Over the years, I’ve attended many workshops with Krishna Das at Bhakti Fest. But the 2023 event in Joshua Tree, California marked the return of the “Woodstock for Yogis” post-pandemic. In the absence of the festivals I prioritize in my travel lists, I tuned in to Krishna Das, live, for virtual satsangs. However, nothing beats sharing space with hundreds of his fans under a big open-aired tent listening to his kirtan and commentaries.
"KD" begins his workshops chanting an opening prayer accompanied by his harmonium. His sets always include audience pleasers like the Maha Mantra, Baba Hanuman, or, “Jesus is on the Mainline.” His baritone vocals and instrumentation are trance-like, leaving you begging for more.
But for me, the highlights are his ad-hoc responses to audience questions. Krishna Das engages with the attendees with brutally honest comments peppered with sarcastic wit. Beyond the laughs, KD is a wellspring for explaining ancient Vedic wisdom.
Following are a few examples from this workshop in the high desert at Bhakti Fest 2023. I rephrased or synthesized the topics that arose from the fans but tried to quote his remarks verbatim.
The prolific Grammy-nominated kirtan artist, with 16 full-length albums, didn’t set out to be a new-age artist. In fact, his path to singing was a bit of a fluke. In the late 60s, while he was at Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram, the official Bengali kirtan wallahs were flirting with women. Since that was considered inappropriate behavior, the kirtan wallahs had to leave the premises. Their departure created a void for chanters. Krishna Das and a few other Westerners were assigned the role of non-stop chanting.
As KD recalls, their new job was to sing, but “there was nothing about when to stop. It was eternal. We had to sing hare krishna all f—— day. He [Neem Karoli Baba] forced us to stay with it. I didn’t have the option of changing the channel. It was brutal. Your mind eats you alive. After weeks, something happened. I’m singing, and the mantra started to feel sweet and soft—like home. And thoughts would come through me like birds in a sky. It was wonderful. I was just sitting inside the mantra. Chanting was like my blood transfusion.”
“We just sang Sita Ram for 20 minutes. Nobody, including me, knows what it means. In India, you see Sri Ram Insurance or Travel companies. The [holy names] are everywhere.”
Krishna Das often encourages people to let their heart, rather than the brain, lead them. Perfect pronunciation or understanding of Sanskrit isn’t all that important.
“I share [the practice] the way I do it. The name itself carries within it all we need. You simply come back again and again. There’s a longing to find something real. Until we find that, we’ll always be looking. But it takes a little while, which is why they call it ‘practice.’”
KD says, “Most people get born, go to high school, drink beer, and die.” But we can all be the change. Be different. Seek the right path, even if it’s not the easiest.
According to Krishna Das, the practice of devotional chanting is a natural high that not enough people in the Western world experience. Most choose an unhealthy quick fix.
“You can take any kind of chemicals, but you will always come down.” With chanting, the feeling of being high or blissful stays with you longer. The more you do it, the better.
“You were born here for a reason. In this culture, we’ve been trained to judge ourselves very harshly. The whole spiritual path is learning how to trust yourself. What we need is more love for ourselves and others. ‘Do unto others as they would do unto you.’ Start letting go. Slow down. Keep breathing. Everything will work out. In this culture, we have to work. Surrender to it and get on with your work.”
Krishna Das relays an anecdote about Ram Dass’ exploration days in India in the late 1960s. As enlightened as the author of “Be, Here, Now” was, he struggled to be benevolent and loving to all.
For example, “One day, he wakes up, and all the westerners had left him. He had no money to get [back to] Kainchi. So he had to walk for four hours. Ram Dass walks in [to the ashram], and the guy he hated the most gave him food. [Angry and tired] Ram Dass threw it in his face,” recounts Krishna Das.
There was obviously a tug-of-war between knowing how he should respond and not letting his emotions get in the way. “Maharaj [Neem Karoli Baba] told him to love everyone and tell the truth. Ram Dass said, ‘I don’t love everybody.’ But by the end of his life, he saw love everywhere.”
The moral of the story: “It is possible, but it takes a lot of work. If you want to find God, love everybody.”
Bhakti, the yoga of devotion, frequently includes repetition of the holy names. That practice is a great way to express and receive love without judgment.
Krishna Das tells the story of a highly self-realized householder (husband and father) in India. After his work day, he entered a state of samadhi for hours as his loved ones waited for their family dinner. But the sincere devotee “was immersed in love. I can’t get into it [samadhi], and he couldn’t get out of it [samadhi]. You don’t learn this stuff. You catch it like a disease. And it’s terminal.”
Krishna Das soaked up the teachings of his beloved guru in India because that was the only way to learn about self-realization.
“In 1970, there were three books on this stuff. In those days, you had to go there. It’s not the same now. There’s nothing in India you can’t find here. You don’t have to go anywhere to find yourself. The good news is you can find it. The bad news is you have to find it," he says.
"You don’t have to wait for a physical guru. If you look in the mirror, you’ll find your guru. [The word] Guru means someone awake. We are asleep dreaming. A guru is there to wake us up. The whole spiritual path is learning how to trust ourselves. Let it in. Find it inside.”