One month after Shyamdas’ passing, the bhakti community is still reeling from the gash torn in its heart by the loss of the great Sanskrit scholar who had become, in recent years especially, the Western bhakti world’s favorite uncle. From the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad India, where a moment of silence in honor of Shyamdas was observed among the millions gathered for the world’s largest spiritual convergence, to the bhaktified walls of Bhakti Yoga Shala in the heart of SoCal’s fertile kirtan country, to a little healing space over a garage in Montpelier, Vt., near where Shyamdas lived for many years, those who knew and loved Shyamdas have gathered to honor his life and celebrate his lila.
Ananda Ashram, the Yoga Society of New York, offered up its own tribute to its patron saint of satsang on Sunday, Feb. 17. Ananda sits in the heart of New York’s “Bhajan Belt,” near Shyamdas’ home when he was in the U.S. The little community tucked away in a sleepy NY hamlet was “the first place he came” when he returned to the States after his winter in India, said Hari Mulukutla, a long-time friend of Shyamdas who organized the tribute in concert with Ananda’s Jennifer Schmid. (Ananda has more recently come to fame via the Grammy nomination of Krishna Das’ Live Ananda, which was recorded at the ashram in 2007.)
“This was his playground, and we are all his Gopis,” Mulukutla said, referring to the famous lila of Krishna and his devoted dairy maidens who would follow the sound of his flute into the forests of Vrindavan, the divine playground of the Hindu scriptures. Shyamdas chose the Vrindavan region as his home base in India in order to “touch the dust of the dust of the dust that touched the Beloved’s feet,” he once said.
An image of Shyamdas ecstatically singing was the focal point of a high altar at the gathering. An offering of Krishna Devi, Ananda resident and “gypsy kirtan” wallah, it was lit by tealights and nestled with flowers and Indian textiles of the type Shyam-ji often wrapped about his neck or head. It gave the impression throughout the evening that the teacher himself was there, watching over the musicians gathered on stage and singing right along with them.
Susan S. Ryan, Shyamdas’ sister, was presented with a traditional flower garland to place over Shyam-ji’s picture, after which she spoke briefly about her brother and the outpouring of love for him from the bhakti community. “I always knew he was special, but now I’ve learned that he really did have a million best friends,” Ryan said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “And I thought I was his best friend,” she chuckled.
She said growing up with Shyamdas for a brother was full of surprises, because he “was such a rascal.” At the same time, she said, he was ”such a devoted person, devoted to his translations and to his music, but also to his family.” She called him “sometimes mindful, sometimes manic,” but always “clear-headed.”
“He was willing to risk everything to express what he knew to be true,” Shyamdas’ sister said.
The evening proceeded with stories, poetry from Shyamdas’ translations, and of course, kirtan — in a rapid progression of 9 separate bands/artists leading two chants each. Vallabhdas, Shyamdas-ji’s dear friend and devoted student who has collaborated on many of his books, offered up a poignant ode to his teacher and mentor, singing what might be the anthem song of Shyamdas’ life: Beloved. The song, from Shyamdas’ first CD, Beloved Chants, combines Shyam’s original lyrics with a traditional composition written (in the Brajabhasa language) by the 16th century Ashta-Chaap poet-saint Govinda Swami. Vallabhdas described the bard as someone whose “life was full of deep realizations, and his words carry to us the essence of pure devotion.” (Scroll to the bottom for Govinda Swami’s words, plus Shyamdas’ translation and original lyrics for Beloved.)
At the end of the song, Vallabhdas said: “I think Shyamdas found his beloved. We all miss him of course…but we’ll just keep singing the Beloved’s names and following in his footsteps, and we’ll get there…”
Bhajan Belt favorites SRI Kirtan (Sruti Ram & Ishwari) took the stage next, singing two of their favorites from their many sails on the Bhajan Boats with Shyamdas. Sruti Ram told a humorous story about long road trips with his bhakti brother (“driving to Vermont for coffee”) and seeking his friend’s counsel about a difficult interpersonal situation (Shyam’s advice: “Delete.”), then launched into a rousing Sri Ram Jai Ram. Ishwari took over the lead to deliver her now-classic Jai-Jagatambe Ma Durga chant — punctuated with her earth-shaking take on Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet.”
To close it out, Hari Mulukutla sang Sharanam, a hymn of auspiciousness from the Upanashids (Hindu scriptures) that Shyamdas often sang when closing his programs. The evening ended with a recording of one of Shyam-ji’s followers — a Western woman named Nicole — singing a Holi devotional song to Shyamdas for the first time. It was a sweet, simple reminder of the many lives he touched during his presence in this world and how his influence continues still.
“Hundreds of years in the future, they will still be talking about Shyamdas,” Mulukutla said. “And it will be very hard to describe him.”
Shyamdas, we imagine, would have chuckled.
The full roster of musicians included:
Krishna Devi, who started it off with Radhe (what better for a Shyamdas tribute?) and Krishna, warming up our response with her “gypsy kirtan.”
The Rev. Kim Lesley, who, joined by Jennifer Schmid and Renee on vocals, kept the Maha Mantra flowing.
Arundhati read a poignant remembrance sharing “the ultimate lesson” Shyamdas taught her — “Take shelter of Krishna” — then sang a beautiful Arati followed by a Govinda/Hare Krishna medley.
Prema of the Woodstock sangha sang and played on her tanpura one of the hundreds (thousands?) of ancient love poems that were brought to light by Shyamdas: “Lift up the veil and meet your Beloved.”
Ned Leavitt aka Jambavan sang Sri Krishna Sharanam Mama — “Sri Krishna is my refuge” — a song much beloved by Shyamdas that he sang often. Shyam-ji’s partner Ally Gopi was softly singing it in the car as they were raced to the hospital in India just before his physical death, she wrote in a poignant memoir for the spiritual journal Nama Rupa.
Naren Budhkar, who often played tabla for Shyamdas, read another of Shyam-Ji’s translated love poems to the Divine, then joined John McDowell for a drum call-and-response. McDowell, who co-produced Shyamdas’ first CD and has played with him for many years, called Shyam a “musician’s musician” who “understood that rhythm was one of the ways to keep the bhav going.”
Supporting the music all evening were Sundar Das on flute and Avinash, Tommy Be and John McDowell on percussion.
Sri Krishna Sharanam Mama
Without love for the Beloved,
Even if you have good looks and virtues,