One of the first times I was ever interviewed was by a writer from Yoga Journal, who asked me to talk about chanting as a spiritual practice. I was taken by surprise. The truth is that I’d never thought of it like that before. Of course, that’s what chanting is, but I didn’t have it in my mind that I was doing a “practice.” I was just trying to get my life together, so I didn’t have much to tell him. Then he asked, “Well, how do you sing?” I thought about it and remembered when I’d gotten my junior driving permit. I was driving in my car alone for the first time and going to my girlfriend’s house. I turned on the radio and song came on. The way I sang that song at that moment is the way I chant.
I was living in the temple with Maharaj-ji in the fall of 1972, during the festival known as Durga puja, a fire ceremony that goes on for nine days and celebrates the destruction of various demons by the goddess who manifests after being prayed to by all of the gods. It is one of the biggest festivals of the year, and many of the devotees would come to the temple to stay with Maharaj-ji for the entire period. Because of the nature of Indian culture, it was also one of the few times that his female devotees—the Mas, or mothers, as they’re called—were able to come and be with him for an extended period. They’d all live together in the back of the temple, and at night they’d gather to sing holy songs and chant in one of the inner rooms that was off-limits to men.
I would sit outside the window of that room for hours, totally immersed in the intensity, passion, and joy that these ladies sang with. The chanting would be going on for a while, and then all of a sudden there would be a scream of ecstasy as one of the women went into a state of absorption in God. The sweetest thing was that when they discovered I was sitting outside and listening for so many hours, they cracked the window so that I could hear better, knowing I’d respect their privacy. This was one of my most important and life- changing experiences. I bathed myself in their devotion and opened up new rivers of love in my heart.
The heart of this practice is simply repeating the Name over and over again. Everything comes from that because it is said that everything is contained within the Name. When I can do this wholeheartedly, then I’ll see if there is anything else I have to do. In the meantime, it’s enough. When I’m really chanting—singing the Name and coming back to it again and again—no matter what is going on in my head, I have to let go of it. There’s no option. The only option is to sing. And that’s what the instruction is: Sing. Not to think or imagine anything; not to try to make anything happen; not to ruminate about stuff that happened earlier or might happen later … I just have to sing. I try to gather all of my strength together and sing, no matter what.
When I started, even if I got myself to sit down and sing, my mind was somewhere else in a second. But that’s the beauty of this practice. We start from where we are. We get lost in thought, and we come back. As soon as we realize that we’re gone, we come back. It’s amazing. Most of us will have to do it 40 billion times a minute, but that’s okay. As soon as we realize we’re gone, we’re already back. Then by the time we realize that, we’re gone again. Thinking is not the same as being back. Recognizing that we’re lost in thought is the first step in turning within. We can’t hold on to the awareness in the same way that we clutch a cookie in our hand. It’s not something we can understand or think about in our head. That’s why we’re asked to simply chant. The chanting begins to draw us into a deeper space in our own being, so we sit more at ease in ourselves.
Chanting is called a practice for one reason: it only works if we do it. Chanting has been my main practice for years, but it took me a long time to realize that it’s only by doing it regularly that we begin to experience ourselves changing. If we want to get wet, we have to jump in the water. If we want to get wet, we have to learn to swim, or at least float! We can read about sugar, people can tell us about sugar and describe the sweetness to us, but if we want to know what it tastes like, we’ve got to put some in our mouths. That’s why we do practice: we must have our own experience. In order for it to help when difficult things in life happen — we lose someone, we get sick, we have a car accident, or someone dies — we have to do it. Over time, we’ll see that we’re getting stronger, making it easier to deal with difficult situations.
Krishna Das is a Western musician who has created a wave throughout the American Yoga scene with his rousing, soulful kirtans. He has led kirtan on a regular basis in Yoga centers all over the world, has taught with Ram Das and sung for many saints and yogis in the USA and India.
By simply chanting from the heart and making kirtan fun, Krishna Das has ignited a new enthusiasm for holding kirtan and chanting these ancient sacred mantras. Over thirty years ago, he made his first trip to India and became a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba. Since then, Krishna Das has made numerous pilgrimages throughout India, meeting teachers and saints of many spiritual traditions on his quest to open and purify his heart. He has studied Buddhist meditation and has been initiated into Tibetan Buddhist practices by lamas from various lineages.
Join Krishna Das for his Memorial Day Weekend Chanting Retreat, “Yoga of Devotion,” on May 24-27, 2013 at Yogaville, VA.
Excerpted from Chants of a Lifetime, Hay House Publishers with permission from Krishna Das, reprinted in the IYTA Newsletter November, 2010.