Traditional Hindu worship songs or bhajans, sung in praise of Jesus (or Yeshu). Christian lyrics in Sanskrit, penned 100 years ago and still with the power to trouble Indian Christians and make western Evangelicals come over all open-minded. Children of American missionaries who’ve grown up and returned to South Asia, playing churches and Hindu temples and occasionally touring the world. A philosophy that calls Jesus satguru and music that seems infused with the Holy Spirit. Welcome to the world of Aradhna: one of the most fascinating bands on the planet.
The Narnian Socialist Review caught up with Aradhna’s Chris Hale to talk Bhakti, Jesus and music videos.
Chris Hale: I didn’t love India as a child. I grew up in Nepal and accepted the regular Nepali prejudice that is like the Canadian and US experience: the people in the North, the smaller population, look to the big bother in the South with a degree of mixed feelings.
I grew up with all those same mixed feelings, even when I was at boarding school in India. So when I felt that I was meant to live in India, it wasn’t really an easy thing for me. I was much more attracted to the idea of living in Nepal, and I started off in Nepal as an adult, but circumstances and Providence brought me within a short number of months to live in the heart of North India. The heart of the area that I actually had always disliked. I disliked it for the weather, it was too hot, the dust, the crowds… And I had always thought that the plains people of India were business-minded and unfriendly.
I was up in the mountains the whole time with friendly, smiling folks. So essentially, I had to undergo a transformation in my heart. That happened in the course of nine years of living in the city of Lucknow where I realised the absolute beauty of the people and the beauty of the land and the beauty of the crowds and the beauty of the dust. The experience of India is nothing I would trade, but it really came slowly for me. Even having grown up in South Asia.
You sing in an Indian folk style, often in Hindi. Some Christians can be pretty nervous about listening to things they don’t understand. Is the fact that many in your audience don’t understand what you’re singing an attraction?
Yes, most people seem to prefer that they don’t understand the words, but they also prefer that they generally know what they’re about. They’d rather not know what everything’s about, because they actually enjoy the music because of the fact that they don’t have to get bogged down in the words. But they’re much more comfortable and set at ease, specially if they’re followers of Jesus, if they know beforehand that the focal point of the music is devotion in an Indian way to Yeshu.
I’ve heard from so many people who say that they feel Jesus and the Holy Spirit in your music. Is that something you hear a lot?
Yes, it’s very interesting: older folks, in their 70s and 80s (and Caucasians at that!) who might have spent the better part of the last 30 years opposing the entrance of rock music into their churches, the moment we perform in their church they come to us afterwards and say that they just had tears streaming down their faces. So, we don’t really understand why this music seems to connect with such a diverse range of people and ages. I would venture a guess that it really is actually the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps their inability to understand brings people to a point of mystery in encountering God, rather than the propositional truths we might proclaim in our more popular worship music?
That is precisely one of the major points in why this music has touched people. My wife used to say that when she encountered our music that it was as though God had gotten under the radar. She had put up all these barriers because of struggles with propositional religion.– Religion that says: ‘if you make this confession you’re in, if you don’t make this confession, you’re out’. Even if you have not given up that proposition or given up the idea of propositional truth, but emotionally you are struggling with it, suddenly, somehow, through music like this, your heart is able to connect again and you go: ‘Well this is why I believe in Jesus. It’s because he’s real, because I’m experiencing Jesus again in my heart through this music.’
I also think a lot of Eurocentric and American Christianity is something European and American Christians don’t always feel very good about. So to experience Yeshu as Yeshu, in a sense, instead of as Jesus, and to experience Yeshu in the tradition which we call Bhakti – it really gives them that assurance that their God and their Christ is indeed worldwide, universal and there’s a sense of connection.
Bhakti is a vast thing and there are many different ways of practising Bhakti, but people define it as loving devotion and total surrender to God. And, to be completely honest, the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements are all about Bhakti. It’s really a translation of what they are doing in their worship, which has bled into the Anglican churches and mainline denominations of the US over the last 30 to 40 years. So, one attends church in North America and one experiences Bhakti.
We were in a Church in England in 200o, when we recorded our live album, and an Indian couple from the Fiji islands came up to us. In those early days we were singing mostly English worship songs and throwing in a few Hindi ones and they said to us: ‘This is our worship.’ They meant that we were doing Bhakti.
Simply using the word Bhakti could communicate hugely to an Indian community that might land up in church one day to experience Sunday morning worship.
So would an Indian practitioner of Bhakti recognise what you do?
Definitely. Absolutely. The primary thing I hear from Indians who come to us after our concerts is the word ‘devotion’. And they use the word in English. More than anything else, they come up to us and say: ‘you sing from your heart, and that’s what’s touched us.’ They don’t comment as much about the intricacies of the sitar playing or the tabla or the fusion. The most common description for them is ‘a heart of devotion’.
One of your songs, Jaya Dev, was written by an Indian Christian who came from a tradition of following Jesus that separated from the western expression…
From the late 1800s in North India (in South India there were much earlier expressions, but our music is primarily north Indian and Hindi and Sanskrit based) indigenous expressions of faith in Christ in India began to spring up in different places. And the one that you’re mentioning is a Bengali man named Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, which is a real tongue-twister of a name.
His pilgrimage was basically a pilgrimage of realising that the Sanskrit language was a beautiful language for him to express faith in Christ, and because of the desire to use that language, he had to use words from Sanskrit, which don’t have their origin in Hebrew or Greek, in his worship of Christ.
That is a redefining. That is taking a phrase that might have had a particular meaning and giving it a twist that gives it a new meaning. That’s what every translator has to do all over the world, in every tribal language and every major language. To take words that already exist and say: I am going to put a new meaning into this word that expresses this new idea.
So for him, one particular word that we use is the title Narahari. Nar which means in Sanskrit human being or man, and Hari a Sanskrit name for God. But again, within the vast and huge world of India, these names for God are multiple and all indigenous. So for somebody who might feel that the sound of the name Jehova is the only real sound of the name of God, or even that ‘God’ is the only real valid sound, that person would struggle.
Brahmabandhab Upadhyay felt that Narahari was an apt title for Christ because with Nar meaning man and Hari meaning God, here was the Emmanuel, here was God with us. The man who was God. That was one of the ways he expressed his indigenous faith and he got a lot of opposition for things like that because these were new names in a Christ-centred context.
You must get a certain number of western Christians who are uncomfortable with that aspect of your songs.
It’s interesting, but we rarely if ever get opposition from westerners. Many westerners have moved to one of two positions: either they are completely ready to accept all kinds of things, or they say ‘well let the believers in the local country decide.’
I would say where we would get a greater struggle is from Indian Christians who have not embraced in a sense some levels of indigenisation that some people like Brahmabandhab Upadhyay have done.
Christians have had a couple of hundred years of history. But missionaries coming to North India in the early days of the 1800s made little attempt at encouraging indigenous expressions, even up to 1870. By 1900 they were promoting indigenous expressions, but by that time a community of Indian Christians had already developed what had essentially become its own culture. A unique and different culture within India. So, when you ask an Indian Christian what they feel about some of these innovations by people like Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, they are more uncomfortable than a western Christian would be. Because they are much closer to the soil of it.
They are also closer to the experience of having possibly undergone persecution from family members for having become Christians, and having left everything from their previous life to enter into Christianity. So for them to see people using things or validating things that they had left is a very difficult experience for them.
I recently spoke to a Lebanese theologian, a follower of Jesus, who says that at this point he’s not interested in seeing his Muslim neighbours ‘become Christians’, but he wants to see them come closer to God. And he would separate those two things. Is that something you could relate to or would that be a step too far?
I wouldn’t say it’s a step too far in any way, because at the end of the day we would all like to become closer to God. So if he’s working with people and he’s encouraged by any step closer to God, I would be too, for sure. I live in Toronto on a street with people of various cultural backgrounds and religious paths and anything I see in their lives or in mine that appears to look like a step closer to God is beautiful. I put myself and my wife in the same category – we struggle to be close to God, whether we are followers of Jesus or not. So yes, that’s a beautiful goal and a very valid goal.
And that doesn’t negate at all my desire to see people experience Jesus. That will be a life-long goal for me because, put in Indian terms, Jesus is satguru. He is eternal teacher for me. In other words, he is God to me. But he is my God who is my teacher. He teaches me the life path. And anybody who has a guru in India is constantly singing the praises of their guru to everybody else. They are trying to get disciples for their guru. It’s a perfectly normal and important thing to do.
You don’t believe in your guru if you’re not gonna try to get disciples for your guru.
My lifelong path and goal is to bring people to Jesus. But let’s say that’s unsuccessful. Let’s say nobody decides they want to make Jesus their guru. That doesn’t mean my life has been a failure by any means, because I see it so much more like the man you just mentioned. We’re all seeking to come closer to God. I love to see my friend making a step closer to God in the most unusual of ways, by perhaps praying the prayer at the table before we eat. Even if he’s joking, even if he’s just mimicking us, it’s awesome to listen to that.
I think that’s a huge and beautiful thing, so I take anything I can get, including whatever I can get from my own life.
The music videos from the last album look like visual meditations or parables…
First of all, the name Ben Stamper is so important to mention because he’s the film maker. Ben lives in New Jersey with his wife Vesper and they are both phenomenal artists. Vesper did the cover design for Sau Guna. Ben’s films tell stories. We thought it would be amazing if Ben could re-envision these songs in terms of visual stories. The concept that Ben came up with visually was totally different than the actual lyrics of the song.
The first video, which is available on the DVD, is a picture of me and Pete on this journey in India, on various types of transportation, basically preparing a meal. We’re cutting onions, we’re peeling garlic and we’re doing it on a bus or the top of an autorickshaw or on a train or sitting in unusual busy streets or crossing on a boat. And then we finally come together and we’re helping a massive feast to happen that we didn’t really realise. Hundreds of children are fed food at the climax of the whole thing.
The idea of that is that what’s being spoken to in the lyrics: God’s abundant love poured out in different types of clothing and food. The universal aspect of God’s love. Ben has translated that into the journey of following God in all these different types of circumstances, and it became a really powerful way of visually expressing it. I guess Ben, in each and every video followed that idea.
You’ve played Greenbelt before and are playing again this year. What is it you like about Greenbelt?
Greenbelt is quite unique. My wife and I were inspired by Greenbelt independently of the band in 2005 just simply by the various tea houses erected there and the meditation tent and the teepees – it was just very much our vibe.
Are meditation, silence, introspection missing from the western Evangelical or Protestant Church sometimes?
Yeah, definitely. Which is why I think one meets more and more folks who are trying to get back to that. Greenbelt certainly being a place where those kinds of people gather. We also have the brand new Wild Goose festival in the States, which Aradhna will be at and is modelled on some the things that greenbelt has focused on for so many years.
Photos: Studio Joslizen