By Kurma Das
Yes, this is a very young Kurma being arrested outside the now-extinct Buckley’s on Bourke Street, Melbourne and taken away by four burly ‘boys in blue’ for a week in Melbourne’s high security Pentidge Prison in 1978. My crime: not paying fines for selling Back to Godhead magazines on the streets of Melbourne without a licence (which they refused to grant).
I originally dated this photo as 1972. A number of astute readers reminded me that the picture of me being arrested in Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall was in fact 1978, and not 1972. All those police bashings must have affected my memory. Seriously though, my arrest in 1972, and my final brush with the law in 1979, led to three different sojourns in Pentridge, though all for the same reason.
The graphic photo of my arrest was snapped by an Age photographer who just happened to be passing.
The Melbourne City Council’s seven-year vendetta was draconian and harsh, but after many skirmishes with the law, the Hare Krishna’s were finally allowed to merrily chant and dance on the street without further harassment. Mine and other jail sentences only help turn the public’s perception in our favour.
The Hare Krishna devotees first attracted undue local council and Police scrutiny in Sydney in early 1972. Here’s an account of one of the earliest police ‘stings’, narrated in chapter five of my history of the Hare Krishnas in Australia called “The Great Transcendental Adventure”.
29 APRIL 1972
“It was nine o’clock on Saturday night, at the intersection of Darlinghurst Road and Macleay Street, about two kilometres east of downtown Sydney. The reflected lights of Kings Cross glittered and sparkled in the ephemeral spray from the famous globe-shaped El Alamein Fountain, the Kings Cross landmark built to commemorate Australian troops killed in the decisive North African battle of 1942.
Sometimes compared to London’s Soho, or San Francisco’s North Beach, Kings Cross had become a popular venue for Bohemians, tourists and especially United States servicemen on R. & R. leave from Vietnam.
Becoming equally synonymous with ‘The Cross’, a party of about a dozen neatly dressed Hare Krsna devotees lined up next to the fountain swaying to the metronome drum rhythms and clipped, nasal tones of Upendra, who danced and chanted at their side.
Understandably, it had been a popular spot for devotees ever since Bali-mardana first conducted his one-man inaugural kirtanas here more than two years ago.
Warmly dressed in the crisp winter air, the devotees followed their usual night-time routine. They chanted for a while, then dispersed to sell Back to Godhead magazines to interested passers-by. Then more chanting.
The line of devotees moved from the fountain through the heart of the Cross in its customary chanting circuit down Darlinghurst Road.
Waves of people ambled along: bewildered drunken tourists in papier-mache cowboy hats, bearded hippies, U.S. servicemen in zany gear and shades, identities and non-entities, locals and suburbanites, policemen in pairs with measured steps, they were all there, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells of the Cross. In several shop doorways were little stands selling rings, leather trinkets and incense. ‘Ladies of the night’ hovered in similar dark alcoves, clutching the symbolic handbag, plying their trade without flair.
For the devotees, however, the chanting of Hare Krsna mantra cut through all the brash, sleazy and blatantly vulgar tinsel that was Kings Cross. The coarse chatter of the strip joint hustlers, the live music from the wine bars, the disco sounds and the occasional foul-mouthed, staggering drunk all seemed irrelevant. It flowed past the devotees without effect. This was the miracle of chanting. Absorbed in the holy names of Krsna, the devotees felt themselves protected and immunised from the poisonous effects of Kali yuga. They were sustained in their knowledge that as the kirtana party passed, Krsna’s holy names would enter the ears of the sensuous Kings Cross throng, and start them on their spiritual journey.
Two men in plain clothes suddenly lunged across the pavement towards Upendra. Grabbing his arms they yanked him towards the nearby ‘paddy wagon’. A whole team of police had converged on the kirtana party in a well-planned attack, inspired by the recent decisions of the City Council. One by one, devotees were rounded up and marched into the cold, looming vehicle. By now, quite a crowd had gathered, some heckling, although mostly sympathetic.
“Leave ‘em alone, ya mugs!” cried an anonymous voice from the crowd. “Pigs!” cried another. The steel door slammed shut. It was a quick, dark and bumpy ride to nearby Darlinghurst Police Station.
Minutes later, the doors opened and the devotees were marched into the station through a line of hard-faced policemen. “Alright,” drawled the sergeant from behind the desk, “which ones are the boyyyyys and which ones are the giiiiirls?” His fellow officers guffawed along with him at the devotees’ expense. “You won’t be needing those,” he said, indicating for another officer to collect the Back to Godhead magazines from the ladies.
A red-faced constable pointed at the picture of Radha and Krsna on the cover of the magazines. “Who are they?” he asked, then answered his own question with a blasphemous remark that shocked the devotees’ ears.
After much laughing and joking amongst the police, the devotees’ names and fingerprints were taken.
“If any of you say your name’s ‘Hare Krsna’,” barked the sergeant, “I’ll slap your head so hard it will go through the wall.” The men were led into cells that smelt of urine and vomit, whilst the ladies sat on the cold bench. And there they stayed until the other devotees bail them out at dawn next morning. For the police, it was all in a night’s work. And for the devotees, it was yet another opportunity to remember Krsna and pray for the strength to execute their mission.”
Read More On Kurma’s Blog http://www.iskcon.net.au/kurma/