A community of Krishna devotees combines surfing and spirituality on the shores of Karnataka
By Jason Overdorf/Mulky, India
DESTINASIAN (December 2008)
ON A STEAMY AFTERNOON IN SOUTHERN KARNATAKA, Jack Hebner—a.k.a. Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha, a.k.a. Swamiji, a.k.a. Guru Maharaj (“Great Teacher”)—steps off a Mangalore jetty onto the rocks that form the pier’s foundation. He slides his Pope surfboard into the chocolate brown waters of the Arabian Sea for the epic paddle out to India’s busiest surf break, which sees maybe a handful of surfers a couple of times a month.
Hebner’s 61-year-old muscles aren’t all they used to be. “A couple years ago, I got down to do some pushups, and I couldn’t get one. That’s when I told myself, ‘The Swami’s life is too sedentary.’ ” So instead of fighting the white water, Hebner paddles out through the harbor and around the jetty to get outside the break. It’s a one kilometer slog, and by the time he’s made it, three of his disciples —among the first Indians to take up surfing—have already dropped in on a bunch of waves. Since there’s no lineup anywhere along India’s 7,500-kilometer coastline, that’s easy to do. It takes Hebner 15 minutes or so to recover his breath. Then he knee-paddles into a curling two-meter swell, drops in, and rides it as majestically as anybody known as the Great Teacher could be expected to do.
A guest at Hebner’s Ashram Surf Retreat in the nearby town of Mulky, I watch for a few more minutes before paddling out myself. I’d stumbled across Hebner and his crew online a few months earlier back home in Delhi. Even though I’d never caught a wave in my life, I’d seen enough clips from movies like Endless Summer to convince myself that one day I had to learn. When I read about Hebner and the Mantra Surf Club he cofounded two years ago, it was like, well, karma.
Jack Hebner, who took the name Swami Narasingha in 1976, isn’t your typical surfer. For one thing, the sun-burnished native of Jacksonville Beach, Florida, doesn’t drink, and he has kept a vow of celibacy for three decades. For another, he’s a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna. But it’s that eccentric combination of passions that brought him in the early 1990s to India’s southwestern coast, where he’s now working to develop a surfing community that reveres the ocean, helps the poor, and wakes up every morning at 4:30 to pray. Led by Hebner and Rick Perry (another American follower of Krishna, who goes by the name Baba), they call themselves “the Surfing Swamis.” According to Hebner, a recognized Hindu guru with almost 200 local disciples, “Surfing isn’t just about getting in the water and catching a few waves, it’s about something much deeper than that. It’s about a spiritual experience.”
The spiritual experience offered by his Ashram Surf Retreat—which, at US$60 a night, can seem a little too monastic at times—isn’t for everybody. That’s probably why this bizarre hybrid of commune, temple, and hotel has only two guest rooms. The resident devotees—who include Hebner, Perry, a California couple, and five young Indian brahmacharyas (novice monks)—all chip in to keep the place running, shopping for food, cleaning, teaching guests to surf, and so on. Every morning they hold a prayer service that involves blowing a conch shell, ringing cymbals, singing, chanting, and just about everything else that inspired the invention of the Do Not Disturb sign. Although the food is satisfying enough after a few hours in the pounding waves, it is strictly vegetarian. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden, and guests are requested to abstain from sex. Those caveats aside, however, I can tell you that I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I also lost four kilograms and kicked the gout that had been troubling me for weeks. And, yes, after three days of long paddles, lungfuls of water, nosedives, and brutal wipeouts, I learned to surf.
INDIA’S COASTLINE INCLUDES at least 200 surfable river mouths and countless bays, coves, and points, all of which hint at the presence of secret waves. It’s completely uncharted territory for surfers, and every break is deserted; in India, almost nobody knows how to swim, let alone surf. But it won’t always be so. According to India Today magazine, the subcontinent’s adventure-tourism business—including trekking, climbing, caving, diving, and paragliding—is growing at more than 35 percent a year, and has the potential to attract half a million foreign tourists annually. Surf safaris could be just over the horizon, considering that many of India’s known surf spots boast awe-inspiring cultural attractions, such as the ancient Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu and the dramatic Juggernaut Festival at Puri in Orissa. Indeed, the buzz has already started. Last year, one of Hebner’s
team led a group of professional surfers and photographers for Surfing Magazine on a two-week photo tour of southern India. The legendary French surf explorer Anthony “Yep” Colas has included India in the latest volume of his World Stormrider Guides, while filmmaker Taylor Steel is said to be featuring the country in his next surfing documentary. And with the Surfing Swamis spreading the word locally, India’s undiscovered breaks won’t be deserted for long.
The best place for beginners is the Ashram Surf Retreat’s home break in Mulky, a sleepy hamlet near Mangalore (about 360 kilometers from Karnataka’s state capital, Bangalore, offically Bengaluru) on India’s southwestern coast. The retreat itself is nestled in a grove of palm and banana trees at the mouth of the Shambhavi River, so you don’t even have to load up the jeep to hit the water. It’s a long paddle out to the local beach breaks—named, in good surfer tradition, Baba’s Left, Tree Line, Swami’s,
and Water Tank—but if you time it right, you can ride the river current out and catch the tide coming in when you call it quits, a big energy saver after two or three hours of surfing. The jetty in Mangalore, which provides a more predictable wave than the river mouth, is about an hour’s drive away. There are also some interesting day trips available to the local Jain and Hindu temples, and the ashram has a boat for wakeboarding and snorkeling trips to nearby islands. That’s good news for would-be learners,
because, believe me, you may not be up to surfing every day.
On my first day at the ashram, I woke at 6 a.m. as instructed by Govardhan, the Californian charged with getting me up on a board. By the time I’d fixed myself a cup of coffee, I could hear the trumpet of the conch shell announcing the beginning of prayers, and then the muted beat of the drum, the tinkle of finger cymbals, and the familiar chant: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Unlike the temple worshippers that I have cursed soundly from ill-positioned hotel rooms in Indian cities from Ahmedabad to Lucknow, the Surfing Swamis don’t feel compelled to shout the house down to express their spirituality. So the service offered a pleasant, if somewhat surreal, soundtrack as I finished the novel I’d brought with me (there are no TVs or phones in the rooms). At 7 a.m. we hit the beach.
Looking back at my notes, I see that I’ve written “Baptism by fire this morning.” It was grim. The wash was murky from the churn, a light rain was falling, and the waves were breaking almost on top of each other, in some places crashing vertically into foam instead of rolling gradually toward shore. Again and again, Govardhan helped me drag the board—a giant learner model as unwieldy as a canoe—out into the surf, and again and again I was pummeled, swept under, and pulled into shore by the leash securing the board to my ankle. This must be what water torture feels like, I thought. I took it in 30-minute intervals, between which I stood gasping on the beach with a few fishermen, who evidently looked upon Govardhan as some kind of freakish water god. Even most of India’s fishermen, it seems, can’t swim; for them, the ocean is a fearsome place to earn a living, or to die trying. And here was a bunch of guys playing on it like it was a roller coaster. Even I earned some grudging respect for my apparent willingness to undergo a painfully slow form of drowning. Bottom line: don’t believe the “flat as a pancake” stories you hear from ravers back from a New Year’s trip to Goa, when the Arabian Sea is as calm as Buddha himself. India’s southwest coast is not only for beginners. It gets some big waves—up to six-meter breakers during the October–December post-monsoon season.
After breakfast, I slept most of the day. That night I had an audience with Hebner, whom I’d come to call Swamiji in his official capacity as guru of the Sri Narasingha Chaitanya Math (his 200-member ashram in Mysore) and the Ashram Surf Retreat. Like most people, I knew a bit about the so-called Hare Krishna movement, which is perhaps most renowned for its widely criticized (and now banned) fundraising efforts in American airports. But I didn’t know that the radical social movement had made a gradual transformation to something more like a conventional church since the death of its founder, Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. And I certainly didn’t know that many of Prabhupada’s followers, like Hebner, had been repelled by the growing commercialism of the movement and distanced themselves from the official “church”—the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON. Frankly, I’d half expected to find a throwback society of brainwashed freaks, though my morning on the water with the Surfing Swamis had already disabused me of that notion. Now, I was treated to the full story of Jack Hebner’s metamorphosis into Swami Narasingha, a humorous yarn that ventured as far and wide as the famous Morningstar Commune in California, Mama Papauna’s hellfire-and-brimstone Huelo Door of Faith Church on Maui, and some of the less religiously tolerant countries of Africa. By the end of the tale, at least in the context of India, Hebner’s beliefs struck me as eminently normal. He, too, was an easily recognized character. Citing the military careers of his father and brother, he told me, “I’m the saffron sheep of the family. The orange sheep.” Semi-employed, penniless, and free-thinking, I could relate—at least for a week.
Two days later, when the guys convinced me to paddle out beyond the break and I finally dropped in on a two-meter wave that I rode all the way into shore, I began to understand a little of the whole surfing-spirituality connection. Okay, my performance was more like that of Sandra Dee in Gidget than surf celeb Kelly Slater in Step Into Liquid. But even a guy who’d once bailed from the Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune because they wanted me to buy an orange robe could feel the vibe. For days, I’d been fighting the ocean—this omnipotent, amorphous, drowning thing—and now I was at once surrendering to and mastering its blind energy. It wasn’t hard to see how you could find a metaphor in that.
For more information about India’s nascent surfing scene and Jack Hebner’s Ashram Surfing Retreat, visit the Mantra Surf Club at surfingindia.net.