Chanting with Krishna Das
Personal Notes by Victoria Barkley
The pews at the Church of St. Paul and St.Andrews, on 86th Street and West End Avenue, filled up as soon as the doors opened. Gentle folk, smiling and politely allowing one another to take choice seats near the make-shift stage, unhurriedly poured around the benches.
Ms. Nina Rao, master organizer, vocalist, and Krishna Das's indispensable assistant, calmly assigned an abundance of volunteers their individual tasks. There was joyful excitement in the air.
This special event, on an unseasonably warm, rainy, late November evening, drew a broad range of attendees from children to baby boomers, with parents and friends in tow.
The multi-ethnic group included people of all faiths, Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and even Atheists, who traveled from as far as Australia and South Africa.
I sat next to a couple originally from Russia. Their friend from a neighboring yoga studio invited them. Chant sheets were provided with mantras clearly printed for guests like my pew-mates, who have never done this before.
Krishna Das (lead singer, Jeff Kagel, who described himself as "Jewish, on my parent's side") appeared in his casual red plaid shirt. Sitting cross-legged in front of his harmonium, he clarified the process for those who were not familiar with the call and response form of Bhakti Yoga: "Basically, I will sing a line and then you will repeat something that you think you have heard that will sound something like what I just did and it will be alright. Don't worry about it" His relaxed attitude put everyone at ease.
He also mentioned that, technically, the art of Kirtan (chanting the names of God as mantras) was not a performance but a musical expression of devotion to love "So, keep singing, even if your voice is a bit out of tune," he encouraged us.
Then, he introduced his friend, Ram Dass, who was celebrating the 40th Anniversary of having authored, Be Here Now (a book instrumental in bringing Eastern spiritual teachings to the West at a time when there were very few such written works available in the English language.) Krishna Das choked up when he spoke of him, saying that without that fated meeting, he would not "be here now, doing this."
Jeff "didn't want to meet a guru in the late 60's, especially not an American one." However, the minute he saw Ram Dass, he felt like he was "home" and realized that the teachings were real.
Next, he went to India, and met Mahara-ji, (Neem Caroli Baba) a humble saint, living at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. Mahara-ji helped shift Jeff's focus from mere pleasure toward real joy and changed his name to Krishna Das ("divine servant.")
After spending months with his Indian guru, Jeff was told to return home to deal with some unfinished business he was avoiding. He was dispatched with the final instructions to "go back and serve." To the question "How should I serve in America?" Mahara-ji replied, "Serve with what you can do." So, he came back and sang in New York, since that's what he knew how to do.
At first a handful of people came to a lower Manhattan yoga studio once-a-week to chant with him. That seed group grew exponentially over the years and led to huge bi-coastal concerts, as well as a long list of CD recordings.
Sold out way in advance, the entire evening was simulcast over the internet, so friends around the world could join the hundreds gathered at the church.
Ram Dass participated via link-up from Hawaii, projected onto a large screen set up next to the musicians. Under the watchful eye of a flower covered photograph of their late teacher, Neem Caroli Baba, he announced the release of his new book Be Love Now – his last in a trilogy, following Be Here Now, and Still Here.
Earlier in the evening, as the ticket holder's line stretched around the block, people passing by were curious. "What's going on?" a lady asked. When she was told, she shrugged her shoulders, "Never heard of him," she said. Her response made me chuckle.
It was the most unpublicized, unadvertised, world-wide spiritual family gathering, stirring something ancient, joyful and beautiful in each, way beyond what mere words could convey.
I was honored to have been there among members of my spontaneously unified earthly tribe. Like Krishna Das so many years before me, I was at "home" with these Gayan beings.
And we sang with our hearts wide open, beyond religion, beyond our differences, transcending anything that could divides us, inspired by our own voices to be love now.
Other stories by Victoria Barkley: