Interview: Gauravani of Mantralogy

Interview by Gurunistha dasa

Mantralogy is a New York-based collective owned by Saci-suta, Keli-lalita, Gauravani, and Rasa-acharya. They strive to stimulate the kirtana scene by promoting the bhakti lifestyle alongside their professionally produced albums and their clothing line. They are probably best-known for their releases of Gauravani and As Kindred Spirits’ Ten Million Moons and The Mayapuris Mridanga, but that’s only a small part of what they have come out with and many new releases are on their way.

I got intrigued by their approach to sharing the teachings and lifestyle of bhakti because it brings out so clearly the never-ending tension between conserving and renewing, caution and risk-taking, dynamism and stagnation. This tension seems to be especially heightened in relation to ancient spiritual traditions that have to answer to the challenges of the constantly changing  modern times: how to re-present the basic elements of the path to better affect people’s lives without re-presenting one off the path altogether? Often the line between renegade and reformer is a fine one. Here I offered Gauravani and Mantralogy a chance to draw the lines themselves instead of having others do it for them.

Gurunistha dasa: What was the reason for forming Mantralogy and what is your mission statement? What are you trying to accomplish?

Gauravani: In a very simple way, Mantralogy is meant to support and grow the subculture surrounding mantra music, sacred music. Saci-suta and Keli-lalita had started Equal Vision Records originally as a Krishna Core record label doing hardcore music. That was primarily devotees teaching bhakti through punk rock music. Over time their record label has become more mainstream, but their passion for bhakti and for music that transmits bhakti and shares bhakti in a relevant way has not changed. And so when we all met we had the opportunity to talk about some more ideas and the idea came up to do this creative company that was built around the idea of creating, sustaining, and supporting the subculture of mantra music.

Gurunistha: It says on your website that you “seek to combine the edgy punk rock attitude with the ancient uplifting philosophies and culture of conscious living and music.” How do you harmonize the two seemingly opposing influences? What is similar about punk rock and kirtana?

Gauravani: Actually they are extremely similar, because they both have an element of revolution. And the ultimate revolution was the revolution that was brought into the streets of India 500 years ago by Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the revolution of consciousness, the first statement of which was that “I am not this body.” It is so revolutionary. Because so many great people throughout time have created revolutions with a simple idea, like we are all equal in the eyes of God, or that race should not separate the rights of an individual, but an even more revolutionary statement is that not only is there no difference between black and white, but you are actually not even that body. That body is just a vehicle, an experience for your soul. That is an even greater revolutionary statement. So art, music, poetry has always been the backbone of revolution. Right now the world is experiencing a revolution: in the way we eat, people are eating organic food, food grown locally; in the way we dress, organic cotton, sustainable fabrics; our politics, we are trying to be more kind; energy policy, moving away from things like nuclear energy to more sustainable kinds of energy like wind, solar . . . Even the way we worship. We are trying not to just be spiritualists in a church or in a temple but to be spiritual in our lives, in the way we deal with our children, the way we deal with our spouses, our community; it’s a revolution. I mean, that’s what the 60s were all about, a convergence of all these seemingly disparate influences, country music and folk music, gospel and blues, philosophy and youth energy and politics, it was all coming together around this idea of a revolution of equality. But this revolution is even more important than the revolution of the 60s because this is a revolution of consciousness. This revolution that we are all experiencing now is going to come together like a real tsunami of consciousness.

Gurunistha: So you believe it’s actually going to be a worldwide movement?

Gauravani: It’s already happening. The only thing is that people like us, revolutionaries like us, need to see and facilitate the connections. Someone asked me at Yoga Journal about mantra music and how I define it and I said, “I consider Christian rock a form of mantra music.” Because what is Christian rock? Young people they want to worship Christ in a way that they can understand. They don’t want to be living in their parents’ or some ancient version of Christianity; they want relevant Christianity. So it is all the same, whether it’s kirtana from India, or whether it’s Christian rock, or it’s gospel music, or native traditions it is all the same. It’s a revolution in making spirituality real and relevant, right here, right now.

Has it become the mainstream? No. Okay, but arguably, this world is a place where people are facilitating their own desires, so it will always be a place where anything that is against that is an outsider philosophy, against the norm. So I agree with that, I suppose, but that is not our mood at Mantralogy. Our mood is, just like within 18 days the Pandavas had completely destroyed all the demonic forces and the whole world was handed to them, and said: here you go, now do something wonderful with it, so our mission is, tomorrow morning everything is going to change, it’s all right around the corner, its coming. (laughter) And if we live our whole lives like that and ultimately we look across the room at each other and we are old guys playing our drums and singing our songs, that’s okay too. But at least it will be a revolution of consciousness. Even if it doesn’t manifest externally, the most important thing is that we are able to really make it manifest inside our hearts.

Gurunistha: Mantralogy has been the trailblazer of making Gaudiya kirtana more appealing and marketable to the masses. And it seems like you’ve been really successful in making it available for non-devotees and devotees alike. But apparently some devotees have felt that it’s too commercial. I was interested to hear what their accusations were and how you deal with that kind of a thing?

Gauravani: How do you answer a question like this? (laughter) Here is what it comes down to: there are often two extremes to any idea, that is the way of the world that; that is the way of the accepting and rejecting of the mind. There is one side and there is another side. So people like me and most of the crew at Mantralogy, our idea is to be in the mood of the munificence of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, which is that the fruits grow and they fall and if people take them they take them, you do what you can. You’re not worried about the problems but more trying to make the opportunity available.

I guess there are so many things that people could criticize about what we do. They could say that we are all allowing for there to be money in exchange for kirtana. They could say that we are chanting with people who are not pure. We are supporting and encouraging people who don’t have a strong spiritual practice, or they could say that someone like me, I’m a musician, what qualification do I have to chant the holy name? I have no taste, I have no deep understanding, I have no experience. I just have a little bit of love for other musicians and chanters, I like doing it, and I like to share it with people. So there are a lot of things to criticize and I’ve come to the conclusion that probably many of the criticisms are true. So that’s not the problem, the problem is not that they are not true. The problem is, what do you do with these things that people have highlighted?

My sense is that each of us, according to our nature, has some service to render in the world, and that rather than looking at our difficulties, looking at things that we don’t like with each other, what we should try and do is choose those few things that we really appreciate about each other and fan the flames. I’ve had criticism from some people who don’t know me; I’ve had criticism from some very close friends. But I’ve also had encouragement from both of those groups. To be very honest with you, it took me this last year through a dark time, where I was really questioning everything, questioning myself, questioning what I was doing, and questioning if I was creating some offense or difficulty for other bhaktas. And by the Lord’s sweet grace I have come through that. And now I’m not questioning so much because in the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna says how it ‘s better you do your duty improperly than you do some one else’s perfectly.

I’m sure I will learn, I am sure all of us at Mantralogy will look back 10 years, 15 years from now and say, “Boy, if we’d only known we would have done so many things differently!” But now we are just excited, we are happy to be doing this. We are grateful and we are moving forward.

Gurunistha: There seems to be a strong need for unity and non-sectarianism among the younger devotee crowd and they really seem to respond well to what you guys are doing. But it seems like a lot of them have this idea that the solution to the controversies and differences among the devotee community is to emphasize kirtana and de-emphasize philosophy. Because there’s a lot of room for differences and fights in philosophy and debate. What do you see as the solution to the problems within the Gaudiya community.

Gauravani: I would answer this question differently depending on who I am speaking to. The culture of the Vedas is a culture of respect, so even great sages who would disagree with each other would first hear each other out completely, and would do that in a cycle endlessly until some resolution was achieved. One would hear the other one out completely and then ask, “Have you finished? Okay, now let me address it.” Then the next sage would address, address, address and then ask, “Have you finished?” “I’ve said everything.” “Okay, now my turn”. They would go back and forth like this. If there is no resolution then lets break as friends and next time we come together we will again begin a discussion from this place. That letter that I just read I think addresses a little bit of the mood that sometimes in our eagerness and enthusiasm to do something we forget that the point is the people you are involved with. The point is, it’s supposed to be a practical opportunity to apply and learn the spiritual principles. If we get so caught up in the thing that we forget to build up the relationships then we’ve made the mistake.

And I think for our Vaishnava community, and frankly for the world–I really don’t see a difference between the two, which is an answer to the previous question–the fighting that goes on in the world, the fighting that goes on in all the different communities or families or relationships comes down to this idea that sometimes when someone disagrees with us we feel like it is our job to shame them. We do it in our politics; we do it in our interpersonal relationships. Disagreement can result in separation, but it shouldn’t necessarily result in shaming. Neither party should be shamed. There should be a sense of worthiness, that even though we disagree I respect you and I value your perspective and I give you encouragement and respect, even though I disagree. I think we in ourselves need to start by trying to cultivate a sense of worthiness, that we are children of God, that we are Krishna’s loved and cherished people. He loves us and he has seen us do things that we can not even imagine: terrible things, but still he loves us. So we should say okay I get it I am worthy. I need to act in a way that shows that I am worthy of God’s love. That is the key thing. We need to move away from this culture of shaming one another. If someone shows a weakness, vulnerability actually it is a great opportunity to express love and encouragement.

Gurunistha: Do you feel like there is more of trying to shame other people in religious circles? It seems like that sometimes.

Gauravani: It’s a good question. I think it can be seen like that. I don’t think so, but I think because religious organizations tend to have a shared set of rules and scriptures, that it’s easier to checklist whether someone is on or off. So it seems like there is more of a culture there. But I think people will find ways to shame each other. (laughter) Politics is full of it, there is so much mud slinging, it is just one person trying to shame the other guy so much that people won’t vote for him. It comes from the same place that terrorism comes from: deep fear, deep anger, and deep shame. That is why kirtana is the only thing that can defeat terrorism. Because kirtana wakes up your soul and you begin to use your voice, the voice of your soul, and you begin to hear yourself sing, singing these beautiful words and you hear yourself doing this worthy and beautiful thing, appreciated by those around you. It begins to grow a culture of appreciation and encouragement on a spiritual level, because in kirtana, whether someone can sing our not everyone is encouraged to chant. Everybody’s doing something, learning to play an instrument and embracing each other while they dance. We’ve all seen it, even people who don’t get along they dance right next to one-another, through kirtana those things fade.

Gurunistha: That brings me back to the original question. It does seem like you feel kirtana itself is sufficient to bring people together but what about the philosophical side? How much needs to be known about the philosophy behind kirtana? How effective is it if you don’t have a clear idea of what it’s about?

Gauravani: That is an important question. If you’re asking me, is it important to also take time to listen and hear and read and associate with people who are more knowledgeable than yourself to try to understand in a deeper way, yes absolutely. But my sense is also that chanting the holy name is like one of those little things that

the kids get, you put the little thing in water and it turns into a giant dinosaur! (Laughter) It’s all in there, you put it in water and it expands. So if you don’t take care of it properly you could probably ruin it, but basically the name is all you need. That is my understanding. There are so many different pieces. Like in the analogy of the seed, you have the sun, and you have the weather, and you have the rain, and certain temperature and a type of soil . . . But those things can’t be quantified, basically the name is golokera prema dhana…It’s this touchstone, the name Itself. I really believe it. Especially with the way Mahaprabhu did it in sankirtana. The name brings two devotees together and when you have two devotees together you have a sanga. That means you have association and loving service, and with loving service, you then have an opportunity to cleanse the heart and become humble through that service. This is all just through the natural experience of kirtana. Then through a humble heart you begin to have a deeper spiritual understanding to hear the name more properly. So it all comes but it comes from kirtana, sanga kirtana I think is the magic thing, the name is powerful, yes, it’s all in the name but sankirtan, that is the main thing, that is how I see it. This is why so many young devotees stress sankirtana over japa. This is a bit of a contentious issue, because many young people do japa, obviously everyone values japa as a personal connection to Krishna, but many young people are more attracted to kirtana than to japa. And people have criticized before, certain hard-line devotees, they say, “You’re just in kirtana so the guys can look at the girls and the girls can look at the guys; You’re just in kirtana to show off your mrdanga playing . . .” or whatever. But the point is, many people don’t think that these young kids could be at the mall, or they could be going on a date to the movies with the same girl they are in kirtana with, but instead they are in kirtana. So we just try to encourage. “You want to see this girl? Take her to the 24-hour kirtana at New Vrindavan, Agnideva prabhu will be there! Come, bring your girlfriend and sit with her for 24 hours of non-stop Harinam! (Laughter)

Gurunistha: That is a strong point, that if you guys didn’t do it the way you do it a lot of the kids would never go to the temple, they would never show up. It’s not attractive to them.

Gauravani: I think our job as representatives of Caitanya Mahaprabhu is to distribute the fruit. So if someone doesn’t want to take the fruit – you just do your best, you try to give it in a way that they will appreciate what it is. So we just try. Everyone has their own capacity, and there are people out there conversing with scholars in a language I don’t understand, and there are people who are immersed in puja, there are so many unlimited aspects of this beautiful, beautiful life and this world of bhakti and seva. So the main thing I think is that we should all appreciate each other and the different ways that we’re doing it, and help each other and care for each other, and if we see someone going into a place of difficulty we should reach out a hand, with a sense that they are worthy, not to create shame.

Gurunistha: Historically speaking it seems like there is like a moment of breach happening right now in the movement. The young Gaudiyas are breaking out of the old mold and the die-hard old school bhaktas resist that, but it seems like they can’t stop it.

Gauravani: The way I see it, whether it is two people or two hundred people working together, you have to be like minded, you have to work with people you can work with. I see that actually, there are many older devotees who are trying to see how to begin to train and synergize with the younger devotees. That is the key thing I think, there are many people who are harmonic, resonant and we should work together. I was just speaking with Agnideva prabhu about helping him record his next album. I have a certain energy and creative enthusiasm and a certain technique and he has the same thing from his experience, and he is wiser than me, more experienced than me, so together we’ll be able to do something better than either one of us could do by ourselves. So that is the future. The future is people from not even Gaudiya traditions saying, “Oh, you want to do this and we want to do this. Let’s work together. You have a beautiful center and you want to learn Gita and we can teach Gita, let’s work together. Vegetarian cooking, we can serve you in some way; chanting, everyone working together. The way I see the mission of Mahaprabhu’s movement is, not to say “Oh, these guys have a nice thing we’ve got to have one of those. They have nice dancers, we need to have nice dancers!” I don’t see it like that. I see these guys are amazing at dance, lets try to find a way to introduce Krishna consciousness into their presentation in a way that will give them something better than what they had before and allow them to use all their expertise in a way that we never could to bring this message to everyone. I know Prabhupada used to say that he was building a society of brahmanas, and this is my humble understanding: a brahmana is a teacher, a facilitator. So rather than to take over society, our mission should be to find any place in society where we can serve with knowledge in a humble and heartfelt way and those people will very soon see that this is that touchstone, that transcendental gem that can transform all these wonderful qualities that they had and bring it to the next level. We’re not trying to stop people from doing what they are doing. We’re trying to transform what they are doing into something even better than what they originally imagined. So our mission as “brahmanas”–, you know I’m not even first initiated so I can’t say that. But our mission of attempting to be brahmanas is to see ourselves as facilitators and guides and to help people do what they do better. It’s and offering.

Gurunistha: The New York kirtana scene seems to be pretty active and growing.

I was particularly interested in how the New York City kirtana scene has evolved during the time that you have been part of it and what part have you guys played in its growth?

Gauravani: It’s growing all over the whole world. We were just in Australia. It’s booming in Australia, its booming in Trinidad, its booming everywhere. It’s growing. But in New York an interesting thing happened, sometimes people criticize me or Mantralogy for trying to be business-minded. The truth is actually  that we’ve been creating an encouragement to anyone who wants to take up kirtana to start chanting. So I notice that more and more regular people are starting practicing chanting, learning harmonium, learning drum and chanting. So that is one contribution we’ve made: to encourage people that you don’t need to be a musician, you can just be a regular old Joe or Lisa and chant, and learn, and enjoy. So that is something that I have seen really booming, growing fast. I like that a lot. The other thing I’ve seen a change in is we really try our best to introduce people to Caitanya Mahaprabhu in a way that helps them understand how vital he is to really getting deep into chanting. We’ve introduced people to the Siksastakam, we’ve introduced people to the story of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and to that deep crying and calling aspect of chanting which is not there so much in some of the light, just fun kirtanas. We are really encouraging people to go deep. That is also something people really resonate with.

Gurunistha: Is that something that’s absent in the rest of the kirtana scene?  Is it more like a big party otherwise?

Gauravani: I think it is a nice opportunity for people to get together. So I think people see it as a replacement for this group singing and chanting which has existed in all cultures of the world, which has just evaporated in western culture. Gathering together to make music is such a vital part of any community, which is gone. So people have used kirtana to replace that, but I think it is just a divine trick of Krishna, of God, to use that to reintroduce chanting. Because of course chanting in not just community music, chanting is reciting these super powerful sounds. So now we’re getting the chance to reintroduce the idea of really, really going deep and crying and calling as part of that experience. The other thing that we have done in New York especially is that we have really tried to encourage everyone to get together from different communities. We are trying not to have it be just Gaudiya chanters, Hare Krishna’s only. We are trying to say oh, you’re from here and you’re from here, lets all do this together. We’ll support you and you’ll support us and we will create a community around chanting.

Gurunistha: That seems to be something that helps other groups appreciate Gaudiyas more.

Gauravani: Sankirtana is our game man, we know all about bringing everyone together and chanting. But the Gaudiyas have a lot to learn from everyone else too. It’s nice, we can learn how to take care of our bodies a little better. We come from this ascetic tradition so we could take care of the body a little better to keep the kirtana going longer. Eating healthy, these things we can learn from all the beautiful yogis and how to do seva, how to keep things as they say in India very “pukka”, keeping things very nice and high class and having everything just right so it attracts the mind as well as the soul. There is so much sharing going on.

I should say that my Guru Maharaja is putting a lot of energy into this center on the Lower Eastside called the Bhakti center. They have a café now and they are doing nice vegan and vegetarian Prasad. We host a lot of the kirtans there, there are yoga classes. So it is a nice place where people from various traditions can come together and just get a very laid back but straight forward Vaisnava experience without so much of the usual associations of a temple or ashram.

Gurunistha: What do you see as the future of kirtan in general and that of Mantralogy?

Gauravani: You are the future of kirtan. I mean that. It was a joke, but I do mean that. Well let’s see what Krishna Caitanya Mahaprabhu have in mind.

Gurunistha: You don’t have any five-year-plans or anything like that?

Gauravani: Actually, I am here in New York for a series of meetings. We are always getting together to rethink this: how are we doing this, how are we doing that; How do we do this right. It’s hard since I am speaking on behalf of a team of people but I’m just one of the team of people. So from my perspective this is how I see it: the grassroots movement of kirtana should really be encouraged to grow. I really want to focus the next five years on putting energy into events like the 24hour kirtana, which are just really about getting together and really chanting and putting our hearts into it, and encouraging others to learn instruments and grow, grow, grow. More people, more opportunities, grow the grassroots side of it. The other thing we will be focusing on is really trying to create the kind of elements that give a subculture life: cool clothing, cool music. Things that people can bring into their “normal” life as a connection to this alter ego that they have, with the ultimate idea of unifying it all under one [persona], “This is who I am. I love kirtana!” So creating clothes that are cool to wear around when your going out or when your with your friends. Also teaching people how to play the instruments and sing the songs and creating good music, cool music they can listen to anytime; creating events that they are excited to go to and they want to bring their friends to and invite other people; create a subculture that will sustain the growth of this – that’s my focus . . .

That, and not pissing anyone else off.

Gurunistha: That’s a tough one!


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