Interview with Bhagavan Das
Clayton Horton caught up with Bhagavan Das recently in San Francisco.
Celebrated American bhakti yogi, Bhagavan Das gained worldwide attention and fame from the publication of Be Here Now, the well-known "DIY guide to enlightenment." The book documents Richard Alpert's transformation into Ram Dass through an initial encounter with Bhagavan Das, who ultimately brought him to his guru, Maharaji.
Bhagavan Das has been a primary figure in the spreading of yoga in the West. He has recorded several classic devotional chanting albums. His memoir, It's Here Now, Are You? emphasizes the necessity of personal effort to attain spiritual riches. While on tour in San Francisco, this interview was held in the library of the Yoga Society of San Francisco Brahmananda Ashram, a shrine dedicated to Swami Brahmananda Sarasvati Udanisa.
Bhagavan, can you tell us a little about Bhakti Yoga?
Bhagavan: Bhakti Yoga is the union with God as pure love and devotion. It is completely sharing that love in a space of suchness of reality through the heart, sound, voice and breath. Bhakti Yoga is remembering the divine through chanting the divine name, your whole life. It is turning everything into pure love, letting everything become devotion.
Bhakti Yoga is bowing down at the alter of the sincere tear. It means really feeling that tear and going into the experience of that love. It is really going into the feeling of the feeling which connects us to the heart.
To practice Bhakti yoga, the first step is to turn away from that ongoing mantra that everybody is chanting called "look at me" and turn that to "look at God". When you turn it to "look at God", your attitude is different. You are not drawing energy and attention to yourself. It is not wanting to be seen. It is wanting others to See and loving others completely. So it's like letting yourself listen to be more present with others, rather than drawing energy to yourself and burning out on the ego. The ego trip destroys people, as wee see with our celebrities. Once this attitude is changed to 'look at God,' then all of our energy is directed to that reality. Then everyone we come in contact with, we inspire them to connect with the divine reality.
In your book and workshops, you stress the importance of putting a Face on the Void. Can you explain this process?
Bhagavan: The void is so void and so empty, worshipping God in the impersonal is a very difficult path such as Zen or Advaita Vedanta, the path of Ramana Maharishi, because the path of the impersonal takes a tremendous amount of tapasia (disciplined, strenuous and purifying spiritual practice) to achieve. One must be willing to go into retreat for years on end. Ramana Maharishi sat in a cave for years to really be able to renounce this world and go into that level of sadhana (spiritual practice) to worship the impersonal and really get something out of it spiritually.
The snake is God, traveling across the rock in the sun. When the snake stops moving, that is the formless, the impersonal. That is the stillness of Shiva. And when the snake starts to wiggle and move, that is shakti. That is form.
While we are in form, we love form. We are here in the world. If you put a face on the void, then you are able to worship and find devotion. That's why Krishna and the Divine Mother are ideal for the Bhaktas; because there is a face we can worship. We can see the Mother in the tree and the rock, the mountain, the sunset and in the beauty of the Ganga, right? This type of worship is possible for everyone.
What if we are going down to get a wonderful cup of coffee and we actually worship the cup of coffee as Annapurna? (Goddess of food and sustenance) And if we worship our food as Annapurna and if I carry that attitude in my consciousness, when I eat this food, I will receive that shakti of Annapurna. See what I'm getting at? Rather than, oh, just another piece of toast, just another cup of tea. Follow? Each sip of tea is going to be infused with divine shakti because of my attitude.
We come to an alter in this ashram, these are just an old pair of shoes. Are they really just another pair of shoes? Did God wear these shoes? Did a living Saint wear these shoes? Of course, and when we touch these shoes with devotion and we bow to the guru, its all gurus. Follow? This is all the swamis, saints and gurus in India. We get the full flow of all that energy. This is Ananda Mai Ma, Sri Ma, this is Neem Karoli Baba. Do you get what I'm saying? With form, we are really able to connect deeply. The personal and impersonal are one. They are not separate. This is the key realization.
Can you tell us a little about your guru Neem Karoli Baba?
Bhagavan: Maharaji Neem Karoli Baba was the biggest golden ball of love you'd ever meet in your life. The energy around him was such profound love. There was no mind. It was as if there was "nobody home." There was no mind like a ordinary human being, none. It seemed like he was completely one with God; and that God just shined forth from the pores of his skin and light just poured off around him. Somehow he truly broke through into that reality. He was the living Golden Ram.
You were in India from 1965- 1971. You just tried to return for the first time and immigration did not let you into the country. Was this a bummer?
Bhagavan: No, it was not a bummer, I totally surrendered to it. I had my darshan. I went to the airport and was greeted by the police. They escorted me out of India. No problem, I was very happy. I surrendered and accepted that my work is in America. My work is not in India. I have already been there. I have done it, you know? And the India I lived in, the India without television, cell phones and internet, the portal is closed on that time and space and so I am very happy be back in America and I surrender to my country and my people. I want to be here now to love you guys and be here for you. That's why I am here, not there.
You are in San Francisco for the Bhakti Yoga Sunsplash, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love in which George Harrison chanted Hare Krishna in Golden Gate Park. Are you pleased with how Spirituality in the West is evolving? Is there anything that we are missing?
Bhagavan: Yeah, we're missing more saints. We're missing sadhus and enlightened beings. People need to practice more. We need more sadhana. We need to really get down on it more. We need to really work harder and get off this money and sex trip that is distracting and hypnotizing everyone into a comfortable slumber. People need to step it up and get involved in the world. We really stopped the Vietnam war with activism and involvement. People today are too complacent. We need GOD: Go On Duty. I love America, but I'm shocked at how America has gone. We have been roaring and speeding towards this brick wall and it has really come upon us with the war in Iraq and with the state of the environment. It is time for young people to rise up and take back what is theirs.
You are a devotee of the Divine Mother. What is your take on Green Yoga and the Eco Spiritual movement?
Bhagavan: The Divine Mother is Mother Nature. She is the Goddess of form. Honoring and respecting all of creation is devotion to the Mother. We need to start loving and respecting women more. We need to start playing out our individual part in caring for the environment by being responsible and accountable by recycling and consuming less; but the bigger thing we can do is to see through the nature of our minds. We need to work with our minds and our negative and toxic emotions to purify ourselves. This means looking at ourselves straight on and dealing with our greed, lust, anger, jealousy, ignorance and fear. Go into these energies and transform them. This is the way we can really make a difference. Jai Ma!
To learn more about Bhagavan Das, visit www.bhagavandas.com
Clayton Horton is the director of Green Path Yoga in San Francisco. Clayton@greenpathyoga.org