In this conversation, taped at George's home in England on September 4, 1982, George reveals some memorable experiences he has had chanting Hare Krishna. George speaks frankly about his personal philosophy regarding the Hare Krishna movement, music, yoga, reincarnation, karma, the soul, God, and Christianity.
Mukunda Goswami: Oftentimes you speak of yourself as a plainclothes devotee, a closet yogi or "closet Krishna," and millions of people all over the world have been introduced to the chanting by your songs. But what about you? How did you first come in contact with Krishna?
George Harrison: Through my visits to India. So by the time the Hare Krishna movement first came to England in 1969, John and I had already gotten ahold of Prabhupada's first album, "Krishna Consciousness." We had played it a lot and liked it. That was the first time I'd ever heard the chanting of the maha-mantra.
Mukunda: Even though you and John Lennon played Srila Prabhupada's record a lot and had chanted quite a bit on your own, you'd never really met any of the devotees. Yet when Gurudasa, Syamasundara, and I [the first Hare Krishna devotees sent from America, to open a temple in London] first came to England, you co-signed the lease on our first temple in central London, bought the Manoryoga-aSrama for us, which has provided a place for literally hundreds of thousands of people to learn about Krishna consciousness, and financed the first printing of the book Krishna. You hadn't really known us for a very long time at all. Wasn't this a kind of sudden change for you?
Mukunda: George, you were a member of the Beatles, undoubtedly the greatest single pop group in music hisiory, one that influenced not only music, but whole generations of young people as well. After the dissolution of the group, you went on to emerge as a solo superstar. So, you had material success. You'd been everywhere, done everything, yet at the same time you were on a spiritual quest. What was it that really got you started on your spiritual journey?
George: It wasn't until the experience of the sixties 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 recently published 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 that "the maha-mantra [the Hare Krishna mantra] has been prescribed as the easiest and surest way for attaining God Realization in this present age." As a practitioner of japa-yoga, what realizations have you experienced from chanting?
George: Prabhupada, acarya (spiritual master) of the Hare Krishna 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 that 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 Krishna consciousness and meditation are methods where you can actually obtain God perception."
Mukunda: Is it an instantaneous process, or gradual?
George: 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.
George: In the life I lead, I find that I sometimes have opportunities when I can 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 Krishna 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 "l see God," I don't necessarily mean to say that when I chant I'm seeing Krishna 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 Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna 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 Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna 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 Krishna saved him from a plane crash once.
Mukunda: Did any of the other Beatles chant?
George: Before meeting Prabhupada and all of you, I had bought that album Prabhupada 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 Krishna. 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: Now what's the difference between chanting Hare Krishna 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.
Mukunda: The maha-mantra was prescribed for modern times because of the fast-paced nature of things today. Even when people do get into a little quiet place, it's very difficult to calm the mind for very long.
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 Krishna. 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: Some people say that if everyone on the planet chanted Hare Krishna, 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 if 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 Krishna Hare Krishna 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: 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 Krishna within their own homes, and we're seeing more and more that this is what's happening.
George: I think it's better that it is spreading into the homes now. There are a lot of "closet Krishnas," 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 sixties, 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 seventies, but they're out there in little nooks and crannies and in the countryside, people who look and dress straight, insurance salesmen types, but they're really meditators and chanters, closet devotees.
The Hare Krishna Record
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-Krishna Temple album, which you also produced on the Apple label and was distributed in America by Capitol Records. A lot of people in the recording business were surprised by this, your producing songs for and singing with the Hare Krishnas. Why did you do it?
Mukunda: What effect do you think that tune, "The Hare Krishna Mantra," having reached millions and millions of people, has had on the cosmic consciousness of the world?
George: I'd like to think it had some effect. After all, the sound is God.
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 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 any more.
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 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.
Mukunda: When you come across people who are spiritually inclined but don't have much knowledge, what kind of advice do you give them? George: I try to tell them my little bit, what my experience is, and give them a choice of things to read and a choice of places to go--like you know, "Go to the temple, try chanting."
Mukunda: You write in your autobiography that "No matter how good you are, you still need grace to get out of the material world. You can be a yogi or a monk or a nun, but without God's grace you still can't make it." And at the end of the song "Living in the Material World," the Iyrics say, "Got to get out of this place by the Lord Sri Krishna's grace, my salvation from the material world." If we're dependent on the grace of God, what does the expression "God helps those who help themselves" mean?
George: It's flexible, I think. In one way, I'm never going to get out of here unless it's by His grace but then again, His grace is relative to the amount of desire I can manifest in myself. The amount of grace I would expect from God should be equal to the amount of grace I can gather or earn. I get out what I put in. Like in the song I wrote about Prabhupada:
The Lord loves the one that loves the Lord
And the law says if you don't give,
then you don't get loving
Now the Lord helps those that help themselves
And the law says whatever you do
It comes right back on you
--"The Lord Loves the One that Loves the Lord" from Living in the Material World
Have you heard that song "That Which I Have Lost" from my new album, "Somewhere in England"? It's right out of the Bhagavad-gita. In it I talk about fighting the forces of darkness, limitations, falsehood, and mortality.
Mukunda: Yes, I like it. A lot of people, when they just get started in spiritual life, worship God as impersonal. What's the difference between worshiping Krishna, or God, in His personal form and worshiping His impersonal nature as energy or light?
George: It's like the difference between hanging out with a computer or hanging out with a person. Like I said earlier, "If there is a God, I want to see Him," not only His energy or His light, but Him.
George: Each individual has to burn out his own karma and escape from the chains of maya (illusion), 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 those 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 you're able to get more in a mess or out of one. It's your own actions that relieve or bind you.
"My Sweet Lord"
Mukunda: I don't think it's possible to calculate just how many people were turned on to Krishna consciousness by your song "My Sweet Lord." But you went through quite a personal thing before you decided to do that song. In your book you said, "I thought a lot about whether to do 'My Sweet Lord' or not because I would be committing myself publicly ... Many people fear the words Lord and God ... I was sticking my neck out on the chopping block ... but at the same time I thought 'Nobody's saying it ... why should I be untrue to myself?' I came to believe in the importance that if you feel something strong enough, then you should say it.
"I wanted to show that Hallelujah and Hare Krishna are quite the same thing. I did the voices singing 'Hallelujah' and then the change to 'Hare Krishna' so that people would be chanting the maha-mantra-before they knew what was going on! I had been chanting Hare Krishna for a long time, and this song was a simple idea of how to do a Western pop equivalent of a mantra which repeats over and over again the holy names. I don't feel guilty or bad about it; in fact it saved many a heroin addict's life."
Why did you feel you wanted to put Hare Krishna 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 Krishna" 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 mystic 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 Krishna," 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 Krishna," and they will all be singing that before they know what's happened, and they will think, "Hey, I thought I wasn't supposed to like Hare Krishna!"
People write to me even now asking what style that was. Ten years later they're still trying to figure out what the words mean. It was just a little trick really. And it didn't offend. For some reason I never got any offensive feedback from Christians who said "We like it up to a point, but what's all this about Hare Krishna?"
Hallelujah may have originally been some mantric thing that got watered down, but I'm not sure what it really means. The Greek word for Christ is Kristos, which is, let's face it, Krishna, and Kristos is the same name actually.
Mukunda: What would you say is the difference between the Christian view of God, and Krishna 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 Krishna]. You just see His head and shoulders and His four arms holding a conchshell and various other symbols, and it has a big om. This transcendental syllable, which represents Krishna, 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 thc house, they all pounced on me, saying, "Who is that? What is it?" 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 Krishna, He is not limited to that picture of Krishna. He can be the baby form, He can be Govinda and manifest in so many other well-known forms. You can see Krishna as a little boy, which is how I like to see Krishna. 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."
I mean, the knowledge that's given in Prabhupada's books--the Vedic stuff--that's the world's oldest scriptures. They say that man can become purified, and with divine vision he can see God. You get pure by chanting, then you see Him. And Sanskrit, the language they're written in, is the world's first recorded language. Devanagari [the alphabet of the Sanskrit language] actually means "language of the gods."
Karma and Reincarnation
Mukunda: In I, Me, Mine, you speak about karma and reincarnation, and how the only way to get out of the cycle is to take up a bona fide spiritual process. You said at one point, "Everybody is worried about dying, but the cause of death is birth, so if you don't want to die, you don't get born!" Did any of the other Beatles believe in reincarnation?
George: I'm sure John does! And I wouldn't want to underestimate Paul and Ringo. I wouldn't be surprised if they're hoping it's true, you know what I mean? For all I know, Ringo might be a yogi disguised as a drummer!
Mukunda: Paul has our latest book, Coming Back: The Science of Reincarnation. Where do you think John's soul is now?
George: I should hope that he's in a good place. He had the understanding, though, that each soul reincarnates until it becomes completely pure, and that each soul finds its own level, designated by reactions to its actions in this and previous lives.
Mukunda: You wrote in your book: "Most of the world is fooling about, especially the people who think they control the world and the community. The presidents, the politicians, the military, etc., are all jerking about, acting as if they are Lord over their own domains. That's basically Problem One on the planet."
George: That's right. Unless you're doing some kind of God conscious thing and you know that He's the one who's really in charge, you're just building up a lot of karma and not really helping yourself or anybody else. There's a point in me where it's beyond sad, seeing the state of the world today. It's so screwed up. It's terrible, and it will be getting worse and worse. More concrete everywhere, more pollution, more radioactivity. There's no wilderness left, no pure air. They're chopping the forests down. They're polluting all the oceans. In one sense, I'm pessimistic about the future of the planet. These big guys don't realize for everything they do, there's a reaction. You have to pay. That's karma.
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.
Mukunda: Thanks so much, George.
George: All right. Hare Krishna!