As an author, musician, educator and religious seeker, Bhagavan Das has devoted the greater prt of his life to God, enlightenment, and good times. At 19, when he was still called Michael Riggs, the Laguna Beach, California, native began a seven-year spiritual journey through India and Nepal. He learned from mystics, spent weeks fasting in caves, and traveled for months wearing only a loincloth and carrying a begging bowl made from a human skull. In 1970, Bhagavan Das introduced former Harvard professor Richard Alpert to his friend and guru Neem Karoli Baba. The meeting transformed the already unorthodox academic into the famous spiritualist Ram Dass. In fact, the sage’s first book,Be Here Now, took its title from one of Bhagavan Das’s mantras, and its success propelled him into the spotlight, where he became a rock star for the spiritual set. He toured with Allen Ginsberg, recorded a chanting album, AH (Dharmaware), and lived in lavish mansions lent by wealthy admirers.
In the past decade, the 6’5” dreadlocked guru has focused his substantian energies performing kirtans – evenings of call-and-response chanting – and leading spiritual workshops. In 2002, he released the album Now(Karuna), a collaboration with the Beastie Boys’ Mike D. Though Baba, as he’s affectionately known, is an inspirational spiritual figure, his path to enlightenment was hardly free of vice. As recounted in his memoir, 1998’s It’s Here Now (Are You?) (Random House), his search for God led him to explore Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, Navajo peyote rituals, and even born-again Christianity, but he also romanced groupies, married three times and partied excessively, which led to a stint in A.A.
“He doesn’t put himself on some spiritual pedestal, and that’s why I look up to him,” says Uma Saraswati, a Jivamukti yoga teacher who was married to Bhagavan Das for four years in the late ‘90s. “That real honest quality is something very hard to find in high people like him, because they like to do everything that’s un-yogic behind closed doors.”
TONY took the A Train to Bhagavan Das’s current gigs in Inwood, where he discussed the spiritual path and his upcoming roster of kirtans and a puja workshop over green tea.
I understand that you’re planning to make New York your home base. Do you feel that New York is evolving as a spiritual center?
Absolutely. This is the center of samsara – the realm of birth and death. Money is everything, sex is where it’s at, who kills the most wins. And this kind of gross consciousness is a wonderful fertile ground for real spiritual growth; it’s a very rich ground of negativity.
One of my yoga teachers said that we are in the Kali Yuga, the Age of Kali, a time of great change and rebirth. She even said September 11th was connected to this.
We’re in very dangerous times, even on a physical plane. We’re living in a time of great darkness, spiritually. The quality goes down and down as Kali Yuga progresses and this time of materialism reaches its zenith. The Kali Yuga is the dharma-ending age, when the blackness has come so deeply upon us that it just starts accelerating until the whole thing is destroyed. And it grinds you down to a point of excellence in your own being…So the audience is very receptive, because it’s really hard here. When people come to see me, they’re gonna really connect with me, they’re gonna really chant, and it’s going to change their lives, because they’re open to it.
For someone who senses this darkness and wants to embark on the spiritual path, what’s the best way to get started?
I don’t think it’s specifically a way. Any way will take you there, if you have great devotion to that way. So the key here is real intention and the deepest level of commitment. Because like everything in life in the material world, you only become an adept at something that you wholeheartedly give your attention to.
Do you identify with a particular religion? Obviously Hinduism, but you’ve also studied Tibetan Buddhism and you were a born-again Christian.
I identify with love, I identify with attention, with consciousness, with awareness. There’s only one religion, and that’s compassion. I love Hinduism, I love Buddhism, I love Jesus, I have a lot of connections. I think on a retail level Buddhism is probably the best bet for most people because it’s not a religion, it’s a science. Science is good, because people don’t have to believe anything. You sit still for half an hour and you will experience something. You will go through deep anxiety, you will have to face your boredom.
Yet you say that the nature of the true self is bliss.
But you see, you have to discover that. It’s not a concept. It’s like, back off from the drama and just be still. Get up early in the morning and sit for fifteen minutes, just look at what we think is real. Where is our self? Who is our self? My self changes all the time, I don’t know who I am. We just flow into whatever the thing is. I mean, what do you identify with? The yoga thing is good, we all need something to keep us in a satsang, an association of likeminded souls. So we go to the center and do yoga and hang out with people who are working on themselves. You take on a deeper level of looking at things.
So is it satsang that people who come to your kirtans are looking for?
Yeah, absolutely, ‘cause when we’re all together in a room like that and we’re all chanting and we’re all breathing together it’s like we become this huge deity of breath and now we have a thousand arms and legs and a thousand heads and everyone’s in the same breath. It starts one place and we take it to the next place. It doesn’t make any difference what your trip is. The point is to get in.
Could you talk a bit about the tradition of kirtan?
Kirtan is a form of invoking a mantra or the name of a deity, over and over again so that it takes you out of the conceptual mind and you fall back into pure awareness and pure sound. And then that invocation and that praise brings about an experience of connecting with your inner being.
In India, would this take place in temples or in the home? Was it always a sacred act or is it part of daily life?
It’s part of daily life. People don’t go to temples at all in India. Everyone worships in their home. Temple’s a place you can go and crack a coconut and leave some flowers, it’s a place that reminds you. You pass by a temple and you think of the divine. Go to India, and see the consciousness of day-to-day life, see how it works. People are tuned in at a whole different level.
You’ve made this album Now with Mike D. from the Beastie Boys, which places traditional Hindu chants within a modern setting of blues, gospel, beats and samples. How did that come about?
I met Mike D. in New York at the Jivamukti Yoga Center. He’s a great yogi; he does yoga like four hours a day. He does puja [ritual worship], he chants, he’s in it. He’d read my book, flipped out, wanted to meet me, and he came to my workshop on Nada Yoga [yoga of sound]. And then the record happened…I recorded everything in an empty room, sitting with my guru’s picture and a candle, and then after I laid down all the basic tracks Mike D. put everything around it and turned it into what it is. It was a full collaboration. You like it?
It’s great, I love it.
Yeah, it works. The thing is, the only way to a real mystical connection is to really find it where you’re at. This is my job, I’m like a harbinger of that energy to this culture. Without someone in this culture who speaks Americanese, who is in an American body, people aren’t gonna get it. Otherwise it’s just a foreign thing, it’s an interesting exotic restaurant to go eat in.
What do you think is the most common misconception people have about you?
People probably just dismiss me as crazy because I seem so eccentric and outspoken. I don’t know exactly, I can’t pinpoint that one thing. The gossip: What do they say? They all say different things at different times. At least they’re talking about me.
No publicity is bad publicity?
[laughs] Yeah, exactly.