How one American went from Hawai`i to India, and the surf culture he's started there.
A few months ago, we opened up the B on Hawaii inbox, and amidst the tide of emails from around the globe found one that caught our attention—from a fella who called himself "The Surfing Swami". Once again, the "B" network proved invaluable; we were quickly swapping stories of global galavanting, while hearing what our enlightened friend was up to in the surfing world... in India. What follows is an excerpt from our interview (conducted via email) with a long-time Hawai`i resident, who has since established an Indian ashram devoted to philanthropy, creating positive businesses throughout India and meditation—all through surfing. Read on...
Jack Hebner's first experience with the ocean was at O`ahu's Makapuu Beach at 9 months of age. He returned to live in Hawai`i in "many stages of my sojourn", as he puts it. These include a stint on Maui in the 1960s, when he first came in to contact with the Hare Krishnas, to Sunset Beach on Oahu's North Shore; Hebner lived in downtown Honolulu, Hilo and Waipio Valley on the Big Island before embarking upon Asia and the Far East—where he pulled away from the Hare Krishna movement associated with the group currently—focusing on the origins of the practice, which date back thousands of years.
Known throughout India as Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha, Hebner has made it his mission to get Indian people to see the ocean as something other than a giant toilet. In fact, every May, when monsoon season hits India's shores, twenty foot swells line much of the nearly 5,000 miles of India's coastline, and Swami Jack paddles out.
In recent years, Hebner's "Surfing India" ashram and surf club has taken journalists from Surfing Magazine, filmmakers and a who's who of professional surfers in to the swells off India's coast—secret spots—until now.
What follows it a part of our conversation with Hebner. Please enjoy. Namaste.
B on Hawaii: Your ashram, Kaliya Mardana Krishna Ashram, surfs. That's gotta be unique, in India. Can you tell us about your daily "duties"?
Jack Hebner, Surfing Swami: My 'swami duties' entail morning meditations, mantra chanting and Sanskrit studies in philosophy, starting at 4 a.m. Then I have responsibilities to a community of followers spread around the world [about 1600 in all]. For that I have to write regular articles on spiritual practices as well as a book every couple of years. Then I have to do a fair amount of counseling... personal issues for people, some in person but most via email. I sponsor and run a welfare program for "Street Kids" in India. I also sponsor the travels of the Mantra Surf Club. But when the surf is up... I'm good for one to ten hour sessions depending on how good it is! I surf for fun and spiritual gain, so anything between 3 and 10 feet in an uncrowded lineup suits me just fine.
B on Hawaii: Is it fun, or intrusive, to have outsiders come to surf your uncrowded lineups?
Surfing Swami: In 2009 Taylor Steel and his crew of pro surfers [Dave Rastovich, Kalani Robb, Mitch Coleborn] came to India for filming parts of "Castles in the Sky" and myself and a local kid named Kunja where their guides for about a month… showing them our secret spots and the culture of India. The film is due to premiere in New York in early May. My main focus these days is trying to boost up the surfing scene in India, find sponsorship for local kids, finance a film just dedicated to surfing in India, finance the travels of the Mantra Surf Club, getting local kids started in their own surfboard companies, doing pro surf tours in India for the international surf magazines, and basically just living my dream.
B on Hawaii: Can you tell us, briefly, how you got from the U.S. to India, via Hawai`i?
Surfing Swami: Well, I was born  in Texas, but my family moved to Hawaii when I was just a few months old. My Dad was in the Navy after World War II and we shifted around every couple of years… always living near the ocean. The ocean and waves were a part of my life from the very beginning and remained so throughout. My earliest memory is that of playing in the sand and water at Makapu`u Beach on O`ahu. I was just two years old at the time but the memory is very clear. The sand and the ocean were so awesome that the memory has stuck with me.
It was much later when we were living in Jacksonville Beach, Florida in 1963 that I began surfing. Florida isn’t very famous for good waves but it has managed to turn out some good surfers, not to mention Kelly Slater. I guess when you are a kid and the waves are always crappy you just try harder and learn to deal with whatever comes your way. Make the best of it and move forward… it’s a good approach to life in general.
Getting to India was a long journey and getting here took me to a few far-flung places along the way like Saudi Arabia and North, East and South Africa. I also spent time in California and Hawai`i before that and finally reached India in the 70s. When I finally got to India, I felt that I had reached home… home in the sense that I was among kindred souls. India is very different than any place I have ever been in the world. Some people say that by riding big waves you will find out “what you are made of” but for me it was my sojourn in India!
B on Hawaii: What remains fast in your memories of Hawai`i?
Surfing Swami: I surfed all the spots in town like Ala Moana Bowl and Waikiki Beach. After awhile I moved to the North Shore. I was a super skinny kid at that time and when the waves were really big I mainly hung on the beach and watched in awe. But in every situation I found the crowds intimidating. There were a lot of guys in the water with attitudes and that wasn’t the surf vibe I was into, so I moved to Maui in hopes of finding a more serene environment. Then, I used to walk for miles on a dirt road and then a foot path to reach Makena, on Maui.
When I got to Maui, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven! It was wonderful! You could find plenty of good waves, no big crowds and papayas, mangos and avocados growing everywhere. Plus when your cash ran short you could raid the pineapple fields and get all you wanted to eat. For me that was great because I was a vegetarian! I lived at a commune called “Banana Patch” between Makawao and Paia. The last time I visited Maui a few years ago it made me a little sad. The island life I knew on Maui was gone. I think that now Molokai is the only island left in Hawaii where you can still find the Hawaii experience of the old days.
B on Hawaii: Let's talk about the parallels between leading meditation groups as well as surf excursions in India...
Surfing Swami: In my experience meditation puts one in connection to one’s deeper, inner self for prolonged periods of time, and surfing is an outward expression of that inner peace and being in harmony with the environment. Both meditation and surfing each have different faces and similar faces as well. For example: Meditation is either personal or impersonal. In personal meditation one tries to become conscious of his or her self and in impersonal meditation one tries to eliminate consciousness of the self. Surfing, I think, is similar, but we don’t have well-defined terms to explain it. We had Grimmies and Hot-doggers in the day and now Groms, and Pros, but this only defines a surfer in terms of technical skills [hanging ten, getting barreled, off the lip, catching airs, etc.] What I am talking about is the inner commitment to surfing… when surfing transcends technique, sport, commerce, name and fame. I am talking about the types of surfers that surf for fulfillment—soul surfers. In my thinking there are two types of soul-surfers… individuals, those that surf for themselves and brothers, those that surf as a tribe, who feel connected to surfing as a brotherhood. Both are seeking inner fulfillment, one as an individual and the other as a brotherhood. As for myself, I prefer the personal path of meditation and the fulfillment of surfing as a brotherhood.
For myself, I found the path of meditation leading to the personal enlightenment and the brotherhood of like-minded surfers to be about as close to perfection as one can get.
When one will really become serious about meditation or about surfing is hard to say. I once heard Jerry Lopez say that the first 20 years of surfing is spent trying to decide if you are going to continue, and then the actually journey begins! I liked that… and the same holds true for meditation. It’s not a cheap thing—it requires great commitment.
B on Hawaii: Did surfing lead you to leading an enlightened existence, or was it the other way around? You became enlightened and started surfing?
Surfing Swami: I stared surfing first and although surfing was a real refresher for my consciousness, by getting in the water everyday just after sunrise and catching little glassy waves—the nights were spent drinking, doing drugs and partying all night! That was fun, but quite counter productive to any deeper inner realizations and self-fulfillment. I think most young people go thru a period like that. The problem is some never come out the other end. Anyway, it took me a few years before I was introduced to meditation and yoga. That is when whatever realizations I had thru surfing began to solidify and mature. Then the real journey began.
B on Hawaii: Tell us a quick story that highlights how special surfing in India is.
Surfing Swami: First, it is special because there are only a handful of surfers in the entire country; the lineup is never crowded and they are bonded together like true family. But what really blows your mind is the reaction that sometimes comes from the villagers or passersby that see us surfing.
One time we were surfing a spot called ‘Shore Temple’ on the Southeast coast and this group of about 25 pilgrims came walking down the beach. They stopped and watched for a few minutes and then began tossing bananas, pineapples and other fruits into the water in our direction. Then they started jumping up and down and waving their hands. A priest started shouting Vedic mantras and the whole scene looked a little bizarre. Suddenly the sets jumped from a modest waist high to a solid overhead and lasted for about an hour. The people kept jumping around on the beach and waving their arms and the priest kept shouting mantras. After a while, we came out of the water because we thought we might be doing something to violate some local law or something. When the three of us walked up on the beach, the crowd rushed us and started hugging us and putting flower garlands around our necks! When we understood that everyone was just super stoked to see us riding waves, we paddled back out for another one-hour session.
Another thing is that although surfing is totally new in India, the entomology of the word ‘surfing’ actually finds its earliest origins in India. Portuguese sailors in the mid-1600s picked up a local word from coastal fishermen that referred to the breaking wave— ‘suffe’. This word was recorded in the ships ledger and it gradually came into common usage. Later on, British sailors adopted this word ‘suffe’ but adapted it to become ‘surf’ and in modern times this became ‘surfing’. Do some research in an entomology dictionary and you will see that this is true. That has to be unique.
B on Hawaii: Do you teach surf lessons to kids in India?
Surfing Swami: Yes we do. One day, I was sitting around with a childhood friend of mine, Rick Perry, who I have surfed with in India for years, reminiscing about the stoke of when we were teenagers back in the 60’s and what surfing meant to us in those days and what surfing became for us as adults—when suddenly we decided to get the local kids into the water and riding waves. Rick really got behind it and was a huge help in getting things going. First we had to find the willing, or more accurately, we had to find the willing parents. Parents in India are for the most part deathly afraid of having their children go anywhere near the ocean. So first we had to conquer the fears of the parents and that wasn’t easy.
On the first day of lessons the kids showed up in their underwear and some were completely naked. So first thing was to get some surf trunks made. Then began the swimming lessons, which went well and most kids caught on fast. That was followed by boogie boarding and lessons in water safety. Then came the surfboard. We had one old beat-up 7’ 6” thruster and that was shared by the kids—bigger kids first! By that time the group had reduced to five boys. That was years ago. Now these five boys are grown up, surfing everyday, traveling to international surf destinations like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bali, Mexico and Seychelles. They operate an Internet surf shop selling boards and they also operate an India adventure travel surf tour company. More and more kids are picking up surfing every year in India and surfing is starting to take off in a country with 1.2 billion people! When are the surf affiliated corporations like Hurley, Quicksilver and Billabong are going to take notice of this I don’t know. At present they seem completely unaware of the surf related economic potential of India.
Did I do a good thing by introducing surfing in India or have I just created another passionate/crowded lineup with money to be made? Well, time will tell, but for the present it is fantastic!
B on Hawaii: Where else have you surfed that's a bit unknown for its surf scene? What were the vibes?
Surfing Swami: In the 70s, I surfed in some far out places on the Red Sea like Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. I also surfed in Kenya, Lake Victoria, Tanzania, Madagascar and Mauritius. Of late, I got waves in Dubai, Oman and Israel. In those days the Africa surf experience was a scene for total loners. You were there at those places, you surfed for a day or two and then you moved on. No one knew you were there but when they did they were all over you! It was just like those scenes of Africa in the ‘Endless Summer’.
In the Arab countries people stared with big eyes and asked a zillion questions when you got out of the water. That was the 70’s, but things have changed. There are actually many surfers in Arab countries now. I don’t know how they got started but I like to think that I played some small role in what has come to pass.
I was also in Israel for 10 days a couple of years ago and I was pleasantly surprised to see a solid surf culture in Tel Aviv. The vibe was totally mellow and the locals welcomed visiting surfers with open arms. As per my experience, there was no local ‘attitude’ in Israel. Surfers there surfed for the pure bliss of the stoke and they have formed a brotherhood around that experience. As I hear it now, surfing has spread even into the Gaza Strip which happens to be a super hot spot for violence between Jews and Muslims, but surfing is bringing people together in a spirit of love, trust and brotherhood. That is indeed a wonderful thing!
B on Hawaii: What are some of the unknown pleasures of living in India?
Surfing Swami: The greatest pleasure that I have encountered in India is contact with the people. Stereotype is a word that doesn’t exist in the Indian dictionary. Each person is distinctly an individual, non-judgmental and as forthcoming and caring as you can bear. Indian people are in a word very different than most western people in that they are open to you from the beginning and only distance themselves if you abuse them. They are tolerant to a fault and love peace and family above all else.
The other pleasures of India that I like are music, dance, culture, art, great food and more. Let me know when you are ready to visit India and I will happily show you around and we can get some waves together in absolute solitude. Namaste!
B on Hawaii: Sounds great! Namaste.