Category Archives: Kirtan & Bhakti

Plucking petals off flowers at the American Swami's Mumbai Flower Festival

An American Swami: And My Journey to His Home

temple deities in India

There may be a thousand people crammed in a large temple hall. If this were the U.S., it would likely be against fire code. But we are in Mumbai, India. With 26,000 people per square kilometer. This is an oasis of spirituality. A temple filled with love, gratitude, and flowers. A golden altar houses glorious deities, whose dressings and adornments change, daily. Lavish paintings and tapestries line the walls and ceilings. Many correlate to passages in the ancient scriptures. Gold-plated carvings, as intricate as the Italian renaissance palaces, grace the room. All eyes turn to the swami. An American Swami.

An Oasis of Peace and Love Built by an American Swami

ceiling at ISKCON Chowpatty Mumbai temple

This is a Krishna temple, filled with Indian men. Most are dressed in white. There are some tangerine-robed brahmacharyas. Every now and then, you spot someone in Western dress. One middle-aged gentleman sports an H&M bag. 

Despite the many men here, this is definitely a safe place for women of all ages. From grannies to toddlers. Most wear saris. To a lesser extent, younger women wear traditional long dress shirts over baggy pants, or leggings. The salwar kameez.

Radhanath Swami, an American swami in India

Three video cameras point at the American Swami. When he enters, many prostrate themselves in front of him as a sign of respect. Obeisances. The humble swami begins with Sanskrit chants. Then, he gives a lecture on the “Srimad Bhagavatan,” in the lingua franca of English. He drops in Sanskrit words frequently. But, his English reflects his American mid-western roots. The packed room of devotees applauds the swami generously when he’s done.  

It’s a bit incongruous.

At first glance, the man in charge here appears to be an Indian man, in his element. Indeed, he’s in his element. But, he hails from the suburbs of Chicago (like me). Furthermore, the American Swami is of Jewish ancestry (as am I). Thousands of devotees lovingly call this man Radhanath Swami.

Not unlike many of his Vietnam-war generation, he was disenchanted. At age 18, he hitchhiked throughout Europe and Asia. With little more than a harmonica in his pocket. His mission: find truth. Destination: India. He met many a guru before he found the real deal. Srila Prabhupada. That was almost 50 years ago. Now, Radhanath Swami is the sharer of truth. He has written a best-selling book, turned into a screenplay. More importantly, the American Swami has made an indelible mark in India. In the spiritual community and beyond.  

The American Swami’s Wide Reaching Charitable Endeavors

Plucking petals off flowers at the American Swami's Mumbai Flower Festival

This American Swami fostered a long list of charitable initiatives. There’s the Bhaktivedanta Hospital in Vrindavan. Sandipani Muni school for 1,500 underprivileged girls in Vrindavan. Mobile eye and dental clinics. Plus, a program serving 1.3 million lunches a day in India. Additionally, he established an award winning eco-village. That initiative includes a rural women’s empowerment program, and systems to boost agricultural outcomes for 900 previously near-starving farmers. 

Today, in Mumbai, however, the attention is all focused on the beauty of the temple adorned in flowers of all different hues. In the morning, women sit on the floor in a large room. They form small group surrounding baskets. We pluck petals off the flowers.  One group is working on marigold-colored flowers. Another, crimson. Others, garden-fresh white blossoms. In my group, I am the only foreigner. We are young, and old. Of diverse socio-economic strata. We have many different mother tongues (there are 22 “constitutional” languages in India).

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival, the brainchild of the American Swami in India

In the main sanctuary, there is more diversity. The room is about the size of a basketball court, including the sidelines. Here, are the men. Children and some women, too. All are one. All focus on the same repetitive task. Plucking petals. Periodically, a few men with tilak on their foreheads bring out bushels of new, intact, flowers, and they pick up the color-separated baskets of soft feathery petals.

The plucking, in itself, is a bit of a meditation. But, the reason behind this is not revealed until Radhanath Swami returns to his microphone in the evening. In the meantime, we all dutifully perform the petal plucking. 

Our senses are satiated. We are surrounded by the sweet aroma of the flowers. The touch of the soft petals, and sturdier stems, against our fingers. And, a radiant array of colors surrounds us.   In all, more than 2,300 pounds of flowers. Marigolds. Chrysanthemums. Roses from Vrindavan. Jasmines from Coimbatore.

A Ton of Flowers in a Sanctuary

flower garlands fill the sanctuary at the Mumbai Chowpatty Iskcon temple for the Flower Festival

This is the Mumbai Flower Festival. Also the brainchild of the American-born swami.

In the evening ceremony, devotees squeeze into the sanctuary. We line up at least an hour in advance to get prime spots on the floor, eye to eye with Radhanath Swami. Everyone sits knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder. We are the lucky ones. The overflow watches from a large screen in the patio, below. Around the world, others tune in on a live stream.

The evening includes chanting led by Radhanath Swami. Behind me, are recording artists Gaura Vani and Jahnavi Harrison. They provide beautiful subtle background instrumentation and vocals.  Periodically, we all join in the chanting.  

Then, it’s time for the reveal. What, in fact, are we all doing here?

flower garlands fill the sanctuary at the Mumbai Chowpatty Iskcon temple for the Flower Festival

Radhanath Swami explains that we, humans, are like the flowers. All different colors.  Some from Mumbai. Others from Southern India. Still others, from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. We are different sizes, scents, and senses.  Alone, or with our own, we are beautiful. But, when we are all together, mixed like potpourri, it’s an amazing sight. And feeling. Incredible touch on our hair…arms…clothing. There is, perhaps, nothing more beautiful than this. Unity in diversity. Beauty in diversity. Power in diversity. 

A Sea of Multi-colored Petals — The American Swami’s Analogy for Beauty in Diversity

At this point, from the altar, men overturn the individual oversized baskets of petals onto the deities. First, they are bathed in white petals. Then, yellow petals. Next, purple. One color, after another, we see the layers floating on top of the deities. After about two or three dozen huge baskets of uni-colored petals raining onto the deities, we see a slight meshing of colors. Subtle dark red peaking through the oranges. Flecks of white or yellow, underneath or between.

The crowd is in ecstasy. But, the high point is yet to come. 

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival

Soon, we see a confetti of multi-colored petals. The deities themselves are completely hidden by all the beautiful colored flower parts. Petals form mountains atop the deities. Mountains keep growing, like layers of snow. A landslide is pending. There are so many layers upon layers of different colored flowers. Gold upon orange. Scarlet upon vermillion.  Color-less among the vivid. 

When there are no more petals to pour onto the Mount Everest looking deities, the fun begins. Think Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street. Petals. Not beads. Devotion and spirituality. Not spirits.   

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival

The mounds of delicate flowers are strewn upon the gazers. We are covered with orange. Pink. White. So many beautiful colors. All together. The confetti of petals. The diversity of our world. Of individuals. When all the petals make their way into the central area, atop the hundreds of fellow worshipers, all become kids. Spry folks bend down and scoop up the piles of petals by our feet. We let the petals fall like rain on those around us. Friends toss handfuls on each others’ heads. Or lightly spray their faces with the multi-colored blessed petals.

“The flower festival is like being on drugs in the 60s. But you’re not,” says Gaura Vani, the musician. In fact, Gaura Vani left the Hollywood scene to re-dedicate his life to Radhanath Swami and the teachings of Srila Prabhupada.

The Petals Remain with us Forever

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival, the brainchild of the American Swami in India

Five months later, Mark, who works in the financial industry in Chicago, says the petals are still with him. “The pockets of my kurta have an unlimited supply of potpourri. It’s magical.” Lauren, a comedian living in Los Angeles, too, carries the remnants with her nearly half a year later. “Just found ANOTHER flower petal from Mumbai in my purse,” she notes with a laugh.

Just as Mardi Gras may be unforgettable to many, the Mumbai Flower Festival, concepted by a Jewish-turned-Vaishnava man who threw away his blue jeans in favor of an orange robe, is like nothing else. We are all in a state of light-headedness. Bliss. Devotion. Awe. Despite our countries of origin, race, religion, we are flying high. Equal. Respecting one another. And, as is the norm for followers of the ISKCON traditions, drug- and alcohol-free.         

India is a land of spirituality. Siddharta Gautama, the buddha, left India for Asia where he was (and is) considered a Supreme Being. Likewise, many yogis left India to create large followings in the West. Srila Prabhupada, left India, with only a few dollars in his pocket, and created an enormous legacy for spirituality, around the world. But, sometimes it needs a boon in the west to gain more momentum in the homeland. Srila Prabhupada’s work in other lands has only strengthened the following in India. Likewise, it took a kid from Chicago to bring back, replant and nourish the 5000-year-old learnings from India. 

And, thanks to modern-day technology, everyone can connect in the learnings and experiences.

Surrounded by Ganesha in Varanasi

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

Saving the best for last on my spiritual tour of Northern India was Varanasi. AKA Kashi (city of light) and Benares. Hindus flock here for spiritual cleansing. Plus, this part of the Ganges is the preferred site for cremation and/or releasing ashes. While popular among foreigners, spying on sacred burial rites wasn’t my cup of tea. Rather, a highlight for me was finding thousands of images of Ganesha and other deities.  All in one small room.

After a lovely mangala arati (morning prayer ceremony), followed by ragas and yoga at the Ganges, I was in a state of bliss. I let my intuition guide me to a storefront (the only one I entered in all Varanasi). This was no shopping spree. It was a spiritual infusion.

In all, I spent more than an hour with brothers for whom their lives evolve around Ganesha, and other deities. 

Ashok and Vijay are two of 10 Murtikar siblings. Appropriately, Murtikar means statue maker. Not just any statue, but sacred ones. For generations, the Murtikar men have been carving images of Ganesha, Saraswati and Shiva out of stone. 

Ashok is one of the elders. He has a wonderfully calming demeanor.

Carving Deities as Meditation

carved deities in Varanasi, India

Ashok followed in his father’s footsteps, carving deities, large and small. 

“All time, I sit with papa. Sometimes, I broke (the stone). ‘Again.’” His father would gently encourage him, just like an American dad may say to his child learning to ride a bike.

Creating gods out of stone is a form of meditation for Ashok.  He has such a gentle nature and mannerisms. You can almost visualize how he delicately carves deities with utmost respect and devotion. Not all of what Ashok creates are rooted in his father’s teachings. Some evolve from his dreams.  

“Working, working, working. Stone is the energy. Nature. Mountain.  It’s power.  Prana. Shakti.” 

You can feel his mindfulness in his presence, and in his speech. There is a grace that permeates the space. While Ashok oozes a meditative calm, the younger Vijay is different. He’s focused on Ganesha. He prefers paper to stone. And, he works at lightning pace.

Drawing Ganesha as Meditation

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

I’m enthralled with the back room where Ashok takes me. It’s behind the showroom. It looks like a library. Seems full of Vijay’s treasures. There are shelves, floor to ceiling, stashed with drawing pads. Piles of the loose drawings or sketchpads fill the floor. It’s hard to imagine how many drawings are in this one room. 

All are Vijay’s work. Furthermore, all the drawing books are filled with sketches of Ganesha. The overcomer of obstacles. I was mesmerized by the idea that one person would spend their life drawing only images of the elephant god with twisted trunk.

A good percentage of the drawings are monochromatic. Yet, others feature bold colors in geometric shapes.

Ganesha is Happiness

I was in a meditative state, sitting on the floor, rummaging through his deities. This was the most comprehensive collection I could imagine of the iconic elephant on top of a mouse. I was in awe of Vijay’s unparalleled production of Ganeshas. In fact, the marathon Ganesha artist said at times he draws Ganesha for “51, 54, 56 hours non-stop.”

 a marathon ganesha maker in Varanasi, India

“Ganesha is the honor of God. Ganesha is the good brain, giving good luck…happiness always.”

Apparently, he wasn’t as interested in the stonework of multiple generations of Murtikar men.  Most of all, his mother was a great influence. “Your mother is your first, first and first teacher.” 

Nonetheless, he credits both parents for his affinity toward Ganesha. “I see Ganesha everywhere…my parents always worshipped in front of the Lord Ganesha before starting any work on any new sculpture,” he told another newspaper.

“I make a lot of exhibitions.” Actually, three times he was invited by the government to display the elephant deities in a museum in the holy city of Dharmasala (where the Dalai Lama resides). His art has also been shown in Thailand and the United States. The man with Ganesha in his heart may draw 100 images before he selects just the right one for an exhibit.

Not only is he prolific, he’s protected by a higher source. Or, rather, his Ganeshas are protected.  Actually, one of his drawing books is badly worn away from critters. The edges of dozens of pages are frayed. Yet, Vijay smiles as he says no mouse has never touched the images of Ganesha.

His personal collection of Ganesha and other deities, on paper and stone, he estimates at more than 51,000.

Art is Spiritual

Deity makers in Varanasi, India

“Art is the way of the life. Hidden beauty. Spiritual height,” for Vijay. It also seems to be his drug. It powers him. Gives him his spiritual and physical well being. Regardless of what fuels him, he notes that there are messages in his paintings. Sometimes, painting to the sound of tabla drumming, helps reveal messages. “All my paintings have a story.”

One Ganesha, he explains, relates to our body. The five elements, like auras, against a full sky.

First off, colors all have meaning. 

“There is depth in light. All religions love white,” which he equates to sweetness. Black and white, too, is important. Red stands for equality. Because we all bleed the same color. Green is happiness. Orange is luck. Not surprisingly, blue represents water and sky.

Moreover, the thought behind the art is extremely important. 

Finally, he vocalizes his own sense of meditation through art. “I’m never disturbed. I’m an artist.”

Read more about spiritual India, including words of wisdom from Men in Orange.

candramauli swami of ISKCON Prison Ministry

Men in Orange #8: ISKCON Prison Ministry

Candramauli Swami is one of the Men in Orange who sat with us at our wall-free classrooms in India. He has been wearing his orange robe for five decades. However, he spends much time with men that some of us picture wearing black and white stripes. Five decades ago he became a direct disciple of Srila Prabhupada. The founder of ISKCON, Prabhupada first approached incarcerated populations in Delhi in 1962, not long before he came to America to bring spirituality West. His teachings led to the creation of the ISKCON Prison Ministry, established more than 30 years ago.

Candramauli Swami currently leads that endeavor, and has authored two books about spirituality and the incarcerated. The “Holy Jail” redacts activities of the ISKCON Prison Ministry that has changed the lives of hundreds of inmates. His second book is called “Forbidden Voices.”  

Originally from New Jersey, he spends most of his time based out of an ashram in Chicago. Nonetheless, he travels frequently to share his wisdom. Our stars aligned. He was at both the Mumbai Flower Festival and later Govardhan Eco Village while my group was there. The following summarizes his pre-kirtan discussion with our group.

What About Me?

From 1986-1991 Candramauli Swami visited directly with people in prisons. Later, he began letter writing outreach. Today, he does both. “Prabhupada wanted this kind of preaching. We have good success.” As part of the ISKCON prison ministry, one former inmate joined the Chicago temple and writes a newsletter for the incarcerated. 

Candramauli Swami of Iskcon Prison Ministry
Candramauli Swami leads kirtan at Govardhan Eco Village

The ISKCON prison ministry program is a wonderful way to reach the hearts of people that are considered persona non grata, explains Candramauli Swami. The inmates can start to relate to other people more. ISKCON prison ministry transforms them inside and outside. 

Matter changes. It begins, develops, deteriorates and vanishes. Likewise, this body will begin and end. What is the heart? It’s a machine. It’s just an organ. The brain is simply a machine.

But WE (our souls) are eternal. The soul (you) is in the heart region. We naturally want to feed that soul. On the spiritual plane, every thing is perfect.  Yet, we spend practically all of our time doing things that are related to body. But what about me (my soul)?. When we focus on the material, we are surrounded by temporality. 

If you take all the parts of the body and put them together, do you have a life? There’s something else that gives animation to the body. That’s you. The soul.

So what is the answer? Spirituality.  As we connect with God, we connect with ourselves. 

Spiritual activity is reality. Peace in spiritual life is always growing.  Spirituality only gets more and more brilliant when you feed it. For example, the closer you get to fire the more you feel the heat.

Spiritual Life is Life. 

Participants chant with Candramauli Swami at Govardhan Eco Village

Material life is what we do in this life to fulfill our desires. Our relationship with God is our relationship with everything. Everything is connected to the source. Everything is connected to God. 

Consider the tale of a man in search of a buried treasure. He never finds it. Once he dies, he’s buried. And guess what? When they dig his grave, they find the treasure. That is an analogy for the concept that happiness is in your soul. It’s always part of you. Just buried sometimes. However, oftentimes, spiritual life can awaken you.

Or, consider your dreams. Who is seeing, and who is being seen?  Who’s real?  The one watching is the soul. Even in our wakened state we are seeing ourselves.

We need to turn things around. Educate that which comes from within. At the Universities we don’t get an education. We get a coat of paint. God is like the stomach. When you feed it, it expands. The soul knows everything. Past, present and future. The soul experiences no unhappiness. 

As we connect with sound, it awakens this happiness. The most powerful form of energy in this world is sound. Sound can create, destroy, transform. 

ISKCON Prison Ministry Feeds the Soul.

Sound vibrations are so powerful. The ear never stops acting. It is always alert to sounds, and our bodies feel vibrations.

Most of us recognize music as the language of the heart. It brings us happiness.

By chanting, you’re feeding your soul.  Chanting leads to a deep sense of peace. From that peace comes happines.  That joy is not something you can manufacture. It all starts from sound. 

Trying to understand through logic and reason falls short. You must feel it. Experience it. Then, you’ll believe it.

Move On. Karma is the Past.

Close up of ISKCON Mumbai temple carvings adorned with flowers

Some people think they have bad karma. Karma is very difficult. Some children may show signs of superb intelligence. Like a Beethoven. That, too, you can say is karma. Karma is not just the bad. Karma is simply our past histories. The soul is carrying karma from previous lives. No one is born with a clean slate. No one is perfect. Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. Regardless, you can improve your standing. That’s one of the intangible benefits of the ISKCON prison ministry program.

For those incarcerated, they have a heavy burden, and slimmer futures that most of us. Yet, we all experience periods of unhappiness. We we can’t stay in that state of consciousness. We have to move on. When you’re connected on a spiritual level, you move on. When we live our life around God, when we lose something from the material world, we move on. 

Give your love and emotions to God and you’ll always feel positive. He’ll reciprocate. 

We are all coming from the spiritual world. Some have chosen to leave God, and enjoy their days separately from God. God doesn’t interfere with your independence, or your choices. 

You can’t force someone to love you. If so, it’s not really love. Love is voluntary. Same with love for God.

Finally, time is conspicuous by its absence. Anything that’s born is under the influence of time. But in the spiritual world, there is no past or future. Just present. We think in terms of future and past. Learn from the past. Live in the future. However, everything exists now.

More Men in Orange

Read the other installments of Travels in India with Men in Orange, featuring learnings from Radhanath Swami, Chaitanya Charan and Shyamananda Das.

Photo of Srila Prabupadha in Vrindavan

Men in Orange #7. Radhanath Swami Speaks about Vrindavan

One of the many reasons why I chose to travel to India, earlier this year, was to visit the holiest of places. Vrindavan was top of the list, and my group stayed in Vrindavan for four nights. Throughout our journeys, we were accompanied by two men in orange, about whom I previously published six articles

Both these two Mumbai-based monks, as well as the two Chicago-based women who coordinated our tour, are disciples of Radhanath Swami. Coincidentally, Radhanath Swami was born and raised Jewish, in Chicago, as was I.  I’d heard this best-selling author and founder of numerous mega-charitable initiatives speak many times during his travels to the U.S. This trip was different. We were on his turf. My small group was graced to have an intimate get-together with him in his Mumbai office. Later that day, we were among the lucky ones granted entrance into his jam-packed temple for an incredible Flower Festival. 

A week later, we heard him speak to visitors at his award-winning Govardhan Eco-Village, located several hours north of Mumbai. At one of those open-air sessions, as we sat upon cow dung “flooring,” he spoke about the importance of visiting Vrindavan.  The following is a synthesis of his remarks. (Note: Radhanath Swami will give a rare public lecture in Chicago April 27, from 6-8 p.m. at Harris Hall in Evanston.)

Vrindavan is the world capital of bhakti (devotion/divine love).

Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, there are references to devotion.  Krishna says, “as one approaches me, with the sincerity of one’s motivations, that’s how the lord will respond.”  Other interpretations are, “As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me.” Or, “In whatever way a devotee approaches him, he accepts them, for men approach him from all directions (4.11).

If you look at the history, such as England and India, “control,” is not positive.  When we are subordinated, we are controlled. Subordinate means losing. It’s a negative word. Yet in the spiritual world, it’s most beautiful to be subordinate to God’s heart. That is the highest liberation. The ultimate liberation. To love is to serve selflessly. Without arrogance.  

All of the great spiritual enlightened people have taught us that we must experience happiness in our heart. Real wisdom is to see the hand of God and to be grateful, as a grateful heart can recognize the blessings in everything. Gratitude is one of the most essential virtues for real inner prosperity and happiness because it can connect us to the Divine.

In the science of divine love, there is union and separation. That is magnified in Vrindavan. Here, the bhava or the feeling of prema or love between the Lord and His devotees is always increasing through union and separation.  Actually, the Lord never leaves Vrindavan, neither does He leave our hearts.

Vrindavan is a holy pilgrimage site

It’s important to be in a holy place of pilgrimage. Vrindavan has always been a primary aspiration for Vaishnavas seeking a spiritual pilgrimage. 

Why do all the spiritual paths recommend pilgrimages?  During a pilgrimage, one puts everything else on hold. It’s a time when we can invest — spiritually. Whatever benefits we get are forever there in our hearts. Going to a place of pilgrimage is so important. It’s a time in our lives to just seek our spiritual goal. 

We take for granted all the miracles all around us, such as the light from the sun. Vrindavan is not only an incredible place from the spiritual aspect, but also from a place of history. Vrindavan was Krishna’s playground. The sites for his lila

At a holy place, there is eternal love and beauty.  When we speak of spiritual energy, it’s never lost. The blessings of a spiritual energy you never lose. If you’re tuned into the spiritual channel it’s very clear. Without that energy, it’s static. If we go to a holy place, we can be spiritually transformed. We pray together. Chant together. That association (sangha) is very important.

The power of grace in Vrindavan

Radhanath Swami at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai

Bhakti means to tune into grace – to Krishna’s grace which is all pervading. The path of bhakti is to access that grace by humility and devotion. Thus, we cleanse our heart through the path of bhakti

The power of grace may be the greatest power. This grace which is the extension of God’s love can heal. The grace can intervene, and bring light to where there was darkness. Even when there’s such misdirection. 

The founder of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada, said, “if one chants the names of the Lord sincerely, without any ulterior motives, and practices bhakti in that spirit, we can tune into that grace.”

Vrindavan is a place emanating this grace. Not only is it almost synonymous with Krishna, but neighboring Barsana was the home of Sri Radha — the supreme reservoir of love. 

The power of grace in Vrindavan

artwork by Vrindavan schoolchildren

Bhakti means to tune into grace – to Krishna’s grace which is all pervading. The path of bhakti is to access that grace by humility and devotion. Thus, we cleanse our heart through the path of bhakti

The power of grace may be the greatest power. This grace which is the extension of God’s love can heal. The grace can intervene, and bring light to where there was darkness. Even when there’s such misdirection. 

The founder of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada, said, “if one chants the names of the Lord sincerely, without any ulterior motives, and practices bhakti in that spirit, we can tune into that grace.”

Vrindavan is a place emanating this grace. Not only is it almost synonymous with Krishna, but neighboring Barsana was the home of Sri Radha — the supreme reservoir of love. 

Losing focus on the material  in Vrindavan  

deities in Vrindavan, India

The word Krishna means magnet, and all attractive. In our real world, everyone seems to be looking for pleasure and trying to avoid suffering and pain. Have you ever seen anyone that didn’t want to be satisfied? Some seek satisfaction through clothing. Others, with music. There are many different material ways that people seek satisfaction. But these are temporary.  

The most obvious things, we don’t recognize because we’re distracted.  Petty things. All the little things like fish in our lives could elate us. The big fish is the higher purpose of life. When leaders are consumed with all these petty things that never bring satisfaction to the heart. 

In the scriptures Krishna says “I am the primary manifestation of nature.” Krishna controls time and teaches us to remember him in eternal forms such as the sun and the moon. In reality, everything is eternal. Which is summed up when Krishna says “I am.” 

Human beings are not meant to be like computers that store data. We are not infallible memory chips. Theoretical knowledge has no true value, unless it brings realization. The purpose of knowledge is to bring wisdom. 

Nothing is material. Rather, the energy of the supreme. Just as a shadow is the absence of sun, we recognize there is a sun that causes the shadow. Likewise, to focus on the material is to forget god’s spiritual energy. We can turn that around through seva. That “selfless service” is about being in harmony with with the supreme by focusing our efforts away from ourselves or the material. That leads us to karuna, or compassion. To really care about others. Make sacrifices for others. 

Each and every one of us is limitlessly beautiful because each one of us is reflecting the dignity of our creator. We are all emanating from that same sun. Unity in diversity. 

Girish and heart rate variability

Heart Rate Variability: Chant From the Heart, For the Heart

Bhakti Fest is considered the ultimate playground for yogis. In particular, for bhaktas (devotional yogis). While Bhakti Fest 2018’s Joshua Tree desert playground may span 385 acres, this year I was attracted to a tiny outdoor classroom next to a small artificial pond. Sitting on the sandy ground, or perched at the rim of the pond, a variety of singers, drummers and musicians shared knowledge and tips about their practices. Of note, chanting improves heart rate variability. in other words, chant from your heart, and you’ll be chanting  FOR your heart, and general well being. 

Bhakti Fest’s Kirtan School spanned only four days, with two two-hour sessions daily. Each class had a different lead teacher for a great potpourri of kirtan key take aways. 

As Gina Salá, one of the teachers said, “So many mantras. So much wisdom.” I’d add, So many artists.  So much devotion. For the culmination of so much sangha (association/unity) of sound. 

Your Divine Voice  

Gina Sala at Bhakti Fest

Gina Sala at Bhakti Fest 2018

In a previous article of mine, Gina Salá spoke about music and devotion. A take away was that every voice is divine. Perfect.

Similiarly, in Girish’s Kirtan Class at Bhakti Fest 2018, he said, “There’s never been another voice like yours. The voice is expressing who we are. Free the voice. Free the person. Your personal growth and evolution is inseparable from your voice.”

To me, Gina and Girish have incredible voices. They hit a sweet spot in my heart. Yet, Girish considers himself a drummer. And, most drummers don’t sing. He focused on chanting during his five years as a monk living in an ashram.  “It’s not about the artistry of music. It doesn’t matter how it sounds.” He emphasized, “It’s your call to your creator.”

Most noteworthy, Girish spoke of the science behind chanting. There is clear data to attest to the benefits of singing kirtan or chanting in groups, in particular. 

Chanting for the Heart: About Heart Rate Variability  

In fact, a recent study completed by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden noted that those who sang together had synchronized heartbeats. The head researcher explained that singing is a form of controlled breathing, not unlike yogic breathwork which leads to many benefits, including lung capacity and heart health.  

Furthermore, Girish said, “When we sing in a group, our brain waves start to sync up. And heart beats too.” He talks about the phenomena called heart brain coherence, which has been investigated by the HeartMath Institute in California, and heart rate variability (HRV).  

Girish at Kirtan Class, Bhakti Fest, speaks on heart rate variability

Girish at Kirtan Class, Bhakti Fest 2018

Harvard Health Blog contributor, Marcelo Campos, MD, explains the importance of heart rate variability. “HRV is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. Over the past few decades, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and worsening depression or anxiety. A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease. It is fascinating to see how HRV changes as you incorporate more mindfulness, meditation, sleep, and especially physical activity into your life.”

“We want a more adaptable heart rhythm,” added Girish, “as HRV is a biomarker of human health. One fantastic way to increase our HRV levels — and thus our overall health and resiliency — is to sing. And, in fact, chanting mantras increases HRV levels better than any other types of singing.”  Again, Girish has scientific research to back this up. He explains that when you chant mantras, you follow a particular breathing pattern as referenced in the Swedish study. Clearly, the breathwork associated with Tibetan monks is far from that of acid rock. 

However, Girish pointed to research comparing traditional chants from diverse religions and cultures such as Ave Maria and Om Mani Padme Om.  “All have the same breathing patterns. It’s an amazing effect. These practices activate the parasympathetic system.”

Chanting in Any Language, From the Heart

So, you don’t have to be a bhakta yogi.  As Girish jokingly said, believe it or not, “There are people out there who have never done kirtan … or yoga … or worn Lululemon.  It’s not just the yogis. All the world’s spiritual traditions are doing some kind of mantra.  So that tells me that it works.” 

While there’s plenty of evidence-based insights as to why it works, when you look at a toddler or child singing a nursery rhyme, it’s pretty obvious. Singing, especially repetitive sounds, makes us feel good.

“The primal human instrument is the voice. You don’t have to go to a music school to find out where a middle C is,” said Girish. 

Shiva Rae at Bhakti Fest

Shiva Rae at Bhakti Fest 2018

Shiva Rae, also at Bhakti Fest 2018, told an intimate gathering of women there, “Your first mantra was in your mother’s womb (her hearbeat).” And, in many cultures, the drum represents the heart beat. 

For the Mayapuris, the drum represents the sacred, too. In their Kirtan Class, the close-knit bhaktas from Florida explained the essence of the primal beats and their beloved mridanga. 

“The drum is a manifestation of Balaram (Krishna’s brother). Sound vibration itself represents the lord. When we use our instruments in Kirtan we are dressing (up) the holy name, and the instruments are the decoration to attract us. The more that we offer our love, the more we will feel the syncopation,” they said.  

“Something that runs through every culture is rhythm. Every tradition in every era on every continent has some form of collective singing, because it just pierces so clearly. These instruments are a vehicle.”

Chant the Holy Name

Mayapuris at Bhakti Fest 2018

Mayapuris at Bhakti Fest 2018

However, the Mayapuris aren’t saying you can chant mumbo jumbo. “If you were to repeat Coca Cola or water water it’s not going to quench your thirst. When we repeat the names (of the lord) it’s ever-present. It just gets sweeter and sweeter, and more ecstatic. Kirtan is the absolute platform.”

The Mayapuris are Vaishnavas. For them, the names of Krishna and Radhe, among others, are supreme. “In our tradition, we say the name of the Lord until our voice chokes up. Spiritual life starts at the mode of goodness. With that vision, it’s easier to attain that realization. Kirtan is like a shortcut. We’re not worrying about someone’s culture, politics or religion. Kirtan, and in particular collective sangha. You get a little shortcut, like a machete cutting through. And, it’s accessible to everybody.” 

“The first thing the chanting does is dust the mirror of maya (illusion). We just get so consumed and then we’re trapped. The things that get in our way, in our material brains, get pushed aside (with chanting). For this modern age, the scriptures say Kirtan is the dharma.” 

In other words, just as Gina Salá and Girish say that everyone’s voice is divine, the Mayapuris say, “Anyone can take part and start to feel divinity.” 

Bhagavan Das and his ektar at Bhakti Fest 2018

Bhagavan Das: From High Desert to Dallas — on the 33rd parallel

No Ordinary Senior Citizen

Bhagavan Das and his ektar at Bhakti Fest 2018Bhagavan Das left the United States in 1968. At the age of 18, he headed east. To India. Tibet. Nepal. With no money. He adhered to the customs of the elder yogis. A renunciate. An ascetic, or sadhu. After seven years, he returned to the States. But not to the lifestyle of the ordinary American.  

He introduced a friend to one of his gurus, Neem Karoli Baba. That friend is now known as Ram Dass, author of “Be Here Now.” Bhagavan Das authored his own book, “It’s Here Now (Are You?)”, but is better known for his music. In each of his CDs, his chanting is almost spellbinding. Rather drone-like, his concentration on the mantras or prayers is as solid as the Tibetan monks with whom he was guided many years ago.

Today, he doesn’t look like your card carrying AARP man. No Bermuda shorts. He walks barefoot, rather than gym shoes and calf-high socks. Nor does he sport a golf shirt. Rather, he wraps a long white robe around his 6’5” lean body. Yes, he has the grey hairs and receding hairline. But, his white beard reaches almost to his belly. Trailing from the back of his head is  one grayish-brown dreadlock that extends to his upper thighs. Sometimes, he wraps the dread around his head turban-like. 

In his white robe, he looks a bit like what you’d expect an aging Moses to look like. Weathered. Coming down from the mountains. Yes, weathered but wise. 

His music is mesmerizing. Usually, he belts out verse in Sanskrit. At times, he interposes English. One hand is glued to his one-stringed ektara. His deep booming voice resonates well with the sitar, and other instruments from the Indo-Pakistani region.

Ricky Tran, a yogi from Dallas agrees. “There is definitely something different about  Bhagavan Das’ chanting. He enters a trance during his performances, and I can feel the dissolution into the Divine. I have never experienced anything like it.” 

Bhagavan Das at Bhakti Fest’s 10th Anniversary 

Bhagavan Das and his ektar at Bhakti Fest 2018Bhagavan Das’ spoken messages are sparse, but have maximum impact. 

“When the earth had been completely taken over,” he tells a crowded sanctuary room of Bhakti Fest attendees between chants, “… very little dharma was left … Everyone was lost. On the cell phone. Everyone was on e-bay. On YouTube. Lost in the glamour.”  

Next, he continues his story about the sages who formed a circle around the earth. The goddess Durga, who takes away the darkness was coming to the rescue. She was trying to slay the dragon. But alas, every time she struck to whack off the head of the dragon, another head would arise while blood was spurting all over. 

“This is the great ego,” explains Bhagavan Das.  “I. Me. Mine. The self-serving. Self-possessed. Narcissistic.” In the end, fortunately, for mankind, the great goddess, “Maha Kali licked up the blood saving the world from the great ego.”

It had been many years since Bhagavan Das graced the stage there. He was at the first Joshua Tree mega-yoga/music festival, ten years ago. While some kirtan artists live on the road, like vagabond musicians, performing at yoga studios and festivals across the country, and even overseas, that’s not Bhagavan Das’ gig any more. So Bhakti Fest 2018 attendees were in for a real treat this last September as one of the earliest American kirtaneers shared his music, and his wisdom. 

Bhagavan Das at Bhakti Fest

“We live in a dream within a dream,” he said last month in the Joshua Tree desert. “Wake up before you die. Ram (the supreme) is the fire that burns away desire, transforming it into pure love.”

In an interview more than a decade ago with “Time Out New York,” Bhagavan Das explained why people feel so great after sharing kirtan with him. 

“‘Cause when we’re all together in a room and we’re all chanting and we’re all breathing together, it’s like we become this huge deity of breath and now we have a thousand arms and legs and a thousand heads and everyone’s in the same breath.”

Bhagavan Das Heads to Dallas

Now, Texans will be in for a treat as the master Bhakta offers a weekend retreat October 19-21 at Ecstatic Dance Dallas. Ricky Tran will host, and lead yoga workshops. “This is a rare opportunity to study with Bhagavan Das, as he seldomly offers this full weekend retreat,” says Tran. 

Interestingly enough, both Joshua Tree and Dallas are on the mysterious 33rd parallel. Joshua Tree, on the 33rd North Parallel, was once sacred Indian grounds, and still carries much of the sacred feelings. And Dallas? Well, the micro-chip was invented here. But, it’s also Tran’s home, and he’s a wonderful teacher.  So, this weekend in Dallas should be very memorable.

 

BhaktiFest

Bhakti Fest: 10 Years of Woodstock for Spirituality

The Birth of Bhakti Fest: Spirituality at Woodstock  

It was 1969. There were 500,000 gathered in Woodstock as Sri Swami Satchidananda gave opening remarks and prayers. “America is helping everybody in the material field, but the time has come for America to help the whole world with spirituality also.”

spirituality at Bhakti Fest 2018Swami Satchidananda’s inclusion at Woodstock was the brainchild of Sridhar Silberfein, who suggested spirituality was missing from the original Woodstock lineup. He also suggested taking this concept a bit further. Why couldn’t spirituality be the focus for a mass festival? The Swami agreed, and Sridhar recognized he had to make it happen. 

After raising four children, establishing the first natural foods store in the LA area, and making tea tree oil commonplace in the States, Sridhar set out to design a Woodstock for Yogis. He created a spirituality-based festival where the focus was chanting the names of the divine, and bringing higher consciousness to the masses. 

In 2009, Sridhar opened the gates to the Joshua Tree Retreat Center for the first Bhakti Fest. This September 12-17, two of the artists that have graced the festival each year, are once again taking center stage.   

Jai at Bhakti Fest 2018

Jai UttalJai Uttal: 10 years at Bhakti Fest had been leading weeklong Kirtan Camps for six years when Sridhar first told him about his idea for Bhakti Fest. The musician with a traditional rock background, infused with Indian and Brazilian instruments and beats said, “Yes, it’s the perfect time!”

For those unfamiliar with Bhakti (devotion) and kirtan (devotional chanting), Jai tells why it’s such a powerful practice. “These ancient chants contain a transformative power and healing energy. By singing these prayers we join a stream of consciousness and devotion that has been flowing for centuries.”

Jai, who has been singing kirtan for many decades, felt his students were longing for a bigger-scale gathering full of spirituality and sacred chants.  

“The community of ‘devotees’ has grown and expanded like ripples in a lake. The more we toss in our tiny pebbles of love, the greater are the waves of compassion and caring.”

This year, as in all the prior years, Jai will be a prime time performer on the main stage. Additionally, his yogi/dancer wife, Nubia Teixeira, will lead four different workshops including a session to empower women to heal the world. Like Jai, Nubia has been following the path of yoga and spirituality for 30 years. 

Jai always gives a great show, with his high energy, and deep devotion.  Read about one of Jai’s past special events in Austin. 

Spirituality Awakens for Donna De Lory

Donna De Lory’s blend of world music, mantras and electronica has been a favorite at Bhakti Fest, since 2009. She made her way to the first Bhakti celebration, after touring the world for 20 years as a singer and dancer with Madonna.  

Donna De Lory at Bhakti Fest for 10 yearsA Valley girl, her mom died of breast cancer when she was just 16. That event reshaped her life in many ways. She moved south to live with her dad, a Latin band leader who was into health foods and Eastern religions. She took up meditation, and worked at a vegetarian restaurant. She read a book by OSHO, and made gospel music. All in the land of country music. Nashville, Tennessee.

As a young adult, she moved back to LA, and eventually landed what many would have considered the ultimate job. Part of Madonna’s crew.  Throughout those years, the sacred vibes and sounds of devotional music never escaped her. About the time that the west coast yoga culture was taking off, she had two children, left the “Material Girl” circuit, and recorded her first yoga CD, “The Lover and The Beloved.” 

The arrival of her children, and Bhakti Fest, cemented her true desire to do her own style of world/sacred music. 

“I realized I have to do my own music. What am I about, and where’s my devotion?” Her fellow Bhakti musicians, Girish and David Newman, helped to bring her to “a place where all these loose ends came together.  We all felt we were part of a movement…like Woodstock…of people wanting to come together and expand their consciousness and go deeper within.”

Joy-Filled Participatory Fans

Donna said goodbye to the “Material Girl” and hello to “Bliss” and “Sanctuary.”  But they weren’t two completely different worlds.

“It is a community. People were so joy-filled. They never stopped smiling. I felt like I was down with the people,” she says about the Madonna days. “I learned the value of that touring with Madonna. I’d go out in front of the hotels and talk to people.” Same for Bhakti Fest.

Furthermore, the Madonna fans knew all the lyrics of her songs, and would sing along “…to the point that we couldn’t hear ourselves.” Again, same for Bhakti Fest.

Collaboration at Bhakti Fest

spirituality at Bhakti Fest 2018

From that original Bhakti Fest, collaboration abounded, Donna explains. “The artists were all one big tribe.” The musicians are almost like mix-and-match. On stage in many configurations.

“There’a a lot of integration of styles,” explains Donna. “The artists and teachers have been given space to blossom in what they offer.” For example, MC Yogi does hip hop. Sean Johnson’s style is NOLA infused. The Mayapuris perform traditional Indian ragas, samba and spirituals. 

Donna sings in English, Sanskrit, and Spanish. Often mixing one to another, just as she did with Madonna on La Isla Bonita. A professional singer and dancer, everyone who hears her can channel some of that. “No matter how much I may be in an introspective place, it just goes there. You just see it. People want to dance, and sing together. It’s in our DNA. To have this celebration, together.”

spirituality at Bhakti Fest 2018People connect with each other, and with Joshua Tree. “It’s the nature. Community. Expansiveness. Especially in today’s world. It’s a place that allows you to just be who you are, and not be judged,” explains Donna. 

Now, to amp up that collaboration and closeness between artist and attendee, Bhakti Fest 2018  includes a Mantra Dome, for a more intimate gathering to chant sacred mantras.

“Bhakti Fest was so rooted in the devotion. People feel free to let go and show their devotion. These festivals are allowing you that.”

yoga with Deborah Charnes of The Namaste Counsel

Yogi Bhajan: Yoga for a Meditative, Neutral, Intuitive Mind

The meditative mind is the neutral mind that runs your destiny. There are three ways to conduct your destiny. Through the law of karma-action and reaction you can tune into the magnetic field of the Earth and just float with it as a freeloader, or your life can be run by that magnetic, attractive creative, meditative Neutral Mind. That way you do very well. —Yogi Bhajan

paschim namaskarasana reverse prayerGurucharan Singh Khalsa, PhD, rubs elbows with geniuses like Yakir Aharonov. He’s a psychotherapist, and professor at MIT, with a penchant for quantum physics. At the core of all his passions are the teachings of Yogi Bhajan.  He collaborated with the Kundalini spiritual guru on many a publication, thus becoming one of the leading teachers of this form of yoga. So much so that Gurucharan Singh Khalsa was international director of training for Kundalini Yoga for 40 years.  He recently led weekend workshops at Yoga Yoga in Austin. His primary topic was how yoga can build your intuitive senses, something I was taught by one of my first spiritual leaders many years ago.

Your system of intuition is the source of your happiness. It is the source of your victory. It is the source that can make you invincible. —Yogi Bhajan

“Most instincts are pretty useful,” he says. Think running away from a bear, or, dropping a hot plate. The third chakra, is the foundation of instinct, he explains, and it often shows up with somatic feelings of the body.  For example, recall the way you felt the first time you laid eyes on your partner. Conversely, think back to when you spot someone who just doesn’t seem to jive with you.

kapalabhati ego eradicator breath of fire, as taught by Yogi Bhajan“We want to have strong instincts,” he adds. And one of the staples of Kundalini Yoga, breath of fire, is helpful in that area. Interestingly enough, that technique of breathwork, kapalabhati, was part of my twice daily routine where I studied with the swami who suggested intuitive powers are built through a sincere, steady practice. While I’m not running on intuitive overdrive, I recognize that my gut feelings have strengthened significantly since I became a devoted yoga practitioner.  

“Breath of fire is very useful in aligning with instincts,” says Dr. Singh Khalsa.  But, he pointedly differentiates between instincts and intuition. “If you have instinct, intelligence and intuition, you can reduce your errors.”  

Wise choices bring about a balance in life, he explains. Yoga, of course, is all about bringing balance to the body, mind and spirit. Furthermore, yogis traditionally adhere to an alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle, and minimize use of prescription drugs. Dr. Singh Khalsa asserts that consuming any kind of drug will alter one’s instincts. As such, drugs can pollute your ability to hone your instincts. In the Ayurvedic world, we talk about leading a pure sattvic life, avoiding what are rajassic or tamassic. Mood alterers, alcohol is very tamassic, whereas caffeine is rajassic. Think uppers and downers. Both bring about problems.  Driving while intoxicated is a perfect example that Dr. Singh Khalsa uses to paint the picture of how substances can alter your mind. In some instances, causing fatalities.

When you are in the state of the neutral mind, the soul is like a chandelier switched on over you. Communication of the soul is just that light; you are lit up by it. —Yogi Bhajan 

dhyana mudra tibetan meditation mudraKundalini, as taught by Yogi Bhajan, represents a capacity for awareness.  Just as the snake represents your kundalini rising, a snake sheds its skin to grow. You’re shedding skin, expanding. Making the infinite more intimate. Bringing about a birth of consciousness at the heart center, he says. However, if you’re purely instinctual, you may shut everything out…and be lonely. Beliefs have their own immune system. A lot of people never believe anything. Additionally, he says “bias is often from self-dialogue.”

Possibly, that’s why one of my favorite yoga practices is chanting, especially group chanting, or sankirtan, which to me is so powerful. In the Kundalini Yoga tradition, mantras are just as much a part of the yoga experience as is breath or body work,. While my yogic foundations are not from Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini lineage, chanting was integral to my yogic formation.   I incorporate chanting, or mantras, in my personal practice at least once, daily. When needed, I’ve called upon mantra meditation for hours at a time. 

Man without intuitive mind is a car without brakes. An intuitive mind cannot be achieved without a meditative mind.The meditative mind is a process to the intuitive mind. —Yogi Bhajan

Finally, Dr. Singh Khalsa notes that nothing is perfect. “We all face decisions, and each has an impact.” Even a “wise decision” can get you in trouble, as it did for Nelson Mandela. Not that the “trouble” didn’t have a positive outcome, in the end. But you have to have self-forgiveness. And above all, patience.

 

spiritual practices of Bhakti and kirtan

Bhakti and Self-Love Spiritual Practices

The topic of spiritual practices is by guest author, Pranada Comtois. Her book, Wise-Love: Bhakti and the Search for the Soul of Consciousness is newly published.

The Magic of Bhakti’s Self Love Spiritual Practices

Wise Love: Bhakti and Self-LoveWe are driven for love and by love. We must feel loved to feel whole. But do you feel lovable or loved? Sometimes? All the time? Almost never?

You may have a life companion, family, and friends and not feel loved or worthy of love. Or you may be a loner without significant relationships but feel lovable and loved.

Loving relationships can go a long way in confirming our worth, countering negative self talk, and making us feel lovable. But they aren’t what make us feel lovable. If we don’t love ourselves – truly, deeply, fully, and with clarity – we won’t feel loved.

Even if we surround ourselves with a community of loving people we may still feel unworthy of love. After all, those who purportedly love us can make us feel unloved or unlovable. Their style of relating to us, as well as their own needs and shortcomings, combined with our misperceptions and misconceptions can create untenable situations.

Neither can our inner lack of love be resolved by affirmations, creative visualizations, mindfulness, or meditation. We can look ourselves in the mirror in the morning and repeat, “I love you. You’re worthy of love” and still feel unlovable. That’s because we often miss the distinction between mundane love of the false self and divine love of the genuine self.

Only in realizing my real self can I experience real love because I’m not the body, mind, or emotions — or the illusory identities associated with this temporary frame I inhabit. Love of the body-mind won’t make me feel whole and satisfied. I require love for myself as a spiritual being.

And how can I love our self unless I know my self?

Spiritual Practices Can Uncover Our True Self

spiritual practices of Bhakti and Self Love

But, not all practices simultaneous endow us with self love. This is the promise of bhakti’s divine love, or wise-love.

As a spark of spirit, a unit of consciousness, we are a most beloved subject of love. We must be loved to be whole, and we are givers-lovers. Feeling unlovable or unloved is only an imagined state of mind without truth in reality. When we wake to our eternal self we awaken to our enduring nature as lovers who are supremely lovable.

The ancient Bhagavata, the sequel to the Bhagavad Gita, says, “Sometimes we suffer because we see a tiger in a dream or a snake in a vision, but actually there is neither a tiger nor a snake. Thus we create some situation in a subtle form and suffer the consequences. These sufferings cannot be mitigated unless we are awakened from our dream.” (Bhag. 4.29.35)

Credible and Daily Spiritual Practices Break the Deep Dream  That Grips Us

Spiritual practices of Bhakti and Self Love: Radha and KrishnaWhen we awaken and see the self, we naturally see the Source from where we are generated, just as when I see a spark of fire, I will also see the fire-source. As a spark of our Divine Other, our nature reflects his. As he is a lover, we are lovers. As he is lovable, we are lovable. We don’t need the confirmation of the world, or current relationships, to validate the existential truth of our lovability; we experience it when we awaken to the self.

And more, just as our Divine Other cannot be moved by conditional love, the love of this world cannot fill us. We must have the most exalted, pure love, or wise-love: the unconditional love the self knows for itself and its Source.

We easily progress in the art of self awakening by bhakti’s simple method of hearing about and chanting about our Divine Friend. In kirtan or japa (solitary chanting with prayer beads), we can chant the sacred great mantra, the maha-mantra Hare Krishna.

Kirtan is the beginning of an amazing journey to the self and wise-love. By associating with our Infallible Lover, our infallible lovability is reflected to us and our love fully reciprocated. The magic of bhakti reveals the lover and her lovability, the Beloved, and their mutual wise-love. Even the beginning experiences of this relationship can alleviate, forever, our feelings of being unloved or unlovable.

About the Guest Author

Pranada Comtois is a devoted pilgrim and teacher. Her writing sheds light on bhakti’s wisdom school of heartfulness. She shares her love for spiritual practices with a focus on how to culture wise-love in our lives and relationships. She hopes others can experience the inherent, unbounded joy of the self. The wisdom of her teaching and spiritual practices grows from living 20 years as a contemplative in bhakti ashrams.

For more on Bhakti, click on the Kirtan and Bhakti button at The Namaste Counsel archives

Jaya Lakshmi at Bhakti Fest

Benefits of Bhakti: Chanting and Singing Feels Good

Sankirtana. Singing feels good.Music is a part of my life. I play no instruments. I’m not a trained musician. But, music is in my heart, and in every cell of my body. That’s why chanting (bhakti yoga or kirtan) is one of the most important aspects of yoga for me. Yes, chanting is yoga. As is dancing. 

When I was a kid, I felt something special when I would sing with my sister. After seeing “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins,” some of the songs were on automatic replay in my head. I couldn’t stop singing. Now, it’s the same way. But it’s mantras that keep circulating through my heart and my mind. I try to share that appreciation with my students. In classes, even if I’m playing Mary J. Blige or Stephen Marley, I’ll intersperse a rhythmic mantra.  

Sankirtana. Singing feels good.Once or twice a year, I go to kirtan festivals. Recently, I was in California for Bhakti Fest. The following weekend I went to North Carolina for Sadhu Sanga. Both were gatherings of several thousand bhaktas. People, like me, that have been touched by the power of sankirtana (group chanting).

One of the most beautiful things about Bhakti Fest and Sadhu Sanga is the energy. Beyond the beautiful sounds and rhythms, there is a special atmosphere. Bliss. Devotion. Whatever you want to call it. That’s what bhakti is all about. In fact, one of the translations for bhakti is devotion. When you practice san kirtan that special feeling is magnified a thousand times.

Kirtan Fest Houston

Kirtan Fest HoustonNow, there’s a kirtan festival in Texas.  Labor Day weekend. September 2 to September 4.  The venue is the most beautiful ISKCON temple.

Kirtan Fest Houston brings together kirtan artists who travel around the world. Karnamrita Das is one. I’ve sung with her in California. Amala Kirtan Das is a Brazilian-born musician with whom I’ve chanted several times in Austin. In addition to many others leading the group chanting will be San Antonio’s Advaita Acharya Das. He’s my personal conductor. He’s moved my life in many ways. Not just getting me to dance or sing, but to make a difference in my life. To live the principles of yoga.

This is your chance to feel the power of group chanting without leaving the big state of Texas. In fact, Advaita is coordinating caravans to get to and from Houston. 

Kirtan Fest HoustonAdvaita quotes the scriptures to explain the value of chanting. 

“Compared to that person who is attached to chanting japa (beads), the person who performs loud chanting of the holy name of Sri Hari is one hundred times better. This is because the person who chants japa purifies himself, whereas the person who chants the holy name loudly in kirtana purifies himself, all those who are with him, and everyone else who hear the holy vibration.”

Quoting the scriptures, he adds, “The animals, birds, and insects cannot chant the holy name, but by hearing the holy name chanted they can benefit. Chanting the japa of the holy name of Krishna purifies oneself, but the loud sankirtana of the holy name of Krishna benefits all living beings. Therefore, loudly chant the holy name of Krishna in kirtana, and you will get one hundred times the benefit of chanting japa. This is the verdict of all the sastras.”

Advaita’s Tips for First Time Chanting

1) Get as close to the kirtan circle as possible. Imagine fire. The closer you are, the more wholesome is the experience.
2) Don’t burn yourself.  Respect the fire. Respect kirtan sound and you will be able to feel something without touching it, and see something with your eyes closed.
3) Don’t come to kirtan tired. Don’t over eat, or eat not enough. 
4) Remember your body is a temple. Focus on PPP:  Posture. Pronunciation. Presence.

It Feels Good

Girish is one of the frequent Bhakti Fest musicians. At this year’s Shakti Fest I attended one of his workshops. Kind of like Singing 101.  

“Every one of us is born to sing,” he said. “Each and every one of our bodies is a unique musical instrument. Are we a cello, or are we a flute, or trombone in this symphony of life?”

Girish pointed to research that validates what I learned as a young kid. Singing feels good.

Chanting is Good for you“It’s scientifically proven that singing is really really good for us. Singers have lower cortisol levels, by about 15 percent. It activates the parasympathetic system. It lowers our blood pressure and calms our mind.”

And, especially when we do so with groups of people (sankirtana). Think about singing at places of worship, or jamming with your friends or family. What’s more, Girish says when you sing in sanga (community of likeminded people), “Our heart beats and brain waves sync up.”

Girish said that freeing the voice is freeing the person. Moreover, “Our voice is a bridge between the inner world and the outer world. Singing and chanting is the best way to bring that forth. It’s not about having an amazing voice. I myself identify as a drummer who sings. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries.”

Girish’s Tips for Singing

  1. Find your key. The majority of women are most comfortable in the key of A. On the other hand, men usually prefer C. 
  2. Relax the jaw, tongue and throat. Try a few lion’s breaths before you start to sing. 
  3. The dan tien (a few fingers below the belly) is the root of the voice. In Daoist practices this spot is special. It’s where energy brews. A sea of qi (prana). Similar to with yogic breathing, expand the flower pot, beginning here.

Girish told us that the word voice is related to the word invocation. Both come from the Latin  voxdictionary.com defines invocation as the act of invoking or calling upon a deity, spirit, etc., for aid, protection, inspiration, or the like; supplication. Another definition is a form of prayer invoking God’s presence, especially one said at the beginning of a religious service or public ceremony. So, that can be interpreted as chanting is a form of invoking that connects one with a higher spirit. 

Jaya Lakshmi at Bhakti FestGirish first explored devotional singing when he was in college. There,  he found Kundalini yoga. Then, he deepened his chanting practice when he lived as a monk for five years. He studied Sanskrit and translated many mantras.   Translations are hard, especially from Sanskrit, because there are so many interpretations. About “Om Nama Shivaya,” one of my  ingrained mantras, he makes it simple.  “I honor the inner Self. Shiva. The light of consciousness within me.”

Similarly, Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda are popular singing yogis at Bhakti Fest. 

Jaya Lakshmi acknowledged that Kundalini yoga was the gateway for her devotion. Not surprising, since mantra meditation is very much a part of the Kundalini tradition. Additionally, she said “mantras have such potency.”

Ananda’s Tips for Mantras

“The best mantra to practice is the one you are going to practice. You have to find the joy in it. For me, the Lakshmi mantra is the one I go to. We go through different phases. Whatever makes you a better person. The way is your intuition…your heart.”

One of my favorite recordings of Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda is “Divine Lover’s Maha Mantra.” The maha mantra is widely celebrated. It’s always the grand finale at Bhakti Fest and is the mainstay at Sadhu Sanga and the upcoming festival in Houston. Advaita leads it throughout San Antonio, and beyond. He explains that “maha means great… great mantra for upliftment and restoration of our original loving nature that will swell in your heart more and more, the more you chant.”