“Kirtan is easy”? Westernized Kirtan?

English: Promotional poster for Mantra-Rock Da...
English: Promotional poster for Mantra-Rock Dance musical event

I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea often heard – “yoga/meditation is too difficult, so do kirtan.” Kīrtan is not an alternative to yoga/meditation – Kīrtan IS yoga/meditation.

Singing, dancing and music – these are peripheral parts of kirtan. The core of kīrtan is bhakti (pure love). Bhakti (the real thing) simply does not come from ahankara (ego). Engaging in kīrtan without expressing pure bhakti is not actually kīrtan. It is kīrtan-abhāsa – it “resembles” kīrtan. The kīrtan that is, genuinely, “yoga” is not the semblance of kīrtan – it is the pure thing, the real thing, śuddha-nāma-kīrtan.

Singing, dancing and playing music is fun and easy, sure – but is that “kirtan yoga”? Not exactly. The genuine article is produced by bhakti, and bhakti is produced from the śuddha-sattva – the purified soul. A soul is not purified without extreme endeavor.

Therefore real kīrtan is accomplished only after practicing extreme humility and self-sacrifice, and regularly, progressively hearing carefully about Krishna from someone who really deeply comprehends Krishna, and learning the meaning, deeply, of the Hare Krishna mantra – and meditating on that meaning with a purified heart while one chants.

The padma purāṇa states

ataḥ śrī kṛṣṇa-nāmādi na bhaved grahyam indriyai / sevonmukhe hi jihvādau svayam eva sphuraty adah – “Krishna’s name (and so on) is not within the grasp of the senses. It can manifest from the voice of the chanter only when he or she has an attitude of purified love.”

Any kirtan will be fun, because singing and dancing is fun. But profound, earthshattering, destiny altering elightenment and utter transformation can be had when we cultivate kīrtan within a context of bhakti-sadhana – especially, japa of the mantra we are singing in kīrtan must be performed regularly. For this one must put in the hard work, sit in asana, do pranayama, release the extraneous thoughts (pratyahara), adopt the devotional identity in relation to the mantra (dharana), produce and contemplate the mantra repeatedly (dhyana) and become intimate with it (samadhi). The experience of kīrtan by one who regularly pracitces serious mantra-japa cannot be compared to the experience (or the results) of a person who does it because it’s easier, more fun, or more social than the “other yogas.”

Westernized Kirtan

Another comment I would like to make is about westernized kīrtan. From 1991-2010 I was in a band, “108” which composed original bhajanas (devotional songs) in the hardcore punk-metal genre. I’m not a victorian or ultra-conservative. I know that it is quite possible to have a profound spiritual effect using any instrument and any genre.

Nevertheless you have to note that every object has a corresponding psychological-emotional effect. The psychological effect from the sound of a guitar is quite different from the psychological effect from the sound of a clay mṛdanga. The effect, for almost everyone, of hearing a guitar is to feel like rocking out, or hippying out, or whatever. The effect of hearing a clay mṛdanga – for example (or a vina or some other authentic Indian instrument) transports us out of our identity and puts us in an exotic mental and emotional space where it is far easier to realize that “I am not this body, I am a beautiful spiritual being with a specific exciting relationship to that gorgeous, enchanting being, Krishna” Therefore kīrtan with western instruments is not as beneficial as kīrtan with Indian instruments.

Reply to a comment elsewhere:

The clay mrdanga and bell-metal karatala is intimately associated, for centuries, with Kṛṣṇa-nāma kīrtana. The guitar and so on are assocaited with rock and roll. You don’t need pramana to know this, you need common sense. You also need just a slight understanding of how psychology works. Objects produce psychological effects due to their direct or indirect associations. Everyone can experience this first hand. Hearing the khol-karatala played by a person with expertise in the cultural heritige of that musical style, to accompiany ragas that are also of the similar cultural heritage produce an involuntary psychological stimulous that cannot be compared (for its value to the practice of bhakti yoga) to the psychological effect from hearing a snare drum and guitar, etc.

Sorry, prabhu’s – I’ve been there and done that. I was in 108. I know that spiritual effects can be accomplished using a guitar, drums, etc. I know that there is spiritual power and merit in the kind of thing 108 did. However, the effect of an Indian instrument played by a talented player skilled in the art of raga and tala sets the right upddipana for bhakti rasa especially in srngar-bhava. You can study the bhakti rasamrta sindhu to understand this pramana. To equate the spiritual power and merit of a guitar with the spiritual power and merit of a mrdanga and karatala played properly is an artifact of ego.

We are born in the west. Therefore we are attached to western culture. We have yet to realize that we are not these bodies. Our attachment to sounds and tastes etc. that are contemporanous and complimentary with our temporary illusory ego is an anartha.

There is also pramana for this by Viśvanātha Cakravartī but I forget the exact reference. He speaks of the importance of Tāla (tempos, beats) and Rāga (melodic phraseology) in evoking the bhāva that is conducive to śṛṇgar bhakti rāsa. Maybe someone who reads this knows what I am talking about and can clarify. My Gurudev, Dhanurdhara Swami references this frequently when he speaks, for the past few months.

This conversation has continued in Westernizing Kīrtana.

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  1. Yes, I have compared my own response to western-generated form of kirtan vs more traditional form using classical instruments. There are subtle differences that are actually quite palpable. I feel more “whole and centered” while listening to or chanting in the traditional style.


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