Hare Krishna founder still celebrating life
THE Hare Krishnas don't need an excuse to party. Joyful celebration is a sacred feature of their devotional practices, ordained by the Supreme Lord Krishna thousands of years ago in the Bhagavad-Gita.
But it was the society's 50th birthday recently - and that calls for a special shindig.
The community in Murwillumbah rose to the occasion, with 1800 guests, a hand-pulled chariot, dancing, feasting, chanting and music, the performers projected onto a giant screen befitting a jam-packed rock concert.
Amid the festivities was a man with more reason to celebrate than most - though perhaps more sedately, considering his venerable 74 years, and recent triple bypass surgery.
Mukunda Goswami was a co-founder of the movement, there at the very start. Back in the heady 1960s, a young seeker who had found a spiritual haven, he signed the lease for the movement's first "home" in America, a small gift shop on New York's Lower East Side that became the first Hare Krishna temple in America.
Two years later, Mukunda drove to San Francisco, not to wear flowers in his hair but to start another temple in the Haight-Ashbury area, home of 1967's Summer of Love.
He sympathised with the hippies and their call for troops to leave Vietnam but says he "wasn't really one of them".
"I was a little stand-offish - they were too alternative for me. I didn't adopt the hairstyle and wasn't an advocate of free love, I agreed with their philosophy but I wasn't part of the movement. It was an exciting time but it had a very dark side to it," he recalls.
However, he says the local police liked "the swami's boys" because they were helping to keep the kids off drugs.
Mukunda was born in Portland, Oregon, and after university he travelled to New York City, a jazz musician pulled to the vibrant music scene of the time.
In New York he found himself increasingly playing "commercial work, in tourist places".
"I was part of the establishment, outwardly anyway," he says.
The search for something spiritual
Inwardly, he was still looking. It was only when he read Swami Prabhupada's books that he had his "aha" moment, struck by the authenticity.
"I came across the word 'unfortunate' describing the people of the present age and I thought that was kind of a gentle word... another way of saying they were atheistic or godless," he says.
Meeting Prabhupada signalled the end of his search: "I felt that, philosophically at least, this was the right course."
But he didn't adopt the lifestyle immediately.
"It's not an easy thing to do, not an easy discipline," he says.
"It took me over a year to become a committed missionary. I accepted the philosophy but I wasn't going to preach. If I hadn't gone to London in 1969, I probably wouldn't have done it at all."
Meeting the Beatles
In London he met Beatles guitarist George Harrison and recorded the Hare Krishna chant at the band's Apple Studios.
Meanwhile, the movement was "exploding" all over the world.
Harrison gave money to set up the British temple in Hertfordshire and remained a friend of Mukunda's, whose current home at Eungella near Murwillumbah is called Harrison House.
Settling down in the Tweed
After decades of travelling and spreading the message as the Hare's communications officer, he has finally settled down, retired.
Has he found what he was looking for? "I think so. I feel very satisfied that this is a deep philosophy," he says.
But his devotion and practices continue to deepen and the spiritual challenges continue.
"In Krishna Consciousness we think there's a devilish mentality inside every individual.
"It's not like 'the devil made me do it', but buried within the self... a very strong pull towards material energy which makes it difficult to have a realisation of the supreme personality," he says.
"It's still there (in me). It's a constant struggle to overcome the impurities in the heart."
And is it possible to achieve a state of complete purity?
"It is," Mukunda says, "otherwise it would be a zero sum game."
The basic tenet of the Hare Krishnas is that we're not the physical body and that we're all a part of God.
"The Hare Krishnas encourage people to love God better, whatever you choose to call god, and be more sincere to whatever they adhere to and to show compassion to all, including all animals.
"It's non-sectarian and it's not even a religion. Prabhu called it a cultural movement for the respiritualisation of society."
His devotion and practice over the years has deepened, and what he's starting to realise more and more is that it's non sectarian.
Reflecting on the movement's birthday, he says: "The 50th year is a turning point in a person's life and glorified in marriages, anniversaries.
"At the time I signed the first document I had no idea it was going to expand and be anything like it is now.
"I was a founder... but it would have taken off even if I hadn't been there."