Krishna Das’ beautiful, deep, soulful chanting, known as kirtan, is loved worldwide. Listening to Krishna Das or participating in his kirtan events can take you to divine places you may never have experienced before. Here, KD discusses his life, his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and explains his view of the world in which we live. You might gain a very different perspective on life if you relate to what he tells us about how to stop suffering.
Full transcript of the interview
Jan Tucker: Hello and welcome. I’m Jan Tucker. Today, I’ll be chatting with Krishna Das, otherwise affectionately known as KD. Krishna Das is a world-renowned singer and recording artist, known as yoga’s rock star. He travels the world bringing a feeling of wholeness to his audiences by leading devotional Hindu chants in Sanskrit. His worldwide events are called kirtans.
Almost everybody who hears KD’s calming chants, no matter where they’re from or what path they follow—or on no path—say that his chanting soothes and transports them to another place and time. He actually helps us to connect better with our own hearts.
KD’s 2010 autobiography, Chants of a Lifetime, tells his story of traveling to India in 1970 to meet his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, otherwise known as Maharaj-ji. A document about his life, One Track Heart, premiered in 2012, winning best documentary at three film festivals.
KD has produced 16 albums. He performed Narayana/For Your Love at the 2013 Grammy Award ceremony in Los Angeles, wearing his signature red plaid shirt, where his album Live Ananda was nominated for Best New Age Album. He also founded Kirtan Wallah Foundation, which is dedicated to sharing the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba.
With that brief introduction to a very big and interesting life, Krishna Das, I want to extend a most warm welcome to you. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Krishna Das: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
That should have been the old age category for the Grammy’s.
Jan: [Laughs] I don’t know about that [KD is alluding to the fact that kirtans have been chanted for centuries]. That was really exciting for you, wasn’t it?
Krishna Das: Yeah, I mean it was a surprise. I didn’t even know projects had to be submitted to the Grammy committee. It turned out our lawyer who handles the business submitted them, so it was quite amazing that that happened.
Jan: Yes, because that’s not the general music that you find at a Grammy ceremony, it’s special—it’s spiritual.
Krishna Das: Yeah, and more than that it’s not really the reason I do what I do. I don’t even think of it much as music really. It’s chanting, which in India is called kirtan. It’s a type of call-and-response, meditative chanting repetition of the divine names or the names of God. There’s music involved, but the focus of it is not the music. The music simply helps us pay attention, which is the hard part.
Jan: So, it helps us connect inward.
Krishna Das: Yeah.
Jan: So, your whole story is one of transformation. You’ve been at the very bottom. You struggled with depression and drug abuse. Yet you achieved so much and received so many rewards both spiritual and material. So, in 1970 when you left Long Island for India, what was in your heart? You were seeking something. What answers did you want?
Krishna Das: Well, I wanted to find home base, you know. I had met Ram Dass about a year-and-a-half before that [Ram Dass is a US-born spiritual teacher and former Harvard professor who wrote the ever-popular book, Be Here Now, in 1971].
Immediately, I understood that what I was looking for, whatever that was, was real—that it was available. You could find it. It was in the world, but I didn’t even know what to call it at that point really.
But over the time I spent with Ram Dass traveling around the states and hanging out with him, it became apparent that everything was coming from our guru. His guru at the time, you know, it was Neem Karoli Baba. I just decided that I had to go there.
Jan: What was it that he said, or was it anything he said that made you realize the answer was there?
Krishna Das: Well, first of all, let’s get rid of the word answer, you know. The question is not even a verbal or a thought; it’s a gaping hole in your heart that you want to fill, so not really like it’s an answer. It’s a completion. It’s like finding home again, you know.
When I went to meet Ram Dass for the first time up in his father’s place in New Hampshire, I walked into the room where he was sitting, and without a word being spoken, without eye contact, the minute I walked into that room—boom! I felt that whatever it was I was looking for was real. It was in the world and it could be found.
That was life-changing from that moment. That was the beginning of a whole new thing, because it was 1968, you know—there were a couple of books on yoga, a couple of books on meditation—mostly Zen—and there wasn’t a yoga studio on every corner. It was pretty esoteric and mystical. And there wasn’t a lot of support for people who were seeking something. Now it’s quite different, of course, but in those days . . .
And also, personally, I was totally fed up with America and myself and my possibility of finding any happiness in America or in myself at that point. That’s what I’m saying.
Jan: And speaking of that, you were already in a rock group, weren’t you, which is one of the things that you dearly wanted . . .
Krishna Das: I had been playing with some guys who already became a very well-known rock group, yeah. But by the time they became famous I was long gone, although the producer asked me to come back much later because the guy who would replace me couldn’t sing in the studio, so they asked me to come back.
But I was on my way actually that very night to meet Ram Dass for the first time—to go and stay with him in New Hampshire. I had met him about maybe four or five months before and he invited me to come spend the summer working for his father.
So, I had my two dogs, my cat, and all my worldlies in my little car, and after the Jimmy Hendrix concert, I was gonna head up to New Hampshire. That’s when the producer asked me to come back, but there was no question of what I was gonna do. I mean what I had been feeling with Ram Dass—the pull of the heart was so strong.
But before that, that was my dream, of course, to be, a “rock-n-roll singer.”
Jan: And by the way, that band became Blue Oyster Cult, right?
Krishna Das: They did.
Jan: They were very famous.
Krishna Das: . . .Called Soft White Underbelly [laughing].
Jan: Yes, their first name. Where did that come from?
Krishna Das: Oh, it was the ’60s—what are you talkin’ about? Strawberry Alarm Clock, Soft White Underbelly. All kinds of weird stuff. [soft white underbelly was a phrase used by Winston Churchill during WWII to describe Italy].
Jan: So, you dropped all of that. I mean that was one of your goals, too. You wanted to be a rock star, so you dropped it because that call was so great.
Krishna Das: I wanted to be happy! That was my goal—to find what I felt was missing, you know—I felt like, what is this? Nothing’s working. There’s something missing. Of course, like everybody else—we’re taught to think that we’re gonna find it outside of ourselves. We’ll either be successful or this or that. But I was too f___ed up—Oop! Can I say that?
Jan: Yeah, you can’t [laughs].
Krishna Das: I was too messed up to even imagine finding any kind of happiness at that point in my life. Aside from what I felt deeply with Ram Dass and what was coming from Maharaj-ji himself.
If I had to decide, it would have been very difficult, but there was no possibility of not going. I was being pulled. I wanted this more than anything. When I went to India a year-and-a-half later I was going forever. There was no possibility I was coming back. I was gone.
Jan: When you met your guru what was that meeting like?
Krishna Das: Well, like I said I really met my guru the first time I walked into a room with Ram Dass. My heart was sitting in that room, that’s what I felt.
When I met him physically, at first it was exciting. It was amazing. But on the other hand, I was thinking I had been feeling him so strongly for the previous year-and-a-half—but feeling him huge like the sky, like everything, like the whole universe.
And I was looking at this little guy and I was thinking, “Wait a minute, how does it all fit in there,” you know [laughing]. This is very strange.
And he’d look at us and laugh and pat us on the head. He said to K. K. Sah, the man who brought us, “They’re good boys. They come from good families.” And we thought, “Good families? What are you talking about? You know somethin’ I don’t know.”
Jan: “That’s part of why we’re here,” right?
Krishna Das: Yeah, exactly. Definitely.
Jan: When I talk to people about gurus or when I hear people talk about gurus they sometimes have a preconceived notion about them and they don’t understand, so they reject them, thinking, “Why would you want to follow anybody?” Can you talk to that a little bit?
Krishna Das: Ask them that when they fall in love with somebody. Ask them, “Why did you want to follow that person around?” And they’ll say, “What are you talking about?” [As he feigns being in love, gaga-like].
People don’t know what a guru is. In the first place, they think it’s a person. First mistake. They think it’s a teacher. Second mistake. They think it’s a human being. Third mistake.
They say over and over in India, Guru, God, and Self are not different, they are the same. Guru, God, and Self, your true Self—not your ego—not me, but I. This is a very deep statement and if we could really understand that we’d already been enlightened. Probably the only ones who can understand it are enlightened beings.
A guru is not outside of you. Maharaj-ji was barely in that body. He was the whole universe. He is the whole universe. He’s not a separate being. He’s not a person. He has no agenda. He has no personal needs anymore. He has transcended all the limitations of ego. He has no desires for personal happiness. He’s become joy and truth and reality himself. There’s nothing to get and there’s no one to think about getting anything. He’s a completely enlightened being. That’s what a real guru is.
Coming down from that level, there are many kinds of teachers who can be very helpful in life, but why would you want to follow somebody? The person who’s saying that is probably speaking a language, right? How did they learn to speak that language? They learned it from somebody.
Krishna Das: So what are they talking about? You don’t want to follow somebody? Then don’t talk—because you don’t know how to speak.
People are just nuts, you know. They project all their own neuroses on the outside world and they think that’s what’s really out there. And it’s totally nonsense. It has nothing to do with what really is.
There’s nothing out there. It’s all within our own hearts. It’s already within us as who we are, not something else. It’s who we are. And the whole deal is to kind of deprogram ourselves from looking outside for anything—and then we’re cool.
Jan: From my understanding, it’s like the old saying, “When you’re ready, your teacher shows.” I think you have to be ready to meet a guru, too. You have to be at that point in life where you are seeking—you do want to come home. What do you think about that?
Krishna Das: You know, I think any storyline that you have going is just a storyline. There are so many stories of people who weren’t actively seeking anything who ran into something or had some experience that changed their lives. It’s a karmic situation, and the storyline of this particular life doesn’t have to fit into that, because the karma is unfolding according to its own rules and conditions and causes and when that happens things change.
But there’s no book, there’s no place to know, to try to assess or judge or evaluate where we are on the path. That’s just more evaluative minds’ bull___t. So, you just keep going on. You follow your heart and you do what you do and you try to become a good human being and stop thinking about your own happiness only—because it isn’t.
There’s a really wonderful, high, very advanced lama—Tibetan lama [Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse]—who is also very modern. He wrote a book called Not for Happiness.
Krishna Das: You want to be a Buddhist? You think you want to be a Buddhist to become happy? Get over it because that’s not what’s gonna happen. Because seeking personal happiness is what we do every day, but we confuse happiness with pleasure and we confuse suffering with unhappiness.
But it’s very different. Real happiness has nothing to do with pleasure or pain. It’s not one of the pairs of opposites: fame and shame, gain and loss, happiness/pleasure/pain.
Real happiness is our own true nature and the causes for that are within us and not found outside. Although because we’re physical beings who are identified with our bodies, we see other physical beings, other bodies. We see a world that looks like us outside of us and so within that playing field we can find signs and we can move in the right direction and meet beings who help us and stuff like that. But it’s not really happening out there.
Jan: You return to the oneness quite a bit in your book, and it seems like every time somebody talks to you, you talk about the oneness.
Krishna Das: Well, Maharaj-ji made it very clear to us. He used to go like that [he holds up one finger], you know. And we’d say, “What does that mean when you do that?”
Jan: Just one.
Krishna Das: Many names, many forms, all one. That made it so easy, you know. It made it so simple. It gave us the tool to just stop thinking about it, stop evaluating. Stop saying, “This path is better than this path. This religion is the one. This is more spiritual than something else.” They all lead to the same goal and there’s only one of us in the first place, so take it easy. Relax. Get over it.
Jan: Have you ever had an experience of that oneness? Do you ever see it or do you feel it? Or do you just know it? [laughs]
Krishna Das: It’s an intuitive knowing. It’s not seeing through the senses or feeling through the senses. It’s a knowing, yeah. But it’s intuitive, meaning that it’s as if the curtain opens or is lifted and then you see behind the appearances that it’s all part of one thing.
And it happens from grace. You can’t precipitate these experiences with our personal will other than to cup our hands, you know, to kind of catch the raindrops. It’s always raining. But if you want to drink you have to cup your hands.
Krishna Das: That’s about as much effort, the correct effort. It should be looked at that way. We can’t achieve these states that transcend the ego through the use of ego.
Ramana Maharshi who was one of the greatest saints that ever lived said, “Asking mind to kill the mind is like asking the thief to be the policeman. There will be a lot of investigation, but no arrest will ever be made.”
Jan: That’s great!
Krishna Das: Yeah, it’s really so perfect, you know. But we’re so outer-directed that we think everything is an ambition to achieve something. We think that applies to spiritual activity, but it’s exactly the opposite.
Jan: It’s more of a surrender, yes?
Krishna Das: It’s absolutely a surrender. Surrender is the goal, and it doesn’t mean following somebody or giving up yourself to somebody else. It’s a recognition of the way things actually are.
Krishna Das: Or so they say. [laughs].
Jan: I heard somewhere that Westerners tend to grasp at everything. But when you’re on a spiritual path like this with the Eastern way it’s more of an allowing. We want to allow it to happen.
Krishna Das: Well, Easterners have their own problems. We all have our own paper bags to punch ourselves out of. It might be a slightly different type of paper but it’s basically the same.
Jan: We’re all one. You mentioned that Neem Karoli Baba didn’t really teach concepts. He didn’t ask you to do spiritual practices.
Krishna Das: He knew what we were capable of and what we weren’t capable of. Why waste your breath, you know? [laughs] He used to say Ashtanga Yoga—the 8-limbed yoga—he said the Westerners are only qualified for the 5-limbed yoga: gup, ghoomne, khaana, pina, and sona. In Hindi it means gossiping, wandering around, eating, sleeping, and drinking tea. That’s basically what we were qualified for. [laughs]
He wasn’t a teacher like that. He was a Siddha. He is a Siddha. A Mahasiddha is a great being who can just change the show, change the script if it’s in the person’s best interest. These are the great beings, they’re only here for one reason—that we don’t know what’s going on. They have no business anymore. [In other words, they’re already enlightened and we need help].
But since we’re suffering and since we think we are suffering—which we do—they hang around to show us what’s possible, and they all show us in different ways.
All the teachings of these great beings are the same even if they appear different or come from different lineages or traditions. It’s all about removing the suffering we feel that we’re living with, and they all have different techniques for doing that, but they all lead to the same.
One of the things with Westerners is the lack of love that we feel on a daily basis and especially self-love, love for ourselves, caring for ourselves, giving ourselves a break. We’re very bad at that. We have a lot of self-loathing, a lot of self-hatred, a lot of fear about ourselves and, “Do I deserve happiness? Do I deserve love?” a lot of this stuff.
He just showed us inconceivably unconditional love all the time regardless of how stupid we were and how many mistakes we made. In terms of what was going on around us at the time—he just laughed and loved us more, you know.
This was like drinking nectar for us, because nobody loved us that way—nobody—ever. It’s something that must be tasted. Otherwise, you can talk about sugar being sweet, but until the person tastes the sugar then it’s only a concept, it’s an idea. So, he fed us that love. He just included us, allowed us entry into the room where love lives—and that itself changed our lives.
Whatever else he did within us, and individually, who knows? But all I know is that myself and the other people there, we felt loved unconditionally. Nobody ever loved us that way.
And it was obvious that he knew everything about us, so it wasn’t like he was just loving us and not knowing how f____d up we were. He knew. He knew everything we did. He knew the times we hurt ourselves. He knew all the ways we’ve hurt others. He knew what we were gonna do and he still let us in the room, and that’s a big thing.
Jan: I think that’s another thing people don’t understand about gurus is that they know you better than you know yourself. They know you intimately, and because of that, they can guide you.
Krishna Das: Yeah.
Jan: I love the way you put it in your book. You said, “He’d shine light on me like the sun and I’d bloom. When the clouds came between us I saw that they were my own clouds.”
Krishna Das: Yeah.
Jan: And that’s how you felt.
Krishna Das: I had to wait for the sun to evaporate them—there was nothing I could do. I was helpless with those clouds, especially at that time. I would just sit there and be suicidal until he threw another apple at me—and then ahhh! He knew that. That’s how he taught actually, or let’s say, trained us.
We’d be sitting there and our hearts would be open and it would be wonderful, and then gradually unnatural clouds would start to show up again and we’d feel separate and dark and angry and hurt, and all those things, and then there was very little we could do about it—at least speaking for myself—until the next time he looked at me. You recognized your helplessness.
It wasn’t like something new or it wasn’t you were helpless because you wanted to be with this guru, this baba, this being, or because you wanted to be in that love. You recognized your inability to really do anything to help yourself to deal with these clouds.
And that was really humbling because we all think, “Yeah, I’ll meditate my ass up to enlightenment—yeah.” No way is that gonna happen. And there’s a real type of humility that you have to understand very deeply. What part of us is possible to connect with something deeper; which part is not gonna help?
Jan: Were the clouds your karma?
Krishna Das: Sure. Everything is karma. Everything you see, think, feel, imagine, dream about is all karma—karmically determined.
Jan: Do you think he would try to help those come out so he could help you deal you with them or did they come up naturally?
Krishna Das: Oh no, no—he played around. He can make you want to jump off a cliff and then just before you’re ready to jump he’d say, “Hey, what are you doing?” [very innocently].
So, when I was gonna kill myself he just looked at me and said, “What are you gonna do—jump in the river? Hahaha,” which was inches deep, you know. I figured if I got my head under a rock—wedged in, I could probably get it done, right? He just laughed. He said, “What are you gonna do? Jump in the river? Worldly people don’t die. Worldly people don’t die.”
Somebody dies and people cry and moan and they don’t eat, but after a few days they’re laughin’ and jokin’ and eatin’ again. One attachment replaces another attachment, one after the other after the other after the other. He said, “Samsara—this world—is the flow of attachment. No attachment? No world.”
Jan: And why are we here if that’s what it is?
Krishna Das: Are you here?
Jan: I’m here, I think [laughs].
Krishna Das: Prove it! [grins]
Jan: I guess in concept I must be here to learn.
Krishna Das: Well, we think we’re here, anyway.
Krishna Das: If we’re really here, it’s a different story. Being here means really being here and now, in the present moment; not lost in thoughts, not imaginings, not lost in fantasies, and dreams and desires, which is where we spend most of our time. We’re not really here. When we’re here, we’re here, and that’s different.
You know in the Rig Veda, the original Veda [the oldest of four sacred Hindu texts], the first Veda that was written down anyway, there was the song of creation. It says, in the beginning, there was this and this and then this happened and this happened and this happened and that happened. It goes through page after page—and this happened and that happened. And the last line goes, “and why did all this happen? Ah, only He in the highest heaven knows. Or, perhaps He knows not.” Really—it says that.
Jan: Think about that for a while.
Krishna Das: You don’t ask why. Why is just mental masturbation. It keeps you busy but It’s not the real thing.
Jan: You were only with him for two-and-a-half years, right? Unfortunately.
Krishna Das: Fortunately—are you kidding? Fortunately. It could have been a minute or it could not have happened. Two-and-a-half years, yeah.
Jan: And you learned a lot in those two-and-a-half years. He actually did change your story.
Krishna Das: Not exactly. First of all I didn’t learn anything. I got to sunbathe for a while in his love, but I had some very unhappy karmas that needed to be lived through. And he sent me back to America. He said, “You have attachment there. You have to go.”
I said, “But I am just learning Hindi.”
“Too bad. Go!” So, I had to go. And I did have—and still do have—a lot of attachment to live through and work through, and karmic waves keep arising and crushing over me. I just try to deal with them as best as I can. That’s all I can do.
Jan: But your time spent with him, didn’t that help you get through those better even now? And aren’t you still with him?
Krishna Das: Absolutely, yeah! He’s still with me. I’m not always with him. He said, “Once I take your hand, I never let go even when you let go of me.” So that’s the deal. He’s always here and when I remember, I’m with him, when I don’t, I’m not. But he’s with me. That’s the important thing, really. Without that, there’s nothing to talk about.
Jan: That’s a great promise.
Krishna Das: Yeah, it is. It is. I had a lot of stuff to go through and I still do, but now I have, by his grace, I have this practice of chanting, which has the possibility of giving me some vote in how I go through my day and how I meet each moment and each experience—how it’s dealt with, and trying to find the best way to navigate through the icebergs of karmic destruction.
Jan: Do you chant for yourself as well as for your audiences?
Krishna Das: There’s no difference. Chanting is chanting. At the beginning, out of false humility, I tried to say, you know, I’m only doing this for myself. I don’t care if you people are here or not. Just because Westerners tend to deify everybody and everything in a very kind of emotional, fake way. I didn’t want to have to do deal with that, so I just tried to avoid all of that.
People would say, “Thank you. Thank you so much.” I finally just learned to say, “You’re welcome,” and move on. Any more than that was just ego bulls__t.
So I sing. I sing to him. I sing to him whether I’m singing with people or whether I’m sitting alone. I sing the same. It’s the same.
But I understood at one point, before I started singing, I understood very clearly that it had to be with people. I had to sing with people in order to be able to clean out the dark corners of my own heart. I couldn’t do it alone in my room.
Jan: By helping others, you mean?
Krishna Das: I don’t think of it that way. I think about sharing my practice.
Krishna Das: I don’t think about helping others. Yeah, I’m up there as the leader of this practice, so to speak, but people have dreams of Maharaj-ji. People get happy. What do I have to with that? I’m just singing. They’re doing that. And he’s doing that. Does a radio make a person dance? No. It just transmits the music and the person reacts the way they react. So that’s how I think of it.
I think that Maharaj-ji is transmitting through me, by his grace, not by my own abilities. But by my desire to be with him, I have to sing to him and through singing to him, he transmits to me and anybody who happens to be around his presence, his love, and his space. That’s how I think about.
Jan: I think, too, that the quality of your voice and the quality of the kirtans that you’re actually singing, because they are God’s name, I mean that has everything to do with it, too. There’s something. When I first heard your chanting, I felt it in my heart and I listened to it all night one night in a car, driving home. It was a little bit of a drive, and it kept me going the whole time.
Krishna Das: That was great. I’m happy for that.
Jan: I think your chanting helps people fall in love with themselves or with God.
Krishna Das: It’s also planting seeds. Every repetition of the name is a seed that gets planted in our karmic mind through him. Those seeds get planted and they will grow as time goes on.
It’s not really so much about what we experience at the moment of the chanting—which could be nice, could not be nice. It doesn’t really matter so much. What matters is the repetition of the name and Maharaj-ji used to say, “Go on repeating the name whether in anger, or fear, or unhappiness, or whatever you’re going through just keep on doing it.”
The implication is that it’s not about “What am I feeling now?” That’s just ego stuff. It’s okay. It’s not going to hurt you so much, but it’s not what’s really going on. What’s really going on is you’re planting seeds, which change your life from the inside out as time and lives go by.
Jan: I think it’s really a great concept; it’s detached from your thoughts, detached from what you think about everything, detached from that ego.
Krishna Das: Detach is the right word, or to release the thoughts. It’s not about pushing away. It’s not about rejecting anything, but it’s simply about when you—you just come back. When you notice you’re gone and you come back, that’s the whole deal.
Thinking about something and trying to understand something and ruminating about something—fine—but let it go and come back to the name.
The more time you spend turning within, the more time you spend turning within. It just happens that way. It’s not about studying. It’s not about books. It’s not about understanding intellectually or conceptually what this is about. It’s about doing your practice, period.
Jan: When you chant, you’re chanting in Sanskrit. A lot of people don’t understand Sanskrit, but there’s a vibration to it.
Krishna Das: I don’t understand it either. Yeah, you could say it’s vibrations, but these are particular vibrations. These are the names of God. These names are what’s called revealed names. In other words, they came into this world through a being who recognized and experienced the reality of what that name is.
They say the name of God and God are not different, or the name and what is named are not different. So, we’re chanting “Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram.” We don’t know what it means, but we’re chanting it. But we’re not able to actually experience what it is at that moment. But if we really could see what was on, the name and God are the same. What is named and the name are not different.
So if we were in the deepest place [in meditation], we would have a direct experience of what the divine is at that moment. But we don’t, so Maharaj-ji used to say, “Go on. Chant your lying, fake Ram Ram. One of these days you’ll get it right. The real Ram will come—and boom! [enlightenment]!”
But he said, “Keep chanting—fake Ram Ram—the false Ram Ram. Because that’s the practice. And then one day the real Ram will show, ‘Oh! Hello!’ And then everything’s different.”
Jan: Has Ram ever showed up for you?
Krishna Das: I don’t know [feigning looking around]. I’m looking around. I don’t see him right now.
Jan: I imagine that’s just something you wouldn’t be able to describe even if it happened.
Krishna Das: Yeah.
Jan: I’m curious. Do Westerners still go to India to go find themselves?
Krishna Das: They go to get dysentery, that’s for sure. They find themselves in bathrooms is where they find themselves.
Yeah, a lot of Westerners go because now it’s easy to go. You have a cell phone. You rent a car. You drive around. Or you actually get driven around. It’s pretty hard to drive in India. Although I’ve done it. There’s a lot going on.
But Westerners don’t have to go anywhere anymore. There are plenty of teachings available here, and you don’t have to get sick. It’s very easy to get pretty sick there really quick. I’ve been dealing with parasites my whole life because I keep going back and get them again, but I wouldn’t change that. But I go back because I have a family there. There’s people I’ve known for 45 years. Very close, all the devotees of Maharaj-ji.
I go back to soak that up and spend time with them. But as far as going to India to find anything—that’s a joke. You don’t have to go anywhere to find anything. Just look in the mirror and try to figure out what you’re actually seeing. That’s all you have to do. And the mirror is everywhere. Everything is you’re looking in the mirror.
If you’re smart enough and sincere enough and motivated enough, you begin to actually get the cues that what you’re seeing is your own stuff everywhere and all you have to do is learn how to release that, again and again and again and again, but yeah…
Jan: I think we surrender over and over again, too, don’t we?
Krishna Das: We try to surrender over and over again, but surrender is not an act of will. It’s not an act of personal will. When the moment is right you are surrendered. One is surrendered.
Moments of surrender and acceptance happen, and they’re very deep for people. They usually happen and you don’t recognize that’s what happened until much later. But final surrender is becoming one with God—is recognizing oneness with That—whatever you want to call it—and not two-ness of it.
That’s the ultimate state and it’s called the easy state—Sahaj Samadhi—because it requires no effort. It only requires recognition. It’s not an effort of will; it’s a recognition of what already is.
So that’s the fruit of a lot of practice and a lot of trying, trial and error, a lot of tears, and a lot of running around like a chicken with your head cut off. But, ultimately, the fruit of all that effort is the state of effortlessness which is our true nature.
Jan: Which brings us back again to talking about the love that’s really inside of us. I remember at one point when I was feeling particularly lost in my life I heard that concept, but I didn’t have a clue what it meant and I thought, you know, how I could it possibly be within me if I can’t even feel it? So, what can you say to somebody who is in that position where they don’t really even believe that love could be within?
Krishna Das: I remember Ram Dass used to tell this story—this guy called him up and said, “You know, I’m going to commit suicide. I’m just calling to say goodbye. I’m going to do it soon. I’m going to commit suicide, yeah I just can’t dig it…” So, Ram Dass said, “Well, can I talk to the guy who dialed my number?” You know. Who is that?
So once again the situation is that we identify with our emotional states. We identify with our thoughts. So, if we’re in a dark emotional state we think that’s me, and we don’t recognize that there’s somebody in there experiencing in the first place.
But we’re so identified with it and there’s no slippage in the system. We can’t release it, which is why practice is important. You can’t think yourself out of a prison that’s made of thought. It just doesn’t work. You can’t think yourself out of it because every thought is the prison.
Practice is what’s important.
Over time—regularly over time it brings fruit. And those dark states, those negative states of mind, they don’t last as long. They arise according to our own karmas and life situations which are dictated by our own karmas and our own brain chemistry, and our own body chemistry which is dictated by our karmas.
But how we engage with them is the real issue and that’s the fruit of practice—is that gradually but inevitably those negative states don’t last as long as they might have.
Once again, it’s something that’s not provable experimentally. You can’t prove it, but if you look back at your life you begin to see, well, I used to spend more time moping around, but I don’t do it that much. I wonder why. Why is that it’s the fruit of practice. We spend less time being gone and more time being here.
Just like when a kid is playing out on the lawn. There’s no like, “Wow! I’m playing. This is great! I’m really enjoying this playing. Wow! I’m in a very free-play state here.” There’s nothing like that. Time goes by and there’s no recognition of time going by because you’re in a state of play.
So, it’s only in retrospect when we look back we can see that maybe we’re spending less time in darker states. The time we spend here is not measurable—because here is always now.
Jan: I think, too, for somebody who doesn’t have a practice yet, those times when it feels most dark are when you can start to seek the answers. I know you don’t want to seek answers, but it can motivate you to try to find something.
Krishna Das: Well, that’s exactly what Buddha said. He came out of the jungle and he said, “Guess what? There’s suffering.” Because people want to avoid suffering. They don’t want to recognize it. They’re suffering away. It sticks to you. The idea is to understand that it’s a quality that’s intrinsic to being alive. Nothing will ever be enough. Pleasure turns to pain, pain to something else. You know, it’s a constant changing.
We don’t like change. We want to hold on to one pleasant state of mind forever. That can’t happen. So he said let’s pay attention to suffering and the causes of suffering and then we can eliminate suffering by eliminating the causes of suffering.
The problem is—the heartbreaking thing is that most people suffer and get nothing from it. It doesn’t wake them up because they don’t understand there’s any other way to be. People feel victims of everything—their internal and external experiences. They don’t feel they have a vote. They don’t feel that even a vote is possible, and so they just keep creating more and more and more negative stuff.
Jan: So, what to do to get that vote?
Krishna Das: This is grace. You know you can lead a horse to water, but until they’re thirsty, you can’t make them drink. So there’s nothing to do except do what you do and be the best person you can be—the kindest, most compassionate person with as much inner strength as you can have and deal with everybody in the best way you can and be there the best you can for somebody who’s having a hard time.
But it doesn’t mean that it’s going to help them very much. Because help has to come from within ultimately. Ultimately, that doesn’t mean we don’t do everything we can for people, but whether it works is up to Him, not to us.
Jan: Another thing you talk about which goes along these lines is about letting go of expectations.
Krishna Das: Yeah.
Jan: In your book, you talk about yourself not creating fantasies in your head about what is supposed to happen when you chant.
Krishna Das: I should read that book again.
Jan: [Laughs] Some great lines in there.
Krishna Das: Somebody wrote it.
That’s just another way we screw ourselves over. We hold our self up to some image of what we want to be and how we want to feel and we’re always short of that, so we hurt ourselves and we feel bad about ourselves.
But we can’t stop thinking. We can’t stop imagining. We can’t stop dreaming. You can’t shoot that thought as it goes through your mind. It comes from practice that we begin to learn to train ourselves to release those things more quickly. There’s no button to push to make it all okay—at once.
Or you could just say the button was pushed a long time ago, now it’s just working itself out. You can look at it one way or the other.
But, yes, it’s good to point out about expectations and dreams, and fantasies, and desires, and all the things that we do in our head all day long and we don’t know how to let go or release any of that stuff. It takes a little training to do that.
And what’s more is that the reason the Saints are in the world in the first place is to show us what’s possible. It’s very rare for somebody to awaken without—although, of course, it happens quite a bit, really—but it’s not the usual thing. Most people meet somebody or read something or see something, then they have an experience of being free for a minute from this stuff and they think, “Wow! Oh! that’s possible.”
Jan: Do you have any thoughts about willpower?
Krishna Das: Once I was singing in the jungle with a very, very old baba. He was 163 at the time. I think he’s still alive. That’s over 20 years ago. He looked at me and he kind of went, “Oh, you have to develop willpower.” I was sitting there and my first thought was like, “Willpower, what do we need that for?” I thought, I want to surrender, blah, blah, blah.
He saw my thought and he did something inside of me, and I saw what he was seeing in me and I went, “Ohhhh! [with huge eyes].” And I realize I saw myself and I saw that I was just floating downstream. I was not making any effort to get to the shore. I was just crippling myself every step of the way. I had no willpower and I saw clearly that for willpower, you want—my hand is picking up, I go for the ice cream. I put the ice cream in my mouth. I eat it. That’s willpower.
Willpower is what helps you get what you want, and I was pretending I didn’t want anything. And as a result, I wasn’t doing anything to help myself.
It was really a very dark period in my life. And he showed me there’s only one life here. There’s not like worldly life and spiritual life. There’s just you and me and my life, and if I didn’t go after the things I wanted, I wasn’t going to get them.
It was a really a powerful moment for me. Ultimately, I think it led to me starting to chant. It was still quite a few years before I started chanting.
He was funny. One time he looked at me, out of the blue, this was in the ’80s. I was doing nothing. He was saying, “Ahhh, You’re gonna be famous.”
So I looked up at him and I go, “And rich!”
And he laughed—“Ah ha ha!” He comes up to me, eye to eye, nose to nose, and he says, “Famous!”
Jan: [Laughs] Darn!
Krishna Das: I took my shot. He liked it. But he didn’t give it to me, so. . .it was funny.
Jan: Why do you think you weren’t using your own willpower? What was it?
Krishna Das: Take a look around you. Take a look at people in the supermarket. Nobody is using their willpower. They’re just following their nose. Completely asleep. I wasn’t using my willpower because basically I had so much self-loathing and so much self-hatred and so much anger, so much unprocessed stuff that I didn’t even want to look at it. I didn’t want to go there. Unconsciously, I felt like I can’t deal with this, so I just was floating along.
This is like talking about, you know, 10, 15 years after Maharaj-ji left the body—and I’m still not doing it for myself. I just wasn’t capable at that point of facing the stuff that was inside of me.
When I started singing with people it was because I had an epiphany in my room in New York where I saw very clearly if I did not sing with people, I would never be able to clean out the dark corners of my own heart, the shadows of my own heart.
I understood very deeply and intimately that it was only those shadows that were causing me suffering. Nothing else. And the only way I could get rid of them or even begin to clean out those dark corners was to start singing with people. This is what Maharaj-ji gave me. This is what he had me do, because you can’t attack these things directly because once again that’s like mind trying to kill mind.
Jan: These seeds inside you must have sprouted at that point?
Krishna Das: Yeah, I don’t know how I think of it really, but I tend to just think of it that the time had come that I need to do something and he showed me what that was, because I wasn’t capable of anything at that point.
Jan: And then at one point after you started sharing your kirtans with people you had to go back to India again to—I guess your ego was getting involved somehow.
Krishna Das: Ugh. To say the least. What happened was I started singing with people as I felt I needed to do, but I saw very clearly and very quickly what was gonna happen. I thought I was a hungry guy and I was gonna use all this energy and attention to satisfy my desires and my needs, and I was gonna use the situation to do that. I’d be using these people who are coming to me thinking it was me and I was gonna take advantage of that and gobble all this stuff up. There was no possibility that I could not do that. I was helpless.
Jan: But you knew it wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right?
Krishna Das: Yeah. That’s why I stopped singing and I started talking to Maharaj-ji. I said [shaking his finger], “This is your problem. I’m singing to people in your name and I’m not capable of doing it. You either fix this or I don’t sing. That’s the deal.”
Jan: Love it.
Krishna Das: But I was so horrified by my inability to do the right thing, and do it in a wholesome, sincere way. I mean I was sincere, but there was another program running and I could not pull the plug on that program myself. He had to change something inside of me. So I quit singing and I went to India for a rather long visit, about three months, and he actually changed the program. He did something—he saved me.
Jan: Can you describe how it happened?
Krishna Das: Well, it’s in the book.
Jan: I didn’t see that one.
Krishna Das: It’s in great detail, yeah. June 15th, 1995 at the temple in Kainchi [Neem Karoli Baba’s temple was there] was a day that there was a bhandara, or a celebration of feeding the people, and honoring that first temple that was opened near the Hanuman Temple in the temple complex. So, every June 15th they have this bhandara where tens of thousands, sometimes 50-, 60-, 70,000 people come in a day and get fed a full meal. They come from all over India.
But to make a long story very short, I’d been in India about three months and every day I’d wake up and I’d say, “You haven’t done anything. I don’t know what’s going on here. Get it together. I’m not singing till you fix this.”
Every day it got worse and worse and more and more despair because here I was—I was being prevented from doing the only thing that I could do to save my ass. I was being prevented from doing it by my own stuff. What do you do with that? There’s nothing you can do. You’re stuck. It’s miserable.
I’d been there since the middle of March and then by the middle of May I went to live in the temple. Siddhi Ma basically forced me to stay until the 15th of June because otherwise I was going to go home at the end of May. But she said, “No, you have to stay,” and so I stayed.
Like I said, every day I would recognize that nothing had changed. And then the night before the 15th—every night I’d go out into the back of the temple and I would find a little dark corner where I could see the stars, and I would look up at the stars and I’d talk to Maharaj-ji or rather I would berate him. I’d say, “What are you doing? You haven’t done anything yet. I’m leaving in three days. Get it together. Good night.”
So, finally, on the last day, I was basically going to leave the next day or the day after, I just went up there and I said, “I don’t get it. I don’t get it. You can do this. You can do this. I don’t understand why you’re not doing it.” I just said, “Look, you can do this. I don’t understand. Alright, I’ll go back. I’ll sing. How bad could it be? Good night.” And then the next day everything changed.
Krishna Das: But you see in retrospect that was the moment of surrender where I said, “Okay, I’ll deal with it—how bad could it be? I’ll deal with it. I don’t like it, goddammit, but I’ll deal with it.” That was the surrender. I accepted it the way it was; then he changed everything.
Jan: He wanted you to do it.
Krishna Das: No, I didn’t do it, but he wanted me to accept the way things are and deal with it. I didn’t do it. It was grace and grace alone that saved my ass and nothing else. No effort on my part.
It was a very different experience. The curtains were pulled and opened and I saw the way things are and I actually experienced that the whole thing—the chanting—has nothing to do with me at all even when I think it does.
And that’s what saved me. That’s what allowed me to come back because I saw even when I’m stupid and think that I’m doing it, I’m not. So that was a big thing. But it’s in the book in great detail. So, I think it’s worth reading.
Jan: I also think that’s a great story of surrender. You can hear that all day long, too—what you need to do. But to do it yourself is definitely something different.
Krishna Das: At some point you stop moping around. You say, “Okay, this is the way it is; let me deal with it.” That’s surrender. So the beginning of surrender. That’s like at least you turned the handle to the door of surrender at that point.
And that’s basically what’s required. But people want to change everything. They want to blame. They don’t want to blame, but they do blame. We feel like we’re victims of this and that, and, yes, on one level it really does look like that. It can look like that. It can feel like that.
But somehow you have to get a wider perspective to life in general in order to be able to step out of that prison of identification with the suffering. It’s not easy. It’s not easy. It’s painful and it’s very difficult, but the only way to go is right through the middle of it.
Jan: Well, that sounds like a wonderful message to end this with. I don’t want to end it. I want to keep going. But I want to thank you for sharing your wonderful gift of kirtan with all of us and for letting us connect with you today too, to hear some of the things that you’ve experienced in your own life.
Krishna Das: Thank you.
Jan: We’ll catch you in your book!