Surfing Swami: Interview with the Wave-Gliding Guru of India
“In the midst of the waters is moving the Lord, surveying men’s truth and men’s lies. How sweet are the waters, crystal clear and cleansing. Now may these great divine waters quicken me!” -Rig Veda VII, 49.3
In my lifetime I’ve spent a good amount of time with a variety of gurus and spiritual teachers. Some of these teachers I found inspiring, but many of them didn’t do much to stoke the flames of my soul-searching fire. In fact, there were a few interactions that practically extinguished my spiritual interest altogether.
I first heard of the “Surfing Swami” a few years back while reading a random surf publication. Which particular magazine the story was in I can’t recall, but the tale of the wave riding guru stuck with me and sparked my interest. At the time of my reading, a wave riding guru seemed like a self-contradiction to me, but I suppose that made it all the more appealing. I had dreams of visiting his ashram, engaging in spiritual practice, and catching a lot of uncrowded waves in the mystical east.
Although I have yet to visit the ashram, I imagine I will fulfill this dream of mine in this lifetime. As I wait for the seed planted in my mind’s eye to grow and bear fruit, I have kept my eye on the Swami, if only from afar.
I felt much gratitude to make contact with him and to perform this interview. I wasn’t sure what type of responses I would receive, but as you read on, you will find someone who truly loves surfing and has some amazing insight after years of devoted spiritual practice.
Zappo: When and where did you start surfing? What were some of your earliest experiences riding waves?
Swami: I caught my first wave on a rented board in 1963 at Jax Beach, Florida. I was 16 years old. Before that, I had ridden waves at Padre Island, Texas on an air mattress, but it wasn’t the same. Standing up in a little white water and I had discovered the love of my life.
Those early days of surfing are embedded deep in my psyche. Practically each and every time I go for a surf session at sunrise, I experience something like deja vu. It’s like I am there again, back in time, 16 years old again. The still morning air or slight offshore is an atmosphere like no other, something normal beach goers never really experience because they commonly get down to the beach around the time the surf gets blown out. In those early hours when the sun is rising and the waves are glassy and peeling off is what I like to call “the morning enlightenment”. It sticks with you for life.
Zappo: A surfing swami may seem like a paradox to many. In fact, when I first heard it, I was taken back myself. What was your life like before you came to the path of Bhakti yoga and what drew you to this path?
Swami: I agree. Surfing and swami, are in the ordinary sense of their being, a paradox. Total opposites really, even counterproductive to one another. Taking a deeper look, however ‘surfer’ and ‘swami’ is a silk glove fit — at least for me, they are. When I was much younger and hanging out with the guys at the beach, little else occupied our thoughts except girls and parties. I guess you could say that is typical of young men and especially true of surfers. I was certainly no different than the next guy. But then one day in Mexico in 1968, something clicked in me and I began to see the world in a different light- I met a yogi.
We were surfing a break north of Puerto Vallarta (on La Punta), and when I came out of the water after an evening session, there was this guy sitting up on the cliffs in a yoga posture. To us, he looked a bit twisted up, like deformed or something. We had never seen anything like that until then. We were not very experienced in anything other than surfing and parties. Someone pointed this guy out and made a joke at his expense and we all laughed aloud.
As we packed up our gear, I noticed that this guy was walking away down the beach. Curiosity got the better of me and I walked quickly until I caught up to him. We talked and he said he had just returned from India. At that stage of life, I didn’t even know where India was, much less know anything about Indian culture or spirituality. I rather boldly blurted out, “What were you doing on the cliff?”. His response was that he was “reaching for eternity.” To me, this was weird but provocative, so I questioned further, “What do you mean?”.
“Everything everywhere is made of energy” he replied, “And that energy has an eternal source — find it and you have reached eternity.” This certainly didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but his words pierced deeper than any I had ever heard before. My buddies started honking the horn and it was time to go. This guy on the cliffs had met a guru in India who taught him the secrets of yoga, and he was now traveling the world in search of enlightenment. This very much appealed to me. After that one brief chance meeting, I never saw that person again. But something clicked in me and my path was set. From then on, being in the ocean or anywhere for that matter, I felt like a particle of dust floating in an infinite ocean of energy, and the desire to know where it all came from grew in me day by day.
Shortly after that, I traveled to Maui, and in a place called Banana Patch, a hippie commune run by a local named David Joseph, I started the process of yoga and began to reach out for eternity. For reasons of my own, I was already a vegetarian (actually mandatory for the practice of yoga). While on Maui, I read “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Yogananda, and in that book I heard about three things for the first time — Bhagavad-gita, Krishna, and Vrindavana. Bhagavad-gita is a 5000-year-old handbook of yoga, Krishna (Reality the Beautiful) is the eternal source of all energy and Vrindavana is perhaps the holiest place in India. By the time I finished reading that book, I clearly understood that I needed a guru to guide me. For that I needed to go to India, but how was that possible? I was a surfing hippie on Maui. So, for the time being, I was content with my basic yoga practices (Hatha-yoga).
Yogananda was a Kriya yogi. Kriya yoga is considered a mystical form of Bhakti-yoga, and although appreciating Yogananda very much, I was drawn more to Bhakti-yoga than Kriya. For a couple of years, I continued on my path which also led me to practice Zen and Tai Chi. I even dabbled in Christianity for a while thinking that Jesus must have also been a yogi.
Eventually, all other disciplines fell to the wayside and I stuck with Bhakti yoga. Finally, I did make it to India where I studied under three renowned masters of Bhakti yoga – Swami Bhaktivedanta, Sridhar Dev Goswami, and Bhakti Pramode Puri. I spent many years studying Sanskrit Puranas, Upanishads, mantras, pujas, philosophy and many intricacies of Bhakti. In case you are wondering, celibacy was mandatory as well as following many fasting days.
In 1972 my master sent me to Africa where I traveled extensively from village to village teaching mantra chanting [sankirtan] and some of the basic concepts of yoga spirituality. I taught African locals as well as Indians [Hindus] who were living there. I ended up traveling and teaching in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Rhodesia, South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Swaziland, Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, Mozambique, and Madagascar. Then I was called back to India in 1975, and on the way, I stopped in Mauritius, Yemen, Saudi, and Dubai.
I reached Bombay in February 1976 and in March of that year I was initiated into the renounced order of life (sannyasa) and became an official swami. All the while over the years I never took my eye off of the ocean and caught waves whenever possible.
Zappo: For those who may not be familiar, explain the origins of and what is “Bhakti” yoga?
Swami: Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion, connecting oneself consciously to the origin of everything, Krishna through devotional activities. According to the knowledge of yoga, you are not the body which you inhabit. The body is made of material elements, but you, the inhabiter of the body, are a unit of pure and eternal consciousness. Bhakti yoga connects one to the original source of everything and once that connection is made, you enter an eternal flow of transcendental knowledge [samadhi]. Bhakti yoga is therefore considered the eternal process also called Sanatana-dharma or eternal activity.
Zappo: When I was a Hare Krsna devotee myself, many years back, I remember that we were not to falsely renounce our natural inclinations and talents. If you were a musician, you were to play music in service to “God”. If you were an artist, you should create art in service to “God”. How has surfing become the way in which you serve other human beings, the planet, and “God”?
Swami: Helping my fellow human being is what gives me the greatest satisfaction. Through the spreading of surfing in India, I have been able to change the lives of hundreds of people for the better. There are many very poor people in the coastal villages of India who have little or no future. Through surfing, I have effectively changed that for many and given them a bright future that they otherwise could not even have dreamed about.
Yes, everything can be done for ‘God’ – well almost everything. In this crazy world where people are prepared to kill for ‘God’ then why not surf for ‘God’? Definitely sounds more appealing to me. But the spirituality of surfing goes much deeper than that.
Once, while on the west coast of India just north of Chennai, our guru told all of his disciples present to go to the beach and swim in the ocean. One of the disciples ducked out and stayed at the ashram (residence of the disciples). Later, our guru asked that disciple why he had not gone to the beach. The disciple replied that it would distract him from his meditation and make him forget Krishna — to which our guru replied, “The sun, the sky, the ocean — all are the energies of Krishna. God is everywhere, so why should you forget him? Just open your eyes, he is always present. Now go to the ocean.”
For me, surfing as a stand-alone is not totally spiritual. If it were, then you would not have things like localism and attitude in the water. But when a surfer understands whose energy he is riding, who he is and the eternal connection between the energy, himself and the source, then surfing becomes something spiritual. The mundane is transformed to become transcendental.
It doesn’t stop either when the session is over. The consciousness of being in the presence of Krishna follows you everywhere and in everything you do. That is called samadhi or Krishna consciousness. Without knowing who you are, who the people around you are, who all living creatures around you are, it is not possible to help relieve their suffering. Having reached enlightenment, one is then able to serve and help all of humanity as well as the environment.
Zappo: You run a “surfing ashram” in India. How did this ashram come about and what is the daily life there?
Swami: In 2004 after having lived off and on in ashrams in India since 1976, I decided to open an ashram where surfing was part of our daily sadhana (practice). The day begins early at 4 a.m. At 4:30 there are various forms of meditation such as aratika, kirtan, bhajan and chanting the Maha-mantra on meditation beads (japa):
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
This is followed by a session of Hatha yoga exercises and then a light fruit breakfast at 7:00 a.m., followed by a surf session (swell permitting) that lasts until it gets blown out or your arms fall off.
The rest of the day is spent in devotional service such as cleaning, cooking, fixing dings, etc. In the late afternoon, there is usually a volleyball or a cricket match. In the evening, we again repeat the morning’s activities and sometimes catch the evening glass off. Dinner is at 8:00 p.m. and consists of varieties of vegetarian preparations both Asian and continental, followed by a surf film or catching up on the internet.
Zappo: I feel the ocean as an intrinsically mystical place and riding waves is a yoga or a way to link with the divine. Tell me some of your own personal realizations of the power of surfing and the ocean, as well as your thoughts on surfing as a yogic path?
Swami: Yoga means the process to link with the divine, so if surfing does that for you then yes, it is yoga. For someone else, it may be mountain climbing or something similar. If asked about the spirituality of surfing, most surfers will relate their experience in sort of a Zen way. In Zen, spirituality is impersonal, but in Bhakti yoga it is different, spirituality becomes very personal — divinity has personality.
Being that we are all individuals, as parts of the divine, we have eternal personalities. We may have different callings, but for some of us, it’s the call of the ocean. Yoga first began in India thousands of years ago, and as far as I know, I am the only one in India to ever make the connection between yoga and surfing.
There is a statement in Bhagavad-gita that says the ocean is a manifestation of the divine:
sarasam asmi sagarah
“Of bodies of water I (Krishna) am the ocean.”
There is also a statement that says predators like the shark (think Great White) are also manifestations of the divine:
jhasanam makaras casmi
“Amongst the aquatics, I (Krishna) am the shark.”
We have seen also how an angry ocean can claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of hours, such as in the case of the 2004 Asian tsunami, or how one can be maimed or killed in a shark attack while surfing.
So my realization is that the ocean, however divine, and any activity is done in the ocean either surfing or anything else has to be done with great respect and sometimes it is safer to know one’s limit and to sometimes keep one’s distance. Manifestations of the divine are not necessarily to become objects of our enjoyment. Great respect is advisable. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”
And what to speak of the over-fishing, whaling, slaughtering of dolphins and dumping of waste in our planet’s oceans? It is shameful. Our oceans are dying and humans are to blame. If people took a more spiritual view of the world, even a pagan view would be an improvement — then the ocean and the overall environment would not be suffering like it is. What people have to come to understand is that when the environment dies, we die with it. We are still as dependent on the environment as our caveman ancestors were –nothing has changed.
Zappo: A simple question: so how is the surf in India?
Swami: We have it all… beach breaks, points, river mouths, reefs, and islands. Somewhere all the time a wave is breaking in India and mostly unridden. What we don’t have are crowds, localism and attitudes. We (all 150 surfers in the country) are one big happy family.
We have waves for beginners and pros alike. Actually for pros to come to surf in India is a real treat, mainly because of the lack of crowds. Some of our secret spots have been surfed by pros such as Dave Rastovich, Chippa Wilson, Brendon Gibbens, Mitch Coleborn, Kalani Robb, Craig Anderson and others. In Taylor Steele’s surf film “Castles in the Sky” the last scenes were shot in India. In Taylor’s words, “We kept the best for last.”
Zappo: Aside from India, where are some of your favorite places you have visited surf?
Swami: My favorites are Hawaii, Mexico, Bali, and Maldives. But one thing persists that I cannot tolerate anymore – crowds. In the future, I would like to make it down to South America, but time is running short and I might have to be satisfied with surfing my local breaks for the remainder of my life. But no regrets – I have had more than my fair share of great waves in this life.
Zappo: What are some of the most enduring lessons you learned from a lifetime of riding waves?
Swami: Keep your head down, your mouth shut and learn to hold your breath for a long time – especially if you are charging big waves. In other words, a little humility please! Three things: Utsahan, niscayad, dhairyat – enthusiasm, confidence and forbearance. For success in any endeavor, one has to master these three qualities. Personally, I am also a strong believer in keeping fit and avoiding taking anything into this body that alters the mind such as alcohol or that disturbs one’s internal organs such as animal flesh, eggs, junk food, processed food, etc.
Zappo: Any last thoughts or words of wisdom?
Swami: A wise man once said, “When wise men speak, wise men listen.”
See you in the lineup!