Artist Spotlight: Karnamrita Dasi

Karnamrita3“Enchanting”, “haunting”, “utterly sublime”—just a few words that do not even begin to describe “Dasi,” the first album by Karnamrita Dasi. Arriving on the spiritual music “scene” only recently, Karnamrita has been chanting since early childhood. She has the voice of a gandharva (angel) and her songs of women saints are transcendental, as is her own story. [Following our interview with Karnamrita, you’ll find lyrics and links to music videos of several tracks from her album, “Dasi.”]

Integral Yoga Magazine: When people hear your chanting, in addition to saying how purely devotional it is, they are often surprised to know you are American and not Indian.

Karnamrita Dasi: I grew up in America in an Ashram where I lived in a traditional Gurukulam (Vedic school) until I was 16. Our training included waking early and chanting from 4:30 to 7:30 every morning. By age eight we had memorized the entire 72 verses of the Brahma Samhita (the prayer at the time of creation) which we would recite before breakfast. We studied Sanskrit, the Gita, Upanishads and many bhajans.

IYM: What was the transition from ashram and Gurukulam to the outside world like for you as a young woman?

KD:  When I left the ashram, I was a young woman, without much practical experience or knowledge of the world. I didn’t know how to relate my Gurukula training to my new life in public high school. Gradually, as I matured, I realized that my Gurukula studies were foundations that made my life richer and stronger. 

IYM: Your album is dedicated to your mother who passed away from cancer and who asked you to do something with your singing.

KD: Yes, I never thought of pursuing music. But, with my mother’s passing, and at her request, I recognized the opportunity to serve her on a deeper level, through singing. After she left the body, I threw myself and my pain into chanting and studying music. I had this realization—that everything in life is lovingly on loan to us.

I heard my mother say this so many times, and the Vedas taught this, but now I was experiencing and feeling this in a more meaningful way. It altered my life and vision dramatically. I realized that the Gita was part of my blood, my history, my life understanding—from a deep internal space, rather than just from a philosophical view. I didn’t go to therapy, I didn’t get into pills for my pain; I dove deep into the music. I surrounded myself with it, and allowed myself to get lost and healed in the sounds and feelings of music.

IYM: Soon after your mother’s death you went to India?

KD:  Almost immediately. My mother was a Krishna bhakta (devotee) so I wanted to bring her ashes to river Yamuna in Brindaban. I also wanted to study classical music but I was not clear about which style to study. I was in this small village and each night my friend and I would visit one of the 5,000 local temples. The first night our rickshaw driver took us to the Meerabai temple where they sang her songs. The next night he took us to another. After visiting a new temple every night, he would take us to finish our evening darshan at the temple of Radha Raman. There we would sit and listen to the temple singers and musicians for two hours. One night the main temple singer asked who our teacher was. We told him we were not studying music. He invited us to come to their school, and soon after we were introduced to the Dhrupad music style. I began to spend seven to eight months a year there, training and just listening to the magic of Brindaban music

IYM: What in particular drew you to the temple singing?

KD: The bhakti! The style of Dhrupad is also one of the most profound musical experiences I had ever felt. Being allowed to sit with the musicians, facing the deity of Radha Raman, and singing as a community with the local villagers there was an instant connection! I had spent 28 years chanting with my own Ashram, but there, the level of bhakti went deeper. The Vedas say that the process of getting closer to the Divine starts with sravanam (listening) and then goes to kirtanam (singing). I was able to experience both of these steps profoundly and it changed my life.

IYM: What was the training like?

KD: For two months I just listened from the depth of my heart. I was so engrossed in the listening experience; I never even thought of singing. When my classes began we started with the classical North Indian scales and moved on gradually to studying ragas and their theory. Every night I would meet my teacher in the temple and we would offer songs to Radha Ramanji.

While I was studying, I met another group of musicians, who traveled India performing and doing theater—all accompanied by folk music and classical instruments. I went all over India with them and I learned a lot of the village music this way. Listening to these musicians, combined with my classical studies, and singing our Ashram kirtans, I could feel music becoming the essence of my life. It was bringing all the broken bits of my life back together.

IYM: Your first album is devoted to the songs of the female dasis, or servants of God.  Why did you choose this theme?

KD: It seemed only natural, especially, because it was a dedication to my Mata (mother).  In our Ashram, we had always sung many songs composed by male Gurus, but I remembered there were also poems and stories by the women saints.  So for a year, I focused on the women from the Vedas, and researched their words from Srimad Bhagavatam, where I found beautiful hymns like those of Devaki, Kunti and Pingala.

IYM: Each of the songs on your CD is from scripture, and so rich with meaning which really flows through the music you composed.

KD: I loved making the music. Although it is not representational of Dhrupad nor classical Indian music, I wanted to compose these prayers in such a way as to enable the listener to enter the mood and bhakti in each song. These songs are different from some of the popular kirtan CDs, because these are actually songs that you can sing along with, followed by  a chorus verse which creates a beautiful calming effect on the mind when sung. 

IYM: Would you tell us the meaning behind “Yamunastakam?” One feels truly transported to the banks of the Yamuna.

KD:  I don’t know if I could have sung this song if I didn’t have a relationship with this river—with those sunsets and mustard blossoms on the other side and the boatmen singing “Radhe, Radhe” all day. My mother’s ashes rest deep beneath the rivers currents and tides, so when I recorded this song, I went back there and sat on the banks, and sang to my mother. My art seems to have become richer since I have taken shelter in it, and this “Yamunastakam,” is the essence of shelter. For at the end of our lives, Yamuna Devi embraces us in her waters.

IYM: What about the song, “Devaki?”

KD: Since childhood, I was strongly moved by the story of Devaki. She is Krishna’s mother, and when she was pregnant she knew she was going to give birth to the Lord, so prayed to him during her pregnancy. Even though Devaki did not get to raise her child (Krishna was born under the threat of all  the male children being murdered, like at the time of Jesus. And, like the story of baby Moses, Krishna was raised by an adoptive mother, Yasoda) she represents the Divine Mother and the glory of the Mother.  Just before she gave birth, Narada and the gandharvas came to Devaki’s jail cell to do arati to her. They praised and sang to her as the all-Divine mother. That was powerful to me because my mother was like a Guru; she was my guide.

IYM: It is incredible how you captured the feeling of Devaki in your composition. How did you compose the music?

KD: I felt her message when I composed it. She is in the darkest night in her jail cell and she is giving birth. She is filled with fear and anxiety, but as she begins to hear the ocean and wind making musical notes, the fear dissolves; the pain is vanquished as she becomes completely taken over by the music. I heard the sound one day. The music just came to me. The notes and drones are like the sounds of the nighttime and represent a sense of peace, grounding and motherly love.

IYM: One of my favorite saints and tracks is “Meerabai.”

KD: In the Gurukulam we were not allowed to see movies but we were able to see Hema Malini’s film, “Meera.” That movie moved me so deeply. It was my first inspiration to see the beauty of India’s female saints and the gentle, loving shakti of women. When I was in India, I visited Meera’s birthplace. Almost every song my teacher sang was one of Meerabai’s. Her song on this album is in a folk style, and she is shy and almost flirtatious, rather than sad and longing. In this song, Meera is filled with joy, because her Lord is coming down her lane. 

IYM: For those who have never tried chanting, what might the benefit be?

KD: Wow, that’s a big question. I can only tell you what my own experience has been:  peace of mind, freedom from anxiety and a clearing of core issues in my life. Simply sublime.

Watch video: “Devaki” (from Dasi)

mumucur munayo devah
sumanamsi mudanvitah
mandam mandam jaladhara
jagarjur anusagaram
nisithe tama-udbhute
jayamane janardane
devakyam deva-rupinyam
vishnuh sarva-guha-sayah
avirasid yatha pracyam
disindur iva pushkalah

“The demigods and great saintly persons showered flowers in a joyous mood, and clouds gathered in the sky and very mildly thundered, making sounds like those of the ocean’s waves. Then the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vishnu, who is situated in the core of everyone’s heart, appeared from the heart of Devaki in the dense darkness of night, like the full moon rising on the eastern horizon, because Devaki was of the same category as Sri Krishna.”
– Srimad Bhagavatam
Canto 10, Chapter 3 “The Birth of Lord Krishna”  Verses 7-8

Watch the music video for “Story of Pingala” (from “Dasi”)
pingalovaca
aho me moha-vitatim
pasyatavijitatmanah
ya kantad asatah kamam
kamaye yena balisa

The “woman of the night” Pingala said: Just see how greatly illusioned I am! Because I cannot control my mind, just like a fool I desire lusty pleasure from an insignificant man.

11.8.31
santam samipe ramanam rati-pradam
vitta-pradam nityam imam vihaya
akama-dam duhkha-bhayadhi-soka-
moha-pradam tuccham aham bhaje jna

I am such a fool that I have given up the service of that person who, being eternally situated within my heart, is actually most dear to me. That most dear one is the Lord of the universe, who is the bestower of real love and happiness and the source of all prosperity. Although He is in my own heart, I have completely neglected Him. Instead I have ignorantly served insignificant men who can never satisfy my real desires and who have simply brought me unhappiness, fear, anxiety, lamentation and illusion.

11.8.37
nunam me bhagavan prito
vishnuh kenapi karmana
nirvedo yam durasaya
yan me jatah sukhavahah

Although I most stubbornly hoped to enjoy the material world, somehow or other detachment has arisen in my heart, and it is making me very happy. Therefore the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vishnu, must be pleased with me. Without even knowing it, I must have performed some activity satisfying to Him.

11.8.38
maivam syur manda-bhagyayah
klesa nirveda-hetavah
yenanubandham nirhritya
purushah samam ricchati

A person who has developed detachment can give up the bondage of material society, friendship and love, and a person who undergoes great suffering gradually becomes, out of hopelessness, detached and indifferent to the material world. Thus, due to my great suffering, such detachment awoke in my heart; yet how could I have undergone such merciful suffering if I were actually unfortunate? Therefore, I am in fact fortunate and have received the mercy of the Lord. He must somehow or other be pleased with me.

11.8.39
tenopakritam adaya
sirasa gramya-sangatah
tyaktva durasah saranam
vrajami tam adhisvaram

With devotion I accept the great benefit that the Lord has bestowed upon me. Having given up my sinful desires for ordinary sense gratification, I now take shelter of Him, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

11.8.40
santushta sraddadhaty etad
yatha-labhena jivati
viharamy amunaivaham
atmana ramanena vai

I am now completely satisfied, and I have full faith in the Lords mercy. Therefore I will maintain myself with whatever comes of its own accord. I shall enjoy life with only the Lord, because He is the real source of love and happiness.

(Translation from Srimad-bhagavatam, courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc.)

For more information about Karnamrita CD, “Dasi” and her touring schedule, please visit: karnamrita.com

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