My Introduction to Kirtan
My then yoga teacher, Gopali Vaccarelli, who is an incredibly gifted teacher and has been a major spiritual influence in my life, first introduced me to Kirtan in 2006. I had never heard of Kirtan before, but all I knew was that it involved the practice of chanting mantras and other words from the Indian/Hindu cultures. It sounded exotic and fascinating, and I was eager to learn more about the yogic philosophy, so I enthusiastically told her that I would be attending the Kirtan workshop she was hosting at her studio the following week. Gopali had invited her spiritual teacher and mentor, Suzin Green, to lead the Kirtan that evening as Suzin had made a career out of sacred spiritual work and often used mantra and Kirtan as part of her personal spiritual practice and in her healing work with clients and individuals.
I entered into Gopali’s studio that night, found a spot, and tried to settle into the moment. There I sat before Suzin, a woman who radiated spiritual energy and compassion, and listened to a sound that I had never heard before: the drone of a harmonium. From the first pump of the bellows, I felt my soul transported to another world. For two hours we sang and chanted with Suzin’s amazing voice leading us, and the otherworldly, ethereal sound of her harmonium opening up the portal to a higher plane of existence. I felt completely transformed and in absolute awe of the experience I had just had, and didn’t know what to do next! I continued to practice yoga with Gopali, learning more about mantra and yogic chanting and this approach to meditation. I had tried to meditate before, but found the process intimidating and impossible. But now, with mantra and chanting, I had a mental tool to assist me in my meditative journey. Suddenly I had a very easy way to enter into meditation, and felt I had found a new way of studying and experiencing spirituality.
At the same time, I knew I had to study more with Suzin! After speaking with Gopali I learned that at the time Suzin held a weekly mantra and meditation group in Princeton, and I diligently attended every work for almost a full year. I felt I had found my new church, my new congregation. The people who attended were just as interested as I was in this style of spiritual practice, and the room hummed with our combined energy and desire for something deeply personal and profound. I learned so much about the Divine during that time, and began to create for myself a new spiritual practice. Sadly after that year I wasn’t able to continue to attend Suzin’s classes as my work scheduled changed. But I was hooked and was not about to let this feeling and experience go! I spoke with Suzin about how I could continue to practice Kirtan and sacred chanting, and with her guidance purchased my own harmonium and began to slowly learn how to play this exotic and wonderful instrument.
Since that first evening of being exposed to this incredible practice, chanting with the harmonium remains one of my most precious and important forms of spiritual expression. When I chant, especially with the sound of the harmonium accompanying me, I feel like I am transcending the realms of the physical and am beginning to reunite with God. My mind changes, my thoughts stop, and I merge back with the Divine. It actually reminds me of the writings of the experiences of St. Teresa of Avila; St. Teresa being overcome with the rapturous presence of God and would levitate from the ground in a state of spiritual ecstasy. And while I haven’t had this experience yet myself (although perhaps someday I will!), it has shown me a different side of spiritual experience. Too often prayer and spiritual communion is presented as somber and serious and almost sad, but when I am practicing my mantra with the harmonium I commune with God in a way that is full of joy and ecstasy and incredible joy. It is for this reason, and for all of these other reasons that I have chosen to share Kirtan with you and with the class for my final project.
A Brief History of Kirtan
Kirtan is a relatively new practice, being only about 500 years old or so, although it is possible that it is older than that. However, it is agreed that approximately 500 years ago in 1506 the Indian saint Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu popularized the practice of Kirtan while India was going through its Renaissance period. The word Kirtan transliterates from Sanskrit to mean, “to glorify.” Also known as sankirtan (to glorify in the presence of others), Kirtan is typically practiced in a large group or sanga which adds to its spiritual nature by acting as a force to bring people together and share in the moment as an integrated whole.
The act of adding a musical/harmonious nature to the repetition of sacred Hindu mantras is very unique to Kirtan, as up until this time in history mantras were not practiced with any kind of accompanying music or rhythm. Mantra, which comes from the Sanskrit root words mana ‘the mind’, and tra ‘to deliver’, is a commonly utilized practice in many Eastern religions as a way to “deliver the mind” from the chains from material obsessions and instead give passage for the mind to achieve a higher state of spiritual consciousness. Thus mantra was and still is seen as a profound sacred tool in the act of uniting one’s mind with the greater spiritual aspects of the Universe. However, to properly chant and recite a mantra to receive its deepest benefits, the mind must be calm and clear and peaceful. Chaitanya introduced the musical and singing qualities to the act of reciting mantra as a way in which to calm and control the processes of the mind.
There is also some thought that Kirtan pre-dates Chaitanya, going back as early as the 6th century. Like many early religious traditions, Hinduism had a strong patriarchal influence along with the caste system that was present throughout much of India’s history. These two factors worked together to prevent anyone from learning from the sacred Hindu texts in India unless they were a male child born into one of the upper caste levels. However, this began to change around the 6th century when poets began to travel throughout India singing verses from the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads to share the spiritual wisdom with others. This not only introduced the deeper teachings of Hinduism to the greater population, but did so in a musical manner.
Ultimately, the practice of Kirtan was introduced to the West in the early part of the 20th century as yogis and yoginis began to travel the world to teach the philosophies and practices of Indian culture, Hinduism, and the practice of yoga. Kirtan especially began to take off in this country in the 1960s when the hippie movement grew and members were looking to embrace the spiritual outlook and cultural traditions of the East. George Harrison in particular is credited with introducing a larger portion of the American population with the release of his single “The Hare Krishna Mantra”, which again works to blend the ancient art of mantra repetition with music and singing. From there, Kirtan has become a common practice in many yoga studios, Indian cultural centers, and Hindu temples.
However, it must be mentioned that the Indian/Yogic/Hindu cultures do not hold a copyright on the practice of spiritual devotion through the practice of chanting and singing. As Russill Paul writes, “Every culture has its own form of sonic mysticism. Gospel music manifests the spiritual power of sound, as do symphony orchestras, Hebrew cantors, Sufi Qawwali singers, Siberian shamans, Benedictine monks, and the Tibetan Gyuto choir…Many ancient cultures viewed physical illness as a lack of harmony in the body; they used sound and music to restore its natural condition.”
Overall, one of the aspects of Kirtan that has been so profoundly rewarding and spiritually nourishing for me is that it can be both a private practice and a congregational practice. There is nothing quite like being immersed in a large group of fellow chanters singing and meditating on the various names of the sacred Divine. But there can be just as much reverie and awe sitting alone and becoming fully engulfed in your own personal practice. The flexibility and fluidity and adaptability of a practice like Kirtan is, to me, a deeply important aspect for a sustainable spiritual practice to have. To become stuck and stagnant in a rut of “well this is what is done” can quickly drain away the precious quality of a spiritual practice, and with Kirtan there is no typical or normal. I have never been to two groups who practiced the same way, or even had my own private practice ever go exactly the same way from one day to another.
Kirtan is alive and malleable and adapts and grows as you yourself grow, and I can see and understand the process of my spiritual advancement and evolution as I see my Kirtan practice evolve and change as well. It is always available to me, even if I am in an environment full of noise and chaos I can allow the chanting to start in the quiets of my own mind and practice without anyone having to know. It is deeply personal, there is no right or wrong way to practice, and is a constant reminder of the peace and joy that can be obtained when one begins to move into a space closer to the Divine.
And what is so beautiful about the practice of Kirtan is that it does not require intellectual and logical understanding and study. Unlike other spiritual practices which demand a “right mind”, to chant in Kirtan requires no cerebral understanding of the meaning or transliteration of the mantra. As David Frawley writes, “Sanskrit mantras have an objective connection between sound and sense. Even if we do not know what they mean, we can benefit from their energetic quality if we cant them with an open mind. Their meaning will becomes clear to us in time. Such meanings are not dictionary meanings but connections to the cosmic energy and to the Divine Word.”
No matter what direction my spiritual path takes me next I know that my Kirtan will always be a part of the process. It has sent deep roots right into the core of my heart, and is as much a part of my being now as my bones and my breath. I love it, I thank it for coming into my life, and I am grateful for the bridge it is helping me to build between God and myself. Kirtan is for me, and in my experience for so many others, a pathway out of the world of suffering and the illusion of death and impermanence. To conclude, I would like to end with one of my favorite Kirtan mantras, the Maha Mrtunjaya Mantra, which is a Kirtan mantra associated with nurturing, rejuvenation, and healing by eliminating fears of death and loss. Some consider it to be the great mantra to become immortal. But since we are all of us already immortal at our core, I like to think that this mantra helps us to remember our immortality. Enjoy!
urvārukam-iva bandhanān mṛtyormukṣīya māmṛtāt
Shelter me, Oh three-eyed Great Lord Shiva. Bless me with health and immortality, and deliver me from death as the gardener delivers and frees a cucumber from its creeper.