Last night I attended a program to celebrate the publication of The Journey Home by Radhanath Swami. He would attend as the guest of honor to share some insights about the book and about spiritual life.
It was held in a beautiful, large space called,The Studio, which is situated on the outskirts of the East Maui rainforest and was converted into its present state from an old pineapple cannery.
A friend of mine was producing the event and asked if I would introduce the Swami and also lead kirtan, a call-and-response style of Indian devotional music. I reminded her that I’m not a kirtan leader, but she pleaded, so I agreed. I figured she really needed someone to sing.
I arrived early with a twisted ti leaf lei for the Swami and was quickly ushered inside for a sound check.
The hall was dim, and the stage was set for a serious concert. A bamboo flutist, a harmonium player and a mridanga drummer tuned their instruments as people began to arrive. I was surprised.
Just then, my producer friend decided to tell me, “You’ll be opening for Karnamrita.”
My heart stopped. Are you kidding me? I thought.
I need to put this into perspective: This is like casually showing up somewhere with a kazoo and being told you’re the opening act for Yehudi Menuhin on his violin.
Karnamrita is one of the finest kirtan singers anywhere. Listening to her songs makes me melt into a huge puddle of cardamon-scented milk, every time.
“That’s great news,” I told my friend genuinely. I’d been looking for an “out.” Plus, there was a third kirtan singer on the bill, so it wasn’t as if they really needed me as the opener.
I’m not even a kirtan leader, after all.
“I’ll just sit in the back and listen,” I told my friend just as the flutist announced my name.
I was on.
Well, then. I guess I’ll be a kirtan leader, I thought.
Ascending the stage, I considered the famous story of Draupadi’s humiliation; how, while being stripped of her sari, and with no way of escape, she did the only thing she could do.
She prayed in earnest.
Which is what kirtan is anyway –an earnest prayer, set to music.
I also remembered how my great-grandfather guru, while leaving this world, requested a particular disciple –one who was not known for his sweet voice but whose pure devotion was unmatched– to sing to him.
It’s not a performance, I reminded myself. It’s a prayer.
So I “prayed.” Into a microphone. Accompanied by a three-piece classical bhajan ensemble.
In case you’re wondering, Draupadi’s earnest prayer yielded a miracle: The yardage of her sari became endless.
My “kazoo” came across like a violin, a miracle if ever there was one. As it turns out, I’m a kirtan leader. Or I can be.
Better yet, I got to meet the incredible Karnamrita, who gave me a big hug. Here she is singing the Story of Pingala from the Srimad Bhagavatam. It’s about a prostitute who achieves enlightenment while waiting unsuccessfully for a customer.
See if you don’t also dissolve into a huge puddle of cardamon-scented milk—-
As for Radhanath Swami, a lifetime master of the earnest prayer, his story is best discovered by reading The Journey Home, a real page-turner.
Have a great weekend, everyone, and thanks for visiting.