HUFFINGTON POST
01/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Surfin' Swamis: Catching Waves, And Spirituality, In India

NEW DELHI -- Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha paddles hard and drops into a 6-foot wave off the coast of Mangalore in South India.

As the 61-year-old surfer cuts left and races down the face of the wave spiralling toward the wastewater treatment plant up the beach, half a dozen local fishermen look on with bemused fascination at the aging white dude, who also goes by his given name of Jack Hebner.

Though India has 4,500 miles of coastline and gets 20-foot waves during the monsoon season, fear of the ocean and beaches that double as toilets have prevented surfing from catching on. But Hebner and his followers -- who call themselves "the Surfin' Swamis" -- are seeking to change all that with India's first surf ashram, or religious community.

"Surfing isn't just about getting in the water and catching a few waves," Hebner says. "It's about something much deeper than that. It's about a spiritual experience."

Hebner -- a Hindu monk from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, who doesn't drink or smoke and took a vow of celibacy 30 years ago -- isn't exactly what you picture when you think of a surfer.

But it's that weird combination that in 1991 brought Jack to India's southwestern coast, where he's working to start a surfing community that reveres the ocean, helps the poor and wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to chant "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna."

Hebner has been a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna since the early 1970s, when he became a disciple of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the controversial Hare Krishna movement in America.

However, like many Krishna devotees, he severed his association with the official inheritors of Prabhupada's American movement, the International Society for Kriskna Consciousness (ISKCON), not long after the guru's death in 1977.

He didn't give up his beliefs, though. He went to India, where the worship of Krishna, or Vaishnavism, goes back thousands of years.

With more than 200 Indian disciples in Mangalore and Mysore, Hebner has shown that Krishna consciousness can still find an audience among lifelong Hindus. "I'm like the saffron sheep of the family -- the orange sheep," says Hebner, whose brother and brother-in-law were already career U.S. military men when he began to float around Krishna communes.

One of the keys to respectability has been self-sufficiency. The American Hare Krishnas, best remembered for the bald devotees in orange robes who chanted "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna" in airports and bus stations to raise money for their communes, were condemned for their unconventional fundraising tactics.

But Hebner's ashram doesn't beg, they earn. In addition to renting rooms (and boards) to surfers, the monks do web design work contracted through a San Francisco company called Alian Design, and they run a Bangalore-based art gallery and a local bottled water company.

"We don't go out and ask for any money," says 21-year-old Kunjabihari, one of Hebner's Indian disciples. "To support the ashram, we start businesses. That's where the surfing comes in." Residents donate all their earnings from the ashram businesses to the commune.

By teaching India to surf alongside ancient monuments like the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram and the pilgrimage city of Dwarka, where according to Hindu mythology Lord Krishna is believed to have set up the capital of his empire 2,500 years ago, Hebner may also introduce the world to its last undiscovered breaks.

So far, Hebner and the Surfin' Swamis have taught about a dozen locals to surf, and they have already made a big dent in the perception that India's waters are flat as a pancake.

Last year, one of Hebner's disciples led pro surfers Justin Quirk, Warren Smith and Jesse Columbo as well as photographers for Surfing Magazine on a two-week photo tour of South India. This year the Surfin' Swamis will host another set of pros sponsored by Surfer Magazine. Anthony "Yep" Colas is featuring India in the next edition of World Stormrider Guide, known as "the surfer's bible." And surf filmmakers Taylor Steel and Dustin Humphrey are including India in their next movie.

Global financial crisis aside, the Surfing Swamis' timing looks to be right. McKinsey & Co. predicts that by 2025 the Indian middle class will grow tenfold to 500 million people. As Indians get richer, they're getting braver, too.

According to India Today magazine, the adventure tourism business -- including trekking, climbing, caving, diving and paragliding -- is growing at more than 35 percent a year, with the potential to attract another half a million foreign tourists.

Two of Hebner's Indian disciples -- Kunjabihari and Kirtanananda -- have already floated a company called Surf Adventure Enterprises that offers surf tours and lessons and sells gear online. The 20-something Indian youths consider working for Krishna the opportunity of a lifetime.

"My dream is to promote surfing in India," says Kunjabihari.

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