Krishna Das offers locals a “chants” encounter with a night of devotional music
Song, spirituality, and celebration converge in the concerts of Krishna Das.In the past two decades, Krishna Das has been leading crowds around the world in kirtans, a call-and-response experience that is one part religious revival and one part cosmic sing-along. Accompanied by simple instrumentation, Krishna Das (or as his fans call him, KD) begins a chant and the crowd then responds in kind. While KD is the undeniable flashpoint of his kirtans, the collective joy and energy of the attending audience soon detonates the experience into one of melodic and mystical unity. KD’s repertoire ranges from “Hare Krishna” to “Amazing Grace,” merging the Ganges River with the Mississippi Delta over a drone of harmonium and the echoing chorus of the crowd.
The artist formerly known as Jeffrey Kagel adopted the name Krishna Das (literally, “Servant of Krishna”) after encountering Neem Karoli Baba in the early seventies in the foothills of the Himalayas. Simply known as Maharaj-ji to his followers, in 1973 KD’s beloved guru left the body but his teachings altered the lives of a myriad of fellow seekers including Ram Dass, Seva Foundation founder Dr. Larry Brilliant, and Stephen Levine. In a weird Hollywood moment, actress Julia Roberts became a devotee of Maharaj-ji. While on location in India, Roberts adopted Maharaj-ji as her spiritual guide after seeing his photograph during the production of the 2010 film, Eat Pray Love.
The Grammy-nominated KD has released a stream of well-received albums and has worked with fellow musicians including Rick Rubin, Sting, The Beastie Boys Mike D., and Walter Becker of Steely Dan.
KD’s 2010 memoir, Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold, is surely one of the better titles that have flooded the New Age/Spirituality market in the past two decades. The book’s strengths come from KD’s candid sharing of his experiences woven into his non-bullshit and practical views towards spirituality. Cringing from any sage-like limelight, if KD has a recurring teaching it is one based on humility, surrender, and the ineffable power of music.
I interviewed Krishna Das on March 13 via telephone while sitting in my car during my lunch break, terrified. Folio Weekly was kind enough to accept my pitch and publish the story which can be read here. However, due to the reality of the word count, only a fraction of our conversation was published. What follows is the rest of our talk. I am grateful for Krishna Das’ time, patience, and humor in answering my rambling questions.
Bliss Yoga, Midnight Sun, Yoga Den, and Yoga Mix joined forces to present “An Evening of Sacred Sound: Kirtan with Krishna Das” at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 4 at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, 101 W. 1st Street, in Springfield. Advance tickets are $30 and are available at krishnadas.com. Tickets can be purchased at the door for $40 (cash only). 514-0097.
Starehouse: Hey, Krishna Das.
Krishna Das: That’s me (laughs).
S: Can I call you KD or would you prefer Baba or Master (laughs)?
K.D.: KD is fine, Master would just freak me out (laughing).
S: I wanna apologize in advance. You see, I wrote these questions originally for an e-mail interview and they are really long. So if you feel like you are taking the SATs, please forgive me.
K.D.: That’s fine. All is forgiven (laughs). Fire away.
S: Ok. I’ll jump right in. While you are perhaps best known for focusing on Hindu, or at least Eastern-driven, chants and songs in both their lyrics and instrumentation, with your latest album, Kirtan Wallah, you really added some more Western touches in both a greater use of American instrument and the songs i.e. the blending of East/West with “Sri Argala Stotram (Selected Verses) / Show Me Love”. What compelled you to move in this direction for your newest record?
K.D.: It’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time really (…) you kind of go into this space with music and chanting where stuff will come through. I was just playing a new melody over and over again and from somewhere deep in my unconsciousness that song came up and I just started singing it. And I went oh, that’s nice. I think. Don’t give me too much credit, alright? (laughs) But I’ve always tried to use some Western instruments with my music.
S: I think you will dig the venue that you will be performing at here in Jacksonville. The Karpeles was a Christian Science church in the late 19th-Century and just has incredible vibes and acoustics.
S: So how long have you been chanting and leading kirtans?
K.D.: I started singing with people in ’94, which is 21 years since I came back from India.
S: So look – I’m out of music questions. The rest of my questions are pretty much about God and your journey with God. Is that alright with you?
K.D.: (laughs) Yeah.
S: In Chants of a Lifetime, you explain that you believe even as a child you were “seeking” something. Do you think this search for wholeness or intimacy with something is a universal human desire? Even though surrender to some spiritual practice is definitely a decision not everyone will make. Do you feel that seekers are born (or reborn) or propelled by circumstances and events in their lives?
K.D.: You know, I was originally going to call my book Memoir of a Failed Life. The idea was that I had failed in my attempts to become someone else, you know? (laughs)
S: Well, that title would have grabbed my attention at the bookstore.
K.D. Me too! (laughs) But getting back to your question, I don’t think those are two separate things. I think being born and reborn is being propelled by circumstance and according to our karmas we land in a particular time, place, and culture, with our particular parents. We have certain experiences in our lives that affect us in certain ways. I don’t believe we show up here with a clean slate, by any means. We are all works in progress. Each life we continue to fine tune our search. But the issue of reincarnation is a very deep and subtle thing to talk about. It’s not something simple. It’s very complicated and very subtle. But I am definitely on that side of the line you could say; I believe that there is some kind of reincarnation.
S: In many instances, particularly with the mystics, it seems that there is a collective precursor to their awakening that is actually born of pain or despair (…) and with Ramana Maharshi it seemed like his awakening began with a kind of near death experience. Why is this an element of spirituality? Some people seem to fall into God.
K.D.: Well I think some recognition of the dissatisfaction and inability of daily life to fulfill us is required. Some suffering is always there. If we ignore it and just keep trying to pile stuff on top of it, that doesn’t work. I think for different people it takes different things to wake them up. With Buddha, all he had to do was see a sick and old person and he said, “What is that?” Because he had been protected from seeing anything that wasn’t beautiful, young, and auspicious (…) so then he snuck out of the palace and he saw real life and that was it. Just one shot and he was gone. So it’s a requirement. Now, you mentioned Ramana Maharshi, however I have to say that in everything I have read, and I have read a lot about him, what you called his “near death experience” was not painful in any way. There was no pain involved. It was a recognition that he existed beyond and without a body. But it wasn’t painful to him at all. That’s another thing, he was so light as a being coming into this life that he didn’t have to experience the kind of suffering that most of us do every day.
S: Man, he got the Express Pass when he was just a teenager. Class dismissed.
K.D.: Well, I think the point is that everybody has experienced everything, or will experience everything, in the course of their journey. Some beings are older I guess and some beings are younger (…) you know, it’s inexplicable. For instance, they say there is ultimate reality and relative reality. Right?
K.D.: When you are at the level of relative reality, you are in the forest and all you can see is trees, right? But when you are on the level of ultimate reality, you are above the forest and can see above the trees and beyond the forest. So you have a different context for everything that happens to you. So like many of us, Ramana Maharshi was in relative reality as a boy. But as soon as he entered ultimate reality, there was a complete reversal, so to speak. As far as the storylines go, in relative reality it seems like a level of suffering is needed to wake us up.
S: Do you feel like what you call seeing “beyond the forest” is realization of the ultimate reality, what The Upanishads and the Gita would call Brahman?
K.D.: Possibly. Even though I have been in India for half of my life, all of these words can be – and are – defined differently. They are defined differently by certain sects and philosophies. Brahman for one person is not Brahman for another person. It’s tricky. But it’s a great trick (laughs).
S: Philip Goldberg’s American Veda really provides an eloquent and concise account of how Hinduism organically enmeshed itself into American culture. In fact, his book makes it sound inevitable. Why do you think our spiritual light bulb changed from 40-watt to 60-watt?
K.D.: Well, my guru never made us Hindus or initiated us. But in Hinduism, I found a tremendous wealth of joy and substance. But I also find that in Buddhism, Sufism and in Jesus Christ, although not necessarily in what is considered Christianity. I think when we came into contact with the so-called “Mystical East,” it seemed to have a much more inclusive context of why we are alive and what we should be doing with our lives. It just hits you strongly. There are people living a different way on this planet who are not just watching TV, drinking beer, and then dying. There’s a whole other thing going.
S: In your autobiography, Memoir of a Failed Life …
K.D.: (laughs) Right!
S: …you describe with great candor how you wandered away from your spiritual practice and into darker terrain. You eventually re-surrendered. That being said, my question to you is this: since then, when you have walked through momentary darkness or experienced a crisis in faith, how do you move forward?
K.D.: There are two things; first of all, if you’re doing some kind of regular practice, whatever that means to you, what happens over time is that you spend less and less time in negative states of mind. You may not notice that. It’s very difficult to notice. When you feel negative, part of the strength of negativity is you believe that it is going to last forever. When you are not in that state, you are just “being” and you might not even notice that you’re not in that deep, horrible place. Over time those karmic states arrive less and less; they don’t last as long and take you as deeply into the darkness. The work you do every day has a tremendous effect on your daily life.
S: But when they happen in your daily life, what can you do?
K.D.: Well, when you are feeling these feelings and trying to practice whatever you do spiritually, you’re making a very big statement: “This is not who I am. I am experiencing this and it is unpleasant.” When trying to meditate or chant or whatever you do, you are saying, “this is not who I am and I want out.” But again, it’s not necessarily going to happen right away. But sooner or later, it blows away. You don’t know why it came; you don’t know why it went. The way we live everyday has a lot to do with what comes through into our daily lives. You know, another thing that Ramana Maharshi said, which is a very difficult thing to understand (…) he said that everything that’s going to happen to us is written from the day we are born. And the only freedom we have is how we meet each moment; where we are in our consciousness as each moment in our life arises and falls away. This is our only freedom. We have no option over what is going to happen: if the tree is going to fall on our house, if somebody is going to hit our car. This is out of our power. But where we do have a choice, where we do have freedom and options, is where our consciousness is at the moment. How we are living each moment? Are we just completely asleep, moving from one stupid reaction to the next? Or are we trying to remember in some way? Are we making that kind of effort to be in the presence and in the silence within ourselves. So the more you are making those efforts the less those things have the power to overtake us.
S: So it’s really just about “showing up”?
K.D.: Showing up is the whole deal.
S: Do you do a daily meditation practice?
S: What do you do?
K.D.: I do all kinds of things. I do Samatha, which is based on concentration and watching the breath. Sometimes I do that with mantra or chanting. I chant the Hanuman Chalisa every day. I do those kinds of things every day. They ain’t fucking working, but I’m doing them (laughs). Do you have a practice?
S: Yeah. Every morning I pray and then meditate.
K.D.: What meditation practice?
S: I did TM for a minute but I felt “tethered” if that makes sense.
K.D.: Absolutely. I’ve felt tethered to practices.
S: So now I practice my “God-Infused” form of Vipassana. I just believe that the “observer” of my thoughts is God.
K.D.: (laughs) That works, too!
S: I would probably be a Buddhist, but I am certain there is a God. I mean, not in a dickhead and self-righteous kind of way.
K.D.: Listen, what you said is interesting. You see, Buddhists don’t say that there’s not a God; theoretically. Buddha never said there wasn’t a God. He just didn’t answer the question.
S: Yeah. For me Buddhism can be as confusing and fragmented as Christianity. There’s so much going on.
K.D.: Oh yeah, forget it. It’s way beyond (…) oh God, it’s unbelievable. Buddha was dealing with right now. He didn’t ask you to believe anything. And true religion, or any religion that is going to work, asks you to believe in something on blind faith. They ask you to try it out and see if it works. In Christianity, you have to believe that Jesus died and went into heaven; which is the resurrection. If you don’t believe in the resurrection, you really can’t consider yourself a Christian (…) at least according to orthodox Christianity. Personally I believe that Christ is an avatar and is God, just like Krishna, Hanuman, and Ram and all of the rest are God. But I personally don’t think many Christians understand what that means.
S: I believe that Gnosticism is just flat-out Vedanta from the Egyptian desert. But then if you believe in that you wind up a heretic once again.
K.D.: Yeah (laughing) once again.
S: Sri Rama Tirtha delivered one of my favorite God one-liners: “A God defined is a God confined.” And in my own life, I belief this to be true; it’s a shifting occurrence. Yet in hindsight the experiences seem like they are all simply synonymous manifestations of the same deal.
K.D.: Yes and that’s true with all of it. Even with chanting and mantra, for instance. Maharaj-ji used to say, “Go ahead, sing your lying, false, ‘Ram Ram Ram’ — one of these days you will say it right once.” (laughs) And in the same way, Jewish people say that you cannot say the name of God; because God is beyond any form. But the Hindus also say that the name of God and God are not different. And through the repetition of the name, you move yourself towards that place in your own being. Where God is; which is your own true nature. So they are a little bit more forgiving about stupidity than some of the other religious traditions.
S: In your memoir, you offer the following: “Devotion is a disease we catch from those who are already infected with it…I pray that it is terminal.” How do you suggest fellow seekers remain sick with God? What’s the prescription to remain ill with The Supreme Lord?
K.D.: Well the thing is, the longing is the infection. If you have that longing, it is all you need. There’s nothing else you need to do. You just need to be with that longing and recognize that longing. Embrace it and follow where it takes you.
Daniel A. Brown