Lorne Jackson

I’M guessing it happens sort of like this…two guys are drinking in a local boozer, gulping down pint after pint. Perhaps a few whisky chasers come into play in a cunning attempt to dilute all that Tennent’s Lager swishing about in their stomachs.

But all good things must come to an end, even Saturday night benders. Accepting this grudgingly, the tanked-up twosome sashay and sway from the comfort of the bar, out into the night, where the winter wind slaps them hard across their faces, like a temperance campaigner confronting a pair of naughty bootleggers in prohibition Chicago.

Our booze hounds are feeling the pain, alright. But, lo, what’s this they spy? An open door. And a shimmering light emanates from that door. Crossing the threshold they’re confronted by celestial music wafting down a steep staircase. The music draws the men forward. Upward. Climbing the staircase, they enter a room of chanting, dancing, frolicking and blissed-out fervour.

Have they perhaps died of alcoholic poisoning on this dreich and rain-dappled Glasgow evening? Slipped the mortal coil and entered the heavenly realm?

Nope. The drunken duo have accidentally stumbled into OM Sweet OM, a Hare Krishna Centre in Glasgow's Oswald Street, where a gathering of the faithful are in full chant mode. I’m one of the gang, as it happens, chanting along with about 30 other people. This being my first time, I’ve not quite reached the state of transcendental ecstasy everyone else seems to have tuned into with ease.

Which is probably why I immediately spot the drunks staggering into the room. And I must admit they’re making me feel more than a wee bit uncomfortable. What if the booze bruvs start getting brash, boisterous, bolshie… or worse?

OK, we’ve got them outnumbered, 30 to two. But if it comes down to a fight, they’ve got inebriation on their side. All we’ve got is spiritual enlightenment. And, quite frankly, in a scrap booze beats beatific bliss. Every time.

No Morris Dancers here

Luckily the night doesn’t turn violent. The drunks wobble amongst us for a while, their eyes wide like small children watching a particularly trippy episode of In The Night Garden. At one point they stagger over to one of the mantra chanters, who happens to be blind, and start to pet her guide dog.

But that’s as tactile as they get. Mostly they just stare. And there’s plenty to stare at. Before arriving at OM Sweet OM, I’d assumed Hare Krishna chanting would be laidback and passive. It’s not. For a start, there’s musical accompaniment. And I don’t mean the wispy twang of a solitary sitar. Blokes are playing lead and bass electric guitars while drums provide a hypnotic dance beat.

And, yes, plenty of people are getting into the groove. They aren’t performing some sort of heavily stylised dance ritual. No Morris dancers here. What I’m witnessing is essentially a bunch of rave-heads letting rip. The dancers gain energy and exuberance by grinning manically at each other. Coke-heads behave in a similar manner, though no illicit substances have passed anyone’s lips this night.

At times the dancing morphs into an Eastern version of a ceilidh. The movers and groovers weave in and out of each other’s giddy embrace. All the while the chant continues: “Hare Krishna… Hare Krishna…”

At the beginning of the evening I was told the chanting helps focus the mind on the immediacy of the moment. The person meditating is freed from the anguish of the past and concerns over the future. Although I’m enjoying the party atmosphere, I’m struggling to attain that desired state of being. I remain doggedly attached to my multitude of petty concerns. Even when the drunks leave, as eventually they do, I still find my mind chained to me. There’s just no escaping myself.

“Hare Rama! Hare Rama!” chant the faithful. And my unenlightened brain chunters to itself: “Harry Ramsden, Harry Ramsden.” Probably because the window behind me is open to the night air, and I’m finding it impossible to ignore the aromas from the kebab shop beneath OM Sweet OM, which are drifting upwards, and have now taken up temporary residence in my nostrils.

Though to be honest, even without the distraction and enticement of a greasy lump of meat speared on a prong, I’d still be hard-pressed to keep my mind focused on spiritual matters. There’s no getting away from it, I’m a gutter-grubbing sorta guy.

Otherwise there would be chaos

Unlike Ramunas Bucimskas who is a bona fide Hare Krishna monk who also answers to the spiritual name Raghumath. (He’s a flashy dancer, too, as I notice during the chanting.)

Once the chant and stomp’s over for the evening, I grab the opportunity to chat to Ramunas, who’s originally from Lithuania, though he left to study IT in Scotland. I’m curious to know if there have been any prior drunken invasions into the Hare Krishna’s devotional space. They’re located in a rowdy part of town, after all, surrounded by pubs, clubs and fast food joints. (Which is ironic, really, as the Hare Krishna crew don’t imbibe alcoholic beverages or eat meat.)

“Occasionally it happens,” says Ramunas with a shrug and a relaxed smile. “We want to keep a safe environment, so we make sure that if people accidentally wander in here, they never cross a certain line. If they’re in a friendly mood, we’re friendly too. If they’re a little more aggressive, then we have to be a little bit firm and ask them to leave.”

He adds: “Of course we’re a peaceable group, but we recognise that a certain level of violence is necessary in society. That’s why we have a police department, which we support. Otherwise there would be chaos.”

In other words, if things had got really out of hand Ramunas would have called the cops rather than attempting to fend off the intruders by thrusting a locally-sourced radish in their faces. I’m glad to hear it.

Beatific, Beatlish bliss

Ramunas proceeds to tell me about the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the organisation behind the OM Sweet OM centre. It’s the same group that George Harrison, that most contemplative of Beatles, supported and promoted throughout much of his life. They teach a brand of Hinduism focusing on yoga, meditation, mindfulness, mantra, music and a plant-based diet.

In the early 1960s, counterculture figures such as the beat poet Allen Ginsberg were attracted to their belief system. By that decade’s end it wouldn’t have been entirely far-fetched to label Krishna Consciousness the official religion of the hippies. The musical Hair even had the cast belting out the Hare Krishna mantra.

But I’m no hippy, and as I admit to Ramunas, I struggled to tap into the spiritual angle of the evening. Does this mean I wasted my time meditating?

“Not at all,” he says. “Of course we offer spiritual guidance. But there are many people who don’t have any spiritual beliefs whatsoever. But they practice mediation with us anyway. It helps them on a physical level and makes them feel much healthier.”

So did I leave feeling healthier? Indeed I did. For all of two minutes. The precise amount of time it took me to stride down the stairs of OM Sweet OM, turn left on Oswald Street, and bound into the kebab shop that had been enticing me all evening. Ten minutes after that, I wasn’t feeling healthy at all.

I guess it’s safe to say that I haven’t reached the George Harrison plane of beatific, Beatlish bliss quite yet.