Let me be honest: for long as I can remember, I found religious, devotional music to be totally blah. I grew up listening to Suprabhatam (a Tamil devotional song) every morning, but it left me cold. I couldn’t wait for the record to be done, so that I could then play the latest Hindi film hits.
Ten years on, I was still the same. Every Friday, I would enthusiastically attend bhajans at a family friend's house, only because their children had the biggest treasure trove of comics I had ever seen, and I could spend the hours after the singing in pre-teen paradise. As the years passed my definition of music expanded to include pop, rock, heavy metal, jazz, musicals, soundtracks and what have you. But kirtans, bhajans, qawwalis and the ilk never ever made the cut.
And yet, here I am, composing a paean to an ex-rocker-turned-chanting-master/kirtan singer, feeling tremendously excited that in just about 24 hours, I will get to see him perform live in Mumbai. For the last couple of weeks, I have been madly exhorting anyone and everyone to come watch Krishna Das sing.
So who is Krishna Das, and why in the name of all that is holy am I making such a big deal out of him?
Listening to Krishna Das absolutely destroyed my parameters, or should I say removed my blinders, about what music was and wasn’t. Thanks to him and my Reiki teacher, I discovered Deva Premal, Vikram Hazra, Snatam Kaur, JJ Heller, the Sabri Brothers… the list is endless. But most of all, I found that music could be healing, could bring me peace, could give me direction and clarity, could connect me with god and give me hope and strength.
I heard Krishna Das for the first time about seven years ago, at a Reiki Intensive Seminar. I had never even heard his name before, and if someone had suggested him to me I would have laughed in their face. But in those four days, when I had come seeking comfort, succour, direction – some way out of the complete mess my life seemed to be in – his voice soothed me and told me all would be fine.
What was it that made me feel that way? The music was simple, the words even more basic – the classic Hare Krishna, Hare Rama chant I had been hearing since I was a child. And yet it somehow touched me in the deepest corners of my heart, at times making me cry, at times making me want to just dance madly in abandon, always, always making me feel that I was loved and looked after by a divine power. For the first time in those four days, I learned and began to believe that music could take me close to god.
Picture - Kailas/www.krishnadas.com
In the years since, I have wondered many times what made Krishna Das’ singing so divine. There are so many great singers, so much awesome music – what made his voice capable of transporting listeners from the earthly realm to the ethereal? I found my answer recently while watching One Track Heart, a truly heart-stirring documentary by Jeremy Frindel. And suddenly it all made sense, what was so incredibly unique about Krishna Das, and why his singing has and continues to transform millions of lives…
I cannot, in a couple of lines, encompass the entire journey of Jeffrey Kagel (a rocker coping with career, relationship and life issues), to Krishna Das, ‘Yoga’s Rock Star’ and the ‘Pavarotti of Kirtans’. So let me just focus on two moments from his life that shook me the most and also answered my question.
After travelling to India to find some kind of answer to his life’s issues, Jeffrey met Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj ji) and stayed on in his ashram. He learnt Bhakti Yoga, served Maharaj ji and was a part of the ashram’s activities till the time came when his guru decided that Krishna Das needed to return to America and live the real purpose of his life. The conversation that followed is reprinted verbatim in Krishna Das’ own words (in an interview with David Calicott, The New York Press):
“At what would turn out to be my last darshan of Maharaj ji’s physical body, I was petrified with fear about returning to the US after so many years. I hadn’t worn a pair of jeans or shoes for such a long time that I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. I didn’t want to ask Maharaj ji what I should do in America, but all of a sudden I blurted out in anguish, ‘Maharaj ji! How can I serve you in America?’
“He looked at me with mock disgust and said, ‘What is this? If you ask how you should serve then it is no longer service. Do what you want.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. How could doing what I wanted to do be of service to him? I didn’t have that kind of faith. I just sat there, stunned. Then, after a minute or so he looked over at me, smiling sweetly, and asked, ‘So, how will you serve me?’
“My mind was blank. It was time for me to leave for Delhi, to catch the plane back to the States. He was looking at me and laughing. I bent down and touched his feet for the last time and when I looked up, he was beaming at me, ‘So, how will you serve me in America?’ I felt like I was moving in a dream. I floated across the courtyard and bowed to him one more time from a distance. As I did, the words came to me, ‘I will sing to you in America.’
“Soon afterwards, during the full moon in September, Neem Karoli Baba left his body. Now he had to be found within. The chanting, the meditation, the puja and all the wonderful time spent with Maharaj ji turned out to be seeds that he himself had planted in my heart... seeds that would keep growing and blossom by his Grace.”
Picture courtesy Pilgrim Heart/www.krishnadas.com
People sing for money, for fame, to get cars and villas and yachts. Some sing out of joy of love, some for the sheer pleasure of singing. But Krishna Das’ singing comes from devotion, to his guru, to the Divine. It is a direct conduit from a higher source that flows only for the service of humanity – to touch, to heal, to inspire…
As a child I heard of how Mirabai, Tansen, and so many others sang for god, how their very hearts became one with their words and music, as they united with the very divine presence they sang about. It was something I could never quite comprehend. Until I heard Krishna Das.
There is no vested interest in his singing, no greed, no lust, no vanity, no ego – it is pure love and devotion. And that’s what makes it so soul stirring.
The second moment from Krishna Das’ life (shown beautifully in the documentary) is testimony to this. After he went back to the US and started singing kirtans, he found incredible popularity, acceptance, success – of every kind – even performing at the Grammys and receiving a nomination in the New Age category. And yet he couldn’t find peace, because, as he put it, he could feel the same old emotions – ego, lust, greed – rising within him. And he knew it would destroy his music and him.
This revelation stunned me. Most of us writers, singers, actors, directors, musicians, and artistes, crave for and spend our whole lives chasing fame, glory, wealth, and mainly success.
Now here was this man who had achieved it all, but all he craved was humility – to be rid of the ego and all these material cravings, to find the peace, contentment and love he had found with his beloved guru in an ashram in India.
Picture - John Phaneuf/www.krishnadas.com
No surprise then, that he did find it, he did manage to rise above all this rubbish that so many of us make the centre of our lives. And that’s why his music is divine. Because it’s pure.
I hope that one day I too can achieve that kind of purity in my expression, that I can be just be a conduit for a divine wellspring of thoughts and ideas and stories without any personal agendas or ego-gratifying stratagems.
And till then I guess I will just listen to Krishna Das and allow him to inspire me to the same. To transform and heal me as he has done so many others.
To end, here’s an extract from Krishna Das’ interview with Zoë Kors which once again reveals his humility, simplicity and purity:
“And why do you do what you do?”
“To save my ass. I chant to save my miserable ass. That’s what I do. I chant to save my heart. Every day. This is what I do to keep my head screwed on semi-straight and keep my heart open. Whenever I sing, that’s why I sing. Whether it’s at the Grammys, whether it’s in the bathroom, whether it’s in front of 10,000 people or three people, by my guru’s grace, my head stays in that place.”
Krishna Das performs live in Mumbai on 3rd January.
Anand Sivakumaran is a storyteller residing in Mumbai. He writes movies, TV, books and short stories, teaches, travels and very often makes faces at other people's children. His first film as a director, Money Devo Bhava, is awaiting release, as are his two novels, The Woman on the Cliff and The C Word. He tweets @anandloki.