Krishna Das on Mantras, Chanting, Music, and Love
Recently the Be Here Now Network (BHNN) was lucky enough to sit down for a cup of coffee with Pilgrim Heart Podcast host Krishna Das (KD, to his fans) to talk about how chanting has opened his heart.
Be Here Now Network: What is the role of music in mantras and chanting? How important is the music?
Krishna Das: Really it’s just to calm us down and get us to pay attention. Music’s value is that it calms the mind, soothes the savage beast, but it doesn’t plant any seeds that will eradicate suffering in the long term.
It’s good for quieting it down, and giving you an emotional hit of some kind or other, so I always say that the music is like the syrup that the medicine is hidden in. The medicine is the Name itself.
They say that these names have incredible magnetism and power, in ways that are unimaginable to us in our conceptual framework.
BHNN: Is there something in the vibrations of these sounds in our bodies that helps open us up to that power?
KD: Well, as we know, “Om” is supposed to be the original sound of creation; it’s supposed to encompass all of creation. Those are all the different vibrations that created this table, right? This table is just vibrations. Our bodies are just vibrations. All the molecules are vibrating; they’re held together for different reasons, and make different shapes and different forms. So to move back into those vibrations themselves starts to dissolve those forms. And know we’re talking about mental forms, the outside forms. Because there’s an outer table, but there’s also the concept of the table in the mind. Just like the concept of “me” in the mind.
So that’s what gets dissolved through the moving inward. The other little wrinkle is that you need more than approaching it in a mechanical way, in terms of it’s just a vibration—if I merge with that vibration, I’ll become one with the universe. That’s not going to work because the “me” that’s saying that is actually the only thing that has to go.
So if “me” is doing the practices to eradicate “me,” nothing is going to happen except getting a bigger “me.” That’s where love comes into it.
BHNN: So is that where the devotion rings a little sweeter?
KD: Not only that, it makes it possible. Because the impulse of love is to merge in love, for the ego to melt away into the love. And it’s probably the only thing that can actually melt that ego. But, once again, it’s not a personal love, it’s not a “me” kind of love. It’s the love that holds the molecules together. It’s the love that holds the universe together.
So these names we’re chanting have that special power to ignite that kind of love in our hearts where we’re not really conscious of it. It’s there, we’re made of that. Our true nature is that love.
Through the repetition of these names, gradually but inevitably, that will manifest within us. But on the way to that, different things happen. In other words, in Buddhism, they say there’s emptiness and there’s compassion. Emptiness is the state of the universe, the interdependence of all things, the egoless-ness of all things. And compassion is the love. One or the other is not enough; you have to have both at the same time.
There’s relative compassion, which is what we have for other people; it’s relative, it’s between two things. And then there’s ultimate compassion, which is not different than emptiness. So it’s together. It’s just the longing we have to merge in love, to fully experience that which pulls us into ourselves. And you could say the names clean the mirror of our hearts so that what we see is clear and accurate. Right now we’re looking at a lot of dust and we think, that’s me; we think that’s what it is. But as that dust is cleared, a different reflection shows up.
It’s not that we’re getting something that’s not there, it’s that through the repetition of these names, we’re cleaning that mirror of the heart. And eventually, we have that experience of what’s really in the mirror.
BHNN: In the context of our Western notion of yoga and mindfulness, would you consider chanting a mindfulness exercise?
KD: Certainly. Nothing can happen if you’re not paying attention. Mindfulness has a lot of different meanings that the yoga community is not really aware of. They take that phrase and they think they know what it means. But mindfulness practice, Vipassana practice, is a particular practice. It starts with concentration, but then it quickly moves into awareness.
When the yoga community talks about mindfulness, they’re not talking about awareness, they’re really talking about some type of concentration. Which you need. Without that, how can you drive if you’re not paying attention? Even if there’s the baby here and the radio over there, still there’s enough attention to stay on the road. So the yoga community is really very young in its understanding of these things. Because the people who come to yoga practice, their motives aren’t very mature in a sense. They want to feel better; they want their bodies to be stronger. It’s a physical practice, but it does plant seeds of calming down, because you do have to pay attention. Now, whether that carries through to the other parts of life is iffy, because people compartmentalize so many things.
So, one of the things about unconditional love is that you can’t just love your deity, or your guru, or your boyfriend, or your girlfriend, or your wife. That’s not enough. That’s not real love. That’s love between two things. What has to arise is love for no reason, love that is just your nature. Which is what we really long for.
Which is why we grab onto the things that turn us on, because they remind us of that.
But that’s okay. I was really in love with this woman once and my old friend Mr. Tewari said to me, “My boy, relationships are business. Do your business, enjoy. But love, love is what lasts 24 hours a day.” Which is consciousness, which is bliss, which is our true nature? But he didn’t say don’t do it. Everything is business in the sense that it’s give and take. Devotion is usually misunderstood that way; it’s like, “my devotion for something.” But ultimately it’s devotion for devotion’s sake.
Even so, it’s hard to do that, because we have karmas that keep arising in the moment. It’s not enough to just want to be a loving person, you have to find a way to be in the moment with whatever arises in a compassionate way. That takes a lot of practice. Because when we’re suffering, when we’re in pain, we can’t think about anything else.
So that’s the thing about the practice of the name, as I’ve come to understand over the years.
It’s really not about my experience in the moment of chanting, it’s about planting seeds that continue to sprout as the day goes on, as life goes on, as the weeks go on.
But we tend to think it’s about me all the time. Everything we do is about me, my experience. How do I feel now? I’ve been sitting for 13 seconds, why are they not calling me? All that kind of stuff. So you plant the seeds, and the seeds ripen us from inside. It’s a lifetime practice.
BHNN: I feel like learning the Hanuman Chaleesa has been my insurance policy.
KD: It’s going to shift wherever you’re at, that’s one thing it does. Like, when I’m really stuck—and that’s only every other second—I’ll sit down and do some Chaleesas. Sometimes I’ll do 108 because I’m really stuck and I really need something to shift, and I just can’t do it myself. You’re helpless against some of this stuff. So you just do that, and it definitely shifts things, liberates you from certain things.
Part of the practice when you do these Chaleesas is that you ask Hanuman for a boon. When I did my first 108 Chaleesas in 1971, I asked for a particular boon.
That boon I asked for was big time, it wasn’t going to happen quickly. And that’s happened and is still happening. What I asked for is still, little by little, manifesting.
When I was in India with my guru, Maharaj-ji, all of sudden you’d be sitting there and he’d say something like, “What do you want? Okay, I’ll give it to you, whatever you want. It happens right now, what do you want?” So I carried this little thing in my back pocket, I knew what I was going to say. For like a year and a half, I walked around, just with this little thing I kept in the back of my mind. And sure enough, one day he goes, “What do you want?” And I said, “Prema Bhakti,” which is loving devotion, but it’s like ecstatic loving devotion. And he looked and goes, “Not now, later. Later.”
BHNN: It seems like he [Neem Karoli Baba] was so funny.
KD: And it was a humor…You know, he knew everything. Like he would say, “People come here and try to fool me. I go on fooling the whole world, and people come here and think they can fool me.”
BHNN: What was it that Maharaj-ji said about being one-pointed?
KD: He said, “If you bring your mind to one point, you’ll see god.” That’s different than being god. It’s a good beginning. But still, it’s not easy. You can’t just sit down and do that. Even regular practice is not going to make that happen unless we transform the rest of our lives.
If the rest of our lives are full of poison, and cruelty, and anger, and selfishness, no matter how many times we try to meditate, the results are going to be very meager. It’s not going to do what we want.
BHNN: For those of us who are newer to kirtan and chanting, when we first encounter the scene it can seem kind of religious, like it’s a part of Hinduism. What do you think?
KD: I don’t look at it like that. First of all, Maharaj-ji never made us Hindus. He never initiated us; he never formally made us Hindus.
He just loves us as we are. And we soaked it up. We saw what people did to help themselves and connect more deeply, and we adopted those things.
But for most of us, it’s not about being Hindu, it’s not about Hindu religion.
BHNN: That simplicity must throw people off, especially with Maharaj-ji.
KD: It threw us off, too. We kept waiting for him to tell us what to do, and he would never do that. He never told me to sing with people. Never.
I had to figure it out; it had to come to me what I needed to do for myself.
Otherwise, it would not have been the same if he said, “Go forth…” The ego, the self-centeredness of it, I wouldn’t have been able to overcome it. But because I recognized that I had to sing to save myself—that changed everything.
BHNN: Do you feel the audience at all when you’re chanting?
KD: I don’t notice it as something outside of me, but I feel it inside.
To some degree, I think I feel what’s going on. I don’t know if this is delusion or not, but I certainly feel that I can sense where the audience is at, and it affects the way things come out of me.
It’s just like the difference between the first night at one of the Maui retreats and the last night. The first night, half of the people are new and never sang before, and not only that, they’ve just come and their lives are still hanging on to them. By the last day, they don’t even remember where they came from, and they’re really present and you can feel that difference. So it’s not mystical, it’s just very nuts-and-bolts, you know?
BHNN: What’s the difference between mantra and chant?
KD: The Name is a mantra, but it’s particular, it’s the Name. But there are all kinds of mantras that arrange or use those seed sounds—beej mantras—which are very powerful sounds that could, done correctly, connect very intensely with different energies.
Different deities have seed mantras for their presence. If I say, “Ram,” Ram comes to mind. And different energies have different beej mantras. And mantras can be for anything. Mantras can be magical formulas; there’s mantras to find buried treasure, there’s mantras to become president of the United States, there’s mantras to be able to rob banks, become invisible, control people, make it rain, control snakes. There are mantras for everything.
But the Name is good for only one thing, which is love.
And that’s why with those other mantras you need to be given the shakti from another being that has been initiated in order for it to really work. Those kinds of mantras, those mantras are for power. But not with the Name, as everybody has that inside of them already. And really, it’s one’s own longing that leads them in that direction. It’s one’s own longing that you follow in your life, and you get off at different stops along the way because you long for something. And if you find out it’s not really what you were longing for, you get back on the train and see where the train takes you.
So the idea is the more you keep your eyes open and see things for what they are, the less you try to squeeze water from the stone.
You’ve got a stone, and you want water, so you start squeezing. Hey, wait a minute! And you squeeze, you bruise your fingers and break your hands, but water is never going to come from that stone. So you drop the stone. That’s called wisdom. But you only get it by trying; you don’t get it by just looking at the stone, you have to squeeze.
Western culture is very about relationships; people keep trying to find happiness in relationships. There might be happiness inside of you, and there might be happiness inside of that person, but you don’t get it from that person. You get a lot of things from the relationship, but real love is not relational, that’s what Mr. Tewari was pointing out. He said, “Do your business, enjoy that business, but if you expect to get love from it, you’ll be disappointed.”
We’re so programmed from day one about that: romantic love, sexual love, physical love, emotional love.
Unconditional love, love that has no cause or reason, there’s no wiring for that. But that what’s the path is about, it’s about developing the wiring for that kind of love to flow.
This article was written by Noah Markus for Be Here Now Network and is not to be replicated without consent. Excerpted from an interview with Kelly Rego, Jocelyn Jyoti Levy, and Noah Markus.
Krishna Das has taken call-and-response chanting out of yoga centers and into concert halls, becoming a worldwide icon and the best-selling Western chant artist of all time. He has released 14 well-received albums, including Grammy-nominated Live Ananda. His signature style fuses the traditional kirtan of the East with Western harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities.