Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge.
Today I speak with Deva Premal. Deva is a classically trained singer and musician known around the world for her devotional chanting and the inspiring music she creates with her partner, Miten. I saw Deva Premal and Miten perform recently in Boulder, and they both have incredible presence on stage. They transmit a kind of openness and emptiness that is quite rare and beautiful to be with.
Deva and I spoke about her experiences sharing music all around the world. We talked about mantras and how they work, and how devotional music can actually create a space, which welcomes all of our emotional experience. We also discussed and listened to three tracks from her Sounds True release, Into Silence: The Meditation Music of Deva Premal.
I’m here today with Deva Premal on Insights at the Edge. Deva, I know that we’re speaking to you somewhere across the water. Where are you today?
Deva Premal: I’m in Mullumbimbi, Australia. It’s near Byron Bay, I think. Maybe many of your listeners are familiar with Byron Bay. It’s on the east coast of Australia.
TS: And what is your life like? I imagine that you’re touring, that you’re at yoga centers and it all sounds very romantic and fabulous, I have to say.
DP: It has felt really romantic and fabulous. It has been eighteen years now that we’ve been traveling and this is actually the longest we’ve been anywhere. We’re here in Australia for three months, which also includes a tour in Australia, where were spending two months in the same place and in the same bed. Otherwise, we’re a few days here and a few days there. It has been a really natural flow for us. We both love traveling and we both love sharing the music as we move around the planet. And it is so beautiful to see that there is so much openness to mantras in all of these different countries. When we come to a new place and start the concert with a Gayatri Mantra and have the audience sing the words back to us, it’s just so uplifting. You realize that the mantras are traveling around the world so quickly now. We can just come home to every one of these centers of devotion and that is really nourishing for us.
TS: You mention the Gayatri Mantra and I know that mantra is personally important to you. Can you tell us a little bit about first of all, what the Gayatri Mantra is and then why it’s important to you personally?
DP: The Gayatri Mantra is oldest mantra. It came into being with the beginning of the universe. It is one of the building blocks of the universe. For me, it is the building block of my universe as well because my parents made the world come to me as my mother was pregnant with me. And then they encouraged me and sang the Gayatri with me every night before sleeping as a goodnight song, so my first contact with mantra was with this Gayatri Mantra. At that point, I was a young child and I had no idea I was singing a mantra. And I had no idea what it meant. I just realized that that’s wasn’t what my friends were doing every night. I loved doing it from the singing aspect but I also did it because my parents told me to. It was something like a seed that they planted very early on and I didn’t really appreciate it at the time. That’s why I had to leave it. When I was ten or eleven years old, I had to find my own way basically, and it’s not that I consciously said, “I’m not going to sing this anymore” or “I’m not going to chant this anymore.” It was just a natural moving away from it since it was my parent’s introduction. Then it was only in my mid-twenties that it came back to me and I heard it again on our travels, and realized, “Wow, this is my home; this is so close to me; this is what I grew up with.” And only then did the seed flower and I could appreciate and feel it. I will always be really grateful to my parents that they gave it to me so early.
TS: And what is the meaning of the Gayatri Mantra?
DP: The meaning is actually a purification mantra. All these Sanskrit syllables and sounds that it is made of will purify not only the one who listens but the singer as well. It will also activate all the energy centers. It’s a very profound mantra to the sun, not to a particular deity. It’s a prayer for all beings on the planet to be enlightened and live in the light.
TS: When you say that the Gayatri Mantra came with the beginning of the world, what do you mean by that?
DP: According to the Vedas, in the beginning of the universe, the Vedas came into being as well as the Gayatri Mantras. It came in this fire ceremony that took place at the beginning of the universe. According to the scriptures, the Vedas, those scriptures, along with the Gayatri Mantras arose out of this creation of the universe.
The thing with the mantras, these sounds inherent to the Sanskrit language, they are sounds that reflect exactly the energy of what they are. Sanskrit is not a language that we give meaning to; it is a sound that is what it sounds like. The energy is in the sound. If we sing this Gayatri Mantra, even if we don’t know what it means, it will have its affect on us because it’s like medicine. It is taking sound medicine when we use it, when we sing it and when we chant it. I, myself, and I think most of us nowadays are so sensitive to it that we can actually feel the exact yet different application of each mantra. We still need the help of these wise men and Sufis, like in the ancient time, who can tell us that yes, this sound formula or particular application is for connecting with nature and this other sound formula is for balancing male and female energies.
Basically, I really love the feeling it gives me when I chant the mantra, which is a feeling of bliss and joy. I also love the silence that it brings. It’s a really easy way for me to come into a silent space without effort. It’s like cleaning the mirror and that’s what I trust. I’m not really a scholar in the sense that I’ve studied the scriptures and can tell you a lot about that aspect. But I can just trust that they have basically transformed my life and that they have touched me and the people that we’ve met and who have listened to our music. These mantras have had profound affects on them and it mainly happened by them not knowing why.
We get messages from people. They just listen to the mantras and they don’t know that they are mantras because somebody just gave them the CD or recording and some profound healing of depression takes place, even with people close to committing suicide. The music transforms them and gives them a reason to live again and a sense of joy or peace. We’ve also had messages from people who work with autistic kids, where the kids respond to the music in a way that they hadn’t responded to music before. They sometimes literally started chanting along with the Gayatri Mantra and actually request it when it isn’t played for them. So there I trust that these mantras have this universal language that we all understand, even if we don’t understand it mentally or can’t explain it.
TS: From tracking the effect that you feel and that you can sense when you chant the mantras in your body, how do you think they work? For example, you talked about somebody who is suffering from something from depression. How do the mantras change or affect such a person?
DP: There are so many aspects to it. One is the aspect of actually making those sounds, which help the body to vibrate. When we make those sounds, our cells vibrate at a certain level. Just by breathing and singing already, it’s a healing process. They are sacred sounds. I like to compare this healing process to the science of what I think is called cymatics. When we apply certain sounds to water or to sand, the surface of the sand or water takes on a certain geometric pattern. That’s in the line of sacred geometry. I feel like it’s the same way with the mantras. We apply these sacred sounds to our bodies and our bodies are made up of mostly water, already by that, we are reorganizing the cells in our system. I think it could be a kind of physical or material explanation as to why these mantras work.
It is an ancient medicine formula that transforms our whole system and brings that unity, which is really why we are suffering. Basically we are suffering because we are split, because we are not even in tune with ourselves. By focusing our whole system on the mantra or sound, we are unifying our system and coming to a place of peace that includes everything. Peace can also include being angry sometimes but we are not split. We are not fighting against it and we are becoming more in tune with ourselves.
TS: Can you explain what you mean by that? That peace can sometimes include something like anger, if it’s experienced in an undivided way? I think that is what I hear you saying. Can you help me understand that?
DP: Yes. It’s just that I feel all these emotions are a part of our human colorful plate. We can experience being angry in a way that comes out in a clean way, without hurting anyone or without hurting ourselves. It comes as a natural response to a situation that doesn’t feel right. That’s totally fine. But sometimes we hold onto anger and it doesn’t come out right, either it’s too abrupt or too violent. Or sometimes, we feel guilty about it afterwards, and say, “Oh, I should never be angry; that’s not right.” When it’s clean, it is also part of the joy of being a human being that can feel all of these different feelings that are all perfectly divine.
When you look in the scriptures, the love to the divine or the love to Krishna, in that love, jealousy is also included, along with longing and missing and all of these supposedly negative feelings. But if you put them to the divine, they become divine. It’s our sight that creates the suffering. It’s our feeling that we should be a different way and that we should always be loving. That’s what creates the turmoil inside. I’ve actually experienced, personally, on a retreat in India during a meditation as a part of the retreat, I came to a place where I got extremely angry. Something happened on the outside that I felt should not have been that way and it totally made me totally angry. At that point I thought, “All these gurus tell me always that I should go into it, not to fight it. Always embrace it. What does that mean? Okay, it means that I should be open to this anger.” And this anger got stronger and stronger until I felt like I was being crushed or killed by it. Before that could happen, it suddenly got transformed into bliss. It was this feeling of, “Wow! I can be blissful and enjoy the anger. It’s just another way of feeling the energy.” It was such a revelation. Every feeling is a taste. It’s like the colors of the rainbow – they are all good. We can enjoy each of them if we don’t get locked or stuck in them, or judge them or build them up inside without expressing them in a clean way.
TS: I’m really grateful to hear you talk about this. I know that when I went to your concert with Miten here in Boulder, I found it, of course, very beautiful. Your voice is so beautiful. I had all kinds of feelings, including tears of joy and appreciation and my heart opening. And at some points, I also felt a sort of strange rage that I didn’t really understand. I thought, “God, I’m probably the only person in this room of five hundred people who is hysterically rage-filled. Everybody else seems so light and blissed out. They’re raising their arms and swaying and I’m ready to punch the sky, or something.” Anyway, I am glad to hear that you feel that there is room in the music for everything.
DP: And then what happened?
TS: You know, I think I had some conflict with the feelings so it wasn’t that easy for me. It didn’t feel that welcome to me in that whole situation. Of course, I worked it out inside of myself but I’m glad to hear you talk about it because looking at you on stage, you seem such a picture of serene transcendent bliss.
DP: I really feel that it’s just part of it. It would be boring without the other feelings. You need all the colors.
TS: You mentioned that at age 10, something happened in your personal biography that you weren’t just following with your family’s spirituality, which was chanting the Gayatri Mantra. What happened when you were 10?
DP: At 10 years old, I realized first of all, that I had a choice and secondly, that I really wanted to be normal. It had bothered me to feel like I was different. I was vegetarian and my house didn’t look like everyone else’s house. My dad didn’t look like everyone else’s dad and he talked about himself in the third person, and no other dad talked of himself in the third person. I wondered how I could just be like everyone else.
At the same time, I had a religion teacher at school who was totally inspiring and I felt that I just wanted to become Christian. My parents hadn’t baptized me and I wanted to get baptized. That’s when I started to pray the Lord’s Prayer at night and praying to God in the Christian concept of a god, as somebody you talk to and maybe ask for things from. I think, at first, I did it secretly. I’d sing the Gayatri Mantra and then secretly recite the Lord’s Prayer. Then eventually I asked my parents if it would be okay with them if I got baptized and they were totally supportive of my path. They told me that it was my choice.
Somehow, before that could happen, my parents introduced me to Osho who was at that time named Bhagavan Sri Rachnese. We went to a center where I was introduced to the meditations, which were active meditations, so as a 10-year-old I could already enjoy them. Normally I would have had to sit for an hour, which I couldn’t have done then. So it was meditation that included dancing, shaking, and breathing. I felt so at home right away—that that was my family. And then it was a sort of mother-mentor decision. It wasn’t that I read Osho’s books because I didn’t speak English at the time and couldn’t really understand his discourses. I just felt like that it was home. My parents just introduced me to Osho but they didn’t have any agenda.
At that point, I said that I wanted to become one of his disciples, which was initially for me like, “Oh no! Now I’m going to be different again. Now I’m going to walk around in red clothes and wear this wooden necklace with his picture around my neck!” But that’s what I did. At 11 years old, I became his disciple. Then he gave me the name Deva Premal and I went to school in red for seven years. I did that until he said “You need to go back to normal clothes,” as I’ve done ever since.
TS: Where your parents disciples of Osho?
DP: My mother then became a disciple of Osho but my father was a strong spirit. He loved Osho but wasn’t a disciple in the same sense.
TS: There you were, 11 or 12 years old, and you went to a regular public school but you were wearing your red clothes? Did people make fun of you?
DP: No, actually, they were too shy to say anything. Most of them didn’t mention it. And then later, when I was ready to talk about it (because at first I was shy and didn’t really know how to explain it) they were still too shy to ask. Also, it was Germany and people are a bit more reserved. But I never had any problems or any animosity coming toward me in that regard. I did feel, on a level, separate, but it wasn’t that they didn’t like me but it was just in my free time, I didn’t choose to go to the same places that they liked to. But it was still friendly so there wasn’t a problem.
TS: Just to ask you a personal question, Deva, if it’s okay. I think it’s so unusual for someone to be 10 or 11 years old and to have that much of a devotional heart that you would find a spiritual teacher at that age and be devoted in that way at such a young age. How do you understand your own devotional heart? Do you think of it as some kind of previous life experience that’s being repeated here now and that’s why it opened up in you so young? What’s your own understanding of it?
DP: That’s a good question. I don’t really know. It just came naturally. I feel very blessed and that’s the main feeling in my life. I feel that I’m guided in a spiritual way and the way that I met Miten and how we love each other for the last twenty years in such a harmonious and beautiful way. In front of all these things, I still stand in amazement. I have no idea. I’m just grateful. I think it’s not so necessary to figure it out anyway.
TS: Fair enough.
We’re going to listen to the first song on the CD, Into Silence: The Meditation Music of Deva Premal. And the song is called, “Aad Guray.” Maybe you can just introduce the song to us and tell us what it means and how it came for you to chant this song.
DP: This is the mantra from the sixth position and actually we learned it through Snatam Kaur, who I’m sure you’re familiar with. It is a mantra for protection and celebration of the guru, who takes us from darkness to light; the one who dispels the darkness, which is the literal translation of the word “guru.” It’s also a beautiful mantra to chant at the beginning of journeys or car rides for protection and being in tune with the divine.
Into Silence – “Aad Guray”
Can you tell us a little bit, Deva, about the creative process that’s involved? You mention that you learned the song from Snatam Kaur but how did you take the song and work with Miten to create the composition? What was the process?
DP: It’s kind of special. Do you hear the strings in the end? This recording was taken from the original CD called Dakshina, which was recorded in London. Basically we find people that we want to work with. We don’t have our own studio so we find someone who has a studio and has the musical skills and who is in tune with us. It is often someone who is a good friend or becomes a good friend in the process. This one was made with Martin Phillips in London. In the process of the recording, we met this Indian violinist named Kochandru and we booked him for a session on a piece with him just playing the violin. When he heard the music, he said, “I go to India regularly and I put these orchestras together for people, for pieces or for soundtracks.” He had access to a fifty-piece orchestra in India where they play those slides. Western orchestras can’t play the way India orchestras play the violin, with sliding notes.
That was an experiment. We gave him the track as it was recorded by us then, with our voices and our backing, and he took it to India, completed it and sent it back to us. We had to modify it. It wasn’t quite totally right when it came back. But I love the sounds of those violins. He said it was 93 violins on it. I have no idea if that is an “Indianism” or how close it is to the truth. But I just love the sound of those real strings playing in there.
We say that the recording process is a bit like being pregnant. I’ve never been pregnant but I imagine that you go through ups and downs and through joys and through days where it’s challenging. That’s what it is like when we record. We sometimes come to places where we feel like, “Oh my god! Where do we go from here?” And then we come to places where we feel like, “This is the best thing we’ve ever done. “ It’s challenging. And then when the CD is ready, it’s like the birth. We let it go. We’ve given birth and we nourished it. It’s like letting your children go into the world and make friends.
TS: Ninety-three violins to take one into silence? Your music does kind of have that effect. I’m curious about what that is like for you. When you’re done singing a mantra, what does your body feel like at that point? When we say, “silence,” what kind of silence?
DP: It’s just so alive! It’s so vibrant and still and at the same time it’s charged with energy in a good way, not in a wired, stressful way. It’s like it’s awake. It is a total awareness of being totally in the moment and with a smile on your face, maybe not literally, but it’s that joyful silence. It’s so precious. It’s one of the most beautiful things to share with the audience and come into that space together, and then sit altogether, with even maybe a thousand people in that silence and stillness for a few minutes and have no pull to go, to clap, to leave, to cough, or to move. It’s really, really, precious. I think that’s how we can be traveling like this for so long.
TS: Because of how nourished you are by that experience?
TS: Before you sing a song like that…I don’t know if “perform” is quite the right word for that, but how do you prepare yourself internally?
DP: I don’t really have any kind of ritual in that way. For me, going on stage and there are those moments of silence that we always start the concert with where we take a deep breath and sit in silence. That, for me, is the invocation and it all goes from there. Beforehand, I don’t have a big kind of ritual that I go through.
TS: So in just a few minutes of silence, you’re able, as a human instrument, to be sensitively tuned enough that you can then be a vehicle for this kind of sound?
DP: Seems like it. I don’t know. That’s what I do.
TS: I’m curious, what does it feel like inside of you? Does the sound emerge? What does it sound like to you? I guess what I’m trying to understand is the instrument of Deva Premal and what’s it like on the inside when you’re getting ready to sing and then singing?
DP: It feels like I’m also a listener. It feels like I just watch the sound come out of this body and I’m happily surprised by the way it sounds. I enjoy it, as I hope the audience enjoys it as well. I feel like, “Wow, this is great!” I feel kind of detached from it, in a nice way. It’s not me. Do you know what I mean? I’m blessed to be part of this experience.
TS: Your father talked about himself in the third person but in a sense, you’re having some kind of similar experience.
DP: That’s true. I never thought about that. That was his thing — to be always reminding himself that he’s not the ego, the body, or this thing called, “Wolfgang.” That was his practice. It’s true that it’s a little bit like that.
TS: We are going to hear another song and I’m hoping you can introduce it to us. It’s called, “Om Asatoma.”
DP: This is a mantra for transitions. It says, “Take me from illusion to truth, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality.”
Into Silence – “Om Asatoma”
TS: One can, of course, listen to your music as well as chant along. Do you believe that there are different effects when we chant along than when we just listen?
DP: Yes. Like I said earlier, the physical effects of actually making the sound—breathing and making the sounds out loud—are very strong, too. I think that it’s an enhanced experience. But even when we just chant the mantra inside silently, it will work its magic, so it’s all good. The more we can immerse ourselves in it and also, just by chanting, we bring our bodies and spirits in tune so we are much more in tune and total when we chant. That is basically why we made all of our CDs—to encourage people to join. It’s not a performance but an invitation.
TS: You mention that you’re in Australia now, on tour, and that you’re traveling and touring most of the year and you’ve seen that there’s a growing reception to your work. Do you have a sense that there’s a growing spiritual awareness in the world or do you think that people say that but is it really true? What are you really experiencing on the ground from your own perspective?
DP: I definitely feel it and I also feel that it’s no longer so confined to the usual suspects. It used to be that the people that came to our concerts, you could recognize them on the street. And now, it’s much more varied and there are people from all walks of life and ages, including more men. There are many people who are undercover but who are walking the path now, whether it is mantra or meditation. It’s also pretty understandable that we need something else now to keep us going in this challenging time. People are turning to the inner world and often that leads them to mantra or for sure, to meditation. So, I definitely feel that there is an openness and a need to nourish ourselves like that.
TS: If you could encapsulate what’s encoded in your work, meaning: when you give a concert or when you create a recording, what is it that you’re hoping or intending will be the effect on other people?
DP: When we make it, it’s an offering, a gift, like a tool for healing and meditation. It’s a bringer of joy and happiness. That is our intention. Actually, the feedback that we get has been way past my expectations. As I told you, people write to us and say that even suicidal thoughts have been transformed through the music. It’s even stronger than I could hope to expect. When people come to the concerts or when they listen to the CDs, our hope and mission is that some flame gets sparked so this becomes a part of their daily life, or that they create community by bringing people together in their living rooms, chanting together, sitting in silence together, so it’s not just happening in concerts of Kirtan with Jai [Uttal] and Krishna Das. Our hope is that it becomes more of a regular, almost ordinary part of life because it is what we need to be ordinary. So that is our mission: that we can spark this flame and then it just sparks other flames and creates more light on the planet.
TS: Deva, you know when you shared with me the story that you had this experience of anger and you went into it fully and you saw that the wholeness of who you are could hold even that in peace, I found it refreshing. It’s so easy to project on you—there you are on stage and you seem so open and transcendent and loving and you have such a gorgeous smile. It’s also, I think, very tempting to project onto you and Miten that you have this perfect idealized relationship. You create music together, you have this harmonious relationship. But I was hoping you could just educate me on what it might really be like and not what I might fantasize that it’s like?
DP: You know, we have our moments of disagreement and some heated moments, but they are fleeting because we don’t hold onto them. We burst out into something and in literally a few minutes, it’s gone. It just feels like we made a decision, maybe in another life, to basically just love each other and not go into or hold onto any drama. It just happens. I’ve no recipe for that. It’s just that somehow our personality structure fits together and our compatibility is in tune. We love to do what the other loves to do. We’re lucky that way. And we’re both fire signs. I’m Aries and he is a Leo, so it’s not stale or lovey-dovey or all pale blue or pale pink. It’s very alive and passionate and in that passion, there is also sometimes a burst of frustration. But it just doesn’t fester under the surface. It erupts and comes out more or less clean and erupts into the sky.
TS: I totally appreciate and respect and enjoy your answer. But it does bring up this question for me. I was reading an article on your website with a quote from you that says, “I feel so grateful that spirituality, creativity, work, and love all mean the same thing in my life.” I thought this was very beautiful and it’s so beautiful that you feel grateful about this, and we can feel it in the music. But what I thought is, what about the person who reads that and says, “I wish I had some of that in my life, where work, love, creativity and spirituality all was the same thing in my life. I don’t feel that.” I imagine that a lot of people would say that they don’t feel that and that isn’t their experience. What would you say to that person who says that isn’t their experience but wishes it were?
DP: I wish it was like that for everyone, too. But I see and hear that it’s exceptional. That’s why I’m even more grateful and I don’t have the answer to that. I can only say that once you tune into spirituality and into gratefulness and what nourishes you, whatever that is—your spiritual path, your guru or the mantras—that feeling will infiltrate your whole life. And I trust that your work, your everything gets transformed and colored by that. You have to start somewhere. You have to nourish that part and then that will grow. It’s that thing that you give energy to that grows.
Sometimes I also feel a little bit like I don’t want anyone to feel jealous or envious but what can I do when it’s a feeling like this. But that’s what we do—we travel and try to inspire. We want to make it more and more important and it will transform because they are such powerful tools and they will do their magic and they will have their effect. I couldn’t have made this up. You know the Law of Attraction? That isn’t my experience. I haven’t attracted this. I feel that it has just been given to me and it is way beyond what I could have even imagined or try to attract. I feel like we just need to make ourselves open to that by nourishing the light, the peace, and the goodness. That would actually really nourish us.
And I think it’s difficult also because we are in such a place of work and a recession, I think it’s a challenge. I really respect everyone who can find the balance between the two and hopefully it’s not any more balanced but a natural union of the two. I don’t really have a better answer than that.
TS: Well I think your gratitude and graciousness is a beautiful answer and I’ve really appreciated speaking with you. We’re going to actually end by hearing the Moola Mantra and what I’d like to do is actually allow us to listen to is and then move into silence.
DP: That’s beautiful.
TS: Before we hear the Moola Mantra, Deva, I want to first of all thank you and to let our listeners know that the meditation music of Deva Premal, Into Silence, is available at SoundsTrue.com, and once again, thank you for your really deep surrender, which is what I feel from you, to be used as a gift to all of us.
Could you please just introduce the Moola Mantra and we’ll hear it and then go into silence.
DP: Moola means “root,” and it’s a mantra that thwarts on us the divine in its non-manifested form; the divine creator that is all around us that is in a way, immeasurable. It honors the divine as reflected in the gurus and the avatars and the spiritual teachers. Then the divine, the para matma divine in every living being, the soul in every one of us. Then it honors the dance between the female and the male energies, Sri Bhagavati Sa Meta in communion with Sri Bhagavati, the male energy. It is an honoring of all existence, really, and it’s a really beautiful offering to end of our time together.
Thank you so much for such a beautiful sharing, Tami.
TS: Thank you.
Into Silence – “Moola Mantra”