Gold, Guns and God: Vol. 8—The City of God
HIS DIVINE GRACE KIRTANANANDA SWAMI BHAKTIPADA, the ISKCON-approved spiritual master who established the New Vrindaban West Virginia Krishna community, appeared to understand Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s dictum: “if the sound is Westernized, that does not matter,” and by 1986 seemed to instinctively recognize the intrinsic spiritual qualities of music composed for the glorification of God regardless of period and style. He formulated plans for a radical shift in the direction of temple worship: towards a European, not Indian, style. We thought if anyone could succeed in repackaging the philosophy of the East into cultural forms of the West without changing the essence, it was Bhaktipada.
Although Bhaktipada’s idea of enthusing Gaudiya-Vaishnava rituals with Western culture was innovative, he appeared to be firmly grounded in the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. Like his spiritual master before him, he also recognized the important principle: nirbandhe krsna sambandhe. Bhaktipada wrote: “Srila Prabhupada explained many times that Krishna consciousness is not limited to the cultural trappings of India. All art, science, technology, music, indeed—all of Krishna’s energies, should be utilized in his service. We reject only those things which entangle us in the material energy and make us forget God. New Vrindaban hopes to combine the best of both worlds—East and West—in a harmonious chorus of love of God. Just as I have already Krishna-ized some great Western literatures like Pilgrims Progress, so we will also Krishna-ize the great musical works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, etc.”
Music by Bach and Beethoven—even secular music—could be used in devotional service, but it had to glorify Krishna. Krishna had to be in the center. For instance, a Bach organ prelude or Beethoven string quartet could be played as a beautiful instrumental background to accompany a scriptural recitation. Just as an expert jeweler could create an elaborate silver and gold setting for a brilliant diamond which would enhance the beauty and value of the precious gem, an expert musician could play a piece of classical music which would create an appropriate atmosphere and enhance the beauty of a poem about Krishna. Bhaktipada began to share his realizations with the New Vrindaban residents.
Bhaktipada began his Western music program in the summer of 1986 during noon temple services by having recordings of Bach’s organ masterpieces played on the temple sound system while he read excerpts from his book-in-progress Eternal Love.
in October 1986, Bhaktipada asked me to stop my service of collecting money on the road and return back to New Vrindaban; not just for a weekend visit, but to live and work in the community indefinitely. Bhaktipada requested me to train a choir of New Vrindaban residents. At first we would sing “Krishna-ized” versions of familiar Western choral compositions, but eventually, he hoped, we would develop a unique and original repertoire of our own.
Bhaktipada claimed the choir was a very important tool in his preaching plan. On November 17, 1987, part of Bhaktipada’s vision was manifest when Ragamathani devi dasi presented a song recital at the Radha-Vrindaban Chandra Temple of Understanding.
Rebecca Elizabeth Smith was born in Seattle on August 26, 1956 into a musical family. Her father, William O. “Bill” Smith (1926-2020), was a world-renowned clarinetist, composer and founding member of the Dave Brubeck Octet. Unfortunately, young Rebecca suffered some emotional issues with her parents, and at the age of 16, she left home and joined the Seattle ISKCON temple, where she was told to “Chant and be happy.”
On August 20, 1973, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Founder/Acharya of ISKCON, at the time living in England, wrote to Sukadeva dasa Adhikari (who I assume served as the temple president for Seattle ISKCON) and in his letter accepted Rebecca E. Smith as his initiated disciple, along with seven others. Prabhupada gave her the name Ragamathani dasi. He ordered Sukadeva, “Hold a fire ceremony, and distribute sumptuous prasadam to one and all.” According to the Srila Prabhupada Disciples Database, Ragamathani was initiated in Seattle in 1974. I believe she married a Seattle devotee on the order of temple authorities, but the marriage was short lived.
In the late 1970s, or 1980, Ragamathani married Dulal Chandra dasa (Howard Fawley) who was a successful devotee businessman in Los Angeles. He had lived at New Vrindaban as a brahmachari in the early 1970s and served as a drummer on Kirtanananda Swami’s Road Show. In 1975 he served as the Pittsburgh Pennsylvania ISKCON temple president. Soon after he moved to Los Angeles. At the 1978 GBC meetings in Mayapur, India, Kirtanananda Swami recommended Dulal Chandra as a candidate for sannyasa. In 1980 Bhaktipada invited him to return to New Vrindaban and serve as the comptroller for the New Vrindaban Community, a position he held for six years.
At first Dulal and Ragamathani lived in a rustic one story house in Talavan. This house is described in Gold, Guns and God, Vol. 5 (pp. 12-13). I visited this house once around 1983, after Dulal Chandra had rescued my accordion and my classical music record collection from the Pittsburgh ISKCON garage to protect it from water damage. After some time, Dulal bought a new two-story house, I think on Route 88 just outside of New Vrindaban proper. Ragamathani served as a typesetter at Palace Press.
In the summer of 1982, Ragamathani recorded a cassette tape with Sri Bhajan dasa, a visiting Bhaktipada disciple (initiated in November 1981) and gifted singer from Bombay, India. She also recorded some songs with an unknown guitarist (Ragamathani devi dasi Sings Bhajans).
In October 1986 she joined the recently-established New Vrindaban Choir, and became our star soprano. Those who heard her sing said she had “the voice of an angel.” As I recall, her personality was as sweet as her voice.
Ragamathani studied voice with Helen Elizabeth Pierce Elbin (1905-1996), a voice teacher in West Liberty, West Virginia. Ragamathani performed a full-length solo voice recital at the New Vrindaban temple on November 17, 1987. I produced a printed program for Ragamathani’s recital and explained in A Word From The Director:
After talking at length with Srila Bhaktipada about his recent Vyasa Puja festival [two months ago] last September, he looked me in the eye and concluded, “After all that was said and done, do you know what was the high point of my Vyasa Puja?”
I remained silent.
He smiled, “The choir concert at my house!”
Hoping to impress him, but not wanting to appear puffed up, I blurted out, “Well, then we’ll make it an annual affair!” . . .
He gruffy retorted, “You don’t understand my mood! . . . Only once a year? I want a chamber music concert at my house every Sunday! Is that clear?”
It was clear.
Tonight’s recital for voice and piano is a step to realize Srila Bhaktipada’s dream of having a first-class music performance/preaching program at New Vrindaban.
The following fourteen pieces span three centuries and depict a variety of styles, both in music and content. Musically, the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Twentieth-Century styles are represented, by Bach, Mozart, Gounod and myself.
Content varies from the delightful humor of Handel’s Oh, Had I Narada’s Vina and Srila Bhaktipada’s Songs of Innocence, to the tender yearnings of Giordani’s Caro Mio Ben and Aravinda’s O My Dear Govinda.
The mood varies from the profound philosophy of Devamrita Swami’s I Know That My Spiritual Master Liveth, to the sharp (and witty) commentary on the futility of material life of Purcell’s I Attempt From Love’s Sickness to Fly and Bononcini’s Per la Gloria D’Adorarvi. (It seems that many of the great masters intuitively understood the inherent miseries of society, friendship and love.)
If this recital inspires, even in a small way, a little devotion for our Supreme Lord and distaste for material activities, we will consider our humble attempt successful.
Ragamathani left New Vrindaban in the late summer of 1988, after getting a divorce from her husband.
I visited her when she was living in an apartment in Encinitas, California, in January/February 1994. I briefly saw her again a year later in California. That was the last time I saw her. I heard she is presently living in Santa Rosa, California.
To listen to Ragamathani’s recital, Click Here.
January 18, 2023
Subject: New Vrindaban Recordings
Thank you for uploading the vintage New Vrindaban interfaith musical recordings on YouTube. I have been listening to them for many days now. I have to say they are a real eye opener. I had no idea what this experimental era of New Vrindaban sounded like. I saw the photos and read the stories of this time era, but hearing what you were actually doing really changes things. For some reason I never thought the Western classical music at the City of God would be so technically proficient and, well. . . musically convincing.
I think you were really on to something with this musical approach to presenting the Vaishnava philosophy within the framework of Western tonality. I hate to say this, as it seems to reflect well on Kirtanananda, but maybe on this idea he was correct.
I also purchased your book, Gold, Guns and God, Vol. 8. Looking forward to reading more about this era of New Vrindaban.
Jersey City, New Jersey
P.S. The Ragamathani devi dasi recordings are extremely beautiful and sincere. The reworking of the classic themes are quite successful and many moments of her recital are very moving. The children’s bhajans are wonderful, but knowing the history: sad and tragic.
Oh, Had I Narada’s Vina (Oh, Had I Jubal’s Lyre), George F. Handel (1685-1759) from Joshua
Oh, had I Narada’s vina or Mirabai’s tuneful voice.
To sounds like his I would aspire,
In songs like hers rejoice.
My humble strains but faintly show
How much to heav’n and thee I owe.
I Attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly, Henry Purcell (c. 1659-1695)
I attempt from love’s sickness to fly,
Since I am myself my own fever and pain.
No more now, fond heart, with pain no more swell.
For love has more power and less mercy than fate;
To make us seek ruin, and on those that we hate.
Two Arias by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Krishna, My Lord (Bist du bei mir), lyrics by H. D. G. Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, from Eternal Love, No. 97, music from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook
Krishna, my Lord, be near I pray.
Thou art my life and soul, my confidence, my hope;
Love can be true if you just show the way.
Dear Shyamasundar, thou art my life’s goal.
Thou art my faithful friend, my beginning and my end;
Thou art indeed the lover of my soul.
Radha Hears His Tender Calling, Aria from Cantata No. 14 (Sleeper’s Wake)
Radha hears his tender calling,
Her heart goes forth in love enthralling,
To rise in haste to greet her Lord.
See, he comes, the Lord victorious,
Almighty, noble, true and glorious,
In heavn’n supreme, on earth adored.
Now come, thou King of Kings,
Lord Krishna, God himself. Alleluia!
We follow all, the joyful call,
And join him in Goloka’s hall.
Three Italian Arias
Per la Gloria d’Adorarvi (For the Love My Heart Doth Prize), Giovanni Battista Bononcini (1672-1750)
Per la gloria d’adorarvi voglio amarvi o lucicare.
Amando penero, ma sempre v’amero, si, si, nel mio penare,
penero, v’amero, lucicare.
Senza speme di diletto vano affetto e sospirare,
Ma i vostri doci rai, chi vagheggiar puo mai, e non v’amare.
For the love my heart doth prize,
O charmful eyes, I would adore ye.
For me, my love is pain, I know ’tis all in vain.
Yet kneel before ye, love is pain, all in vain I implore ye.
Hopeless ’tis to look for kindness,
Foolish fondness with signs t’implore ye.
But who-e’er might woo your gaze,
Bask in your sunny rays, and not adore ye?
Caro Mio Ben (Thou, All My Bliss), Giuseppe Giordani (1744-1798)
Caro mio ben, credi mi almen,
senza di te languisce il cor.
Il tuo fedel sospira ognor.
Cessa, crudel, tano rigor!
Thou, all my bliss, believe but this:
When thou are far my heart is torn.
Thy lover true ever doth sigh;
Do but forego such cruel scorn!
Gia il Sole dal Gange (O’er Ganges Now Launches the Sun God), Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725)
Gia il sole dal Gange, piu chiaro sfavilla,
e terge ogni stilla dell’alba chek piange.
Col raggio dorato ingemma ogni stelo,
e gli astri del cielo dipinge nel prato.
O’er Ganges now launches the sungod his splendor,
With touch warm and tender dawn’s teardrops he staunches.
His rays golden beaming dethrone nightly shadows,
While gemming the meadows with stars brightly gleaming.
Four Arias from The Messiah by George F. Handel (1685-1759)
How Beautiful Are the Feet, lyrics by Devamrita Swami
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace,
And bring sweet nectar from Lord Gopal.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem:
Behold thy king cometh unto thee.
He is the righteous saviour,
And he shall speak peace unto the heathen.
I Know That My Spiritual Master Liveth, lyrics by Devamrita Swami
I know that my spiritual master liveth,
And that by his grace, even a wretch as I can love Krishna.
I know that my Prabhupada liveth.
And by disciplic link his will marches on; Jaya Bhaktipada!
And though Maya attacks this body,
Yet in my soul shall I be strong.
Who dares measure what the guru giveth!
Though fools doth protest his glory,
Yet through him shall I see God.
Who dares measure what the guru giveth,
For by his sweet pleasure upon the jiva,
A lost servant can go back home.
If God Be For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?
If God be for us, who can be against us?
Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?
It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?
It is guru that cometh, yea rather, he appeareth for our sake,
Who, at the right hand of God, makes intercession for us.
Songs of Innocence (Introduction), lyrics by H. D. G. Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada (from William Blake), music by Hrishikesh dasa
Dancing down the valleys wild,
Singing Krishna’s name with glee;
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughingly said to me:
Play a song about a cow,
So I piped one fit for Lear;
Piper, pipe it again right now,
So I piped while he wept to hear.
Stop this song, its useless sensation,
Maya’s illusion of pleasure and pain.
So I began the holy vibration,
Krishna, Krishna, the Holy Name.
Then I made a simple pen,
And I stained the waters clear.
Writing down my happy songs ten,
For one and all to hear.
O My Dear Govinda (O Divine Redeemer—Parce Domine), lyrics by Aravinda dasa, music by Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Ah, turn me not away, receive me though unworthy.
Hear thou my cry, behold, Lord, my distress!
Answer me from thy abode, Haste thee, Lord, to mine aid!
Thy pity show in my deep anguish!
Let not the sword of Maya smite me,
How powerful is thine energy, O Lord!
Shield me in danger, O regard me!
On thee, Lord, alone will I call!
O my dear Govinda! I pray thee, grant me pardon,
And remind me, remind me now of thee!
How I need thee! O my dear Govinda.
Night gathers round my soul, fearful, I cry to thee,
Come to mine aid, O Lord!
Haste thee, Lord, haste to help me!
Hear my cry, hear my cry!
Save me, Lord, in thy mercy: Come and save me, O Lord!
When it is time to leave this body,
From fear shield thou me, O my God!
O my dear Govinda, have mercy! Heal me, my saviour!
Chant My Holy Name (Exultate Jubilate), a motet in three movements by W. A. Mozart (1756-1791), lyrics by H. D. G. Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada from his book, Eternal Love.
THE LORD IN THE HEART: Chant my holy name; it’s the only way. Do not fear, my child, do not be afraid. I will deliver you from all sinful blemishes. To you I will grant eternal joy in my spiritual abode.
THE SOUL: My Lord, when will my eyes be adorned with tears of love, appearing when I chant your holy name? When will my voice choke up, when will my hair stand on end? Govinda, feeling your absence, a moment is like twelve years or more. My tears flow just like torrents of rain; without you my heart is empty. I know no one but you, my Lord. Crush me in your rough embrace or break my heart, for you are always my Lord—eternally.
THE SOUL: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare; Hare Rma, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
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