From The Beatles to Elvis Presley, these musical devotees have brushed with fame: meet the Hare Krishnas of Hong Kong
A recent Hong Kong visit by a senior member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness gives Kylie Knott an insight into the spiritual organisation
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.