This article was written in the 90-is when some devotees in the West were convinced that by been engaged is so called “straight edge” movement ISKCON will profit greatly and influence youth of yesterday. Unfortunately most of the protagonists of that “ISKCON rock wave” era are not in good standing today. But even more amazing is that now, 20+ years later some “smart'” people in India think they had discovered the great avenue for preaching. Good luck. – Editor (ex – Straight edger and a rock musician)
Everyone likes music. Lord Krsna also enjoys nice music performed for His pleasure. Many of the more opulent Visnu temples in India still retain musicians who perform daily for the Lord.
Music has a powerful effect on the consciousness, especially when combined with song. Music can evoke all kinds of moods, such as sad, wistful, relaxed, peaceful, jolly, angry or lusty. Armies march to face death, urged on by marshal music.
Music can also help evoke devotion. In the western world, a wide range of religious music has been developed, ranging from classical masterpieces evoking the majesty of the Supreme, to gutsy soul pieces reinforcing simple dependence on God.
In the Vedic culture, musical knowledge is an intricate and elaborate science delineated in the Gandharva-veda. It is particularly meant for the upliftment of the practitioners by being engaged for the worship and pleasure of the Supreme Lord, or at least his representatives such as the demigods or the king. Among the demigods, misuse of the musical propensity for personal sense enjoyment is considered a grave offense. (c.f. S.Bhag. 7.15.72)
Sense gratificatory music is practically the life air of the modern demoniac civilization. Its twangs, thuds and screams help keep foolish people forever in the bodily concept of life. Rock music is particularly degrading, being born of, inspired by and central to a way of life based on sex, drugs, violence, and defiance. Its nasty, abrasive sounds project frustration and suffering. Indeed, the very sound of such music is a disturbance, at least to those who are trying to cultivate sattva-guna. That it has such wide appeal in the modern age is indicative of the fallen state of human society, for rock appeals to and enlivens the lower emotions.
In the society of asses, one ass is singing. (Imitates ass noise.) The asses are feeling, “Oh, how nicely he is singing.” (laughter) All asses. One ass is singing, and they appreciate. “Oh, great singer.
Some devotees, citing the logic of the ax and the tree, (REF Letter 76-03-08) consider that a good way to preach is “Krsna conscious rock music.” They sing the maha-mantra, other traditional Vaisnava songs, or songs of their own composition, to a background of modern music.
Other devotees object, saying that devotees have no business playing rock music. This has become a controversial issue in our society.
Protagonists of “ISKCON rock” quote Bhaktivinoda Thakura:(REF about chanting may be done with the tune and instruments as suitable to the local culture). The Govindam prayers, set to modern music, are played every day in our temples on Srila Prabhupada’s order. Srila Prabhupada himself chanted Hare Krsna to a background of heavy rock at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. And the practical effect is that “Krsna-conscious rock” is bringing many young people to Krsna consciousness. It is good preaching. Furthermore, it is opined, providing a Krsna conscious alternative saves devotees from listening to karmi rock.
Opponents of “ISKCON rock” reply that Bhaktivinoda Thakura personally preferred and recommended traditional kirtana.
gaura bihita, kirtana suni,
anande hrdaya nace
“My heart dances in pleasure when I hear the kirtana ordained by Lord Caitanya.”
Lord Caitanya was not playing hard rock, and Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s liberality does not give a wholesale license for devotees to subject the holy name, or themselves, or others, to the ghastly sounds of a musical style developed by demons for dragging people to hell. Srila Prabhupada referred to such tamasic “music” as “death music” (quoted by Basu Ghosh Dasa) and “dog music” (quoted by Atma Tattva Dasa). Prabhupada disapproved of the wild jumping performances of pop stars. (I believe that he said that they were like monkeys, but have not been able to find a reference.)
Prabhupada appeared in the Avalon Ballroom in 1967. He was not consulted beforehand over whether or not to do such a program, but as his disciples had gone to much trouble to organize it, he agreed to appear. Afterwards, he said that, “that was no place for a brahmacari”(REF Lilamrta) and never appeared in such a concert again. Nor did he encourage his disciples to do so. Theoretically, almost anything can be done for preaching. Still, knowing our weaknesses, Srila Prabhupada set some limits for us. One of them was in the field of music.
A prime example occurred in 1972, when devotees started a traveling festival program called “the road show.” Srila Prabhupada liked the idea, but when he heard that rock music had been incorporated into it, his attitude changed.
So far your road-show is concerned, we are not meant for giving performances, we are simple kirtana men. There must always be kirtana going on wherever we travel, and nothing else.
So far the Road Show and this YogaVillage are concerned, these things should be stopped. Simply perform our kirtana. If we divert our attention in this way, the whole thing will gradually deteriorate. He is going far away. All these things are nonsense inventions. Such inventing spirit will ruin our this movement. People may come to see, some will become devotees, but such devotees will not stay because they are attracted by some show and not by the real thing or spiritual life according to the standard of Lord Caitanya. Our standard is to have kirtana, start temples. What is this “Road Show” and “YogaVillage?” It will be another hippie edition. Gradually the Krishna Consciousness idea will evaporate: another change, another change, every day another change. Stop all this. Simply have kirtana, nothing else. Don’t manufacture ideas.
The term “hippie edition” is interesting. Srila Prabhupada detected that devotees were not playing such music purely out of a selfless motive to preach. They were still attracted to such music. Another time (770529RC.VRN) Srila Prabhupada spoke of “”hippie seeds.” If the hippie seed is present in devotee rocksters, it could well grow into the tree of material desire, watered by the sound of mundane music and fertilized by the dung of desire for fame and adoration. It is understood that devotees who, despite chanting Hare Krsna for many years and studying the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, still remain attached to the musical style of the demons, are making very little real spiritual advancement. Indeed, opponents of “ISKCON rock” suspect that some of our ISKCON rock’n’roll stars are devotees who wanted to be karmi rock musicians but were not up to the mark, and are now fulfilling their desire within ISKCON in the name of preaching. (This would not apply to devotees who were already known musicians before taking up Krsna consciousness.)
Prabhupada approved of Mangalananda’s albums, but with certain conditions. In August 1976, in Bombay, Gopal Krsna Maharaja (then a householder) asked Srila Prabhupada about “Hare Krishna Festival,” a record album of various bhajanas and the mahamantra set to a background of modern music, made by Krsna-kanti and Mangalananda Prabhus after taking permission from Srila Prabhupada. (cf. 761115RC.VRN) Mangalananda’s music was not nasty, aggressive hard rock. It was modern, but tasteful. Still, the consternation it caused among the devotees led to the following letter.
Dear Ramesvara Maharaja,
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada. The following is an extract from a discussion regarding the new G.A.P. record: “A Change of Heart.” Srila Prabhupada has requested that it be sent to all temples and G.B.C. In your recent BBT newsletter you quoted Srila Prabhupada as saying: “Why not in the temple?” when he was asked whether it could be played in the temple. However, I was under the impression that he had said “Not in the temple.” Therefore, to clarify matters Jagadisa prabhu again inquired from His Divine Grace. Please bear in mind that Srila Prabhupada has heard one full side of the album. His Divine Grace’s comments were as follows:
HSd.: Srila Prabhupada, when you were in L.A., you heard that new record by Krsna Kanti…
HSd.: …this pop music, you know, the tape you just got. The western style music
HSd.: In the new BBT newsletter which just came yesterday, there is a statement by Ramesvara that you were asked whether this record could be played in the temples and you replied: “Why not in the temples” Hari Sauri thought you said, “not in the temples,” but Ramesvara,..
S.P.: No, not in the temple. If the wordings are alright, if there is no mistake in the set up of the wording, the change of musical tune, that is not harmful. Hare Krsna, this vibration you can make in different tune, we are already doing that.
HSd: But we are talking about these songs they are writing, philosophy songs, like this “caterpillar had a change of heart”
S.P.: Therefore we see the wording.
D: If the words are alright, can they be played in the temple?
GKd: Because no one can hear the words, it’s the pop music that people hear.
Ak Sw: The words are just like modern pop songs, you can’t really tell what it means. I suggested to these people: “Why don’t you put music to Prabhupada’s books. Take the words straight from Prabhupada’s books…
HSd: No, Prabhupada has approved this method for attracting karmis, but the thing is, when you become a devotee,..
Ak Sw: That kind of music reminds us of past bad sinful activities .
HSd: The question is whether it should be played in the temple or not?
S.P.: Temple it may not be played. What is the use of playing in the temple?
GKd: I know from practical experience Srila Prabhupada, I just played the record, it is all current pop music with English philosophy wording and the brahmacaris were so agitated. They came to listen to it and they were taking fun of it like the pop songs.
Ak Sw: Because that style of music reminds us of the night club.
S.P.: Therefore I said it is better not to make these records. (c.f. letter 75-01-06 If someone hears a record, he will not understand anything of our philosophy. He will simply enjoy it as sense gratification. These records are not important.)
GKd: Just your records and parampara records should be played I think. There are so many tapes of your records.
HSd: Yes, but this style they are doing now they explain that they wanted it because then that way they will be able to get them played on the radio; otherwise, they won’t play bhajans or anything on the radio. But there’s a distinction between that kind of music and pure Krishna Consciousness music. Even though the words indicate Krishna Consciousness, most of the songs are written in such a way that it’s like, indirect. It’s not directly Krsna. It’s indirect.
S.P.: Yes, indirect.
HSd: Like they give this thing: “A caterpillar changed his mind,” like that. It provokes some speculation.
S.P.: No. Indirect (it’s) for gross outsiders. Not for us. Therefore it should not be played in the temple. Gross outsiders only.
Kindly send a copy to each of our centers as soon as is conveniently possible.
Hoping this meets you in good health and Krsna Consciousness.
Your eternally worthless servant,
Hari Sauri Das, personal servant
Approved: A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Although Prabhupada allowed Mangalananda to indulge his musical urge in this way, he never gave importance to such music for preaching. He did, however, give great importance to the yuga-dharma, chanting of Hare Krsna, with mrdanga and karatalas. When a devotee suggested making concerts, Srila Prabhupada replied, “Make mrdanga concert.” (letter, 76-09-29)
Srila Prabhupada always had traditional style kirtana at his preaching engagements. Although some people may find our rendering of modern music attractive, there are probably at least as many people who find our traditional kirtana attractive, and for better reasons.
Encouraging the Beatles to spread the chanting of Hare Krsna was a dovetailing of their fame, not an instruction for devotees to form rock bands.
“Krsna conscious” rock may provide an alternative for less serious devotees, but another effect is maintaining attachment to a demoniac style of music in the hearts of those who might well have been ready to give it up. When we have been introduced to the most sublime sounds in existence, that are directly imported from the spiritual world, why should we want to subject ourselves to jarring noises meant for the sense gratification of low class, uncultured people?
Putting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra and the songs of Vaisnava acaryas to heavy rock music is most inappropriate. To set such hymns of glorification and prayers for mercy to loud aggressive rock is a rasabhasa.
In conclusion, although Srila Prabhupada did allow a tasteful style of modern music as adjunct to preaching, he never gave much importance to it and never indicated that he wanted it to become part of devotee culture and life. He very much disliked heavy rock music and the wild, monkey-like performances that go with it.
Srila Prabhupada wanted us to cultivate a taste for transcendental sound. Our performance of kirtana here is training for entering the eternal kirtana in the spiritual world. There is no rock music in Vaikuntha. Those who maintain an attraction for such mundane musical sound will have to take rebirth in the material world to enjoy it.
Therefore, although all styles of music may be employed if they actually attract people to Krsna consciousness, once they come they should be weaned into the kind of music given by Srila Prabhupada and the acaryas, rather than music received in the parampara of demons.
If you stick to the hearing of Hare Krsna and the music, melodious music of khol, kartal, then naturally you become distasteful for hearing other songs.
Devotees with a strong musical propensity would be better directed towards Bengali kirtana. The very nature of such music is to purify, rather than degrade. The intricacies of Bengali kirtana are too complex for most devotees to master, but with a little practice, most devotees with a little musical sense can at least join in the singing. By popularizing Bengali kirtana melodies, devotees musicians can offer a higher taste in listening that can help rescue devotees and others from karmi music styles.
All devotees into music have to beware of the pitfalls of cheap showmanship, performing to impress the public rather than to please Krsna, prima donna arrogance, envy of other devotee musicians, attraction to non-devotee music and musicians, the desire for hero-worship, and over-absorption in music to the neglect of basic sadhana and other services.
Another musical diversion devotees should be cautious of is commercial style bhajanas. These are sung by professionals, usually for profit motive. Although some are quite tasteful, many can at best be considered semi-religious, semi-entertainment. Because such bhajana cassettes are sold indiscriminately from our temples, devotees naturally tend to accept them as bona fide, although often they are not. As Srila Prabhupada has warned us, “As far as possible, chanting from the lips of non-devotees should be avoided as much as milk touched by the lips of a serpent causes poisonous effects.” REF