I first heard Krishna Das, a kirtan (yoga chanting) leader, in early 2001 when he sang in a scene in the documentary Ram Dass: Fierce Grace. I reacted viscerally to the sound of his voice. I simply had to find out who this guy was and hear his sound again, so I bought his CD Live on Earth. Even though I’d experienced sudden heart-openings (aka meltdowns), I felt like a maniac listening to this music. Every time I started to chant, I’d erupt in spasmodic sobs. After a couple of weeks of this, I emailed the guy, and was thrilled when he wrote back: he was going to be singing at a downtown yoga studio and I should feel free to come. I have been hooked ever since. So when I heard he had a book coming out this month, I got a copy.
The worst thing about Chants of a Lifetime is that you can only read it for the first time once.
In 1968 Krishna Das (KD), a depressed, self-involved, miserable young guy who was driving a school bus and longing for seemingly unattainable happiness, met spiritual teacher and writer Ram Dass. Desperate for whatever it was that had infused Ram Dass with the ineffable something KD was craving, he shipped off to India to meet Ram Dass’ guru, Neem Karoli Baba (aka Maharaj-ji). The book — divided into two sections, “The Journey” and “Bringing It All Back Home” — is a series of stories about being with Maharaj-ji and other Indian teachers as well as insights gleaned from this and KD’s life as the rock star of chanting. … But this synopsis is so shallow it feels like a lie.
Here is my truth. Chants of a Lifetime is a 255-page conduit for Maharaj-ji’s shakti (dynamic spiritual energy), and to read it is to be about as close as a normal, neurotic Westerner can get to having the darshan (Presence) of a saint.
Besides his resonant, rock voice, KD’s enormous gift to the world is his many flaws, which he unabashedly admits to. There is something in him for everyone to identify with. He is a stand-in for all of us who seek happiness or enlightenment or merely to act compassionately in the world, but doubt the possibility because deep down we know we’re hopelessly selfish, judgmental, self-involved, lost, needy, grandiose, or (you fill in the adjective). KD is an every-neurotic-man, and through him, we feel the possibility of something miraculous:
“At first we may only have a slim hope that spiritual practice of lovingkindness [wishing all beings, including ourselves, the best] will work for us,” he writes. “But the more we feel some small movement in our life — a change, a shift in direction, maybe some lightening up — the more our hope will develop into confidence, and eventually into faith.
“Faith, as we hear the word used in the West, implies belief in something outside of ourselves that cannot be proven or experienced by us directly; . . . faith has nothing to do with blind belief, but is rather a very personal understanding that what we’re seeking, what we’re longing for, actually exists and can be found. This very small amount of faith is all that’s necessary to begin to awaken. If we’re involved with the so-called spiritual path at all, there is already something tugging at us — a longing for a deeper love, a yearning to find a haven for our hearts. Somewhere in us, hidden even from our conscious mind, we have faith. They say that as human beings, we experience being pulled into our hearts, by our own hearts, as ‘longing.’”
KD practices his faith by chanting the various Sanskrit names of God and “watching the power and sweetness of Maharaj-ji’s love wash the sadness from the lives of the people who come to sing” with him.
You don’t have to believe in anything to chant. You don’t even have to travel to a kirtan. You just have to feel enough longing to sing. Chants of a Lifetime (Hay House, Feb. 15, 2010) offers the chance to anybody who is willing. This beautifully written and sometimes funny book features a glossary, a photo album of Maharaj-ji, resources, and includes a CD of Krishna Das’s chanting call with musical interludes for your response.