2016-06-30
Krishna DasIf you've taken a yoga class in the last five years, you have no doubt heard the haunting, gripping, soulful chants of Krishna Das. A hip 55-year-old ex-rock-'n-roll musician from Long Island, N.Y., Krishna Das went to India thirty years ago and studied with revered yogi Shri Neem Karoli Baba (called Maharaj-ji ), thought by some to have been the embodiment of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.

For Krishna Das (or Jeffrey Kagel, as he was known before Maharaj-ji renamed him), the experience of basking in the love and acceptance of his guru for two-and-a-half years was so powerfully transforming that everything since still seems tied to it. Today, he chants sacred kirtans (songs in which the names of God are invoked) in concert halls, large yoga centers, and healing retreats. Fans find themselves transported by the mix of Sanskrit lyrics and Eastern instruments combined with rock chord progressions and Bruce Springsteen-like zeal. K.D.'s chant CDs-including his most recent and intimate "Door of Faith"-sell briskly not only among the folks you'd expect (like yoga pupils and teachers) but among world music fans, as well as older listeners on an inner journey.

But for Krishna Das, the road has not been easy from there to here. Two years after his return to the states, he received a call from Maharaj-ji to come back to the East, but chose not to go. A few months later, Maharaj-ji died suddenly, throwing his American pupil into a downward spiral of remorse, drug use, and self-loathing that only the kirtans he now sings seem to touch and heal. Once he fully realized that his teacher's words were living truths that he himself had the strength to responsibly impart, K.D. became whole--and as a not-so-coincidental byproduct-his career took off.

Evolved, at peace with himself, and successful today beyond his wildest dreams (he has been called "the Pavarotti of chant"), Krishna Das presents himself as a man who has studied furiously, fallen away, brushed himself off again, and tried to stand tall or, as he says, "show up."

Beliefnet.com Spirituality Producer Amy Cunningham recently spent three hours with Krishna Das in a Manhattan Indian restaurant.

We have a ten-month-old puppy at home and he responds very favorably to your music.
Aaaaaaaooooouuuu! (like a howling dog)

No, really! When we play it, he looks at us as though something very significant is happening. So what is it like now that people are thanking you for your music?
Well, I'm just reflecting the love that my guru has and all the presence that he is, and they are reflecting that right back to me, so it feels great. The fact that anybody comes [to hear me] at all is always a miracle as far as I can tell. Because I'm just focused on singing whatever I'm singing in that moment. I'm doing my spiritual practice.

Do people ever tell you that your music heals?
I get a lot email from people who thank me for the CDs who've just gone through chemotherapy, surgeries. So believe me, I don't take this lightly. But I don't do it for other people. There are no other people. It's just us. We are one. If I was just performing, that presence, that grace wouldn't be in the voice for people to feel. It would be something else. Who you are is what you transmit. No matter what you're doing. So you might as well get that right.

What does chanting literally do?
listenListen to Krishna Das
  • Puja
  • Mere Gurudev
  • Sri Hanuman Chaleesa
  • The way I look at it is that these chants come from a place of being inside of us that's deeper than where we spend most of our time. So when we turn our attention to them, it brings us deeper into ourselves. Along with that inward motion may come a lot of experiences--happiness, joy--but essentially, those are side products of moving deeper into ourselves. These [chants] are revealed names. These names come from a deeper reality. They also say that the name and the named are the same. That means when you are repeating the name Ram, you are actually in Ram. We don't necessarily experience that because we are so attached to our thoughts and our emotions and our feelings and our senses. But the truth is--according to what they say--that the name and God are the same, which is interesting. You know, St. John of the Cross said, "In the beginning, the Father uttered one word and that word was his son and he utters him forever in everlasting silence."

    The silent name that resounds without end, that's the true name. That's everywhere all the time, so we're trying to find a way to dive down deeper into that place and out of this froth. And of course, with the blessings of my guru, it happens with a lot of power and a lot of grace.

    You met Ram Dass [author of New Age mega-hit Be Here Now] in the late sixties when you were twenty, right? Not long after Ram Das himself had had a life-transforming visit with Maharaj-ji. Did Ram Dass say to you, "You should meet my teacher?"
    No, Ram Dass wasn't allowed to talk about him. Maharaj-ji didn't want people to come. But Ram Dass couldn't help but talk about him because it was just oozing out of him. And you know, when I met Ram Dass for the first time, I then, in that very second, came into contact with Maharaj-ji, with his presence. And then, I actually dreamed about him.

    What was your dream?
    I dreamed that we were in my public school auditorium. And the place was empty except that on the stage there was this wooden cot or bench where Maharaj-ji was sitting. And in the dream, I just came halfway into the auditorium and fell down, flat out-in full pranam [prostration], and without even looking at him, I said, "Please, let me FEEL something. I have to feel something." And in my mind's eye, I saw Maharaj-ji get up and walk down the steps at the side of the stage, and put his hand on the back of my head while I'm still flat on the floor. And then I started to calm down. And then this bliss started to run through me.


    When you finally got your letter of introduction and met Maharaj-ji, how were you treated?
    Like family. We weren't all made to dress alike or act alike. Nothing was required. You didn't have to do seva, or service, to get into the temple. He said, "This is not an ashram. This is your grandfather's house." Of course, you could come only if he let you stay. And you never knew what he would do.

    So what would you do? You would meditate, or what?
    No, no. We'd just hang out with him as much as we could. When you're in love, do you have to read a manual on how to be in love? We were crazed for him. We couldn't focus on anything else. That's the way it is. Is, not was. That same thing is going on now. You know, Mohon--the name of Krishna--means "He who causes the whole universe to be fascinated," and in so doing, liberates everyone from their worldly concerns by ripping their minds and hearts off, where you can't think of anything else. This is Bhakti yoga. This is devotional yoga. He never encouraged--for lack of a better word--egocentric spiritual practices, practices that are designed to get you to enlightenment.

    Like thinking, "Hey, I meditated well today"?
    Exactly. He never encouraged using that kind of willfulness. It had to be a natural magnetic attraction. You have to be doing things because you want to do them. Not because you think they are good for you. You are falling in love with who you really are. You are falling in love with what lives within you. And when we were with Maharaj-ji that way, he ravished you with his beauty. You could not take your eyes off him!

    There's no difference now. When I sing with a thousand people, it's no different than singing for him, alone in a room and singing for him. It's that presence that I'm singing to and entering into, not his personality presence, but the presence of that love, that compassion, that sweetness.

    You stayed there for two-and-a-half years. Why did you leave?
    He sent me home. It's a long story. He recognized I had work to do. The other thing about my time in India was that I was celibate, and that was prime time--age 23 to 26--and I was really tightly wound. I had so much pressure inside of myself from the stuff that I was avoiding. He could see that. All those uncooked seeds remained in there. But look at the comfort people are getting today from the chanting! That's all his doing. He knew that then, and he knew that I needed to get my sh-t together in order to be able to do what I'm doing now.

    So there I was leaving India, dumbfounded, my mind was on a blink. It was a crazy scene. He's talking to about twenty people. Then he turned to me and said, "So how will you serve me?" And I looked at him and I just couldn't say anything. And he just laughed. Then I had to go, so I got up and pranam-ed and walked across the courtyard and bowed down to him for the last time and as I was bowing, I heard words in my own voice in my head say, "I will sing to you in America." I heard those words. It wasn't me saying it. But it was my own voice. So that's what I was going to do. BUT it took me until 1994 to start singing to him in America.

    And this happened in 1973?
    Yep. Talk about the dark night of the soul. I've had the dark life of the soul. So much darkness, so much shadow. This is why he sent me home. I had this attachment. And he himself saved me. I can't tell you clearly enough and in enough ways, I was helpless. I was without the ability to help myself. And he came back, moved in and opened me up. He moved in like a bulldozer to get back into my heart which had been clamped down so shut.

    After his death?
    Yeah, this was in 1984, years after his death, I was back in India, visiting. And I was at an especially low point. I had just quit doing coke and I had been strung out on freebase for about a year and a half. I had just recently stopped that and I was really in bad shape. Terrible. You see, I couldn't do anything bad before I met him because I wasn't strong enough. All the trouble I got into was later.

    When you finally began to chant before audiences, you sang the chants as you'd learned them, right? And then you changed them.
    The chants have only changed because I have changed. It was not a conscious decision to make music or present something that bridges two cultures. The more natural I've become, and the more I've allowed myself to love myself and be good to myself, things just find their own way of expressing. It's the same mantra--Shri Ram Jai Ram, Hare Krishna--it's the same words because those words are sacred sounds. But the shape they take, there's no reason it has to be Indian musically. God is not Indian. And even though these names come from Vedic culture, they've come through the culture.

    So you made them yours?
    listenListen to Krishna Das
  • Puja
  • Mere Gurudev
  • Sri Hanuman Chaleesa

  • They made me theirs! You know, I have very limited capabilities on almost every level. And musically, I'm very limited in what I can do. I have a nice voice. And the voice is actually a medium for that flow, that presence. But still, from a musical point of view, it's limited. I know that I can't do anything to help the world very much. I don't know anything about politics. I don't know anything about religion, really. I know how to travel! [laughs] And I know that home base is in front of the altar and in front of the harmonium [the Indian instrument that he plays].

    BUT because this very limited thing that I do is my path, I'm actually getting more one-pointed, more concentrated in my path. Right now, every bit of waning energy that I have, I am compelled to put toward practice. And the older I get, the more I realize that if you don't have realization within you, you better get it. Because we have no place else to turn to. We have to look within ourselves. We can't be hoping. We have to have real faith, not hope. We've got to have living faith.

    And sooner or later, the universe will satisfy all your desires. All the things you want, you will get.

    I'm getting all the love and all the affection, everything. But now it's coming via Maharaj-ji. This is how he does things. Your life could look very much the same, but it's totally different because the motivation is totally different.

    When you say these things come through Maharaj-ji, you don't mean the man you studied with in India, do you? You mean...
    I mean the big Maharaj-ji, not the one I knew in the body, but the being that inhabited that body. That being was never born and never died. It's always present. That being is our true nature, it's who we are. God. But that Maharaj-ji in the body was a very nice suit of clothes and I would kill just to be in the same place with him right now, just the way I would have then. Even though I know that there is a big Maharaj-ji now, which I didn't know for a long time.

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