For 2 months I sat on my interview notes with Krishna Das. Sure, the holidays were afoot, my husband and I were traveling, and my daughter was home from college with her bunny, Tony, in tow. It would only have taken me about an hour or two to share my experience with the internationally known kirtan wallah, as he refers to himself.
I could not get into the frame of mind. Maybe it's because there was so much more to share other than "I met with Krishna Das before his concert at Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on 86th Street in N.Y.C. on a Saturday evening in November and this is what he shared..." Perhaps it really was that to frame Krishna Das was tricky business.
Sometime in my early 20's, I heard one or more of his songs before I knew who he was or what he represented. I am admittedly not one to remember musician names. I remember lyrics, evoked emotions, harmony, but rarely during that time in my life could I tell you who sung what song. And to hear music in another language that I had minimal exposure to? Forget it. There was, however, something about him, his Johnny Cash voice. I purchased his CD, Breath of the Heart.
Sometime after I started teaching yoga, the songs on this CD made my class' play list virtually every week. Eventually, I broadened my playlist with his other albums Door of Faith, Heart as Wide as the World, and Kirtan Wallah. A couple of years after that, I finally started to develop an understanding of what Krishna Das was singing, what kirtan was, and why he was doing what he was doing.
When we listen to his music, we are not listening to his music. We are overhearing a very personal moment between him and his guru, Maharaji Neem Karoli Baba. We just happen to be invited to hear this private conversation. His level of devotion pours out in each note, which is why, at least for me, his music can drive such longing and love, that I can be reduced to tears in a few minutes flat.
When I did meet Krishna Das, it was because I believe the timing was finally right. For me, that elusive and yet ever present Maharaji had made himself known in my life. It was a trail of breadcrumbs. Years of yogic study, a glimpse into the dynamic of guru/devotee relationship, an interview with a woman in North Carolina who had Maharaji all over her office and home, and many other serendipitous moments. So, when I met Krishna Das, I was not meeting the man who sang worldwide. I was not meeting the kirtan wallah who chanted sacred Sanskrit mantras. I was meeting a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba who was utterly dedicated to him. And now I truly understood what he meant when he told his audiences time and again that he sings to him.
The stage at the church had already been filling with fellow musicians, instruments and sound equipment. His faithful friend, assistant and fellow musician, Nina, ushered me into the space. Krishna Das greeted me warmly.
I attempted to speak to him in Hindi, "Aap kaise hain?"
KD (as his fans and friends call him) started rolling in Hindi as if it were his native tongue. Embarrassed, I shared I couldn't follow along and my Hindi was limited. He sank back into English humbly, and as quickly as he stepped into Hindi.
I followed him up the steps of the church into the balcony seating area where a film crew from India was interviewing him. The topic was how Indian culture has been embraced by the West. Krishna Das was a perfect candidate as he himself had been drawn to India many years ago.
Living on a farm in upstate New York with mountain climbers, someone mentioned to KD that they were going to see someone named Ram Dass. They asked him to come along, to which KD declined. However, when they returned looking "joyous," he decided he wanted to see Ram Dass himself.
By this time, Ram Dass had been to India and was talking about his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, not mentioning his name.
"Baba said not to talk about him, but Ram Dass did all the time," shares KD.
In August of 1970, KD made his way to India where he met Neem Karoli Baba. Two and a half years later, KD returned to the U.S. with a new name (Krishna Das is his spiritual name) and a mission.
"I will sing to you from America," he told Maharaji after being questioned on what he would do for his guru.
However, the music did not come easily. Hearing of Maharaji's death a short time after his return to the states, KD sank into a depression that spanned decades. Eventually, he was called to come back.
"One day I was in my room and I was like struck with a lightening bolt."
It was that instance which drew KD out from "the darkness," as he called it and back into the promise he made to Maharaji many years before. He knew that it was music, it was that promise, that would clear his mind. He began to lead chants at the Jivamukti Yoga Center located in N.Y.C. in 1994. Rather quickly, he developed a following. His audience swelled. By 2013, less than 10 years later, he played during the Grammy awards.
KD became the voice for kirtan in the U.S. It is through kirtan where he channels the conversation between guru and devotee, between the many forms of God and ourselves. While the audience, like my younger self, may not understand what he is saying, KD prods our heart, allowing this urge for something more to come to light.
"Westerners can hear that call from a distance...but it's a call from within," he says. "It's grace pulling us in."
Krishna Das plays his part in Maharaji's lila allowing himself to be a vessel in which grace can pull us all in.