Profiled by Time magazine and nominated for a Grammy, Krishna Das is regarded as America’s leading “chantmaster.” Each year Krishna Das gives a workshop in Yogaville and he graciously agreed to be interviewed. Krishna Das talks about his Guru, his path, and falling in love with who you truly are in Part 1 of this two-part interview.
Integral Yoga Magazine: Your best-selling video is called, The Yoga of Chant, and you explain how chanting is a way of achieving devotion to God through music. You even explain that the Deity will reveal Himself or Herself to you if you maintain sincerity and concentration through the chanting. Do you think that some people who have difficulty concentrating silently could use this technique of chanting ancient mantras aloud as a steppingstone to other forms of meditation? Could chanting even be considered a meditation itself?
Krishna Das: In India, they say that the Name and God are not different. So, if that’s true, then chanting the Name or remembering the Name in any way, either out loud or silently, is to be in God or with God. So you would have to say that this practice is meditation itself. The saints see God everywhere and they hear the Name, the silent Name, constantly because they are in that state where they hear the sound of the universe, which is the name of God—the original Name.
It says in some of the new translations of the Bible: “In the beginning was the Name, and the Name was with God. And the Name was toward God and the Name was with God.” So it’s an ancient process, a recognition of the Path. The chanting of the Name is a very subtle practice, so we don’t really understand what we’re doing. It’s just like, to some degree, when you’re a kid and you watch TV, you don’t understand all of the electronics that went into getting that picture in front of your face. And the way we practice spiritual techniques is very much the same. We don’t understand what we’re doing until the practices reveal to us what the story is. So, we may see our practice in an egocentric way: “I’m doing this and this will bring that result for me.” That is reasonable, because that’s where our heads are. It’s actually not like that, though. Actually, the practice is “doing” us! God is remembering us! We have no ability to remember God. We are like a comet shooting out into space, and God is grabbing us and pulling us back—pulling us back into orbit around the Name. So, meditation is a very deep and subtle practice; and the same words mean different things in different traditions.
Over and over and over, it is said that in this age—Kali Yuga [the dark age]—the practice of the chanting of the Name is the most efficacious, the easiest, the simplest and the most powerful practice that a person can do. I’ve read it and I’ve heard it a million times. So there must be something to it. At any rate, it must be a good practice to do. This is a Remembrance practice, and what we’re remembering is the Name or the mantra. Where that mantra comes from is our True Self. So, in a sense, it’s a remembrance of our Self. It’s being present. But actually, when you’re saying the Name, you’re more present than at other times, because the name is present.
IYM: You have said that music is like the honey coating the Holy Names?
KS: Music is like the syrup that the medicine of the Name is hidden in. A little kid takes the medicine because it tastes good, not because she knows she has to take the medicine to get better. If it tastes terrible, it will be a big problem. So, all of the music around the Name is about getting us attracted to the repetition of the Name. Eventually, the Name itself goes on without the necessity of any melody. It’s not necessary for it to be out loud for people to hear, either. That’s just the syrup that attracts us to the taste of it—but in that taste is the medicine that cures us from suffering.
IYM: How can a beginner find the door to sincere chanting?
KD: We are all beginners. And sincere chanting is no more different than sincere living. If you’re a sincere person, you will be doing everything sincerely. And that’s a big thing. You know, sincerity is one of the greatest things that we have to offer in our lives. It means cherishing whatever we’re doing in a certain kind of way. For a servant, someone who serves the Divine in mankind, that sincerity includes cherishing each being; cherishing each breath; cherishing each opportunity to feed somebody, to help somebody and to help yourself.
IYM: I remember in one of Jai Uttal’s songs he says that there’s a chord of love to God. He uses that expression. Do you think that when you chant that you strengthen that chord of love between you and God?
KD: I think you become more aware of it. From God’s point of view, it couldn’t be any stronger because God is one with us. God knows that we are God. So how could it be any stronger? From our point of view, our awareness of that chord gets deeper and that gives us faith and then we can do what we do with more of our heart and more sincerity.
IYM: Have you maintained a deeper connection with your Spiritual Master through your music? What are the some of the lessons that you learned from your experiences in India?
KD: It’s all the hand of my Guru! He’s the puppet master. He’s pulling the strings. Maharaj-ji is actually forcing me to sing. If I were left on my own, I would just be home watching TV. And through His forcing me to sing, He is transforming me. I don’t really have much choice in the matter, although I think I do. And I’ve developed a taste for it. This taste allows me to go deeper into His Presence more often. Every time I sit down to chant, I have to really get there and do it. And so, every time I sit down to chant, I have to overcome all of the tendencies of the mind to float around and do all kinds of stuff. So, it’s the exercising of my will to bring myself into the Presence.
You know, I was sitting in the jungle once in India with this 170-year-old Yogi, and he just looked at me one day and said, “You have to develop your Icha Shakti (Icha means desire).” So essentially that means “Will Power.” And that totally turned my head around because I realized I had a totally wrong understanding of ego and will. The ego is the ship that takes us to the Divine. It takes us across the Ocean of Samsara, the Ocean of Existence. The ego is a ship. You need a good strong ego with no holes in it, so you don’t sink. And the Will directs that ship. You know, you can go to the port with the other sailors and party, or you can go to the other port where the Divine is. It’s just a question of what you really want.
IYM: Do you think a person should practice on their own or in a group?
KD: I think a person should practice as much and in any way they can, at any time. In the bathroom, watching TV, while driving—because the Self is ever-present. God is present all of the time. You are not ever away from God, but we forget to look. And even when we look, at first we don’t know what we’re seeing. And it is practice that removes the veils in front of our eyes. That we’re even involved in this on any level is very simply and absolutely a result of our own previous good karmas. And that’s all there is to it. There’s just no way around that. So everything we do now helps us get all of these things we’re talking about: sincerity and deepening and awareness and presence.
IYM: Would you suggest any practical applications for Yoga teachers? The Integral Yoga Hatha class opens with a “Hari Om” chant. However, some people are not into that, as they are only there for the asanas.
KD: Practice is the door to the Self. And if a person has any reaction to chanting, they don’t have to do it. It’s not about imposing anything on students. It’s about offering an atmosphere where a person can unwind their heart and relax. The most effective thing that will work is your own attitude—a sincere and non-selling attitude. The offering attitude will work. But the selling will never work. If you offer it in the right spirit, people will be attracted to it—because everybody wants to be free. Everybody wants love. Everybody wants these things.
IYM: Is the rhythm of the chant the “hook?” Is clapping one of the key elements to staying focused?
KD: It’s the Presence in the practice. It’s the Presence in my singing. That’s the “hook.” It’s the feeling that people get. Whether they’re sitting quietly or if they’re jumping up and down, it makes no difference. The people will feel something. What do they feel? They feel the Presence in the Name. Why do they feel it? Because of my Guru’s Blessings and Grace. That’s just the bottom line!
IYM: What about breathing? I notice that you breathe very deeply. Is there a pranayama connection?
KD: Yes, I may breathe deeply, but you don’t notice me thinking about it. Do you? I’m thinking, “I’m in love.” So, what do I want to think about breathing for? This is not that kind of a practice. If anything, it is more of a listening practice. To listen, even as the person who’s leading the chant. In order to keep the thread of awareness there, listening and participating is the key. You are giving your heart to it—not in an emotional way, but in the sense of that’s where you put your mind. You put your awareness in the sound of the Name.
IYM: So the call and response technique is the focus then?
KD: Yes, it’s listening and then singing and then listening and then singing. Just because you’re singing doesn’t mean you’re paying more attention. You should be paying just as much attention when you’re listening. Or it might even be the other way around. You might be paying less attention when you sing. You should try to keep that thread of awareness, that cycle—going back and forth, in and out, or around and around. You are present. You are there. You’re paying attention when you’re doing it.
IYM: In what ways have all of your Yoga practices influenced your life?
KD: There’s a Rumi poem that goes, “My whole life is composed only of this: Trying to be in Your Presence.” That’s the answer to that question.
IYM: On your website there is an explanation of chanting that says it’s helping us to “see the beauty of our own being.” How does chanting help us to connect to the part of ourselves that is positive?
KD: The Name is the most positive thing that there is in the Universe, in the sense that it’s God. It’s that Presence itself. It’s the absolute doorway into that; and, in fact, they do say that it’s not different from God. So what is more positive than that? Falling in love with ourselves is not that easy because we’ve been taught so many unhappy, un-pretty things about ourselves. And those things have to be released before we can really see the beauty in ourselves. That’s one of the things this practice does, and all practices do. They re-direct our vision to a deeper place in us where there is beauty. That is our natural state.
It’s not something we have to create. We just have to learn to stop buying into the other story line, and all those other negative story lines: “Happiness is outside of ourselves,” “You can’t be happy unless you have a good relationship, or a new car, or a good job, or enough money, or good health.” All of that “stuff.” True happiness and beauty is our True Nature. And when you see that Beauty, you’ve got to fall in love with it. There’s just no option. So the whole process is one of allowing ourselves to start to see that different place in ourselves—who we really are. And then we definitely have to fall in love with that because there’s no option. We’re too beautiful—if we could see that.
(Read Part 2 of our interview here.)