We spend so much of our lives chasing happiness—all while trying to figure out who we really are. Today, Jim’s guest talks about his incredible spiritual journey, the effects of Western thinking, and how a chanting practice helped him uncover his truest, purest self.
On today’s Sound Health episode, Jim welcomes a very special guest, Krishna Das—a Grammy Nominated American musician known for his Hindu devotional music, kirtan. Considered to be “yoga’s rock star,” he has become a worldwide icon and the best-selling western chant artist of all time.
In this candid interview, Krishna Das, or KD, talks about leaving his rock n’ roll dreams for the spiritual journey that offered a new way of seeing life and a deeper understanding of what it means to be truly human.
Jim asks about KD’s chanting practices and how others can use sound, meditation, and mantra chanting as tools to rediscover who they really are.
Krishna has released 17 albums—including one Grammy-nominated album in 2013—, has published six books, offers online tutorials, and facilitates retreats and workshops all over the world. You can also watch an award-winning film about his life, called One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das.
Upcoming Events: https://krishnadas.com/events/
Krishna Das: I recognize that really, all this spiritual practice is really for one reason only. It’s just to become a complete human being, and to really understand what that means, you know. And sound, meditation, and mantra chanting, and Kirtan… these are tools that we have to help us rediscover our true nature, or who we really are.
Jim Donovan: Hey there. This is Jim Donovan. Welcome to the show. I am so glad you’re here. Today, we have a very special show. Our guest is my friend Krishna Das, or “KD” as his friends call him.
He is a Grammy nominated recording artist, a world renowned spiritual teacher, and the master of a beautiful style of chanting called Kirtan. He’s written several books about chanting, and released an award-winning documentary about his work and his life.
Jim Donovan: First of all, KD, welcome to the show. I’ve really been looking forward to this. I started this podcast just a few months ago, and you were one of the first people I thought of, but I wanted to get some practice before I talked to you.
Now, I was just looking through all of your stuff. I’ve known you for years. We come into contact every so often, and I was reading… Is it true that you nearly ended up as the lead singer of Blue Oyster Cult?
Krishna Das: Well, “ended up” is certainly the right phrase. If that had happened, I would have been long gone. What it was, it was really simple. So I was in college out at Stony Brook, on Long Island, New York State University, and a friend of mine met some… I think they were local kids. They might have even still been in high school at the time, and they were looking to start a little band.
So my friend knew that I was a singer, so we all got together and played some music together for a while, and then I kind of lost track of them, because they were kind of getting into dope, and I was getting out of dope. So it wasn’t really working.
So then a few years later, my life had changed quite a bit, and I was living Upstate New York. I had met, once again, Ram Dass that year. I was going to spend time with him, where he was up in New Hampshire. So I moved out of my cabin in the woods, and I drove down, back to Stony Brook, for a Jimi Hendrix concert.
Jim Donovan: Wow.
Krishna Das: After the concert, we were all hanging out, and Sandy Pearlman, who later brought The Clash over, was producing that band, which they were now calling themselves The Soft White Underbelly.
Jim Donovan: Okay.
Krishna Das: He said the guy who had replaced me in the studio couldn’t sing, couldn’t do it, so would I come back and cut the vocal tracks? They had a record recorded, and they were about to go out on tour, first tour. So, you know, this was my dream, really—but I had run into another dream, which was I had come into contact with Ram Dass, who was an American who had just come back from India.
And while he was in India, he had met a guru there, and his whole life changed, and he came back to America, and I had just met him, and my whole life began to change. So there was no doubt in my mind, that’s where I was going.
Even though I would have liked to have done that, it wasn’t even a possibility because I had fallen in love with this other way of living, in a sense, and my old dreams had lost a lot of power over me, so to speak.
Jim Donovan: What was it about Ram Dass? Was he teaching you things? Was he saying things, or was it just the charisma? What flipped that switch for you?
Krishna Das: Well, it was all that. He was really talking about his experience with his guru, who became my guru as well. His name was Neem Karoli Baba. He was just so lit up, that almost everyone who met him just went like, “Whoa. Wow, this is really something.” He was transmitting.
The ’60s had come, and just about were going. People had done a lot of drugs, a lot of acid, and wanted to change the world, but they didn’t realize they had to change themselves first. Or rather that there’s really no difference ultimately between yourself and the world.
So if you want to change the world, you must work on yourself. But there was no understanding of what that was, so Ram Dass really brought that new way of seeing life, and living in the world in a good way… He brought that back from India with him… But when he spoke about it, he spoke about it in a totally Western, understandable way, for us who hadn’t been there, or really didn’t know much about it.
Jim Donovan: Yeah, because at the time, that’s a pretty mysterious place for Westerners. There’s not a lot of common knowledge.
Krishna Das: Yeah, and it was far away. It was far away. You know? Now, you get on a plane and you’re there in like 13 hours, and you have cell phones, and GPS, and you know… Everything’s like you’re just going to go down the road. In those days, it was far away.
Jim Donovan: When Ram Dass would speak with people, were they workshops, or just with a friend group? What did it look like?
Krishna Das: Yeah, no. People knew about him because of his association with Tim Leary, and being kicked out of Harvard.
Jim Donovan: Okay.
Krishna Das: Richard Alpert was his name, and the people who had done a lot of acid in the early ’60s knew about him, and so when he came back with this kind of… I don’t want to sound weird, but like a new message, and a deeper understanding of things, people just flocked to him, man. He just spoke hundreds and hundreds of people up at a time, workshops, lectures, everything.
Jim Donovan: Do you think it’s because people have this inherent knowledge that there is something deeper, but that our typical life that has been happening, and was happening, wasn’t really addressing the depth of the possibility?
Krishna Das: Well absolutely, but I would just simply say everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants the same thing, but nobody knows how to get it. Everybody’s hungry, but no matter how much they eat, no matter how much pleasure they get, no matter how much pain they avoid, they don’t find real love, real happiness, and that’s not available in Western culture, because Western culture is based on the conceptual mind, the intellect, and the emotions. And as long as we’re identified with those ever shifting, always changing ways of seeing the world, and being in the world, we can never find real happiness, real love.
Jim Donovan: Like a dog chasing its tail, maybe.
Krishna Das: Very much, very much, or eating a bone without the meat. [singing]
Jim Donovan: What role does chanting play in this? This is something you’ve dedicated your whole life too.
Krishna Das: I don’t know if I would say it that way. I think it pretty much ate me up alive. Well, chanting is a meditation practice. It’s based on the understanding that these sounds that we chant come from a place that’s deeper than our thoughts and our emotions, deeper than what we call “the mind.” Of course, “the mind” is a very complex… is defined very many different ways, by different traditions, but let’s just say our thoughts, deeper than our thoughts, deeper than our emotions. And by the repetition of these sounds, everything calms down.
You calm down. You slow down. You begin to experience different types of feelings from within that don’t come from the usual business that we do in the world—of relationships, of getting things, and getting rid of things, and stuff like that.
The thing is that in India, they call these sounds the “names of God.” They don’t think God is something outside there, up in the sky, or with a big white beard, throwing thunderbolts at us because we’re bad little boys and girls. You know? They understand that the mind lives within us, as our own true nature, and these sounds lead us back into ourselves, and turn us towards an inner, deeper place inside of us.
Jim Donovan: So beautifully put. So a lot of our listeners will be new to you. This’ll be the first time they’ve ever heard your name, and heard of the word Kirtan.
Krishna Das: I pity them.
Jim Donovan: Man, you’re so hard on yourself. You’ve always been hard on yourself.
Krishna Das: That’s because I know me.
Jim Donovan: Oh man. So you do a… it’s a devotional style of chant called Kirtan.
Krishna Das: Yeah.
Jim Donovan: How would you explain Kirtan to someone who’s never encountered it before?
Krishna Das: It’s just chanting. It’s call-and-response chanting. Every spiritual tradition has some kind of chanting involved, and in India, they do this everywhere. The main practice in India is chanting, whether they’re chanting longer mantras, or they’re chanting these sounds.
For the most part, most people don’t meditate. Most people don’t do hatha yoga. Most people live in the world. They’re very busy, but every day they do some puja, or some prayers, and those prayers are actually mantras for the most part. So this practice is based on the repetition of these sounds.
Usually, the way I do it was the way I kind of learned it, or was exposed to it, that there’s a leader, and then there’s a response by a group, or another person, or a number of people, and the leader just goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The leader might change the melody, might speed it up, this and that, and the chorus responds.
It’s a group practice, but at the same time, it’s not really about the group. It’s about your own experience inside of that. It’s not about music. It doesn’t matter if you can sing or not sing. It’s about learning how to pay attention to what’s actually going on around you, and within you. So it’s a very simple practice.
You don’t need to be initiated in it, or anything like that. You just sing, and then go home and be stupid. It’s just nothing. Whatever changes, changes. You don’t have to hold onto anything, and you don’t have to join anything.
The older I get, and I certainly am, I recognize that really all this spiritual practice is really for one reason only. It’s to become a complete human being, and to really understand what that means. You know? And sound, meditation, and mantra chanting, and Kirtan, these are tools that we have to help us rediscover our true nature, or who we really are.
Jim Donovan: That would make sense. I remember coming to New York, and doing some performing with you, and I remember you telling me about… I was staying at your house, and you said, “Hey, don’t be alarmed. At 4:00 in the morning, I get up, and I do chanting.”
Krishna Das: No, I go to the bathroom. I don’t know what year that was. 4:00 in the morning’s maybe the second or third time I get up to take a piss.
Jim Donovan: Well, then I don’t remember anything.
Krishna Das: Are you sure I said that? I don’t remember ever getting up at 4:00. I remember going to sleep at 4:00.
Jim Donovan: You said you had this practice that you would do daily.
Krishna Das: Really?
Jim Donovan: Maybe it was the Hanuman Chaleesa, or something like that… or maybe I’m just remembering terribly. That happens too.
Krishna Das: Maybe you were at somebody else’s house. I have no idea.
Jim Donovan: But you have a daily practice.
Krishna Das: I do have a daily practice, yes.
Jim Donovan: Okay. That whole idea of becoming more yourself.
Krishna Das: Yeah.
Jim Donovan: Is that the whole reason to do the daily practices? Are there other things?
Krishna Das: Yeah, yeah. You know, it’s really… We are creatures of habit, habits of behavior, habits of thought, habits of action, and we believe lots of things about ourselves that are essentially not true. And we’ve been programmed to believe those things by our lives, by our parents, by our schools, by our culture, by our interactions and our experiences, and the result of those misbeliefs is suffering, is our pain and unhappiness. So all these practices are really deprogramming us from what we’ve been led to believe about ourselves, and about life. It uncovers. The practices are just for the sake of uncovering the love, the beauty within us that’s already there. We don’t have to get it from anywhere… we can’t. These practices are about uncovering what’s already within us, and allowing us to find what we’re really looking for in life.
Jim Donovan: Almost like a sonic archeological dig, like moving the dirt, moving all of the stuff, towards the essence.
Krishna Das: Absolutely, absolutely.
Jim Donovan: Do you have a recollection, a memory about the first time you encountered Kirtan?
Krishna Das: Well, I probably heard some chanting while I was still in America, but whatever it was, it didn’t do much for me. I don’t remember. But when I first got to India and went up to the mountains, I was walking around this lake in the town where I was living in. I walked by an ancient temple that was there on the side of the lake, and I heard this extraordinary rocking chanting coming out of there. I just could not believe it. I mean, they were wailing, and I just… like I’d never heard anything this.
I just stopped, and I just was like transfixed. I could not move. And then some guy was walking into the temple and he saw me, and he grabbed my arm, and he pulled me into the temple with him, and I just sat there and it was rocking. It was so joyful. I said, “This is it for me. I want this. This is it.” All the lights went on.
Krishna Das: Yeah, from that moment on, anywhere I heard chanting, I went and I just sat. I just tried to absorb it. I wasn’t collecting, because I wasn’t… In my mind, when I left America to go to India, in August 1970, I was never going to come back. I had no plan. I gave everything away. I had this tiny little backpack, and a couple hundred dollars, and that was it. I was never coming back. So I wasn’t collecting for the future. I was getting a main lining right there. It was happening for me, right there, and that was amazing for me.
Jim Donovan: It’s interesting, because that’s exactly what you did for me at Jivamukti, first night we met, and I came in, and you allowed me to sit in with you, like day one you let me come in and sit in on this thing called a Kirtan. Somebody gave me a lyric sheet with all these Hindi words on them that… I really had no context or idea what was going to happen. I just thought I would follow along, and try to hold on.
And the energy that you’re describing your experience was exactly what I felt, and I felt that call and response between you and the people, and back and forth, and it wasn’t a performance. Your eyes were closed. Everybody’s eyes were closed. Everybody participated. There was clapping. There were tabla drums, bells, and there was just this constant repetition over, and over, and over.
It would start in this really soft place, and reach this ecstatic place that was… I have never experienced in all my life, even though I played in a band and we did things sort of like that, you showed me this other bar that I have since been attempting to recreate every time I work with people, or every time I perform, that selfless ecstasy, where it’s not about me. It’s not about even the music. It’s about let’s go there together. Let’s be in that place together.
Whether you like it or not, you’re responsible. I can’t thank you enough for it, because it’s become the thing, as I go through my life, I realize that I want to focus the most on, is bringing the power of the voice into people’s lives, so that they feel like they can use it as a daily tool, something they can lean into, as a way… even just to do health related things, like lift their depression, and de-stress-
Krishna Das: For sure.
Jim Donovan: … Feel connected with each other. I just wanted to make sure that you knew that. It was that particular night. It hit me like a Mack truck.
Krishna Das: That’s beautiful, yeah. What were you doing there in the first place? How’d you…
Jim Donovan: Yeah, well our mutual friend, who you call Raghu, Mitchell Markus…
Krishna Das: Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
Jim Donovan: We were on Triloka Records together for a couple of years, and he said, “You need to go meet this guy, because you guys can do some things together,” and that’s what I was there to do. I was here to meet this guy, whoever this Krishna and I don’t even know what I expected. I didn’t see a picture of you. I’m thinking you’re going to have a big long white robe on. Maybe you’re going to have a beard, and some sort of little beanie hat. I wasn’t sure, maybe a staff, a golden staff, and-
Krishna Das: To hit people with.
Jim Donovan: It was really disappointing just to see…
Krishna Das: I’m still disappointed every time. (singing)
Krishna Das: But you brought up an interesting thing, yes. Everything you want to do, we want to do, or we want to happen for people, in the East, they call this “mind training.” They turn it back on itself. It’s mind training. So if one wants to get a different perspective on their feelings, maybe depression, maybe all kinds of things, anxiety, fear… what’s required?
So yes, there is some practice required, but the key to all the practice is paying attention, and that means you’re singing… You’re playing… You’re doing whatever you’re doing—musically or with sound—but you need to pay attention so that when you notice that your mind has wandered, and for the last 20 minutes, even though there’s noise coming out of your mouth, your mind’s been somewhere else, you need to bring it back, again and again.
That is the secret key to transforming ourselves. We don’t want to be only concerned with the external world, with the outer sound, the sound that we’re making by banging on things, or with our vocal chords. We want to add attention to that, because that’s the strength that we develop by keep coming back to the sound, or the music, or whatever it is, bringing ourselves back again, and again, and again. That’s where you get the inner strength that transforms one’s life.
Jim Donovan: And that’s the discipline, and it’s the repetition of bringing oneself back. That’s what you’re saying. It’s that repetition’s almost like building a skill set.
Krishna Das: It gives you something back too, otherwise all you have is random sense awarenesses, sense input, all day long, all lifelong. You’re not making any choices there.
Jim Donovan: Right.
Krishna Das: You might make a choice to watch a movie, but basically you’re at the mercy of all this input that your subjectivity, your emotions, and your bullshit, is interpreting in a certain kind of way, which then you look at, and you don’t like.
In other words, because we see ourselves out there. Our own subjective reality is what we’re projecting on the outside world, and so that’s why it’s so important to come back to that one thing… that sound again and again.
Because that’s the way you take the energy away from those projections, which are self-fulfilling prophecies that usually bring us frustration and unhappiness, and it trains us to let go of that, and allow what’s within us, which is all good.
Looking deeper than the mind and emotions, our true nature is all good, and there’s no doubt about that. No matter what we feel about ourselves, that’s just ego stuff. That’s personality stuff. There’s something underneath that, which we can tap into through these practices.
Jim Donovan: Is it like that the sound, the mantra, is the lighthouse? And our attention is like being out in the ocean, maybe not focused in the right direction, and the lighthouse kind of goes, “Oh, here it is. Come back to this. Come back to this.”
Krishna Das: Yeah, for sure, for sure. It’s very much that. That’s a beautiful image, yeah. We are out on the ocean, and we’re being battered by the waves, and blown around. The motor’s gone. We have no sense of direction. We don’t know which way the harbor is.
The desire to find the harbor is something that a lot of people don’t even believe in. They don’t have that understanding that there is a harbor. There is safe water. There is land somewhere, and that desire to find land comes from the recognizing that we’re never going to get what we want from stuff, no matter how much stuff we have.
You always want more, or then you have to protect it, and then you have to move it over here, and then you have to do this with it. There’s no end to stuff, and there’s no joy. There’s no truth in stuff, either. There’s no reality to it.
Jim Donovan: Yeah.
Krishna Das: Don’t cry, Jim.
Jim Donovan: Oh, yeah. Yes, it’s all I do. I’m a Pisces.
When I met you in New York City, this yoga studio maybe held 40 people from what I remember, 40 or 50 people, and this is late ’90s, and between now and then, you’ve begun to travel the world, go to Europe. You go to India. You’re all over the States. Some of the venues you play in are actual music halls, music theaters.
What do you think it is about what you are offering people, that is making that audience grow? Your audience has gone from zero to many millions of people.
Krishna Das: Yeah, I think really the main thing that’s transmitted is, what I’m doing really is just sharing my practice. I’m not really trying to do anything for anybody. I’m not trying to get anybody off, or give them any particular type of experience. I’m sharing what I do to save my own ass, and people can then pick up on it and save their own asses.
If I was trying to entertain, or get people off, it would be a completely different vibe. Even though it might be fun, there wouldn’t be any deeper gift given in those moments, or taken in those moments.
I think it’s just like we said before. Everybody wants to be happy, and wants to find real love that doesn’t come, doesn’t go, which is our own true nature.
So that’s where these chants come from, so when people hear them, if they have that longing, they respond.
Not everybody, including me, really understands what’s going on here, but I have that longing that knows that this is the direction that the lighthouse is in, because I can see the light in the distance, which reminds me of a terrible story, unfortunately. I was watching this great documentary, Ken Burns’ Country Music. It was… Have you seen that?
Jim Donovan: No.
Krishna Das: Oh my God. It is so great. It’s about 8 or 10 two hour… It’s extraordinary. Anyway, Hank Williams, who’s one of my favorites-
Jim Donovan: He’s great.
Krishna Das: He wrote that song “I See the Light,” lying in the back of a car. He couldn’t sit up in the cars anymore, because he had terrible back pain, so he wrote that song because he saw the light of the town in the distance. But when he was dying, his wife I think it was at the time, either played that song for him or something like that, and he just said to her, “There is no light. There is no light.”
And you know, for most people, there really is no light, even though we’re in it, surrounded by it all the time, and it’s actually already within us, most people don’t really see the possibility of overcoming the programming that’s taught us that we’re no fucking good, that we’ll never get what we want, no matter how much we grab it and hold onto it.
To overcome that kind of programming, most people are so lost in that, that there’s no light. That was a very touching moment for me, very powerful, much pathos. He wrote the song, but he didn’t believe, really, that there was any light, so…
Jim Donovan: Wow. Why do you think that we, as human beings, get to go through that constant search for ourselves?
Krishna Das: Well first of all, not everybody goes through that. Very few people percentage-wise in this world are actually feeling that longing to see through the illusions, and the delusions, and all the things that cause us suffering.
Most people, they get born, they graduate high school, they drink some beer, and they die, and they’re not here for a moment. They don’t ever question, “What is this?” So I think it’s very much a karmic thing.
In other words, I think everybody has different stuff to work through, and if one is ripe enough, one will feel that longing to find out what this is. How do we find out who we are within this big mess of nonsense going on? Either you have that calling, or you don’t, or you’re not aware that you… but it doesn’t mean anybody’s better than anybody else. We’re all the same, very much, very much the same.
Jim Donovan: I can see that. When you record music, when you chant, and when you travel, what do you hope for people when they show up and encounter this Kirtan?
Krishna Das: I don’t hope for people. It’s not like that. That wouldn’t be fair. All I do is, I try to do my best in the situation, whatever it is. That’s the only thing I can even have the possibility of impacting, is how I do what I do, and how I give it the best shot. You know?
So if I had hopes for people, then they would feel that. That would constrict them. Then I would be singing with a motive, and my motive even might be their happiness, so maybe they would unconsciously feel that manipulation. I’m trying to manipulate them to be happy, or to get off, or to enjoy the concert, or enjoy the chanting. And then they might fake it, but inside, they could not open because of the manipulation.
A flower opens when the sun comes out. The sun is unconcerned whether that flower opens or not. It’s the flower’s nature, and the nature of the sun. So when love is there, we open. When love is not there, we don’t open. You can’t manipulate love. You can’t coerce a heart to open. So I have enough trouble keeping myself turned to the goddamn lighthouse. You know? That’s my job. What other people do is their problem, but I’m just trying to do what I do the best I can.
Jim Donovan: Which in a strange way is probably why your audience keeps swelling, because what you are describing, at least in my experience, is rare, that someone would put themselves in front of people, share the practice that they do for themselves, and that’s the full expectation, is here’s what we’re doing, and, like you said, you’ll respond the way you respond, the way that you need to. It’s not my job to decide for you what it is.
Krishna Das: Very much, yeah. That’s my work, to keep remembering that, over and over again, to keep coming back to the deepest motivation.
Jim Donovan: And I think work is the right word, because we’re surrounded by the opposite, the opposite message. We have to do this for that, and we have to plan it this way so that this thing happens, and we have to have a goal so that we get to that point eventually someday. And this is, what you’re describing in describing it, is more simple. It is the simplest, and yet the hardest.
Krishna Das: Yeah, but on the other hand, the other way to sing is to try to get in touch with that inner longing that we have, and not be discouraged by what’s happening in the outside world, but really just plug into that longing that we have to become full, complete human beings. To really get what we need in life, and get what we want, and that will lead us on into the right place. It might lead us a whole lot of places first, but then eventually, we learn as we go.
Jim Donovan: That’s such good advice. I’m going to keep replaying this, and remembering it.
Krishna Das: I better replay it too, because I forgot what I said.
Jim Donovan: It’s on record now, man. We got it.
Krishna Das: Good.
Jim Donovan: Hey, a while back, I can’t remember what year this was, and maybe you’ve done it multiple times, so I apologize for not knowing. This practice that you do, Kirtan, originated in India, as far as I understand.
Krishna Das: I think so, yeah.
Jim Donovan: You actually did a tour of India.
Krishna Das: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jim Donovan: Did you have any worries about, as an American, coming to India to offer something that is quote, unquote “theirs?”
Krishna Das: You know, I had this dream many years ago, after I’d been in India, somewhere maybe in the ’80s. I dreamt I was coming back to Earth, reincarnating into a new body, and I was heading right home to India. Everything was cool, but for some reason, at the last minute, I made a left turn and wound up in New York. What happened? What is that? You know? So it’s actually the other way.
I’m more Indian, in a way, than I am American, as I see myself. The whole thing in India, and all so-called spiritual practices, is what they call bhāvanā, or bhāv. It’s like an emotional intensity that’s driven by the longing to connect, or to really do something completely, to immerse oneself in something, and that’s the key to spiritual practice. This is what they worship in India more than anything, is this bhāvanā. If you have that, they feel it, and they respect it, and they seem to think I have it.
Krishna Das: You know, this group, these people, organized a Kirtan for me in Mumbai. So I went over there, and I just wasn’t really interested how many people are coming, where is it. So they take me to the hall, and it’s a big hall, but still I didn’t think about it. When I finally came out on stage later, there was 2,000 people.
Jim Donovan: Oh my gosh.
Krishna Das: And they all stood up and applauded, and I just stopped, and I said, “What are you people doing here? Go home. Go away. Go, go. India’s full of Kirtan followers and chanters. Go, get out, go.” And they all laughed, and it was mind blowing. They knew every word of every chant, because of course the chants are more or less traditional, but the melodies are from Long Island, where I grew up. But the weird thing was that as soon as I started to tell a joke, they were already laughing. They knew it all from YouTube, everything. They knew what they were getting into, and they still came. You know?
Jim Donovan: Wow.
Krishna Das: So that was amazing. It was wonderful to be appreciated that way, and to be recognized that way, for sure, because I really… For me, it all came from India. Until I connected with India, my life was all black and white, but when I connected with India, it was technicolor. It was all the colors of the rainbow. So I owe everything to India in that respect.
And I really wasn’t sure whether I should go and sing there, and I said to my teacher, Sri Siddhi Ma took care of us after Maharaj-ji left the body, after my guru died. She was his great disciple, and she took care of all of us, and I said, “Ma, you know…” She was always telling me to rest, take it easy. Don’t travel so much. Stay home. So I figured she’d just say forget it. So I said, “Ma, you know, I’m getting all these emails from Indian people asking me to come sing here. Should I accept?” Really, I thought she was just going to say, “No, just leave India to the Indians. You stay home and rest.” I said, “Ma, should I?” She said, “You must.”
Jim Donovan: Oh wow.
Krishna Das: Like that. No hesitate, you must. I went, “Oh, shit. Shouldn’t have asked.” So I’m happy to go and sing, as long as the body can hang out, and maintain some ability to move around. Basically, I really see my job in life is to sing wherever I’m invited to sing, if it’s at all possible. That’s what I try to do.
Jim Donovan: I think that’s a great job. You do it very well.
Krishna Das: Thank you.
Jim Donovan: Is it accurate to say that one of the main reasons you went to India was Ram Dass?
Krishna Das: I met Ram Dass after he came back from his first trip, and that was life changing for me. I traveled around with him in the States for about a year and a half, then I decided, well it’s coming through him. It’s not him. It’s coming through him. It’s his guru that I’m feeling, so I wanted to go meet the guru, yeah. So that’s why I went there.
Jim Donovan: His book Be Here Now traveled with us, Rusted Root, on our tour bus for years. It was on the table, and we’d pick it up and look at it, hang out with it, draw some of the pictures that were in it. Little did I know that those ideas would seep into my consciousness, and they would affect me today in 2020. It’s fascinating. I know the two of you were very good friends for a long time. What can you tell our listeners about him? What did he bring to the world, if there’s a way to sum that up? I don’t know.
Krishna Das: He was brilliant. He was a psychologist. He was well-trained in all that stuff. What he really brought to the world was a goodness of heart. A goodness of heart that included everybody. Maharaj-ji used to tell us, “Love everyone. Serve everyone. Feed everyone. The best form to worship God is all forms.” And Ram Dass over the years of his “ripening his soul,” so to speak, he really, towards the very end of his life, he really had merged deeply into that place of caring and loving of everyone and anyone who came to him. He had really transcended the separate personality, the separate self, smallest self, the ego, and really had entered into the deep oneness of love. So he was a pioneer for the West. He absorbed the Eastern culture, and he translated and transmitted it to Westerners, in a way that they could understand, yeah. Very, very great being.
Jim Donovan: Such an important function, these generations that have come since then. Prior to him, I don’t know of any other person that was really bringing that information, and this is the key, in a way that people could actually understand. I notice that you do that a lot too. When you’re describing things during your events, you put it in plain language. There’s not all of this esoteric language attached to what you teach.
Krishna Das: If you can’t explain it, that means you don’t really know it, and there’s no sense in pretending. You know?
Jim Donovan: Yeah.
Krishna Das: Yeah. If it hasn’t become real for us, then it’s a disservice to be talking about it. That’s the way I feel about it…
Jim Donovan: That makes sense.
Krishna Das: …myself. You know? I try to say the things that I know, and whatever that might be, and if I don’t know, I always say, “Well, ‘they’ say. ‘They’ say this. ‘They’ say that.” I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but I know ‘they’ say it.
Jim Donovan: They say it for sure. Yeah.
Krishna Das: Yeah. So it’s like that. Like I said, Ram Dass, really, he was able to express it in Western language that people understood naturally, because there were swamis who had come to America, and continue to come, but they’re Indian, and while their intentions may be good, there’s a lot of subtle stuff that goes on, language, and… You know? So Ram Dass really was able to transcend those differences, and really communicate the inner meaning of things.
Jim Donovan: Were the two of you over in India together for a while?
Krishna Das: Yeah, I went in August ’70, and he came back in the fall of ’70 a couple of months later. He stayed a year, and then he returned home. I wound up staying until March ’72. Maharaj-ji kept me there. He allowed me to stay. He actually got my visa extended so I could stay.
Jim Donovan: Wow. Let’s talk about him for a little while. So this man, his name was Neem Karoli Baba, and you talk about him so much in your work. Can you tell me about him?
Krishna Das: You know, it’s so difficult to talk about him because anything you say is only like… There’s this allegorical story of the six blind men asking to touch an elephant, and describe the elephant. So one touches the tail and says, “Oh, the elephant is like a rope.” The other touches the leg. “Oh, the elephant is like a tree.” Another touches his… “The elephant’s like a…” You know. It’s like that trying to describe somebody like Maharaj-ji. Anything you say is only a small part.
Krishna Das: But he was like the sun, who shined on everyone equally. You felt not only… Not only did you love him, because you’re basking in that sunlight, but you actually began to love yourself a little bit—which was a strange experience for us Westerners.
And because he saw us as souls, as love ourselves, and he never judged us. He never wanted us to be this or that. He loved us as we are, which is very unusual. There was no manipulation. There was no judgement. There was no hesitation.
He was giving all the time, and loving all the time, just like every once in a while, clouds get in front of the sun, and those clouds, that was our stuff. And then we get depressed, and upset, and this and that, but then the sun finally burns away those clouds, and then “aha!” So this is how he taught. He didn’t teach with words much. He didn’t write books. He didn’t lecture. He just ripened us, like the fruit on a tree. It was just different than anything I had felt ever before.
Jim Donovan: Was it like he saw you in a way that no one had seen you before?
Krishna Das: He saw us in ways that we didn’t even see ourselves. Of course, yeah. He had become one with the whole universe. Everything was God for him. He was God. Everything was God. Everybody was God.
It’s not like there’s some God up in the sky that you bow down to and then he blesses you. It’s not like that. Westerners think like that, because that’s what we were programmed to think, but that’s not like that in the East, let’s put it that way.
They understand that Buddha nature… the soul, inner reality, your true nature, is always there, and it’s completely pure, and pure love, and pure happiness, pure joy, ecstasy, bliss, happiness, whatever you want to say. But it’s covered by our stuff.
Even though he saw all that stuff very clearly, he wasn’t caught by it. He saw us as we are underneath all that, and being fed in that deep place like that, what helped us very much to start on the road to overcoming the ways we limit ourselves in life.
Jim Donovan: When he saw you in that way-
Krishna Das: Sees us.
Jim Donovan: When he sees, thank you.
Krishna Das: Yeah, these beings, they don’t die. The body go away, but it’s a hard concept for us, because we identify with the body, and we pretty much believe that when the body dies, we’re finished. But that’s not the way they think about it in the East, you might say.
Jim Donovan: Yeah. That’s helpful.
Krishna Das: Yeah.
Jim Donovan: Did it create any kind of dissonance in your mind, that there’s someone that sees more of you than you ever considered before? And if it did create a dissonance or a struggle, was there anything that you did to grow into that?
Krishna Das: If it was only the fact that he saw everything about us, and knew the past, the present, and the future, that might’ve created some fear, or some anxiety. But this all happened inside of this vast presence, vast love. It was all within this love that we were allowed to come into that feeling. So it was amazement, but no, not really fear. But it took a little letting go. But he created…
Situations happened where you recognized that all you had to do was let go to get back into the room of love. So you just craved more letting go, and then you saw how hard it is to let go, so then you start to do some spiritual practice, because you understand you’re training yourself to let go with these practices, and get back and re-experience your own beauty, and re-experience how it feels to be in that room of love.
Jim Donovan: Yeah. He is considered a saint in India.
Krishna Das: Absolutely, yeah.
Jim Donovan: Are there still living saints?
Krishna Das: Of course. They’re always here. We’re the ones who aren’t here. You know? We’re just blogging through daily life. These beings are present always… completely open, completely enlightened, and taking care of things. For sure, but we only see them when we’re ready to see them, and it’s in our best interest to meet them.
Jim Donovan: In my experience of performing, I can say that I experienced what I will call projection, where people would identify me personally as the source of their enjoyment, and would think that even though they didn’t know me, that I was the source of their joy, and I came to understand that they were just projecting that, and reflecting their own joy towards me, which I appreciate. With the kind of work that you do, that goes deeper into spirituality, I’m assuming that that happens sometimes. What are some ways that you manage that, if at all?
Krishna Das: It’s grace, only grace that keeps me straight about that. When I first started to sing with people in 1994, that was a big problem for me, so I quit. I went back to India, and I started talking to Maharaj-ji. He had been dead for 21 years, but that didn’t stop me. I said, “You have to change this. You have to fix this. You don’t fix this, I don’t sing. It’s that simple. Goodnight.” I wake up in the morning. “Hey, what’s up? You haven’t fixed this. I told you, you have to fix this. I’m not singing. I’m singing to people in your name, and I can’t do it, and I’m not doing it right, so it’s your problem. If you don’t fix it, I don’t sing. That’s the deal.” It took three months of me torturing him, and myself, and finally just before I was getting ready to come back to America, he did. He changed it. He fixed everything, which was why I could come back and sing. It’s a long story, and it’s in my book Chants of a Lifetime. There’s a blurb, a plug.
Jim Donovan: Everybody should pick that up, and we’re going to put that in the show notes too, so you can find it easily.
Krishna Das: Yeah. So I see it as grace. Yes, I wanted to do this. Yes, I knew I had to do this, but I was unable to do it because of my belief system about myself, and of how I felt, and the way I saw was going… the projections that people were making onto me. I was going to use all that to feed myself, because I was a hungry guy, and if you’re hungry, you eat. There’s no option. You’re hungry. You eat. And that would not be good for me, nor would it be good for the people who I was devouring, or the energy I was using to prop my ego up. I couldn’t bear that, because I needed to deepen my connection with him. 21 years had gone since he had left the body, and I had pretty much done everything I could to kill myself besides actually pulling the plug. Now, I wanted to reconnect. I needed to reconnect to him in a deeper way. I needed to get back to that place.
You know, he said many times, he said, “Once I take hold of your hand, I never let go, even when you let go of mine.” And I had let go of his hand, and now I was looking for that hand again. I knew that chanting could bring me back to that hand, but I was incapable of doing it the right way. That’s the way I said it to myself. So like I said, I quit, and I said, “This is it, and you have to fix this.” And he did fix it. He did.
Jim Donovan: I appreciate you sharing that. That is very, very moving, and meaningful.
Krishna Das: Yeah, you know, there was a great saying, Ramana Maharshi, and he said, “If you ask the ego to kill the ego, it’s like asking the thief to be the policeman. There will be a lot of investigation, but no arrest will ever be made.”
Jim Donovan: Yeah. Isn’t that the truth?
Krishna Das: Yeah, so I really, I prayed for grace. I prayed for it because I couldn’t do it, and I knew I couldn’t do it. There was no doubt. So if it was going to happen, it had to be… He had to take care of it, and he did.
Jim Donovan: It’s such a hard position to be in, where, at least my own experience of it, is being in front of people every night, and having the experience be that there’s applause, and there are accolades, and there is attention and smiles, and all the things that go with that, and also no one saying “no.” No one’s saying, “Hey, Jim, you’re being an asshole. Stop that.” Because everyone that’s surrounding me worked for me, so they depended on me for the job. It is unnatural…
Krishna Das: But it’s your work, not their work. That’s the difference. Let them do what they do. Your work is to stay sane, or try to at least pretend you’re sane once in a while.
Jim Donovan: Yes, all kinds of pretending.
Krishna Das: Yeah, but some pretending is good, because you see what it might be like to be sane. It’s okay to enjoy all that stuff, but once you really start to take it personally, then it pulls you down. Then you start trying to fulfill other people’s desires, and be who other people want you to be. Then you get lost, and that’s what was going to happen to me, and I didn’t… I was trying to get found. So there’s no reason not to enjoy. I enjoy the chanting very much. I enjoy that people enjoy. Why not?
Jim Donovan: Why not?
Krishna Das: But it’s my practice, so it keeps bringing me back to myself.
Jim Donovan: Everything we keep talking about comes right back to that spot each time, I’m noticing.
Krishna Das: Yeah. (singing)
Jim Donovan: Yesterday I was thinking about you, and I turned on Spotify, and found one of the versions of the Hanuman Chaleesa that I hadn’t heard in a long time, and I’m driving, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I remember this. This is my…” It was my favorite thing that you do, and at the end, there’s something at the end, and I just welled up and broke down in tears, tears of joy, but this feeling of my heart going…[boosh] and just opening wide open. And it’s happened to me before with that one. I don’t know Hindi. I don’t understand the language, but I feel it. What is it about that particular chant? Maybe I’m the only one in the world that happens to, but I’m assuming that maybe not.
Krishna Das: Yeah, yeah.
Jim Donovan: What is it about this one?
Krishna Das: Well, the proof of the pudding is in the pie. The real meaning of these chants is our experience, so let’s just say that the Hanuman Chalisa is a very powerful mantra, and that Maharaj-ji gave us that practice to do, and he’s very much… you could say he transmits very strongly through that practice of the Hanuman Chaleesa, which is a chant to the monkey god, Hanuman. That’s one way of talking about it, but who is that? We don’t know. But let’s just simply say that it’s a very powerful way of plugging into a deeper place within us…
Jim Donovan: That is a recurring theme, I find, which is unplugging from my analysis.
Krishna Das: … And the less we think about it, and more we keep plugging in, the better it’ll be. Yeah. You need to have an idea of where that lighthouse is. If you don’t see the lighthouse, or if you don’t even know there’s a lighthouse, forget it. You’re just out to seas, but once you know that there’s a lighthouse, you keep reorienting yourself to that, in that direction with your mind, and then that gets deeper, and then you start to recognize what that feels like when you’re plugged in, and then you long for that. So then you find ways to breathe into that place within us more often.
Jim Donovan: Well, KD, I could talk to you for another 10 hours. I’m sure that you’ve got plenty of things to do. Maybe we can talk another time.
Krishna Das: Sure, any time, yeah.
Jim Donovan: Before you go, could you tell us a little bit about what you have coming up this year?
Krishna Das: I’m traveling all over. I’m going back to India for a little while. I’m going to be going to Europe again in September, for kind of a short tour, and then I come back. I’ll be in New York in November, and then we have the ongoing retreats on Maui in December and May, “Open Your Heart in Paradise” it’s called. And these will be the first ones we do since Ram Dass has left the body. I’m sure they’ll be very emotional, and very powerful. It’s all up on KrishnaDas.com somewhere. Usually, that’s what I do to find out where I am when I wake up in the morning.
Jim Donovan: I was on it today. I’ll definitely include that in all of our show notes so people can find that.
Krishna Das: Very good.
Jim Donovan: Absolutely.
Krishna Das: Good.
Jim Donovan: And just to let everybody else know out there, Krishna Das has an excellent YouTube page. He’s on places like Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter. He even has his own Sirius XM Satellite Radio station, called “Yoga Radio”… “Krishna Das Yoga Radio.”
Krishna Das: We present a lot of different chanting on there.
Jim Donovan: Yes.
Krishna Das: Not just me.
Jim Donovan: Not just you, but all kinds of yoga type music, chanting type music.
Krishna Das: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jim Donovan: He’s on Spotify, and Apple Music, and all of the streaming platforms.
Krishna Das: The YouTube channel, the Krishna Das channel, is really the best place to go for that, because there’s a lot of free stuff on there that’s not other places, the podcasts, and I have this thing I do, people call it “Chai and Chat.” We drink some tea together, and just talk and hang out. Those are really cool.
Jim Donovan: And you have a podcast as well, or is that the podcast, “Chai and Chat?”
Krishna Das: There is a podcast, but don’t ask me… Nina said I wouldn’t know what it’s called. I got the email, but… What’s it called? It’s called something.
Jim Donovan: He’s looking on the website right now.
Krishna Das: I’m looking on what Nina said, yeah. She says… It’s really funny what she says: “KD might not know what his podcast is called, but it’s called ‘Call and Response Podcast with Krishna Das.’”
Jim Donovan: Oh, I like that.
Krishna Das: Available through his website. See? I may not know, but I know how to find out.
Jim Donovan: That’s the whole thing, right?
Krishna Das: Yeah.
Jim Donovan: That is fantastic. KD, I just want to thank you again for taking the time to share with me and my audience today. Please keep up the good work that you’re doing. I think there’s so much good that happens from it. I know when I encountered you for the first time, and since that time, my life has improved, and so thank you.
Krishna Das: Well, you know, your kids are growing up. It’s time to get out on the road again, then. We got to do some gigs.
Jim Donovan: You know what, I’m 100% in. Let’s okay that. That would be a lot of fun.
Krishna Das: Very good. Okay.
Jim Donovan: Much love. Thank you very much.
Krishna Das: Take good care.
Jim Donovan: Well that’s it for today. I appreciate you tuning in. Remember to come see us on our social media channels on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Just search “Jim Donovan Sound Health.”
Krishna Das: (singing)
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