“I don’t know if you know this,” Gaura Vani tells an audience assembled inside a geodesic dome at the recent Wanderlust Yoga and Music Festival at Stratton Mountain, “but the fabric that this dome is made of is a mystical fabric. As soon as you walk in, no matter how you sing outside, inside your singing sounds beautiful. It was developed by NASA.”
Laughter seems to loosen the crowd a bit, so when the 30-something D.C.-based musician begins to play his harmonium (a hand-pumped organ) and sing the opening refrain of an invocation to the Hindu deity Krishna, his chorus readily echoes the line back. Despite its Sanskrit lyrics, the song is simple and repetitive, with each new cycle allowing Gaura Vani to add emotive flourishes, not unlike Christian gospel music. The song builds into an ecstatic lather as electric bassist Purusartha Das adds some James Jamerson-worthy lines and percussionist Jagannath lays into his two-sided mridanga drum. There’s a sweetness left resonating inside the dome when the song finally winds down.
Kirtan is the Sanskrit name for both this genre of Hindu devotional music and the assembly required to perform the call-and-response songs. Conceived by Indian sage and social reformer Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in 15th-century Bengal, kirtan spread to the West during the ’60s and ’70s with the Krishna Consciousness (“Hare Krishna”) movement, and is presently undergoing another renaissance and rebranding as other Vedic practices, like Hatha Yoga (physical poses), have gained meteoric popularity in recent years and a new generation of Krishna devotees come of age. Reconceived as Bhakti Yoga (union through devotion)—perhaps to both distinguish itself from Hatha and the leftover image of Hare Krishnas selling copies of the Bhagavad Gita in airports—kirtan has grown with superstar performers like Krishna Das and Jai Uttal to the (somewhat pejorative) status as “the soundtrack of American yoga,” headlining events like Wanderlust, which has quadrupled in size since its start in 2009.
Younger kirtan “wallas” like Gaura Vani, who was raised by Hare Krishna parents, then find themselves in a curious position, using the elevated exposure and commercialization of yoga culture to spread their practice, while simultaneously defying much of their tradition’s orthodoxy to enact what Gaura Vani dubs the “mantra revolution.”
“In the West we use the word ‘mantra’ to mean a lot of things. Anything that I repeat enough times is called a mantra,” Gaura Vani explains, using the artist Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” project as an example of contemporary mantra. “But mantra comes from man, which means mind or heart or core, essence, and trayate, which is one of the roots for the English word ‘transcend.’ So it’s a sound vibration that we take in and begin to work with, meditate on, that actually brings our core into a state of transcendence.” Traditionally, these transcendent sounds were the many names of Vishnu, “Krishna” being the most iconic, but one way this mantra revolution is breaking from orthodoxy and beginning to trickle into the pop cultural mainstream is by opening the formula to include divine names from across and beyond the Hindu pantheon.
“My hypothesis is that chanting and mantra, especially group chanting—kirtan—is the best way to counteract terrorism and other problems in our world that just don’t seem solvable,” Gaura Vani says, attributing the sentiment originally to Chaitanya, who later inspired Gandhi and a whole tradition of nonviolent revolutionaries. “It’s like ancient Scrubbing Bubbles. Mantra has a unique capacity to cleanse the mirror of the heart. . . . Bhakti is not about social reform. If we can be rooted deeply in divine consciousness, then every interaction we have is like watering the root of the tree instead of just polishing the leaves. The social thing will change when those things change.”
At the center of the kirtan movement/mantra revolution is Mantralogy, a sub-label of Albany-based Equal Vision Records. EVR has become a formidable name in the punk and metal genres, since its founding in 1990 by Youth of Today frontman Ray Cappo. Yet, it still surprises fans of the label’s bigger names, like Say Anything or Bane, to learn of its origins in Krishna Consciousness—almost as much as it surprises fans of contemporary kirtan to learn of Mantralogy’s association with hardcore punk.
“This is the London Calling of yoga albums,” says Kate Reddy of Amrita, by Prajna Veira and Ben Leinbach, one of Mantralogy’s new releases. “There are no bad songs.”
Reddy, who goes by her initiate name Keli Lalita, and her husband Steve (Sachi Sharma), bought EVR from Cappo (now the prominent, Austerlitz-based yoga teacher Raghunath) in 1991 with the goal of supporting a niche scene within hardcore known as “Krishnacore.” After Cappo dissolved his seminal straight-edge band, he and guitarist John Porcelly (Paramananda, who recently opened Govinda Yoga in Chatham) spent considerable time in the Brooklyn Hare Krishna ashram and started Shelter, a band who applied the function of kirtan to the already countercultural drive of hardcore (drug-free, vegetarian, antiestablishment). Along with the Cro-Mags and Reddy’s band 108, Krishnacore aimed to harness and spiritualize the anger expressed through hardcore, and Equal Vision Records strove to make this economically viable.
“When you first get into punk rock, you reject layers and layers and layers of things,” Reddy explains. “The whole hardcore scene used to be about the revolution. We were angry: shaved heads, combat boots. Then [Krishnacore] was like even rejecting within the punk rock scene. I was like, ‘Mom, I’m in the ashram. Just try and get me out.’ ”
As the label gathered steam, the Reddys began to expand the scope to include non-Krishna straight-edge bands and launched MerchNOW, their massive band-merchandise factory on Fuller Road.
“Then it turned into fashion and tattoos,” Reddy laments. “About four or five years ago, my husband and I looked at each other and were like, ‘We’re bending over backwards to serve the people we tried to get away from. We started a record label to not work with these rock and rollers, and that’s all we do now.’” By rock and rollers, she means those who use music in pursuit of sex, drugs and ego, and she was sick of worrying about whether or not her artists were going to make it through customs due to their decadent lifestyles. “A lot of the bands didn’t start out like that, but the fame and the money took them over, and these cool revolutionary people just became rock and rollers,” she says. “I wanted to go back to this essence of really doing the music because we believed in the music.”
And so Mantralogy was born in 2009 with a new commitment to devotional music. Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits were their first act and this marked a curious and lasting intersection of worlds. Second-generation Hare Krishna musicians like Gaura Vani and the Mayapuris suddenly had the infrastructure of a hardcore-forged rock label to work within and collaborate with other artists through, while Mantralogy became the merchandizing arm of established kirtan artists like Jai Uttal, MC Yogi and rising yoga beatsmith DJ Drez.
“We had a model that really was great,” says Reddy of the extensive apparel line Mantralogy has created. A quick glance around crowds at Wanderlust proves that the brand is catching on. “We’re supporting the musicians by selling things that we thought carried the essence of what we’re trying to do. I like to think that when they buy that sweatshirt it’s something a little deeper, that they want to be connected with one of those spiritual personalities, whether its Krishna or Hanuman.” Think of it as the Che Guevara T-shirt for the mantra revolution.
While the abundance of Jewish summer resorts once earned the Catskills the tile “Borscht Belt,” the Hudson Valley on up through Saratoga County has recently been dubbed the “Bhajan Belt” for its rare concentration of kirtan performers and events. Check the calendar at any of the growing number of yoga studios for proof. (Woodstock actually carries distinction as one of the only towns that has more studios than bars.) Don’t expect the standard Woodstock set, though, if you venture out. Thanks to Mantralogy, the new wave of American kirtan has a slightly different face. “It is definitely weird when you walk in there and see these guys with totally tattooed heads and ginormous ear plugs wearing a Krishna Das shirt,” says Reddy. “It’s totally awesome to me.”