Heart of Devotion Retreat: Discovering the Path to Healing Through the Music of ‘Kirtanwallah’
- Kirtan singer Krishna Das helped us to delve deep into our spiritual practice and create unforgettable experiences that continue to echo within us.
Growing up in a Hindu household in India, I was introduced to the path of chanting in the name of Bhagwan, which is known as the Bhakti yoga path. This tradition has been a part of my family’s routine for generations, and it has played a significant role in shaping my spiritual beliefs and practices.
One of the daily rituals that we followed in my household was listening to morning prayers, which was a big part of our daily lives. Every morning, we would tune in to the radio and listen to Suprabhatham, which is a morning invocation prayer for Lord Sri Venkateshwara Swamy. As we went about our morning chores, the beautiful and melodious chants filled our home, creating a peaceful and serene atmosphere.
Despite moving to Carmel, Indiana, this tradition has continued in my family. Even today, we listen to Suprabhatham in the morning, and it brings back fond memories of my childhood in India. The path of Bhakti yoga has taught me the importance of devotion and surrender to a higher power, and it continues to be an integral part of my spiritual journey.
Life can sometimes present us with unexpected challenges that leave us feeling lost and helpless. During such times, we may turn to our spiritual practices to find comfort and solace. This was precisely the case when one of our close friend’s young adult daughter lost her battle with mental health challenges in March last year. It was a devastating loss that left us all reeling with grief and pain.
As a show of support, five of us immediately went to Dallas to be with our friend during this difficult time. While we were there, we turned to music and yoga as a way to cope with our emotions and find some measure of peace. These spiritual practices helped us to stay grounded and focused, and they provided a much-needed outlet for our grief.
Through this experience, we learned that our spiritual practices can serve as a source of comfort and strength during the darkest moments of our lives. They can help us to find meaning and purpose, even when everything seems lost. And most importantly, they can remind us that we are not alone, and that there is always hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Krishna Das, a highly regarded kirtan singer who has studied under the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba, played a significant role in our healing journey through his music. Following our positive experience with his music, we decided to attend his annual retreat, Heart of Devotion, in upstate New York in the spring of 2023.
The past weekend was nothing short of extraordinary as we embarked on a transformative voyage of discovery. We gathered at the Heart of Devotion Retreat at pristine/serene Garrison Institute, N.Y., under the guidance of the renowned Kirtan wallah, Krishna Das, to delve deep into our spiritual practice and create unforgettable experiences that continue to echo within us.
The retreat’s inaugural evening commenced with a soothing 90-minute yoga session led by Betsy Kase, which helped to relax our minds and prepare us for the main event of the evening: the first of several kirtan sessions by Krishna Das. As K.D. began with three omkaras and launched into his initial kirtan, “Brindavan Hare Ram,” we were transported to another realm for the next two hours. The chanting was an exhilarating experience that was unlike anything we had experienced in a long time.
During the Saturday morning yoga session, Jill Ganasi talked about the four paradigms of yoga philosophy – Karma, Bhakti, Raja, and Jnana Yoga – each providing unique solutions to specific problems that prevent us from attaining liberation.
Karma Yoga (the Path of Action) teaches that selfishness is the problem, and selflessness is the solution. This path is suitable for those who do not believe in any God or form of divinity or fall asleep during meditation. When we serve others without any desire for reward or recognition, it leads to the attainment of bliss.
Bhakti Yoga (the Path of Devotion) teaches that the lack of devotion is the problem, and having faith is the solution. It is the path of God’s realization through spiritual practices.
Raja Yoga (the Path of Meditation) teaches that restlessness of the mind is the problem, and stilling the mind through meditation is the solution. By controlling the flow of thoughts and the influence of thoughts on our behavior and speech, we can achieve stillness, and in this stillness, consciousness emerges.
Jnana Yoga (the Path of Knowledge) teaches that ignorance is the problem, and acquiring knowledge of the true self is the solution. The true self is described as Sat Chit Ananda, or Truth, Consciousness, Bliss, and is not limited to the physical body.
During the mid-mornings, Nina Rao, Shyama, and Devdas led all participants in chanting the Hanuman Chalisa / Mama Mantra. The chanting of these sacred mantras in unison with 165 voices created a soulfully uplifting experience. The jugalbandi of violin played by Genevieve Walker and the cello by Noah Hoffeld added a delightful touch to the experience. The way the strings were played in one of the compositions evoked a poignant feeling as if expressing sorrow and anguish, highlighting the emotive power of music.
Krishna Das also shared insights and stories from his spiritual journey and the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere that encouraged participants to ask questions and share their own experiences.
The retreat’s most exhilarating events were undoubtedly the kirtan sessions led by Krishna Das. His voice had a profound calming effect on participants, with chants and mantras delivered in a rich and sonorous tone that started slowly and gradually built in intensity, creating a mesmerizing and captivating experience.
What sets Krishna Das apart is the emotional intensity and passion he brings to his singing, derived from his personal spiritual journey. He approaches his music with humility and sincerity, enabling him to connect with listeners on a profound level. Participants joined in singing and clapping to traditional Hindu mantras and songs, accompanied by Krishna Das’s harmonium and a talented group of musicians. During the chanting of Radhe Govinda, the energy in the room was so high that it felt like the divine Krishna Bhagwan himself had unleashed thunder and lightning from the skies.
As the chant reached its climax, everyone rose and danced to Krishna Das’s divine voice, creating a strong sense of community and connection. My personal favorites are Baba Hanuman and Saraswati Stotram, which Krishna Das sings in a truly magical way.
Furthermore, after each kirtan session, there was a moment of intentional pause for contemplation, which made the experience even more meaningful and profound.
During the retreat, we had the pleasure of meeting many beautiful souls from all over the world, including Brazil, Iceland, Singapore, and various parts of the USA. The attendees were diverse, but there was a common thread of positive energy and love that permeated the atmosphere. It felt as if Lord Krishna himself was doing the Waltz, and we were all swept up in the joyous energy.
We gathered together to enjoy delicious and healthy vegetarian communal lunches or dinners. These meals not only nourished our bodies but also provided an opportunity for us to connect and share our experiences with one another. It was a time of bonding and strengthening our relationships with each other.
Moreover, we were grateful for the kind gestures of Sonam and Pema, who brought us masala chai every day during our stay. Their thoughtfulness added an extra layer of warmth and comfort to our time together, making the experience even more memorable and enjoyable. Their acts of generosity were a reflection of the spirit of the retreat, where kindness and compassion were at the forefront of everything we did.
The experience was extraordinary and unforgettable, and we left with a greater appreciation for the transformative power of devotion and the practice of kirtan. The experience left us feeling connected to a deeper sense of purpose and meaning, and we look forward to continuing our spiritual journey. Krishna Das’ transcendental voice still echoes in my ears.
J.R. Sandadi is a long-time Carmel, Indiana resident. He migrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s and worked in the IT sector for 25 years before retiring from the corporate world. He volunteers his time with Hindu SwayamSevak Sangh (HSS, USA), and Sewa International USA. Sandadi is also involved with multiple interfaith initiatives across Indiana. He is a founding member of the Indiana Multi-faith Network.