George Harrison talks about his music, his spiritual journey, and what he has found in the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra.
In the summer of 1969, before the dissolution of the most popular music group of all time, George Harrison produced a hit single, "The Hare Kṛṣṇa Mantra," which he recorded with the devotees of the London Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa Temple. The record became a best-seller in Europe and Asia, and soon the Hare Kṛṣṇa chant became a household word—especially in England, where the BBC featured the Hare Krishna Chanters, as they were then called, four times on the country's most popular television program, Top of the Pops.
Today, nearly fifteen years later, the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra still plays a key role in the former Beatle's life. In this conversation with Mukunda Goswami, a long-time personal friend and a leader of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement, George reveals some memorable experiences he's had while chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa and describes in detail his deep personal realizations about the chanting and the philosophy of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. The conversation was taped on September 4, 1982, at George's home in England.
Mukunda Goswami: Oftentimes you speak of yourself as a plainclothes devotee, a closet yogi or "closet Kṛṣṇa," and millions of people all over the world have been introduced to the chanting by your songs. How did you first come in contact with Kṛṣṇa?
George Harrison: Through my visits to India. So by the time the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement first came to England in 1969, John and I had already gotten a hold of Prabhupāda's first album, Kṛṣṇa Consciousness. We had played it a lot and liked it. That was the first time I'd ever heard the chanting of the mahā-mantra.
Mukunda: When Gurudāsa, Śyāmasundara, and I [the Hare Kṛṣṇa devotees sent from America to open a temple in London] first came to England, you cosigned the lease on our first temple in central London, bought the Manor* for us, and financed the first printing of the book Kṛṣṇa. You hadn't really known us for a very long time at all. Wasn't that a kind of sudden change for you?
George: Not really, I always felt at home with Kṛṣṇa. You see, it was always a part of me. I think it's something that's been with me from my previous birth. Your coming to England and all that was just like another piece of a jigsaw puzzle that was coming together to make a complete picture. It had been slowly fitting together. That's why I responded to you all the way I did when you first came to London. Let's face it. If you're going to have to stand up and be counted, I figured, "I would rather be with these guys than with those other guys over there." It's like that. I mean I'd rather be one of the devotees of God than one of the straight, so-called sane or normal people who just don't understand that man is a spiritual being, that he has a soul. And I felt comfortable with you all, too, kind of like we'd known each other before. It was a pretty natural thing really.
Mukunda: What was it that really got you started on your spiritual journey?
George: It wasn't until the experience of the '60s really hit. You know, having been successful and meeting everybody we thought worth meeting and finding out they weren't worth meeting, and having had more hit records than everybody else and having done it bigger than everybody else. It was like reaching the top of a wall and then looking over and seeing that there's so much more on the other side. So I felt it was part of my duty to say "Oh, okay, maybe you are thinking this is all you need—to be rich and famous—but actually it isn't.
Mukunda: George, in your autobiography, I, Me, Mine, you said your song "Awaiting on You All" is about japa yoga, or chanting mantras on beads. You explained that a mantra is ''mystical energy encased in a sound structure,'' and that "each mantra contains within its vibrations a certain power." But of all mantras, you stated, "the mahā-mantra [the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra] has been prescribed as the easiest and surest way for attaining Realization in this present age." As a practitioner of japa yoga, what realizations have you experienced from chanting?
George: Prabhupāda told me once that we should just keep chanting all the time, or as much as possible. Once you do that, you realize the benefit. The response that comes from chanting is in the form of bliss, or spiritual happiness, which is a much higher taste than any happiness found here in the material world. That's why I say the more you do it, the more you don't want to stop, because it feels so nice and peaceful.
Mukunda: What is it about the mantra that brings about this feeling of peace and happiness?
George: The word Hare is the word that calls upon the energy that's around the Lord. If you say the mantra enough, you build up an identification with God. God's all happiness, all bliss, and by chanting His names we connect with him. So its really a process of actually having a realization of God, which all becomes clear with the expanded state of consciousness that develops when you chant. Like I said in the introduction I wrote for Prabhupāda's Kṛṣṇa book some years ago. "If there's a God, I want to see Him. It's pointless to believe in something without proof, and Kṛṣṇa consciousness and meditation are methods where you can actually obtain God perception." You don't get it in five minutes. It's something that takes time, but it works because it's a direct process of attaining God and will help us to have pure consciousness and good perception that is above the normal, everyday state of consciousness.
Mukunda: How do you feel after chanting for a long time?
George: In the life I lead, I find that I sometimes have opportunities when I really get going at it, and the more I do it, I find the harder it is to stop, and I don't want to lose the feeling it gives me.
For example, once I chanted the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra all the way from France to Portugal, nonstop. I drove for about twenty-three hours and chanted all the way. It gets you feeling a bit invincible. The funny thing was that I didn't even know where I was going. I mean I had bought a map, and I knew basically which way I was aiming, but I couldn't speak French, Spanish, or Portuguese. But none of that seemed to matter. You know, once you get chanting, then things start to happen transcendentally.
Mukunda: The Vedas inform us that because God is absolute, there is no difference between God the person and His holy name; the name is God. When you first started chanting, could you perceive that?
George: It takes a certain amount of time and faith to accept or to realize that there is no difference between Him and His name, to get to the point where you're no longer mystified by where He is. You know, like, "Is He around here?" You realize after some time, "Here He is—right here!" It's a matter of practice. So when I say that "I see God," I don't necessarily meant to say that when I chant I'm seeing Kṛṣṇa in His original form when He came five thousand years ago, dancing across the water, playing His flute. Of course, that would also be nice, and it's quite possible too. When you become real pure by chanting, you can actually see God like that, I mean personally. But no doubt you can feel His presence and know that He's there when you're chanting.
Mukunda: Can you think of any incident where you felt God's presence very strongly through chanting?
George: Once I was on an airplane that was in an electric storm. It was hit by lightning three times, and a Boeing 707 went over the top of us, missing by inches I thought the back end of the plane had blown off. I was on my way from Los Angeles to New York to organize the Bangladesh concert. As soon as the plane began bouncing around, I started chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. The whole thing went on for about an hour and a half or two hours, the plane dropping hundreds of feet and bouncing all over in the storm, all the lights out and all these explosions, and everybody terrified. I ended up with my feet pressed against the seat in front, my seat belt as tight as it could be, gripping on the thing, and yelling Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare at the top of my voice. I know for me, the difference between making it and not making it was actually chanting the mantra. Peter Sellers also swore that chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa saved him from a plane crash once.
Mukunda: Did any of the other Beatles chant?
George: Before meeting Prabhupāda and all of you, I had bought that album Prabhupāda did in New York, and John and I listened to it. I remember we sang it for days, John and I, with ukulele banjos, sailing through the Greek Islands chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa. Like six hours we sang, because we couldn't stop once we got going. As soon as we stopped, it was like the lights went out. It went on to the point where our jaws were aching, singing the mantra over and over and over and over and over. We felt exalted; it was a very happy time for us.
Mukunda: Although John never made Hare Kṛṣṇa a big part of his life, he echoed the philosophy of Kṛṣṇa consciousness in a hit song he wrote, "Instant Karma." Now what's the difference between chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa and meditation?
George: It's really the same sort of thing as meditation, but I think it has a quicker effect. I mean, even if you put your beads down, you can still say the mantra or sing it without actually keeping track on your beads. One of the main differences between silent meditation and chanting is that silent meditation is rather dependent on concentration, but when you chant, it's more of a direct connection with God.
Chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa is a type of meditation that can be practiced even if the mind is in turbulence. You can even be doing it and other things at the same time. That's what's so nice. In my life there's been many times the mantra brought things around. It keeps me in tune with reality, and the more you sit in one place and chant, the more incense you offer to Kṛṣṇa in the same room, the more you purify the vibration, the more you can achieve what you're trying to do, which is just trying to remember God, God, God, God, God, as often as possible. And if you're talking to Him with the mantra, it certainly helps.
Mukunda: What else helps you to fix your mind on God?
George: Well, just having as many things around me that will remind me of Him, like incense and pictures. Just the other day I was looking at a small picture on the wall of my studio of you, Gurudāsa, and Śyāmasundara, and just seeing all the old devotees made me think of Kṛṣṇa. I guess that's the business of devotees—to make you think of God.
Mukunda: How often do you chant?
George: Whenever I get a chance.
Mukunda: Once you asked Śrīla Prabhupāda about a verse he quoted from the Vedas, in which it's said that when one chants the holy name of Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa dances on the tongue and one wishes one had thousands of ears and thousands of mouths with which to better appreciate the holy names of God.
George: Yes, I think he was talking about the realization that there is no difference between Him standing before you and His being present in His name. That's the real beauty of chanting—you directly connect with God. I have no doubt that by saying Kṛṣṇa over and over again. He can come and dance on the tongue. The main thing, though, is to keep in touch with God.
Mukunda: So your habit is generally to use the beads when you chant?
George: Oh, yeah. I have my beads. I remember when I first got them, they were just big knobby globs of wood, but now I'm very glad to say that they're smooth from chanting a lot.
Mukunda: Do you generally keep them in the bag when you chant'?
George: Yes. I find it's very good to be touching them. It keeps another one of the senses fixed on God. Beads really help in that respect. You know, the frustrating thing about it was in the beginning there was a period when I was heavy into chanting and I had my hand in my bead bag all the time. And I got so tired of people asking me, "Did you hurt your hand, break it or something?" In the end I used to say, "Yeah. Yeah. I had an accident." because it was easier than explaining everything. Using the beads also helps me to release a lot of nervous energy.
Mukunda: Some people say that if everyone on the planet chanted Hare Kṛṣṇa, they wouldn't be able to keep their minds on what they were doing. In other words, if everyone started chanting, some people ask if the whole world wouldn't just grind to a halt. They wonder whether people would stop working in factories, for example.
George: No. Chanting doesn't stop you from being creative or productive. It actually helps you concentrate. I think this would make a great sketch for television: Imagine all the workers on the Ford assembly line in Detroit, all of them chanting "Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa" while bolting on the wheels. Now that would be wonderful. It might help out the auto industry, and probably there would be more decent cars too.
Mukunda: We've talked a lot about japa, or personalized chanting. But there's another type, called kīrtana, when one chants congregationally, in a temple or on the streets with a group of devotees. Kirtana generally gives a more supercharged effect, like recharging one's spiritual batteries, and it gives others a chance to hear the holy names and become purified.
Actually, I was with Śrīla Prabhupāda when he first began the group chanting in Tompkins Square Park on New York's Lower East Side in 1966.
George: Yes, going to a temple or chanting with a group of other people-the vibration is that much stronger. Of course, for some people it's easy just to start chanting on their beads in the middle of a crowd, while other people are more comfortable chanting in the temple. But part of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is trying to tune in all the senses of all the people: to experience God through all the senses, not just by experiencing Him on Sunday, through your knees by kneeling on some hard wooden kneeler in the church. But if you visit a temple, you can see pictures of God, you can see the Deity form of the Lord, and you can just hear Him by listening to yourself and others say the mantra. It's just a way of realizing that all the senses can be applied toward perceiving God, and it makes it that much more appealing, seeing the pictures, hearing the mantra, smelling the incense, flowers, and so on. That's the nice thing about your movement. It incorporates everything—chanting, dancing, philosophy, and prasādam. The music and dancing is a serious part of the process too. It's not just something to burn off excess energy.
Mukunda: We've always seen that when we chant in the streets, people are eager to crowd around and listen. A lot of them tap their feet or dance along.
George: It's great, the sound of the karatālas [cymbals]. When I hear them from a few blocks away, it's like some magical thing that awakens in me. Without their really being aware of what's happening, people are being awakened spiritually. Of course, in another sense, the kīrtana is always going on, whether we're hearing it or not.
Now, all over the place in Western cities, the saṅkīrtana party has become a common sight. I love to see these saṅkīrtana parties, because I love the whole idea of the devotees mixing it up with everybody, giving everybody a chance to remember. I wrote in the Kṛṣṇa book introduction, "Everybody is looking for Kṛṣṇa. Some don't realize that they are, but they are, Kṛṣṇa is God . . . and by chanting His Holy Names, the devotee quickly develops God-consciousness."
Mukunda: You know, Śrīla Prabhupāda often said that after a large number of temples were established, most people would simply begin to take up the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa within their own homes, and we're seeing more and more that this is what's happening. Our worldwide congregation is very large—in the millions.
George: I think it's better that it is spreading into the homes now. There are a lot of closet Kṛṣṇas," you know. There's a lot of people out there who are just waiting, and if it's not today, it will be tomorrow or next week or next year.
Back in the '60s, whatever we were all getting into, we tended to broadcast it as loud as we could. I had had certain realizations and went through a period where I was so thrilled about my discoveries and realizations that I wanted to shout and tell it to everybody. But there's a time to shout it out and a time not to shout it out. A lot of people went underground with their spiritual life in the '70s, but they're out there in little nooks and crannies and in the countryside, people who look and dress straight, insurance salesman types, but they're really meditators and chanters, closet devotees.
Prabhupāda's movement is doing pretty well. It's growing like wildfire really. How long it will take until we get to a Golden Age where everybody's perfectly in tune with God's will I don't know; but because of Prabhupāda, Kṛṣṇa consciousness has certainly spread more in the last sixteen years than it has since the sixteenth century, since the time of Lord Caitanya.~ The mantra has spread more quickly and the movement's gotten bigger and bigger. It would be great if everyone chanted. Everybody would benefit by doing it. No matter how much money you've got, it doesn't necessarily make you happy. You have to find your happiness with the problems you have, not worry too much about them, and chant Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare.
Mukunda: In 1969 you produced a single called "The Hare Krishna Mantra," which eventually became a hit in many countries. That tune later became a cut on the Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa Temple album, which you also produced. A lot of people in the recording business were surprised by this, your producing songs for and singing with the Hare Kṛṣṇas. Why did you do it?
George: Well, it's just all a part of service, isn't it? Spiritual service, in order to try to spread the mantra all over the world. Also, to try and give the devotees a wider base and a bigger foothold in England and everywhere else.
Mukunda: How did the success of this record of Hare Kṛṣṇa devotees chanting compare with some of the rock musicians you were producing at the time, like Jackie Lomax. Splinter, and Billy Preston?
George: It was a different thing. Nothing to do with that really. There was much more reason to it. There was less commercial potential in it, but it was much more satisfying to do, knowing the possibilities that it was going to create, the connotations it would have just by doing a three-and-a-half-minute mantra. That was more fun really than trying to make a pop hit record. It was the feeling of trying to utilize your skills or job to make it into some spiritual service to Kṛṣṇa.
Mukunda: When Apple, the recording company, called a press conference to promote the record, the media seemed to be shocked to hear you speak about the soul and God as being so important.
George: I felt it was important to try and be precise, to tell them and let them know. You know, to come out of the closet and really tell them. Because once you realize something, then you can't pretend you don't know it anymore.
I figured this is the space age, with airplanes and everything. If everyone can go around the world on their holidays, there's no reason why a mantra can't go a few miles as well. So the idea was to try to spiritually infiltrate society, so to speak. After I got Apple Records committed to you and the record released, and after our big promotion, we saw it was going to become a hit. And one of the greatest things, one of the greatest thrills of my life, actually, was seeing you all on BBC's Top of the Pops. I couldn't believe it. It's pretty hard to get on that program, because they only put you on it if you come into the Top 20. It was just like a breath of fresh air. My strategy was to keep it to a three-and-a-half-minute version of the mantra so they'd play it on the radio, and it worked. I did the harmonium and guitar track for that record at Abbey Road studios before one of the Beatles' sessions and then overdubbed a bass part. I remember Paul McCartney and his wife, Linda, arrived at the studio and enjoyed the mantra.
It still sounds like quite a good recording, even after all these years. It was the greatest fun of all, really, to see Kṛṣṇa on Top of the Pops.
Mukunda: Shortly after its release, John Lennon told me that they played it at the intermission right before Bob Dylan did the Isle of Wight concert in the summer of '69.
George: They played it while they were getting the stage set up for Bob. It was great. Besides, it was a catchy tune, and the people didn't have to know what it meant in order to enjoy it. I felt very good when I first heard it was doing well.
Mukunda: How did you feel about the record technically, the voices?
George: Yamunā, the lead singer, has a naturally good voice. I liked the way she sang with conviction, and she sang like she'd been singing it a lot before.
You know, I used to sing the mantra long before I met any of the devotees or long before I met Prabhupāda, because I had his first record then for at least two years. When you're open to something it's like a beacon, and you attract it. From the first time I heard the chanting, it was like a door opened somewhere in my subconscious, maybe from some previous life.
Mukunda: In the lyrics to that song "Awaiting on You All," from the All Things Must Pass album, you come right out front and tell people that they can be free from living in the material world by chanting the names of God. What made you do it? What kind of feedback did you get?
George: At that time, nobody was committed to that type of music in the pop world. There was, I felt, a real need for that, so rather than sitting and waiting for somebody else, I decided to do it myself. A lot of times we think, "Well, I agree with you, but I'm not going to stand up and be counted. Too risky." Everybody is always trying to keep themselves covered, stay commercial, so I thought, Just do it. Nobody else is, and I'm sick of all these young people just bogeying around, wasting their lives, you know. Also, I felt that there were a lot of people out there who would be reached. I still get letters from people saying, "I have been in the Kṛṣṇa temple for three years, and I would have never known about Kṛṣṇa unless you recorded the All Things Must Pass album." So I know, by the Lord's grace, I am a small part in the cosmic play.
(to be continued...)
*Bhaktivedanta Manor, a seventeen-acre estate outside London, purchased by George in 1973 and donated to ISKCON for use as a temple and yoga āśrama.
*His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, founder-ācārya (spiritual master) of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement.
*Vegetarian foods that have been spiritualized by having been offered to Lord Kṛṣṇa with love and devotion.
*The great saint, mystic, and incarnation of Kṛṣṇa who popularized the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa and founded the modern-day Hare Kṛṣṇa movement.