Is there anybody on the planet who doesn’t love to sing (at least in the shower or in the car)?Or, if you don’t love to sing yourself, don’t you love to listen to someone sing a heartfelt, moving song? Doesn’t the right piece of music elicit all kinds of emotions in you?
Don’t some songs seem more inspiring than others, maybe even holding the ability to allow you to feel something much greater than yourself?
A really great song can take you out of yourself and transport you to a place of expansiveness. It can take you to a peaceful place. A really great song can be truly transformational.
For me, this is kirtan.
Traditionally, kīrtan is a form of devotional music that is structured around a “call and response” method. The leader or “wallah” sings a word or phrase, and the audience sings that word or phrase back. These aren’t just any group of words placed strategically together; they are divine mantras.
These mantras are culled from ancient texts that honor the many expressions of that which is sacred or divine. These mantras are not just the sound vibration of divine energy; they are that: divine energy. So, when we chant these mantras, we are calling in the very presence of the divine. And, in a kīrtan gathering, that divine energy is palpable.
Kirtan has become very popular in the Western world in the past 10 years. Just slightly trailing the popularity of yogasana (the physical practice of yoga), kīrtan has become prevalent at yoga festivals and in yoga studios all over the world. And with its popularity, many kīrtan wallahs have recorded kirtan albums.
But the experience of live kīrtan and listening to a CD or iTunes version of kīrtan is like the difference between taking a bath in your bathtub, versus diving into the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii—no comparison.
At a live kīrtan gathering, the energy often starts as a quiet sacred prayer and builds to an ecstatic, transformational state of being. Bliss is a word that comes to mind to define this experience.
The kīrtan wallah is often channeling divine energy, as he or she chants these sacred mantras. But the wallah alone does not a kīrtan make. The leader is carried just as much by the energy of the audience as the audience is by the kīrtan leader. There is a symbiotic relationship between the wallah and the audience. There is a profound give and take as the repetition of the mantra goes on and on and builds to an ecstatic height—or a sacred depth. Kīrtan is never meant to be a performance. Kīrtan is a loving interplay between the leader, the audience, and that which is divine.
One of the really cool things about live kīrtan is that it doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself to be a good singer, because all voices blend and become one. In fact, something quite magical often happens—something called entrainment. This is when everyone present at the kīrtan begins to synchronize—voices, breath, heartbeat. Everyone becomes one with The One.
When chanting traditional kīrtan, the mantras that make up the chants are most often chanted in the ancient language of Sanskrit or Gurmukhi. This brings another magical element to the experience. Sanskrit is a vibrational language. The sound of the word is actually the quality of its meaning.
So, for example, when we are chanting, “Lokāḥ Samastāḥ Sukhino Bhavantu,” a traditional chant for peace, we actually embody peace. We are becoming peace. When we chant the word “cat,” we are not bringing a cat into the room—but when we chant the many names for God, we are calling the very presence of the divine into the room.
The tradition in kīrtan is to open the evening by honoring all of our teachers—past, present, and future—followed by an invocation to Gaṇeśa, the energy of removing obstacles and grounding us in union with that which is sacred. The kīrtan wallah now leads us on the journey of ecstatic chant.
After each mantra, there is an honored silence before beginning the next chant. This is an act of quieting all the senses to dip ourselves deep into the silence before it then progresses again to the creative impulse of sound.
The rich experience of kīrtan in its entirety takes us on that great transformational yogic journey, from the outward identification with yearning and ego, to the inward experience of fullness and peace.
At its very best, in my humble opinion, this can be a sacred journey back to the innocence of your own tender heart, opening you to a profound connection with all the other gentle hearts that are present.
To read my article as it appeared on Elephant Journal, copy and paste the link below.