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This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15 – the WAR issue.
For about ten years after World War II Britain was a grey place. When Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were gallivanting around the United States, the UK was recovering from Nazi bombing raids. Kids played in bomb craters and air-raid shelters. You could still find shell casings among the rubble and there were wrecked German Messershmitts in the fields. The big kids got the best bits.
It wasn’t until the end of the fifties that things started to change, and kids who’d been too young to die in the trenches came of age. TVs arrived in suburban homes, bringing American culture to the British youth. Brit pop music was pretty tame at first – Petula Clark, Frankie Vaughan – but it had potential. Then Bill Haley came over leaving a trail of smashed up cinemas, and Gene Vincent records appeared in the shops.
Proto-Beatniks were first spotted on the Aldermaston March. They were called Bohemians. There was a revival of traditional jazz among art students and a few bearded denizens of Soho pubs. Then Skiffle came along and whatever it was spread to the suburbs. Lonnie Donnegan got on TV with songs like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” (“John Henry” was on the B-side) and suddenly England had a whole new sub-culture.
The spillover from places like Ken Colyer’s Club and Eel Pie Island followed… scruffy, hairy young people with bedrolls would find their way down to Brighton either by hitchhiking or by the infamous Milk Train from Victoria. It usually happened at weekends. They’d sleep on the beach under the pier or in upturned fishing boats on the hard pebbles and meet up in the fish market to share bottles of stolen milk and Mars Bars. Some of the beatnik chicks were quite attractive in a Bohemian kind of way. French actress style. It wasn’t that difficult to entice them into your sleeping bag; one at a time, of course.
Drugs? There weren’t many around. You could get a buzz off Dr. Collis Browne’s Mixture but speed and pot were hard to find. Acid was still some way in the future.
Primitive music was played there on the pebbles. Some people, like Davy Graham and Martin Wyndham, Wizz Jones (shoulder-length curly hair and owlish glasses), Clive Palmer (quiet, gaunt, and haunted), would have banjos and guitars. Somebody might show up with a battered trumpet. Perhaps there would even be enough instruments to make an impromptu band! Bemused old folk and other passersby on the sea front above would gather to watch this curious cultural phenomenon. Teddy Boys – working class lads in pseudo-Edwardian suits – would shout rude things at the Beatniks. Things like “Do you ever wash?” or “Get a bleedin’ ’aircut!” and “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Teds wore drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, and suede shoes with big crepe soles. They liked Gene Vincent and Elvis. Then the Mods came along, a younger group, who liked the Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, and early Reggae. They showed up like a shoal of piranha fish in their Fred Perry Polo shirts and parkas, driving Lambrettas and noisy little Vespas covered with superfluous headlights. They got a lot of media attention which annoyed the Teds, who had somehow morphed into Rockers while nobody was watching. They traded in their suits for leather jackets, bought motorbikes and rode around shouting rude things at the Mods.
It may have been youthful high-spirits, or excess testosterone. Historians are still puzzling over it. Or maybe the various fashion styles and musical tastes just didn’t mix well. Anyway, fights broke out which quickly became running battles, and it wasn’t long before the Great British Press was all over it. Coppers got in some weekend overtime with their truncheons. Arrests were made. Newspapers were sold. The public was shocked.
The Beatniks, being peaceful folk for the most part, stayed out of it. Some simply went home to read their copies of On the Road. Some decided to hitchhike to India in search of spiritual enlightenment and cheap hash. They in turn evolved into Hippies. Most of these young people eventually got jobs, started families and settled down in front of the telly. Some have since joined the old folk on the seafront where they sit in Regency shelters, feeding sliced bread to gulls and discussing the youth of today.
by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra
Beatdom Issue 10
They are unmistakable: roughly kept beards, unmanageable, unruly and unkempt hair, chillums dangling from the oral cavity, drinking ‘bhang’ and smoking marijuana; add mysticism, reverence and fear and you will have before you the nativity of the Holy Men of India, the ‘Sadhus’.
A Sadhu is a mystic, an ascetic, the one who knows all and is liberated from the materialistic world of humans. He is a wandering monk whose singular goal in life is to achieve ‘moksha’, and he gets it through tough penance and uncommon lifestyle. India has been a country of much interest to the world and the Orient has forever lured the West. It is a country where the solitary aim of life is ‘liberation’ or ‘Moksha’, also called ‘nirvana’. It is the highest form of ‘Purushartra’; the choice to do good things in life, among ‘Dharma’ (duty), ‘Artha’ (meaning), ‘Kama’ (sex) and ‘Moksha’ (salvation). Hinduism has been forever guided and inspired by its spiritual leaders, mainly ascetics or Sadhus. Baldeo Upadhyay observes that “the Indian culture is based upon the three T’s – Tyag (renunciation), Tapasya (penance) and Tapovan (hermitage)”.This clearly means that, in order to achieve truth or the highest form of knowledge, an individual must observe unremitting penance and detachment from worldly vows.
Broadly speaking there are two main divisions, or sects, of Sadhus: ‘Shaiva’ Sadhus who revere Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction and ‘Vaishnavas’ who are ascetic followers of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver of the Universe. Apart from these two chief categories, there are some ‘Shakta’ Sadhus as well, who are the disciples of goddess ‘Shakti’, the supreme goddess of strength and power. Then, there are the ‘Naga’ Sadhus, (a sub category of ‘Shaiva’) who remain unclothed and wander naked openly in the streets, commanding respect and awe. Nudity in their case is not considered obscene but is seen as the highest form of penance. Along with the ‘Naga’ Sadhus are the ‘Aghories’, or the warrior Sadhus, who not only in some cases remain naked but also smear their bodies with human ash (acquired from cremation grounds, a place of worship and meditation). They are often seen with a human skull, which is used as a begging bowl.
The most remarkable facet of the Sadhu community is their sometimes excessive and non-restrained use of drugs like ‘charas’ (cannabis). The Naga Sadhus, and aghoris in particular, devour these drugs since they consider them as a fundamental aspect of their religious ceremonies and practices. Sadhus claim that use of hallucinatory drugs brings them closer to God, and thus closer to salvation. The use of the hemp plant in the religious rituals of the worship of Lord Shiva is noteworthy. It is said that cannabis is one of the favourite plants of the deity and is thus respected and held reverently by his followers. Drinking of ‘bhang’ (a drink made out of cannabis) is considered highly auspicious by these Sadhus as it is said to unite the disciple with the deity and open a way to achieve salvation and get rid of the miseries of life and death. According to religious beliefs it is said that bhang is capable of cleansing one’s soul of all forms of sin. The religious significance of cannabis and hallucinatory drugs is so obviously felt that it is validated by the fact that in most of the states in India weed is legal and sold openly in the market.
It is this openness in religion and this freedom in choice that inspired some of the Beat writers to extensively travel to India and experience a life without inhibitions and restraints. Initially, the West’s interest in the East was determined by negative impulses, the desire to study the Eastern religions was driven by the fanatical craving to convert the Easterners into Christianity. The West saw the East as ‘heathen’ and took the responsibility of educating the East and showing them the way of Christ. Whatever knowledge an average American possessed about the Eastern religions was due to missionary accounts. It was only in the twentieth century that the East could have been said to have any serious and scholarly influence over the American mind. The Beats may be considered the vanguard in a significant shift in post-World War II American religious consciousness, marked by rejection of institutional religion, a questioning of Christian values, and an affirmation of the possibility of new religious meanings to be found through mystical experience, hallucinogenic drugs and Asian religions.
First emerging in the nineteenth century, American interest in the Asian religions has grown spectacularly since World War II and today effects the lives of large numbers of Americans. Some have dismissed the phenomenon as a fad, while others hail (or denounce) the growth of interest in Eastern spirituality as the beginningstages of a shift in religious consciousness that will profoundly alter the religious view of future Americans.
The one outstanding resemblance between the Beats and the Sadhus is that both of them are away from the humdrum world of the square society; they are both in search of reality and internal peace. The one question that both Sadhus and Beatniks ask is the relevance of life, its meaning and its end. Post Second World War, the Beatniks seemed to have lost faith in Christianity and were looking for answers towards Eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. When the strict righteousness of Christianity couldn’t satisfy their enthusiastic spiritual cravings they begged answers from Buddhism. “I don’t know about that, but I get my religion from Buddhism and the Oriental religions. Buddha was one of the original hippies – he was a beggar who rejected the ‘straight’ world. I think incense and charms help turn a person on. The teaching of Nirvana seems to be the essence of truth. The Oriental religions have more to offer than Christianity” said one of the hippies in an interview in 1967.
On one level, the Beat writers may be seen as early leaders in the war era who turned to the East, whose attitudes and use of Asian religious thought provide important insight into the impact of the East on modern American religious beliefs. In the post-World War II period, Beat writers did more than any other literary group to shift America’s cultural focus toward the East. The ways in which the Beats utilized and distorted Asian conceptions reveal both the rewards and dangers of turning to non-European sources. Thus, the Beats can be seen as the precursors to ‘Indian God Men’ who later allured the West into the romance of India and its spiritual offerings.
Marijuana has long been used as a spiritual tool and mood enhancer, and it is also said that a person taking marijuana has a heightened emotional experience. The Sadhu’s intake of ‘ganja’ or ‘charas’ brings them into a state where they feel one with God. The spiritual impact of psychedelic drugs depends entirely upon the person using them, it depends on his/her mental state and his/her intentions in using it. While Sadhus on one hand use drugs to experience the divine presence of God around them, on the other the Beats used them to run away from society into the world of ecstasy and bliss. Sadhus who embrace marijuana as a sacrament find it spiritually beneficial, as they feel that the intake of the drug purifies their soul; marijuana helps them focusing their attention inward, toward the realm of spirit and towards God. Allen Ginsberg in ‘The Great Marijuana Hoax’ talks about his experiences with ‘ganja’ during his stay in India:
In sound good health I smoked legal ganja (as marijuana is termed in India, where it is traditionally used in preference to alcohol), bought from government tax shops in Calcutta, in a circle of devotees, yogis, and hymn-singing pious Shaivite worshipers in the burning ground at Nimtallah Ghat in Calcutta, where it was the custom of these respected gentlemen to meet on Tuesday and Saturday nights, smoke before an improvised altar of blossoms, sacramental milk-candy and perhaps a fire taken from the burning wooden bed on which lay a newly dead body, of some friend perhaps, likely a stranger if a corpse is a stranger, pass out the candy as God’s gift to friend and stranger, and sing holy songs all night, with great strength and emotion, addressed to different images of the Divine Spirit. Ganja was there considered a beginning of sadhana (Yogic path or discipline) by some…
The question that one may ask is that why men like the Beats and the Sadhus have the desire to escape from reality, and in doing so make use of hallucinatory drugs. Aldous Huxley seemed to have an answer. He said:
Most men and women lead lives, at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul.
The Beat writers made use of drugs in order to expand their range of experience beyond boundaries, just as the Sadhu who went into a state of trance after taking in drugs. The Beats also consumed drugs in order to go into the state of trance where they could create poetry which they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. The Beats were troubled souls. They were constantly at war with the world they were living in. In order to achieve peace and nirvana, they made use of drugs to escape into a world of trance, where everything was blissful and serene. Drugs such as marijuana helped them escape into a different world where they felt close to God, close to reality and above all they had a sense of unification with God.
The use of drugs by poets and artists is a known fact. For decades writers have made use of hallucinatory drugs to enhance their artistic ability. Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were scandalously known for their drug usage. All the three writers wrote while high on drugs and ended up creating the masterpieces of their lives. Kerouac’s On the Road is a detailed saga of drug use, most of the characters in the novel are seen consuming drugs, especially marijuana, while Burrough’s Junky and Naked Lunch narrates his early years of drug addiction. Burroughs kept on experimenting with several drugs as he claimed that he was ‘bored’ of life. Drugs provided him novelty, while Kerouac continued the use of marijuana and later replaced it with alcohol to get rid of the painful experiences of life.
However, it was Ginsberg who came closest to the aesthetic lifestyle of a Sadhu. He was, in a way, a wandering nomad in search of truth who came to India in search of a guru, someone whom he could revere and also make love to. Ginsberg adorned the looks of a Sadhu too: his unshaved beard and dishevelled hair could pass him easily for a Sadhu. His spiritual cravings led him to haunt the most daunting places on Earth – which included cremation grounds and habitats of aghoris and yogis. Ginsberg was very interested in the concept of ‘nirvana’ and thus he was always occupied with the notions of death and rebirth. Like an aghori he would meditate over cremation grounds late at nights with few of his fellow Indian poet friends. Cremation grounds became a meeting hub of radical poets, Sadhus and an eager Ginsberg who met many aesthetics in the hour of darkness. He questioned the holy men about the meaning of life and death. Ginsberg’s spiritual cravings led him to the pious ghats of Nimtala in Calcutta and Manikarnika ghat in Benaras where he accompanied Sadhus and smoked chillum in their company.
Steve Silberman in his essay ‘The Birth of the Sixties: When the Beats Became Hippies’ talks about Ginsberg’s experiences of the pious ‘ghats’ in Benares and Calcutta:
One of the experiences that made the deepest impression on Ginsberg was spending hours at the burning ghats in Varanasi, smoking ganja with sadhus and mindfully observing the corpses as they turned to ash on the pyres that smoldered all night. Deciding that ‘the present is sufficient subject’, he revitalized his writing by turning his attention away from his cosmic obsessions and toward the humanity around him in the swarming streets of Kolkata and Varanasi. Precisely observed journal entries such as ‘Describe: The Rain on Dasaswamedh Ghat’ became the model for Ginsberg’s later work, which replaced the earlier overheated philosophizing with cinematic rendering of a suffering world.
India taught Ginsberg the devout character of compassion, he realised that the world, which is full of immense suffering and pain, could become bearable only with the help of compassion. Regarding Ginsberg’s spiritual gain, Baker writes:
What held Allen Ginsberg and would hold him for the rest of his life was the sweetness and sympathy he found in the company of India’s Sadhus, charlatans, poets, and saints. They sang to him, and they held his hand. They reached out to his lover, and touched his feet; they sucked their teeth in sympathy when Ginsberg confessed his fears of demons, childlessness, old age, abandonment, and death.
Ginsberg found refuge in the spiritual and populated cities of Calcutta and Varanasi, these were the places that made him realize his own self, felt loved and cherished. While on his stay in India, Ginsberg also heavily experimented with drugs. He used marijuana in order to experience God and spirituality. He wanted to discover his own self, to know things more deeply just as a Sadhu would do. Ginsberg travelled extensively and propagated the use of marijuana in different countries, more of a Sadhu in search of the divine presence of God achievable only in a high state. Of all the poets who travelled to East, Ginsberg was the one who was transformed by the journey. It was through his prolonged stay in India and his experiences of staying with Sadhus, yogis and aghories that Ginsberg himself became a ‘guru’ for the young and rebellious youth of the 60’s in the US.
The memory of India lingered with Ginsberg all through his life. A few days before his death in 1997, Ginsberg wrote in his journal for the last time, his final poem, ‘Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)’. Therein, he recalled some of the happiest moments of his life, which also included his trysts with India. He recalled his bathing at the banks of the holy Ganges, sitting beside Orlovsky at the Manikarnika ghat, and relishing ‘Chai with older Sunil & the young coffeehouse poets’.
Ginsberg’s main aim in travelling to India was to seek some spiritual answers that the West could not give. He felt that Hinduism could answer all his questions. He believed that ‘ganja’ could help him in his spiritual quest and just as a Sadhu feels unified with God after smoking weed so could he liberate himself and experience a trance-state in which he could be one with God. Ginsberg never did enjoy drugs so much in life as he did in India. There he could use it freely without inhibitions and without having any guilty feelings about it.
Ganja served him as a medium of communication with the Almighty. Ginsberg came to India with an open heart; later he mused on all that India had to offer him – from ‘Ganja’ to God.