Few figures in modern spirituality, particularly in the West, have impacted the hearts and minds of contemporary seekers as Krishna Das has. A devotee of the North Indian Saint, Neem Karoli Baba (Maharajji), Krishna Das has played an enormous role in popularizing the traditional practice of kirtan in the West, and has evolved into an accessible teacher, although perhaps a reluctant one, and a spiritual friend to many along the way.
Layering traditional kirtan with instantly accessible melodies and modern instrumentation, Krishna Das has been called the “Chant Master of American Yoga” (NYTimes). With a remarkably soulful voice that touches the deepest chord in even the most casual listener, Krishna Das, known to friends, family, and fans as simply, “KD,” has taken the call-and-response chanting out of yoga centers and temples and into concert halls, becoming a worldwide icon and the best-selling western chant artist of all time. In a recording career spanning more than two decades, he has released 16 acclaimed full-length albums, his music serving as an easily approachable gateway to the devotional traditions of the East, and his voice serving as a conduit to the yearning that is the wellspring of all spiritual paths. His album ‘Live Ananda’ (released January 2012) was nominated for a Grammy in the Best New Age album category.
KD grew up as Jeff Kagel, a middle-class Jewish kid on Long Island in the 1950’s and 60’s, where he was a basketball player and a musician. At a young age, he became interested in Eastern spirituality and psychedelics, and eventually, he found his way to the legendary American spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, who had recently returned from his first pilgrimage to India. Through Ram Dass, KD learned of a reclusive Saint, Neem Karoli Baba, affectionately known as “Maharajji,” who Ram Dass had taken as his Guru. Ram Dass had just returned from Kainchi, Maharajji’s ashram nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, and he’d brought an abundance of spiritual inspiration back with him to America. KD was immediately fascinated by Ram Dass’s experience of Maharajji, and soon enough, with almost no money or resources, drawn by an inexplicable inner longing, KD managed to travel to India and find Maharajji at Kainchi Ashram.
Recognizing Maharajji as his own Guru, KD’s plan was to stay near Him in India forever. But Maharajji had a different agenda for his young American devotee to follow, and after a couple years, He would send Krishna Das back to New York to live his life. Within six months of his returning home, Maharajji had left his body, leaving KD to settle back into the stream of life in America. But that inner longing, that pull that first brought him to Maharajji, never went away.
He took solace in music, finding peace and strength in both his Bhakti yoga practice, and was drawn to offer kirtan to people, a regular spiritual practice at Kainchi ashram in India, with the hope it could be a path to connect more deeply with Maharajji.
In 1994, he established a long running kirtan residency in New York City, leading chanting at Jivamukti Yoga Center. People came from all over and from every walk of life, and somehow, through Krishna Das’s kirtan, through that expression of spiritual longing, the people coming to sing with him began to uncover that same presence hidden within themselves. That’s the story.
To understand Krishna Das, it’s important to know a little about kirtan. Kirtan is the simple practice of call and response singing, where what is being sung is mantra, Namavalis, or strings of sacred names. Kirtan is said to awaken bhakti, a kind of reverential and loving devotion within the heart. In India, kirtan is given great importance as a sadhana (spiritual practice) that is suitable and accessible to all, particularly in this modern age, and this devotional singing can be heard and experienced in a myriad of forms and places. It’s sung in temples, ashrams, homes, concert halls and in the streets. Krishna Das learned and adopted the practice in North India while living near his Guru, Maharajji, in the early 1970’s. He had been introduced to Maharajji through the American spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, and soon found his way to India, arriving at Maharajji’s Kainchi Ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. Maharajji loved chanting and the practice was encouraged. KD sometimes sang for Maharajji with the other Western devotees and often sat with the Bengali kirtan wallahs, musicians and singers who’d been brought to the ashram to sing seemingly endless rounds of Hare Krsna Mahamantra from morning until nightfall. The practice proved to be life changing and provided KD with a deeper connection to his Guru, and he brought the practice back to America with him when he was eventually sent home, where kirtan proved to be a lifeline to Maharajji.
As Krishna Das recalls, during his final moments in Maharajji’s physical presence, Maharajji posed the question, “So, how will you serve me in America?” I felt like I was moving in a dream. I floated across the courtyard and bowed to him one more time from a distance. As I did, the words came to me, ‘I will sing to you in America.’“
As a kirtan wallah in his own right, KD has developed his own singular style, transmuting some of the traditional Indian musical constructs tied to the practice into a more Western version of kirtan, a style rooted in gospel, blues, country and rock rather than raga. While the musical style of his chanting has changed melodically, the essence of the practice, the repetition of the Divine Name, the profound calling within, has only deepened. He has recorded a catalog of acclaimed albums, worked with musical legends like Sting and Rick Rubin, has been nominated for a Grammy Award and performed live at the Grammy Awards show, he’s been the subject of a feature length documentary, has authored an autobiography, “Chants of a Lifetime,” as well as a book on chanting the Hanuman Chalisa, “Flow of Grace,” and has toured the world over many times, but his intention has always been the same. When he sits down to sing, he sings to Maharajji, and over the years, that purity of purpose has resonated with thousands of people the world over.
When touring, Krishna Das often offers workshops, where practitioners and the curious are able to pick his brain on subjects ranging from the spiritual to the intimately personal. He is an advocate for regular spiritual practice, especially chanting, and for many, he has become a teacher of sorts, a spiritual Big Brother with a quick-witted sense of humor, as well as a calming voice of wisdom, reason and practicality. During the pandemic lockdowns, KD offered weekly online satsangs, showing up without fail to facilitate a safe space for people to connect, to practice, ask their questions, and share their troubles and joys. The impact, for many, was profound.
Krishna Das has also established the Kirtan Wallah Foundation (2014) to help spread the teachings of his guru, Maharajji, and the tradition of kirtan. Maharajji taught that one should “love everyone, serve everyone, and remember God.” KD continues to encourage these teachings through satsang and through the efforts of the Foundation to share the practices of Bhakti yoga with all those who care to join. More and more people worldwide continue to be drawn to chanting as a pathway to wholeness, self-understanding and self-awareness.