Allen Ginsberg had read extensively in Eastern philosophy – Krishnamurti, Yogananda, The Bhagavad Gita, translations by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda of the Upanishads, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna – a collection of the guru’s conversations and “table talk” – and, of course, The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

His Blakean glimpse of heaven haunted Ginsberg, firing in him a determination to explore whatever consciousness-expanding methods he could find to recapture the visionary experience of that summer Harlem evening. And over the years he experimented assiduously with the entire smorgasbord of psychotropic drugs – psilocybin, peyote, ayahuasca, mescaline and LSD.

After sampling psilocybin with Timothy Leary at Harvard in 1960, Ginsberg became a fully signed-up member of Leary’s mission to turn on America. Canvassing his friends and acquaintances, he drew up a list of people who agreed to take the drug and report back on its effects – among them the artists Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, and the musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Monk was given 15 pills to take in the privacy of his own home. Five hours into the allotted time, Ginsberg called to check that everything was okay. Monk reported that he felt fine. A few weeks later Ginsberg visited the musician to get a more detailed account of the experience. “Well I took ’em,” Monk said, “but ain’t you got anything stronger?”

But it was LSD that brought Ginsberg closest to the taste of enlightenment he had experienced all those years ago in Harlem. He first took the drug in 1959, as part of an investigation being conducted by the anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto. Like Leary, Ginsberg saw something distinctly Hindu in the experience. He wrote to his father:

It was astounding. I lay back, listening to music and went into a sort of trance state (somewhat similar to the high state of Laughing Gas) and in a fantasy much like Coleridge world of Kubla Khan, saw a vision of that part of my consciousness which seemed to be permanent and transcendent and identical with the origin of the universe – a sort of identity common to everything – but a clear and coherent sight of it. Rather beautiful images also, of Hindu-type Gods dancing on themselves. This drug seems to automatically produce a mystical experience. Science is getting very hip.  

But LSD also took him on what he called

the horror trip, because I was trying so hard to get back into that Eternity that I’d seen before; so that every time I got high, when the first doubt came that I might not see “Eternity” … or the fear came that I might get eaten alive by “God,” then the trip immediately turned into a hell.

For Ginsberg, drugs had brought ecstasy – and terror – but they had not brought illumination. And, hung on the Harlem God, Ginsberg remained in search, as he put it, of some way “of making it more permanent, or mastering it or getting clearer about in my own mind.”

So it was that his thoughts turned to the East. “I was interested,” he would remember, “in what that older culture still had as a living transmission of spiritual and visionary energy because in the West there didn’t seem to be one.” In 1961, following in the footsteps of Charles Leadbeater, Paul Brunton and countless others, Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky set off for India in search of enlightenment. Travelling to Paris, then Tangier, Israel and finally by ship from Kenya, they set foot in Bombay in February 1962 – Ginsberg preparing for his arrival by smoking grass scored from a shoeshine boy in Mombasa and reading A Passage to India, the Ramayana and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

From Bombay, the pair made their way across India to Delhi, on the way seeking out Indian poets, indulging in morphine, opium and copious amounts of hash, and steeping themselves in the vividly colourful pageant of Indian religious life. Even Ginsberg was astonished at just how deeply devotion permeated every aspect of existence. He wrote to Jack Kerouac: “Everybody in India is religious, it’s weird, everybody ON to some Saddhana (method) and had family guru or Brahmin priest who knows all about how the universe is a big illusion; it’s totally unlike the West – it really is another Dimension of time-history here.”

In Delhi, Ginsberg and Orlovsky were joined by Gary Snyder and his wife, the poet Joanne Kyger, who had been travelling in Japan. The party headed for Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges, a holy town with gurus of all types and persuasions, and the ashram of Swami Sivananda. A former physician, Sivananda had taken up the life of a sannyasin following encounters with Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi, developing a form of yoga called the Yoga of Synthesis, and going on to found a mission called the Divine Life Society and writing more than 200 books on yoga and spiritual teachings.

Ginsberg and his companions ate the parsimonious portions in the ashram dining hall, followed the pilgrim custom of feeding the fish in the Ganges, and took yoga lessons from the ashram’s resident teacher. At an audience with Sivananda, the elderly guru fielded questions about the nature of dualism and the self with cryptic, non-committal grunts and presented Ginsberg with 5 rupees and a book called Raja Yoga for Americans.

Ginsberg wrote to Kerouac that Sivananda was

[a] charlatan of mass-production international nirvana racket – but actually quite a calm holy old man … I rather like him. Next day I asked where can I get a Guru? And he smiles and touches his heart and says the only Guru is in your own heart dearie or words to that effect and adds – you’ll know your Guru when you see him because you’ll love him, otherwise don’t bother. Well not quite that funny but that was the message.  

Ginsberg’s off-hand description disguised the fact that it was advice that struck him deeply, awakening his abiding reverence for what he would call the “sacred heart” of humanity.

Excerpted with permission from The Nirvana Express: How the Search for Enlightenment Went West, Mick Bown, Vintage.