Krishna Das makes no apologies for the way he pronounces “Ram,” the Hindu deity who epitomizes virtue. He doesn’t pronounce the “r” the way someone proficient in Sanskrit would. That caused an Indian woman to leave one of his kirtans. She just got up and walked out.
“I understand there are people who feel that what happens in the West with chanting is ridiculous—what do we know about chanting?” says Krishna Das, the white guy from Long Island whose name is synonymous with Indian mantric music in America. “That’s really dumb. It’s like saying Westerners don’t have God in their hearts, because that’s what chanting is about. God knows what the heart wants and responds to the call of the heart. It’s not about music or pronunciation.”
“Dumb” is the milder of the four-letter words that dot his defense of American-style kirtan. Krishna Das—born Jeffrey Kagel—discovered devotional chanting in India in the early ’70s. He practiced it there at the feet of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, also known as Maharaj-ji. But the music he makes today borrows from rock and roll and country blues as much as it does from the temples of India. “As the mantras changed me, as they got deeper into me, they began to come out of me in a way that’s more natural to this incarnation. The chants took on different shapes—much more Western shapes. I didn’t do that on purpose. It was a natural evolution.” All One, his 2005 release, explores the Hare Krishna mantra from four diverse musical perspectives, including rock and South African township jive.
I just realized I had to sing with people. It was the only way I could clean up the dark places in my heart.
This weaving together of ancient mantras with modern melodies and instrumentation may offend purists, but it’s part of the reason why communal chanting is gaining popularity in cultures that prize individuality and secularism. “It’s only reasonable that people here would be attracted by the Western sounds because it’s who they are,” he says. The pressures of modern life also account for the expanding kirtan “market.” “It’s growing and will continue to grow because things are getting harder and harder in the world. I think it just reflects people’s desire to find some happiness, some rest, a sense of joy in life.”
Krishna Das spent the better part of his 61 years searching for happiness. He struggled with depression and drugs. He worked odd jobs and dabbled in music. In his 20s he met Ram Dass, the Harvard professor turned spiritual teacher whose 1971 best seller Be Here Now introduced legions of Westerners to Maharaj-ji and yoga. Krishna Das traveled to the foothills of the Himalayas to find Maharaj-ji. He spent almost three years there, basking in his guru’s unconditional love. Then, in 1973, Maharaj-ji died.
“I was really destroyed by that,” Krishna Das says. “Being with him was the only thing that made me happy. It was the most extraordinary, powerful experience I’ve ever had, on the physical plane anyway. When he died, I figured my only chance to be happy was gone. I went through a long, long, long period of very unconscious self-destructive behavior.”
It wasn’t until 1994 that a solution presented itself. “I was standing in my living room in New York, and I just realized I had to sing with people. It was the only way I could clean up the dark places in my heart.” He walked into a Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan, where founders Sharon Gannon and David Life offered him a Monday slot.
His audience then was several yoga students. Today he packs houses all over the world, singing with hundreds and sometimes thousands. The man who jokes about being “Jewish on my parents’ side” occasionally bursts into a gospel classic—“Amazing Grace” or “Jesus on the Mainline”—as if to remind people that it matters not how you call out to God. It matters that you do.
He has found the faith he lost when his guru died. “By leaving his body, he forced me to find that love inside of me—or to begin to at least look for that love inside of me. That’s really the point: it’s not outside of us. Things outside of us can push a button for us and open us up temporarily. But ultimately we have to find that place ourselves. When we unravel our psychological issues and untie the knots in our hearts, and begin to let go of fear and judging ourselves and treating ourselves so harshly, then we start to move deeper within ourselves to where that love is.”
Tour dates at www.krishnadas.com