homeabout jai uttallisten to jai uttal musicvisit the gallerieswatch streaming videosnew tour dateskirtan programsnewscontactblogfriends and family

Revisiting “Shiva Station”

Time, the conqueror. Time, the liberator. We see it and feel it every day. As a parent, I often find myself simultaneously experiencing two completely dichotomous emotions watching my son grow: a marvel at his new achievements and beautiful independence, and a poignant wistfulness of loss as he leaves his baby years behind. Within myself I love what the years have brought me — patience, self acceptance, surrender, family, sobriety, and a tiny bit of love without conditions. But they’ve also brought me back pains, body aches, missing teeth, and a few too many steps closer to my own mortality.    

About fifteen years ago, I went into the studio with my amazing band, The Pagan Love Orchestra, to record Shiva Station, having no idea that this album would have such an impact on the world music scene and on the then largely hidden community of Kirtan enthusiasts. I was quite nervous and controlling in the studio, sure of my own vision but not very open to the incredible creativity of the musicians around me. I worried about time and money — and mostly, if was I good enough. But gradually, in the process, I started to let go, share the reigns, and let the genius of the people around me enhance my vision and support my aching and lonely heart. (Thank you Peter Apfelbaum, Jeff Cressman, Peck Allmond, Keith McArthur, Will Bernard, Geoffrey Gordon, Kit Walker, Irene Sazer, guest artists Swapan Choudry, Steve Gorn and Rob Vlack, recording engineers Ben Leinbach and Tony Mills, and mix maestro Bill Laswell….. Wow, what a cast!)

Of course we had our share of band “dynamics,” but mostly the process was pretty smooth. Internally, however, a fire of fear and insecurity was raging. Unhappy home life and a greater and greater need to anesthetize myself with drugs and alcohol were pushing me to my emotional and physical edge. Well, the album came out and it was beyond my hopes and expectations. Laswell’s mix brought the low-end to the forefront and the extremely passionate music exploded from the speakers. But for many reasons the subsequent tour and promotion stumbled, leaving me frustrated and resentful, two very dangerous emotions for an addict.

(For those history minded friends, the band broke up and then reformed and recorded Grammy-nominated “Mondo Rama” and then just sort of dissolved. Not enough work, not enough support… Upon occasion, for festivals and bigger events, I gather a large group of musicians and singers together, which I call “The Queen of Hearts Orchestra,” named after one of my recent albums. Mostly, however, I lead smaller Kirtan events around the world with 2 or 3 other musicians, happy to be able to interact intimately with my friends and fans).

Cut to the present…. I’m living in a sweet little town outside of San Francisco with my wife, Nubia Teixeira, and 9 year old son, Ezra Gopal, about to turn 63, in good health and feeling a contentment and gratitude that I never expected in this life. Sure, there are plenty of challenges, internal and external, but I also find within myself a spiritual commitment and faith that doesn’t seem to waver (well, mostly…). Then the idea of remaking Shiva Station entered the universe! I’ve written enough already about my resistance and reluctance to do this, but now that the album’s been completed and released, I’ve had a chance to simply listen. And I love it! In concerts I experience my music as always reaching for and attaining an ecstatic intensity. I don’t plan this or even desire it, but it just seems to happen. At home, however, I play and sing quietly, introspectively, and this gentle side of me was expressed, perhaps for the first time, in Return to Shiva Station. I’m very inspired by it and hope to make more albums of entirely new music in similarly quiet inner-gazing moods. But dance freaks, don’t worry! I’ve also got a whole album’s worth of high energy Samba-Reggae Kirtans waiting to be recorded. Many of you have heard these songs at Bhaktifest, Omega, and other great gatherings.    

So here we are, back to the fearsome beauty of Time. Youth is gone and never regained (well, until the next time around!), but time brings its resonant gifts of experience to be shared freely and joyfully. And hey, have you heard Return to Shiva Station? If not, please check it out here.

Love and peace,
Jai

like on facebook


A Windy Day In Albuquerque (rambling thoughts on the long airplane ride to Brazil)

Walking to the Pancha Karma house one morning early last month, the winds were
blowing wildly as a sudden, unexpected storm descended upon Albuquerque, New
Mexico. Dry leaves were slapping my face and branches and twigs were crashing
against the doors and walls of the neighboring homes. Already in a reflective state from
the Ayurvedic treatments I’d been receiving, my mind went to the Son of the Wind God,
that great monkey, Hanuman….

A very wise and respected elder once told me “Hanuman is the life force, the vital
energy or Prana. He lives six inches in front of our noses and moves in and out of our
bodies with our breath.” Another great scholar and Tantrika wrote that Hanuman is the
heart chakra of Ram, the manifestation of God’s love. Other explanatory texts say that
Hanuman represents devotion in action, pure service to God.

These esoteric explanations of the divine are fascinating and thought provoking; well
worth exploring and studying. But, for me, the approach is much simpler; perhaps I’m
just a little bit simple minded, or should I say simple-hearted. To me, Hanuman is my
protector and my savior. This big furry beautiful Monkey God is the one who has been
taking care of me life after life, birth after birth. He is none other than my Guru, Baba
Neem Karoli. And as we sing in the ‘Hanuman Chaleesa,’ He stands at the doorway to
Ram and none can enter without His grace. How can we even dream of becoming
‘Bhaktas’ without the blessings of the greatest devotee of all! And how abundant is His
grace, we need only think of Him and He is here!

Well, this sounds kinda crazy, doesn’t it? But think for just a minute. Why not a divine
monkey who can fly, change forms, become a giant and then a teensy, tiny simian
beast? Why wouldn’t the Lord of Destruction, Shiva Mahadeva, manifest as a furry
creature to serve His eternal Lord, Ram? Why set a limit on what we can believe?
Think of the thousands of things in our life that we take for granted: iPhones, televisions,
airplanes, so many amazing inventions….. The normal person of five hundred years ago
would have been locked up for even imagining these things! And just recently, NASA
space photography revealed the existence of the remnants of an ancient stone bridge
connecting the southern tip of India with Sri Lanka, the very same bridge that was built
yugas ago by Hanuman and the monkey army in order to cross the ocean, defeat
Ravana, and rescue Mother Sita!

Ok, I don’t always find myself in a total heart-space of belief and innocence. I can be as
jaded and cynical as the next guy. But I do remind myself and my friends to try and keep
the door of belief open just a tiny crack, to hold on to an iota of possibility, just a slight
molecule of “well, maybe, just maybe.” My experience has shown me that one percent
of belief is vastly stronger than ninety-nine percent of close-minded disbelief; that the
smallest bit of ‘maybe’ is enough to propel us, like children, into the divine mystery.
So, as I was saying, “Hanuman, please take care of me today and forever, and please
take care of my loved ones and please bless me with devotion, faith, love and the desire
to serve.”

Happy holidays everyone!

Lots of love,

Jai

like on facebook


A Road With No Maps

I consider my Guru, among other things, to have been a great teacher of Bhakti Yoga. I
say ‘among other things’ because he was impossible to pin down. He hardly ever
actually ‘taught,’ he never spoke about himself or his lineage, he never gave lectures or
discourses. Amazing miracles occurred around Maharjji all the time, however when
people would come worship him and bathe him in tears of gratitude he often appeared
rather annoyed and said “I do nothing. God does it all.” But Maharajji lived in a world of
Divine Love. Kirtan was and still is performed in his temples and ashrams 24/7, pujas to
all the deities are constant, and oceans of people are fed daily.

Regarding Bhakti, Maharajji once said “The only thing that’s important is how much you
love God!” The ONLY thing…… Wow. And then when he was asked “What is the best
form to worship God?” his response was simply, “The best form to worship God is
EVERY form!”

Well, that’s saying a lot in a few words, isn’t it? Let’s, for a moment, hold those two
sentences as a possible definition of Bhakti Yoga. Not THE definition. Simply one
description among many of a path without maps or roadsigns that has been
contemplated and practiced for centuries. Thousands upon thousands of pages have
been written attempting to define, or simply convey, what Bhakti Yoga really is. But how
can the mysteries of the heart actually be defined. The world of emotions within each of
us is so different. Our spiritual concepts, our prayers, our longings… we are all so unique
and our journey to the infinite must also be unique. The image of a single devotee
crawling through the dust of Parikrama Road (a footpath that circles the holy town of
Vrindavan) crying “Shyam Shyam Shyam!”, his face covered with dirt and mud and
tears, fills my mind right now and threatens to burst the rain clouds of my heart.

I guess we don’t really need to ‘understand’ Bhakti, just live it. But how? Certainly, as we
sing Kirtan and do Japa, we begin to touch the shores of a great sea of sweetness and
bliss. How awesome that is! But what do we do next? What do we do with that bliss?
Well, we can hold on to it and cultivate it until it grows and grows and grows and we find
ourselves living in a very rarified inner environment. Nothing wrong with that…. But so
often Maharajji said “Love people and feed them!” And in his temples and amongst his
older devotees I experience a selflessness, a constant giving, a caring that goes way
beyond the fleeting waves of bliss. I think he was telling us to give it away, share it. Not
a totally natural way of life for us Westerners, raised in a culture of self-centeredness, is
it? But I think we’re just being asked to try. I’ve often heard it said that if we take one
baby step to God, He flies to us with His arms wide open. And then, through grace, we
can start to truly live a life of Bhakti…..

like on facebook


WHY DO WE SING KIRTAN; ONE MORE BOTTOM LINE……

Greetings everyone,

I’ve been wanting to write to you about my last trip to India for quite some time. But life and her many streams of busy-ness seems to always intervene. What’s been going on this year? Whew…. My “Down On My Knees” video project; recording and releasing Bhakti Bazaar with Ben Leinbach; recording Queen Of Hearts, my reggae-Kirtan album (to be released on July 26th); working on Kirtan Kids, my upcoming kids Kirtan CD (to be released in the fall); preparing for BhaktiCast (coming out on May 3rd); traveling all over the globe singing; studying Brazilian guitar with Jose Neto; trying my best to be a good husband and daddy; and most of all, getting ready for Ezra Gopal’s sixth birthday!!!!!!! Gosh, I’m out of breath just thinking about all of this. When it’s one day at a time it’s all good. But when I see it all at once, well, my schedule seems truly insane!

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah. Last June, Nubia, Ezra and I went to the Himalayan foothills in India to our Guru’s ashram to spend a little time with our Indian mother. it was an amazing trip on many levels, but there’s one aspect that I’d like to write about now. Every afternoon, as the sun began to slip behind the mountains, I was asked to sing, mostly ‘Hanuman Chaleesa’, with a few short Kirtans as well. This was blasted out of loud speakers for the whole valley to hear, and I have to confess I felt quite self-conscious the whole time. Afterwards Ma would always praise me highly, saying how beautiful my singing was. I sat there feeling like a fraud. I was so filled with ego, nervousness, effort….. So finally I said “Ma, so often I’m singing and I don’t feel any love or devotion. It just feels like hard work. What’s wrong with me?”

She smiled her cute, mysterious ‘Goddess’ smile and said: “Jai Gopal. It doesn’t matter at all what you feel! This is your service to Maharajji! You Americans seem to think that service is just eating a ladoo (yummy Indian sweet) and blissing out. For us here in the temple, service is often exhausting and filled with anxiety. But we do it because it absolutely needs to be done.” She continued VERY forcefully: “In this day and age, singing God’s name is urgent! Without God’s name our very limbs won’t stay attached to our bodies!”….. A chill ran through me. What an image! We chant for so many ‘spiritual’ reasons, but then and there, Ma gave me a new bottom line……

The rest of our time there I saw ashram life and ‘Bhakti life’ quite differently. Everyone was super busy, either doing work around the temple or singing and chanting prayers. Such an incredible wave of devotional activities and it really seemed that no one was doing it for their own selves, no one was doing it to get high or to feel ecstasy. It was all for the ‘other’, be it God, Guru, or, more often than not, for all of the people around them, the visitors, the ashram residents, the villagers, the whole world…. This really really really woke me up and began to transform my whole concept of Bhakti. Who and what is it for? A good party? An amazing euphoric feeling? A more beautiful sense of one’s self? No, I don’t think so, although none of those reasons are inherently bad or wrong. But I’m beginning to feel that in these rather desperate times my Bhakti practice is to somehow or another help the world keep it’s limbs attached to it’s body, and, in doing so, help to bring healing and happiness to all of us, including myself. (What would I do without my limbs? I couldn’t even play with my boy!) And, as if that weren’t enough, to attempt to serve my Guru. And as if THAT weren’t enough, to try and simply be a good and kind person…. Kind of pretentious? Well, maybe…. But it’s the best I can do right now. And I honestly feel that I’m just barely touching my little toe in the great ocean of divine love that we call Bhakti.

What do you guys think? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this……

OK. While I have your attention (do I?) there are a few things I’d like to share. The first is that this summer will be our last non-residential Summer Kirtan Camp for a while. Certainly we’ll do them again, but we feel that a break is needed. Maybe only a year, maybe longer. So if you’ve been considering coming for a while, perhaps now is the time…. Truly the camps have been getting better and better as we sink deeper into the practice. Please come! And as a special incentive, we’re offering our ‘Early Bird’ discount through the end of April!

Monday, August 1 – Sunday, August 7, 2011

9th ANNUAL NON-RESIDENTIAL SUMMER BHAKTI KIRTAN CAMP!

Jai Uttal, Daniel Paul and Nubia Teixeira

This training is for those who aspire to lead Kirtan; those who wish to enhance their Yoga teaching with chanting; and those who simply wish to immerse themselves in the vast ocean of Bhakti.

In this workshop we will share some of the many tools that we use in our Bhakti practices. Our hope is that everyone will leave this retreat with the inner experience and knowledge that we are all able to dive into this world of devotion and sing and share our hearts with others.

Where: San Francisco Theological Seminary
San Anselmo, Northern California
Website: http://sfts.edu
Price: Early Bhakti Bird – $1008.00 full payment by April 30.
Bhakti Bird – $1250.00 after April 30.
Deposit of $600 (non-refundable). Remainder due by July 1. Register here.

Now here’s another big one: Next winter we’ll be hosting our residential Winter Bhakti Camp in Bahia, in Northeast Brazil. And there’s some amazing treats added. Check out the website…. www.bhaktiblissadventures.com.

Have you heard about BhaktiCast? On May 3rd I’ll be sending out a night of Kirtan to the whole universe! (I wonder if Martians enjoy Kirtan). I’ll be singing in Tampa, Florida with Daniel Paul and Bali & Dhanya Rico (of the Mayapuris), and a very experienced and committed camera crew will be filming for a live (and archived) broadcast….

And you Californians! Are you coming to Bhaktifest? I’m going to give a sneak preview of my Reggae Kirtan band! COME ONE COME ALL!!!!!!!!

Well, I think that’s enough gabbing for now. Time for me to eat some breakfast before the coffee eats me!

Lots of love and blessings to you all,


like on facebook


Cookies and Tea – A Slight Shift in Perception

Bhakti Yoga brings us into the world of mystery, a realm where the dissecting, discerning qualities of the intellect are powerless next to the vast ocean of feelings. For most practitioners, the goal of Yoga is union, oneness with the Supreme. But in Bhakti Yoga we don’t think about the goal, we only weep, laugh, cry, sing and dance with our Beloved. Bhakti is about relationship; our stormy love affair with God. And Bhakti is about surrender; surrendering our personal heart into the Great Heart, offering our self will and all our efforts and actions to that vast Consciousness, to God. “Not my will but Thy will be done.”

In the holy places of India, towns and villages permeated with devotion, magic is a daily occurrence. Perception shifts like clouds moving across the sun. When the aroma of God’s name wafts down a village street we can suddenly find ourselves walking in the ancient footsteps of Ram and Sita, or Hanuman, or Radha and Krishna…..Throughout the day, we hear bells ringing, mantras being uttered from every doorway, kirtans bursting from the primitive loudspeakers. We smell incense and flower offerings. We catch glimpses of Gods and Goddesses around every corner. Doing pilgrimage to the sacred shrines is an invitation to the mystical breath of Bhakti.

The ancient village of Vrindavan, the town that was home to the young Lord Krishna and His beloved Radha, is one of these great sanctuaries, imbued with worship. The lines between the past and the present, the astral and the concrete, are very thin, and pilgrims come from all over India to partake of the nectar of Rasa, or divine emotion, that colors the town. When I first visited Vrindavan in 1971, I was absolutely stunned by the sheer quantity of living temples. It seemed that literally every other building was a holy shrine, and the sound of God’s names reverberated from wall to wall, street to street, crumbling alley to archaic temple.

One day I was walking along Parikrama Road, a path that circumambulates the village. Devotees walk this dusty path (approx. 5 miles) as an act of worship, feeling that they are Radha, circling the body of Her lover, Krishna. Walking around Parikrama you see ancient India, priests chanting the Vedas, pilgrims weeping, sadhus gathered around their “dhunis” swaying to the driving rhythms of a kirtan chant, peacocks, cows, on and on….. I used to take this walk every morning before dawn, timing it so I could have my first chai of the day watching the blood red sun rise over the Yamuna river. As the sun climbed into the sky my heart never failed to melt at the passionate cries of “Radhe” or “Hare Krishna” that echoed through the misty morning air.

On this particular day, as I was walking away from the river I heard a horrific racket. A young sadhu, covered with white paste, and wearing a simple cloth around his waist was sitting on a small stone wall, banging cymbals together and screaming “Radhe Shyam Radhe Shyam Radhe Shyam” at the top of his lungs. Instantly my “shanti” was shattered. The cymbals seemed louder than the rock concerts I’d left back home in the States. And his raspy voice was like sandpaper to the inside of my brain. Where was the blissful India that I loved?

I hurried my steps and tried to get past him without being noticed. But just then, an old old man in orange robes, bent with age, sporting long dreadlocks, stepped out of the little hut adjacent to the path. The young sadhu became stunningly silent as his ancient guru offered me tea and cookies. We sat and sipped the steaming chai, watching the brilliant emerald parrots fly from tree to tree, sinking into a deep, heavenly meditation, listening to the distant strains of kirtan floating on the gentle wind. What peace……

But, as all things must pass, the chai was finished, the cookies were gone, and the old man dismissed me with a soft smile. I pranamed, touched his ancient, cracked feet and continued my walk. At that moment the racket began anew. CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG!!! The horrible cymbals!!! The hoarse, screaming voice!!!

Oh God, how quickly my inner peace disappeared…

But as I turned around for a last pained look, the magic descended. This old man, who seemed barely able to walk, was dancing in the doorway of his hut. Suddenly his crooked body was filled with the grace and beauty of a young maiden. His delicate swaying hips, his beatific smile, his long flowing hair; the old sadhu had transformed into Radha, the Goddess of Love! And to complete the mysterious change in awareness, the young sadhu’s kirtan was now the sound of angels singing. His terrible cymbals had transformed into a divine orchestra of tinkling bells and chimes. My heart stopped beating, tears sprung from my eyes. Here was Radha Rani, dancing her love for Krishna, amidst the gardens of Vrindavan….

When it seemed the world would end in an ecstasy of love, the old man simply stepped inside, leaving me to the heat and dust, and the sadhu’s cacophonous song. But my mind was quiet and my heart was full as I continued down the path. I had been given yet another reminder to see beyond the surface reality into what is hidden; to trust the perceptions of the heart before those of the judging mind. I had been given a few drops of grace from the vast ocean of Bhakti.

like on facebook


Listening to “Bhakti Bazaar”

A rainy day in Porto da Lua, Bahia, Brasil. Listening to the wind, the ocean, and my soon to be released CD, Bhakti Bazaar, recorded with Ben Leinbach last year. Getting a massage for my tired achey muscles, dreaming of ‘love forever’….

I don’t usually listen to my own music and when I do, well, I’m too busy finding the faults to really enjoy it. But today I’m hearing with a full heart and a happy/sad river of gratitude. Hmmmm, maybe it’s the rain.

Anyway, in this atmosphere I guess anything would sound good, but I’m really enjoying Bhakti Bazaar and finding it quite moving. The absolute genius of our grand friend, Manose; the pristine voices of Tina Malia and Prajna Viera; the drumming of Bubai and the many colors of ‘sonic surgeon’ and co-everything, Ben. And I even like hearing myself for a change….

But most of all, what a joy to create a totally new musical environment for the glorification of the Divine Names, an all new journey into the ancient world of Bhakti prayer, another offering to the great Beloved of all……

And I sure do hope you all enjoy it…..

like on facebook


FROM MYTH TO MIRACLE

“Ok, Jai…. Sit down and write something!”

“But I’m not a writer, I’m a singer and a musician….”

“Well, you’re not playing music or singing right now and you’re bored of reading your mystery novel and too awake for a nap……”

“But I have nothing to write about….”

“Just sit down and see what happens…..”

The inner dialog of a Gemini!!!!

Ok, then……

I’m sitting in my room at Shivananda Ashram in the Bahamas just chilling until we start the Kirtan weekend tomorrow night. It’s beautiful here and very peaceful but I find it kind of hard to relax. Where are the sounds of kids, particularly my own sweet little guy? And where’s my snuggly beloved, Nubia?

The attachment I feel to my family is huge, and it’s an attachment I cherish and consider a gift from God. The problem is that when life and work take me away from them, I have a hard time being in the present and focusing on other things. These are the times when I could really concentrate on my music, my japa, resting, reading and (oh no!!!!) writing….

Listening to the ocean, I’m reminded of a time spent very far away, on the shores of another ocean and another continent in another century. It was about fifteen years ago, I think, when I visited my guru’s Hanuman Temple in South India to have darshan of my spiritual mother, who I’ll simply refer to as ‘Ma.’ (She has asked many times that we don’t speak about her in public, and that her photos not be published or distributed.) As was often the case, I arrived at the ashram gates pretty worn out from my life in the West. In retrospect, I certainly realize that much of what I was blaming on western culture was really just the product of my own internal madness. But still, our lifestyle in the United States can get pretty hectic. And I find that when I start to function more out of stress than spirit my heart connection to God and Guru becomes a little contracted and harder to feel. I ‘know’ that he’s always there, but the moment-to-moment awareness of his presence can begin to fade.

Anyway, shortly after arriving, Ma said to me and a few others: “Pack a small bag. We’re going to Rameshwaram!” I didn’t realize that this meant a bus ride, a sixteen hour overnight third class train ride, and another bus ride, so, without delay I happily joined the caravan. Soon, however, as I was getting jostled right and left and trying to fit my body into a much-less-than-tiny spot, I realized we were indeed on a pilgrimage!

But much to my surprise, as the night wore on and the train rumbled and rolled ever southward, my spirits lifted. Being in the presence of a saint changed everything. The mood was one of continuously joyous remembrance. Why this should have surprised me, I don’t really know. I guess I’m just a very slow learner!

After a light sleep and a delicious cup of chai, I sat gazing out the window, half awake and half still in dreamland. As we crossed the rickety old bridge and entered the ancient holy town of Rameshwaram, a blazing red sun burst through the hazy sky announcing the arrival of dawn. It was here in this small island that Lord Ramachandra prayed to Shiva after the great war in Lanka to ask for his blessings in cleansing the Earth of the karma accrued from so much violence and bloodshed. The battles to free Sita and destroy the demon king, Ravana, were indeed fierce and many great warriors fell. In order to do the proper rituals invoking Mahadeva, Rama needed a symbolic representation, known as a Shiva Lingam. So he sent Hanuman up to Mount Kailash, Shiva’s mountain residence, to ask the destroyer himself for a lingam to worship. Of course the great monkey had no problem whatsoever leaping to the Himalayas. After all, he’d already done it several times. But days passed and then weeks passed and he still hadn’t returned. What happened? Could Hanuman have gotten distracted? Sita became restless, yearning for her homeland, ready to sit upon her throne, by the side of her beloved Rama, back in Ayodhya. After all, it had been 14 years of exile, and several months of harsh imprisonment in Ravana’s kingdom. Where was that impulsive monkey?

So Mother Sita took things into her own hands and created a lingam out of the soft sandy beach. But, oh no!!! Just as the worship was about to begin, Hanuman came flying through the sky singing “Jaya Ram Jaya Rama” at the top of his simian lungs. Shiva had been deep in meditation and Hanuman just hadn’t felt that he could disturb him. Thus the delay. What to do? Neither Sita’s lingam nor Lord Shiva’s lingam could be cast away or shown any disrespect. Rama, ever the diplomat, immediately had the answer. He created a temple with TWO lingams facing each other. And this temple still stands to this very day, millions of years later!

(“Millions of years later??? Oh, come on, Jai. Sure, we enjoy these fairy tales as much as the next guy, but, please…”)

And that brings me to the point of this story.

Arriving in Rameshwaram, I was prepared to pay respects to the pilgrimage spots, pray a bit, sing a bit, and enjoy the wonderful association of some very special and holy people. The Ramayana was an amazing story of archetypes and teachings. Certainly we all agreed that it wasn’t historical, right?

Well, after settling in to the ashram that was to become out temporary home (the resident guru rolled out a red carpet of loving tears when Ma came to his door. We were treated like absolute royalty!) Ma gathered us all together and we climbed into a bunch of auto rickshaws. The weather was balmy, with ocean breezes cooling down the intense heat of the deep tropics. Rameshwaram is an island at the very tip of South India, covered with palm trees, tamarind flowers, monkeys, and temples. Buzzing around on the scooters, I saw so many happy faces and laughing children. This certainly wasn’t the same India that I experienced in the northern plains, where hardship and poverty had been etched into the faces of villagers and had bent the backs of the elderly. This place seemed to resonate with joy. And everywhere I looked I saw men and women having their heads shaved in preparation for their ritual ocean baths.

Suddenly the rickshaws stopped. We were standing in front of an old, crumbling stone palace, with faded relief pictures of Ramayana episodes barely visible on the walls. Several old men were sitting in the dirt, softly chanting, accompanied by a wheezy harmonium and tinkling water bowls, their voices trembling with age and emotion as the sounds echoed from corner to corner. What is this place, I wondered as I followed Ma inside. We sat down, and turned to her. “This is Bhibhishan’s palace,” Ma quietly explained, and at that moment a vibration passed through my body bringing tears to my eyes. Bhibhishan was Ravana’s brother, born a demon, but eternally devoted to the feet of Hari. Hanuman recognized him as a kindred spirit and brought him to Rama, who made him the king of Lanka. One of the great characters of the Ramayana, I had always loved him and the fact that even his demon incarnation didn’t stop him from being a pure devotee. And here we were sitting on the same spot where he had sat and sang and prayed. Mythology? Well, something short-circuited in my mind at that moment and the eyes of my heart began to crack open, shedding the rust of perhaps hundreds of lifetimes.

Next Ma took us to a small lake where our guru, Neem Karoli Baba, used to bathe. This was a bit easier to assimilate as he had left his body only a few years earlier. But still it was quite an emotional moment as Ma recounted stories of her times with Maharajji. Walking up the path, she then showed us the pool where Lakshman had bathed. Rama’s brother!! Then we saw the pond where Sita bathed!!! And the altar where she prayed to the snake Goddess for the safety of her beloved husband. Things were getting pretty trippy, to say the least. What was ancient history? What was current other-plane reality? What was myth? What was fact? Ma’s complete acceptance of the absolute reality of all these occurrences was beginning to permeate my own consciousness as I was sightseeing the stages of this very ancient play. Could it be possible that the Ramayana was still being enacted on some mystical plane even to this very day?

We stopped for tea. A few of the older women unwrapped some packets of puris and potatoes and we had our lunch in the shade of an old banyan tree. The chai wallah was quietly chanting: “Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama”, and Ma told us how Maharajji used to see that name written upon every leaf and every stone. The events of the morning began to seep in and I could feel some very strong and strange changes percolating in my cells.

After resting for a spell it was time again to move on, with Ma urging us to pay very close attention to what came next. Walking up the hill, we stopped at a small Hanuman Temple, really just a roadside shrine. The priest was bent at the waist, unable to fully stand up, with a club foot and a strange misshapen torso. His eyes were crossed and his face seemed to express a mixture of bliss and pain. “He’s very special,” whispered my Indian mother. Immediately stopping what he was doing, the priest rushed to prepare us tea and crackers. Ma was extremely respectful of this strange guy and seemed to be suggesting that there was much more here then what might first have met our eyes. (In fact, that may have been the theme of our entire journey!)

Next stop, the top of the mountain. Wow, I was huffing and puffing my way to the summit, trying my best to keep up with these elderly Indian ladies in their thin white saris and old flip flops. How did they have such strength, such stamina. To this day that’s a mystery to me… Arriving at the top, we found a lookout point with a view of the vast rolling ocean in the direction of distant Lanka. Chanting and pujas were being performed to a small shrine but there was no real structure or temple. “What is this?” I asked. “This is the spot where Rama drew up his battle strategies; where the armies of the monkeys and bears gathered to pray before crossing the sea; where the monkey engineers, Nala and Nila, explained to Rama and Sugriva their ‘impossible’ plan of constructing a bridge out of floating rocks and stones.” “How will you keep them from sinking?” asked Shri Rama. “Simply by writing your name on every rock, every boulder and every pebble, oh Lord, the impossible will become possible and your armies can cross the ocean to Lanka!”

Ma’s eyes were shining. “Just one more place to see!” We walked down a dirt path a little bit further toward the cliffs and found a great depression in the ground, with a marble footprint set in the middle. “It was here that Hanuman took his heroic leap across the ocean with Rama’s ring in his mouth proving to all the three worlds the power of true devotion.” By this time our small group of pilgrims were all in tears. The magnitude of these historical events; the greatness of these divine heroes; the unbearable expressions of unconditional, unending love; the Ramayana, alive and true!!! I never questioned it again. No matter how much my mind tells me these things couldn’t really have happened, my heart replies in the affirmative: They DID happen…..

Several years later, I was browsing through the internet and came across a headline from an Indian newspaper stating “NASA proves the historical accuracy of the Ramayana. Remnants of an ancient stone bridge have been discovered connecting the southern tip of India with Sri Lanka.” Well, of course, the worldwide Hindu community went wild about this. Finally, some authentication… Geologists and archeologists are still investigating this amazing find, but some of us don’t need to hear their results. We know already…

Oh boy, talk about rambling, Jai… Will anyone have the patience to read this through to the end? Perhaps I’d better get back to my mystery novel. Or napping. Or a walk on the beach. Or maybe even singing. Anything but writing. Typing gives me a stiff neck and a bad case of the munchies.

Sending lots of love to you all,

Jai

P.S. I almost forgot! This video project for “Down On My Knees” has once again restored my faith in humanity. Actually, I hadn’t really lost it, but it sounded good to say that. We very quickly reached our goal, money-wise, for making my first music video. So much gratitude goes out to all of my friends, known and unknown, for showing your support for this new chapter. Now we just have to start filming………

like on facebook


High Noon in the Desert – Hare Krishna Hare Rama

Greetings, friends…..

Good morning (California time). It looks like spring may finally be breaking through. Has it been a long winter everywhere????

Well, I haven’t ‘blogged’ in a while. (That’s another one of these modern words, like ‘googled.’) Somehow, between parenting, working, and practicing music, many other important things on my daily ‘to-do’ list seem to fall by the wayside: caring for my aching bones, 12 step meetings, eating, WRITING! And then I wonder, does anyone read this stuff, does any one actually care what I write….. But I know those are the thoughts that dig deep old holes in my psyche for me to get stuck in, perhaps never to re-emerge…

So……..

The “Bhakti Movement” in the US these days is kind of strange to me. Wonderful, but also, weird. Wonderful because more and more people are experiencing the incredibly passionate joy of singing God’s names; and weird because, as Americans, we seem to feel the need to make it ‘special,’ and make ourselves ‘special’, and use Madison-Avenue type names to label and increase our ‘special-ness.’ We throw around words like ‘bhakti,’ ‘bhava’ and ‘ecstacy’ as if they are ice cream flavors or new types of kombucha. But in India, where all this stuff come from, these words denote deep spiritual states, attained by only a few very lucky and very devoted souls who then become inspirations for the rest of us. When we in the west get together for an evening of Kirtan everyone is so eager to ‘get off,’ to have a super high euphoric experience, kind of like a rock concert…. This is fine, I suppose, but it’s just sooooo different from what we experience in a small temple in North India, where the devotees feel like they’ve been chanting for lifetimes and lifetimes, oblivious to the highs and lows, riding the waves of emotion and mood, resting in deep longing and fulfillment and surrender, awaiting God’s mercy. Is ‘Bhakti’ just a ‘high?’ A cool, blissed-out experience? The great ‘bhaktas’ (devotees) of old all write of an immense love and an even greater dependence on their beloved’s response. “My Lord, I’ve done nothing to deserve your embrace, but please come to me anyway!!!” Oh well. Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, too hard on myself and thus too hard on everyone else…

Here’s a true story of ‘Bhakti’…… (I probably have many details of this story incorrect, and I thought I would do some research before writing it. But instead I’m just diving in. Please forgive any historical or theological errors.)

In a dusty desert village in West Bengal, in the 15th century, sat an old but still very active little temple to the Goddess. Day in and day out, for hundreds of years, the poor villagers had been prostrating themselves there to ask for better harvests, more sons, and more money; in other words, relief from their suffering. To some the Goddess responded, but to most She remained mute. As in all Hindu temples of that time, a young Brahmin (someone from the highest, priestly, caste) was engaged to officiate the prayers and offerings, and to distribute ‘prasad’ (consecrated food). Chandidas, as he was called, was deeply committed to his tasks, yet he was confused by what he perceived as the Mother’s callous ignoring of Her children’s requests. “Are you really there?” he would ask the statue. “Please, please show me that you are hearing my words!”… But there was no response.

One day, as Chandidas was preparing the ‘aarti’ (offering) lights, he heard a brushing sound coming from the other side of the worship hall. Turning around, Chandidas was struck by what felt like a lightening bolt to his soul. Was it the Goddess, herself? Well, that’s been the big question for over five hundred years. Because quietly working in the corner, partially veiled, was Rami, a young woman from the village, an ‘untouchable’ (the lowest caste), sweeping the temple floors. Chandidas gasped and whispered “Radha.” Rami lowered her almond eyes saying ‘Govinda, my Lord.”

And thus began one of the most remarkable love affairs in history. Chandidas, who had never written a single line of poetry in his life, began to record his romance with Rami with an incredible outpouring of songs of the love of Radha and Krishna; songs of ecstacy, songs of anguish, in the first person voices of both God and Goddess. Perhaps Rami wrote the songs with him, for the voice of Radha emerged even stronger and more clearly than did the voice of Govinda. Of this we’ll never know.

Meanwhile, there was another voice that began to scream and howl. The power structure of the village, the political and ‘spiritual’ elders, had become enraged at this blasphemous affront to the caste system, in the heart of the very temple itself. A Brahmin and an untouchable having an illicit affair!!! And cloaking it in the language of scripture!!! An outrage beyond compare!!! The two lovers were ordered to stop seeing each other. Rami was of course fired from her job at the temple and thrown back into her life of poverty and Chandidas’ every step was watched by the unblinking eyes of the town bosses. But did this diminish the path of true love? Not one bit. In fact, as they were forced to meet in more and more secrecy, the songs of Chandidas took on an even more mystical hue, invoking as they did the illicit, mysterious nature of Radha and Krishna’s divine love. But in a small town in 15th century India, secrets could not be kept for very long. Soon, Rami was banished and Chandidas was thrown into prison. Demanded to deny his love, Chandidas simple bowed his head and proclaimed the eternal reality of ‘Radha Ramana Hari.’ Tears streaking the dust and dirt of his face, the young Brahmin fell to the prison floor chanting the glories of the divine couple: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.” What difference was there for him between his love and passion for Rami and the ‘Rasa Lila’ (divine play) of Radha and Krishna? Nothing could stop the river of love flowing from Chandidas’ very soul. And so, in the ultimate act of fear, the village elders tortured Chandidas, finally tying his limbs to four horses and tearing his youthful body apart. As his soul departed his agonized body, the villagers could heard the words: “Hare Krishna…. My Rami, My Radha!”…..

Today, centuries later, the love songs of Chandidas are still sung reverently and, yes, ecstatically, by the villagers, Bauls, and devotees of West Bengal. Praising the divine lovers, falling at the feet of the divine lovers and identifying with the undying passion of the divine lovers….. With tears of longing to feel just a drop of what Chandidas must have felt. To have just the tiniest taste of true ‘Bhakti’, true love…… I’ve seen with my own eyes these mystic Bauls singing Chandidas’ songs, dressed in patchwork robes, begging the Lord for just one crumb, pounding out rhythms on a small drum or even just a wooden table, plucking a one stringed ektara, and remembering one of the great heroes of love, Chandidas, and his beloved, Rami.

like on facebook


Can a Kirtan Singer Really Record an Album of Appalachian Murder Ballads?

“I COURTED PRETTY POLLY THAT LIVE LONG NIGHT
AND LEFT HER NEXT MORNING BEFORE IT WAS LIGHT

PRETTY POLLY PRETTY POLLY COME GO ALONG WITH ME
BEFORE WE GET MARRIED SOME PLEASURE TO SEE

I LED HER OVER HILLS AND VALLEYS SO DEEP
UNTIL PRETTY POLLY SHE COMMENCED TO WEEP

OH WILLY OH WILLY I’M AFRAID OF YOUR WAYS
I’M AFRAID YOU WILL LEAD MY POOR BODY ASTRAY

PRETTY POLLY PRETTY POLLY YOUR GUESS IS ABOUT RIGHT
I DUG ON YOUR GRAVE TWO THIRDS OF LAST NIGHT”

About two months ago my oldest friend, Charlie Burnham, a very well known and respected jazz violinist, called me up and asked me if I wanted to record a CD of old-timey hillbilly music. This might seem to be coming totally out of left field, but Charlie’s known me for a long time and knows of my deep love for Appalachian music and antiquated, pre-bluegrass styles of banjo playing.

(Old-timey banjo has popped up here and there on many of my CDs, but always somewhat disguised and cloaked in Indian-ness or psychedelia. But, really, I’d have to say that hillbilly music was my first real love….. Before Jimi or the Beatles. Before Ali Akbar Khan or the Bauls of Bengal. Before going to India in 1970. Actually, I should add for the sake of history (hmmm…. whatever that is…) that it was Charlie who paid for our first trip to India where we met our Guru, Neem Karoli Baba. So we go back pretty far together.)

Anyway, we were on the phone talking about this possible project and I said: “Uh, well, sounds cool, but, well, uh, who’s gonna pay for it?” Charlie quickly replied, as if it was totally obvious: “Our godson, of course! He’s starting a record company. Sub Ek records.” You see, by a strange twist of love and fate, we both have the same godson, Mbira Isaiah Ram Klein, known simply as Bira, who, aside from being a sweet, lovely young guy, is a self-taught musical genius. But a businessman? Well, that’s another story……

So we talked, we emailed, we conferenced, we texted, all the ways of communicating these days, and realized that we had no idea what we were doing but that we should get together and do it anyway. For me, the preparation was a gas. I dug into my collection of old-timey music, my Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb records, pulled out my banjo and practiced a bunch of great old songs. Forgot about the harmonium for a minute and found my heart in songs of love, death, murder, and religion. Songs that had been sung for a very long time. Perhaps not as long as ‘Shri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram,’ but still quite a while.

And last week Charlie, Mbira, myself and, of course, my buddy Ben Leinbach went into the studio to start tracking.

Did we make an album? No. But we made a start and, most importantly, had a wonderful, extremely funny and loving time together. My oldest friend, my main musical partner, and my GROWNUP godson! Spending an afternoon laughing, singing, praying, attempting to be productive and not really caring about the results; how could we go wrong? Will this CD be completed and released? Well, actually I have absolutely no idea. Maybe, maybe not. I sort of don’t really care. But when Charlie calls me up to plan another session, you know I’ll be there!

like on facebook


Friends in High Places

Gopula What a deep relief it was to hear those sounds and smell those smells once again. Bells, chants, heart-rending cries of “Radhe Radhe,” incense, sacred fires, cow dung burning…… I was back in my holy Vrindavan again; the land of Radha and Krishna; the ‘dham’ (pilgrimage place) where I first met my Guru, Neem Karoli Baba.

It was the mid-90’s and my heart was feeling parched. Thirsty for some sweetness, some balm, some bhav. Life in the west had been heavy for me. Though from the outside looking in all seemed wonderful, my insides were hurting and needed a good dose of divine comfort that I hadn’t been able to find back home. So it was back to India for me and I was inwardly rejoicing as the rickshaw brought me close to my Guru’s ashram.

But on stepping into that abode of peace I was instantly accosted by my old friend Dinesh, one of the helpers at the temple. “Jai Gopal, you must come!!! One of our temple staff has died and we need help with the body!” Fresh off the plane and it was dead bodies already…. “He’s died of tuberculosis and we have no one to help prepare the funeral pyre and carry the body to the Yamuna for cremation. And we need to borrow your ‘Sweez knife’ (Swiss Army Knife) to cut the ropes.” Oy Vey! What could I say?

So we ran to the Ramakrishna Mission Hospital where I watched as the remains of a little old guy were washed and wrapped in fabrics, flowers and oils. “Chant!” I was ordered, so I began singing “Sri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram” over and over again. Finally ready, the body was lifted on to a kind of wooden pallet and we began our walk through town to the river banks. “Ram Nam Satya Hai!” “God’s name is the only truth!” We repeated these words as we paraded through the streets of Vrindavan. People came out of their homes and shops to pranam to us and I felt honored to be part of an ancient ceremony. Until the ant appeared, creeping from underneath the covers of that eternally sleeping body! And crawled down the bamboo stick that was resting on my shoulder! And gently stepped on to my skin! And not-so-gently bit me!!! OH NO! My paranoid, neurotic, Jewish inner child screamed, knowing without doubt that I would be next in line for this suddenly not-so-wonderful ritual. (Well, since I’m sitting here many years later writing down this story I guess we can surmise that I was safe and didn’t die from tuberculosis……)

Anyway, we finally arrived at the sandy shores of Mother Yamuna, one of the great holy rivers of North India. The very same waters where little Gopala played with the cowherd boys and girls; where He conquered the demon Kaliya, wildly dancing upon his serpentine head; where He bathed under the gentle midnight moon with His beloved Srimati Radharani. But while the others were either prostrating and praying or building the funeral pyre, I sat sweating and fretting about my bug bitten shoulder and impending doom.

Ok, let’s get back to the real story now.

I sat and watched as the fire was set and the body of this old man was consumed by the hungry flames. My japa beads were turning: “Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram.” The transience of material life revealed itself to me as what was once human became smoke and ash. Fears of my own mortality quieted down in the mantra’s rhythm and a tiny taste of eternity penetrated the core of my being. “Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram…..” In the West we are so protected from death, and as a result we can never really make friends with it until he’s pounding down our door, gripping the reaper in his long, icy fingers. But in India life and death live side by side, hand in hand, and there is a greater peace surrounding the passages we all must cross in our endless journey through time. Many yogis spend years watching the bodies being consigned to flames in the burning ghats on the shores of Mother Ganga, the holy Ganges river. When the truth of time and existence fully dawns within them they are then ready to truly enter the path of Bhakti, or devotion and surrender to the Lord of Mercy and His divine beloved.

Thus was I meditating that sunny afternoon in Vrindavan, when suddenly a thunderous sound shook me from my reverie. There in the distance, framed by a tornado of dust and sand, was a herd of cows galloping right toward where I was seated. Cow bells clanging, footsteps pounding; I was about to be trampled! What a day this was turning out to be…. But as the final moment approached and I leaped to my feet in desperation, the cows simply stopped running and formed a circle around the smoldering pyre. Softly lowing, plaintively mooing, these cows positioned themselves in what looked like a protective ring around the burning body. “Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” I turned to see Dinesh watching this bizarre phenomenon. “Yes, it is,” I said. “What’s going on?” Dinesh then explained to me that this man was a very shy person who worked at the ashram taking care of the cows. He had no friends or family but gave all of his love and attention to milking, brushing, and feeding the cows, especially the little calves who were born in the ashram farm. No one was ever able to engage him in much conversation but he could often be seen chatting with his babies or with their mommies as he gathered milk for the older ashramites. What was he saying to them, his bovine confidants? We’ll never know. “But what we do know,” continued Dinesh, “is that his friends the cows have come to say goodbye…” There were tears in Dinesh’s eyes as he told me this, and I, in turn, choked up as well. How little we actually know about life, about love. A seemingly unknown, unloved old guy, surrounded by hundreds of his closest intimate associates as the flames consumed the last remnants of his earthly life…

I didn’t know this man, but I’ve thought of him many times over the years. My son, Ezra Gopal, loves to hear this story and at first didn’t believe that it was true, that I hadn’t just made it up. But I thank this nameless, faceless guy for teaching me about love, and that the truth can’t always be easily seen from the outside; and I pray that I will be surrounded by as much love and caring as he was as I embark on my life’s final journey……..

Ram Nam Satya Hai!!!

like on facebook