Chanting for Life: Q&A with Krishna Das
In February each year, Sivananda Bahamas welcomes legendary kirtan singer Krishna Das for a Yoga of Chant Retreat. A disciple of Indian sage Neem Karoli Baba, Krishna Das has become a worldwide icon and the best-selling Western chant artist of all time. But he is first and foremost a devotee, sharing his practice throughout the world.
What motivates you to do this work?
My experience was that I was very depressed, very unhappy, in a very dark space in my life and I had an epiphany one day in my room. The epiphany was that if I didn’t start chanting with people -- and it was very much with people -- I would never be able to clean out the dark corners, the shadows in my own heart. This was the only thing I had that could do that for me. I had been doing many other practices all these years, but it became clear to me that unless I started to sing with people, I would never clean out my own heart. So I really didn’t have much choice. I had to make a decision that either I wanted to live or I didn’t. So it took me a little while to get with the program, but I started singing with people shortly after that.
How would you describe what you do?
It’s not my description, it’s my guru. I was distributing the charanamrit [a special liquid offering used in pujas (rituals)] from the worship of the Goddess in 1972. My guru, Neem Karoli Baba, asked me to be the priest at his Durga temple and one of the things I did was distribute the water used to wash the Goddess’ feet as prasad. Many years later, long after I started singing, I was in India at his temple and Siddhi Ma, a devotee, was teaching me. She said, “When Maharaj-ji Neem Karoli Baba made you the pujari of the temple, he created this entire drama.” So even though it happened in 1972, and I didn’t start singing for 20 years, he gave me his blessing for this to happen. She said, “You were distributing the water charanamrit and now the charanamrit is your singing in the name of God.”
What fascinates you about what you do?
You know, in the old days, when I used to be with Maharaji-ji, my guru, people would sit around him and he would talk and laugh and joke with people and hang out. My favourite thing, besides staring at him unceasingly, was to stand on the side watch the faces of the people as they looked at him. It was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, the most beautiful thing in the world. So when I sing, I feel like I’m getting to see that again. I see how people slowly enter into the presence, into actually being there in the room, they slowly let go of the histories and what’s going on in their lives and they slowly enter into the space of the chanting. It just gets deeper and deeper and deeper, and all the worries and anxieties start to fall away and they enter into that presence. And when I sing, I sing to enter into that presence more deeply myself. I’m not thinking or feeling or imagining that I’m doing anything for anybody.
What inspires you?
The most inspiring thing in my life is chanting with people. That’s pretty much all I have going on. I sing, I sleep, I eat, watch a little TV. That’s about it. My whole life is revolving around sharing this practice with people all around the world. I’m either travelling or I’m home recovering so I can travel again. I still love to visit saints and real gurus that I come across and meet. That’s the most wonderful thing is to meet somebody who’s … well, it would be presumptuous of me to say to meet an enlightened being because that would assume that I know what that would be. But let’s just say to meet beings who don’t seem to want anything from the world, don’t need anything other than their own true nature. Meeting people like that is extraordinarily inspiring. I meet people like that because I look for them. But even so I’m only looking for them because they’re making themselves available.
You know, because we think we are who we think we are, we keep thinking that we’re doing this. But that’s not the deepest reality, you know. For instance, the ocean, right, the ocean may think ‘I’m making these waves, they’re my waves.’ But without a wind blowing, there are no waves. So we think we’re doing our lives, but it’s not that at all. It’s the winds of grace and the winds of our karmas impelling us to do certain things.
How do you view the state of the world?
The world seems to be going [downhill] really quickly, but that’s just our version of it. We don’t really know why things happen, but there does seem to be a lot of more anxiety and fear in the world these days. And if people have the karmas already to understand there might be a way to deal with those things other than just reacting blindly and automatically, then they might recognize that there is a path that teaches us how to live in the world in a good way, as a good human being without fear, without shame, without guilt, without grief, without sadness, without selfishness. So that’s something that is always available and always has been available, but it’s a question of whether beings have their karmas ripening at that moment to understand that it’s even possible to find that.
But there’s certainly a lot more fear in the world, it seems. For us. But you know, if you think about many places in the world, people have been living in fear for a long time. There’s been fighting and bombs dropping in many places in this world, continually. But I think now the West is beginning to crumble around the edges from the inside out, and to see that our apparent security and apparent well being as Western countries is really not very stable. I think that brings a lot of fear to people, and if that impels people to look for a deeper reality, that’s a good thing. If it doesn’t, it just causes more suffering.
What are your feelings about the ashram?
I think the ashram is a wonderful place for people to come and shed their everyday worries and their everyday life considerations and really be more quiet inside and learn some practices and get a glimpse of some of the philosophy behind the path. I’m in awe of how wonderfully the ashram is run. This is not an easy thing to do because it’s open to everyone.
There aren’t many places that I know of where you can go to simply learn some practices and be in a nice space without being preached to, or pressured to join some cult. That’s a very wonderful thing about this place, it’s very easy and all the rules are designed to allow people to drop their nonsense and just get here for a little while. It’s a very wonderful place.
Krishna Das is a disciple of Indian sage Neem Karoli Baba. Layering traditional Hindu kirtan with accessible melodies and modern instrumentation, Krishna Das has become a worldwide icon and the best-selling Western chant artist of all time. His album Live Ananda (released in January 2012) was nominated for a Grammy in the Best New Age album category. The subject of the award-winning film One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das, he is first and foremost a devotee, with the sharing of his practice a profound act of his faith.