Kirtan is mantra meditation as song. The Sanskrit word man means mind, while tra means to free. Mantra meditation calms your mind of fear and anxiety, and opens your heart to reveal your spiritual nature of eternity and bliss. The process of kirtan involves singing sacred mantras to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Generally, the mantras are sung a repetitive call-and-response style, where the leader sings a mantra and the audience chants in response. Thus, kirtan includes the audience in the performance. Kirtan is a culture where people can share spiritual meditation in a joint spiritual experience. This practice of repetitive prayer is present in varied forms within most spiritual traditions in the world, although the yoga tradition of India generally gives more emphasis to it as a specific discipline. Often kirtan begins with all the participants sitting meditatively, but ends with joyous dancing as kirtan awakens the natural joy of the soul.
The power of sound
Sound is invested with great potency to influence human emotion. As you turn the dial of a radio some sounds like the blues might make you sad, some sounds will make you feel upbeat and jolly, others will make you feel romantic, and others still might make you angry. Spiritual sound or mantra is invested with the potency to awaken your spiritual nature and nurture spiritual emotion.
Yoga literature explains that each of our senses relates to an element in nature, the grossest of these is earth, which is related to the sense of smell. Next is water, which is related to taste. This is followed by fire, which is related to sight. Wind is a subtler element, related to touch. Finally, the subtlest of all the elements is space, which is related to sound and the sense of hearing. When you are asleep most of your senses are dull, your sense of taste, smell, and sight are all in active. Your sense of touch is also quite dull. Of all your senses, your sense of hearing remains the most alert, which is why you set an alarm clock to wake up. Similarly, when the soul is spiritually sleeping and forgetful of Divine consciousness, the most powerful way to awaken the soul to its eternal nature is through spiritual sound. As Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher, scientist, statesman and lawyer wrote, “The sense of hearing striketh the spirit more immediately than any other senses”. The Yoga-sutras of Patanjali state, “The Divine is indicated by the syllable om. Chanting om should be conducted with understanding of its meaning. Such chanting awakens spiritual insight and destroys obstacles such as disease, procrastination, laziness, doubt, pain, nervousness, and lamentation” (Yoga Sutras: 1.27-31).
The Bhakti-yoga tradition recommend kirtan as the most effective means for penetrating the coverings of material identification, awakening the soul’s blissful spiritual nature, and reconnecting with the Divine. Such reawakening ends the cycle of birth and death, returning the successful practitioner to the spiritual world. There, according to the Bhakti tradition, the Supreme Lord is glorified with joyous singing and dancing – indicating that kirtan is an eternal spiritual principle.
Although the bhakti-yoga tradition holds kirtan as an eternal principle, it is acknowledged that in recent times, some 500 years ago, Sri Caitanya is the personality who gave particular emphasis to kirtan. Breaking major social trends he made Divine connection available to everyone without distinctions of caste, colour, or creed, giving everyone the opportunity to become fully enlightened through this simple and blissful spiritual activity. Of all mantras the most powerful and highly recommended by Chaitanya is the maha-mantra or “great chant” to free the mind: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Sri Caitanya’s biography declares, “In this Age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the Holy Name of the Lord is the Lord’s Divine incarnation. Simply by chanting the Holy Name, one associates with the Divine directly. Anyone who does this is certainly delivered” (Caitanya Caritamrta, 1.17.22). These ideas are found across spiritual traditions. For example in the Bible Ezra states, “Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice” (Chronicles 16:10). While in Psalms David declares, “Praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals” (Psalms 150:4-5). For more kirtan quotes from various spiritual teachers, yoga-texts, and spiritual traditions click here.
Kirtan in the West
The teacher Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) was one of the first spiritual teachers to introduce kirtan to the West, leading a group of singers and dancers under a tree in New York’s Tompkins Square Park through the summer of 1965. To see a film of Prabhupada singing with a group of singers and dancers in San Francisco in 1967 click here. Later Prabhupada sent disciples to Europe where they enlisted the support of Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison, who were responsible for having Hare Krishna kirtan released as a single that topped music charts around the world. Today kirtan is a worldwide phenomenon as it is becoming increasingly popular at yoga studios and even some churches around the world. In January 2009, on the day before US President Obama’s inauguration, 400 enthusiasts assembled at Washington D.C.’s Church of the Holy City within view of the White House. There they sought to usher in a new era of hope and change with a kirtan festival called “Chant4change”. To see a film of that event click here.
Not only is kirtan blissful, it is easy to perform. Even if you don’t have friends with whom to share kirtan, and your not satisfied singing along by yourself, you can engage in kirtan by responding to a singer’s chanting on a CD.