Omega’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.
This 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.
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: