Growing up in the UK in the 80’s we used to get the train on Saturday morning from Buxton to Manchester, and one of the main places to shop for alternative goods was ‘Afflecks Palace’ – a sort of crusty emporium full of shops and small booths selling clothes, records, posters and you-name-it. All sorts of colourful characters frequented this place, which still exists today although with a much cleaned up image. The front entrance was named Afflecks Arcade and at that time had the famous record shop Eastern Bloc, before it moved across the road.
Standing right in that entrance above I used to often see a particular character, and I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly, but there was something very different about him as he stood there passing something out to people. One day me and my good friend ‘Evi’ walked past and this man stopped us and popped some headphones on us which was playing some weird sounding music. He handed us a tape each with the title ‘Gouranga Hey!’ and asked for a donation of a pound (which to us back then was quite a lot!). We obliged and walked off with a cassette tape each. I don’t remember playing it but my friend did and said he thought it wasn’t bad, we were about 14 or 15 at that time and into heavy metal so it wasn’t my cup of tea! I thought nothing more of it as it wasn’t uncommon for people to be selling their new bands demo tape on the street like that, but I did see him around a lot more and often wondered what it was that seemed different about him.
Over the next few years I used to see posters pasted up on walls and around motorway flyovers with the words ‘Call out Gouranga and Be Happy!’. Wow I thought, that band is still going years later, but they don’t seem to have cracked into the mainstream, judging by the handmade DIY style posters. I thought ‘good on em anyway’, chipping away at advertising whatever it was they were doing.
Over time my musical taste went from heavy metal and thrash more towards punk and hardcore, not just because the style of music appealed to me more, but the lyrical content was much more thoughtful and opened me up to ideas of ethics such as vegetarianism, non-consumerism, anti-war etc. That really inspired me that young people cared about the state of the world enough to write songs and sing about the issues and bring them to people’s attention. I decided to become vegetarian when I was 15 after bands like Napalm Death and Youth of Today spoke about the evils of animal cruelty. It made perfect sense to me, why are we killing millions of animals when it seems to be unnecessary?
It wasn’t so easy to find vegetarian food back then apart from in health food stores but I was inspired to search out food that I could eat and learnt to cook for myself, gradually moving towards veganism. I took on the idea of ‘straight-edge’ meaning a life free of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Not that at age 15 we had ventured much into those things but we had dabbled in getting drunk on wine stolen from my friend’s mums shed (!) or lager somehow acquired from people old enough to buy it. My mind became clearer and I thought about other ethical topics, and there seemed to be an overwhelming amount of problems in the world but I was happy and proud to do my bit, however small it seemed, and other people used to question or challenge my views but often over time came to the same conclusions and joined me in changing their eating habits.
In the summer of 1989 something had a profound impact on me, which was an interview in the punk music newspaper Maximum Rock’n’Roll with Ray Cappo – the singer of Youth of Today. The man was almost God-like to us teens, having inspired many of us to be drug free and vegetarian/vegan, the charismatic frontman of an energetic and loud band that we all loved. We even planned to go and see the band play in Liverpool even though it meant we would be stranded overnight at Manchester train station, unable to get back to the small hometown of Buxton as trains didn’t run beyond 11pm. The girlfriend of one of the older guys in our ‘crew’ talked us out of it, probably wisely, yet it remains a regret not having seen the band back then…
The interview was done by Tim Yohannon who was the guy in charge of the publication although it was run as a collective. He really came down hard on Cappo and tried to paint a really bad picture as if he had been sucked into a religious cult without thinking. Ray held his ground well and made some great points. It always stood out in my mind that he’d made it sound very interesting and I wanted to read the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita to know more. Soon after he came out with the first Shelter album ‘Perfection of Desire’ and the song ‘Society Based on Bodies’ really impacted me. I thought “wow” there’s a concept I’d not considered before – that our society was based on the external body and thus everything was based on a fundamental misconception. Indeed hearing these messages made me think and a friend gave me some books to read on Krishna Consciousness. I was impressed. I couldn’t quite picture myself transitioning to the life I’d known to this seemingly diametrically opposed one, thinking it meant you’d leave your family and friends forever and disappear into another world!
I found myself drawn to it over time and in 1997 I travelled to Sydney, Australia as part of a round-the-world trip which turned out to be a spiritual quest. I found many more books like it in the local library in Bondi where I lived, and ran into one of the monks from the temple in North Sydney who handed me an invitation to the program on Sundays. I ventured up there and attended the lecture, kirtan chanting and vegetarian feast. I was blown away! I felt like I’d come home, it all made so much sense and one of the monks took a great deal of effort in talking to me and I really related to his life story.
I’m not sure it was that first visit or subsequent ones, but I went into the temple shop and there was a poster hanging of who I’d read as being Lord Chaitanya – the avatara that descended about 500 years ago in Bengal, India, and spread the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra far and wide. Chaitanya was the only name I’d read that this Divine personality went by, which is one of many names. Underneath this particular poster though were the words ‘Sri Gauranga’.
Oh my God!!! It was an epiphany! THAT’S what I kept seeing around the streets of Manchester, not the name of some up and coming band, it was the purely spiritual name of Gauranga (although they spelt it with an ‘O’ after the first G for pronunciation) meaning the one with a beautiful golden form. Reciting that name has a profound effect on our consciousness, and that’s why it had been pasted up everywhere to uplift people in some way, not to promote yet another band in the endless list of band names!
Over the course of a few months the philosophy and lifestyle of Krishna Consciousness had become an essential part of me, and after losing all interest in living the lifestyle of a shared party house in the suburbs, I came out of one program feeling blissed out and moved my few possessions into the ashram of the temple. I ended up living there almost 5 years, and during the course of that took spiritual initiation (diksha) from His Holiness Indradyumna Swami. I’d never told him the story above, but I received the name ‘Vijaya Gauranga das’ which meant the servant of Lord Gauranga who is always victorious. So Gauranga had followed me all the way from the streets in my youth until now, such is His mercy. And while admittedly I have been struggling with maintaining the strict vows of a spiritual process that has been likened to a ‘razors edge’, by the mercy of that personality known also as ‘patita-pavana’ or the saviour of the most fallen I hope to continue as best as I can to follow the footsteps of my great teachers.