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August 30, 1999   VNN4615  Comment on this story

Renowned Rock Biographer Reincarnates As Hindu Leader


LOCKPORT, N.Y., Aug 30 (VNN) — The guru formerly known as Geoffrey Giuliano would like everyone to know that he's just a regular guy.

"I'm the all-American boy, " he said as he sat barefoot on a gold-plated throne in an old mansion on Market Street. He was wearing a raw silk garment hand-tailored in India. The mark on his forehead - called Tilak - was made with clay from the riverbed of the Yamuna, a holy river in northern India, and shows that he is a follower of Vishnu, Sanskrit for God.

"I'm a very ordinary person, " he said. "I'm more conservative than your grandmother. But, look, I'm in Lockport, New York, trying to start an orthodox Hindu temple - how hard is that?"

The Rochester-born, Tampa-raised Giuliano, 45, is a noted rock biographer and the author of 20 books, mostly about the Beatles. He legally changed his name to Jagannatha Dasa several years ago. In addition, the honorific title of Puripada was given to him by his students. In Sanskrit, the classical language of India and Hinduism, the full name means "Servant of the Lord of the Universe at whose feet rests the holy city of Puri."

"You can imagine what this town thinks of me, " said Puripada. "People think I'm another David Koresh up here. I do have charisma, but I'm not a cult leader and I have no intention of breaking any laws. It's only because of our location that all this looks odd."

These are some of the things that Puripada and his family have heard said about them: "That I'm a cocaine dealer, a devil worshipper, that we keep people imprisoned against their will, that we're stockpiling food and weapons for the Apocalypse."

He laughed out loud. "There's nothing going on here except a little bit of yoga, " he said.

"I don't feel we've been very well received by the townspeople. We're not trying to capture the minds of their children and they are more than welcome to come here and see for themselves."

While he has achieved fame as Geoffrey Giuliano, Beatles authority, celebrity biographer, record producer and sometime actor, he has been concentrating on his spiritual development and now prefers to have the world know him as Jagannatha Dasa Puripada.

"I was a man of great avarice, born to grab as much as I could with both hands, " he said. "But with this interview I'm completely coming out of the closet."

As his spiritual interests grew, Giuliano essentially developed two personas: one a veteran of the rough-and-tumble, tell-all pop biography world, and the other a gentle, religious man immersed in an ancient religion that rejects worldly concerns.

"We come into this world with nothing and we leave with nothing, so why waste your time building castles in the air, " he said.

But Puripada said sometimes he has to re-assume his old identity for business or practical purposes, for example, when he flies to New York City to see his publisher, or dealing with city officials.

"I've met both individuals, " said Lockport Mayor Kenneth Swan. "I've met Mr.

Giuliano, the author of several books about the Beatles, and I've also met Mr. Giuliano in his other form."

Swan said his office has had complaints about holy cattle Puripada keeps on the property getting loose, and there were some building code infractions, which have been corrected.

"Mr. Giuliano has been very cooperative with me, " said Swan. "We have an excellent relationship."

His Holiness Jagannatha Dasa Puripada, on the other hand, is banned for life from Payless Shoes in the Lockport Mall.

For his trips to his publisher - last week he took a $49 shuttle from Buffalo to Trenton, N.J. -- the barefoot guru will buy a cheap pair of shoes, since footwear is required on airplanes.

Before one such trip, Puripada said he went into the Payless shoe store in the Lockport Mall. Since his organization, the Spiritual Realization Institute, is registered in New York State as a not for profit religious institution and is exempt from federal and state taxes, he gave the shoe clerk his tax-exempt form. But he said she wouldn't accept it. When he insisted, she called the cops. Puripada said the police officers were openly hostile to him.

"They said to me in a sarcastic and angry tone of voice, We know WHO you are and WHAT you are.' It was scary. Then they left. The girl never did take my tax-exempt form and she told me never to come back. Banned from Payless Shoes for life, " he reflected. "Maybe that's not such a bad thing."

But Puripada has friends and supporters in the community as well.

"I know he appears to be a little odd, " said Gerald DeFlippo, a Niagara County legislator, "but he's a good person."

When a fire ripped through the old house two years ago, DeFlippo, who owns DeFlippo's Restaurant on West Avenue, took food to the family.

"They were people in distress and I wanted to help them out, " he said. "I look beyond the superficial to find the worth of a person. My philosophy is: As long as you believe in something."

Next door neighbor Paula McGovern said she has had trouble in the past with the group's unleashed Irish wolfhounds running onto her property. "But nothing over there has really bothered me, " she said. Her two children, ages 8 and 13, often play with Puripada's children.

"As long as they don't brainwash my kids, they're fine with me, " she said.

Police Chief Neil Merritt was asked for his take on the house on the hill and its inhabitants.

"We know Mr. Giuliano, " the chief said pointedly, and then stopped.

When asked to elaborate on that, Merritt replied, "No comment."

Lt. Ronald Vogt of the police department was a little more forthcoming.

"They're a very unique family, " he said.

Vogt said his officers have been to the house a number of times.

"Once in a while the cows get loose, but we don't have any major problems, " he said.

Puripada founded the Spiritual Realization Institute in 1994 in the 150-year-old, three-story mansion on 10 acres of land overlooking the Erie Canal. He lives there with his wife, Vrnda Devi. They have four children, a 22-year-old daughter, Sesa, who has a 2-year-old son Kashi and is studying recording engineering in Buffalo; a son, Devin, 21, who looks after the estate; and two younger daughters, Ananda Manjari, 12, and India, 10. The two girls go to a Catholic School in Lockport, which is the "most spiritually centered education" their parents said they could find locally.

In back of the house are two sacred animals -- a cow and an ox - and five peacocks, the national bird of India and a symbol of the Hindu religion.

Across the street is a parkland strip running alongside the Erie Canal.

Picnickers and passers-by are often seen staring up at the house, which is adorned with a 24-carat gold-leaf dome imported from India.

The house contains two opulent temple rooms with chandeliers, marble floors and 24-carat gold-leaf ceremonial chairs. The altars are adorned with $150, 000 worth of carved marble statues, lavish paintings and exquisite deities, all imported from India.

"This is our church, " Puripada said. "We want it to look nice."

Throughout the year, there are generally about five male celibate Hindu priests staying at the house, and other spiritual visitors come from cities like Toronto. There are more than two dozen Hindu families in Lockport, but only once did any of them ever visit the house, Puripada said.

"The local Indian families have not supported the temple, and that saddens me, " he said.

The only Indian in Lockport who occasionally visits the house is a Muslim doctor, Puripada said.

"Here we have a Muslim, often at odds with their Hindu brethren, coming to the house and treating the monks for free, " he said.

The house is protected by a state-of-the-art alarm system, including motion sensors and smoke detectors that automatically dial the fire department.

Huge, ornate gates will soon be erected at the foot of the driveway.

Many of the deities in the temple rooms were donated. Money to pay for the institute comes from donations raised during religious ceremonies and lecture tours the guru undertakes from Toronto to Jamaica. His frequent trips to India are paid for by his students or followers. So far he has initiated about 30 disciples, who have been given spiritual names and are now part of the ancient Vaishnava heritage, plus about 50 congregational members from across Western New York.

Although they have the same spiritual leader, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Puripada pointed out that his followers are not Hare Krishnas, members of a sect often seen at airports. But it's tough convincing some local folk that.

Most of the discrimination simply comes from the way they dress, said Vrnda Devi, who often wears Indian silk saris and has a Bindi, a small red dot, on her forehead indicating she is married.

"Our religion has to be part of our everyday life, unlike many Christians who only go to church on Sundays, " she said.

Her son Devin wears blue jeans and work boots, but said he sometimes gets hassled by the police when he goes downtown to shoot a game of pool. But it doesn't bother him.

"I enjoy living here, " he said. "It's made me a better person."

His sister Sesa said as a teenager there was some stigma attached to the family.

"We were misunderstood, " she said. "But that made me a stronger person."

Sesa has traveled all over the world with her father.

"It's been a wonderful experience, " she added. "I look up to my father. He came from nothing, and everything he achieved he had to work hard for."

Puripada doesn't smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs and he eats no meat, fish or eggs. He goes to bed at 9 p.m. and gets up at 5:30 a.m. For two hours in the morning he chants a 5, 000-year-old Vedic mantra, a repetitive prayer, saying in Sanskrit, "Oh, energy of the Supreme Lord, please engage me in your service."

"Chanting God's name is a very intimate practice, " he said. "Unwanted passions and unhealthy habits naturally subside and you find a peace of mind that deepens over time."

The mantra - a simple prescription for spiritual health -- is one of millions passed down from guru to guru from the Vedic scriptures.

Among the many holy books the SRI advocates is the Bhagavad Gita -- the song of God -- the Hindu equivalent of the Christian Bible.

There is no eternal damnation in the Hindu religion.

"We believe in reincarnation, according to merit - and I don't mean Chief Merritt, " he quipped with his booming laugh. "Your promotion or demotion in the next life is dependent on your behavior in this life."

His 12-year-old daughter, Ananda Manjari, received initiation into the religion last year in India. Her 102-year-old guru, Puri Maharaj, is the oldest and most venerated Vaishnava in the world, Puripada said.

Puripada said he wants to open a satellite SRI center in Niagara Falls, N.Y., with a reading room, small temple room and vegetarian caf.

It was his fascination with the Beatles that first led him down the path of Devotional Yoga.

"I was a lonely kid, " he said. "I didn't have a father. I lived with my chronically depressed mother. The Beatles were leaders to me. They spoke to me. When they got into something, I would take a serious look at it. When George Harrison became involved in the Krishna philosophy, I wanted to also."

Giuliano was 15 when he began seriously studying Bhakti Yoga, a spiritual science as taught by Prabhupada. Giuliano traveled alone to India and lived in the village of Mala in Uttar Pradesh in the foothills of the Himalayas for three years. He joined the Hare Krishna organization Iskcon, but left in 1980 when "certain improprieties of my god-brothers came to light."

Giuliano wanted to start his own organization, simplifying the philosophy to make it more palatable to everyday Americans, such as "letting them eat what they want." After several months as a follower, however, a person would be required to give up all meat, fish and eggs.

"The Bible says thou shalt not kill, " he noted, "but people fill their bodies with dead animal parts every time they sit down at the table."

When Prabhupada died in 1977, Puripada said George Harrison urged Giuliano to take another major step along the Yogic path.

"It seems to me you should think about taking up where Prabhupada left off and becoming a spiritual master, " Puripada said Harrison told him in England in 1983. "It looks to me like you have the right qualifications."

Before becoming a guru, Giuliano, in his first real acting job after graduating from State University of New York at Brockport, would become Ronald McDonald. The lifelong vegetarian was hired as the McDonald's hamburger spokesman throughout Canada.

"After a year of this, I could no longer abide the hypocrisy of being an ethical vegetarian, yet promoting possibly the No. 1 killer of animals in the world, " he said, meaning McDonald's.

The institute he subsequently founded has a board of directors, whose treasurer handles all money matters. Puripada said he holds no position on the board, collects no income and has no involvement in any of the finances or policy, functioning only as a spiritual advisor to the group. Everyday living costs come from donations.

"I never touch money, " he said. "There was me before, and there's me now. I have no bank account, no credit cards and I get no royalties from my books.

I lead a very peaceful, spiritual life and I'm very happy."

In his previous incarnation, Giuliano's books included "Dark Horse: The Private Life of George Harrison, " which Rolling Stone magazine called "evenhanded and soundly researched."

His latest book, "Two of Us: John Lennon and Paul McCartney - Behind the Myth, " has just been published by the Penguin Group. In the acknowledgments, Giuliano thanks, among others, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Giuliano/Puripada has separated his secular and spiritual life in the past, but now wants to cut back on the secular pursuits. As Puripada, he intends to continue to tap Giuliano's creative energy.

On the third floor of the temple house, there is a modern digital video and recording studio, where SRI, under its own label, releases CDs of lectures by various spiritual masters, including Puripada himself.

He's just putting the finishing touches on his first spiritually oriented book, "Savior Soul: Teachings of the Lord in the Heart."

The institute has applied to the FCC for a license to operate a not-for-profit radio station that would broadcast spiritual songs and readings, children's programs and vegetarian cooking tips 24 hours a day. It would be only the second Yogic radio station in the western world, Puripada said.

SRI has also been an agency of the Food Bank of Western New York for the past two years. Known as the Dasa Food For All, it is the only vegetarian pantry in the region. One room on the second floor of the house is full of cans and boxes of food for needy people in the community.

"Every day people come here and get food, " Puripada said.

The institute hosts a free vegetarian feast every Sunday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., preceded by a short lecture on SRI's philosophy.

Puripada and his family also collect children's clothing from Christian churches in the area, fill as many suitcases with the clothes as they're allowed to take on a plane and distribute them personally in the poorest parts of Bombay and Calcutta.

"On my last visit to Delhi two months ago there was a near riot as people rushed forward, " Puripada said. "I had to beat a hasty retreat for their safety."

In the summer of 2000, Puripada and his family plan to spend a year in India building one-room schoolhouses and medical clinics with money collected from wealthy Indians. As in the United States, his organization is a registered charity in India and Nepal.

"My heart is in India, " Puripada said. "I have little interest in America. I think of it as the un-culture. It is a country that has become fatally materialistic."

One of the reasons for going to India is to ensure that his two youngest daughters "are exposed to the true spiritual culture of India and therefore may escape some of the devastating problems that American teens are often exposed to, " he said.

Before the India trip, Puripada plans to embark on what he called an ambitious North American lecture tour, featuring several Indian musicians and a computerized multi-media slide show. It will begin in Los Angeles in the fall.

SRI's focus in the new millennium will be Asia, not America, he said.

"Lockport is where SRI got its start, and once we have installed the deities they cannot be removed, " Puripada said. "They must be worshipped twice a day in perpetuity. My plans are not to live permanently here, but the temple will carry on. This is not some crazy new religion. It's a 5,000-year tradition that has millions of followers."

Puripada invites people to visit the Spiritual Realization Institute at 735 E. Market St., Lockport, N.Y., or call the temple at 716-433-6322. Web users are invited to visit his website at www.neonblue.com/sri. Or, they may e-mail SRI at sri108@webtv.net.

1999 William V. Michelmore
All rights reserved, internationally.

[Reprinted from the Buffalo News]

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