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Kirtan – the Yoga of Music


What is Kirtan Yoga?

Kitzie Stern:
Kirtan is a very different kind of music.  Based on ancient chants, it has the ability to quiet the mind if listened to with intention.  Everyone experiences kirtan differently, and it doesn’t have to be a religious experience.  You can think of it as a sing-along.  A kirtan concert is not your typical concert either.  Everyone sits on the floor, although chairs are usually available.  The performers are accessible, in fact there’s not much of a distinction between performers & audience.  The leader sings the mantra, and the audience sings it back.  A single chant can go on for up to forty minutes.  As you sing with each other you experience a deep connection with the musicians, the other audience members and yourself.  And when the music stops, your mind is quiet.

Because kirtan has roots in India, many of the songs are sung in Sanskrit.  Some I choose for the New World Kirtan podcast are also in Punjabi, the language of the Sikhs.  If you’ve ever chanted responses in Latin or Hebrew in your religious tradition, then you know how powerful singing in an ancient, holy language can be.  You can be completely immersed in the sound, with no words to distract the mind.  The magic of the chants can then carry you within. Kirtan is non-denominational, the Universal language of Spirit, the song of the Soul.

When I discovered kirtan I was burned out as a singer and a performer. Kirtan changed that. I produce podcasts for “New World” because my life has changed, and is continuing to change, because I sing kirtan. It’s a simple practice that brings profound benefits, and I want more people to know about it.

Gaura Vani:

Kirtan is a form of devotional chanting whose roots go back over 500 years to India. It is a form of Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion) and has the power to open the heart. The singing is accompanied by musical instruments and rhythmic drumming and the audience is encouraged to participate by chanting, clapping and dancing. You will not be able to resist the urge to join in! In its heartfelt expression kirtan can induce profound states of meditation, bliss and ecstasy. There is a sweet sound vibration that permeates through all layers of coverings and makes God dance. That sound vibration is Kirtan. It is a mysterious connection that draws people to each other.

In a simple word, Kirtan is relief. It has been described as the beating of the heart of the soul. For the twenty-first century person living in the west, life is all about the pursuit of happiness. We are guaranteed life and liberty, but kirtan is the means and end toward achieving the happiness that people are searching for. Through the chanting of the names of God, kirtan awakens the soul to its natural position, connects with God, clears the heart of all the distractions that can stress one living in this high tech age, and at the very least, make a person feel better about their day through the wonderful music.

Kirtan is not exclusive to simply those in Indian attire or those who practice yoga. Anyone can join in at any time and joyfully sing along, clap their hands and become a key musician to this age-old art form. We strive to awaken the entire world to Kirtan. It can be performed anywhere that someone is willing to do it. A willingness to perform the Kirtan is the only requirement. Kirtan is a scientific study in the pursuit of happiness. If by the end of a thirty minute kirtan, one feels happier, then it has been a success.

The “Yoga is” Team:
Kirtan, is the singing of sacred mantras, accompanied by classical Indian instruments and some Western instruments (such as the guitar, flute, violin, saxophone). It is a call-and-response style of singing which involves the audience in the performance. The leader sings one line or verse and the guests chant in response. It  is an ancient  and well-known art to calm the mind, open the heart and connect with the Divine Consciousness. It is a practice where everybody can participate, where each can have their own personal spiritual experience.

Steven J. Rosen:

Go into any yoga studio, health food store, or New Age centre and you’ll likely find the exotic sounds of kirtan wafting through the atmosphere. Whether it’s Krishna Das crooning in his own inimitable style, Jai Uttal delivering his particular brand of East-West fusion, Vaiyasaki evoking the emotional moods of Medieval Bengal, or Sean Johnson serving up the spicy grooves of a New Orleans melody—kirtan is leaving its mark.
Its new Western form is intriguing, making prodigious use of well-established Indian motifs along with the sounds and sensibilities of diverse ethnic cultures; it combines the music of the ancient world with the tones of modernity.

Kirtan singers hail from all backgrounds, no matter whether Hindu, Islamic, Sikh, Jewish or Christian. We met a wandering musician from the islands who saw in kirtan his native Carnival made divine, and an Israeli who became a Latin pop star by way of devotional chanting. We talked to West Coast seekers who have made kirtan the central focus of their lives, and to urbane New York intellectuals who have done the same; we even walked with a New Zealander who revolutionized Eastern Europe by chanting for Gorbachev. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female, black and white. The diversity of those touched by kirtan is astounding.

In Judaism, the hazzan, or cantor, is a type of kirtaniya, directing all liturgical prayer and chanting in synagogues around the world. If no cantor is available, a less qualified “kirtaniya” is called in—known as the ba’al tefilah. This person then chants the prayers, and the congregation repeats his every utterance, as in a traditional kirtan. The basic practice comes from a principle found in the Bible (Psalms 150.4-5), “Glory ye in His holy name. Praise Him with the timbrel and dance: praise Him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise Him upon the loud cymbals.” If that’s not kirtan, what is? Indeed, one of Judaism’s greatest mystics, the Baal Shem Tov, might be considered the ultimate kirtaniya—his very name means “Master of the Good Name,” and he encouraged his followers: “Chant, chant, chant!”

Jesus, coming from the same tradition, taught his disciples how to pray: “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” This was the basis of early Christianity. In his Epistle to the Romans (10.13), St. Paul writes, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Baptist choirs and church singers take this mandate to heart, often with marked enthusiasm, embodying the essence of Indian kirtan parties.
Calling on the name became a formal part of the Roman Catholic Church during the days of Pope Gregory I (circa 540–604 C.E.). Even so, the Gregorian chant is only one of many, with the Christian tradition claiming hundreds of thousands of “mantras”—which are often recited in responsorial fashion, like kirtan. Along similar lines, Christian mystics have given the world the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me”—a continuous mantra-like incantation whose practice resembles japa, repetitive rosary chanting, in the mood of Indian sadhus.

The Muslim Qari are those who professionally recite the Koran. In tone and passion they easily bring to mind kirtan singers. Though demonstrative singing is not generally permitted in mainstream Islam, chanting to Allah is, and it is viewed as a particularly effective form of prayer. In fact, the Qari are kirtaniyas whose chanting is called tajwid—which is Arabic for “vocal music.” The ninety-nine names of Allah, called “the Beautiful Names,” are chanted on beads, inscribed on mosques, and glorified in countless ways.

In particular, the Sufis, Islamic mystics, seek to evoke God’s presence by uttering His names. This is called “Qawwali,” a form of sacred Islamic vocal music originating in Pakistan and India—an art form or ecstatic ritual based on classical Sufi texts. One of its primary functions is to guide its listeners—those who delve deeply into its poetry and meaning—to a state of ecstatic trance (wajd), much like expert kirtaniyas of old.

In Japan, followers of the Shinto religion engage in ritualistic chants, known as norito, which is their version of kirtan. Buddhist hymns are referred to as shomyo. This is a form of kirtan as well. In India, kirtan is a way of life. Sikhs, for example, view kirtan as central to their religious practice, as any google search on kirtan quickly reveals. Naturally, all forms of Hinduism make use of kirtan, too, and this is true whether we’re talking about South Indian Ramanujites or Gaudiya Vaishnavas in Bengal; Marathi devotees who glorify God as Vitthala, or Devadasis who sing to their beloved Jagannath. Call-and-response chanting is the very basis of religion, and it was developed into a meticulously well-defined system of knowledge in India.

Krishna Das:

Chanting (Kirtan) is a part of the path of Devotional Yoga.

When we see the beauty of our own being we are seeing the beauty of the Being that is the One of which we are all a part. And when we turn towards that One, love is the natural reaction of the heart.

God or Guru is an endless ocean of love truth and presence. First we may hear the distant roar of the crashing waves of the ocean and we’re drawn to that sound. As we get closer, we can smell the ocean air and taste the sweet moisture. When we reach the beach and see the ocean for the first time, we’re transfixed by the vastness and Beauty. We run and we dive in and enjoy the freedom that comes from this ecstasy. Finally we merge with that ocean of love and somehow find ourselves back on the shore, returning to ourselves so that we can share the experience with others.

Those that have returned have given us these Names of God. These Names are the sound of the surf of that Ocean of Love. They hold the power to help us find our way back to that ocean. We don’t have to create anything; we don’t have to manufacture any emotions or feelings. We can’t make it happen. It already is. All we have to do is Remember. Everyone has their own path to this beach, to the Ocean, but we all wind up in the same place. There is only one…One.

The following is an excerpt from ‘Pilgrim of the Heart’ audio series by Krishna Das:
“The words of these chants are called the divine names and they come from a place that’s deeper than our hearts and our thoughts, deeper than the mind. And so as we sing them they turn us towards ourselves, into ourselves. They bring us in, and as we offer ourselves into the experience, the experience changes us. These chants have no meaning other than the experience that we have by doing them. They come from the Hindu tradition, but it’s not about being a Hindu, or believing anything in advance. It’s just about doing it, and experiencing. Nothing to join, you just sit down and sing.”

Satsang is where people gather together to remember, to turn within and find their own inner path to the One. When we gather together to sing like this we are helping each other find our own paths. We all must travel this path by ourselves because each of us is our own path. All these paths wander on in their own way, but in truth we are all travelling together and until the last of us arrives we will all keep travelling. So let’s sing!

Sacinandana Swami:

In the olden days, it was easy to sit and meditate because there was nothing to distract you. Now, the moment you close your eyes, there will be ten garbage trucks around. When you walk around, you see so many distractions to feed your senses. Not only is the air polluted, but the entire atmosphere, even the thought forms are polluted—people think in terms of amassing wealth through duping, cheating and mugging. So, it’s very difficult not to get distracted. That is why the easiest practice for this day and age is to repeat the names of God. Chanting doesn’t require a quiet place or a particular kind of dress or a particular type of life. Bhakti Yoga is the easiest practice, because we begin with love.

In old times the most important entertainment was singing together. Especially in spiritual circles people the world over have opened their hearts to God in vibrant gospels, group chanting and singing sessions – and experienced Higher Connection.

Kirtan is the music of the soul. It offers us the genuine opportunity to enter into the presence of the Divine. This happens by the power of spiritual sound vibration. Kirtan takes our soul like a refreshing, crystal-clear river and carries it into the spiritual dimension. We need to sing and stay connected.

What is the experience like?
After some time of singing one experiences how the constant chatter of the mind stops. The profound feeling of inner peace rises to our consciousness.

As the kirtan stream continues to flow, it carries the chanter into the spiritual heart, where the soul resides, and next to it the Supreme. There it brings about an ecstatic love meeting of almost volcanic proportions: The Yoga with the Divine.

This world is held together and pervaded by vibrations, which make the tiniest subatomic parts move in different frequencies. Liberation from this world – say the ancient Vedas – also comes by the spiritual sound vibration.
Loose yourself to find yourself – join the Yoga of Music.

How does kirtan make new impressions?
“Kirtan is ultimately something which cannot be explained by words – it has to be experienced. It’s always a higher connection – even if you are not consciously feeling it. It’s alive, progressive, and rich with the fine nuances of an unfolding relationship.”

Sometimes it may act as a mirror which reveals to you the pulse of your inner life. How can you describe the relish of honey, the emotion of love, or the event of giving birth? In some mysterious way, kirtan can be compared with all of that – but then it is also completely different.

Words can show us the direction in which to look for the kirtan-experience, but only when you sit down, move towards your inner space, and then sing out, will you start to know what kirtan really is. Because at that time your soul will rise up and start to dance…”

Jai Uttal:

Kirtan is like a magnet, inviting and begging grace to enter our hearts and our lives. It is a most precious thing, something to be cherished and practiced with total gratitude, and those who learn how to enter into it will feel God’s grace and presence as the closest of the close, the dearest of the dear—our true beloved.”
“Kirtan is for all people. There are no experts, no beginners. The practice itself is the teacher, guiding us to ourselves. Kirtan allows us to enter into a mystery world-a world where all the logic of our minds, and all of the conditioning are left aside. With Kirtan, we create a temple inside the altar of our hearts, a place of refuge, a place of love, and a place of just being.”

Govinda’s Kirtan Yoga Chants (Australia):
Kirtan is a sacred soundscape that resonates deeply within creating a blissful state of consciousness. The chanting is accompanied by exotic traditional Indian instruments such as the harmonium, tablas, caratals, tamboura and sitar together with western instruments such as the guitar and flute. By meditating on the mantras we reach a state far beyond the stress and worries of this mundane world.

Vaiyasaki Das:

Kirtan, also known as sankirtan, is the call-and-response chanting inspired and popularized by the great saint Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The roots of kirtan go back over 500 years to Renaissance India. During this period the influence and style of kirtan became the focal point for the upsurge in religious expression in Bengal led by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. This joyful mood quickly spread throughout India, where today kirtan is accepted as one of the surest paths to enlightenment. The singing is accompanied by the ancient musical raga tradition with a rhythmic drumming style that transports the chanters to profound spiritual realms. In its religious fervor, it has been likened to modern American Gospel music, and in its heartfelt expression it compares to profound states of deep meditation.

Quotes from the Vedic Scriptures:

“The Holy Name of Lord Krishna is an attractive feature for many saintly, liberal people. It is the annihilator of all sinful reactions and is so powerful that save for the dumb who cannot chant, it is readily available to everyone, including the lowest type of man, the chandala. The Holy Name of Krishna is the controller of the opulence of liberation, and it is identical with Krishna. Simply by touching the Holy Name with one’s tongue, immediate effects are produced. Chanting the Holy Name does not depend on initiation, pious activities or the purascharya regulative principles generally observed before initiation. The Holy Name does not wait for all these activities. It is self-sufficient.”
– Padyavali (29) by Rupa Goswami, quoted in Chaitanya-charitamrita Madhya 15.110

“There is no vow like chanting the divine name, no knowledge superior to it, no meditation which comes anywhere near it, and it gives the highest result. No penance is equal to it, and nothing is as potent or powerful as the holy name. Chanting is the greatest act of piety and the supreme refuge. Even the words of the Vedas do not possess sufficient power to describe its magnitude. Chanting is the highest path to liberation, peace and eternal life. It is the pinnacle of devotion, the heart’s joyous proclivity and attraction, and the best form of remembrance of the Supreme Lord. The divine name has appeared solely for the benefit of the living entities as their lord and master, their supreme worshipable object and their spiritual guide and mentor.”
-Adi Purana 104-108

“I do not know how much nectar the two syllables “Krs-na” have produced. When the divine name of Krsna is chanted, it appears to dance within the mouth. We then desire many, many mouths. When that name enters the holes of the ears, we desire many millions of ears. In addition, when the divine name dances in the courtyard of the heart, it conquers the activities of the mind, and therefore all the senses become inert.”
-Rupa Gosvami, Vidagdha-madhava 1.15

“With great care, you should eagerly blend this ambrosial name of Radhika with the wonderful sweet condensed milk of the name of Krsna. Now add into that mixture the sweet fragrance of loving affection, which is both cool and delightful. Drink this nectar day and night, and you will know what true happiness is.”
-Stavavali by Raghunath Das Goswami

“The divine name of Krsna is transcendentally blissful. It bestows all spiritual benedictions, for it is Krsna Himself, the reservoir of all pleasure. Krsna’s name is complete, and it is the form of all transcendental mellows. It is not a material name under any condition, and it is no less powerful than Krsna Himself. Since Krsna’s name is not contaminated by the material qualities, there is no question of its being involved with maya. Krsna’s name is always liberated and spiritual; it is never condotioned by the laws of material nature. This is because the name of Krsna and Krsna Himself are identical.”
-Padma Purana

“The divine name of Krsna is the eternally ripened fruit on the desire tree of the Vedic scriptures, sweeter than the sweetest, most auspicious amongst all auspiciousness, the sum and substance of all scriptural knowledge. Oh best of the Bhrgus, Krsna’s name awards liberation to all human mankind if chanted even once without offense -be it with faith or with negligence.”
-Skanda Purana, Prabhasa-khanda

“My dear King, although Kali-yuga is an ocean of faults, there is still one good quality about this age: Simply by chanting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, one can become free from material bondage and be promoted to the transcendental kingdom.”
-Srimad Bhagavatam 12.3.51

“In this age of Kali there is no other means, no other means, no other means for self-realization than chanting the divine name, chanting the divine name, chanting the divine name of Lord Hari.”
-Brhan-Naradiya Purana 3.8.126

“In this age of Kali there is no religious principle other than the chanting of the Divine Name, which is the essence of all Vedic hyms. This is the purport of all scriptures.”
-Sri Caitanya-caritamrta Adi-lila 7.74

Kirtan now comes in many styles ……. 

“Krishna Krishna Krishna” by Madhavas Rock Band:

“Radha Ramana” , by Srikalogy:

“Nitai Gauranga” by the Kirtaniyas, featuring MC Yogi:

“Kulfest”  –   a performance by the second generation of westerners practicing Hari Kirtan:

“Gaura”  –   a performance by this blog’s author, Soolaba, and his 2014 band “The God Particle”:

“Only Krishna” videoclip made by Mutlu Milano & Mike Jones:

“Behind The Scenes – Summer Krishna”:

©2011 Steve M. Doyle (Soolaba)

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