kong, where last month he held kirtans – a form of devotional chanting – at ISKCON’s temple in Tsim Sha Tsui.
First introduced to Hong Kong in 1972, the movement was officially registered here in 1981.
Receiving a blessing on the way into the temple.
It’s uncertain how many Hare Krishnas reside in Hong Kong because the temple is open to the public, says locally based devotee Vrishabhanu Kumari.
“In terms of regular practitioners, I’d say we have about 100 to 150, split between Chinese, Indians and a few Westerners – Americans, Aussies, British and Europeans, and a healthy mix of people in their golden years, young couples, youth and tiny tots,” she says.
One of the basic requirements for a devotee is daily chanting of the maha mantra (maha means “great”; mantra means “sound that liberates the mind”). The chant is supposed to cleanse the heart of greed, envy, lust, anger and other obstacles to peace. Chanting and singing – and meditation – help achieve a higher state of consciousness. The music is said to help bring about spiritual awakening.
WATCH Hare Krishna in Hong Kong:
To become fully initiated, says Kumari, devotees must train in various ancient texts, chanting and kirtan, as well as service. Devotees must also recite the mantra (at least 16 rounds daily) and follow the four regulative principles – no meat, no illicit sex, no gambling and no intoxicants.
The devotee can reach out to any “initiating gurus” they feel connected to, says Kumari. “The process of seeking out the guru is one of the most important steps for progressing in spiritual life and devotees are encouraged to take their time,” she says.
Most impressions of the Hare Krishnas have been moulded by movement’s often distorted portrayal in media and popular Western culture. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it became confused with the hippie subculture – in the 1967 hippie musical Hair, for instance, the Hare Krishna mantra is used in a song.
But its biggest mainstream exposure came via The Beatles, who came into contact with Hare Krishnas in 1969. Some of the Fab Four wrote songs that reference the movement, including George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance.
Musicians including Boy George, Tenacious D, Thievery Corporation, Fleetwood Mac, Marc Bolan and Stevie Wonder have songs referencing the mantra. It has also featured in TV shows from Mad Men to The Simpsons, in films (in Blade Runner, Hare Krishna devotees are seen singing in the street) and even gets a mention in the game Grand Theft Auto.
Today the movement’s image is not of shaven-headed, garland-wearing devotees dancing in the streets, but is more toned down. And in Hong Kong, it reflects the city’s international demographic, as can be seen at the sixth-floor temple on Chatham Road South, in a room aglow from the gold statues and frescos on its walls.
We hold many activities, from teaching the public about Vedic scripture to promoting a healthy and spiritual lifestyle. We have a slogan – ‘simple living and high thinking’
Josephine Ng, Hare Krishna enthusiast
It’s a Sunday, the first night of Mid-Autumn Festival, and the swelling crowd is excited about Govinda Swami’s visit.
Hongkonger Vicki Ip, 26, glides past bunches of cut chrysanthemums in a blue sari and sits on a mat. Fellow Hongkonger Tiffany Chan, in a floral silk sari, sits beside her. Their foreheads are marked with tilaka, a mix of clay and water.
In front of them, sitting in the lotus position, is Indonesian-born fashion designer Ika Butoni. Holding her prayer beads, used for keeping count while reciting or chanting, Butoni says her interest in the movement stemmed from her business partner and friend Hans Keilman, who died this year from liver cancer. Dutch-born Keilman was the design coordinator for ISKCON’s flagship Indian temples in Vrindavana, Uttar Pradesh, and Juhu in Mumbai in the 1970s. An architect by trade, he first encountered the movement at a nightspot in Amsterdam where they were chanting Hare Krishna onstage with Eric Clapton’s backing band.
“I love the dancing, the music and holding the beads – I find them calming,” says Butoni.
Butoni also plans to get involved with Food For Life, an annual project started by founder Prabhupada in the ’70s after he saw poor children in India fight dogs for scraps of food. His vision was that anyone within a 10-mile radius of a Hare Krishna temple should not go hungry.
Josephine Ng, oncologist and Hare Krishna devotee.
Food For Life is one of the many events hosted by the movement, says oncologist Josephine Ng, a member since 2010.
“We hold many activities, from teaching the public about Vedic scripture to promoting a healthy and spiritual lifestyle. We have a slogan – ‘simple living and high thinking’. We also promote organic farming and natural cures,” says Ng, adding the movement provides respite from working for sick and dying people.
Other activities include yoga classes, street chanting, distribution of prasadam (vegetarian food with religious significance), educational programmes and concerts.
At the temple, Govinda Swami, dressed in flowing saffron-coloured robes, enters the room. Some devotees meet him with bows while others clasp their hands in prayer position. He sits, kartals (cymbals) in his hand, and starts the kirtan.
Govinda Swami and his musicians have mesmerised devotees worldwide, including at famous events such as Woodstock in Poland and concerts with orchestras from Russia to South Africa. He recently returned from the mainland, where he was a guest of the yoga community.
Vrindavan Kirtan Das, 21, starts with slow beats on the mridanga drum, a traditional instrument that’s said to be an incarnation of Krishna’s brother Lord Balarama. Das was born into the movement and has been travelling the globe with his drum since he was 15.
Making up the trio is New Yorker Akincana Krishna Das on the harmonium. Sitting in front of him is his Russian wife, who stands out from the crowd not just because of her height and canary-yellow sari but because she is one of the few Westerners in the group.
Hare Krishna devotees in Hong Kong celebrate the Janamashtmi festival, the birthday of Lord Krishna.
The kirtan starts with slow rhythmic beats building momentum until – two hours later – the audience, young and old, are dancing, singing and chanting, arms waving in the air. It’s almost rave-like, but with all ages. Here, everyone is on a natural high – a concoction of music and dance is their drug.
At the end of the session, the vegetarian prasadam – literally meaning “mercy” – is served. The next day, Govinda Swami does it all over again at Pure Yoga in Central. He also makes home visits before his final session at the Tsim Sha Tsui temple.
“There’s a yoga kirtan concert by Spanish singer Atmarama Dasa on October 22,” says Ng. “Would you like to join?”
With endorphins soaring from hours spent chanting and dancing, it’s an invitation that’s hard to resist.
Premananda Prabhu extends an invitation to everyone to attend a program
that is going to commemorate Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s 500th
anniversary visit to Vrndavana from Jagannatha Puri]
There is one program that is going to commemorate Mahaprabhu’s 500th anniversary visit to Vrndavana-dhama. After sannyasa, Mahaprabhu came from Jagannath Puri to Vrndavana. Hence, five hundred years have passed since Mahprabhu’s visit to Vrndavana. Now, our Prime Minister is arranging one program in Vrndavana. His representative has come to invite everybody.
Our program is from November 25 to 30. And also, the in-charge of Tota Gopinatha temple in Jagannatha Puri has arranged a party of Vaisnavas to come from Jagannatha Puri to Vrndavana. There are more than three hundred devotees who are walking from Jagannatha Puri to Vrndavana. They are near Kanpur now. They will come to Mathura on the 22nd. They will halt in Mathura for two days and then, they will come to Vrndavana. A program will be arranged in Vrndavana.
The Prime Minister said, “I will arrange everything.”
Bhaktimarga Swami, the Hare Krishna walking monk, stops for a break near the Pilot Truck Stop on Route 93 in Sugarloaf Township Wednesday after walking 8 miles of his daily 20-mile trek. Swami left Boston, Mass., on September 20 walking his way to Butler in western Penn. by walking 20 miles per day.
On Wednesday, the Hare Krishna monk passed through Butler and Sugarloaf townships on his 900-mile pilgrimage to western Pennsylvania in memory of his guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who founded the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Swami hopes his 20-mile-a-day hike will raise awareness to his spiritual teacher and all teachers. He started his spiritual journey in Boston on Sept. 20 and celebrated his 63rd birthday on Monday while on the road sleeping under the stars.
“This is the best time of the year to walk,” he said, sitting at a picnic table near the Pilot Travel Center in Sugarloaf Township. “It’s rare to see someone walking on the road.”
Bhaktimarga Swami stops for a break near the Pilot Truck Stop on Route 93 in Sugarloaf Township.
Most of his walk through New England and even Pennsylvania was among the mountains and trees, and on Wednesday opened up to the state’s rolling hills and rural farmland, he said. He joked his traditional orange garb blended in with the pumpkins.
Swami believes walking allows people to experience the world and see the sights, he said.
“I’m not a fan of the automobile,” he said. “The sights are there, but you whizz by. Life should not be a blur.”
Walking also lends clarity and gives people time to process their thoughts and future plans, and reflect on their past.
“We shouldn’t be walking faster than a donkey,” he said. “We should take time to slow down and think about things that are important as a human being. It’s easier to hit divinity.”
Plus, he meets new people on his journeys. The upbeat monk said he waves to people passing by and often shares a laugh with those who stop to talk.
“They can be fun,” Swami said, recounting the day a police officer approached him one morning, because someone called about someone in orange lying on the side of the road. The officer said he checked out the report because prisoners who escape would be in orange jumpsuits.
One of the folks he met along the way, Tre’von Stapleton of Windsor, Connecticut, joined him on his journey.
“I asked for a guiding light from the universe and a few days later we met,” he said.
The pair, who have a support vehicle following them, hoped to log another 12 miles before stopping for the night on their westward pilgrimage. After reaching Butler, they’ll return east to New York City.
The spiritual specialists say it is the process through which spiritual knowledge is imparted. Divyaṁ jñānaṁ yato dadyāt: new knowledge, new estimation about the environment, about the world, awakens in one’s heart. A new angle of vision arises within. What we saw was false. It was māyā. Now we want to realise what is reality.
Kuryāt pāpasya saṅkṣayam: the reactions that were due to me for my activities resulting from my false calculation, these are cleared off. Pāpa means the reaction I acquired because of my false estimation and transaction with the environment. That is cleared when I get a real estimation of the environment, of the world outside. This is the result of dīkṣā, divya-jñān [divine knowledge]. Not knowledge from my narrow standpoint but from the standpoint of the most wide view. I see with my narrow selfish outlook, but I must get rid of that false notion of selfish enterprise and replace that with the proper and true estimation of the environment, of the world outside. Accordingly, we shall learn to interact with the world. This is dīkṣā. By doing that, we are to understand what is the nature of the world we are living in.
I am not a master of what I see. I am not the monarch of all I survey. This is totally wrong. It is down right falsehood. But there is a monarch. I am not that monarch, but there is a monarch, and I am within His survey. “I am monarch of all I survey.” No. I am not the surveyor. Rather, I am an object being surveyed. The world is being surveyed, and I am a part of the world. I am also being surveyed by the monarch of the world. And what is the result of that survey? To know that and go on accordingly, to learn to go on according to the instructions of the surveyor proper, the absolute surveyor, that is dīkṣā, divya‑jñānam.
What is divine knowledge? Īśāvāsyam idaṁ sarvaṁ (Īu: 1): not only it is false that I am the owner, but no one is owner. There is only one onwer, and that one is not myself. The master of the whole is God, the Lord, Kṛṣṇa. Not only does the world belong to Him, but we also belong to Him. This is knowledge.
What are we? We are slaves to the master of the world. Divine knowledge means to feel that this is the truth.
jīvera svarūpa haya kṛṣṇera nitya dāsa (Śrī Chaitanya-charitāmṛta: Madhya-līlā, 20.108)
[“The soul is by nature an eternal servant of Kṛṣṇa.”]
I am very small and insignificant. My condition is very pitiful. I have to create mercy, help, from the higher for my misguided life, my misunderstood life. All these things are to be dealt with every day. This is the purpose of getting dīkṣā, divya-jñān. Divya-jñān means to do away with our local experience and to invite the perspective, the estimation, of the centre and the surveyor from the centre. What is what? Divine knowledge means to be introduced newly to the environment, to forget my previous estimation and to invite a new estimation about things and go on accordingly, control my conduct accordingly. What we see around us has an owner. It is not ownerless, and I am not the owner. I am not the owner of what I survey, and at the same time, no one like myself is the owner either. There is one owner, and He is also my owner. Now, how to go on? It is a mathematical calculation: this is His property, and I am also His property. I am His servant, and this is His substance. So, according to the master’s will, I am to deal with everything. That is, I am to serve. The Lord is to be served, not to be enjoyed, and His things are also to be served, not to be enjoyed. That will be the deduction. That will be deduced from divya‑jñān. I am a serving unit in this world.
I cannot take to the side of renunciation either. I have no right to renounce. A slave cannot go on strike: “I won’t do the work.” You are bound to do your duty. Neither can you go on with the work according to your own whim, nor can you go on strike, saying, “I won’t cooperate.” Only one side is open: you have to discharge your duty. If you do not do that, then you commit offence, and offences are punishable. So, you will be punished. The fact is so stark. The reality is so cruel.
We have no independence of our own. We must not think that we are an owner. We cannot think that we are the owner of our own self and that according to our will we can deal with our environment. No. You are duty‑bound to treat your environment in a particular way: in a reverential and serving way. Then, you are normal. Otherwise, you are abnormal and you are to be punished. That is aparādha, offence. Sevā [service] is neither bhoga nor tyāga, neither enjoyment nor renunciation. We have no right to enjoy and no right to renounce, to not cooperate. Only one side is open: to serve. We are to face this cruel reality.
At first, it may seem to be rough, cruel, but if we can understand the underlying purpose in it, then we shall gradually find, “This is the one and only key to a happy life.” We should not engage in self‑aggrandisement with the help of others. Wanting to live on others’ energy is insulting. It is cowardice, and it is improper. Or because we cannot utilise something only for our selfish purpose, we must leave it—that is also not honourable or justifiable.
We are living together. So, we must have some sort of duty towards the environment. I cannot see myself as a thing cut‑off from the environment. In an organic whole, the parts are correlated. So, we also have a correlation with our environment, with all things on all four sides. This is natural. We are a part of an organic whole, and we have got our respective duty to one another just as one part of our body has some duty to discharge for the whole of the body and through that performs a duty to every part of the body.
Neither the tyāga like that of the jñānīs, the Buddhists, and the Śaṅkārites, neither their formula or estimation is right, nor are the exploitationists: “Whatever I see is for me; I am the monarch of all I survey.” That view is also not true. We have to understand this deeply. Someone may be a good scholar but be perplexed or nonplussed by this. Intellect is not sufficient to make us understand all the difficulties of this life. Independent reading of the scriptures cannot impart us the necessary light to understand the things contained in the scriptures. yāha bhāgavata paḍa vaiṣṇavera sthāne (Śrī Chaitanya-charitāmṛta: Antya-līlā, 5.132)
Mahāprabhu says, “Go and study the Bhāgavat from a Vaiṣṇava. Try to get the angle of vision from him.” tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ jñāninas tattva-darśinaḥ (Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā: 4.34)
[“Learn divine knowledge through surrender, enquiry, and service. Those who know and see the truth will teach it to you.”]
āchāryavān puruṣo veda (Chāndogya-upaniṣad: 6.14.2)
“You must have an Āchārya if you want to study the revealed scriptures.”
You can’t study alone, independently. Not in an empirical way will you be able to understand. Only by the descending method it is possible. Divine knowledge comes in a descending method, and it does not depend on our literary education. “A literate man will understand more, and an ordinary illiterate person won’t be able to understand spiritual truth.” This is not true. The illiterate can understand, and the literate may fail to understand. It is independent of worldly scholarship. Only praṇipāt [surrender], paripraśna [enquiry], sevā, a serving attitude, will help. These things are necessary to be illuminated by the higher revealed truth. Through Guru and Vaiṣṇava, it will come down to my heart and then to my brain, but really it will come down to my soul. The soul will be awakened, and the soul’s body will grow. We will see the soul come out from bondage.
Divya-jñān, dīkṣā, means all these things: to engage oneself in the quest of the revealed truth through a particular process. Praṇipāt, parispraśna, and sevā—surrender, honest inquiry, and serving attitude—we can acquire that sort of knowledge and understanding in this way, and we are to adjust ourselves accordingly to catch the benefit of dīkṣā.
It is not a mere formal thing. It is not that only we shall repeat the mantram we receive. The mantram wants to say something to us. The mantra has its meaning. The mantra wants to say something to us and asks us to do that, and we have to do that. Then, we will get the desired result. Then, the purpose of dīkṣā will be fulfilled. Mere repetition of a few technical sounds does not complete dīkṣā. Dīkṣā means knowledge is transmitted, and you must utilise that sort of knowledge in favour of your realisation of higher life, your real life, your proper life, your eternal life, your life after death, your life after so many deaths. This will continue: it is eternal knowledge. It is eternal knowledge of the eternal soul about eternity. The knower, the known, and the knowing—these three things are all eternal. You will find yourself: “I am an eternal part of this world, and I have a part in eternity also. An eternal relationship is there, and from that relationship, so many functions and activities are presupposed. They should be done.” This sort of duty should be discharged. This is dīkṣā, divya-jñān. Divya means ‘not mundane’; it means supernatural, transcendental.