My Time With The Hare Krishna Tree. by Rachel Hacker
In December of 2015, I had graduated with my Master's in Music, from New York University. In order to save money, I chose to leave New York, until I made my next life plan. I was in the process of applying for my Doctorate. I would be moving back to my hometown, in suburban Ohio. Though accepting this starkly contrasting future was difficult, my present life would be hard to let go. By the time I had graduated NYU, my life had begun to feel “established.” I was dating a wonderful man, living in a beautiful Brooklyn apartment, and had made friends with all kinds of great people in the NYC music community. However, I would soon be boarding a bus to Ohio, and the NYC lifestyle I had grown to love would be put on hiatus.
Moving back to Ohio was not going to be easy for me. I needed to find peace with the bittersweet situation, and I knew the solution. Days before returning to Ohio, I set out for an afternoon in the East Village of Manhattan. I stopped by my favorite bagel shop, and Tompkins Square Park. I visit this park every few weeks, as if it were a religious pilgrimage. In fact, this park did contain a religious icon- the Hare Krishna Tree.
I selected an arbitrary bench and sat down by the Tree, whilst trying to ignore the freezing temperatures. Tompkins Square Park is located far enough away from the Subway, so that most tourists don’t know to come, here. Until around 15 years ago, this area was considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Manhattan, as it was littered with gang violence and heroin needles. However, today’s observations reveal a much more tame crowd. To my left sat a sleeping homeless man with a battered duffel bag. To my right sat an old man with a cane. Several feet down, a wealthily dressed woman talked on her cell phone. Once I had settled into my bench, and became accustomed to the weather, I reflected upon all of the memories related to this tree.
The Hare Krishna Tree was the origin of a small, but mighty, religious movement. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) began their teachings in America under this tree. In the year 1965, a religious figurehead named A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada began chanting under the Hare Krishna Tree. It is hard to believe that the unassuming tree I was looking at could have experienced such a profound event. There are plenty of other “famous” trees in Manhattan, but this particular tree is affiliated to numerous life lessons I have learned.
Through the years, ISKCON has attracted a wide variety of devotees, varying in socioeconomic status, nationality, and previous religious beliefs. Two of the most well known ISKCON followers were George Harrison and John Lennon. Harrison was a particularly devout follower, who devoted most of his post-Beatles music career to composing songs about Krishna, and wrote instrumentals influenced by Carnatic traditions. Members of ISKCON will state with pride that George Harrison used to chant under the Hare Krishna Tree. I have a book about Harrison and Lennon’s religious beliefs, called “Chant and be Happy.”
Religious experiences can take an individual into the depths of their mind. I discovered through ISKCON that my music making was best when combined with a spiritual aspect. ISKCON allowed me to be involved in a religious circle that worshipped the most famous flute player of all time- Krishna. ISKCON’s beliefs are a variance of Hinduism. The term “Krishna Consciousness” refers to act of devoting one’s life to a higher train of thought, AKA keeping conscious of Krishna. I, like many other curious and open-minded individuals, found ISKCON’s teachings well thought out, and beneficial to a fulfilling music career and life.
My involvement with ISKCON began with a friendship. Within a week of moving to New York, I had met a young gentleman I will refer to as "Happy." His name translates from the Indian "Telugu" language, to mean "Happy" in English. Happy went to NYU with me. He was raised in South India. We met on the day before Labor Day, in the practice room area of my dorm. That afternoon, Happy and I passed each other in the hallway. He saw my flute, then, asked if we wanted to make music together. He played the electric bass in the style of a sitar. Once we began playing, our advanced improvisatory skills were immediately noticeable to both of us. He and I improvised for hours that night, as if we had been making music together for many years.
As the days passed, I found Happy's wit and charm a welcome addition to my life. He and I soon spent nearly every day together. It was exciting to have made a close friend so quickly after moving to New York. His discussions about ISKCON’s teachings were integrated into our conversations, and I was eager to explore these new philosophies. He showed me his "bead bag," which is treated like the Catholic Rosary, but for the Hindu faith. He explained that if I chanted a 16-word mantra 108 times, I could slide a bead down. There were 16 beads to be completed every day. I still have the business card in my wallet, with the mantra written on one side:
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.
I never purchased a bead bag, but I began chanting. I chanted whilst waiting in the subway, on the walk to classes, and even when classes became tedious. I was discovering how much that my pent-up anxiety was hurting my quality of life. Once I began chanting regularly, my flute playing ambitions began to feel more centered and focused. My dreams to become a contemporary flutist were no longer clouded with self-doubts. I knew that through meditating, the answers for navigating my career would naturally arrive to my conscience. I started viewing myself as a capable individual, ready to improve the world through music making.
Happy introduced me to 26 Second Avenue, an iconic ISKCON temple in the East Village. Located near Houston Street, this was Prabupadha’s first temple for ISKCON in the US. The building is a restored storefront. Happy and I arrived to a Saturday night service, and joined the welcoming environment. The small temple was filled with people chanting along to several instruments. The most prominent melodic instrument used was called a Harmonium, and it functions like a small accordion. The lighting was dim, and brightly-hued murals of Krishna covered the walls. The smell of South Asian spices wafted through the air, from a crockpot cooking in the corner. After the chant service, “Happy” handed me a delicious vegetarian meal of cauliflower curry, salad, and apple crisp. He used to always assure me that “the best tasting food was always blessed by Krishna,” and sometimes, I almost believed him.
Singing with ISKCON became a regular event. My dorm was located very close to a major subway station, called Union Square. In Union Square, members of ISKCON chant every day, from 1:30 to 7:30. The devotees will bring drums, Harmoniums, and cymbals. They sit cross-legged on ornate and brightly colored carpets. Usually, at least one member sits at a folding card table, and sells informative pamphlets to the frequent and curious passerby.
During one of my first encounters with the “subway chanters,” Happy disclosed to them that I was a flutist. The chant group lit up excitedly at the news that I played a sacred instrument. They offered me a lentil and rice stew, then asked if I wanted to chant and play flute with them. I agreed to do so. I felt very blessed that I could make friends through meeting the members of ISKCON.
By later September, Happy and I made music nearly every day. Happy introduced me to his keyboardist friend, and the three of us formed a band. The keyboardist and I are still friends to this day. Our band practiced several nights a week, in my dorm practice rooms. My participation in a rock band had been a long time dream. We wrote some original music, but invested far more time into improvisation. All of us were avid improvisers. We played music that sounded like progressive rock, mixed with Carnatic traditions.
On the weekends, Happy and I would stay up very late, and write music, or improvise. During one of these very late nights, Happy suddenly stopped playing. He said, “I have an idea! What time is it?” I told him it was around 5. Excitedly, he said “Go get dressed into your winter clothes; we are going on an adventure.” As I stumbled around my dark dorm room, looking for my boots, I asked him where we were going. He said “I’m taking you to the Hare Krishna tree.”
As our fast footfalls moved Eastward on 14th Street, I asked Happy where the tree is located. He said “Tompkin’s Square Park.” It was late November of 2014, and the chill of 5:30 AM was piercing. As our breath made tiny clouds in the chilly morning, Happy told me the story of Prabupadha chanting under this tree. The East Village was unusually quiet at this time of day, and it was beautiful. I passed bakeries and bodegas, still in the process of opening their doors for business. A Muslim Mosque was holding a service. The beautiful sounds of their prayers drifted out of the building, and onto 1st Avenue. Happy and I passed occasional passerbys on the sidewalk. They darted through the night, like minnows in a stream.
Finally arriving to Avenue A and 9th Street, I saw a tree-lined space, illuminated by streetlights. Tompkins Square Park is a mélange of statues, trees, benches, paths, and green spaces. Happy said to me “I want you to guess which tree is the Hare Krishna Tree.” As I walked through the dimly lit paths, one particular elm tree began to stand out to me. “That one!” I said, with certainty. The Hare Krishna Tree stood prouder the rest. It had a very large trunk, and wide-stretching branches. There is a layer of bricks surrounding the tree’s base, and the tree is separated from the rest of the green space, as of it deserved a special spotlight. The words “Hare Krishna Tree” are visible on a placard located nearby. Happy and I played a George Harrison album from my phone, whilst staring at the tree in its proud beauty. We chanted the mantra, and absorbed ourselves into the spiritual moment. Happy said to me, “No matter what happens to our friendship, I want you to always remember this tree.” At the time, I did not know how much that these words would mean to me. We sat huddled by the tree, savoring every single solitary, sacred moment. By around 7:00 AM, we returned to my dorm, and fell into a deep, satisfied, sleep.
The weeks passed, and the friendship between Happy and I began to become strained. He would often show up at least 45 minutes late to band practices. Despite having the financial means, he also would not replace the broken string on his bass. Happy’s schedule was stretched between many hours of “subway chanting,” his classes at NYU, and our band. The quality of the band practices became less productive, and more argumentative.
By January of 2015, the “golden age” of our band, and my time with ISKCON, had ended. I was now embarking on my second semester at NYU, and found that my free time was limited. Happy was not willing to compromise on band practice times. Additionally, the demands of ISKCON tugged at Happy’s priorities. He eventually lost touch with the keyboardist and I, but not after several bitter and unproductive rehearsals. Happy was offended that I had ultimately rejected being a part of ISKCON. He was now occupied almost constantly as a resident of ISKCON’s housing/worship complex, referred to as an “ashram.” The ashram residents would often wake up at 4:30 in the morning, for 5:00 services. I began chanting less in the subway stations, and had not attended a service at 26 Second Avenue in months. Happy would always greet me in the subways, but our interactions were now strained. Eventually, I chose to avoid ISKCON in the subways, knowing that the memories between Happy and I were too painful to recall.
As the band broke apart, I found myself feeling lonely, in the same way I felt after having first moved to New York. I continued to reach out and make new friends, but missed the times I shared with Happy and the band. Thus, the replacement for being involved with ISKCON and Happy was to meditate at the Hare Krishna Tree. The tree was always there for me. I could always expect to be greeted by its broad branches and instant solitude. I tried introducing others to the Tree, but no one else found it as enlightening of an experience. Whenever my dates would suggest going to a restaurant or bar near The Tree, I would ask to stop by Tompkins’ Square Park. The men always agreed to it, but never found the tree as special as I did. For some of the men I dated, “visiting the tree,” meant “checking my messages on my phone, until she wants to leave.” Needless to say, I never had any long term dating success with these men.
By the time summer of 2015 had arrived, I would go many days at a time without seeing Happy. I moved on from our friendship, and actively avoided interacting with ISKCON or Happy. I can still hear them in subway stations, proudly chanting their 16-word mantra, searching for the most holy way to live their life.
Thanks to my lessons with ISKCON, I began to see the necessity in living my life with the same larger-than-life fulfillment. Why do I pursue this instrument with a passion surpassing everything else in my life? What power can I have in this world, using this instrument? For many people, choosing a career is exclusively a choice. However, for people like me, I believe that my life path was already chosen for me. I was meant to be a flutist.
I now bring us back to the present, as I sit next to the Hare Krishna Tree. As my afternoon came to a close, I realized that I must accept and embrace the changes in my life. The Tree would be there for me every time I returned to New York in the future. I no longer needed the Tree, but I needed to maintain the stability and mental clarity gained during my time as a member of ISKCON. I must be “conscious” of my dreams at all times.th t I knew that from today and onward that my future should be embraced, instead of feared. There are spiritual forces in my life that I could not explain, working to show me the path for my future. Moving out of New York will not end my career. The possibility of not being accepted into a DMA program this year will not end my career. However, a complacent attitude and shallow aspirations will distract from the career that I’ve worked so hard to begin. As I walked away from the Tree, I whispered “Hare Krishna” into the cold, bright, sky, and I smiled, knowing that the tree will live on in my heart, no matter where I end up next.