COMMENTARY from Shiv Mirabito
"BEATS IN INDIA" Symposium

On Saturday June 14th there was a major gathering of poets at Asia House on the Upper West Side of New York City. The line-up included Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, John Giorno, Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, Stephen Tyler, Sunil Ganguly, Gita Mehta, Bill Morgan and the often invoked ghost of Allen Ginsberg. These poets are almost all included in a new book entitled "The Blue Hand: The Beats in India" written by Deborah Baker-Ghosh who also organized this event. Surprisingly, the large auditorium was only half full. As I entered I ran into fellow Woodstocker Sally Grossman who said she is compiling a database of all the Bauls of Bengal (an ancient caste of musicians).

The morning started off at 10am with an interview of Snyder and Kyger who were at one time married, but separated in the 60's. The interviewer was Eliot Weinberger a conservative "delicatessen intellectual" (to use a Ginsberg phrase). After mentioning that they had met up with Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in India in 1961, after a few years in Japan, Snyder said "the Ginsberg journals were not much about enlightenment…" to which he was asked "Do you think Allen was looking for enlightenment in India?" Snyder testily replied "I don't think so, I think he was there looking for drugs and boys!" to which Kyger responded "Well, Isn't that enlightenment?"

They then discussed Allen's interest in "mind control", the mysterious character Hope Savage (a lover of Gregory Corso who was also in India at the time, but whom everyone thought was a spy and eventually disappeared never to be heard from again), how to say thank you in Japan, poverty, tolerance and Christopher Isherwood who had studied with Vedantist Swami Prabhavananda. Other authors who previously visited India were discussed: Aldous Huxley in the 1920's and Mark Twain in 1896. The Walt Whitman poem "Passage to India" was also mentioned (although he never visited). Snyder and Kyger had come to India prepared to camp anywhere with a small gas stove as they had done in the mountains of the west coast of the USA where "the Beats knew the streets". The discussion then turned to Spiritual practices.

"Buddhism means at attention" Snyder said and told a story: He told Ginsberg "when one realizes that you have been all beings in countless past lives why search for new experiences?" Ginsberg said he still wanted as many new experiences as possible, to which Snyder replied "You must be a very young soul!" They explained that the haste of wandering on Ginsberg's India itinerary was exhausting, they met HH Dalai Lama, Dudjom Rinpoche and a teenage Trungpa at a school for tulkus. Snyder was in a Vedanta study group in high school and has been to India four times since the first trip. Kyger said she had never been back and instead decided to explore North America, especially Mexico.

At the end of the discussion there were questions from the audience. One person asked Snyder "If they make a film of the Dharma Bums which movie star would you like to play you?" He was somewhat angered by the flippant question and said he was not the composite character portrayed in Kerouac's novel and he did not know any movie stars or care about them! Joanne Kyger, ever the good sport, joked and said George Clooney could play Ginsberg.
She followed with a great reading of humorous short poems including one kidding about not being recognized as one of the Beat poets and the one who took the famous photo of the other three poets in the Himalayas which graced the cover of the event program: "Who do you think took the photo? The bear?"

After Joanne Kyger's reading, John Giorno gave a very spirited energetic reading from memory jumping around the stage and projecting like a master theater actor. The first poem was about a poisonous tree which was mysteriously beautiful and could not be destroyed and finally some peaceful beings came and loved it. The next long poem was one he wrote for his 70th birthday last year thanking everyone for everything they ever did to him, good and bad. By the end he was out of breath, sweating and smiling.

The next panel discussion included Sunil Ganguly (an Indian Poet who met Allen and Peter in Calcutta in 1962), Anne Waldman (the poet who started the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at Naropa with Allen) and was moderated by Deborah Baker-Ghosh. Ganguly explained what it was like to be a young iconoclast atheist poet in Calcutta, how they had met in a coffee shop and how he and the other Indian poets were shocked that Allen introduced Peter as his "wife", but accepted it. He then described that Allen had once given him LSD (from Timothy Leary) and he liked the trip which made him remember his childhood. Kerouac had told him if you take four hits at once you will remember being in your mother’s womb. His poet friend Shakti, who also ate it, had a different trip and thought that he was dying, telling another friend to write down his last words. Ganguly also described the time when he visited Allen and the Beats in Greenwich Village while he was studying with Paul Engle from the Iowa Writers Workshop (an American poet who had been to India prior to Allen). Allen asked Ganguly to have sex and Ganguly replied "Ok, you do to me and then I will do to you." To which Allen said "No! I am only active, not passive." Ganguly said he then called it off. When Ganguly met Corso Allen told him to never give him money. Of course, Gregory later asked for $50 and Ganguly did feel inclined to give it, and added that it was perhaps the first time Gregory ever did repay a debt.

Anne Waldman then explained her introduction to Buddhism and India was in 1963 through a gang of Leary followers, including Robert Thurman, who were studying with Lama Geshe Wangyal. She met Allen in 1965 and started the St. Marks' Poetry Project in 1966. At this time she studied with LaMonte Young and Pandit Prannath. She went to India first with John Giorno in 1973. Allen introduced her to the idea that mantra can be useful for political activity when she saw him chanting at the Chicago 8 Trial and she quoted the judge as saying "There will be no OM-ing in my courtroom!" She discussed the depth of the Dudjom Rinpoche quote "if you see something bad don't cling to it, if you see something good don't cling to it" and the value of Ginsberg's India Journals as a guide to Indian travels. She said she wished she could go into the Jaganath Temple in Puri like Allen had, that he wanted to "see everything and do everything", that Indira Ghandi had seen him perform at Royal Albert Hall and that Allen probably helped India financially by popularizing hand woven khadi clothing. She explained that she has been back to Mumbai recently for a Marathi poetry festival and one of the last things she said to Allen was "You will be a woman in your next lifetime."

Deborah Baker-Ghosh ended the discussion (after Ganguly told his story of almost having sex with Ginsberg) by saying that she "is certain that Allen never slept with anyone in India on this first trip except Orlovsky, which cannot be said for many Westerners who travel there."
This was followed by a work in progress short film of Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Project in a white kurta shirt visiting the Calcutta Poet's Café, the ghat steps beside the Ganga River where Allen sat with babas and discussing with Sunil Ganguly the hotel where Allen and Peter stayed.

Then came the lunch break. Anne Waldman invited me, and my poet friend Louise landes Levi (a Buddhist student of Namkhai Norbu who translated the poems of Mirabai and Rasa by Alain Danielou while in India), up to the 8th floor for the free buffet for guests of Asia House. All the featured poets were there and others including Bob Holman, Eliot Katz, Gita Mehta, Brenda Coultas, Bob Rosenthal and Peter Hale of the Ginsberg Trust, and the generous Indian sponsors of the event. We sat with Miriam Sanders, the nature writer and wife of Ed Sanders.
After lunch, poet Ed Sanders of the Fugs and Steven Taylor, who performed music with Ginsberg for many years, were featured. Ed sang some Blake interpretations including his laughing song and then his homage to Ginsberg: "He Was One of My Heroes". Steven also sang Blake while playing Allen's harmonium.

The next panel was a point/counterpoint with John Giorno and Gita Mehta (author of Karma Cola, Snakes and Ladders, etc.). She discussed the climate of India for young Indians in the early 1960's, they had heard of new things, but "Allen Ginsberg, Alfred E, Newman, Albert Camus - it was all the same to us." She met Allen in 1963 at an upper class party in Bombay where everyone was shocked by his "wife" and beatnik lifestyle. He asked if anyone knew of any gay ashrams in Vrindaban. She also explained at an all girls convent school she attended there was almost a social experiment where they wanted the students to understand poetry by taking LSD and that the connection between spirituality and drugs are deeply rooted in Hindu tradition. "At many temples one can buy holy golis of bhang [marijuana paste] or opium."

John Giorno gave his personal history: studied Buddhism at Columbia University, took 34 trips with Brion Gysin in room 34 of the Chelsea Hotel in 1965 and realized that if he sat like Buddha and "meditated" while tripping he felt better. In August 1969 he was tripping while visiting Allen at his Cherry Valley farm. In his kitchen John asked Allen "What is the nature of mind?" Allen screamed in his face "Stop asking me all these questions! Why don't you go to India and find out for yourself!" This deeply affected him and Giorno did finally go in 1971 at the height of the Bangladesh war. Although he was studying with his guru Dudjom Rinpoche he decided to meet up with Allen in Calcutta, visited the rented home of Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan's manager) and Sally Grossman and made a short film of Allen in the refuge camps on Jessore Road. After Mehta made some rather negative remarks about "the golden age of spiritual materialism" and how the 1971 Bollywood anti-hippie film "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna" ruined Indian youth, they showed Giorno's 10 minute film. The soundtrack is a bad recording of Allen reciting his poem "Jessore Road" with Dylan and friends playing music in the background.

Gary Snyder then gave a reading of his long poem "An Offering for Tara", the Buddhist compassion deity, which was inspired by his visit to Ladakh (a remote Buddhist region of India). The lines included:
"blue sheep love the Himalaya
each one thinks it is theirs alone"

His reading was followed by a panel discussion on "Westerners and Eastern Spirituality" with Pankaj Mishra (an Indian essayist and novelist), Eliot Weinberger and Bill Morgan (Ginsberg biographer and archivist). Morgan raised the interesting point that Snyder had done more to bring Buddhism to America than Ginsberg because at first Ginsberg had been introducing Hindu mantra to the hippie masses. It was also mentioned several times that Allen mispronounced some of these mantras.

Anne Waldman followed this panel by reading some of her poetry related to India and Buddhism.

Earlier Weinberger had asked the question "Why do you think modern youth and poets are not making this transformational trip to India?" Obviously, he has no idea that there are many thousands of creative American youth exploring India today in the same way Allen, Peter, Joanne and Gary did forty years ago. Hopefully they are writing about it and, perhaps, becoming enlightened.

For more information about these Beats in India please read:
Allen Ginsberg's Indian Journals
Peter Orlovsky's Leper's Cry
Joanne Kyger's Strange Big Moon: Japan and India Journals
Gary Snyder's Passage Through India


Shiv Mirabito is a poet who travels to India annually and has a publishing co-operative, Shivastan, which publishes Beat and Neo-beat poetry on handmade paper in Kathmandu, Nepal.