Kirtan, of ancient origin and once heard only in Indian temples, is the joyful musical performance of mantra meditation. I was introduced to kirtan in 1974 in the Dominican Republic, where I was living at the time, and have been practicing it ever since. An early American disciple of Bhaktivedanta Swami (Prabhupada) had brought kirtan to the Caribbean at Swami’s request. Swami was sending kirtan and bhakti (the devotional path of love of God) around the world.
In American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, a monumental work examining India’s impact on Western culture, Philip Goldberg rightly calls Prabhupada “The Divine Minstrel.”
In the 1960s swamis and gurus flooded America with knowledge of Vedanta’s texts and the various yogas. Prabhupada contributed as well. His translation of Bhagavad Gita became the most visible edition of that sacred text, and his forty-two volume translation, with commentary, of the Srimad Bhagavatam (itself a commentary on Vedanta Sutra), is used not only by serious practitioners of Bhakti, but by scholars worldwide. Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam is likely the most thorough, accurate English rendition of the text.
Prabhupada was not only a scholar but a consummate Bhakti exemplar. As the Divine Minstrel, he was the first to bring kirtan and Bhakti from India to the West. These two aspects of spiritual practice are currently drawing a lot of attention in yoga centers, cathedrals, ministries, temples, and homes across America.
Some of you savvy spiritual seekers, yoga practitioners, and kirtan aficionados might be asking, “Why don’t I know him?”
Well, he humbly directed attention to God, not himself, but you do know him, at least indirectly. He founded the Hare Krishna Movement, known in public settings through the devotees’ saffron robes, cymbal-playing, and dancing and singing in parades or other venues.
“O gosh, I don’t want to have anything to do with that loud, raucous singing,” some of you might say. I don’t blame you. I had the same thought during my first kirtans. I was terribly self-conscious, and back then, I admit, kirtans were a bit loud and could be unruly. But kirtan is held not only while standing up and dancing, but also while sitting down and singing more meditatively (technically known as bhajan, but let’s keep it simple and refer to it as kirtan), a practice the growing kirtan trend has focused on. I found that kirtan, the participatory singing to God in a call-and-response chant, brought joy like I had never experienced.
Participation in kirtan doesn’t require shaving your head or wearing strange robes. When led by good musicians, everyone present is able to enjoy the transformative power of kirtan.
There’s no better indication of the burgeoning interest in kirtans than the kirtan singer Krishna das’s tours. He has played to mainstream audiences at conventional venues like the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles, the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, and Town Hall in Manhattan.
Other kirtan artists of fame are Jai Uttal, Wah!, Shyamdas, Dave Stringer, Gina Salá, Daniel Paul, and David Newman (Durga Das), to name a few. My personal favorites are Badahari (go there and listen to the opening song, lovely), Gaura Vani (who played with my son when they were toddlers), and the rocking Mayapuris, who have put on all-out cultural performances at venues like the Ford Theatre in LA. They even held the top spot in World Music on iTunes.
New York Magazine reports, “The hottest and best yoga in town is performed at the unapologetically spiritual Jivanmukti Yoga School,” where kirtans are regularly performed. In Yoga Journal, Phil Catalfo’s summer 2010 article “Can You Say Om Namah Shivaya?” reports that “Chanting is a hot ticket in yoga studios across the country.”
Another indicator of interest is the 300,000 Google searches for “Bhakti,” 165,000 thousand for “kirtan,” and a cool million for “chants” every month.
What I love is how kirtan is finding its way into a variety of traditions and many hearts. Kirtans often include the harmonium, a small hand-pumped reed organ, whose sound adds to kirtan’s mystical aura. There’s beautiful Jewish kirtan by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, Ph.D. Check this out. It shows kirtan in a Jewish setting, but this is kirtan. I’d recognize it anywhere!
There are Christian kirtans, too. Here’s Billy Mitchum’s Awakening: A Kirtan Mass.
Of course, the Sikh community, like Bhakti, is famous for kirtan. And their kirtan in America is also growing.
You can drop in on kirtan in hundreds of yoga studios and events like BhaktiFest, and as usual at Hare Krishna temples around the world every morning and Sunday afternoons.
Before I leave you, since I mentioned Mr. Goldberg’s reference to Prabhupada’s Gita as the most visible (19 million copies have been sold in over 50 languages) you can buy it here if you like.
Have you participated in kirtan? What’s your experience?