Home / Articles / #5 October 2012 / Interview with Jai Uttal. "We have to live through our Karma"

Interview with Jai Uttal. "We have to live through our Karma"

"We have to live through our Karma"

Interview with Jai Uttal

Questions: Oleg Flow, Ilya Zhuravlev

You sing Bhagans and this is a kind of Bhakti yoga, expressed in music. Why do you think western people are interested in Indian tradition of Bhakti yoga? What are they looking for?


Oh, let me put it this way. The interest in Eastern traditions for some us can be a fad, like the yoga fad. But on another level, I think, people are interested in Bhakti, because people’s hearts and people’s emotions need an expression, and they need connection with the spirit. For many of us it’s not an easy world to live in. And, you know, we try yoga, we try meditation, we try this or that. It is hard to really use those practices to let our inner world connect and expand into spirit, you know, into God. Some Indian practices of Bhakti, namely singing Kirtan, are so easy in their accessibility and the way they allow us to open our hearts and let us express and widen our feelings, connect with spirit, connect with God. So many people are longing to have an expansive heart experience and to connect with something bigger and greater, bigger than themselves. And Bhakti yoga, particularly Kirtan - it’s very easy. I don’t know about Russia, but in the West we are conditioned to think if something is easy, that means it’s not that valuable. I think that ancient yogis who have given to us all these practices that we are taking into our lives – it was not about easier or about hard, it was about what can we give to the world, to humanity, that will allow them to connect with God. And from this point of view the easier – the better!

How have you got interested for the first time in the Eastern culture, spirituality? What is the story of your first time going to India, you first impressions? Did you have a Guru at that time and what did you learn from him?


Oh it’s fine, it’s like twenty questions in one. Hold on, let me have a sip of my tea. Well, I’m sixty years old now. And I first was exposed to and then became extremely passionate and interested in Eastern spirituality when I was about fifteen or something. It was the 60s, I was a hippie, I was following the Beatles. You know, in part it was cultural, that there was a wave of Eastern mysticism, Eastern spirituality coming through our country and our culture, so it was not so outrageous to become involved in Eastern spirituality. However, it has stuck with me. I began practicing meditation very intensively, I began doing hatha yoga, and I began singing kirtan. It was before I ever went to India and, you know, I can only say, that I consider myself really lucky. It has to be due a past life, otherwise where would it come from?

In high school I even had a substitute teacher - if your teacher is sick, substitute teachers would come in for a day and usually they are very poorly received, right? But I remember very clearly - in the fifth grade the substitute teacher coming in, and it was a regular public school, alternative teacher coming in and teaching us Zen meditation. How did that happen?! But it really-really touched me.

So, I started learning yoga and going to various teachers, and I got involved in this yoga school which taught kind of a wide range of yoga, everything from asana to kirtan. And I also have to say that I would follow the Haare Krishna people in the street, I never had a desire to join them, but I was loving their kirtan and it was really toughing me. And it was a brand new in New York at that time. I was getting deeply attracted to Indian music, Indian classical music. There are so much kinds of Indian music that we know now, but then back in the sixties in New York there was not that much. But it could be found on the records and it would sound like “Wow, I love that”! Because I was always a musician since I was a little kid. I went to college, studying organ. And the evening before my first class in college my teacher Ali Akbar Khan, well he was not my teacher yet, gave a concert there and I was so moved, that very shortly after I dropped out of school and came down to California to study Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan.

Then I was getting more into the yoga thing and I went to India to see the man, who I was thinking could become my Guru. And it turn out that he wasn’t, but it’s a long story that would bore us now. So I met the man who is my Guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Now, we think of coincidences in life and of course everything appears to be a coincidence in life, and, I think, it is supposed to appear to be that way. But we also know that there are no coincidences, and there are no accidents. And I met this man, we called him Maharaji, he is the same Guru of Ramdas, Krishnadas, Bhagavandas and many other people who are a little bit well known here in the West. Slowly my awareness of my relationship with Maharaji developed till I realized that he was my protector and my savior for my lifetime after lifetime, after lifetime...

I said “my awareness”, because, you know, those kind of things, relationship with a Guru and what a Guru truly is – we cannot know it with our minds, but we get glimmers of awareness and then we develop our belief system around our tiny glimmers of awareness.

And what did you learn from him?


Well, Maharaji was not a teacher in a common sense - he never gave lectures, discourses and the stuff like that. But I would say that he planted within us this seed of devotion, and his belief in Guru’s grace and in God’s grace, and his longing for spirit, and his understanding... He gave us the simple techniques of watering the seed of devotion: such as Jappa, mantra, and singing and praying. And, you know, Maharaji did not encourage meditation, or asana practice. Of course, he allowed everybody do just whatever. Well, it seems like he allowed each person’s life to continue in it's own pace. Because we have to live out our karma, and yet he protected us and protects us at every corner, but meanwhile, planting the seeds of devotion. And that’s why I think, that many of the well known kirtan singers and practitioners, who are going around the world and singing kirtan and spreading the amazing transformative power are disciples of Maharaji. And, you know, you can get five people in a room together, they are all devotees of Nimfoli Baba, and each of these people would argue about what his teachings are. But we will all agree, that we feel reliant upon his grace, dependent upon his grace, that our life revolves around his grace.

Now you are a famous kirtan singer. How did you record your first album with mantras? Did you think your music or this kind of music would be famous, in the future?


No, I had no idea that this kind of music was going to become popular when I recorded my first album. Well, sometimes it was made by a record company and they asked me if I would like to do something. As I‘ve said before, I’ve always been a musician, and I was so passionate about the music, I grew up in a very musical family that my father was in a music business. Anyway, gradually, the combination of Eastern and Western music became extremely natural for me because I had all the Western music in my upbringing and then I was studying Indian music so much, and then going to India. So, I was experimenting with combining this stuff and I think it was 1990, when I got some equipment at my home: computer, sequencing, recording equipment, - it was very simple, and I started putting stuff together, and I showed it to my friends, and we put it out, as album “Footprints”. And I had no idea that it was going to become popular, also I didn’t have any expectation, I really did not think it would be like this, it was more like a passion. Here I was exploring, creating, and it was my passion, and here it is – that’s what I made. We put it out just for the fun of it. Now, the first album, it didn’t have that much singing on it, because I was very shy about singing. And, of course, all of the singing was mantra. And the music, even the instrumental music, it was what I would consider spiritual music, and it was combination of, you know, Indian and Western music. So now, it is amazing to me, how popular it became, and they view it as a God, and that’s really cool.

And now, up to the date of today, the records have never translated into financial success, but it certainly has stimulated the wave around the world. I guess, it’s like the Beatles did, but then it disappeared, and then we've brought it back in. Well, bringing the awareness to the beauty and the depth of the Indian music, and then going to the next level, to the depth of Indian spirituality and devotion, from which this music springs. Because every bit of Indian music originally comes from a spiritual platform. You know, the music itself, in a lot of ways, it’s lost, it is lost now. But, originally in the tradition, in the history the music was completely devotional, completely aligned with Bhakti yoga, with Nada yoga, with meditation. Today we are starting to re-discover that. My teacher, Ali Akbar Khan, always emphasized that. No, he was not into kirtan, he was into pure classical music, but the bottom line of his teaching was that this is spiritual practice. So, what an amazing surprise, what a beautiful surprise, to see this kind of music coming into the mainstream. I wouldn’t say that I feel that everyone involved and excited by kirtan, I wouldn’t say that everyone is going to come to the deeper levels, but that’s ok, you know, that’s normal, everyone experiences life and experiences spirituality In a different way. But just the fact that the God's name is being sung, and not just in the US, but all over the world - it’s amazing! I feel that it is a kind of transcendent medicine.

They say you played with Bengaly bauls. Tell about yur experience with them. They say they are crazy people, and smoke too much caras, hashish. It looks like they have nothing to lose. If they are hobos, they only have Bhakti. Do you think it is possible for western singer of bhadjans, who didn’t grow in Indian culture, to achieve the same ecstasy in singing ?


I have come across bowl music, some records. And the music on this record was really amazing, and it ripped my heart apart, it was so beautiful, so soulful! An so mystical! So, some years later, around 1974, me and my friend decided to seek out the bowels and to find them and to see what they were like, to see if we could learn from them. So we went to West Bengal, about three hours west of Calcutta, which supposed to be the centre of bowls, you know the sect of bowls. And we went and we searched and we found some bowls. And we studied from them and we learned with them… The music itself is very beautiful, it is folk music – it is different from the classical music, and the poetry is very shrewd with double meaning and with triple meaning, it’s very devotional as very mystical and they also have their tantric tradition as well. The bowl or the bengalian mystics basically flowed away all trappings of religion and created their own ecstatic path towards oneness. They say than God, the Krishna, the Soul lives within the human, and their journey is to find the true being inside their own heart. And just like any other movement, any other religion, any other sect, like any other lineage, there are many many different kinds of people. Some of them are beautiful! Amazing! Deeply loving, compassionate, warmhearted, spiritual people feel with longing and their music and singing express their longing. Some of them smoke caras, hashish and some of them don’t. Some of them are hoboes and some of them are not. Non of them are rich, that’s for sure! But many of they are family people.

My baul teacher, his name was Badyanath Baul. They didn’t have children yet, but they were going to. They had a small little house on a small little private land and no, he would not call himself a hobo. He was totally devoted to the Baul-way, to the baul-path. He was totally devoted to singing this spiritual songs and of course he was looking some way to get money from singing these songs, because it’s Kali Uga, we need to support ourselves. But he wasn’t a hobo. Sometimes in West we think someone who's path is a bagging bawl – is a hobo, with a negative connotation. But in the East, in India the Sadhu - who are bagging for food and for money – is highly respectable and honorable tradition! My teacher was so beautiful! It is not to say he didn’t have any ambition, what’s wrong with the ambition? What’s wrong – is dishonesty, and hypocrisy. And I didn’t find it in him, and he was so great, that was one of the best parts of my life! And I learned from the bowls, musically. I’m not so influenced by him now, but for some years the music that I learned from him was like permeating into most everything I did. And the way of expressing extreme spiritual longing in song - that’s a big part of my life, my music, my expression.

Can a westerner, not Indian, experience such kind of ecstasy? May be without any substances?


Without substances… I don’t know, I don't find it’s easy to understand another person’s ecstasy with or without substances. How many times people would say to me:”Jai, you look so ecstatic when you are singing! And I didn’t feel that way. I feel like I was in a practice in a process in a prayer, but it wasn’t feeling of ecstasy. I don’t take drugs. In past I had. I feel that my deep heart felt connection to the kirtan and to the music that I’m singing. It is much deeper now, I feel now it’s more real. But first of all I don’t think that ecstasy is a goal. Ecstasy is not my goal, but it might be someone else’s goal, so why am I supposed to say about that. But for me singing kirtan – I want deeper and deeper sense of connection to God, I want somehow to find a deeper level of selflessness and service to human. Most of us are selfish in America, self centered. And I would like to do my practice to become less self centered. I now have a baby, who helped me in that, but I have a long way to go, and I want my heart to be much much more connected with spirit with divine. I don’t care about ecstasy, sometimes I feel really high when I sing, that’s nice but it’s not my goal. Samadhi is not my goal. So, in that sense I can’t really answer. I feel surrender and trust and faith in God which I wish I had more. But I feel that it’s opposite to using substances, cause when you use a substance it’s like you are not having faith in God, you are having more faith in a substance to give you an experience. But there again that’s my judgment. And I know there are lot of Sadhus in India that smoke charas, it is a part of their spiritual journey, but it is obviously not mine. But I don’t feel that I’m in the position to judge them, so I won’t.

The next question is, if it's possible to speak about such phenomena as Californian Hinduism or American Hinduism? Why western people not having roots in Indian culture somehow start singing mantras and start loving Indian deities?


Well… I don’t have much to say about that. I know about myself. I don’t consider myself a Hindu. I consider myself a human on the journey to spiritual way kidding, emotional way kidding, physical way kidding, mental way kidding. On the journey to become closer to my Guru, to become closer to God, on the journey of learning, how to live my life in that way and to share that. I don’t call myself a Hindu, I don’t call myself anything, except human, straggling human. So I really can’t comment.

Who is your Ishtadevata or your Deity? What mantra do you sing or read for yourself in the moment of spiritual enlightenment?


Well the mantra process is a little personal. My path has always been a little eccentric. So many people say you need to have one Ishtadevata and that’s it. For me it is not exactly like that. I guess, if I could say Ishtadevata, I have to say my Guru is my Ishtadevata. Now he is very closely identified with Hanuman. So in a sense, when I worshiping Hanuman, I’m worshiping my Guru, when I worshiping Guru, I’m worshiping my Hanuman. So I do a lot of prayers and Japa and thought towards Hanuman. However, at the same time, when I’m singing I feel that my calling to Krishna and Radha is very strong, and the kirtan that I do is very much to Radha and Krishna. So I don’t know.

Have you been to sacred places of American Indians? What do you feel about their culture? May be the energy of the place influence people and they start being interested in spirituality?


You know I read about the native American culture, and it seemed so profound. And then it was such a tragedy that it was wiped out by the European settlers. And I am, as a descendent of a European settler, I feel shame for that. And at the same time I can’t say that I ever really being deepened into this spiritual culture or felt that much residence in my own heart. I feel that I come from a different world in a way. So again I can’t say that much about it, except that it was clearly a deep and beautiful and divine spiritual culture and it was wiped out, not completely, but 95% wiped out by the European settlers. It is another unbelievable tragedy of the human incarnation.

Do you practice any other style of yoga besides mantra yoga?


Eah, I do vinyasa and hatha yoga, but I’m very inconsistent and uncommitted. My wife is a yoga teacher, beautiful wonderful yoga teacher. So she gets me on a mat. I try to practice at least ones a week, I know I should practice more, but I don’t. But yes, I do practice some asanas.

What exotic musical instruments do you use?


Well in my kirtan I use harmonium, quite a beat, which is little pump organ from India. Originally harmonium came from Europe, but it was drastically reinvented in India. It is very popular in India for Devotional music, so I play it all the time. I played, I studied sarod (traditional Indian strings instrument) with Ali Akbar Khan for many years. And I often play on the recordings on sarod, and I play a bunch of Indian percussion, not classical percussion but a folk music staff. That’s about it. I would say one of the instruments I play a lot is banjo, and banjo is not an Indian instrument, but I play it in a very eastern style I would say. And I play guitar and I sing. And I work on the computer and there are bizarre sound manipulations you can do on the computer, it sounds kind of exotic. That’s it.

What musical styles and artists Indian and western inspire you?


Well, in different periods I got inspired, and enjoyed and got obsessed with different music. These days I listen a lot of Brazilian music, some very traditional Brazilian music and some pop music. And I’m studying Brazilian music, guitar with this amazing musician Brazilian guy. So that I can find so inspiring so great. I listen to tradition Indian kirtan a lot. I don’t listen too much to western style kirtan. I love the Beatles and I always go back to the Beatles. I love Bob Dylan and I always go back to Bob Dylan. And I also listen a lot what we call all time music, to very old fashioned country music. And I listen to some reggae, I like some reggae very much.

What project do you work on now? Are you looking for new texts, mantras, bhajans?


Well, I’m not working on any project now. In a sense of project that I am working now are my lessons with my Brazilian teacher. I’m practicing a lot, trying to understand Brazilian music, the harmony, the melody then the rhythm, some of the rhythms are very difficult for my own mind. Even Indian rhythms can be so easily complex, they are just different then the Brazilian rhythms.

I recorded three albums last year. First one was “Bhakti bazaar”, second one was “Queen of hearts” and third one was “Kirtan kids”. Three very very different albums. “Bhakti bazaar” very meditative music, “Queen of hearts” is reggae, and samba and SKA kirtan. And “Kirtan kids” is a kids album, spiritual music for kids. So right now I’m actually very happy not to be on a project.

The texts, am I looking for new texts? It’s funny for myself – no I’m not. I couldn’t be more continuously satisfied with singing the same kirtans, same bhadjans, same mantras that I’ve been singing for 45 years. You know, with mantras that I sing – you can sing them for 45 life times not just 45 years. You can keep singing them for 450 life times, they are in themselves the goal and the journey and the path. I’m not bored with them at all. Sometimes I wonder if my listening audience is? And then I think, oh my God! May be I should think when we chant or finally rechant. But right now I’m not thinking about that. Right now I want to go deeper spiritually in the chants that I know, I would say that the range of kirtans that I’m singing is getting narrower rather then expanding. These days I go for the kirtan, leading kirtan for may be one hour, sing “Sita Ram, Sita Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram” and for the second I sing “Rade Rade Rade shyam, Rade Govinda”. So, my audience might be getting bored with me, it’s possible, I don’t know, I have to ask them. But in terms of my own self – no I’m not looking for more new kirtans. I’m always looking for new directions in music, for new emotional, spiritual doors that open through the music. But the mantras are very basic with my approach to the mantras. I feel that even the one word “Ram” this “Ram Ram Ram”. If I had only one word to say for the rest of my life, I would be quite satisfied with “Ram”.

Jai Uttal's site: www.jaiuttal.com