Krishna Das Biography, Devotional Music & Influence

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Only a handful of contemporary spiritual personalities, especially in Western cultures, have influenced the emotions and intellects of modern-day seekers quite like Krishna Das.

Described as “chant master of American Yoga” by New York Times, Krishna Das is a sensationally popular American singer known for Eastern devotional music, known as “kirtan”.

A follower of Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji), a revered saint from Northern India, Krishna Das has significantly contributed to making the age-old tradition of kirtan widely embraced in Western societies. 

Along his ascension in the spiritual world, he has transformed into a beloved singer, teacher, and guide for Hindus and non-Hindus alike.

Over the course of a recording journey that spans well over twenty years, he has unveiled 16 highly praised albums. 

His melodies act as a readily accessible entrance into the devotional legacies of the Eastern world, while his vocal tones seamlessly channel the longing that constitutes the source of all spiritual journeys. 

If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you might have heard amongst the teachers’ playlist a Krishna Das tune or two. Lots of really lovely Hare Ram or Krishna chants, that evoke a great atmosphere for yoga classes.

Notably, his album ‘Live Ananda,’ launched in 2012, earned a Grammy nomination within the category of Best New Age Album.

In this article, we’ll cover the life and legacy of Krishna Das in these sections:

  • Early Life And Background
  • Path To Spirituality
  • Musical Journey
  • Kirtan And Devotional Music
  • Album Releases
  • Legacy

Early Life And Background

Undoubtedly the most widely recognized American vocalist specializing in kirtan-style music, Krishna Das, originally named Jeffrey Kagel, was born in 1947 in the vibrant city of New York.

Krishna Das grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s in a middle-class Jewish family and neighborhood. He loved basketball, and also showed a keen interest in music. 

Transitioning into adolescence and young adulthood, Krishna Das’ curiosity was captivated by both psychedelics and the profound spiritual practices of the East. 

These interests laid the foundation for a transformative journey of self-discovery and exploration.

Path To Spirituality

Through his continued interest in Eastern philosophy and spirituality, Krishna Das crossed paths with the renowned American spiritual mentor, Ram Dass

At that time, which was in the 1960’s at some point, Ram Dass had recently returned from his inaugural pilgrimage to India. 

Krishna Das followed the teaching of Ram Dass throughout this decade, learning about spirituality.

Through Ram Dass, Krishna Das became acquainted with the teachings of the enigmatic saint Neem Karoli Baba, lovingly referred to as “Maharaj-ji,” who had become Ram Dass’s revered guru. 

The profound impact of Ram Dass’s encounters with Maharajji deeply intrigued Krishna Das. 

Neem Karoli Baba was a guru that lived in the Himalayan foothills. It was in 1970 that he finally embarked on his own momentous expedition to India, a journey that ultimately led him to Neem Karoli Baba. 

Neem Karoli Baba 

For a bit of background, Neem Karoli Baba stands as a revered figure in the tapestry of modern spirituality.

Renowned for his “miracles” and the sheer depth of his teachings, he attracted seekers from all walks of life.

Maharajji’s spiritual philosophy transcended religious boundaries, emphasizing the universality of love and service. 

Throughout his life, Neem Karoli Baba remained a dedicated practitioner and advocate of bhakti yoga, advocating for selfless service (seva) as the utmost expression of unwavering devotion to the divine.

His teachings encapsulated the essence of devotion, selflessness, and unity. He often said, “Love everyone, serve everyone, remember God, and tell the truth,” encapsulating his core beliefs.

This synthesis of bhakti yoga formed the basis of the spiritual journey of Krishna Das, and directly informs his devotional music.

Krishna Das spent over two years with Neem Karoli Baba, learning more about bhakti yoga and its application, as well as developing his love for and expertise in kirtan.

Neem Karoli Baba loved kirtan, and so encouraged Krishna Das to practice following a clear love for the expression of devotion. 

In a dialogue between the two, it was supposedly decided Krishna Das would return to America to produce kirtan for the masses. 

Krishna Das Music Journey

Krishna Das further found his spiritual inclination within the realm of music. From a foundation of bhakti yoga, he found joy and inspiration in artists such as Steely Dan, Ray Charles, and Bruce Springsteen.

In 1990, Krishna Das founded a label called Triloka Records in California. This record label became well-known for “world music” that transcended borders. 

Notable artists that released on this label include Jai Uttal, Ali Akbar Khan, and Jackie McLean.

Further to the formation of this record label, in 1994 Krishna Das started holding kirtan chanting in New York, attracting a large fan base of yoga practitioners. 

To this day, Krishna Das holds a huge global audience in both the East and the West.

Kirtan And Devotional Music

To understand Krishna Das in more depth, one must understand the concept of kirtan, or devotional music.

An entrancing and spellbinding musical tradition, kirtan entails collective engagement in singing and recitation. 

This metamorphic and harmonious chanting revolves around devotion, giving rise to an atmosphere suffused with concord that deeply resonates with those involved.

This tradition is deeply embedded in ancient Hindu and Sikh culture, and you could find similarities in Gospel-singing Christianity, separated only by semantics.

Kirtan transcends a mere musical performance; it becomes an immersive odyssey that transports individuals to a realm of profound contemplation and spiritual affinity.

The vibrant and dynamic nature of kirtan fosters an inclusive and unified environment, encouraging participants to embrace the diversity of sound and emotion, resulting in an uplifting and unforgettable experience.

someone playing the harmonium in a kirtan

#1: Communal Chanting:

Kirtan revolves around group participation, where individuals come together to collectively sing and chant devotional mantras. As with anything traditional and community-based, this fosters a sense of community and collaborative unity.

#2: Spiritual Devotion: 

At its core, kirtan is a deeply spiritual practice. Through the repetition of sacred sounds and phrases, participants cultivate a sense of reverence and connection to higher realms, transcending everyday concerns. 

#3: Musical Melodies: 

Kirtan is characterized by its captivating melodies and rhythmic patterns. These melodious tunes, often accompanied by traditional instruments, create an atmosphere that’s both captivating and emotionally resonant

#4: Transformative Experience: 

Engaging in kirtan can be a transformative journey. The immersive nature of the practice allows participants to enter a state of introspection, fostering a sense of inner peace, joy, and emotional release. 

Krishna Das’s musical approach with his kirtan carries a clear Western essence, incorporating chord sequences customary in Western mainstream music. 

The kirtans under his guidance frequently evolve from a leisurely, reflective rhythm to an energetically intense release. 

It’s a customary sight for his listeners to rise and engage in dancing during certain instances of his Hare Krishna chants. 

Throughout the years, there’s been a dynamic range of performing members of his ensemble, but generally, he has percussive, strings, and guitar backing.

a group of people clapping and singing in a kirtan

Album Releases

Over the last few decades, Krishna Das has been steadily releasing albums alongside his live performances. Here we list some of his discography as insight to his music:

  1. One Track Heart (1996): his debut album focused on live chants from the ancient Bhakti Yoga scriptural teachings from Krishna Das’s experiences in India.
  2. Pilgrim Heart (1998): Krishna Das’s second album was an extension of his first, and also includes a feature of The Police’s Sting, who adds vocals to “Mountain Hare Krishna”, and plays bass guitar on “Ring Song”.
  3. Live On Earth… For A Limited Time Only (2000): Capturing the energy of his live performances, this album captures the essence of Krishna Das’s spiritual gatherings, where his chants inspire communal joy and introspection.
  4. Pilgrim Of The Heart (2000): This was an album of a collection of stories about Krishna Das’s direct experiences with his guru Neem Karoli Baba.
  5. Breath Of The Heart (2001): At this point Krishna Das was picking up global acclaim, and famous producer Rick Rubin produced this album. It featured devotional music using a choir of over fifty people across both Eastern and Western musicians.
  6. Door Of Faith (2003): Another Rick Rubin produced album, Door Of Faith offers a glimpse into Krishna Das’s spiritual experiences. This album was a step in a different direction, as it moved away from traditional call-and-response kirtan, to a series of individual prayers.
  7. Heart Full Of Soul (2008): This album is a live recording start to finish of devotional chanting with Krishna Das.
  8. Live Ananda (2012): A jewel in Krishna Das’s metaphorical crown, Live Ananda was nominated for a Grammy award in the Best New Age album category. This album is a collection of classic Krishna Das chants and kirtan drawn from retreats that took place in the Catskill Mountains.

Legacy And Further Information

Krishna Das is extremely well-known today in India, and worldwide in yogic circles. He alongside his musical career helps people explore spirituality in retreats, workshops, and kirtans across the globe.

To this day, he is still active, and you can see his upcoming events here on his official website.

If you’ve enjoyed reading about Krishna Das, why not check out our other articles:

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Born and raised in London, Luke is a passionate writer with a focus on travel, yoga, philosophy, and meditation. As a certified yoga teacher having studied under a swami in Rishikesh, Luke now lives in India pretty much just practising yoga, meditating and writing articles! Luke's life arc has gone from somewhat turbulent to peaceful, and he considers yoga and meditation direct methods to sustain introspective insight to manifest peace and happiness, despite life's challenges. Luke's passion for meditation has led him to complete multiple meditation retreats, where he spent almost 40 days in silence in the last two years. He practices various meditation techniques such as Vipassana, Anapana, and Metta Bhavana, each adding to his knowledge and experience of the true self. Most recently he meditated in Jaipur, India, and before that lived for a short spell in a monastery with forest monks in Northern Thailand. To Luke, yoga is more than just a physical exercise; it's a way of life that helps him cultivate a stronger mind-body connection. As a young man with arthritis, Luke understands the importance of observing and controlling his body, and yoga has been a vital tool in his journey to better health and well-being. The practice of yoga has not only helped him manage his symptoms but has also given him a new perspective on life. Luke's love for yoga and meditation is not limited to a single tradition or practice. He's fascinated by the spiritual teachings of all types of religious philosophy, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity for their essence and wisdom. His passion for spirituality is what drives him to continue learning and growing, and share his knowledge with other people. Luke in his spare time is an avid chess player, cyclist and record collector. He also has experience with addiction, and so sponsors multiple people from different walks of life in their recovery programmes.

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