If there is anything I have an un-complicated relationship with it’s kirtan, sacred mantra-music. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you might have picked up on my background as a Krisna-kid and my complicated feelings about my upbringing. I’ve definitely had a love-hate relationship with it. But if I had to choose one thing that has kept me bonded to this spiritual tradition, it’s kirtan. I’m sensitive to things being dogmatic, preachy, or overtly religious, but kirtan has seldom pushed my buttons. Quite the opposite, kirtan surprises me every time it carries me away on a wave of sacred sounds. Consequently, the kirtan experience is something I feel anyone could enjoy, no matter what spiritual faith they practice in their daily lives.
If you have no clue what kirtan is, it can take many forms – pop–kirtan, rock-kirtan, rap-kirtan, traditional kirtan, world-music kirtan, reggae-kirtan. As different as these sounds are, they have some elements in common that qualify them as kirtan. For one, kirtan has a specific origin and a specific purpose. If you’re interested in the history of kirtan listen to Jai Uttal’s thoughts on the topic or Gaura’s. The ultimate purpose of kirtan is to express the profound spiritual yearning latent within. Kirtan literally means to glorify, in many ways synonymous with Hallelujah! Kirtan is also characterized by antiphony, where the leader calls out and the gathering responds. The chants are mostly in Sanskrit, India’s ancient language, arguably the oldest language in the world. If not in Sanskrit, other Indian languages, like Hindi or Bengali, are used. Kirtan as an experience evades definition but these are some of its main features.
My experiences in kirtan have been transformative for me. “In a simple word,” kirtan-singer Gaura Vani says, “kirtan is relief.” Whether I’m singing with my husband Vish or simply participating, I usually come out feeling refreshed. Recently, Gaura who is both a dear friend and a kirtan-star was in Gainesville to sing at a big Indian wedding. The evening before the wedding, he was singing at Krishna House right next to University of Florida. I’d had a super long day and wasn’t too excited to go; kirtans can get very loud and boisterous. Being in a hot noisy room packed with people was really the last place I wanted to be. I sat down feeling particularly jaded and lost, like I didn’t belong there and didn’t know where I belong. Then Gaura started signing, and from out of nowhere, tears started pouring from eyes. I felt a warm energy enfold me, as if the sound-vibrations were unlocking the mysteries of my soul. I felt God’s love then, and the simple message “you belong to me. I accept you.” reverberated within me.
As a young teenager, I would dance like a mad-woman, forget all my angst, turn red-faced, sweaty and blissful. I still sometimes throw myself into a kirtan with that relentless vigor, but I’ve grown to love the more meditative aspects of kirtan. Like in Gaura’s kirtan that I described, I sit still, listen, respond, sing and simply feel the sound-vibrations, noticing how they feel in my ears, my chest, my heart. Kirtans go from crazy, wild, tribal events where people are jumping up and down, to soft meditative and mellow. Seriously, I’ve had some of my most transcendent moments in kirtan, where the room melts away and time turns eternal.
Having said that, it’s not that every kirtan is transformative or that its effects are predicable, like a magic-trick. I certainly have come out of a kirtan, feeling empty, almost cheated. Also I have to admit that I simplified my feelings in the beginning of the post when I said that kirtan has never pushed my buttons. When I grew up, I was self-conscious about being different, and quite sensitive to any critique. Though it happened far less than I feared, if anyone wanted to crack a joke about me, it would be something like throwing their hands up in the air and singing “Krishna Krishna, Rama Rama, Hare Krishna.” I would react with a feeling of shame and become defensive, like no, I’m not crazy like that! I particularly suffered going out on street-kirtans. People would plug their ears and ran the other way, and I would feel like they were running from me personally. People might view kirtan as some kind of ritual, fearing it will alter you forever, or create some unwanted change in your life (like joining the Hare-Krishnas!) Now it’s rare that I attend a street-kirtan, but I do feel that if that’s considered crazy, then yes, I am crazy like that. I do throw my hands up in the air; I do sing with all my heart; I do feel free in body and mind.
Kirtan hasn’t, however, been only something the Hare-Krishna’s do. Until my mid-twenties, I might have thought myself well-versed in kirtan; then I began touring with my talented kirtan-friends and realized that there was a whole world of kirtan out there! Alongside the growth of kirtan in my community, yoga had exploded in America, and with it yoga-music, i.e., kirtan. I’ve walked into halls packed with regular looking people with their arms raised singing “Govinda Govinda Gopala!” To my amazement, I’ve realized that people from all sorts of walks are into kirtan. Although kirtan hasn’t quite become a recognized genre of music on its own, the number of kirtan-artists is growing and the number of people interested in kirtan along with it. You can, for example, listen to Krishna Das on any airplane now. People who have no religious affinity with India or Eastern spirituality have found resonance in this genre of music. A very Jewish friend of mine, for example, shared that all she wanted to listen to while giving birth was Krishna Das’s soothing chanting. Although still relatively unknown, kirtan has become more mainstream.
It’s been a journey for kirtan to gain this marginal mainstream acceptance. My father’s guru, Bhaktivedanta Swami, the founder of the Hare-Krishna movement, inaugurated kirtan in America by singing Hare-Krishna under a tree in Tompkins Square Park, New York. That particular tree still stands and has been honored by the city of New York for its significance to Hare-Krishnas. My father and I rather mystically crossed paths in New York last summer; I was in NY with Vish over the weekend and my dad surprised me by flying in from Sweden. My dad wanted to go to Tompkin Square Park.When we got to the tree, he said a little self-consciously, “I’m going to embarrass you now with my fanatic ways.” And just like that, he prostrated fully, falling to the ground in front of the massive Elm tree, mindless of all the New-Yorkers sitting around on the benches talking. He touched the tree reverently and read the plaque with such amazement that I didn’t doubt this was a spiritual site for him, the place where it all began.
Since Bhaktivedanta Swami gathered people to sing in Tompkin Square Park, the kirtan-movement took of on a bumpy journey. The bumps, in my opinion, had nothing to do with kirtan. And I feel that’s what people are realizing now. I’ve experienced that kirtan transcends the boundaries of daily life and takes you to a sacred place. I am 100% convinced that anyone can get value from being in a kirtan, that it can soothe you, energize you, and pretty much give you what you need. People may want to keep religious groups at bay, or stick to their own religious beliefs, but that doesn’t automatically exclude kirtan. Like E.M. Forster wrote, “It’s the starved imagination, not the well-nourished, that is afraid.” Now people are less apt to associate kirtan with something cultish. And like Gaura Vani likes to say, we are all drinking from the same well, the same source, why argue whose water is better?