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MD Van Wedeen, Mass Gen.Harvard.connectome imageScientists have definitively identified, for the first time ever, a rare but rapidly increasing brain disorder affecting the frontal lobes, amygdala and hippocampus of people who regularly chant kirtan.

Publishing in the Journal of Neuroscience and Non-Duality, lead author Baba Bhavakirtanananda, a former saddhu who spent 20 years chanting the Maha Mantra nonstop in a cave near Braj, India, before accepting a research position at the University of Vrindavan, even coined a term for the condition: bhav brain.  Symptoms of bhav brain include markedly decreased attachment to one’s self-identity, blurring of the demarcation between “self” and others, disillusionment with materialistic gain, and reduced anxiety about what the future may bring.  In extreme cases, Bhavakirtanananda said, bhav brain can produce symptoms that can mimic intoxication or drug use, including inexplicable elation, stumbling or aimless wandering, or general “spaciness.”

These symptoms, he said, explain why people who have been chanting for many hours — as is common at kirtan festivals — are sometimes described as “stoned on the bhav.”

The scientists reported that they had also identified a potent neurotransmitter that seems to be expressed in excessive quantities after prolonged chanting, which they have accordingly named bhavatonin.  They found bhavatonin-specific receptors in the hippocampus, where the biochemical seemed to trigger a remembrance of one’s own divine nature, and in the amygdala, where it apparently tamped down fearful reactions and anxiety.

Long History in India, But New to the West

Historical documents suggest that bhav brain has been around since at least the 15th century; there are oblique references to the symptoms in sacred texts in the vedic traditions and in the works of so-called bhakti poets like Hafiz and Mirabai.  But the syndrome of symptoms has only recently been observed in the West — first in an area of New York’s Hudson Valley known as the Bhajan Belt, and then in Southern California, especially around the town of Joshua Tree.  More recent evidence suggests the condition is spreading — last summer there was a flurry of reports from Madison, Wisc. of chanters driving in circles, heading in the wrong direction on the highway, and unable to use simple machines like gas pumps.  The geographic and temporal distribution of these reports is closely associated with large-scale chant festivals.

That’s no coincidence, says Bhavakirtanananda.  He said he had long suspected there was a signature biological “fingerprint” associated with the syndrome, and was frustrated that no serious scientist had attempted to investigate it.  So he took it upon himself, first investigating it in a pilot study at India’s legendary Kumbh Mela festival before traveling all the way to Southern California to study attendees at a 4-day festival where the chanting was virtually nonstop.  His team recruited 100 men and women ranging in age from 16 to 97 (median age 39), and conducted functional MRI scans before, during and after the festival.

Prevalence is Rapidly Increasing

In the article, the authors noted that the prevalence of the condition — virtually unknown in the West until recent years — has been rapidly increasing in step with the growing popularity and “mainstreaming” of bhakti yoga, an obscure form of yoga from 15th century India that eschews the Western yoga world’s fixation on having a really great butt in favor of an emphasis on loving devotion and seva, or selfless service.

Reactions from the bhakti community have been mixed.  Kirtan musician Dave Stringananda said he was not surprised.  “I’ve been fascinated for years by how chanting might be affecting neurotransmitters like anandamine and serotonin, so the idea that there is a brain chemical called bhavatonin that is specifically ramped up by kirtan makes so much sense.  I am elated.” Stringananda immmediately set to work incorporating the findings into a new workshop series.

Skepticism in the Bhajan Belt

In Woodstock, N.Y. in the heart of the Bhajan Belt, long-time kirtan wallah Sruti Ramananda dismissed the findings as overhyped hogwash.  “Symptoms of a disorder?  Pshaw! Here in Woodstock, these kinds of behaviors are as common as peacocks in Vrindavan,” he said.  “If ‘bhav brain’ is a disease, then I’m a monkey-god’s uncle.”

The Bhakti Beat asked the members of the popular ensemble band The Hanumen, fresh off a regional tour that included stops at a prison and a psychiatric treatment facility, to comment on the research, but a spokesperson said the band was covered in mud on a beach somewhere and couldn’t be reached.

The Chant and Chill Foundation issued a statement praising the research as an important step forward in understanding what’s going on in the brain of a bhakta:  “This continues to be one of the deepest mysteries of the universe — just look at those Hanumen.  We are delighted to see that someone is finally putting some real effort into it.” The foundation plans to start a campaign encouraging hard-core bhaktas to donate their brains to research in hopes of advancing scientific knowledge about bhav brain.

Stay tuned to TheBhaktiBeat.com for more on this developing story.  Because no one knows bhav brain like we do…

If you like this, you might also like “10 Signs You Might Be a Kirtan Addict”

The Bhakti Beat needs your support!  We are non-commercial and not-for-profit,  a free service to the bhakti community that is completely self-funded save for the loving contributions of Bhakti Beaters like you.  Your support is critical — please share the Beat with your bhakti peeps, connect with us on social media (links below), and consider a one-time or recurring donation (DONATE HERE) to help us keep this bhav boat afloat.  Thank you from the bottom of our bhav brain. In loving service...

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

Dear Lord, kindly engage me in your service.

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return to shiva station coverWith “Return to Shiva Station,” Jai Uttal travels back in time to a period of his life when his musicality was exploding but his personal life was imploding — and emerges with a CD that is more a vision of where he is heading, musically and perhaps personally, than a rehash of where he has been.  It’s a softer, gentler side of Jai — one that is rarely seen at big festivals like Bhakti Fest and largely unseen on his discography of 16 releases.  Until now that is.

“Return to Shiva Station” can hardly be called a remake.  Rather, it is a completely new incarnation of its namesake and inspiration, “Shiva Station,” which was released in 1999.  While the track list on “Return” mimics the original “Shiva Station” song for song, the two albums could not be more different. Where “Shiva Station” is loud and exuberant, “Return” is quiet and understated.  Where “Shiva Station” is multi-layered and unrestrained, with lush instrumentation from an extravagant 11-piece band (The Pagan Love Orchestra), “Return” is pretty much Just Jai, mostly solo and unplugged.  Where “Shiva Station” was “bursting through the heavens,” in Uttal’s words, the new album looks inward.

The difference is by design.  When his current record label, Sounds True, asked him to do a remake of “Shiva Station,” Uttal said his first response was: “Why?” With more than a little cajoling from the label and his manager, Steven Saporta, he reluctantly agreed to try his hand at reinventing the opening track, Guru Brahma.  “I said, if I’m going to do this album – I still wasn’t committed – but if, it’s got to be really different,” he told The Bhakti Beat.

It’s as if Uttal took each song, ripped it up in shreds, stripped it of all excess, and then rebuilt it in a minimalist fashion that reduces each to its elemental beauty, revealing the soul of the song.  It’s Jai Uttal, vocalist and one-man band, stripped down and naked.

The first thing he did was eliminate the drums.

Every other album Uttal has done was very rhythmic, he said, with drums and percussion setting the beat. So he threw those out.  The vibrant horn section that blasts through “Shiva Station” is also nowhere to be heard on “Return.”  Instead, strings take center stage, a reflection both of Uttal’s long-time prowess with Indian stringed instruments and his newfound fascination with Brazalian-style guitar.  (His teacher and mentor in Brazilian guitar, José Neto, who has toured with the Allman Brothers, Steve Winwood and Rod Stewart, plays on almost every track.)

“Most of my albums are very orchestrated — lots of music and lots of instruments. On this one, the production is very simple — not simple-minded, but less orchestrated.  Because of that my voice is much more naked,” Uttal said.  “I couldn’t cover it up with a horn section or a drum set,” he added with a self-effacing laugh, pointing out that he has “always struggled with a lot of insecurity” about his voice.

Omega Ecstatic Chant Jai Uttal by TheBhaktiBeat.comThe distinctive Uttal voice is indeed the focal point of “Return to Shiva Station,” supported here and there by back-up vocals by long-time collaborators Ben Leinbach, who also mixed and co-produced the disc, and Prajna Vieira, one of Uttal’s most consistent response vocalists.  But it is the strings that stand out on this disc more than anything.  José Neto is everywhere with his masterful Spanish-style strumming, but there is also cello by Yoed Nir, sitar by Timothy White, bass by Leinbach, and Uttal on guitar, banjo and the single-stringed Indian ektar.

Mad for the Banjo

Uttal’s love affair with strings goes all the way back to when he was a young preadolescent living in New York City, he told us.  That’s when he first discovered the banjo, after losing interest in his early piano lessons.  “I was completely mad for banjo,” he said.  “It was my first real love music-wise. Playing banjo was the first time that I felt sort of an inner peace…It still holds a super fondness for me.”

If you’ve ever seen Uttal pull out his banjo at a live kirtan, you know how he lights up when he gets that instrument in his hands.  “Rustic banjo” (Uttal’s words) makes appearances in two songs: “Corner” and “Jaya Jagadambe” – which happen to be two of Uttal’s self-professed favorites on the disc.  Still, it’s the Brazilian guitar that has Uttal currently enamored, and that is his favorite part of the CD.

He’s been studying it with Neto – whom he calls his “current idol” – and is completely in love with the chord progressions and distinctive style of the Brazilian interpretation of guitar, which encompasses bossa nova and samba.  “For the last bunch of years I’ve been finding such joy and challenge and, you know, yearning in studying Brazilian guitar,” he said.

He committed himself to approaching the reinterpretation of “Shiva Station” with a new perspective as an acoustic guitar player, and particularly from the Brazilian perspective. “The Brazilian harmonies are so rich and so deep.  Having spent most of my life involved with Indian music…you know, Indian music is not harmonic; it’s melodic. There are no chords in traditional Indian music. So here I was taking these melodies and wanting to put beautiful chords behind them.”

Uttal said the process was hard on a lot of levels.

Omega d3 613On a technical level, he said: “Every single song was on the absolute edge of my technical ability.  Going to the studio was hard.  I couldn’t play my own songs!”

The voice of self-doubt started “raging,” he said, reinforcing his reservations about revisiting Shiva Station.  “I started to think that I should have waited for six months and just practiced these chords.”

But “Return” presented a challenge not just for the technical aspects, but for the emotions that it raised as well.  Uttal has described the period of his life when “Shiva Station” was produced as unhappy, out of balance, and very difficult.  He told us he was at the end of a period of drug addiction and alcoholism (“the end is always the worst”) and was in a “very, very toxic relationship.”  Moreover, he was frustrated spiritually and musically, having put all of his creative energy into getting the Pagan Love Orchestra off the ground, and feeling that is was still mired in obscurity.

None of which, by the way, comes through in “Shiva Station.” Having discovered it anew because of “Return,” we have to say we didn’t find it depressing at all.  Quite the opposite in fact.  It’s a happy CD, filled with over-the-top joyousness and big-band elation.  We would never have guessed that this came from a severely depressed man in the throes of addiction and a miserable marriage.

And that, my friends, is the point….

“As we sing kirtan, as we express ourselves, there are so many emotions that come out,” Uttal said.  “The bigger the palette of emotional colors that is expressed, the more joy comes through it all.  So as we’re expressing ourselves, sadness comes out, despair comes out, a longing comes out, an incredible ecstasy comes out.  In the end you feel so happy, because nothing is withheld.”

Buy “Return to Shiva Station: Kailash Connection”
Listen to “Shiva Station”
Jai Uttal’s Website
Jai Uttal’s Facebook page
 

 

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Closing Out Bhakti Fest West 2012, by TheBhaktiBeat.comDo you have any of these symptoms? 

1. You wake up humming the Hanuman Chalisa.

2. You’ve exceeded your internet data allowance watching kirtan livestreams.

3. You have at least one pet — or possibly a child — named after a Hindu deity.

4. Your family whispers behind your back because every time they see you you’re quietly singing Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.

5. When the Jehovah’s Witness comes to your door, you try to convince them that Jesus and Krishna are the same…because, you know, Maharaji said so. 

Neem Karoli Baba by Balramdas, from ImageEvents.com, on TheBhaktiBeat.com

Photo by Balramdass, from ImageEvents.com

6. You know who Maharaji is.

7. You secretly fantasize about becoming a roadie for Krishna Das. Or Dave Stringer.  Or Girish…

8. You’ve ever been stopped for speeding with a kirtan CD blasting in your car.

9.  You dumped your boyfriend/girlfriend because they kept complaining that the only “music” you ever play is kirtan.

10. You’ve emptied your savings account buying plane tickets and weekend passes to Bhakti Fest, Omega Chant, and any other kirtan festival, retreat or event you can get to.

If any of these signs describe you, you might be a kirtan addict.  There is no cure, but don’t despair:  the treatment is simple… 

Chant more.

Whatever you do, just…

Keep Calm and Bhav On by TheBhaktiBeat.com

And follow The Bhakti Beat, of course!

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Ram Dass, Jai Uttal, Shyamdas at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.com
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Ram Dass, Jai Uttal, Shyamdas at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.comOmega’s annual Ecstatic Chant weekend would not exist without Ram Dass.  The legendary Labor Day retreat for chantaholics in the heart of New York’s Bhajan Belt has its roots in Ram Dass’ own epic gatherings at Omega dating back to the mid-1990’s.  In those days, Omega co-founder Stephan Rechtschaffen recounted to The Bhakti Beat, Ram Dass would invite Krishna Das and others to come and chant with retreatants during evening concerts as kind of an entertainment extra.  Over time, the chanting became an integral part of the weekend, occupying more and more of the retreat schedule.

When Ram Dass suffered a stroke and chose to discontinue most of his travel, the retreats continued…eventually morphing into Ecstatic Chant: The Yoga of Voice, now one of Omega’s most popular programs (among a catalog of hundreds).

In recent years, Ram Dass has joined the program live via Skype from Hawaii, his face projected onto a huge screen in Omega’s darkened, packed-to-capacity Main Hall.  Krishna Das, Radhanath Swami, Shyamdas, Jai Uttal and Rechtschaffen have taken turns leading the chat with the man many credit with jump-starting the Western fascination with India generally and the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba (“Maharaji”) in particular.

Ram Dass Shyamdas Jai Uttal at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.comThis is an excerpt from the Skype chat with Ram Dass that was jointly led by Shyamdas and Jai Uttal at last fall’s Ecstatic Chant.  (Shyamdas did most of the asking…)

Shyamdas:  What’s it like to be loved by so many thousands of people?

Ram Dass: It’s like being with Maharaji.  He gave unconditional love.  No matter how rotten you were he gave unconditional love.  YumYumYumYumYum.

SD:  What should we be doing with our lives?

RD: Remember Maharaji.  People come to me for advice, but they’re not really coming to me.  They’re coming to Maharaji…When they experience that love, they flower.  That gives me great happiness and fills my heart.  YumYumYumYumYum.

Ram Dass Shyamdas Jai Uttal at Omega Fall Chant 2012 by TheBhaktiBeat.comSD:  Great job you have.

RD:  Yes, yes it is.  I am a gardener.

SD:  How did you get that job?

RD:  I didn’t ask for it.  He [Maharaji] laid it on me.  The first time I was in India, he said: “Arshivad (blessings) for your book.” I said, “What’s Arshivad, and what book?”

SD:  Thank you for your seva and your priceless gifts.  We can only bow; we cannot repay you, but we can try…

RD:  We are all the same.  We’ve all found it; we’ve seen what it is.  Now it’s up to us…

Shyamdas wouldn’t let his friend say goodbye without a proper send-off, and he and Uttal were promptly leading the capacity crowd in a sweet little transcontinental kirtan. A thousand voices harmonized in an exuberant Radhe Govinda, flowing from the packed room in New York’s Hudson Valley straight to the heart of Ram Dass in his bungelow in Hawaii.  Short and sweet:

YumYumYumYumYum

More on Shyamdas
Live at Ananda:  Shyamdas Tribute in Bhajan Belt Celebrates the Lila of Bhakti’s Favorite Uncle
Swept Up in a ‘Tidal Wave of Bhav’ with Shyamdas: Epic 45-Minute Maha Mantra
Storytime in the Bhav with Shyamdas & Friends at Bhakti Fest Midwest
Feels Like ‘Yesterday:’ Classic Shyamdas in Wacky Spontaneous Improv at Omega Chant
Bhajan Boat’ Charity Cruise Circles Manhattan with a Boatful of Bhaktas
Ananda Ashram Shyamdas Tribute Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Remembering Shyamdas Photo Journal on The Bhakti Beat’s facebook page
Shyamdas Remembered, Video Playlist on YouTube
 
Also see:
www.shyamdas.com
www.jaiuttal.com
www.ramdass.org
www.eomega.org
 
 
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This is classic Shyamdas, in all his spontaneous wit and wackiness.  The always-unpredictable closing session of Omega Ecstatic Chant had just gotten underway, with Shyamdas at the helm.  It was time to call in the troops — to get all the musicians on stage for the finale  and send the 1,000 or so chanters off with a final Radhe Shyam.

These grand all-wallah finales have become somewhat legendary at Ecstatic Chant, as they now have at Bhakti Fest and other kirtan festivals.  Where else do you get to see Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Deva Premal, Snatam Kaur, Gaura Vani, Radhanath Swami, C.C. White, Sruti Ram and Ishwari, along with a host of world-class supporting musicians like Steve Gorn, Richard Davis and Daniel Paul, all on stage together, sharing mics and cajoling one another on with good-natured giddiness? 

It’s like the Mantra Dream Team, gathering jubilantly for one last blast of bhav — and invariably rousing the crowd to a full-on, dancing, swaying, shake-the-roof-rafters climax.

For over a decade at Omega Chant, Shyamdas has been the undisputed captain of the team, taking his place at the helm and steering his playmates in lila right up and over a tidal wave of bhav.  Every year, he would surprise with some completely unexpected twist on an old classic, effortlessly — and hysterically, at times — weaving his beloved Radhe into anything and everything.  You never knew what Shyamdas was going to come up with next.  (And neither, surely, did the musicians around him — witness the expression on Vishvambhar Sheth’s face when Shyam-ji broke out in a Radhe-fied version of “Working My Way Back to You Babe” at Omega 2011.)  Priceless!

Last fall, Shyamdas had something else up the sleeve of his old-style kurta.  As the session was getting underway and the musicians tuning up, Shyamdas leaned toward Richard Davis and whispered a question unheard by most, Davis recalled recently.  Davis, who has played guitar for Shyamdas for many years in all manner of venues, must have had a pretty good idea what was coming next when Shyam-Ji asked if he knew ‘Yesterday.’

The rest of us, I’d venture to guess, were more than a little perplexed when, moments later, the familiar and famous melody of the Beatles’ 1965 love ballad was rising from Shyam’s harmonium.  But this was no average ‘Yesterday’ cover.  Uh-uh.  This was Shyamdas in his element, his lila of unscripted, whole-hearted devotion on full display as he smiled knowingly and transformed the Fab Four’s words into a sweet improvised-on-the-spot lullaby to Radhe.

Looking out at all of us — who clearly weren’t ready to see this chant lovefest end — he deadpanned in perfect melody: “Why you have to go, I don’t know, Hari wouldn’t say. I said Radhe Shyam, now I long for Sri Radhe.”  The line brought ripples of laughter throughout the packed Main Hall, and the crowd gathered more tightly around the stage to see the master innovator in action, swarming like honeybees to collect the nectar of the lotus.  

That was yesterday. 

Today, the same line resonates differently.  It carries a bittersweet tenderness — a wholly different longing — as the kirtan and Krishna communities try to come to grips with the reality of the bhakti world without Captain Shyam steering the ship. 

*sigh*

“Why’d you have to go, Shyamdas-Ji? Hari didn’t say. Please say Radhe Shyam, one more time, say Radhe Shyam…”

Also see:

Swept Up in A ‘Tidal Wave of Bhav’ with Shyamdas: Epic 45-Minute MahaMantra (VIDEO) 

Remembering Shyamdas Photo Journal on Facebook

Shyamdas Remembered Video Playlist of Kirtans and Teachings on YouTube

 

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“We’re going to end on this,” Shyamdas said, as he launched us into the final powerful crest of an epic Hare Krishna chant that undulated like the waves of an ocean for 45 ecstatic minutes (two-part video below). 

It started as a slow, deep prayer before gradually rising to the inevitable full-on whirling cresendo, then ebbing again to a sweet low longing, barely a whisper, before rising up again… Over and over he led us through the peaks and valleys of the changing melodies and rhythms, inviting us all into the intimate dance with the Divine.  Soon there was no distinction between call and response, “performers” and “audience.”  All merged as one voice, one ocean of sound and devotion flowing with the joyful tears of a thousand streams.

It was, for this writer, one of those peak experiences in kirtan — the kind that just make you go, “Wow.” No exclamation point. Just “Wow.”

When it ended, after that long sweet silence where you get to do nothing other than breathe in all that bhav, he looked out at all of us and simply said: “That’s it.”  Silence broken, the crowd thundered.  Shyamdas’ kirtans always stand out, but this one was beyond outstanding, and the chanters let him know it. 

When the hoots and hollers died down, Shyamdas said this: “It’s amazing to float in the bhav — I don’t know whether I was imagining that, and it doesn’t really matter…But man, to be in such a tidal wave of bhav with everyone is …” He paused for just a moment.  “…is the way I would like to spend the rest of my life.”

“To be in such a tidal wave of bhav with everyone is the way I would like to spend the rest of my life.”

Hear Hear.

After the set, I caught up with Shyam-Ji just off-stage.  I wanted to thank him, to ask him how he did that, what magic did it take to create that experience. Maybe I needed some kind of confirmation that we had all just experienced something truly extraordinary, I don’t know.  I had a hundred questions for him! But when I opened my mouth, all I could muster was, “Wow.”  No exclamation point.  Just, “Wow.”  (And, I imagine, a glazed-eye, stoned-on-the-bhav expression — hey, we’d been chanting day and night for 3 days at this point.)

Despite my bhakti-fried brain-deadness, Shyamdas answered my unspoken question.  I didn’t write down what he said, but it was something along the lines of: “I was just taking it where it needed to go.”  He was reading the room, taking the pulse of the space, feeling the vibe and intuitively guiding us deeper and more completely into that Place That Cannot Be Described, to blissfully drown in a churning sea of ecstatic devotion.

This is Shyamdas as we will remember him, steering the ship on a “tidal wave of bhav” deep into the ocean of devotion, sweeping us all along with him on his boat full of bhakti.

Thank you Shyamdas-Ji. 

A note about the videos: Did I mention this was a 45-minute-long Maha Mantra?  And that I recorded EVERY moment of it?  Now, I know this is the Age of Twitter and 30-second news bites…so I thought about editing this down, cutting and slashing it to a manageable, YouTube-friendly size.  But then something slapped me upside the head (Shyam?) and said, Are you crazy?  This is a work of devotional art.  How dare you mess with it?  So I present it to you as I experienced it, in all its uncut, unedited glory.  In two parts, because the Age of YouTube has a 30-minute attention span (not long enough for kirtan).  Please put aside 45 minutes to watch — really WATCH — because you don’t want to miss a single moment of Shyam-Ji’s in-the-bhav expressionism.  Clear your space because you will want to dance during parts.  Have some tissues because you may cry.  But watch it all.  You will not be sorry. 

Here’s Part 1:

 And Part 2:

 

 Also see:

“Remembering Shyamdas” The Bhakti Beat’s Photo Journal on facebook

Shyamdas Video Playlist on YouTube

www.shyamdas.com

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1/2 of Deva Premal & Miten + Snatam Kaur at Omega Chant, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Miten even had Snatam Kaur collaborating on stage. She did NOT wail on the harmonica or sing the blues...but maybe next time?

Miten, the sultry, guitar-strumming, wise-cracking singer/songwriter/soul partner of Deva Premal, just seems to inspire extraordinary musical improvs wherever he goes.  At last year’s Omega Chant, he managed to coax the normally reserved Radhanath Swami onto stage for a wailing harmonica solo that had the crowd roaring.

Well, Swami-Ji apparently left his harmonica behind, so what’s a blues lover like Miten to do?  Get Shyamdas in on the act, of course.  You just knew it was going to be good when Miten called him up to the stage toward the end of Miten and Premal’s set during the Labor Day session of Omega’s Ecstatic Chant weekend. 

Nothing quite like the Radhe blues…

Later that same evening (yes, sticking around Omega for that final, fourth day of chanting IS worth it), there was an even bigger surprise.  And yes, it too involved Miten…who was kind of hiding in the dark corner for this one:

Whoa!  Krishna Das singing Bob Dylan’s famous ballad (often credited to Eric Clapton, who made it famous).  Never seen that before.  

In fact, Krishna Das told The Bhakti Beat, this was the first time he has sung Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door at a public concert, and only the second time he has sung it at all.  A week prior to Omega, KD joined his Russian friend Boris Grebenshchikov — who KD called “the Bob Dylan of Russia” and Wickepedia calls the “grandfather of Russian rock” — on stage at a private gathering for a spontaneous rendition of it.  We can’t help wondering if this signals a return to rock ‘n roll for “Ex-Rocker” Krishna Das.

Omega Moments — highlights for us from a long weekend of inspired, blissful (and decidedly more traditional than these two videos suggest) chanting, in all the deliciously diverse incarnations of the contemporary practice of kirtan.  What were yours?

Additional Coverage from The Bhakti Beat’s Big Bhavalicious Adventure to Omega Chant, Bhakti Fest West and Sat Nam Fest East:
 
Bringing Home The Bhav: Bhakti-Fried Bliss-Chaser Faces ‘The Laundry’ of Life (Video)
Wallah to Watch: Jai-Jagdeesh, Songstress & Classical Dance Artist, Dazzles at Sat Nam Fest (Videos)
‘It Is Not Dying:’ Geoffrey Gordon (1952-2012) Remembered in Bhakti Fest Tributes and Haunting Video
Photo Journals from all 3 festivals on our facebook page.
Check our YouTube channel for the latest video uploads.
 
Stay tuned to this site for more coverage coming soon! Subscribe here.

 

 

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In the Bhav at Bhakti Fest Finale

“After the ecstasy, the laundry.”  In those few words author Jack Kornfield captured the essence of the seeker’s search for that “something else” and the back-to-reality recognition that, having tasted it even fleetingly, one cannot escape the laundry of life that awaits us in this 3-D world. 

Go ahead and taste the ecstasy.  Savor it.  Relish every moment of it.  But don’t forget to wash your underwear.

Kornfield’s popular title rings in my ears as I return home after an 18-day sojourn chasing the bhav from one end of the country to the other.  The Bhakti Beat’s Big Bhavalicious Adventure took us from Omega’s Ecstatic Chant in the heart of the “Bhajan Belt” in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to the high desert of Joshua Tree, Cali. for the 4th Annual Bhakti Fest West, and then back East to the cornfields of Pennsylvania for Sat Nam Fest, the kundalini yoga and chant retreat organized by Spirit Voyage Music.  Sandwiched in between was the  NYC premeire of Jeremy Frindel’s new documentary, “One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das.” 

That’s a lot of kirtan, even for a confessed junkie.  

Me & my cameras, chasing the bhav. (Photo courtesy of Maie P Jyoti)

I savored it.  Relished every moment.  And in the end, couldn’t wait to come home, with a resolute determination to bring the bhav right back with me.  Surely this immersion in the ocean of devotion, this tidal wave of spiritual energy generated from the ultimate Kirtan Trifecta — or Tri-Festa, as GuruGanesha Singh labeled my journey — would keep me high on life for days, weeks, maybe even months, right?  Right?

Ha.  Tell that to the dirty underwear.  And the stack of bills screaming for my attention.  And the deadlines looming for the day job that pays the stack of bills.  Videos to edit, pictures to post, blogs to write.  A boyfriend who has forgotten what I look like and secretly wants to heave my laptop out the window.  And so on. 

The crash came hard and fast.  Leaving me wondering:  Where’s the bhav now?

Easier said than done...

This, I gather, is where that “great magic trick of existence” comes in…how to “snatch the eternal from the desperately fleeting,” as Tennessee Williams wrote.  How to sustain the “blissful love or loving bliss,” as the religious studies scholar David Haberman defined “the bhav” in a workshop at Bhakti Fest, even when the fest is over and we’re faced with the unpleasant minutiae of daily life.  

Krishna Das has said it in so many workshops: “When you leave here, you’ve still got to pay the bills.”  His advice?  “Practice.”  He doesn’t care if you chant, meditate, do asanas…whatever;  just do something. “There’s a reason they call it practice,” he always says.  You’ve got to do it.  As in, every day, chant fest or no.

Note to self:  a crowd of 5,000 isn’t required.  A festival of One works too.

Shyamdas, the respected author, Sanskrit scholar, and master of Hare Katha (sacred teachings interwoven with bhav-inducing kirtan)  was asked what it means to “be in the bhav” during the Bhakti Panel workshop on Day 4 of Bhakti Fest.  Among other gems you can hear in the video below, he said this: 

“The bhav makes us understand that there is eternity within the present moment, and that makes the individual unconcerned with what is going to happen next, because everything is already a perfect manifestation as it is.”


 

In the bhav, Shyamdas told us, “everything is directed for the pleasure of the Beloved.”  By which he means the Supreme.  The Divine.  It matters not if you call it God, Krishna, Christ, Grace, Universal Oneness, Higher Self — label it as you will, or not at all.  The point is that when everything we do is offered up to the greater good, then — and only then — can we get anywhere near the bhav.  

Need a pay-off?  Shyamdas says: “When a person can have that attitude, I think they receive a response from the Source Bhav.” 

“A response from the Source Bhav.”  I like the sound of that.  I want that.

 

Tulasi & Purusartha Dasa

A remarkable woman I met on my journey, Tulasi Devi Dasi (whose husband, Purusartha Dasa, plays bass for The Hanumen), made this exact point to me a week before I heard Shyamdas say it, in a casual breakfast conversation at Omega the morning after four days of Ecstatic Chant.  She told an innocuous story of a large gathering at their home in the community of Krishna devotees in Alachua, Fla.  She said all the preparation and labors were seen not as effort, but as joy, because all was done in service to Krishna.  Every act, no matter how small, was offered up as a prayer to the Beloved. 

Her words had that goosebump effect on me.  You know, that tingly “hit” you get when something resonates deeply in your soul.  I nearly wept right there in the cafeteria. (Chanting for four days will do that to you.) 

Gong bath at Sat Nam Fest

Tulasi’s words stayed with me. 

“I offer my service to Krishna” became my mantra (I would interchange Krishna with Christ, God, Universal Oneness, The Divine, because to me they are all one).  I did this as I posted pictures.  I did it as I wrote emails and returned phone calls.  I did it as I sweated my way through NY rush-hour traffic to make my flight at JFK after Google Maps sent me on a ridiculously convoluted route.  And so on. 

Well, call me crazy, but you know what?  Doors started opening.  Interviews came through.  Connections were made.  Relationships were healed with a hug.  Helpful people were showing up precisely at the right time.  Oh yeah, and I made the plane.  With perfect timing.

I ran into Tulasi again on Day 3 of Bhakti Fest, five days later and 3,000 miles from our breakfast chat.  I told her how she had inspired me with her words, how it had made all the difference.  We hugged.  I wept.  She wept.  (Chanting for eight days will do that to you.) 

So here’s what I’ve learned…

You can chase the bhav all you want — and you might even snatch it for a fleeting moment.  But until you can find that sweet spot of devotion and gratitude, that attitude that life is a gift — that “ever-expansive loving feeling that we’re all thirsting for,” as Haberman put it — right in your own home, your own heart, even with the stack of bills screaming and the deadlines looming and the boyfriend glowering, you’re just running on empty. 

Make your life a prayer.  Then stand back and watch what unfolds. 

Sridhar Silberfein: Grace in Action

Or, as Bhakti Fest founder and executive producer Sridhar Silberfein so says:

“Do what you can.  Then get out of the way and let Grace take over.”

 

Additional Coverage from The Bhakti Beat’s Big Bhavalicious Adventure to Omega Chant, Bhakti Fest West and Sat Nam Fest East:
 
Bringing Home The Bhav: Bhakti-Fried Bliss-Chaser Faces ‘The Laundry’ of Life (Video)
Wallah to Watch: Jai-Jagdeesh, Songstress & Classical Dance Artist, Dazzles at Sat Nam Fest (Videos)
With Deva’s Miten, Krishna Das Does Dylan & Shyamdas Does the Blues (Videos)
‘It Is Not Dying:’ Geoffrey Gordon (1952-2012) Remembered in Bhakti Fest Tributes and Haunting Video
Photo Journals from all 3 festivals on our facebook page.
Check our YouTube channel for the latest video uploads.
 
Stay tuned to this site for more coverage coming soon!  Subscribe here.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ram Dass, beaming from Maui

We often get asked: “What are the can’t-miss chant events of the year?”  It’s a loaded question, for sure, since everyone has their own idea about what is “can’t-miss.”  Including us.  So we’re sharing our picks for “The Big 5” chant events that are worth getting to, no matter where you’re coming from.  Here’s part 1; stay tuned to this space for the rest (subscribe here).  And tell us what your top picks are!

Omega’s Ecstatic Chant is the original.  Now moving into its second decade as the annual destination for hard-core chantaholics, its roots can be traced back to Ram Dass’s annual retreats at the Rhinebeck, N.Y. campus in the ’80’s. 

Omega Co-Founder Stephan Rechtschaffen told us that, in those days, Ram Dass would invite Krishna Das or Jai Uttal to come and chant with the gathering as evening entertainment, and it became so popular that chanting became a central aspect of the weekend. When Ram Dass could no longer attend due to his health, the chanting continued.  These days, Ram Dass beams in from Maui through the magic of interactive video, delivering his wisdom, humor and reflections of Neem Karoli Baba from a large screen.

What’s So Special About Omega? 

Radhanath Swami (ctr) with Shyamdas and Deva Premal

 Omega is different from everything else on The Big 5 list because it is chant and only chant.  It’s also the only one that is not a “festival” per se — more like a “retreat.”  Or, in Omega parlance,  a weekend workshop (The Yoga of Voice).  The program is chanting.  That’s it.  No simultaneous yoga classes across campus.  No lectures or experiential workshops to compete for your time.  Just chant, chant and chant some more. 

Manose

On the second day, there is an extraordinary all-night session that, if you are game, is pretty much guaranteed to take you so deep into the bhav that you just might, as Swami Satchidananda said, “forget everything.”  Participants fairly camp out in the Main Hall, variously dancing furiously or quietly meditating, dozing or chatting in between sets… and before you know it, dawn is rising, right in tune with the lilting flute-play of Manose and Steve Gorn.

But what makes Omega stand out for us are those completely unpredictable moments that are pure gold for the soul — like Radhanath Swami wailing on the harmonica with Deva Premal and Miten.  Or Donna De Lory joining C.C. White to sing Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.  Or this little gem from Shyamdas, who never fails to liven things up with his stories and shenanigans:
 

‘The Super Bowl of Chant’

Miten, with Omega Co-Founder Stephan Rechtschaffen

Jai Uttal once famously called Omega Chant “the Super Bowl of chant fests,” maybe because only a handful of artists make it to the line-up and the competition to be on the schedule is intense.  (Each artist typically plays at least two full sets over the course of the weekend, and many play a third time at the Labor Day bonus session.)  Rechtschaffen, who makes the line-up decisions, says he is inundated with artists’ CDs and promo tapes and is always on the look-out for bands with a “unique” sound, but knows that bringing in someone “new” means someone else gets bumped, even if they’ve been on the Omega line-up for years. 

C.C. White was at fall Chant for the first time last year, and Dave Stringer returned after a few years’ absence.  Snatam Kaur and Wah!, both long-time Omega regulars, were noticeably absent last fall, as was David Newman (Wah! played at Omega’s smaller Spring Chant in May; Newman and Kaur both led workshop at the retreat center this summer).  Rechtschaffen openly lamented the absence of each of these favorites at fall Chant.   

The 2012 Line-Up 

KD and Arjun Bruggeman

Krishna Das, Shyamdas, Jai Uttal (with Daniel Paul) are constants on the Omega schedule.  They have been leading the Omega Chant pack since the early days and it’s hard to imagine Chant Weekend without all of them.  They can usually be counted on to be stage center during the famous closing session, when all the wallahs and musicians join together on stage for a final free-for-all.   Typically, you can find Shyamdas directing the action, Jai Uttal playfully rebelling, and Krishna Das playfully grumpy at having to be in the spotlight at such an “early” hour (it’s only 11:30 a.m. or so, after all). 

The ever-popular Deva Premal and Miten and Sikh songstress Snatam Kaur round out the top-bill headliners at this year’s Chant.

Vishal Vaid astounds

Vishal Vaid, who has trained in traditional ghazal (an ancient form of poetry in song that translates to “conversation with the divine”), astounds audiences every year (watch this for example) and seems to have a pretty solid position on the Omega roster.  The Mayapuris, the Florida-based band of “Krishna Kids” who have leaped — literally — into the international kirtan scene are back for a third year, and if previous years’ pattern holds true, will join just about everyone else’s bands as well.  

C.C. White

C.C. White is back for her second year, having solidified her return with two crowd-rousing sets last fall showcasing songs from her debut solo CD, This IS Soul Kirtan, which was “pre-released” at Omega.  Gaura Vani and bansuri flute virtuosos Manose and Steve Gorn complete the bill of musicians.  Radhanath Swami, who caused all sorts of excitement last fall when he joined Deva Premal and Miten on stage for an impromptu (and seriously wailin’) harmonica solo, will also be on hand.  We hope he brings his harmonica.

The Deets

When:  Aug. 31-Sept. 3, with a special 10-Hour Labor Day session on Sept. 3.  (If you still haven’t had enough, Krishna Das keeps the bhav flowing with a separate workshop on Tuesday, Sept. 4.)

 

Radhanath Swami & Donna De Lory

Where:  Omega Institute is located in Rhinebeck, NY, smack in the middle of the “Bhajan Belt,” the upstate New York region known for a confluence of kirtan.  It’s about 90 miles north of NYC and roughly the same distance from Albany.  There’s an Amtrak station nearby and a commuter train to NYC.

How Much:   This is the only bug in the ointment.  Tuition alone for Ecstatic Chant is $395.  The Labor Day session is $125, or $75 if you’re doing the weekend retreat also.  Accomodations are additional, and on-site cabins or dorms tend to be, shall we say, “rustic” (but pleasant enough).  See http://eomega.org/workshops/ecstatic-chant for details.

What Else? Rhinebeck is a quaint and boho-chic Hudson Valley town with lots of restaurants, shopping and an indie movie house.  But you may never want to leave the Omega campus, a rolling oasis with a small lake where you can kayak, hiking paths, great vegetarian meals, a wellness spa with all manner of body-work and subtle-energy treatments available, a soothing sanctuary at the top of the hill, and the charged energy of 30 years as a destination for spiritual masters and seekers of all stripes. 

So, what do you say?  Will you be going to Ecstatic Chant this year?  Why or why not?

 

 

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Where’s the Bhav? Omega Spring Chant!

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The spring chant-fest season has officially arrived, and the bhav starts flowing Friday night 5/3 with Spring Ecstatic Chant at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.  This weekend’s chant retreat, now in its fifth year, is the little sister to Omega’s epic Ecstatic Chant weekend over Labor Day, a don’t-miss destination for chantaholics for more than a decade.

Spring Chant headliner Jai Uttal has had to bow out of this weekend’s festivities due to an ongoing battle with pneumonia — and the whole bhakti community is praying for his complete, speedy recovery.  Even without Jai, the line-up shines:  Shyamdas, Wah!, Donna DeLory, SRI Kirtan, Gaura Vani, and — just announced and at Omega Chant for the first time ever — Masood Ali Khan, who will be joined by tabla virtuoso Daniel Paul and multi-instrumentalist phenom Sheela Bringi.

Ali Khan and Bringi are two rising stars in the sacred music scene, and their addition to the Spring Chant line-up cements their reputations as world-class artists in the “yoga music” genre.  Ali Khan’s second album, “The Yoga Sessions: Hang With Angels,” released last September, features his percussive magic on the hang drum (pronounced “hung”) in collaboration with a star-studded list of world musicians that include bansuri flute master Steve Gorn, guitarist Ray Ippolito and vocal harmonies by the likes of Visvambhar Seth of the Mayapuris, Kamaniya Devi of Prema Hara, and West Coast yogi-wallah Suzanne Sterling.  For a little taste of the magic that can be expected during Ali Khan’s set Friday night, check out this video:

For those who have never experienced a chant retreat Omega-style, put it on your bucket list!  There’s something about Omega that sets the Hudson Valley center’s famous chant weekends apart from the rest.  Maybe it’s the fact that there is nothing to do but chant, chant, chant and chant some more — there are no competing yoga classes or workshops to entice you away from the calling of the names.  Or maybe it’s the fact that the audience tends to be “hard-core” chanters — everyone knows the words and they’re not afraid to sing them out, creating a resounding response chorus that you won’t hear many other places.  Or maybe it’s just simply the magic of the Omega campus, a former Jewish camp at the foot of the Catskill Mountains converted to a high-end holistic wellness retreat center,  where countless thousands of seekers have gone in search of enlightenment (or at least to get a little closer to it).

Whatever it is, there’s nothing quite like it.  And while the younger and less-likely-to-be-sold-out Spring Chant doesn’t have the big headliners that Fall Chant has — including Krishna Das, Deva Premal & Miten, and Snatam Kaur —  it remains a perennial highlight on our short list of must-do kirtan events.

Shyamdas will be there of course — he told The Bhakti Beat at last year’s Spring Chant that he has been there every year and wouldn’t miss it for the world.  The Sanskrit scholar and wallah extraordinare’s inimitable style of Hari Katha — chanting intermingled with stories and teachings from Hindu scriptures — will be on display throughout the weekend, and he will lead the closing session on Sunday.  That session has always been a highlight for us, as the whole kit and kaboodle of wallahs join together on stage for a last rousing round of Hari Bols (check out the video below for a taste of the fun from last year).

SRI Kirtan, the divine duo of Ishwari and Sruti Ram, will be joining Spring Chant for the third year straight, and we’re hoping they will be permanently on the line-up.  Because they rock the bhakti, baby.  They never fail to deliver a set that is pure heart-stirring joy and exploding with devotion, calling upon their diverse musical backgrounds (ranging from Gregorian Chant to punk rock!) to bring down the house.  Or more accurately, bring UP the house?

Spring Chant this year also sees the return of Wah!, Gaura Vani and Donna DeLory — each world-class chant wallahs in their own right who have become Omega mainstays.  Yes, Jai Uttal will be missed — it’s hard to imagine Omega Chant without him.

Nothing left to do but chant, chant, chant…

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