Krishna's Kirtan has numerous spiritual influences, many of which will be detailed here.
Jason: The first time I ever heard a kirtan song was in my apartment in Chicago in around 2004. I heard a song online called the "Mahamantra Meltdown" by legendary kirtan singer Krishna Das. Something about that song hit me deep in my soul. I felt like a whole sacred, mystical, timeless cavern had opened up within me and it felt like I was listening to a very different type of music. This wasn't just music, this was really special, really sacred. This song truly evoked something spiritual for me. The words were so easy too! I just started to sing along, and that was my first initiation into the music of the Mahamantra.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (Srila Prabhupada)
Srila Prabhupada is best known for being the founder of the modern day Hare Krishna spiritual movement. Srila Prabhupada (and the ripple effect of his students and global bhakti yoga society inspired by his teachings) has had a tremendously transformative impact on me.
The Hare Krishna movement is essentially a movement based on the timeless principle of love and devotion towards God. One of my first connections with Prabhupada's teachings and influence was via a Hare Krishna monk named Ananda Svarup das in about 2003. (Ananda Svarup means the form of bliss, and das means servant.) I had just gotten off the train in Chicago, and this monk was on the street sharing Prabhupada's books on bhakti yoga with the people of the city. He and I made eye contact, and immediately walked towards each other. We then proceeded to have a very lively discussion on spirituality and what he called "Krishna consciousness."
Water the Root
He told me one of the basic principles and teachings of Krishna (and by extension, Prabhupada): We all are seeking happiness. Our true nature is actually pure bliss, but in the material world we are seeking to remember and realize this inner bliss in the wrong way: we are trying to be truly and deeply happy via the satisfaction of our material senses. This material satisfaction is not only temporary, but superficial. Our true happiness is found in re-awakening our dormant love of God. This is what truly fulfills the heart and soul and causes our inherent blissful nature to become manifest. Loving God is like watering the root of the tree. When we water the root, the whole tree grows perfectly. Trying to satisfy our material senses individually is like watering the leaves of the tree. It doesn't help the tree grow because the foundation is not nourished.
This was very interesting to me. He seemed to touch upon what I was going through at that time. I was searching. I knew I wasn't touching the deeper levels of my soul and of life just by doing the survival activites of eating, working, and exercise. The intellectual element of the analogy of watering the root of the tree vs. watering each leaf individually really made sense to me. There was also an element of what he was saying that made sense to me intuitively, namely that there is something more to life than just the physical world and our material existence. I knew this was true but had never, up until that point, found a body of knowledge or community of people who agreed with that idea and lived in a way to connect to the spiritual element of life.
Chant and Be Happy
Right around that time in my life is also when I read one of my first books on bhakti yoga and Krishna consciousness, called Chant and Be Happy: The Power of Mantra Meditation. This book was a series of interviews between John Lennon, George Harrison, and various students and disciples of Srila Prabhupada. It was really cool to read what two members of one of the most renowned rock bands of all time had to say about chanting Hare Krishna, mantra meditation, God, and yoga. I was further inspired. I remember, as a result of reading this book, I started to repeat the Maha-mantra (the Hare Krishna mantra) to myself over and over again as I would be walking around Chicago. I was trying to connect my individual consciousness to God. I was trying to connect my soul to the ultimate Source of beauty, intelligence, and love.
The Princeton Swami
However, those experiences in Chicago were not exactly my first taste of Krishna consciousness, or bhakti yoga. There was a connection made when I was at Princeton.
I had majored in psychology at Princeton. As my senior year (2000-2001) progressed, it did not become clearer what I wanted to do after I graduated. I didn't have a vocational passion or vision. If anything, one of my dreams was actually to do stand-up comedy. And if anything, I knew my soul needed to express itself in a creative, passionate way. I couldn't just "get a normal job" and forget about my creative soul.
So, I decided to try to get help. During my senior year, I found an online database which Princeton provided that allowed me to search profiles of Princeton alumni who had majored in psychology and who had agreed to be on the database to act as mentors for current students majoring in psychology. The database allowed me to contact them to make connections and potentially gain their wisdom, mentoring, and guidance. Each alumni's profile provided their email address, current profession, year of graduation, and perhaps a few other bits of information which each alumni shared. I wrote to several alumni, introducing myself and asking them about their path.
Of all the people I contacted, one person seemed to have the least conventional path (and even name). His name at Princeton was John Favors, but his name when I wrote him was Bhakti Tirtha Swami.
Unlike the others I wrote, he did not end up in business, or as a professor, or as a therapist. He was apparently in some type of religious order, as it seemed to me at the time. I wrote him out of curiousity. Here was a Princeton alumni, a fellow psychology major, who did not follow the conventional path into business or academia, but was a dedicated spiritualist! He wrote me an email message in response to my initial message to him. I wish I still had his first email response to me, but it is gone. I don't remember exactly what he wrote me, but he very kindly sent me several of his most recent (at the time) books he authored. Here are two of them which he sent to me:
I really welcomed these books. I read them during the summer after I graduated from Princeton. They didn't use the traditional terms of bhakti yoga, or sanskrit language, but through these books B.T. Swami communicated principles of spirituality in broader terms. I was very inspired to have these books. I didn't stay in touch with B.T. Swami much after that, but I will always remember his impact on me and his kindness towards me in sending me his books. Also, it turned out that B.T. Swami was a direct disciple of Srila Prabhupada!
First Srila Prabhupada Book
Interestingly, around this time a good friend of mine also gave me a book by Srila Prabhupada called "Journey of Self Discovery." He knew I was interested in spirituality and he felt like this book would be a boon for me. He was correct. I didn't necessarily see the book in its larger context of Krishna consciousness or bhakti yoga. I just thought it was a cool book about Indian spiritual culture and teachings. The book is a collection of essays and transcribed lectures of Prabhupada on various topics.
One of the Indian spiritual-cultural norms about which Prabhupada wrote had to do with how food was served. First of all, he wrote that all food served in Indian temples was first offered to God. This made the food special and sanctified for consumption. He also described that the guests in the temple sat on the floor in rows, and the servers went around and served each guest as much food as they wanted. The whole spiritual-culinary ethos revolved around serving the guests as much sanctified vegetarian food as they wanted. I loved that idea :)
Little did I know, that several years later in San Diego, I would make my first entry into a Hare Krishna temple, and experience this beauty and abundance first-hand! I continued to visit this temple in San Diego very often. I had a real, continual, and life-changing bhakti yoga immersion at that temple. I learned different chants, various prayers, went to classes on the Bhagavad Gita, and went out with the devotees on public street-chanting parties in downtown San Diego. It was a tremendous amount of fun and an amazing awakening period for my soul.
Another very special element of those temple days was the fact that I got to experience much of it with Pia. We would do everything together at the temple. We would go to the Sunday Love Feast together (a weekly celebration with kirtan, food, and bhakti discussions). We would, many times, attend the Sunday morning 4:30am morning chanting and prayer sessions together. We would attend Bhagavad Gita classes together. We would attend various festivals together in Southern California (there were also temples in Los Angeles and Laguna Beach). It was simply a magical time of learning, love, and mutual deepening of our bond and of our individual and collective spirituality as a couple. Pia is truly an answer to my prayers for a soulmate that could fully share my passion for spirituality and soul-inspired living.
As I look back now, the various connections to Krishna consciousness and Srila Prabhupada's influence become much clearer.
And Then There Was Sai...
Starting in 2010, I had a deepening of appreciation and connection to an extremely remarkable and renowned spiritual master named Sai Baba of Shirdi. I remember hearing his name, and even reading about him at various instances in prior years, but as Divine arrangement would have it, 2010 was when I started to want to learn more about and get closer to Sai Baba of Shirdi.
My friend Krishna Mohan das had previously spoken to me about the remarkable spiritual power, love, and compassion of Sai Baba of Shirdi, and Rabbi Gabriel Cousens, M.D. also had shared his profound appreciation with me of the level of mastery which Sai Baba of Shirdi had manifested. Thus, the glory and wonder of Shirdi Sai Baba had been planted as a Divine seed in my consciousness by the devotion and respect which those friends had for him.
I remember the moment in 2010 which at once deepened my connection to and inspiration towards Sai Baba of Shirdi. I was in our home in Orange County, CA, compiling poems, pictures, and quotes for my sacred poetry book. Seemingly out of nowhere, I had the idea to look for a picture and quote of Sai Baba of Shirdi to accompany one of my poems in the book. These are the two pictures that I found (the first picture is one of the most famous pictures of him; the second one is a picture of him in Shirdi with his begging bowl he used for food collection from charitable residents of the village):
A Growing Fascination
My favorite movie in my childhood was Superman I (1978), the one with Christopher Reeve as Superman. I must have watched that movie dozens, possibly even hundreds of times before the age of 6. I sensed something extremely deep and powerful about this story. This was a story of a man with mysterious origins, with utterly tremendous power, who just wanted to use his essentially supernatural power for good. He could have done anything he wanted in the world with his great power and capabilities, but he literally just wanted to help people.
As a child, I was so inspired by Superman. I feel the experience of watching Superman: The Movie was extremely formative for me. I can summarize it by saying that Superman gave me an ideal of what a person could be. Superman was, looking back at my experience of the movie, proof for me as a child that life was beautiful, magical and full of hope. It was proof for me that there was good in the world. It stoked my primal-spiritual attraction towards light and love.