Photo: Bhagavan Das chanting in front of portrait of Neem Karoli Baba.

Bhagavan Das is an American yogi who lived for six years in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in the 1960s and became a trailblazer in the early kirtan movement in America. He introduced Richard Alpert (who later became Ram Dass) to his Guru, Neem Karoli Baba and the rest is history. In this long lost interview from 2003, Bhagavan Das answers questions about his spiritual practice and what is important to him on the spiritual path.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Please tell us about your daily practice.

Bhagavan Das (BD): I think getting up a 4 a.m. is the key. I really do. For me, 4 – 6 a.m. is just the golden time. I do a little Hatha Yoga, chant, and drink some tea.  But, you have to make up your own thing that works for you. Maybe it’s taking a walk for an hour.

IYM: How do you conceive of God or the Divine?

BD: I worship God in form. God is both formless and with form, as Sri Ramakrishna said, but it can be hard to worship God in no-form. Imagine that you decided that you want to worship Mother Nature. So, you stand in front of the sky and then offer worship to the sky. I think it’s easier to be in front of a tree to make devotional offerings. So, I encourage those wishing to have a devotional practice to find a form of the Divine that appeals to them. Then, make an altar, put some flowers, a candle, some incense and either a statue of a deity, a Shivalinga, or a photograph of inspiration to you. Anything will work because it’s really not about the form.

IYM: Or some may wish to offer devotion to their Guru?

Photo: Reuniting after 20 years, Bhagavan Das and Swami Satchidananda, 1996.

BD: Right. But remember, first of all, the Guru isn’t a person. The Guru is God.  God just comes through a person and that has nothing to do with the personality of a person. You know what I mean?  There have been many Mother Theresas, many Dalai Lamas, many Divine Mothers, and many Gurudevs—and there always will be. India is full of saints that are unrecognized and that don’t need to be. But if you can have someone you connected with, then you have an emotional charge with that person or image. That way you can wake up in the morning and you can cry and you can go: “Please help me God, I love you! Thank you God!” Take the name of God and don’t get caught in your mind.

IYM: How to not get caught in the mind?

BD: Whatever you can do to connect. I make suggestions to people. I say, if you’re feeling depressed and freaked out and anxious take a “Ram walk.” If you repeat “Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram” for one hour on a strenuous walk, your consciousness will be deeply shifted. Just do it; try it out. People do it, and it works, and they come back to me with glowing reports. I’m just saying you’ve got to engage the will. You must get out of bed. You’ve got to stop slacking. Get on the God trip and out of the mind trip. Put God first, everything else will follow. Everything else: the money will come, the partner will come, everything will come if you put God first. And what that means to you, you have to find out. No one can tell you.

IYM: What does it mean to you?

BD: I like to read a little Sri Ramakrishna, do some pranayama. I do the thousand names of Ganesh and maybe another morning I do the thousand names of the Divine Mother. In other words, it’s all about getting on the God train; just staying in the Divine Light. Just let your day begin this way. I think it’s very, very powerful. And then take breaks throughout the day and do japa. I recommend getting a mala, getting it blessed, and using it. Then, watch your life transform.  And it will. It just will because we’re all hungry for God yet we try to find it in other things and other people and nobody can give it to you. So go hang out with trees, take walks, look at the river and just get on the God train! That train is going and you can get on!

IYM: Yes, Swami Satchidananda used to say that it doesn’t matter where you sit on the train either—you could hang from the rafters, you could sleep the whole train ride, you could be in the first class or  you could be in the last—as long as you’re on the train. To be on that train is the connection, is the remembrance of God, of the Divine, of the True Self.

BD: Exactly. And to keep that as your priority. Life is short and, to me, the great kick in the butt is death. I think of death all the time. Most people who know me know I worship Kali Ma, the Fierce Goddess. And she’ll steer you into reality.  Because once this lifetime is gone, it’s gone, until the next round. And we never know when Yama [the Lord of Death] will arrive. I went to Tampa and I did a big kirtan fest there. The lady who I was staying with in Tampa had a 15 year-old daughter whose 18 year-old best friend was killed the day before I got to Tampa.  Someone ran through a red light, hit her car and two hours later she was dead.  18! beautiful girl.  So again, I’m shocked into like wow, I gotta make every moment count. So I’m here to just sing and give and wow.

IYM: Nothing like these kind of tragedies to re-shift one’s whole sense of priorities.

Photo: Bhagavan Das & Ram Dass in India, late 1960s.

BD: Yeah, so if we knew our last day was going to be today, what would we do? We wouldn’t be gossiping, we wouldn’t be talking stupid talk, we wouldn’t be future planning, and head tripping. We just wouldn’t. You know what we’d be doing? We would just love. And so that’s the “what” to do.

My Guru used to say “What to do?” all the time. Because people were always telling him their problems. And then he would say: “What to do?” as he repeated the name of God. He never said: “Repeat the name of God.” He just sat there going: “Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram…” and knowing that in his presence, the moment he did that, everything was done.

The moment he touched my head with Ram, that Ram permeated my whole soul. He put everything on that Ram. It’s just so God! you know? It’s so powerful. The level of pure devotion and faith just flowed and transformed us all. He knew that the moment we saw him, it was done for us.  It was over.