When Krishna Das performed at the Grammy Awards in 2013, he created history. This was the first time the Indian art of chanting god’s name, Kirtan, was being performed at an international level. Das, born Jeffrey Kagel, is a global icon and a Grammy award nominee for Best New Age Album in 2013. Popularly known as the ‘Rockstar of Yoga’, he has a magnetic voice that attracts even the remotely non-musical soul.
After his first performance in Mumbai on January 3, Puneet Kaur had a free flowing conversation with him about his performance in Mumbai, the Grammy nomination, his inspiration and his path to spirituality through music.
Have you gained a larger fan following after your performance at the Grammy Awards?
I think it was a huge deal in India, because people were really happy to see kirtans being performed. They felt great joy and pride to see the West opening up to Indian culture and taking it seriously. However, I don’t think it was that big in America, where I am already fairly popular.
This was your first time performing in Mumbai. How was the experience?
It feels like coming home. It’s a very special place, always has been. I came to Mumbai in 1970, and last year for a couple of days, but I've never performed in the city before. The experience has been wonderful.
A large number of youngsters attended your concert, and in this day and age, the youth seem to be looking for a certain kind of guidance. Do you specifically target a younger audience?
No matter how old you are, every generation changes. It’s the same all the time. The younger generation thinks they know everything, and then they find out that they know nothing. By the time they figure that out, it’s too late. Even when we were young, we were confused and didn’t know what we were doing. A lot of us took time to decide what the world is all about, and that is why I am here now, because I took my time then. Which is why I say that my music is not for any specific generation.
Does the repetitive chanting of mantras play an important part in your music?
At times, when you are chanting, you are just saying it and not paying attention to what you are saying. That’s when you keep the mantra going, and 20 minutes later, you realise that you haven’t been paying attention. It brings you back to the same place over and over again. These mantras also have their own powers, which is why they have existed through the course of history.
Why specifically choose mantras from Hinduism? What about Sufism and other cultures?
Sure, I have done Sufi dancing and Sufi mantras and Buddhist meditation and mantras. I also have Tibetan teachers, but my home is my guruji, Neem Karoli Baba. My experience with him has changed my life. He used to ask us to sing for him. He was a Hanuman bhakt (devotee), so we used to sing ‘Shree Ram, Jai Ram’. I don’t look at them like deities, but I do look up to guruji. I believe that the aatma is a part of the parmaatma. I do believe that this energy is inside me, that there is a spirit inside me and everybody else, and it is love. He showed me the way and now I need to find my own way.
In an interview two years ago, you said inner peace can be only attained if we are willing to see our dark side. Do you still believe this?
Well, that is the point. If you don’t pay attention now, before you know it you will be dead and won’t be able to do anything. If you really want to be happy, you need to find out why you're not happy to begin with. You can’t keep jumping off cliffs and expect to be happy. Everybody wants to be happy, everyone wants to be loved. So, people need to realise that spiritual practice is not for people to go to heaven, but it is a way to get inner strength and be at peace, even when everything around them is falling apart. You need to find ways to make yourself happy. You need to let go of other things.
Your album Heart as Wide as the World was your first attempt at combining rock music into your work. Does it impact the spirituality of your work?
There was always some kind of rock-and-roll in my work, but yes, that particular record had more of it. Music is music; it is the mantras that have the power. Music is not enough by itself; it is an art. If you give it a name then it leads to the possibility of finding something deeper. These mantras are not mere thoughts – they have the power of healing. They have the ability to put an anchor to your thoughts.
Considering the impact your music has made, with so many people putting their faith in you, don't you feel the pressure?
I don’t do this for other people. When I sit and chant, I am singing to my guru, to this loving presence. I don’t get too caught up in the projections put by the people, because I know that he is there doing all this. I am just an instrument and this is all his work and eventually people will realise that all this love that they feel is within them. But somebody has to turn the light on for people to realise that there is so much love out there. Nowadays, people are looking for a spiritual practice, to try to find a way to get through a day without jumping off the cliff.
What music do you listen to in your free time?
When nobody is around, I just listen to the quiet – just the quiet, I love the quiet. However, I do still listen to the blues and some rock-and-roll, Jim Morrison and Guns N' Roses. A few months ago, I went into this phase where I listened to a lot of Guns N' Roses.
Are you currently working on an album?
I just finished a new album called 'Kirtanwalla'. It will be probably out in the beginning of March.