Guru-puja

11 04 2019

As a follow-up to my review of Ram Dass’ Be Love Now, I decided to get a documentary on Krishna Das named after his first album, One Track Heart. To refresh your memory, Krishna Das is a major figure in the circle of followers of Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian religious figure who helped bring a certain popular brand of Hinduism to the West. Krishna Das’ path to following his guru goes through music, specifically kirtan. Kirtan is congregational singing of mantras made popular in the United States in particular through its performance in yoga studios and similar venues. Indeed, Krishna Das is known as the “king of kirtan”, providing the popular soundtrack to the yoga craze that has taken over the West in the last 20 years.

Krishna Das started out as your typical late 1960’s rocker with a band and an ambition to make a name for himself. He experimented with drugs, and his highs made him seek out transcendental experiences.  This quest led him into the circles of Ram Dass and eventually to India. There he becomes a direct disciple of Neem Karoli Baba and learned the art of kirtan while living in an ashram. Upon the death of his guru, he became somewhat lost in life and even became addicted to cocaine. The birth of a daughter eventually cleaned him up and got him back on track. He concluded that he “needed to sing,” began giving kirtan concerts in yoga studios in the mid-1990’s, and the rest is history. Krishna Das was nominated for a Grammy in the New Age genre in 2013 and gave a live performance at that year’s award ceremonies.

The (contrived?) tension in the documentary occurs when Krishna Das begins having some success, which supposedly spooked him into going back to India for some soul searching. Krishna Das wondered if he could become the rock star he always aspired to be while remaining a faithful servant of his guru. His epiphany was that really it all doesn’t matter, love is love in the end, and he found the detachment to go back into the world and sing.

This documentary makes me want to know more, but not in a good way. It’s sort of implied that he returned to music because he had mouths to feed. Then once he started making a living he had second thoughts about it. I am not saying that he is singing for the money, but then again, the whole “Eastern wellness” industry seems like a rather affluent sector where is it gauche to talk about money (even though they have it).

Overall, I find Krishna Das’ music to be easy on the ears but not particularly uplifting to the spirit. I suppose I just expect an actual message to sacred music, not just, “love everybody, feed everybody, and here are some Sanskrit mantras because [feelings].” Aesthetically, his baritone voice is okay I guess, the typical fare that Western ears have come to appreciate. But honestly I prefer the grittier unpolished originals that may not go down very well in the suburban yoga studio.

My real skepticism is that, if kirtan is a love song to God, shouldn’t you know a little about whoever you’re singing to, not just, “This gives me good feelings so it must be spiritual”? India has millennia of theology and philosophy to offer, and while it is not possible for Westerners to learn all of it, maybe a bit of it should be better presented in Krishna Das’ music and writings? Just a thought.

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