Many years ago, in India, Krishna Das came upon a wise old man that could tell the future. He told the kid from Long Island that one day he’d be famous. Krishna Das immediately, added, “and rich?” to which the saddhu simply replied. “Famous.”
After some 50 years of playing music, Krishna Das finally got to one of the most famous stages. In 2013, he performed “Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya. For Your Love,” on the Grammys, and was nominated for the New Age Grammy award.
Krishna Das: The Rock Star of Kirtan
Even though Krishna Das has sold more than 300,000 records, and a documentary on his life was released this year, that was probably the first time most Grammy viewers had ever heard Sanskrit words of devotion. Janet Jackson and Miley Cyrus he is not.
For the Grammy performance, he was forced to keep his chanting down to five minutes, which may have been one of his greatest life challenges. With Kirtan, you pretty much go with the flow and encourage call and response with the audience.
You start nice and easy, like Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” and then rev it up to ecstatic singing before you slow it down, and finally, treasure the silence. “When you’re into it, there’s no time. You’re not thinking about it,’ said Krishna Das at a recent workshop.
Kirtan is organic. It’s heartfelt. The singing comes from the heart rather than the voice box or the diaphragm.
Kirtan is Heartfelt
“I don’t think of myself as a performer. This is my practice. I sing to that loving presence.”
Krishna Das’ initiation into Kirtan began in 1969. Jeffrey Kagel, as he was known then, met the American spiritual icon, Ram Dass. The next year he turned down an opportunity to sing with Blue Oyster Cult and followed his heart to India to learn from Neem Karoli Baba. He remained on the other side of the ocean for decades.
With Krishna Das, there’s no doubt that his music comes from his heart. In fact, he’s hard of hearing. When he left his guru in India, he said, “I will sing for you in America.” He didn’t make a beeline for the recording studios. It wasn’t about money or fame. He simply reached for his harmonium and guitar to sing mantras that moved him — and his audiences.
Kirtan is a Wonderful Healthy Drug
“If chanting is just a way to get off then it’s no better than a drug,” Krishna Das told hundreds of Kirtaneers at his workshop. “It’s much more than that. Chanting is really big-time stuff. It’s a powerful practice.”
In the Western world, we associate a yoga practice with twisting like pretzels and jumping up and down. But the physical asanas, or postures, or just one part of yoga. Meditation, deep breathing, relaxation, and chanting are all part of the Vedic traditions that are part of yoga. The true meaning of yoga is union, with the body mind, and soul being a part of that meaning. The more stressful a life one lives, the more balance seems to be required of the mind, body, and soul.
“The atmosphere we live in is kind of nasty. We’re living in a very harsh world. Our lives move so fast. It’s not so easy to find love and peace.” With chanting, says Krishna Das, “You spend less and less time in heavier negative states of mind. You’re letting everything go…categorizing…judging…the volume on this stuff comes down.”
“All I know is what I’m doing,” he added. “I’m just a Kirtan wallah. You have to drop an anchor down into your heart. My practice is trying to live in the presence of love, 24 hours a day. If we can’t clean our own hearts, we can’t change the world.”
“One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das,” directed by Jeremy Findel, was released this year by Zeitgeist Films. It was recently screened at the Austin Film Society. It has already won five film festival awards.