Still humble after all these years.
Krishna Das has been called the “Chant Master of American Yoga” by The New York Times and “Pavarotti of Kirtan” by Yoga Journal and is notable for making sacred Indian chant music accessible to Western listeners.
The story of his spiritual path and finding his beloved guru, Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji), is well documented in his excellent book “Chants of a Lifetime” and his soon to be released documentary, One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das. He is the best selling chant artist of all time with over 300,000 records sold and his album LIVE ANANDA, was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Age Album of 2012.
I had a chance to catch up with my favorite kirtan wallah (one who leads call and response chanting of the Divine Name), Krishna Das (KD), at his Yoga of Chant Retreat in the Bahamas.
Was he changed by his Grammy nomination, the new movie, and all the accolades recently bestowed upon him? Not at all, the same KD strolled in barefoot, wearing his well worn signature Hanuman red t-shirt with his sense of humor and humility still intact.
My iPad and mind were filled with many questions that I wanted to ask, but as the interview went on, I put down my iPad and the importance of those questions seemed to disappear. My mind became still, and I was able to be present and gain a tremendous amount from his wisdom.
Krishna Das has an amazing ability to clear through the BS and deliver simple, no-nonsense, spiritual guidance. He holds up a mirror and shows me my distractions and reminds me of who I am and the simplicity of this spiritual walk.
The message from his guru is simple: serve people, feed people, and remember God.
Krishna Das attended the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz with Bernie Glassman (world-renowned pioneer in the American Zen Movement) and the Zen Peacemakers organization. The retreat is a multi-faith and multinational, with a strong focus on the Zen Peacemakers’ Three Tenets: Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Loving Action. Most of each day is spent sitting by the train tracks at Birkenau, both in silence and in chanting the names of the dead.
Melissa Codispoti (MC): Would you be willing to discuss your visit to Auschwitz?
Krishna Das (KD): Yeah sure. (He closes his eyes and takes in a deep breath and as I watch his body language and facial expressions, I know that he was profoundly changed by the experience.) Powerful. Very, Very Powerful.
On the most basic level, being born Jewish on Long Island, we didn’t know anything about Auschwitz, about the Holocaust, nobody talked about it. Nobody. I wondered what affect it would have on me, on my feelings about being Jewish, and on that level it really didn’t. It was so much deeper. I couldn’t have imagined it would be so powerful.
The idea to bear witness as a spiritual practice came from Bernie Glassman. When faced with the brutality and unbelievable horror that occurred there, bearing witness doesn’t mean go cry your ass off and moan and groan. The reason it is a practice is because you have to process that stuff for the sake of those beings that went through that. Bernie lives in a state of bearing witness, which allowed that space to unfold and open.
There was a lot of crying and anger. I would look up at the sun and say, “How the fuck can you rise over this place? How dare your rise over this place?” The sun just kept going and it rose the next day, and the next day, and all of the days between then and now it has risen.
You have to expand into that kind of awareness, beyond good and evil or beyond our ideas of good and evil. Your heart has to really widen. You have to allow it to be, even though you can’t imagine you could ever really do that.
It was so beautiful, green, golden leaves on the trees and our guide explained to us “Do you see all of this green and the leaves on the trees? In those times there was nothing. People ate every bit of grass, leaf and bark they could find, because they had no food.”
It wrenches your heart, it squeezes it, it twists it like a piece of laundry.
Finally, hopefully, you’re able to really be with it. To be present and react in a way that allows you to offer your heart to those people who went through that. Otherwise you’re just an emotional basket case, which is not the point of that retreat or the bearing witness practice.
I’ve said this to people and they don’t believe me, but I will say it again, “If I had been born in Germany, as a son of a Nazi and raised as a Nazi, and had a job as a camp guard. I would have been just like those people. There is no guarantee that I would have been any different. You can’t prove to me that I would be less cruel then those bastards that were there and that is an extraordinarily humbling feeling.”
This is humanity. This is who we are, it is in each one of us. We have to accept that.
Given the situation, given the right stimulus or the wrong stimulus we could all be monsters in a minute.
It is the seeds of developing real compassion when you choose to accept things as they are, without turning away because it is too painful. If it is too painful, then you are taking it too personally. Which means you’re taking pain in you ego and that is very selfish, because that is not the place the pain lives.
It is bigger than that. It is so all encompassing and everybody suffers. The overriding song of this world is one of pain, suffering and dissatisfaction. The amount of people who aren’t undergoing tortures in their lives is very small.
There is a large percentage of people who just numb themselves out completely and that will not lead to anything good in our future. To wake up and be present with all the pain without it killing you, that is the practice. It is what bearing witness is all about.
You could say that it’s just good luck that I wasn’t born there, but it is also the karmic situation. I wasn’t born there because I didn’t, this time, need to be born there and be that person this life. I am very happy for that.
We would spend all day in the camps, 10-4, rain or snow. There was only one cloudy, drizzly day, but if it had been snowing 40 feet of snow, we would have been there, because they were there. The retreat starts in Krakow (Poland), you leave your hotel with all of your belongings and walk through the streets carrying your suitcases to the bus, because that’s what they did. They could only take what they could carry out. They had to leave everything behind and walk to the streets, to the bus, that would take them to the camp.
MC: Do you feel at this point in your life that you are fully Krishna Das or is there some “Jeff” (KD’s birth name) left in there?
KD: (chuckling) Krishna Das would be my aspiration, to be a servant of god, to be a servant of love 24/7. Obviously, I am not that, but I am working on it.
MC: So there is a bit of Jeff left?
KD: There is plenty of Jeff. But, Jeff is not a bad guy necessarily. I have to learn to love him more.
MC: “Learn to love him more,” I love that! You and Nina Rao recently collaborated on her CD Antarayaami-Knower of All Hearts, do you view yourself as a nurturer?
KD: Not especially. I don’t view myself much at all. I try just to be.
I don’t think about my effect on people. If I thought about that, it would be like mental masturbation and what is the sense of that?
I want to sing. I want to live in that love as much as I can. Why would I want to think about myself that way? It is a sidetrack.
I’m not blind, but I don’t dwell on it because it’s not the point. The point is inviting people in to that place. They are not going to come in, if that place is full of you thinking about yourself all the time.
MC: Have you gotten to a place where you’re not thinking about yourself all the time?
KD: (laughing) Only when I’m not thinking about myself.
The real teachings are so simple that nobody gives them any respect. Maharaj-ji said it over and over serve people, feed people, and remember God. He used to say that through the repetition of the names, everything would be brought to completion.
We heard him a million times, but we didn’t understand. I’m still just beginning to understand.
He never said to think about yourself. He never encouraged us to do spiritual practice for the sake of our supposed enlightenment. Just serve people. Don’t think about it.
It is too hard for people, because all we do is think about it. “Should I do this? Am I doing the right thing?” When you become more concerned with other people, that obsessiveness about your own stuff, does diminish.
We gain the world and lose our little prison that we are stuck in. It is to subtle for people, too easy. They want to beat themselves up with meditation, asana and all kinds of practices.
MC: How was the moment right before you walked onto the stage at the Grammys? Were you nervous? Could you view the performance as a spiritual practice or was it difficult in that environment?
KD: The only thing I was nervous about was the mechanics, not the chanting and not coming out to do it. It had to be exactly five minutes long and the Grammy band had to be taught the song. We practiced the day before and you have to do it a certain way and I am not used to that.
I am used to just going with the flow and singing as long as I want without thinking. It was a completely new setup, and I didn’t have control over my monitor. I am a bit deaf, so I have to be able to hear myself to sing in tune with the harmonium, so I was just wondering if that was going to work. Once I started to sing, of course, I don’t know what happened.
MC: It was beautiful! Your kirtans and workshops open up many people in a very new and vulnerable way. How do you handle people projecting all of that unconditional love towards you?
KD: (laughing deeply) It’s conditional! I may be stupid, but I am not an idiot. I know what this is about. I know who is doing this. It just looks like I am doing it, but I know who is doing it.
Why would I want to run a trip on that? My guru, Maharaj-ji, is doing all of this. He created the whole drama and it is just being acted out.
I am so grateful for the way my life is. I don’t want for anything. I am so blessed to be able to do this practice, so intensely, so often. I know it is helpful for other people and they enjoy it. I am very blessed that he is using me to serve in this way.
Which is why I am glad that I didn’t win the Grammy, as that would have been a burden that I would have had to deal with. Already, because I was nominated, I have some special cache in some people’s eyes. I am not just another schmuck singing kirtan, I am a Grammy nominee. You have to deal with those projections.
Of course, the real problem is within yourself. If I had won, I would have this secret pride of winning a Grammy and that would have taken me years to process. So I am very grateful I didn’t win.
I am proud, happy, and blessed to have been nominated for a simple chanting record like Live Ananda. The CD that I released before that, Heart as Wide as the World, was so complex and produced, and I thought it was incredible. Then this simple little chanting record gets nominated. It just shows you who is running the show and who is not.
MC: Your kirtans are filled with so much devotion and grace. I have never felt that you were ever performing.
KD: I am doing Maharaj-ji’s seva. I am serving him, and him in everybody with my singing. Because of his grace, that is what he has me doing. This is not my manufacturing.
Even at the beginning, it was to save my own ass. It wasn’t out of trying to be a star. That wasn’t what this was about. I had to sing to save myself. I was drowning. I was gone, finished. If I didn’t sing, I was out of here. That is why I started singing and that is why I am still singing. It is very simple and people feel that.
Of course what they feel when I sing, is him. There is no mystery to me. That is what they feel. Do I go around saying that to people? No, why should I? It gives them to much to think about. It’s not about thinking. It doesn’t matter what they think. He’s transmitting to people. He’s touching people. He’s changing people’s lives.
MC: What do you feel was your greatest gift and lesson from your relationship with your mother?
KD: The greatest gift happened near the end of her life when she became too weak to push me away and I was able to be of some help to her. She was a very loving person when she wasn’t threatened, unfortunately, she felt threatened most of the time. It was only in those last few days, that she didn’t push my love away. She accepted my love and it was very powerful for her to let me love her. It was a wonderful experience for both of us.
While preparing for this interview, I reread Chants of a Lifetime. Krishna Das’s version of The Gates of Sweet Nectar is printed on page 187. I had planned to ask him to play that at the kirtan, but forgot. I have been to many workshops and kirtans with KD and I have never heard him sing this live. Imagine my amazement when later that evening, seemingly out of nowhere he begins to sing:
Calling out to hungry hearts.
Everywhere through endless time.
You who wander you who thirst.
I offer you this heart of mine.
Calling all you hungry spirits.
Everywhere through endless time.
Calling all you hungry hearts
All the lost and left behind
Gather round and share this meal
Your joy and sorrow
I make it mine.
Melissa Codispoti teaches yoga/wellness classes that specialize in mind, body, spirit connection through a heart opening, musically enriched environment accessible to everyone. She has been practicing yoga for over 15 years and believes the yoga mat is a sacred place for self-reflection, healing, and joy. Melissa loves yoga, qigong, pilates, reading, collecting antique poetry books, kirtan, fashion, philosophy, traveling, and most importantly being a mom. She is dedicated to human rights issues and blogs frequently on her personal blog page: Distractions of a Yogini (http://yogawithmelissa.wordpress.com).
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Assist Ed: Olivia Gray/Ed: Kate Bartolotta