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INTERVIEW: George Harrison - Mukunda Goswami

More than a decade after the release of his popular album »All Things Must Pass« (a musical profession of faith in Krsna), former Beatle George Harrison still chants Hare Krsna and supports the 1SKCON movement. In September 1982 Mukunda Goswami, a leader in ISKCON, interviewed the musician at Harrison’s residence in England. Excerpts from that interview, which was printed in the January and February/March 1983 issues of ISKCON’s magazine Back to Godhead, are reprinted here by permission of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
Update has carried comment about ISKCON and printed ISKCON leaders’ responses in three of its 1983 issues (»Gandhi and the Gurus,« »Gandhi’s Book of Knowledge--A Reply,« »Has ISKCON Two Faces?,« »Has ISKCON Two Faces?--A Reply,« »Interview: Edward Senesi (former editor of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust),« and »Interview: George Harrison.« The excerpts from the Harrison interview are reprinted to illustrate why many young people in the ‘60s and ‘70s went East for their worldview, often following the example of pop-culture pacesetters such as George Harrison.

Mukunda: When Gurudasa, Syamasundara, and I (the Hare Krsna 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 (Bhaktivedanta Manor, a 17-acre estate outside London, purchased by George in 1973 and donated to ISKCON for use as a temple and yoga asrama) for us, and financed the first printing of the book Krsna. 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 Krsna. 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 maha-mantra (the Hare Krsna 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: Prabhupada (His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder--acarya--Spiritual master--of the Hare Krsna movement) 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 it’s 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 Prabhupada’s Krsna book some years ago, »If there’s a God, I want to see Him. It’s pointless to believe in something without proof, and Krsna 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: 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 mean to say that when I chant I’m seeing Krsna 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 back from Los Angeles to New York to organize the Bangladesh concert. As soon as the plane began bouncing around, I started chanting Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, 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 Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, 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 Krsna saved him from a plane crash once.

Mukunda: Although John (Lennon) never made Hare Krsna a big part of his life, he echoed the philosophy of Krsna consciousness in a hit song he wrote, »Instant Karma.« Now what’s the difference between chanting Hare Krsna 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 Krsna 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 Krsna 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, Gurudasa, and Syamasundara and just seeing all the old devotees made me think of Krsna. 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 Srila Prabhupada about a verse he quoted from the Vedas, in which it’s said that when one chants the holy name of Krsna, Krsna 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 Krsna 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: We’ve talked a lot about japa, or personalized chanting. But there’s another type, called kirtana, 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 Srila Prabhupada 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 Krsna 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 prasadam (vegetarian foods that have been spiritualized by having been offered to Lord Krsna with love and devotion). The music and dancing is a serious part of the process too. It’s not just something to burn off excess energy.

Mukunda: You know, Srila Prabhupada often said that after a large number of temples were established, most people would simply begin to take up the chanting of Hare Krsna 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 Krsnas,« 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 the countryside, people who look and dress straight, insurance salesman types, but they’re really meditators and chanters, closet devotees.

Prabhupada’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 Prabhupada, Krsna consciousness has certainly spread more in the last sixteen years than it has since the sixteenth century, since the time of Lord Caitanya (the great saint, mystic, and incarnation of Krsna who popularized the chanting of Hare Krsna and founded the modern-day Hare Krsna movement). 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 Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, 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 Radha-Krsna 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 Krsnas. 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: 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

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 boogeying 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 Krsna temple for three years, and I would have never known about Krsna 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.

Mukunda: In the »Ballad of John and Yoko,i John and Yoko rapped the media for the way it can foster a false image of you and perpetuate it. It’s taken a lot of time and effort to get them to understand that we are a genuine religion, with scriptures that predate the New Testament by three thousand years.

George: The media is to blame for everything, for all the misconceptions about the movement, but in a sense it didn’t really matter if they said something good or bad, because Krsna consciousness always seemed to transcend that barrier anyway. The fact that the media was letting people know about Krsna was good in itself.

Mukunda: Srila Prabhupada always trained us to stick to our principles. He said that the worst thing we could ever do would be to make some sort of compromise or to dilute the philosophy for the sake of cheap popularity. Although many swamis and yogis had come from India to the West, Srila Prabhupada was the only one with the purity and devotion to establish India’s ancient Krsna conscious philosophy around the world on its own terms--not watered down, but as it is.

George: That’s right. He was a perfect example of what he preached.

Mukunda: At lunch today we spoke a little about prasadam, vegetarian foods that have been spiritualized by being offered to Krsna in the temple. A lot of people have come to Krsna consciousness through prasadam, especially through our Sunday Feast at all of our temples around the world. I mean, this process is the only kind of yoga that you can actually practice by eating.

George: Well, we should try to see God in everything, so it helps so much having the food to taste. Let’s face it, if God is in everything, why shouldn’t you taste Him when you eat? I think that prasadam is a very important thing. Krsna is God, so He’s absolute: His name, His form, prasadam, it’s all Him. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so if you can get to a man’s spirit soul by eating, and it works, why not do it?

There’s nothing better than having been chanting and dancing, or just sitting and talking philosophy, and then suddenly the devotees bring out the prasadam. It’s a blessing from Krsna, and it’s spiritually important. The idea is that prasadam’s the sacrament the Christians talk about, only instead of being just a wafer, it’s a whole feast, really, and the taste is so nice--it’s out of this world. It’s undoubtedly done a great deal toward getting a lot more people involved in spiritual life. Prasadam breaks down prejudices, too, because they think, »Oh, well, yes, I wouldn’t mind a drink of whatever or a bit of that.« Then they ask, »What’s this?« and »Oh, well, it’s prasadam.« And they get to learn another aspect of Krsna consciousness. Then they say, »It actually tastes quite nice. Have you got another plateful?« I’ve seen that happen with lots of people, especially older people I’ve seen at your temples. Maybe they were a little prejudiced, but the next thing you know, they’re in love with prasadam, and eventually they walk out of the temple thinking, »They’re not so bad after all.«

Mukunda: The Vedic literatures reveal that prasadam conveys spiritual realization, just as chanting does. You make spiritual advancement just by eating it.

George: I’d say from my experience that it definitely works. I’ve always enjoyed prasadam much more when I’ve been at the temple, or when I’ve actually been sitting with Prabhupada, than when somebody’s brought it to me. Sometimes you can sit there with prasadam and find that three or four hours have gone by and you didn’t even know it. Prasadam really helped me a lot, because you start to realize »Now I’m tasting Krsna.« You’re conscious suddenly of another aspect of God, understanding that He’s this little samosa (a cauliflower-and-pea-filled pastry deep-fried in clarified butter). It’s all just a matter of tuning into the spiritual, and prasadam’s a very real part of it all.

Mukunda: George, you and John Lennon met Srila Prabhupada together when he stayed at John’s home, in September of 1969.

George: Yes, but when I met him at first, I underestimated him. I didn’t realize it then, but I see now that because of him, the mantra has spread so far in the last sixteen years, more than it had in the last five centuries. Now that’s pretty amazing, because he was getting older and older, yet he was writing his books all the time. I realized later on that he was much more incredible than what you could see on the surface.

Mukunda: What about him stands out the most in your mind?

George: The thing that always stays is his saying, »I am the servant of the servant of the servant.« I like that. A lot of people say, »I’m it. I’m the divine incarnation. I’m here, and let me hip you.« You know what I mean? But Prabhupada was never like that. I liked Prabhupada’s humbleness. I always liked his humility and his simplicity. The servant of the servant of the servant is really what it is, you know. None of us are God--just His servants. He just made me feel so comfortable. I always felt very relaxed with him, and I felt more like a friend, I felt that he was a good friend. Even though he was at the time seventy-nine years old, working practically all through the night, day after day, with very little sleep, he still didn’t come through to me as though he was a very highly educated intellectual being, because he had a sort of childlike simplicity. Which is great, fantastic. Even though he was the greatest Sanskrit scholar and saint, I appreciated the fact that he never made me feel uncomfortable. In fact, he always went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. I always thought of him as sort of a lovely friend, really, and now he’s still a lovely friend.

Mukunda: In one of his books, Prabhupada said your sincere service was better than some people who’d delved more deeply into Krsna consciousness but could not maintain that level of commitment. How did you feel about this?

George: Very wonderful, really. I mean it really gave me hope, because as they say, even one moment in the company of a divine person, Krsna’s pure devotee, can help a tremendous amount.

And if I didn’t get feedback from Prabhupada on my songs about Krsna or the philosophy, I’d get it from the devotees. That’s all the encouragement I needed, really. It just seemed that anything spiritual I did, either through songs, or helping with publishing the books, or whatever, really pleased him. The song I wrote, »Living in the Material World,« as I wrote in I, Me, Mine, was influenced by Srila Prabhupada. He’s the one who explained to me how we’re not these physical bodies. We just happen to be in them.

That was the thing about Prabhupada, you see. He didn’t just talk about loving Krsna and getting out of this place, but he was the perfect example. He talked about always chanting, and he was always chanting. I think that that in itself was perhaps the most encouraging thing for me. It was enough to make me try harder, to be just a little bit better. He was a perfect example of everything he preached.

Srila Prabhupada has already had an amazing effect on the world. There’s no way of measuring it. One day I just realized, »God, this man is amazing!« He would sit up all night translating Sanskrit into English, putting in glossaries to make sure everyone understands it, and yet he never came off as someone above you. He always had that childlike simplicity, and what’s most amazing is the fact that he did all this translating in such a relatively short time--just a few years. And without having anything more than his own Krsna consciousness, he rounded up all these thousands of devotees, set the whole movement in motion, which became something so strong that it went on even after he left (His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada left this material world on November 14, 1977). And it’s still escalating even now at an incredible rate. It will go on and on from the knowledge he gave. It can only grow and grow. The more people wake up spiritually, the more they’ll begin to realize the depth of what Prabhupada was saying--how much he gave.

Mukunda: The Vedic literatures predict that after the advent of Lord Caitanya five hundred years ago, there would be a Golden Age of ten thousand years, when the chanting of the holy names of God would completely nullify all the degradations of the modern age, and real spiritual peace would come to this planet.

George: Well, Prabhupada’s definitely affected the world in an absolute way. What he was giving us was the highest literature, the highest knowledge. I mean there just isn’t anything higher.

Mukunda: What do you think is the goal of human life?

George: Each individual has to burn out his own karma and escape from the chains of maya (the illusory energy that forces the pure soul to think that he is a material body and thus become entangled in material life), reincarnation, and all that. The best thing anyone can give to humanity is God consciousness. Then you can really give them something. But first you have to concentrate on your own spiritual advancement; so in a sense we have to become selfish to become selfless.

Mukunda: What about trying to solve the problems of life without employing the spiritual process?

George: Life is like a piece of string with a lot of knots tied in it. The knots are the karma you’re born with from all your past lives, and the object of human life is to try and undo all these knots. That’s what chanting and meditation in God consciousness can do. Otherwise you simply tie another ten knots each time you try to undo one knot. That’s how karma works. I mean, we’re now the results of our past actions, and in the future we’ll be the results of the actions we’re performing now. A little understanding of »As you sow, so shall you reap« is important, because then you can’t blame the condition you’re in on anyone else. You know that it’s by your own actions that you’re able to get more in a mess or out of one. It’s your own actions that relieve or bind you.

Mukunda: I don’t think it’s possible to calculate just how many people were turned on to Krsna consciousness by your song »My Sweet Lord.« Why did you feel that you wanted to put Hare Krsna on the album at all? Wouldn’t »Hallelujah« alone have been good enough?

George: Well, first of all »Hallelujah« is a joyous expression the Christians have, but »Hare Krsna« has a mystical side to it. It’s more than just glorifying God; it’s asking to become His servant. And because of the way the mantra is put together, with the mystical spiritual energy contained in those syllables, it’s much closer to God than the way Christianity currently seems to be representing Him. Although Christ in my mind is an absolute yogi, I think many Christian teachers today are misrepresenting Christ. They’re supposed to be representing Jesus, but they’re not doing it very well. They’re letting him down very badly, and that’s a big turn-off.

My idea in »My Sweet Lord,« because it sounded like a »pop song,« was to sneak up on them a bit. The point was to have the people not offended by »Hallelujah,« and by the time it gets to »Hare Krsna,« they’re already hooked, and their foot’s tapping, and they’re already singing along »Hallelujah,« to kind of lull them into a sense of false security. And then suddenly it turns into »Hare Krsna,« and they will be singing that before they know what’s happened, and they will think, »Hey, I thought I wasn’t supposed to like Hare Krsna!«
Mukunda: What would you say is the difference between the Christian view of God, and Krsna as represented in the Bhagavad-gita?

George: When I first came to this house it was occupied by nuns. I brought in this poster of Visnu (a four-armed form of Krsna.) You just see His head and shoulders and His four arms holding a conch-shell and various other symbols, and it has a big om (this transcendental syllable, which represents Krsna, has been chanted by many persons throughout history for spiritual perfection) written above it. He has a nice aura around Him. I left it by the fireplace and went out into the garden. When we came back in the house, they all pounced on me, saying, »Who is that? What is that?« as if it were some pagan god. So I said, »Well, if God is unlimited, then He can appear in any form, whichever way He likes to appear. That’s one way. He’s called Visnu.«

It sort of freaked them out a bit, but the point is, why should God be limited? Even if you get Him as Krsna, He is not limited to that picture of Krsna. He can be the baby form, He can be Govinda and manifest in so many other well-known forms. You can see Krsna as a little boy, which is how I like to see Krsna. It’s a joyful relationship. But there’s this morbid side to the way many represent Christianity today, where you don’t smile, because it’s too serious, and you can’t expect to see God--that kind of stuff. If there is God, we must see Him, and I don’t believe in the idea you find in most churches, where they say, »No, you’re not going to see Him. He’s way up above you. Just believe what we tell you and shut up.«

Mukunda: Do you think there’s any hope?

George: Yes. One by one, everybody’s got to escape maya. Everybody has to burn out his karma and escape reincarnation and all that. Stop thinking that if Britain or America or Russia or the West or whatever becomes superior, then we’ll beat them, and then we’ll all have a rest and live happily ever after. That doesn’t work. The best thing you can give is God consciousness. Manifest your own divinity first. The truth is there. It’s right within us all. Understand what you are. If people would just wake up to what’s real, there would be no misery in the world. I guess chanting’s a pretty good place to start.