Half of the world will read only the title and then give their opinion. To the rest of you who patiently read and consider the entire article I offer thousands of respects and heartfelt admiration for your humility and good qualities. To those who do not read patiently, I also offer my deep respects for your passion, from a respectful distance.
With the hope to please Śrī Gauracandra who inaugurated the tidal waves of saṁ-kīrtana in the ocean of transcendental bliss, who’s Moon rose yesterday; and to please his followers who have shown him to me, I wish to clarify my understanding of kīrtana.
What is “kīrtana”?
Monier-Monier Williams (the standard for English-Sanskrit definitions) defines it like this: (1) [as a noun] mentioning , repeating , saying , telling; (2) fame; (3) (also) a monument.
Kīrtana is all about kīriti – fame. “Making something famous” is kīrtana. Also, “celebrating a celebrity” is kīrtan. To use religious sounding words, kīrtana is praise and glorification.
Śrī Rūpa says that Śuka, the speaker of Bhāgavatam, is the ideal exemplar of kīrtana. That’s wild! The Bhāgavatam is a book, not a concert. There were no drums or musical instruments involved. Śuka was the speaker of the Bhāgavatam, yet he is the foremost exemplar of kīrtan.
This means that kīrtan is not dependent upon music, at all.
Sanskrit can be sung, yes. But Kīrtana can be the Bhāgavatam spoken in Sanskrit, English, Bengali, or any other language you like. Kīrtana is transcendent: it is not dependent on anything; not on music, and certainly not on any specific musical details.
Thus Haridās’ silent, whispered japa chanting is called saṁ-kīrtana in Caitanya Caritāmṛta. Thus Bhaktisiddhānta called a printing press the “greatest drum” (bṛhāt-mṛdanga). Thus Śuka (a speaker, not a singer) is extolled as the topmost exemplar of kīrtana.
Next, to the pressing question:
Can an electric guitar (et.al.) be used as a part of kirtana? Is there such a thing as a “punk rock bhajana”?
As already established, kīrtana is not dependent even on music, what to speak of being dependent on a specific style of music or specific instruments. So the answer is, yes.
The argument comes: Only mrdanga and karatala should be used in kirtan. Any other form of music is not (as) transcendental.
The reply must be, “Please define ‘transcendental.’”
There is a fundamental misconception, very difficult to shake and not entirely unproductive, that sattva-guṇa is transcendental (sattva-guṇa is “the mode of goodness” or the natural energy which makes things more clear). However, all three modes of nature exist within all things in different ratios (Gītā 14.10). No object that our material senses can touch, taste, see, smell or hear is purely in sattva. A “sattvik thing” simply has a very high ratio of sattva relative to the other two energies.
Therefore sattva is not transcendental. A special adjective has to be prefixed to the word sattva to indicate transcendence: the phrase is śuddha-sattva – goodness that exists without any ratio to the other two modes. Such a thing is the daivi-śakti, it does not exist within māyā.
On a mundane scale a classical vīṇa concert would have a huge ratio of sattva compared to a Sex Pistols concert. And a vīṇa has a higher ratio of sattva than a Les Paul guitar; a mṛdanga has more sattva than a Sonar drumkit. But none of them are transcendental.
The argument comes: But things with a high ratio of sattva more easily lead one to transcendence.
This principle is undeniably practical, but it’s roots are in karma-vāda: the ideal that our actions and efforts can liberate us. Karma-vāda is fundamentally flawed, for the infinitesimal fragmental individual soul does not possess the potency to cross the ocean of the three modes of illusion. When progressing on the path of karma towards the transcendent goal, extreme discrimination between various modes of nature is of paramount concern. Kīrtana, however, is not a product of the karma-vādī path.
Kīrtana of the name, activities, qualities, and beauty of Hari (hari-nāma-līlā-guṇa-rūpa-kīrtana) is already transcendental (Mahāprabhu told us, nāmnāmakari bahudā nija sarva śakti). The mode of goodness is an easier route to transcendence, but kīrtana is already the destination of transcendence. When you are at the destination, the relative merits of routes getting there becomes inconsequential.
So I do not embrace the idea that sounds and instruments that are not high in sattva cannot be utilized in transcendental kīrtana.
And what is “transcendental”?
Transcendent means a thing that has “moved ((a)scend) beyond (trans).” Specifically it means a thing that is outside the boundaries. More specifically it means a thing which is outside the limitations of the material world.
There is a Being outside the boundaries of our existence. He is the One from whom the Many come, upon whom they depend, and for whom they exist. That being and that being alone is transcendental. Everything else is mundane (prakṛti).
A thing becomes transcendental only by being saturated by that Being, due to being fully and purely in contact with him. Fire is fire and iron (a “heavy metal”) is iron. But if you put iron in fire, soon it will become almost identical to the fire. Besides Godhead, nothing is intrinsically transcendent. Things become transcendent only by being linked to Godhead.
So Śrī Rūpa points us to this definition:
Hṛṣikena hṛṣikesha sevanam bhaktir ucyate.
“When the senses are plugged into the master of the senses, it is transcendental love.”
He also tells us:
atha śrī krsna namaadi na bhaved grahyam idriyaih
“The name of Krsna is not within the realm of material perception.”
The transcendental name cannot be created by a bansuri flute or a mrdanga drum, nor can it be hampered by an electric guitar or screaming vocal.
sevonmukhe hi jihvado, svayam eva sphurtay adah
“The name reveals itself only upon a tongue that vibrates in divine love.”
Musical instruments cannot make the transcendental name manifest, nor can they keep him from manifesting.
What is “transcendental kīrtana”?
Transcendental kīrtana occurs when any musical or non-musical expression (in any instrumentation, genre or language) plugs into the Transcendent Being by celebrating, making famous, praising and glorifying his name, form, qualities and pastimes.
Everything is the energy of Godhead, therefore nothing is barred from being plugged into his glory and thus becoming transcendental. To stress this point Śrīla Prabhupāda famously went so far to say, “If a drunk appreciates that the taste of wine comes from Kṛṣṇa, he is Kṛṣṇa conscious.”
Nowhere is it said that only certain things can be plugged into the master of the senses. Therefore any instrument, genre, or language can be used for transcendental kīrtana.
Nonetheless Sanskrit is awfully nice, and “khol-kartala kīrtana” (musical kīrtana with just a clay two-headed drum and hand cymbals accompanying the vocal) is extremely relishable and highly recommended. Why?
Because some objects have a “negative polarity” which makes them repel from being linked to the divine. This is due to their having a low ratio of sattva relative to the other two energies of nature. Although a drunk can become Kṛṣṇa conscious by drinking wine, still we aren’t often advised to go to the liquor store to improve our spiritual lives. This is because some things (non-sattvik things) are more difficult to plug into Godhead.
Difficult is different than impossible. But it is best to advise the general public towards the easier path. The easiest path for musical kīrtana is to use instruments that very easily lend themselves to being plugged into the divine. The khol and karatāla are traditionally very well suited for this, and even today their spiritual connotations cannot be denied.
Thus traditional khol-karatala kīrtana is the most often recommended manner of conducting kīrtana. And we cannot overlook that it is essential to keep connected to the pulse of one’s roots. But this does not mean that it is impossible to use other instruments, etc. In fact one need not use any musical instrument at all.
Srila Prabhupada translated many Sanskrit books into English, but he went out of his way to keep the original Sanskrit in each, and to make it very accessible to westerners. This shows a spirit of wanting to expand the original without entirely replacing it. Similarly, I think we should desire to see kirtan blossom and expand in every genre, instrumentation, and venue; but without it replacing the original forms that go back to Mahaprabhu’s time and before that as well.
There is only one thing that must be the foundation of every kirtan, forever, everywhere: bhakti (loving devotion). Bhakti is the yoga, the link itself, the means of “plugging in” to the transcendent. Without bhakti nothing is kīrtana, and with bhakti everything is kīrtana.
Thank you very much for your valuable time and attention.