ascent magazine Subscriber Services Resource Directory Get Involved Boutique Contact Us
Current Issue Columnists

  if music be the food of love, play on
An interview with Krishna Das


Brian begins:    In the West, we are constantly being bombarded by negativity from many directions, and the musical field is no exception. As a musician, I've always searched for something different. A few years ago, I went to India and visited a temple on the banks of the Ganges in the holy city of the Hindus, Varanasi. The Durga festival had just begun, and in many temples there was sometimes live music twenty-four hours a day. I entered the temple one evening to listen to a concert. The audience had positioned themselves as we would expect for any concert, seated on benches surrounding the area where the musicians were to play. The musicians walked to the middle of the temple, up onto the platform, acknowledged the audience, and then turned and sat down with their backs to us all and began playing! This is when I found the missing piece that I had been looking for. The musicians had not in fact turned their backs on us, but rather had turned to face the inner sanctuary of the temple where the gods resided. The "concert" was actually being given for the gods.

Krishna Das has taken this devotional aspect of the Indian tradition and is offering it to Western audiences. Many people attend his satsangs, given across North America, to join him in singing to the Divine.

When I interviewed Krishna Das, he spoke of a long search of his own. It began in the 1960s out of total desperation. "I understood that there was something to find," he told me, "but I didn't know where to look or how to find it." Finally, in 1969, on the advice of his friend, Ram Dass, he traveled to India where he was to meet his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. His life changed forever. "It was like a journey to the centre of the universe."

In India, Krishna Das also encountered kirtan, or the chanting of God's name. "I heard it and I couldn't believe it. I thought, this is fantastic. I was always musical and I always loved to sing. I didn't really do it at first as a spiritual practice, in a heavy way like that. I sang because I loved to do it."

He spoke of his guru with great love and respect: "Someone like him is like the sun. To be in his presence and to be connected to him is to be doing the best thing you can do for your own blossoming. He didn't give meditation techniques, he didn't give mantras. He ripened you from the inside."

Neem Karoli Baba gave Krishna Das his spiritual name. Das means servant, and Krishna is one of the names of God. Krishna Das told me of his surprise at receiving this name, since he identified more with Hanuman, the "monkey god." To this, Neem Karoli Baba just laughed and said, "Don't worry, Hanuman serves Krishna too." Krishna is usually associated with spiritual music, and is often depicted in Indian art playing a flute for his beloved, Radha. Krishna also has a strong association with Bhakti Yoga. Perhaps Neem Karoli Baba knew something of the path Krishna Das' life would take in the future.

After two-and-a-half years in India, Neem Karoli Baba told Krishna Das to return to the West. "Maharaj-ji encouraged us to stay in the world, to be involved with people, and to serve people. Not to go off and just meditate." For Westerners, the journey back home is not always easy. Now, thirty years after his initial trip to India, Krishna Das speaks with honesty about his time in India, his guru and his own motivations to sing. I was inspired by speaking with Krishna Das, learning of his many ups and downs, and how he has managed to remain devoted to the path set out before him.

Brian Wall      When your guru asked you to leave India, did you find that a difficult moment?

Krishna Das      I didn't want to come back to America, but in my heart I knew I had to, I had a lot of unfinished business, a lot of uncooked desires, a lot of stuff that I was afraid of in myself. And if I'm afraid of stuff in myself, then how can I find God within? And so he sent me back to work out some stuff, you know? But I didn't want to leave him. Even if I wasn't aware of it, I was very attached to his physical presence. The day I was to leave, we had some darshan with him and I told him that I was leaving for America. He said, "So go." Then I asked him how I could serve him in America.

I didn't want to ask him that question. I wanted to be somebody who had enough faith to just go and not have to ask. He said to me, "You know, if you ask about service then it's not service. I would be telling you what to do and you would be following orders, right? That's not service. You serve from the heart. Do whatever you want." I couldn't figure out how doing what I wanted to do would be of service to him. I couldn't put the two together. Then he looked at me and laughed and said, "So, how will you serve me?" I couldn't say a word, you know?

BW      So how did you figure it out?

KD      I bowed to him one more time before walking out of the temple. And as I was bowing I heard the words in my head, "I'll sing to you in America." That was the answer from deep within me of what I really wanted.

BW      Were you afraid of going back to America?

KD      Yes, I was afraid I was going to get lost in my desires. And I did. I absolutely did. So much so that when he asked me to come back to see him, I didn't go right away. And as a result, I never saw him again in the body. When I didn't see him again I felt that I had blown it, that I lost every chance to be happy. That was the beginning of a long period of severe depression and severe pain.

BW      How long did that last?

KD      Years. Eleven years. I was living just like normal, but inside, my heart was – it was really dying.

BW      What happened in the end, after the eleven years, that brought you out of it?

KD      I went back to the temple where I had spent a lot of time with him. While I was there, I kept getting more and more and more depressed until one of his great disciples, her name is Siddhi Ma, saw me sitting there and called me to come into the room where he used to spend a lot of time. And when I walked into the room I was hit by a lightning bolt. I felt his presence for the first time in all those years and I just fell down. I started crying. He was there. And I saw at that moment that he'd always been there.

BW      When you came back after that experience, was it then that you started to get back into music?

KD      I had been singing all along, but only within the group of people that I knew from the old days. But for me the singing wasn't really joyful. It was more an expression of my unhappiness in a way. It was often emotional. I'm sure it was part of staying connected, but I wasn't able to give myself to it.

It wasn't until 1994 that I started to sing with people in a more public way. I knew there were things in my heart that I wouldn't be able to get rid of unless I pushed myself out there in a certain kind of way. I felt that if I was singing with people who didn't know me, I would have to really be there, I would have to pay attention. I wouldn't be able to just sing for ten minutes and then walk away. I always tell people who sing with me now that they have to realize as far as I'm concerned they have all been manifested by my guru to help me, because this is what I do to keep my own heart connected.

BW      As a Westerner, is it difficult to connect to the Indian tradition or the Hindu gods and goddesses to whom you sing?

KD      I'm not singing to Indian gods and goddesses. I don't see it that way. All those gods and goddesses exist within each one of us. I sing chants, the words of which originated in India, because that was where I connected. If I had gone to South America and connected, I'd be singing different things. For me, my guru represents all of the gods and goddesses. He represents the truth, he represents love. And when I sing, I sing to be more deeply in his presence. And his presence is also my presence. Because he's in my heart.

BW      Do you find there is a larger appreciation for Indian music in the West these days?

KD      Well, first of all, I chant, and for me chanting is not music. Chanting is chanting, it's a spiritual practice. It uses music, all different kinds of percussion, melody and instruments. But it's not music at all. It's not about the music. Music is simply the sugar syrup that the medicine of the Divine name is hidden in. Chanting is a spiritual practice. It can be fun and loud and people can dance and jump around and that's all great, but what's really going on is meditation. And it's sneaky because people don't necessarily think of it that way, and yet so many people experience things in their hearts when they are chanting. If we remove the dust on the mirror of the heart, we see clearly what's reflected. And that kind of dust is removed in many ways. Chanting is a practice. All the practices help turn us in the right direction, but essentially they open us to grace.

BW      How do you feel about the chanting that you do becoming popular to a larger audience?

KD      If I am getting popular, it's not because I'm extraordinarily handsome, know how to dance or play good guitar. No. It's the chanting that's getting popular, and I'm one of the people who do it. I really love chanting with people. I love that feeling when it's a whole group of people really into it and really singing – it's a great feeling. In that sense, I enjoy it very much. But it's very clear to me that my motivation for doing this is not to be famous. Although you could say it's happening, it just seems to be a background for what I love to do.

BW      Where does Bhakti fit into all of this?

KD      Everything we talked about was the Bhakti path, you know? It's all a process. The path of devotion is very subtle. It's very deep. Westerners have a very difficult time understanding devotion. When you have devotion, that's when you can give yourself to a practice. If you don't have the ability to devote yourself to something, what can you get out of it? A scientist devotes himself to science. A musician devotes himself to music. And through that learning, the act of devotion, the ability to devote, you go deeper and deeper into something. And ultimately, devotion itself takes you deeper into yourself. I'm not really involved in the traditional definitions of these things. Nor am I involved in the traditional musical forms of India. You know, I'm doing my own thing. I have devotion to my guru. So I just find that the Indian form dissolves within me as time goes on and more Western forms emerge. I might have gotten connected in India, but the original charge is the presence in my own heart, and that's with me everywhere. That expresses itself more and more naturally as who I am.

I think, for Westerners, one of the key things is learning to love ourselves and learning how to be good to ourselves. There is no god outside of ourselves. There is God, there is beauty and the Divine, but it exists within us. And if we don't know how to love ourselves, how can we find that? If we don't know how to open our hearts, how can we get in there? If we can't let down some of our defences and let go of some of our self-hatred, how will we ever find that love in our heart? That's an important question, for all of us.

Brian Wall is a violinist from Montreal, Canada. He has traveled extensively in Europe, Russia, the US and Mexico. Most recently, he went to India to study Hindustani (North Indian) classical music. He is a lover of music and meditation and masala dosas. He is presently studying Carnatic (South Indian) music and gives occasional performances in the Montreal area.

A member of The Redrocks Magazine Cooperative © copyright 2004 ascent magazine, all rights reserved