In 1968 Krishna Das accompanied Ram Dass, author of “Be Here Now,” to India where he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, also known as Maharaj-ji. It was a privilege few Westerners had ever previously experienced. Krishna Das spent three deeply transformative years in India before returning to the United States at his guru’s request. In India, Krishna Das learned the practice of Bhakti yoga, devotional yoga, which he has continued to observe throughout his life. His chanting of the names of Gods, called kirtan, is part of his practice. According to Krishna Das in his audio series ‘Pilgrim of the Heart,’ “The words of these chants are called the divine names and they come from a place that’s deeper than our hearts and our thoughts, deeper than the mind. And so as we sing them they turn us towards ourselves, into ourselves.” When Krishna Das sings the listener can feel the clarity in his intention, welcoming us for a moment to drop all of stories and to also experience our true nature.

Last year was a challenging one for me, life changing. As the things that used to bring me joy fell away, others came to me. Krishna Das’ music was one of those new gifts. No matter what was going on for me, if I allowed myself to listen to his music, I was instantly transported to a place of joy and peace. For this reason I am profoundly grateful for this interview and all that was shared by Krishna Das. – Khara Lynn


Khara: I think you serve as a great role model as someone who does what they love and makes a livelihood out of it. I find there are a lot of people who are transitioning towards doing that in their own lives, trying to find what they love as a way to serve. Would you any advice to people in that situation?

Well, service is a great thing to do, but if you are trying to serve other people and you haven’t served yourself then your service is going to have a little edge to it because you yourself are not full. You can say what I do is service, but I don’t look at it that way. I don’t think of it as service to people. I think of it as service to that which lives within people whatever you want to call it. When I do my practice which is what this is, I’m going into that place inside of myself and I’m serving that place which I call my guru or my love. So it helps everyone is those moments so they get a chance to go inside in a certain kind of way. I’ve never really been one for carrying a flag. You know, Salvation Army, or anything like that. Service is the most natural thing. When you get to a certain point when you recognize that even your own pain and suffering are a part of the show and part of life then you don’t separate yourself from other people because they also have the same thing. So to want to help somebody is the most natural thing. It happens naturally as you get in touch with yourself. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. As far as for me, this was not planned, there wasn’t any master plan. I just started singing to save my ass, because I was sinking. One day I was in my apartment in New York and this was about 1993 or 94 and all of a sudden I knew if I didn’t sing with people, if I didn’t get out there and put my ass on the line with people and try to do this practice that I had been doing for years in a certain kind of way, if I didn’t come out and do this with people I would never get into my own heart. I would never clean the stuff out of my own heart, and it was very scary for me, because I was used to hiding and I had lots of secrets and I had to push myself out because I was dying and either I was going to do this or I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t have any other choice. So maybe my situation is a little different that way. I never thought of this as a career. The first three years I was singing for people it was completely free. I used to go down to New York to the yoga center and sing. I was so grateful to do that. I would have paid people to have come if they had asked. Of course I didn’t have any money so I was out of luck. So really, if this is working at all it’s because of that, because I had no intention no personal program for helping people. I am simply trying to do the best I can for myself and whoever else is around. Once you get into this, now you’re in town hall with a huge sound system and thousands of people and it takes my whole life, all my time is about chanting. I’m either chanting or trying to figure out how to make it work. My life is chanting or getting to the chanting, that’s it. This was not what I had in mind. But I am happy and I’m very blessed. There is nothing I could be doing now that helps me more. I don’t know what’s happening in that room. People have dreams of my guru and people cry and get happy and I’m just singing. I don’t know what they’re doing. It’s good, let them have it. I’ve got nothing to do with it. I don’t take any responsibility.

Khara: I’m a visual artist so I often think about music and sounds. I know they resonate with different parts of human mechanics and stir up different responses. I was wondering with the different sounds and words in kirtan do you believe it’s the specific sounds themselves that evoke feelings? Is there power in the sound itself?

That’s a good question. When you say sound, we think we know what sound is and we have an idea about what we’re talking about. I don’t know if that’s accurate. This whole universe is sound, everything is vibrating. Sound is vibration, that’s what makes sound, something vibrating, moving. The whole universe is moving every atom is going around electrons the whole thing is vibrating and pulsating and has a sound and makes a sound. These chants are imbued with and come from that place of oneness. There is one thing going on and the whole thing is shimmering and doing that thing, vibrating. That’s the sound OM. People think this is OM…”OMMMMM,” okay did my OM now I can go out and have my cup of coffee I did my OM. That’s not OM, it’s the whole thing it’s the subtotal of everything. Galaxies millions of light years away are part of that and they’re making their part of it. So it depends on how you’re looking at it. Sounds make colors and all that stuff, and it definitely all works. They say each chakra has a color. People don’t really understand what chakras are either. From what I’ve heard and observed chakras are actually like universes. Depending on where your energy is attached to vibrationally, at least with most humans psychologically, that’s how you perceive the world. Each chakra has its own quality and a particular nature and each one is like a different universe. They say up to third everything is in duality to some degree, there’s you, me, and stuff. Then after that the duality starts to dissolve and once you’re not talking about duality, then it’s very difficult to talk because who is talking and there’s no one to say it. The thing about the chants, is that these chants move you right into a deeper place inside and as you move into yourself the external, superficial stuff falls away. You don’t get to notice that because you are the superficial stuff. So that’s how these practices work, they are really very subtle. It’s not about getting all blissful, getting high, having a great time and feeling good. Anything that is an experience comes and goes. What doesn’t come and go are the changes that come as you practice and as you let go of the stuff that keeps you trapped in the outside world. We’re always looking outwards through our senses, but as we move in, our center of gravity changes and our perspective changes. There are so many ways to say it. It’s like your dark glasses are slowly starting to lighten up. But when you’re wearing those dark glasses you think that’s the way things are, but it changes very gradually. If it changes all of a sudden you go blind you can’t see anything. So practice gradually takes the dust off the mirror of the heart so what’s true is reflected clearer without any distortion or any dullness little by little. These chants come from that place deeper than all the steps, so they allow you to sit back and relax further in your own heart. So I didn’t really didn’t answer your question. I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Khara: So you were basically saying that it’s beyond words or our minds’ understanding of what it does for us. That is what I got.

Yeah, but not that it can’t be seen and expressed. There’s a line from St John, no, I’ll remember. ..In the beginning the father uttered one word and that word was his son and he utters him forever and it’s in absolute silence. And it’s in the absolute silence that the heart must hear.

Khara: I have another question for you, in the other interviews I read everyone is very impressed with how laid back you are and how you’ve dealt with your fame.

I’ve got humble totally down.

Khara: I was wondering how you do that? Are you detached from your ego enough that you realize that isn’t you to even take the credit?

People say, “Oh, you’re so humble” and I say, “No, I know me. I don’t know who you think I am, but I know who I am, and there’s nothing so special about it.” Anyone can sing in Town Hall. You just have to pay the money. Wednesday is like the low night. You get a discount, they beg you come in and take the place. It’s just not that big of a deal. It’s just us folks. My guru, from as far as I can see, was completely, totally, absolutely beyond anything. He just sat around with everybody, sat around in the street. He went and lived with the poorest people, the richest people. He lived alone, he slept in the streets, in the jungles and he had temples built for him by the richest people. He didn’t care about anything, because it’s not like that. You need a good healthy ego that has its head screwed on straight to get through the door otherwise you walk the wrong way. Ego is will, ego directs the will. Will is what gives you the energy to do what you have to do and what you want to do. Without a healthy ego, or a healthy car, you can’t get where you’re going. Why do you want to beat the shit out of the car?
It’s not the car’s fault. It’s just that the more practice you do it purifies your intentions your desires and it removes the obstacles to you getting what you want in life. People think you have to kill the ego. Westerners take Eastern stuff and their neurosis just grabs right onto it. It’s all about self love, real love and accepting yourself. They think emptiness means the void, nothing, no feeling. It’s totally the opposite of that, totally. In fact, the character for emptiness also means fullness, like the sky. It’s the character for sky. The sky is full of everything but it’s also empty of all things. Everything is within the sky, it’s totally full but it’s also empty. The sky itself is not affected by whatever is passing through or the fact that it surrounds the earth, the sky is the sky. Because we’re all fucked up in the West, and hate ourselves so much, we just grab onto the negative side of it and we kill ourselves and want to kill ourselves because it’s easier than living. Living is hard, living means being alive and awake and dealing with your shit and being real and that ain’t easy. No one taught us how to do that.

Allyn: I have a technical question for the audience that may be reading this. Can you give me some of examples of what you have done with the kirtan in its original form to add your own personal aspects to it and to Westernize it and to create that mix?

Once again there was no plan to it. When I was in India I sang the way everyone sang, because that’s just what it was and that’s always there. I had left America and I was never coming back and I wasn’t there collecting information and melodies to sing later. I was just there doing this because I loved it, singing. Then as time went on, for instance I started playing the harmonium, I used to just play this one stringed thing, but it wasn’t loud enough for the room, so I bought a harmonium which I didn’t know much how to play. I just started using that, so that just started out of necessity. These chants are not Indian. Even though in these chants there are the so called names of God that we sing are names of the Hindu deities, who are the Hindu deities? They are great beings, old beings, older than us, who knew or know what is happening. They’re not limited to being in India. So if you don’t sing Indian music they don’t run away. So the more and the better the chants started to work on me, the better I started to feel about myself as a person, and the more at ease I felt, the melodies that started coming out of me were more normal and natural. What is natural to me is Long Island 1965. Growing up with that kind of rock ‘n’ roll, going to Stonybrook and taking drugs and seeing Jimi Hendrix and The Birds and all the folk music. That’s what I grew up with and that’s natural music for me. English is a hard thing for me to sing in these days because it’s full of concepts, there are all these words that have meanings and then you’re stuck in the meaning of the thing. It might be very beautiful and heart opening, but it doesn’t take you past that. These chants take you past that. What does Ram mean? Ram doesn’t mean anything other than who you really are. Since we don’t know that, it pulls us into it. The practice, the repetition of those names, they pull us into ourselves, not something else. So that’s when I said Ram is not Indian, Ram is your true nature. All these names are the names of your own true self. It was just natural that as I kept singing and the less time I spent in India and the more time I spent in America, it just got that way. The melodies just started coming out much more Western.

Allyn: And the instrumentation is also a lot different, because there’s violin…

You know I never had a band as a kid. I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer and I never had my band. So now I have my band.

Allyn: It’s interesting. I was thinking about the Hindu deities that are revered in the kirtan…

Kirtan has the Buddha too. They consider him one of the avatars.

Allyn: So I got a little bit of an answer to my next question, which is what is your own personal, in heart, relationship to these deities? You sing about Krishna, Durga, and Seta…

All these names mean the same thing to me.

Allyn: So there’s not any particular special facet or aspect that resonated with you?

In the stories of the deities, in the mythologies, you may say the true mythologies, they all have their own characters and they act in their own ways, but for me it’s all about love. All of these deities mean one thing, love. They mean to take you to a place of love. In India that’s what they inspire, love. They don’t inspire fashion or ego tripping on how great we are learning all this stuff. It’s simply love. It’s about love, it’s a religion of love, it’s attached to love. All these deities for me are that place, that place of love. I don’t think about it so much as having different qualities anymore. It’s just a place, it’s a presence. That sweet presence, whatever you want to call it, the divine. For me it’s my guru, it’s all about being in the room with him. He was all that for me. He was that place.

Khara: I imagine a lot of people come away from a concert with you wanting to develop some kind of practice or chanting of their own. How would you suggest someone go about that? Besides singing with your last cd, which is very much something you can sing along with.

Just start singing. Just sing. Sing along with CDs. Sing along with the things you like. I’m writing a book now, supposedly. Maybe I’ll try to add a little section about getting started with chanting. I do it. I don’t do it the way they do it in India. I don’t think about this or that. I just sit down and I do it, and I let that work on me. I just sit down and I do it and I let that work on me and I let that change my life. I don’t demand experiences from it. I don’t demand anything from it anymore. Other than that I’m so grateful to do it and I know how much it changes things. In fact, in this book, there’s going to be a CD in the back with me leading a chant but there’s not going to be anyone responding. You’re going to have to respond. No chorus. The music will continue, I’ll sing the call and you’ll have to sing your response or it won’t be there. You just start doing it and you’re not doing it for anyone else. No one needs to hear it or know what you’re doing. You’re doing it to find a way inside. Try not to make a career of it, that’s my only advice.

Khara: Are you exhausted from visiting Quebec?

This is not my career; it’s just my life. It looks like a career, but it’s just my life. Where are you guys from?

Khara: We live outside Philadelphia.

Allyn: I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I’m a year older than you.

My grandparents were on East 91st Street. I used to spend a lot of time there.

Allyn: My grandparents lived there too, same block. You had a bar-mitzvah, I’m assuming.

I had a bar-mitzvah but my Dad took all the money. He came up to me after it and said he needed it to pay for the bar-mitzvah. That’s my dad. That was it for me and Judaism. It was over in that moment.

Allyn: I arranged to get myself thrown out of Hebrew school.

Good. My Hebrew teacher used to bang his head against the blackboard and say, “If I didn’t see this class I wouldn’t believe it!” We were so bad, but I got through the bar-mitzvah.

Khara: Just one more question, please. The website that we write for does reviews on food, music, and movies. I was wondering if you could suggest and restaurants or movies that you particularly like?

In NYC there’s a great Indian restaurant called Vatan. It’s Gurjarat Indian food. It’s like 25 bucks or something like that, it’s one price and you eat as much as you can eat. There’s like four different courses, it starts with appetizers, it’s so delicious. It’s in the 20s or 30s over there. We don’t have any friends that have restaurants, I don’t think. Movies, well did you see Slumdog Millionaire, it’s a great film. I love that movie; it was so good.

Allyn: This has been really beautiful, I really appreciate this. It was a wonderful opportunity for us.

Khara: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

by Khara Lynn and Allyn Sterling

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