Ananta Govinda das is a thinker, musician, author, photographer and multi-media producer. Being a practitioner of Vedic sciences and bhakti-yoga for over 15 years, his presentations always blend tasteful artistic expression with eternal human values.
Below is an autobiographic interview with Ananta Govinda to the Vegetarian Magazine entitled “Vedic Renaissance Man”:
VM: Ananta, currently you are a successful Californian businessman, musician and a yoga practitioner. Please tell us about your life before coming toAmerica?
AG: I came to the US in 1994 from Russia. It was very turbulent times in my homeland, the old system of values was collapsing and the new ones were very obscure. I felt uncomfortable in that society and was considering relocating to a new territory. I thought I knew a lot about Western World, mostly from following the music scene and watching Holywood movies; I was positive that a better situation was available somewhere else.
I was 16, when I joined the world “ pen-club” and connected with many young people around the world by correspondence. They did not have e-mails back in those days, so I actually have to write letters, post stamps and then wait for 2-3 months for a return answer. I got to know a lot about life in other countries and made many friends. Finally I received an invitation from a French pen pal and traveled to Europe.
VM: Did you experience a “cultural shock”?
AG: I was not shocked, as living in Russia makes you well prepared to anything of this world. Even though I liked the difference in the visited places, there was a definite feeling that being an immigrant in Europe is complicated. Each country in Europe considers itself as the superior and there is always an attitude to new-comers as foreigners. I did not want to feel a second-class citizen, because I believed that I could contribute a lot. This is where I got to know about the land founded by the immigrants and decided to venture to the “land of the brave.”
VM: Was it hard to come out of Russia?
AG: Well, I was 19 and did not have strong economic roots to show to the embassy. They would reject my applications for a tourist visa on several occasions and I had to go through a lot of struggle straightening things to look eligible in their eyes. I wanted to go and see the place as a tourist, but they would consider anybody applying as potential immigrant, so I had to convince them otherwise
It took me almost 2 years of efforts and eventually the agency that was helping me with the paperwork called and said that they are giving up on me and that I need to come and get my passport back. I felt devastated. On the way to the agency I stopped by a Cathedral, it was one of the few open “ spiritual” places in Moscow. I did not how to pray, but intuition was telling me that I need some divine help to get myself where I wanted. That time was one of the first spiritually conscious moments in my life where I was trying to connect to the Divine. And it proved some immediate results.
On my arrival to the agency I found nobody there and was waiting for several hours for the “boss” to show up. On arrival he had this mysterious grin on his face and handed me the passport. I opened it up and saw a grin sticker of US visa in it. That was truly a divine intervention. “ You are going with a group that leaves in two days, better have your things ready,” – said the boss. I did not ask too many questions and left happily, wondering how miraculously things are connected in this world.
VN: Was it hard to settle down in the US?
AG: On arrival to US I landed in California. Coming out of freezing December I felt blessed breathing in the salty ocean breeze mixed with the sweet smell of eucalyptus and palm trees. As opposed to Europe I felt that newcomers were welcomed here and I decided to change my tourist visa to a student one. I enrolled into a multi media two-year college in Los-Angeles and dove into American lifestyle.
My saving got depleted pretty soon and I got fronted with the all-American dilemma: how to afford the lifestyle of freedom. I decided to move to New York, where, as the rumors told me, it was easier to find a temporary job. Spending my last money on a car, I ventured cross-country into the Big Apple.
New York was a lot different than sunny California and I got sucked into the lifestyle of a big metropolis. My strong desire for education got me into the hallways of NYU, but the money were long gone, as well as my student visa. I figured out that desire to learn is not a crime and would sneak into classes. I would come at the first day of the semester and act like I belong to the class, most of the time it would work out and I would attend school incognito. Soon my visa ran out and I became “ out of status” or illegal immigrant.
VN: Did you like America that much that decided to stay at any cost?
AG: I appreciated opportunities that “ the land of free” was offering. I really dug the open-minded disposition of American culture, it’s practical approach. But coming in contact with it a little closer I could notice some superficial nature of the things that were appreciated by Americans. If Europe was established on tradition that came down from generations, here everything was made to be used now and recycled tomorrow.
VN: Did you get homesick a lot?
AG: Naturally as a young man of 23 I wanted to be in a community. I never had lack of association with friends and relatives back home, but here things were difficult. People were fast to make connections, but deep relationships were not a custom. I had reoccurring dreams of coming back home incognito and surprising my family by calling them from a pay phone. I knew that I would not get another chance, so I shook of the dreams and moved on with a new life.
VN: When did you spiritual journey begin?
AG: I always felt a guiding hand on my path, but could not really identify who or what that was. I started questioning and ventured into the Bible. I was so moved by the example of Jesus, but could not connect that to the contemporary condition of the Church. I studied some Islam books and got connected with some hip-hop community propagating that belief. But when one day on the Brighton Beach I bought Bhagavad-Gita, things started opening up for me. I was amazed by the depth and consistency of this book, I could not put it down. Finally I understood that some big change in my life was coming.
In 1997 I moved from New York into a quite state of Virginia and settled down on a farm community that was surrounded around studies of Vedic scriptures. “ Simple living and high thinking”- was their motto. I enjoyed the ashram lifestyle and opportunities to learn ancient wisdom from actual practitioners. I realized that the things that Jesus and Mohamed were teaching could be called and unified by this one process of Bhakti-Yoga. I was delighted and absorbed this old-new wisdom while working on the farm. From that day on I am still learning, in 2001 I received a spiritual initiation by Radhanath Swami- spiritual teacher in the line of Vaisnava lineage. He gave me my name Ananta Govinda das – which means “ servant of the Unlimited One.”
VM: Does the process of bhakti-yoga requires vegetarian lifestyle?
AG: From the Vedic texts I have understood so much about the nature of the world around me. I also learned appreciation for all kinds of living entities, including animals, aquatics and plants. Bhagavad-Gita –Gita explains that the soul within the body of an animal have exactly the same experience of happiness and distress as the humans do. They may be not so free to make intelligent choices, but definitely would not choose to be slaughtered helplessly. Respect to the creation around me gave me a strong spiritual reason to never again use meat products in my menu.
I have also discovered and made connection between violence and wars in this world and mass slaughter of animals. Every year we celebrate Thanksgiving by chopping the heads of millions of living entities, how ironic that is? Our craving for flash and subtle desire to dominate over animal kingdom blinds us and gives us some illusion of justification. I believe that some years from now humankind will look at the animal slaughter the same way we see holocaust of the XX century now. I hope to live to see that day. On my second album there is a song: “ Hey, Butcher!” – it’s about that.
VM: Please tell about your creative side, how does spirituality help you in expressing yourself in music, photography and writing?
AG: I always had that creative side in my, got my musical education since I was 7. But I was never sure what I wanted to say with my art, doing just abstract always felt incomplete to me. When I discovered the wisdom of the Vedas I realized that the sources of inspiration are coming from the connection to the Divine. Some know about it, some connect subconsciously. Discovering unlimited source of happiness and inspiration I felt that my creative side finally got hold of content that was worth broadcasting.
After staying in the ashram community for 5 years I got into the LA studio and recorded an album “ Nuclear Angel”. The name came from a concept that deep within every atom of this material cosmos there is a conscious Creator, that orchestrates this divine dance.
I did not want to contract any corporate labels for distribution and decided to do it “the America way”. I invested in a traveling van, printed enough copies and ventured into the world, wanting to share my music with anybody willing to listen. It was well received; people appreciated this approach of an artist delivering his own offering. I sold about 23 000 copies of “ Nuclear Angel” on the streets and college campuses, giving them out for as much donation as people could afford.
By that time my legal status got approved: Bill Clinton gave amnesty to all illegal’s in the country, several years ago when Barak Obama became president I have chosen to become a US citizen. I am grateful to this country for the opportunity to find and express myself.
VM: Does all your family follow vegetarian menu? Who cooks in your house? Do you go out for dinners a lot?
AG: My wife is an excellent cook, she cooks vegetarian meals daily, me like home made dinners. I enjoy cooking on weekends when I am a little bit more free. I am good with making of rice dishes, my passion is varieties of vegetable dishes. My wife makes pastries and bakery without eggs and nobody can believe that. We often invite guests for vegetarian dinners and enjoy serving them food that is not only based on healthy diet, but also prepared as part of the spiritual offering.
There are plenty of vegetarian restaurant in the Bay Area where we live, we enjoy going to Café Gratitude and Herbivore, when we are in Los Angeles we always dine at Govinda’s.
VM: Please tell us about your journeys to India? Why is it that spiritual seekers like going to that country, what is so special that you see and receive there?
AG: I have traveled to India 4 times now and visited various parts of that country. There are many crazy things happening there now, but even in current conditions there are still nooks and corners in that land where you can experience lifestyle based on eternal values. In small villages and holy places people might have minimum education and sophistication of a “ modern man”, but they would know and live by the values of ancient Vedic wisdom. Their life would make so much more value and sense; their eyes would emanate internal satisfaction and happiness. We do not often see that effulgence coming from materially elevated people of the West. My two books on photography: “108 Blessings of A Babaji” and “ Tibet: self-help Guide into Cosmology of a Tanka” show many holy places and happy faces.
VM: Your latest album is entitled “ Wild Horses”, what is this title about; tell us a few words about it?
AG: I am very happy to share this new work with the world. “Wild Horses” took 3 years to make, production took place in 5 different countries and about 15 world-class musicians participated. It is a fusion of contemporary world electronic music with many live instruments like tabla, hung, dilruba, bansoori flute, fretless bass, didgeridoo, ambient guitars and trumpet. I composed all the songs with the help of many other singers, practically each track features a guest singer on it. Songs are in Sanskrit and English, we tried to blend Vedic chants with their English meaning. There are 3 music videos that were made to this album. I got blessed to work with so many talented musicians and producers on this album.
VM: One of the English tracks is entitled Dooms Day Parade, also there is an image of a Universal Clock on the CD cover. What is your take on the 2012 dilemma? You think this world will end pretty soon?
AG: Unlike time in both Judeo-Christian religious tradition and the current view of modern science, Tibetan and Vedic time is cyclic. What goes around comes around: the Universe passes through repetitive cycles of creation and destruction.
So the 2012-year marks a beginning of a new cycle. We live in a difficult time of Kali-yuga, when things are not easy and spiritual advancement is not a trend, but within these difficult times there is a Golden Age. It started about 500 years ago with the advent of the avatar for Kali-Yuga Sri Krishna Caitanya. The glories of this hidden avatar that descended in 1495 in India just now become revealed to the world. Parallel in time there was an uprise in spirituality all over the globe, most prominent was the Renaissance movement in Europe that happened exactly the same time.
Current times are very special, because what started 500 years ago must get reinforced and distributed to world. For so many years this self-illuminating truth was coveted from our eyes by the will of politicians and academia, but contemporary world cannot be suppressed by individuals anymore. Humanity is at the phase where the ones who choose to be liberated have ability to unite despite the will of opposing others.
The same way as the Italians of the Renaissance were looking at the culture of the Greeks and draw their inspiration for the new culture from the ancients, in a similar way contemporary world is looking at the treasures of the Vedic culture and uses it’s content to change the world for better. The era of Vedic Renaissance is knocking on the door.
VM: It is so inspiring to hear that good things are yet to come
AG: Some of the main thinkers of the Italian Renaissance were vegetarians by the way, including Leonardo da Vinci. He spoke about that openly and connected vegetarianism to spirituality.
VM: I think I just came up with a perfect title for this interview, thank you very much.
AG: From where we are in our journey we are always trying to decide where to go next, material nature will force us to move. As explained in the Vedic scriptures, spirit soul is eternal by nature, but by coming down into the world of matter it becomes conditioned. It does not loose its immortality, but becomes illusioned. Ancient called it the Wheel of Samsara.
It does feel that the modern world got a little dizzy with excessive materialism, not sure, may be because of the constant rotation of the Wheel of Samsara. I hope we can all take part in this Vedic renaissance movement and reconnect with the Universe within while getting ready for changes awaiting.