Krishna Das

A ‘Chants’ encounter

By Naila Francis

Krishna Das has this advice only for those who may be attending one of his concerts for the first time.

“Don’t expect anything,” he says. “Just come in, chant. If you like it, you’ll want to do more. If you don’t, there’s nothing on the line. I’m offering an opportunity to share what I do to bring peace to your own heart. If it works for you, fine; if it doesn’t, fine.”

The rather pragmatic approach seems befitting the man who easily admits that he has been chanting all these years primarily to please himself. Never mind that Das, who comes to the Keswick Theatre in Glenside tonight — on a bill with Deva Premal & Miten — is one of the best-selling chant artists of all time, with fans that include Madonna, Sting and the Beastie Boys’ Mike D.

He has sold more than 300,000 records and routinely tours throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Two of his albums, “Breath of the Heart” and “Door of Faith,” were produced by Rick Rubin, one of music’s premier rock and rap producers. And on his latest album, “Heart as Wide as the World,” released last month, Das sings accompanied by an all-star roster of session musicians, including drummer Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello) and keyboardist Kevin Bents (Jewel, Boz Scaggs).

Still, his phenomenal success hasn’t taken away from the fact that, for him, kirtan — the ancient Indian devotional practice in which the call-and-response chanting of Sanskrit mantras is intended to quiet the mind and open the heart to deeper experiences of joy and peace — is very much a personal practice.

“I just sing what I like. I’m still not doing it for anybody else,” says Das. “I enjoy the fame. I enjoy being able to share this practice with people, but it’s not about that. The happiness I get is from inside and the practice of chanting brings that forth for me.”

As for that oft-applied mantle of “rock star of kirtan,” he finds it “hilarious,” especially considering his rock ‘n’ roll yearnings as a teen, when he immersed himself in the music of blues greats such as Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White and Skip James, spent most of his nights roaming the Greenwich Village folk scene and, later, as a sophomore in college, hooked up with a fledgling band called Soft White Underbelly.

But it wasn’t until after he met spiritual teacher Ram Dass in 1969, that Das, who had left the band, had the chance to realize his dream of becoming a rock singer. Soft White Underbelly, which would later evolve into psychedelic rockers Blue Oyster Cult, had plans to record an album and tour, and Das was invited to rejoin the group. In a choice he attributes to an act of grace, he decided instead to spend the summer with the former Harvard psychology professor responsible for introducing many westerners to Eastern philosophy and practice and to the teachings of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, better known to most as Maharaj-ji, whom he met on a trip to India in 1967.

“I had already committed to him, and even if I hadn’t, the truth is, I didn’t want to (rejoin Soft White Underbelly),” says Das. “I had come into contact with something so beautiful and so extraordinary, another way of living in the world that was so loving, that I couldn’t choose anything else.”

His studies with Ram Dass, author of the groundbreaking classic “Be Here Now,” were not his first brush with Eastern philosophy.

Das, who was born Jeffrey Kagel and grew up in suburban New Hyde Park on Long Island, first became interested in such teachings after reading a book on Buddhism while in high school.

“It said, ‘Your enlightenment is your responsibility.’ I went, ‘Wow, you’re kidding. Wow, some guy up in the sky with a thunderbolt doesn’t control me.’ I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in anything. I was really depressed and angry. The understanding that came when I read that was, the path might be there. There might be light on the path. You might be able to see the light at the end of the path, but you have to walk the path. Nobody’s going to walk it for you,” he says.

“That message when I was 16, 17 was a very powerful one.”

His path would eventually lead him to India, and to Maharaj-ji, who became his guru, as well. It was Maharaj-ji who gave him the name Krishna Das, meaning “servant of Krishna” or “servant of God.” And while Das admits that he still struggles with the Judeo-Christian concept of God, he is more comfortable with the Indian tradition in which there are thousands of names for God, all of them honoring various aspects of that Divinity. Kirtan, in fact, is chanting the many names of God, but for Das, the names all point to one essential.

“I believe in love. I believe that total pure love lives in everybody’s heart, even in my heart, and these names are the place of that love, and that’s where I want to be,” he says.

“Everybody knows what that is, but we’ve been brutalized into believing it’s not findable. The world tells us it’s not possible to be like that. We lose hope, and without hope, we get depressed and unhappy. … That’s the real tragedy: People don’t realize what’s possible and so they walk around unhappy.”

But it’s not necessary to travel to India, have a guru or make any radical life adjustments in order to feel such love.

Earlier this year, Das released an autobiography, “Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold,” which chronicles his journey to becoming a kirtan leader with stories and teachings from his travels throughout India and the U.S., as well as an accompanying CD with a series of one-on-one chants — instead of his usual practice of recording with a large group in a call-and-response format — to help listeners develop their own practice of chanting.

“The more I talked to people and traveled around and met people who didn’t know much about chanting or the so-called spiritual path, I felt that it would be good to give some context for the practice,” he says. “It’s not about shaving your head and going off to a monastery. This practice is very much alive right here, right now.

“You start where you are. I really wanted to get across that idea. You don’t have to believe anything. You don’t have to join anywhere. You don’t have to pay any dues to anyone. You don’t get this from anywhere,” he says. “This starts from your own heart, and if you like it, you’re drawn deeper into the practice.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer