Kirtan: Ancient Chants for Modern Times
If you spend any amount of time around the sacred chant community in Atlanta, you are bound to encounter the word “kirtan” in reference to large and very fun musical events. The term kirtan comes from Sanskrit, the ancient, holy language of India, and can be translated using the English words “celebrating”, “praising” and “repeating”. A kirtan event encapsulates all of these ideas, it is like a big (and often very loud) party in honor of various gods and goddesses, in which the names of those deities is chanted over and over again. The result is a state of ecstatic bliss which can be a deeply heartfelt experience for participants, while strengthening the bonds of community as like-minded spiritual seekers collaborate to build this light-filled energy together.
In the United States, kirtan is most often encountered as part of the larger yoga community and may appear, to Western eyes, to be a lot like what we would call a “concert”. There is usually a band of some sort, including singers, drummers and many other kinds of musicians playing a variety of instruments. The kirtan band usually has a repertoire of compositions which they have prepared for the event, which may be traditional Indian songs, or perhaps original pieces written by the musicians. However, once the music begins, it quickly becomes clear that something very different is happening!
First of all, you notice that most of the lyrics are in Indian languages, such as Hindi or Sanskrit. The next thing you might notice is that the words seem to be repeating over and over again, rather than forming a story like you would find in an ordinary song. Finally you discover that everyone around you is chanting along, typically in what is known as a “call-and-response” style, where one of the musicians calls out a line and everyone else responds by repeating that line back. This is all done very intentionally to make the music interactive, blurring the lines between musicians and audience, bringing everyone into the performance. The repetition of the words, along with the increasing speed and intensity of the music, creates an ecstatic, loving energy that allows a blissful expansion of consciousness to occur. Some people sit and absorb the energy in stillness, others dance wildly in response to the rhythms, everyone feels more connected, both to themselves and the rest of existence. In the end you realize that, far from being simply a concert, the kirtan is a beautifully powerful, spiritual practice.
The kirtan phenomenon has been growing rapidly in the U.S. over the past few decades. Before the 90s one might have only experienced it in an ashram or at a Hindu festival, but as the physical practices of Hatha Yoga have become more mainstream, kirtan and other aspects of yoga have also been discovered by people who are in search of deeper levels of experience. Kirtan is a part of the path of yoga known as “Bhakti”, which translates into English as “devotion”. Bhakti Yoga is an ancient practice, most notably expounded upon by the great teacher Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most revered books of Indian spiritual philosophy. In this practice, one seeks wholeness and unity through unconditional love, opening one’s heart to the divine, loving energy that is present in everything. The focus of the practice is usually an aspect of higher consciousness called a deity, often Krishna himself, or Shiva, or one of the many manifestations of Divine Mother, and a connection is created with the deity through the repetition of the deity’s mantra, a short phrase (originally in Sanskrit, but now many different languages are used) that is repeated over and over again to build the energy.
Kirtan emerged from Bhakti Yoga thanks to the efforts of a 15th century Hindu saint named Chaitanya, who fomented a revolution in India against the established order by teaching everyone that the highest state of consciousness could be attained by all, regardless of social class, simply by repeating the divine names of Krishna and Rama. Chaitanya’s revolution, the throwing off of oppressive and limiting paradigms through the simple act of chanting, was the ancestor of Gandhi’s non-violent protest movement, and the flow of that energy continues to this day around the world. You can join in by attending a kirtan at the next opportunity, letting go of your inhibitions, and allowing the vibration of divine bliss to be heard in your voice!