We descended through the deserted small towns of the Catskill Mountains, the six of us in Zenzalai's car, wending our way back to Manhattan, chanting in the call-and-response of siddha yoga. I was behind the wheel, because Zenzalai, the brilliant jazz singer I'd met during my week at the ashram, had broken her foot. The second day, Zenzalai had been rushing forward to receive shaktipa--literally "descent of grace," in which the guru transmits spiritual energy to the seeker--off the tip of a peacock feather.
"Om Namah Shivaya," we chanted: Om, the primordial sound of the universe; Namah, to honor or bow to; and Shivaya, Divine consciousness: "The Divine in me honors the Divine in you."
We stopped for gas. As I squeegeed our windows, a car pulled up beside us, packed with identifiably Jewish men: black suits, white shirts, keepahs, and varying degrees of facial hair. I imagined how the Hindu ragas emanating from our vehicle must have sounded to them, my ancestral brothers, and how I must have looked to them: Jewish enough, with wild hair from my weekend of chanting, meditation, and Siddha coffee, cleaning the windows of a car full of happy chanters.
I wondered what they would have said if I told them the truth: that one of the things I dig about siddha yoga's practices of chanting, meditation, and selfless service is the degree to which it enhances my Jewishness. There's an apt geographic coincidence: Shree Muktananda Ashram is situated in what used to be a series of grand hotels from the golden era of the Borscht Belt, for decades the domain of summering New York Jews. The sprawling campus is frequented today by yuppie seekers, chanting themselves into states of bliss, wrapped in stylish woolen shawls beneath the huge crystal chandeliers, but the place is still infused with the energy of lox-eating comedians, Saturday-night mambo contests, and shuffleboard.
The spiritual paths of Judaism and siddha yoga are also strikingly similar: a mystical journey toward God along which one's limitations are removed through age-old rituals. Realizing my connection with the Divine is compelling, but to be perfectly honest, I came for the music.
Siddha chants are based on the Indian and Pakistani raga (Sanskrit, "color" or "passion"), a melodic system consisting of five to seven notes meant to evoke different moods or atmospheres (rasas, Sanskrit for "essence," "taste," literally "sap" or "juice"), which are unique to different times of the day or night.
Devised by the Hindu sage-priest Bharata, who lived in India around 500 C.E., and refined by the philosopher Abhinavagupta, who followed Bharata five centuries later, rasa behaves like a prism, transforming the basic menu of human emotions (delight, laughter, sorrow, anger, energy, fear, disgust, heroism, and astonishment) into higher, contemplative aesthetic states (erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious, marvelous, and quietistic).
The strange Sanskrit syllables vibrate and purify body, mind, and the entire room. I like singing with complete abandon, gesturing with my hands, eyes closed, singing at the top of my lungs words that have been sung in such a manner for thousands of years, like the Hebrew prayers I once learned to navigate. I only vaguely know what I'm saying, but the music feels good.
My preoccupation with purification began when I went to Israel earlier this year to begin a new job. As the plane took off, I said, "God, I'm going to be 35 this year. I don't have another 10 years to waste. Please burn off everything that's not meant to be here...that doesn't support my highest good."
And that's exactly what happened. I just wish I'd asked for it to be done...more gently.
Jyota se Jyota jagavo
Sadguru jyota se jyota jagavo
Mera antara timira mitavo
Sadguru jyota se jyota jagavo
Light my lamp from your lamp, O Sadguru;
light my lamp from your lamp.
Remove the darkness covering my heart.
I followed the intensive with a serious, deep-tissue cleansing with elderberry concentrate and other such things, which was exhausting but beneficial, right in time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jewish holy days of purification and new beginnings.
Sometimes during a particularly vigorous chant, I'm elated. Other times, I'm not there at all. Some chants end too quickly, while others go on indefinitely. Often, I find it difficult to dispel the noise in my head. Mostly, I feel energized, loved, and ready to meditate.
This is a fierce, holy addiction.For those who want to sample the power of the chants, I own two different recordings of "Om Namah Shivaya," featuring Gurumayi, musicians, and an ocean of devotees. One version is chanted in the darbari raga, a nighttime raga, and evokes the feeling of devotion. This take includes synthesizer, violin, cello, bass, and flute, as well as the usual harmonium, drums, tamboura, and swaramandala. It is darker than the other version, to which I fall asleep each night is sung in the bhupali raga, much slower, terribly majestic, and which evokes deep contentment.
Millennial hipsters are voracious for the mystical experience, and ragas and rasas have started to color jazz, "world," and dance music with a layer of spiritual psychedelia. Although rave kids take short cuts with designer drugs like ecstasy (as did their Woodstock-era predecessors with less glamorous varieties), the goal is identical: to alter the body's vibrations and experience Universal Love.
On his 1990 album, "Footprints," Jai Uttal blends East and West by teaming with singer Lakshmi Shankar and world jazz trumpeter Don Cherry on tracks like "Raghupati," a traditional Indian prayer, and "Madzoub," or "God Intoxicated." Hear Cherry's pocket trumpet passing through classical Indian stylings and instrumentation of tabla, gopichand, dotar, and bells. Shankar's vocals are breathtaking (she can be heard on the soundtrack to the film "Ghandi"). On a practical level, the vibrations of "Footprints" have been incorporated very nicely into my chiropractic and energy work.
Uttal's take on the traditional Indian thing is inspired by his own grounding in American roots music, as well as in his affinity for Ali Akbar Khan and the wandering Bauls, street musicians of Bengal. With his band Pagan Love Orchestra, Uttal has given us six albums; now he has branched into multimedia extravaganzas. His newest CD, "Shiva Station," launches his show "A Night on the Ganges," which mixes dance, turntables, visuals, and chanting.
Whenever I listen to Jai Uttal or any music that invites me to go within, I get excited about chanting again and remember the Friday night meal I had at Shree Muktananda Ashram...and the funny, smart Jewish music lawyer at that table, who was also there for love and deep guidance. We immediately connected, and on the way up to our rooms, we began to cast the movie version of the Ashram, agreeing that Jack Nicholson would play the role of Baba Muktananda.