Krishna Das shares his love of the ‘Hanuman Chalisa,’ and how chanting it is like a meditation that can open our hearts.
By Helen Avery
If, as a Western yogi, you know about Hanuman, the Hindu monkey deity, it is in no small part thanks to Krishna Das. In his sharing of the spiritual practice of kirtan, the Hanuman chants are what he most often sings—and what you frequently hear reverberating from harmoniums and iPhone speakers across yoga studios in the West. Chanting the "Hanuman Chalisa" is like a meditation.
I first heard a Krishna Das chant emanating from one such iPhone speaker at my inaugural yoga retreat in Mexico. It marked the beginning of my life in yoga. I’ve chanted that particular song more than a thousand times—without knowing until very recently what it even meant. Like many others, I just knew I felt joy or sadness when I chanted—but I always felt love.
Of all of Krishna Das’ chants, it is the "Hanuman Chalisa" that he has played the most. To say the "Chalisa" and Hanuman have a special place in Krishna Das’ heart would not come close to capturing how he feels about them. He has been chanting the "Chalisa" for 45 years, and has recorded more than 10 different versions of it—the latest being "Sundara Chalisa."
Its Relevance Today
"The ‘Chalisa’ is more than a devotional song," says Krishna Das. "Hanuman is the flow that takes us into our true self. And the ‘Chalisa’ is a transmission, a mantra that calls him to come into our hearts."
Written in the Awadhi dialect of Hindi around the 16th century by Hindu poet and saint Goswami Tulsidas, the "Chalisa" recounts the life of Hanuman, and is recited as a prayer by millions of Hindus today.
As a non-Hindu it can be hard to see the "Chalisa" as relevant to our daily lives. And it can be harder still to commit to learning a 10-minute or longer chant in a Hindi dialect. But, like most stories of saints and sages, the tale of Hanuman has a much deeper meaning if we can hear it. As Krishna Das says: "It goes far beyond Hindu mythology. To chant the ‘Chalisa’ is to acknowledge that we are suffering, and to move towards the exit."
Krishna Das’ path first crossed with Hanuman in the 1970s at the temple of his Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaj-ji as he was called by his devotees. It was said that Maharaj-ji was the incarnation of Hanuman. Some even claim to have seen him morph into a monkey. "I had never seen such love as when I met Maharaj-ji," says Krishna Das. "We would see him as a person, but he had so fully merged with Ram that there was no Neem Karoli Baba left. Just total love."
"To chant the ‘Chalisa’ is to acknowledge that we are suffering, and to move towards the exit." – Krishna Das
Each day the devotees were given a yellow pamphlet with a picture of a monkey on it, filled with words in Awadhi language. Although they didn’t realize it for some time, it was the "Hanuman Chalisa." "When we found out, we saw it as an opportunity to show our devotion to Maharaj-ji, and to spend more time with him," says Krishna Das. "So a group of us got together with some instruments and began to learn the words and to chant it."
It was no small feat. The "Chalisa" contains 40 verses excluding the couplets at the beginning and end. "Maharaj-ji would have us play it for him—even with our American mispronunciation of the words—and so we got to be in his presence. But of course, he knew what we were doing. He always gave us just enough. He hadn’t given us the ‘Chalisa’ to perform. He had given it to us as a way to connect to him, to Hanuman, to that place inside us."
The "Chalisa" recounts the tale of Hanuman as it appears in the Indian epic, the Ramayana, and indeed, some say that Tulsidas was the reincarnation of the epic’s author. It is a fantastical and inspiring story.
A Devoted Heart
Hanuman was born a vanara - part monkey, part God - and was son of the wind and the essence of prana. As a child he was playful and mischievous, and his strength was so great that he chased the sun back into the heavens thinking it was a piece of fruit.
Tired of his boisterousness, the Gods decided to conceal Hanuman’s strength from him—and so they made him forget his power. Only when reminded of it, would it return.
As he grew up, Hanuman became the greatest devotee of Ram, who had been sent to Earth to represent God as a man. When Ram’s beloved Sita was taken by Ravana it was Hanuman who leapt across an ocean to find her. When Ram’s brother Lakshmana was sick, it was Hanuman who brought him an entire mountain, so that the healing herbs that grew there could be used to save him. Whenever Ram needed him, Hanuman came. "We can never repay the debt we owe to this monkey," says Ram.
It is through his devotion to Ram that Hanuman remembers his strength. And so deep is that devotion that when Hanuman tears the flesh from his chest to show Sita, written over and over on his exposed muscles and bones is the word "Ram."
"We don’t chant to praise Hanuman because he doesn’t need that. Rather we chant to remind him of who he is." – Krishna Das
"It’s inconceivable to us the devotion that Hanuman has for Ram," says Krishna Das. "He has no ego. He does all he can to serve Ram, but never sees himself as the doer. He lives only to serve love. Imagine that. We spend nearly all of our time thinking. Yet here is Hanuman with no thoughts. Just guided by his love for Ram. He knows sometimes they appear separate, but he also knows they are one. Maharaj-ji would sometimes just look at us and hold up one finger to remind us."
Maharaj-ji called Hanuman "the breath of Ram"—so close was Hanuman to God. Symbolically he represents our eternal companion and helper along the spiritual path." A friend and great devotee of Maharaj-ji once said to me that we don’t chant to praise Hanuman because he doesn’t need that. Rather we chant to remind him of who he is," says Krishna Das. And in doing so we remember who we are.
"It’s not an easy chant, and I’m always amazed by those who commit to doing it," says Krishna Das. But if we are called to it, and adopt the "Hanuman Chalisa" as a spiritual practice, in those moments of devotion we become like Hanuman.
We begin to invoke his characteristics of deep devotion, selfless service, gentleness, faith, courage, wisdom, compassion, strength. In remembering Hanuman, he comes to remove all obstacles so that we can begin to know who we truly are. Disease and pain are eradicated says Tulsidas in the "Chalisa." The sorrows of many lifetimes are washed away. Abundance is brought forth. And, there is a promise that "whoever recites this a hundred times is released from bondage, and gains great bliss."
The Power of Chanting
So how do we chant? "We just start," says Krishna Das. "We chant gently, and when we lose our place or get lost in thoughts, or in our emotions, we realize it, and use our will to come back. Again and again. We become more accustomed to being present. We come back to chanting the words. It’s hard. That’s what practice is. But it will change us. Maharaj-ji said you could change fate by chanting the ‘Chalisa.’ "
Chanting the "Chalisa" is not only like a meditation, it is said the words themselves contain the essence or seed of consciousness within them. "Every word in the ‘Chalisa’ is Maha Mantra [the name of God] said Maharaj-ji," according to Krishna Das. "But even beyond that, there is a joy that comes with chanting. It opens doors inside ourselves. It is medicine. We cannot comprehend it."
I can vouch for that—the not comprehending. I was driving up to speak with Krishna Das, full of wonder that six years ago my journey into yoga began with his chant. But I was worried. I felt no connection to Hanuman—which was unfortunate given my reasoning for interviewing Krishna Das was to celebrate Hanuman and his upcoming birthday.
"There is a joy that comes with chanting. It opens doors inside ourselves. It is medicine. We cannot comprehend it." – Krishna Das
Knowing that worrying goes with chanting, I decided instead just to listen and chant to my favorite Krishna Das song. Perhaps something would come. And as I searched for it on my playlist I noted its title—"Baba Hanuman." I hadn’t realized the connection. It may not have been the "Chalisa" but without knowing it I had been chanting to Hanuman for the last six years. He had been by my side all along.
"That’s how it gets you," says Krishna Das. "You chant and chant, and you think nothing is happening. But then one day there is a realization, and everything changes. Your heart cracks open. But you carry on chanting—because what else are you going to do?"
Thank you Krishna Das for giving so many of us the chance to know him.