Let’s get it om

“I want to have people on the dance floors singing ‘Om’ … instead of ‘shake that ass.’”

– Bhagavan Das

It was Beat poet Allen Ginsberg who once said, “Bhagavan Das never had anything better to do than call up Mystic Mama on the Mantric Telephone.”

He was talking about Das’ practice of singing the praises of a host of Hindu deities — especially the feminine aspects of Kali and Shakti (see below “Who Are These Gods, and Why Am I Singing to Them?”).

These days, it seems like a lot of people don’t have anything better to do than follow the footsteps of Bhagavan Das, the kirtan (ecstatic devotional chanting) leader known in some circles simply as BD.

His latest CD, Bhagavan Das — Now (Karuna, 2002), is at the forefront of the Western kirtan movement; nonetheless, there’s plenty of evidence that these Eastern spirituals are making their way into the mainstream.

Cher introduced a theatrical version of a bhajan (a song or chant to God) in her Farewell Tour, and Madonna mixes Sanskrit mantras (sacred Hindu hymns) with techno on her current recordings.

But it was Das who started the whole thing — at least the Western version of it. And that’s a fact not lost on the Beastie Boys’ Mike D., who co-created and released the Das CD.

“You can really sense in Das’ singing that he’s going off into these ecstatic states,” Mike D. said in Interview magazine of their collaboration. “So I wondered if there was some way to put music to it. I didn’t know what his reaction would be, but he was like, ‘I want to have people on the dance floors singing ‘Om’ and divine songs, instead of ‘shake that ass.’”

That idea goes back to the kirtan guru’s 1971 recording AH, some of which was created at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studios. (AH was not commercially distributed at the time, but has recently been re-mastered and re-released by Dharmaware).

But the story actually starts even earlier, in 1963: The Vietnam War was then encroaching, JFK had just been assassinated, and 18-year-old Michael Riggs from Laguna Beach, Calif., decided to go find himself.

So Riggs traveled to India, where he renounced the material world and lived as a Hindu sadhu — also known as a “renunciate” ascetic — for seven years. During this time, he met the acknowledged Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba and received the name Bhagavan Das, which translates to “servant of the personality of the Godhead.”

“What happened within me was that I realized that my dharma, or my purpose in life, was to realize God and become enlightened so that I could lead my people home,” Das recently told New Visions magazine. “My consciousness became deeply transformed, and I started seeing the luminous quality of light in everything, and started perceiving everything in a spiritual tone so that mundane-ness was erased in my life.”

While wandering through India, Das met fellow American Richard Alpert. The two hit it off, and Alpert turned Das on to LSD. The young sadhu, in turn, took his new friend to meet Neem Karoli Baba — from whom Alpert accepted the name Ram Dass (aka RD), initiating the core of experiences he’d write about in his hit cult book Be Here Now.

Of course, Bhagavan Das featured prominently in the book.

Consequently, Das was an immediate celebrity upon returning to the U.S., where he began holding be-in kirtans on the spiritual-rock-star circuit. Others, such as Neem Karoli Baba devotees Krishna Das (KD, if you’re keeping track) and Jai Uttal followed suit, offering the Hindu tradition of devotional chanting to American audiences — and inaugurating a movement that’s picked up a surprising amount of steam over the last three decades.

But back on American shores, the former mendicant again got caught in the pull of Western life; by 1976, he’d cut his hair and had even taken a job — selling used cars, no less. A decade later, he became a born-again Christian.

“I was a salesman for 20 years,” Das claimed in a recent phone interview with Xpress. “I raised three kids. Then I returned to my path.”

Das had found his way back to Hinduism by 1989, but the way he tells it, his belief never really left him — it just lay dormant for a while.

“When I was in India, [Hindu goddess] Kali appeared to me,” he explains. “I did a lot of sadhana [spiritual practice] and she appeared to me. The divine mother is the whole source of my trip. She talks to me.”

In some ways, Das appears little different today from how he did when wandering India three decades ago — returned is the long hair, the beard, the robes. Only now, the kirtan leader is also teaching classes, signing books (he authored the cheekily titled It’s Here Now, Are You?), offering Ayurvedic readings and instructing others in Nada Yoga, the ancient science of communing with God through sound. This channeling of internal energy through aural vibrations is practiced through the dynamic singing and dancing of kirtan.

“With the yoga movement [in the U.S.], kirtan is becoming really popular,” Das explains. “It’s a powerful spiritual energy that gets released. It uplifts the consciousness.”

But is devotional chanting just another trend to be gobbled up by the stars? Is this Madonna’s next stop after Kabbalah?

“I think people are drawn to it for all these reasons — trend, spiritual practice, America’s interest in Eastern customs,” offers Andrew Barnett, who co-leads the local kirtan group Sangita Devi.

Kirtan, though, “hasn’t really gotten big enough to be completely trendy,” Barnett adds.

“I think it’s here to stay,” he asserts. “A lot of people are taking a lot away from it.”

Das has no problem with the newfound art of mixing these ancient Hindu chants with dance music. “I think it’s fine,” he insists. “It just depends on where you’re coming from when you sing.”

Sangita Devi co-leader Amy DeCori agrees.

“There are good things about bringing bhajans into everyday culture,” she says. “The more people exposed to it, the better. You don’t have to be a Hindu to chant, to participate. Kirtan connects people — sometimes without them even knowing it.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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