.The Man Behind the Kirtan

ae KrishnaDasKrishna Das lets his soft white underbelly show

Jim Carrey’s single greatest contribution to humanity is quite possibly his statement, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see that it’s not the answer.” In 1969, a Long Island-born bus driver named Jeff Kagel came close to learning the truth of those words the hard way. Kagel, an aspiring singer, had a daunting decision to make: join a newly signed band called Soft White Underbelly, thereby fulfilling his lifelong dream of being a rock star, or follow his heart by moving to New Hampshire to be with his spiritual teacher Ram Dass (who, in his former incarnation as Harvard professor Richard Alpert, had also discovered that prestige, accolades and worldly accumulations didn’t add up to a state of fulfillment).

Kagel chose the holy path. Soft White Underbelly soon changed its name to Blue Öyster Cult, and Kagel was renamed Krishna Das by his and Ram Dass’ guru, Neem Karoli Baba (usually called Maharaj-ji by his devotees). Krishna Das, who is convinced that the rock life would have led him to an early meeting with the Reaper, is now known as “the rock star of kirtan (call-and-response devotional chanting).” He kicks out the spiritual jams at The Rio Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 18.

Krishna Das’ intriguing tale is chronicled in his excellent book “Chants of a Lifetime” and in the new biopic One Track Heart. “It’s very nicely done,” he says of the film, “but you watch it and you think, ‘Oh, God. This guy’s so good. What a fuckin’ drag he is!’ So I should put a disclaimer in: ‘This is only one version of me. Thank you.’” 

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In a long, in-depth conversation with GT, the Western world’s foremost kirtan leader revealed a number of different versions of himself: Along with the Krishna Das who sings the divine names and offers helpful insights on the spiritual path, there’s a Krishna Das who loves Guns N’ Roses and a Krishna Das who pled guilty to a federal charge of money laundering in 2002.

GOOD TIMES: You’re probably the best-known kirtan singer in America. Does your success present any kind of challenge to your spiritual progress?  Is there a danger of it reinforcing a sense of identity that you’re working to transcend?

KRISHNA DAS: Nah. First of all, what I do is my spiritual practice. The chanting is actually my main practice; that’s what I do the most. So anything that arises during the chanting becomes an object of meditation: something to let go of. It’s not a performance. I’m not involved with the audience on the level of trying to please them at all. I’m sharing my practice with them. We’re doing the practice together, and we help each other do that practice.

At one point I did have a big issue with just what you’re talking about. There was no question that it wouldn’t be good for me. It wasn’t going to be good for anybody else either, because I was going to use the situation to feed my hungry desires, which is very normal, very human. A hungry person, a starving person, is going to grab for food. It’s just natural, right?

I went back to India at that point, and I said, “I’m not singing anymore unless Maharaj-ji fixes this. And I really meant that. I was begging Maharaj-ji to do something, because I knew he could, even though, supposedly, he was dead, right? He wasn’t dead, and I knew that. He just wasn’t available in a body anymore. And so it was just a terrible three months I spent.

And then he really changed things. Whatever he had to do, he did it. He changed something in my heart, and it allowed me to come back and really sing, and really give myself to it fully. And I completely knew that it wasn’t about me, even if people thought it was. He was the one doing this whole thing, and he was responsible for it. All I had to do was sing, and I didn’t have to worry about anything. That freed me to continue to do what I do, and that’s why it is what it is today.

GT: According to your book, one of the things Maharaj-ji did during that period of time was show you that your individual identity was just a bubble on the surface of the ocean. Did that change your relationship to the idea of dying? I would imagine there wouldn’t be much fear of death after an experience like that.

KD: Ohhhh, well, that experience was a long time ago! [Laughs] Those experiences—they chop away at the root of fear and delusion, but they don’t necessarily all-at-once destroy them. You have to keep re-working it all, and you keep getting caught again in the nonsense, and you have to keep finding your way, over and over again. But certainly, I was very blessed to have that experience. You get those blessings. That’s what I needed to continue; that’s what I got. It changes you, but it doesn’t kill you dead. You still have to continue living, and you have to purify your heart; you have to continue developing compassion, kindness and understanding and unwinding and untying the knots that you still have. Those experiences and those blessings make it possible, but you still have to do the work. That’s what practice is about.

GT: In regard to what you said about it being a very human tendency to want to feed the ego, do you think it’s possible to honor the ego in a way that doesn’t get in the way of spiritual growth? We need a certain amount of self-esteem to be happy, and it’s a positive thing to feel a sense of accomplishment—

KD: [Jumping in] I don’t think that’s honoring the ego. I think that’s recognizing that we’re basically good. We have to define terms a little bit. Ego is a sense of a permanent separate self. It’s eternally separate from everybody else. It’s who I believe myself to be—unconsciously, even—with all the programs that are running: programs of fear, shame, guilt, selfishness, lust, anger, greed. Grab this. Take this. Hold this. Hide this. Be like this. Show this. Act like this. Do this. Those are the programs that are running on automatic, and they keep reinforcing our belief that we are separate from other people. And on the level of psychology, of course, we are separate. But that’s completely illusory.

So, feeling good about oneself and one’s accomplishments—there’s nothing wrong with that. Our problem is that we don’t know how to feel good about our accomplishments. We don’t have the wiring to feel good about ourselves. We get our wiring from our culture and our parents, and our parents didn’t feel good about themselves. Our parents didn’t have love for themselves; our parents didn’t know how to take care of themselves. And so when we develop and we grow up, we’re not going to get that.

So, part of our job as Westerners, which is different than most so-called Easterners, is to allow that love to penetrate into our own hearts and allow us to feel good about ourselves, to feel that we’re OK at heart. Not “I did this. Look how great I am.” That’s just being stupid. But, “Look, I’m OK as a person, just as I am. I’m not bad. I’m not unworthy of love. I don’t deserve pain and suffering, and I don’t deserve to punish myself like this, push away people and not learn how to expand my heart, touch people and allow myself to be touched by love and affection.” If you call that ego, then yes, you need a good, healthy, happy ego in order to drive the car on the way to Buddhahood.

Practice allows you to become a good, caring human being. And becoming that kind of human being, you naturally start to feel good, and you naturally start to not be focused on me-me-me-me all the time. It’s only the planet of Me that all that bullshit revolves around. All that unhappiness, selfishness and all that stuff—it orbits around the planet of Me. When you’re not focused all the time on the planet of Me, you spend a lot less time in negative states of mind. [Pause] Whoa! I didn’t even have any coffee this afternoon! [Laughs]

GT: [Laughs] I guess that’s what feeling good will do for you! Do you think there’s anything that can be done to accelerate one’s journey to Buddhahood, or do you see it as something that happens at its own rate?

KD: Well, that’s the rate it’s gonna happen at, regardless of what you do or what you don’t do. That’s all part of the program. When you say “accelerate,” from what point of view? Who’s judging that acceleration? And if you think you’ve accelerated it, that’s completely judgmental mind. You try to do the best you can. Who’s to say if it’s going faster or slower, or what a particular being needs to progress on the path? The path is your life! There’s only one life you’re living: this life. It’s not like there’s a holy life and a worldly life; it’s just life. How can you go faster? Time unwinds itself.

My guru implied that spirituality was like a ripening process—that doing practices, serving people, feeding people, remembering God, doing a little bhajan [singing devotional songs], repeating the [holy] names, is a ripening process, and through that ripening, other states would naturally arise when you’re ready. But he didn’t believe in very self-centered, “I’m going to do this to get enlightened” kind of practices. He didn’t encourage us to think about ourselves; he encouraged us to think about others. And he said, “Through that, you’ll get whatever you need.”

GT: That said, do you think someone who has met the guru in the flesh has a better shot at getting enlightened than someone who hasn’t?

KD: Absolutely not. First of all, let’s backtrack a little, OK? What do you understand enlightenment as?

GT: Freedom from the mind? Freedom from the ego? Union with all things?

KD: Mm-hmm. All that’s good. That’s good. You know, I used to sit in front of [Maharaj-ji] all the time, and I realized at one point that I was waiting for something to happen—boom—and I would be gone, and that would be enlightenment for me. My unconscious feeling about enlightenment was simply that I wouldn’t be! [Chuckles] You know? Because I was unhappy, because I couldn’t imagine being here in a good way, right? It’s very subtle.

I can’t say I know what enlightenment is. I, like you, know a lot of different definitions and stuff, right? But I think the program is running for all of us, and that the guru is not a physical being. Many people who met Maharaj-ji didn’t know what they were seeing anyway, and he’s met just as many people without his body. So I don’t think it makes any difference at all. I wouldn’t even know how to judge to say if it made a difference. One instant of him coming to you in a dream could change your life so drastically, and somebody who knew him his whole life seems to have gotten nothing. So, all this kind of trying to evaluate stuff—this is what eventually has to go away. And you just live. You don’t know nothin’! Are you faster? Are you closer? Are you further away? You don’t know! Who cares? I’m doing the best I can every day according to what I know and what I feel, and there’s no way to know how much actual time it’s going to take to burn off all this delusion.

The other way of looking at it is that nothing is ever going to happen. We’re just going to start to see things differently. And you see things differently when you purify your heart; when you clean the mirror of your heart; when you take away the shame, the guilt, the fear, the anger, the selfishness. If you really believe in the spiritual path, you also have to believe that whatever’s best for you is right there, right now, because it couldn’t be any other way. You may not be understanding it; you may not be able to pat yourself on the back for it. But why would you want to waste your time doing that?

GT: I didn’t see anything about this in your book, and I’ve never seen or heard you discuss it in an interview, so it’s possible that I’m about to ask you about an off-limits subject. 

KD: No, there’s not much that’s off-limits.

GT: I understand you pled guilty to a money laundering charge in 2002. 

KD: [Abruptly] That’s off-limits! [Laughs] Yeah, money laundering. OK, I’ll tell you. Living in India for so long, and going there every year, everybody there smokes hash. I wasn’t much of a hash smoker, and I haven’t really smoked for many years or done anything [similar]. So, some of the people I knew grew into being big hash importers and smugglers. They were friends of mine for 30 years. It wasn’t any big deal. We knew what people did. It was just the way people are.

So, it just so happened that at one point I met a banker through social circumstance. We got to talking. It was also at that time that some of my friends were complaining that it was very hard for them to use their money, because they couldn’t [go through] the banking system anymore. So I put them together, and I was somewhat active in helping them get their money into the banks. I made a very small amount of money for that, considering the amount of money that was involved.

And then at some point, long after I had been involved in it, and I was completely out of it for years and years and years, that whole circle of bankers—they all got busted. And my name came up somewhere. Eventually they found out who I was, and they came to talk to me. That led to a whole experience. To tell you the absolute truth, it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

I knew the stuff I was doing was illegal, theoretically. Because it wasn’t in the United States, I wasn’t really sure if I’d broken U.S. law, but I knew it was illegal. When they got in touch with me and said they wanted to talk to me, I was really freaked. I realized that I had all this fear and all these secrets in me. I didn’t know what to do. For one whole day, I was completely panicked, because I asked my friend who was a lawyer, “What am I looking at?” He said, “10 to 20 years.” Now, I had a girlfriend who was very, very ill. My daughter was still young. My parents were still alive. And I thought, “What am I gonna do? I’m gonna run away and become a fugitive? Can I go to jail for 20 years?” It was a terrible, terrible feeling.

And then I actually laughed out loud, and I said, “Oh, Krishna Das, you’re such a fucking asshole. Shut up. When did you ever make a decision in your whole goddamned life? Go talk to them. Maharaj-ji will take care of it. It’s gonna be the way he wants it to be, regardless of how you feel about it. So just go do it, and stop worrying.” And I did! I stopped worrying. And then I went and met these guys. [Gasps] I found an incredible attorney. The prosecutors, the FBI, the IRS, the judges—everybody loved this guy, because he was straight, and he was clean, and he didn’t bullshit anybody.

I want to tell you, I learned more in that period of time … I would spend three hours with these guys, and then I’d go into the city to sing! And it eventually just became one thing. It was no longer like [resistantly] “Aaaa!” and like [relievedly] “Ah.” It just became part of life. I would sit across the table from these guys, and I would look in their eyes, and I would tear up, because I saw the way they lived. I saw what they believed in, and what they believed about life and about themselves. And I saw that their own actions were causing so much suffering for themselves, and they had no idea that it didn’t have to be like this in life; that they were caught in a cycle of violence and fear, and they probably weren’t gonna get out of it. It got to be a love fest in there. I’m telling you, it was insane!

The reason I didn’t put it in the book is because I think it’s a serious bite for people to take, especially if they’re just reading the book out of some basic interest in spirituality. I think the knee-jerk reaction might prevent them from getting what they could from the book and from spirituality, and it might turn them against the whole thing.

But the whole thing with [the authorities] was that they knew everything. I didn’t have to keep any secrets. And Maharaj-ji did that, because I thought I was there sharing my heart, but I had secrets, man. There were some places I wouldn’t go, because even though it was in my past, it could still be damaging, and you don’t want people to know those things if they don’t have to. Even though I thought it was behind me, I was still hiding it, hiding from it and hiding from the reality of it in my own heart. And so this just—I walked into that room, and they told me what I ate for breakfast! And I went, “Oh! You mean I don’t have to keep any secrets anymore? Great! Let’s go. What do you want to know?” It was extraordinary. Really, it was a life-changing experience in so many ways.

GT: Maharaj-ji’s devotees used to literally chase after him so that they could be around him. What was it about being in his presence that was so powerful?

KD: Just think for a second how it would feel to see the most beautiful being in the universe: all the beauty of the universe wrapped up in one body, wrapped up in that blanket. You look at it, and your eyes are ravished; your mind is ravished. You cannot take your eyes off of that beautiful radiance. And it moves, and it talks, and it laughs, and it jokes, and it calls you names, and it giggles, and it yells at you and pats you on the head, and it runs away from you. You have no choice: you have to run after it. It’s beyond anything you can imagine.

Take the intensity of falling in love with a woman and multiply it by a billion, and that’s what it is. There’s just no comparison. As much as you can love somebody, and you look at them and see their eyes of love, and they’re the most beautiful thing in the world, and all the juices are flowing, and it’s so wonderful—forget about it! I mean, it’s good, no question about it, but this is something else. It was that to a billionth degree. So that’s why we watched every movement he made! [Laughs] It’s like they say you can go to these heaven worlds where these women are so beautiful—it’s not a physical body; the body is actually made of bliss, right? So when you touch or even look at them, the bliss flows into you. And that’s not even comparable to this. Because this was love. Love is something else. Love is not bliss. It’s home. It’s being home. It’s just what you think it is in your heart; it’s just what you know it is. That’s what it is.

GT: Did that hit you immediately when you met him?

KD: It hit me before I met him. Yeah. In fact, when I walked into the room where Ram Dass was [during our first meeting], that’s when I met Maharaj-ji. Because immediately, as I walked into that room, without a word being spoken, I knew that what I was looking for was real, and that it existed in the world. It just changed me. Something in me went, “Right.” And that was the first moment I met him.

GT: Do you still get high from being around Ram Dass?

KD: More now than ever. There was a period of many years that Ram Dass was struggling a lot, and we weren’t very close, but now I kid him: “You know what? You’ve become who we thought you were 30 years ago!” He laughs. He’s in such a beautiful state. I’ve never seen a Westerner in that kind of state—he’s just swimming in love. It’s really phenomenal. It’s really Maharaj-ji-ness. Beautiful. Ah! Incredible.

GT: What music do you listen to that nobody would expect Krishna Das to listen to?

KD: Well, God, I have no idea what people expect of me! Well, [laughs] I just bought six Guns N’ Roses DVDs! [Laughs] First of all, I think Slash is amazing—just amazing. And I just saw that crazy movie Rock of Ages, and there was all this ’80s music. I just wanted to go back and hear the music, ’cause I missed it. And I also wanted to see, “Who is this guy, Axl Rose? Is he really crazy, or is it just once again the straight press having a hard time with somebody who’s a little bit out there?” I think he’s probably crazy. [Screeching] “Take me down to Paradise City!” [Laughs]

GT: Last question: Are you having fun?

KD: Yeah. I am … in spite of myself. You know, I’m tired and cranky sometimes, and I’m touring too much, and blah blah, but what an opportunity! There couldn’t be anything I could do that would be better for me and better for anybody who happens to meet me than what I’m doing. It’s almost perfect in its imperfection. I always wanted to sing and play music, but I was always too neurotic to do it that way, the old way. And if I’d gotten those things that I wanted then, I would have been dead. If I had gotten any money, any fame and any ability to destroy myself, I would have. But now, I get to be that person, in a sense, because it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore that way. This is all different; it’s all out of fun and joy and spiritual practice. It’s not about serving any of the lower, baser instinct at this point. It’s about doing the practice that transforms all those things into gold.

Krishna Das sings at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $29. For more information, call 423-8209.
Photo: Carla Cummings / Expanded online-only version.


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