Durga Das Blends Music and Devotional Practice
He’s a spiritual songwriter and kirtan singer, whose musical treatment of the mantra has been known to bring audiences to their feet, transported by the joyousness of his sound.
David Newman (Durga Das) has been welcomed annually at the ashram for the last eight years, and he finds its spirit unique. “Aside from the beautiful location, it’s rare to find a place that simultaneously maintains ashram tradition and offers broad appeal, bringing in presenters from diverse traditions and paths,” he said. “Some traditional ashrams stick with traditional types of offerings; other centers have diverse offerings but no path.”
Studying music as a young man, Durga Das then developed such a connection with yogic practices that he opened a yoga studio in Philadelphia right after graduating from law school. “I’ve been teaching yoga for about 25 years and I’ve been sharing kirtan for about 13 years,” he said. “As part of yoga practice, I found chanting the perfect blend in terms of music and spirituality.”
Connecting spiritually with the famed guru Neem Karoli Baba, he became a practitioner of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion. He writes in The Timebound Traveler, a recently published personal account of his spiritual journey: “Bhakti transformed my inner landscape, uplifted my life and turned me into a much happier person.”
One of the ways he practiced this yoga was through kirtan, a call-and-response singing using mantras. “These heart-opening mantras had a powerful and healing effect on me and I chanted them ceaselessly,” he writes.
He began to share his music to wider audiences, then to record and travel. “It was such a graceful transition, not calculated at all,” he said. Now, music has taken over from yoga teaching, a natural creative expression with its focus on spiritual songwriting. “I’ve been writing songs since I was a teenager,” he said, “and my take on this music is that it connects the world of Neem Karoli Baba with Bob Dylan and George Harrison.”
In 2003, he recorded his first CD entitled Soul Freedom and has recorded eight more. “At the age of 40,” he writes, “I became a travelling gypsy…I have been singing for the last 10 years, and it has been a remarkable and satisfying journey.” His name Durga Das means “servant of the Divine Mother,” or as he likes to say, “servant of love.”
Much of the spiritual growth in Bhakti practice, he writes, “comes as a result of giving voice to parts of ourself that have either been suppressed or unattended. When they are summoned and expressed through the practice of kirtan, even unknowingly, there is the potential for great healing and expansion of consciousness.”
The spiritual import of mantras moves people, he says, and the music can unlock worlds in which people find themselves chanting. “For me, music is a powerful transmitter of truth and love. There’s a vibrational transfer, people feel ecstatic or suddenly feel okay about their lives. It’s really what people are looking for, which is for a better human experience. Mantras can be of service, like yoga.”
His style, an uplifting combination of ancient healing transformational music dressed in more familiar musical language, offers people a connection they can understand, he says. “The numbers of people who care about this is growing. I play at the Bhakti Festival where thousands of people come — and it’s all chanting.”
Now his life, in addition to savoring time with his wife Mira and daughter Tulsi, 4 1/2, is even more focused on creative collaborations. He is going to make an album with Niko Bolas, who produced the last five Neil Young albums, and has made a record with South African musician Bakithi Kumalo, from the Paul Simon band. Together, they plan to present an evening of music in Sanskrit and Zulu. “We’re calling it the Peace Concert,” he said.
His music continues to reach out to a wider audience. “I deeply enjoy sharing kirtan for people in the tent,” he said, “but my new work is to bring a sense of spirituality through music to people outside the tent. Those people don’t really know this message.”
The joys of making music is nearly unsurpassed, Durga Das says. He revels in kirtan when “everyone chanting participates in the same resonant experience with us,” he writes. “Separate voices become joined as one voice and distinct instruments converge to tell a unified story. In a flash, we all leave ourselves behind and are transported into a timeless and boundless moment. Together, we get a glimpse into eternity.”
Immerse yourself in the healing, heart-opening benefits of sacred sound: View our upcoming kirtan, chanting and sound programs.
David Newman , Durga Das, is a renowned sacred mantra artist and inspirational teacher.
His album Love Is Awake was #1 on iTunes World Music, and his book The Timebound Traveller was #1 on Amazon. He brings his mission of peace and universal love into many charitable endeavours, including bringing mantra into institutions such as prisons, psychiatric centres and homeless shelters.