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Indian River


Source of Lyrics: Goose the Band

Song Bio

Track 6 on "Moon Cabin." In the live setting, this song has from its original reggae-inspired style to a mid-tempo country rock feel to, more recently at the time of the writing of this paragraph (September 2022), a serene, psychedelic vaporwave presentation of the song that unlike its previous incarnations features the chorus as the melodic basis for its improvision section.

Sing Along

Song Interpretation

Interpreted By: Deepak Sarma, PhD

“Indian River” is another song in Goose’s rapidly growing repertoire that not only contains a passage from a Hindu text (namely the Bhagavad Gītā), but also sheds light on the journeys taken by guitarist/vocalist Rick Mitarotonda. Like the much loved “Madhuvan,” “Indian River” relates closely to Hindu ideas and to the Hindu god Kṛṣṇa. Knowing a little about the passage from the Gītā cited and the broader theological worldview will hopefully enhance the beauty of an already beautiful song and may shed light on the spiritual worlds of Rick Mitarotonda.

To this end, gentle readers, I will offer a brief overview of the set and setting of the Bhagavad Gītā. Then I will look at the lyrics of “Indian River” and will offer a bhāṣya (commentary) on a few passages. I will pay special attention, of course, to the selection from the Bhagavad Gītā (the Song of the Lord). If you have already read my piece on “Madhuvan” and learned from the section on the religious context, then you may skip ahead. If you are not already familiar with Hinduism and Hindu theology, then I would urge you to read the next section.

If my dearest readers’ appreciation of this song and knowledge of Hinduism is enhanced (and, if they learn about themselves in the process), then I will have achieved my goal.

Religious Context

All the philosophical and religious schools extant in India, other than the Cārvaka (materialist skeptic) and Abrahamic ones, shared a belief in the mechanism of karma, that one’s actions in earlier lives affected both one’s rebirth as well as the events that are to occur in one’s future lives. The entity that was reborn is the ātman (embodied self) whichis born again and again. One accumulates some combination of puṇya (meritorious karma) or pāpa (demeritorious karma), popularly rendered in the “West” as “good” and “bad” karma. The accumulated karma manifests itself until it is depleted or until more is accrued. Karma is thus linked with a belief that one is reborn after one dies and that the type of body that one inhabits (and has inhabited in the past) is indexed to puṇya and pāpa. This cycle of birth and rebirth, in which everyone, each ātman (embodied self), is bound, is called saṃsāra (worldly existence).[i]

Though the schools and traditions of Hinduism differ widely on the origins and precise function of these mechanisms of karma and saṃsāra, they all agree that they exist. They also all share an interest in ending this seemingly endless cycle, and this desire is their raison d’être. The state that sentient beings enter after being liberated is called mokṣaamong the Hindu traditions. In Buddhism, this state is called nirvāṇa. The status and characteristics of mokṣa differ vastly between schools of thought and traditions of Hinduism. Some, but not all, Hindu traditions offer systematic methods by which adherents can break the cycle and attain the desired end. Life as a Hindu means having mokṣa as the telos or endpoint, whether one thinks about it constantly or begins to think about it only when confronting what appears to be one’s inevitable, if only temporary, death.

Each Hindu believes that it is possible to be liberated from the cycle of birth and rebirth. They differ, though, on the process by which one attains mokṣa and on the experience of mokṣa itself. This does not mean that a Hindu philosophy of life embraces a relativism, where every path leads to mokṣa or the experience of mokṣa is dependent on the beliefs of the individual. Rather, the history of Hinduism has involved debates and disagreements on how to attain mokṣa and what is precisely experienced thereafter. Some, for example, believe that mokṣa is obtainable by jñāna (knowledge) while for others it is made possible by bhakti (devotion) to a particular deva (God).[ii]

From this theology emerges the Bhagavad Gītā (The Song of the Lord), which is above all, a text that promotes bhakti (devotion) as the means to mokṣa (liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth).

The Bhagavad Gītā (The Song of the Lord)

The Bhagavad Gītā is a discourse between Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, and is found within the Mahābhārata, the “Great History of the descendants of Bharata.” The Mahābhārata is one of two great Sanskrit epics of Hinduism (the other being the Ramāyāṇa) and is a bardic tale about cousinly families vying for royal authority, playing a deadly game for control of the kingdom. The Mahābhārata was told in courtly settings between about 300 BCE and 300 CE and reached its final form by around the 4th century CE. The dialogue that is the Bhagavad Gītā, takes place at a critical moment, just as the war is about to begin, when Arjuna is paralyzed with angst, inbetween the armies of the Pāṇḍava brothers and Kaurava brothers. Arjuna, the third Pāṇḍava brother, drops his weapons, unable to fight, and conveys his dilemma to Kṛṣṇa, his confidante and charioteer. The immediate conversation that follows are arguments put forth by Kṛṣṇa to convince Arjuna to follow his dharma (duty, obligation) as a kṣatriya (warrior) and, therefore, to fight. Subsequent arguments and discussions concern the nature of death itself, the transience of saṃsāra (worldly existence) and the reality and endurance of the ātman.[iii]

Kṛṣṇa, by the way, is believed by Hindus to be one of 10 avatāras (incarnations) of the god Viṣṇu. At the beginning of the discourse Arjuna is unaware that his friend and charioteer is, in fact, the preeminent god, and that the advice and he is getting and knowledge that is revealed is divine. Hence the text is known as the Bhagavad Gītā, literally “the Song of the Lord.”

Subsequent conversations in the Bhagavad Gītā revolve around the prerequisites and practices for obtaining mokṣa (liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth). In these sections Arjuna learns about how to be a proper yogi(disciplined ascetic) and about bhakti (devotion) to Kṛṣṇa. Another central theme in the Gītā concerns how to act, yet not accumulate any karma. To this end Kṛṣṇa teaches that acting niṣkāmakarma (without desire for the fruits of one’s action) does not result in the accumulation of karma. But, as already mentioned, central to the Gītā, and to “Indian River,” are suggestions about the proper attitude towards death and loss, that embraces the cycle of birth and rebirth and that avoids suffering.

Incidentally, Chapter Eleven, from which Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, purportedly quoted upon seeing a nuclear blast, is the moment when Kṛṣṇa teaches reveals himself to be God to an awed and reverent Arjuna, who is graced with a mystical experience of the highest order.

So, what does “Indian River” refer to? How is it connected to the Bhagavad Gītā? And, perhaps most importantly, what does Rick Mitarotonda think it means?

In brief, “Indian River” may refer to the transience of lives in saṃsāra (worldly existence) yet, at the same time, the enduring nature of the ātman (embodied self).

Rick Mitarotonda shared his thoughts about “Indian River” in a 2021 interview. He explained:

It has to do with experiencing loss, people that you are used to interacting with on a physical level no longer being able to do that. And seeking ways to communicate with them in other ways, which is you know, something I struggle with and strive for to this day and will probably never stop that. And you know, it’s about signs. Synchronistic experiences, like you said. And yeah, it’s about trying to communicate with someone who’s no longer here.[iv]

With this background in mind, I will offer some bhāṣya (commentary) on select passages. Of course, my commentaries are not to be taken as definitive: after all, there is the author’s intent (what did Rick mean?) and the reader’s response (how did the reader (in this case the listener) react?). That said…

This first section of “Indian River” may refer to saṃsāra (the cycle of birth and rebirth) itself and the complexity of communication:

they rose loud and clear
from somewhere, from somewhere
the feel of some current

a stream with something to say
experience is all I truly know
when held slow
oh but I move too fast

And the second section seems to convey the finitude and transience of individual lives, solitary ātman, which will be reborn again and again, until mokṣa is achieved and the ātman escapes the cycle:

is it the wind upon my neck?
is it the swaying of the trees?
well I forget
that time don’t hold us for that long
oh that long

This next section may concern the loss that Rick experienced, when his friends are no longer able to communicate, except through unusual ways, such as through a dream (dreamed one afternoon long ago?):

your voice is strong now
I heard it in a dream
all your energy growing up in me
and though I know it’s always here
I don’t feel anything at all
just heavy drones
filling up my mind, short piece of time
dropping like a seed in the snow
said I have to let it go
but man, it’s all I know
man, it’s all I know

I wondered if Rick is referring to vairagya (detachment), idealized in the Bhagavad Gītā, as an acceptance of both the transience of things, and the permanence of an indestructible ātman.

And surely this next passage concerns the myriads of ways that one can communicate to those who have transcended the material plane:

but I’ll wait to hear
oh I’ll wait to hear the way you
the way you speak now

is it the wind upon my neck?
is it the glowing of the moon?
well I forget
that time don’t hold us for that long
oh that long

Amidst this reflection one finds this passage from the Bhagavad Gītā. Recall that Arjuna is unable to fight his cousins and is unwilling to participate in or facilitate their deaths. In response to his inability to fight Kṛṣṇa counsels Arjuna about death itself:

You grieve for those beyond grief,

and you speak words of insight;

but learned men do not grieve

for the dead or the living. 11[v]

Never have I not existed,

nor you, nor these kings;

and never in the future

shall we cease to exist. 12

Just as the embodied self

enters childhood, youth, and old age,

so does it enter another body;

this does not confound a steadfast man. 13

Contacts with matter make us feel

heat and cold, pleasure and pain.

Arjuna, you must learn to endure

fleeting things – they come and go! 14

When these cannot torment a man,

when suffering and joy are equal

for him and he has courage,

he is fit for immortality. 15

Nothing of nonbeing comes to be,

nor does being cease to exist;

the boundary between these two

is seen by men who see reality. 16

and the passage used in “Indian River”

avinasi tu tad viddhi
yena sarvam idam tatam
vinasam avyayasyasya
na kascit kartum arhati

Indestructible is the presence

that pervades all this;

no one can destroy

this unchanging reality. 17

Our bodies are known to end,

but the embodied self is enduring,

indestructible, and immeasurable; 18

It is undeniable that these passages from the Gītā suggest ways to think about death that embrace the transience of saṃsāra (worldly life) and the permanence of the ātman (enduring self). If one were to embrace these right cognitive habits, as Kṛṣṇa exhorts Arjuna, then one will not suffer from the death or loss of a friend.

I wonder if Rick is trying to communicate with his lost friends, who are no longer in the material plane, in every song he plays, and certainly in every jam he journeys on. His eyes are usually closed when he enters/ initiates an improvisational jam, and often mine are too. I know that the notes that he plays takes me on my own journeys, usually outside of language, where communication is something altogether different…perhaps resembling Chapter 11 of the Gītā.

And again, like so many Goose songs, “Indian River” is a story of a journey of discovery, enlightenment, and resolution. After all… “if you take a tumble, if you take a spill, there a lesson to be learned and a cup to refill.” Death, our own and our friends’, is inevitable but suffering is not…

What does Rick think about when he is jamming with his eyes closed in this song?

Is he able to communicate with his friends and loved ones, who are now inhabiting a different plane of existence?

I hope that one day I get to ask him. I do suspect that his experience, like Arjuna’s, is outside of language, ineffable, marvelous, transformative, and transcendent…