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Krishna Das PhotoWhenever I hear Krishna Das chant I instantly relax–whether it’s in a three-person yoga class or at a live kirtan with hundreds. In that voice, underneath the hare rams I hear, essentially, “It’s ok. It’s all ok.” And I feel better

For the uninitiated, kirtan, which means “to repeat” in Sanskrit, is a form of devotional Hindu call-and-response chanting. Many gods are invoked and thanked–many chants can be roughly translated as, “Go, God!” And it’s often surprisingly rocking.

 

The genre’s popularity in the U.S. has boomed with the growth of yoga. And Krishna Das, a.k.a. KD, a.k.a. the Long Island-born Jeffrey  Kagel, is kirtan’s Bruce. If Bruce Springsteen wore the same maroon t-shirt with a plaid button down at every concert, had a self-deprecating wit, and the ability to disarm and engage cynics with jokey stories about sages and cell phones in sold-out audiences across the world.

 

The everyman kirtan wallah recently released a new, more rock-inflected album, “Heart as Wide as the World” and published a moving memoir, “Chants of a Lifetime,” about his guru Neem Karoli Baba. More than 40 years ago, KD had an awakening experience and says every last hare ram is dedicated to his guru and the love he gave and awakened. He recently took time from  his dervish-like tour schedule and talked about his favorite chant, why he doesn’t Twitter, and how we can clear the “dust on the mirror of our hearts.”

What does chanting in Sanskrit do for us?

 First of all, most of the day we’re not paying any attention to what we’re doing at all. We go through the day from one thought, one reaction to the next, and we’re lost in a dream. So, any spiritual practice that you do consciously, is going to begin to bring you close to yourself in some way. You sit down to watch your breath, or sing or chant or do asana practice, any practice is going to just naturally give you an opportunity to pay some attention to what’s going on. That’s the first level.

The second level is, in India they call these the divine name, the many names of all the different faces of God. And here in the West, that’s a little difficult to comprehend, because God’s not in our culture in the same way it is in India. In our culture, it’s a very good-and-evil, do-right-and-get-a-pat-on-the-head kind of God, do-bad-and-go-to-hell kind of God. That’s not the kind of God you feel very close to, or comfortable with or cozy with, you know?

In India, they have a very different feeling for the divine. It’s very personal, very loving, very compassionate, very caring, very available, very contactable, very experienceable in a personal way. The way I approach the chanting is [knowing] these names and chants are the names of that place inside of me which is divine, or which is love or which is truth and true being, deepest nature, our core.

And so the repetition of these names–which are, on some level, my own deepest name–lead me deeper into myself. And the really good thing about this is that you don’t need to believe anything first. You don’t join. You’re not converted. You don’t have to belong to anything. You have to do this practice. And if it feels good it means you’re touching that place, because that place feels good, that place feels like home, it feels right.



Basically every yoga studio in America has your music playing at some point or another. Why do you think that is?
I think because, by the grace of my guru [Neem Karoli Baba], what people hear in the chanting is that love. They get pulled into that space of being at home and at ease. It feels right, just like it feels to me. I’m just another person who hears me chanting, you know? That’s why I do it. I’m not doing it for anybody else. I’m doing it because it’s my life blood. It’s what I do. And of course, I recognize that so many people get benefit from it. That’s wonderful. Isn’t that great? That’s not why I do it.

Do you feel it’s necessary to have a guru or a spiritual teacher to walk a spiritual path?

Absolutely not. First of all, what a real guru is we don’t even have a clue. A guru is not a physical person like you and me. Even with my guru, his physical body, that body of Neem Karoli Baba, that wasn’t the guru. That was the vehicle that love lived in fully while it was there.

Everybody has their own guru inside, and that’s their own heart, their own being. The longing that everybody has to find that love and joy and happiness and live a good life, that longing is the guru. You don’t have to wait for somebody to push a button for it to start. It’s already started, and you can’t make it go faster and you can’t slow it down. Everybody’s unfolding at their own rate. Sometimes a teacher will arise, and the teacher is very different than a guru. A teacher is somebody who teaches you something. A guru is a mirror that shows you the love that lives inside of you.

So, you really don’t need anything other than to try to wake up in your life right as it is now. You don’t need to wait for anybody to tell you. You already have it. It’s inside of everyone. Without that spark of love, spark of God, or spark of divinity or presence, we wouldn’t exist.

The Hanuman Chalisa is a chant that’s very associated with you. What does it mean to you and what’s it expressing?

The Hanuman Chalisa was something we learned in India to sing to our guru because people used to say he was a manifestation of Hanuman–the monkey God who represents total devotion, total service, and total surrender to the divine. And in that surrender, you get the strength to overcome all adversity, for yourself and for others. Hanuman is like a channel of grace that’s always flowing.

Are we talking about a monkey jumping around in the trees in the jungles of India? No. We’re talking about the connection between our individual soul and the whole universe, which happens inside, because it’s all inside. For that to happen, all the dust on the mirror of the heart has to be removed so we can see ourselves clearly. It takes a lot of strength, courage, and effort to overcome shame and guilt and fear and selfishness and greed and anger and jealousy and all that stuff. That’s dust on the mirror of our hearts, which is why we don’t see who we really are.

The practice of repeating and singing in the Hanuman Chalisa is a purification practice that gives us the strength to turn within, because every line of it is what they call Maha Mantra, the names of God, the purest, most powerful, most direct mantras that there are. The Hanuman Chalisa is nothing but name.

To chant on your own do you need to set up a special space for it? Is it just as effective in the shower or cruising down the highway?

Nothing external is required. Every repetition in the name they say has an effect, whether you’re driving, taking a shower, sitting at a meditation on a cushion at an altar. It’s useful, I think, to spend a little time sitting quietly repeating the name by yourself just so you get more and more familiar with it so it keeps going on inside of you more and more. And you can pay better attention when you’re sitting quietly. But, any time you do it is good. It can be done standing on your head or on one foot, or watching television. Anytime you remember the name it remembers you.

The problem is that people want to see progress [from chanting] when, really, the real progress is all those moments when you’re not looking for progress. What happens is you spend less and less time in negative states of mind. But, it’s easy to see when we’re depressed and unhappy and angsting around. We’re very aware of that. But we don’t notice all minutes in the day when we’re not. So, over time, with these practices we spend less and less time moping and more and more time just being.

It’s very hard to recognize and quantize that, so people sometimes think, “Nothing’s happening.” I’m the same asshole I always was. Yeah, I know, I say that every day. But, I don’t say it as much as I used to.

Do you have favorite quotes, books, or music that keep you inspired and in your heart?
I read the life stories of yogis and saints. Also, I just got into this one series of novels that I can’t stop reading about a Chinese detective in Tibet. The first one is called “The Skull Mantra.” But mostly I like holy books. I like reading about the lives of these great beings and how they lived and what they did and how they moved and what they said and how people felt around them and stuff like that.

I’m not that much up on current music. I just don’t have the time, you know? It’s the same reason I’m not on Facebook or Twitter or anything like that. I’ve just got too much to do. Many Rams have to be said, you know?

Somebody has to make the Rams.
Somebody has to make the Rams. Everybody else can just do their Twitters.

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