Westernizing Kīrtan

English: Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who was bor...

Kīrtan is transcendental affair.

There are many types of Kīrtan, but I would like to focus this post on nāma-kīrtana – especially Hare Krishna mahā mantra nāma-kīrtana which is particularly dear to Śrī Krishna Caitanya and the centerpiece of his bhakti movement.

The soul expresses divine love for all attractive Krishna by calling out, from the heart of hearts, the affectionate names of the divine beloved. Hare Krishna – “Śrī Rādhe, please make me attractive to All-Attractive Krishna!” Hare Rāma – “Śrī Rādhe, please make me enjoyable to your All-Enjoyable Rāma!”

There is no need for music.

Nāma Kīrtan does not rely on music, it is transcendent. It relies on nothing but itself.

Nonetheless, the emotional nature of calling out the beautiful names of the beloved will invariably make one want to decorate those names with melody. So one begins to sing. Then, one will want to decorate the melodies with textures and rhythms, so one takes musical instruments. One will find it all still insufficient to express the emotions pertaining to the named, so one will seek the aid of movement and will begin to sway, gesture, and dance during nāma-kīrtana. 

It is not that musical instruments, rhythms, melodies, gestures and dancing creates kīrtan. That is the backward superficial notion of imitators! Bhāva, genuine devotional sentiment, creates kīrtan and instruments, rhythms, melodies, gestures and dances flock to the kīrtan as maidservants to a queen – seeking to assist the beautiful expression of divine emotion.

Form does not generate substance, rather substance generates form.

The instrumentation, manner of playing, and types of dancing must augment and not clash with the devotional sentiment generating the kīrtan. This is what makes the difference between one person experiencing spiritual sweetness in a kīrtan for a short time, vs. hundreds of people experiencing divine rapture in kīrtan for hours and hours on end. If the maidservants who come to assist the kirtan are kalavatī – skilled artists, sensitive to the subtleties of expression and emotion – the kīrtana-rasa will amplify to a tidal wave that engulfs everyone nearby for a very long period of time. But if the maidservants are distracted by their own frog-like beauties and spotlights, seeking to assert their own egos, there will be nothing but a fizzle, and even the kīrtan experience of the sincere participant will be disturbed.

I am a hardcore metal-thrash-punk rock musician, among other things. I will tell you that some of the more profound kīrtan moments I have experienced were in the context of distorted guitars. For example, the seventh verse of Mahāprabhu’s śikṣāṣṭaka – yūgāyitam nimiṣeṇa… – combined with the gambhira mood in which this verse was often recited by him… the dissodent, cacophanous, anarchistic sounds of feedback and broken guitars and twisted metal strings is extremely suitable to augment that emotional content.

English: George Harrison in the Oval Office du...

Yet, I also have to tell you that, if I hear a guitar strumming along with a kīrtan, my taste for the kīrtan is challenged. The servants of Kīrtan have to be very sensitive. It is not a black and white affair, that simply because George Harrison could make a few songs that Śrīla Prabhupāda liked, or simply because 108 could produce a somewhat spiritually viable version of the seventh verse of śikṣāṣṭaka set to modern heavy rock… therefore lets bring drum kits and synthesizers and guitars and campfires and marshmellows into the temple room for our 24 hour kīrtana festival. It’s not black and white like that.

An artist is expected to be a sensitive fellow – sensitive to subtleties.

Different musical instruments have different psychological connotations – as a combination of both  the intrinsic nature of the sound waves they produce and the extrinsic nature of the manner in which they have been commonly used in the culture of the audience. If you match the right instrumental connotation with the right emotional context you perform an important service to nāma-kīrtan. If you clash the two, you do a serious disservice.

If the kīrtan is expressing extreme viraha-bhava then it is quite delicious to bring in supportive artistic elements that are dissodant, heavy, slowing, and even distrubing. If the kīrtan is expressing sweetness and a sense of association with Krishna, then such elements are not appropriate – at that time one must play sweet, light instruments, lightly, carefully, with sparkle and delicacy.

Persons who have no sense of taste are not artists and shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the artistic supportive development of a kīrtan. Kīrtan is our primary devotional service. Let’s take it seriously! Just as we don’t just let anyone onto the altar, or into the kitchen or onto the vyāsāsana or into our homes, similarly we shouldn’t let just anyone pick up just any instrument and dictate how the kirtan will go.

Of course, there is mahā-rāsa-līlā – everyone is invited. But more commonly, only Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī’s close friends can attend the normal rāsa-līlās taking place daily. Similarly, sometimes we can and must go out on the street and welcome anyone and everyone’s participation in kīrtan in any which way they might be inclined to participate. But this is not a daily affair. In our daily kīrtan sādhana, only dedicated devotees chanting fixed numbers of rounds daily for significant periods of time and showing clear devotional quality should be permitted to lead kīrtan, and only similarly dedicated devotees with musical aptitude and artistic sensibility should be allowed to accompany the kīrtan  with music and dance. If there are no such qualified persons then no music and dance is at all required. 

Those who are not at this level should, of course, not be ignored or excluded, but they should be affectionately taught how to follow the lead set by the kīrtan leaders (bhāva, melody, rhythm, and dance). The prime spiritual necessity of the Krishna Consciousness movement is to chant the pure name with deep and sincere sentiment. The prime practical necessity is to train those with some actual talent on musical instruments that are fit to accompany Kīrtan.

Therefore great practical and moral support should be shown to the 24 Hour Kīrtan department of ISKCON Vṛṇdāvana – for it has been performing this all important service for 27 years now.

The idea of “Westernizing Krishna” is not at all agreeable to me. It reminds me of Kīrtanānanda’s colossal failures. The “Krishna West” movement seems to me a less religious, more scholastic and secular reincarnation of Kīrtanānanda Swāmī’s interfaith blunder. Westernization of Kīrtan is an offshoot of this general trend.

Ultimately the idea that Krishna transcends culture and therefore can be accessed by any cultural mediums is prone to nirviśeṣa-vāda – the impersonal idea that he has no intrinsic qualities. Krishna is actually an inexpressible transcendental reality – but the Rūpānuga Sāmpradāya has expressed his intrinsic qualities through specific (exquisitely beautiful) cultural metaphors and mediums. We are supposed to follow rāgātmikās – persons who realize Krishna in a manner that we covet. Sri Caitanya Mahāprabhu is the foremost rāgātmikā. Others derive their value from the strength and intensity of their connection to him. Śrī Rūpa, for example. We want their realization of Krishna – and divorcing it from their cultural context is not likely to be successful.

I hope one day to make some contribution to humanity in the English language that is somewhat deserving to be slightly comparable to the incalculably beautiful poetic, artistic cultural accomplishments in Bengali and Sanskrit by Krishna dāsa Kavirāja, Raghunātha dāsa Goswāmī, Śrī Rūpa, and Śrī Viśvanātha (not to mention, of course, Śrīla Śukadeva). But this is not done, I don’t think, by studying English literature, it is done by studying their literature, and their cultural context. Similarly I don’t think it is at all impossible to play the guitar or djembe or accordion in a manner that would beautifully express and augment the sentiment of a pure devotional kīrtan. But it is not done by playing them in their common way. It would be done by studying the devotional music of ācāryas and allowing those concepts to express themselves through western instruments.

To be frank, the calibre of musicianship required to take a non-standard instrument like a guitar and play it in a way that augments kīrtana-rasa for those with any substantial nāma-rāsikatvā is far far higher than the calibre required to take a traditional instrument and play it nicely. So  my practical advice to any musician who sincerely seeks to use their talents in divine service to Śrī Krishna Nāma is to first spend a significant amount of time with the 24-hour Kīrtan Maṇḍala in Vṛṇdāvana, in the mood of learning how they use tāla and rāga to augment the bhāva of the Kīrtan. Then, when you are confident that you are significantly accomplished, try to use the instrument you prefer in light of the art you have learned.

Or, my other advice, is to simply use the right instrument for the right context. If you are a good rock musician in a rock hall full of rock lovers, it’s great to plug in a Marshal Fullstack and let it rip. If you are in a temple… c’mon, lose the western stuff.

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7 Comments

  1. Prabhu, this is one of the most salient parts from your post, “Yet, I also have to tell you that, if I hear a guitar strumming along with a kīrtan, my taste for the kīrtan is challenged.” My instant reaction was – Why impose your taste on others? If you have a preference for offering rice and dal to Krishna – awesome! But why discourage a devotee who might want to offer lasagna? It may not resonate with you – but if a guitar could awaken in some devotees a spiritual sentiment, then why would you not use the guitar in Krishna’s service? I strongly believe that not only should various instruments be accepted and used in various venues, but that in fact it’s our duty to take up guitars, accordions, saxophones and etc to make Krishna consciousness more accessible across the entire world. It’s the compassionate thing to do. HK!

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    1. Very good point.

      Ātmāvān manyate jagat. We are conscious. We are alive. We are humans, etc. Therefore we expect that we have much in common with other living entities who are humans, etc. By introspection into our own psychologies we expect that there will be similarity in the psychologies of other human beings.

      If accordion awakens in me the feeling of being in a Russian Bar, for example, we by extension assume, naturally, that it will have a similar effect on the consciousness of other human beings with similar backgrounds as us. If guitar makes us think more of Joni Mitchell than Mahāprabhu, we expect that it has the same effect on the consciousness of others who are similar to us.

      Of course we know that each individual is different, and what is true for one is not true for all.

      In the article I also state that it is very good to perform kīrtan in all genres, in all venues, for all audiences – but that this must be done with artistic sensitivity to the context. Rather than repeating the concept here, I might request you to review the article looking for it.

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  2. Interesting article as always! It brought up a couple of things that I have heard before and have thought about-How important are the cultural and historically specific musical elements in the glorification of the transcendent Lord?
    Some thoughts: the harmonium is not a vedic instrument, and was even banned from All India Radio from 1940-1971- yet it has now been widely accepted for use in worship-and can be seen prominently in most temples.. We see that the modern day Gospel music of Christianity in the west is practically completely divorced from it’s cultural musical roots of the middle-east.
    Is clutching to traditional instruments from a certain period in human history a sign that we are retaining some kind of purity in our relationship with God? We are eternally unique individual souls, but is our expression of love to the Supreme Person only appreciated if we use musical instruments used- while He was on the planet? And if so – which incarnation from which yuga? Is he not eternally present with us?
    Not sure what the conclusion is, I am all for keeping with traditional instruments-nothing has worked better for me so far-but who can say for the future? ys Vraja Dhama das

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    1. It’s not exactly about keeping traditional instruments – its about focusing on the bhāva of the kīrtana, and being careful to support and not detract from that via the melody, rhythm, instrumentation and dance that we attempt to contribute to it.

      It happens to sound like “traditional instruments vs modern instruments” because it’s easier to support the bhāva of the kīrtan in most contexts when the instruments are traditional. But that’s incidental, it’s not the point of the article. The article makes the point that metalic distorted guitars can be effective for supporting the bhāva of kīrtan in certain circumstances – it is not “anti-modern” or “conservative.”

      The harmonium is a good example that of a modern instrument with origins outside India that has made its way into the “inner circle” of many kīrtans. However please note that the harmonium in these kīrtana’s (a) is actually nothing like the harmoniums of europe from which they are descended, the indians completely modified the instrument, and (b) it is not played with european style of sensibility, it is played with a raga-informed style.

      The harmonium, like ANY instrument, can be played or misplayed. It can support the bhāva of a kīrtan or work against it. Part of what decides this is the musicianship, but the quality of the musicianship will stem from the devotional bhāva of the musician, that is the more important point.

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  3. Very informative article Prabhu, and very logical. I have a question regarding your appreciation of the 24 hour kirtan at Vrindavana. I appreciate it too, big time; but I have felt (on many occasions) that the way the mridangas are played and some of the tunes sung, they are too complex. Sometimes it feels that the more complex it is, the more it is appreciated. True, its more classical, but the focus shifts away from the Holy Name. I rarely sit in a kirtan where the singing ability and the mridanga prowess of the people involved is not a highlight.
    Do you feel that this is a real issue?
    Ys Caitanya bhava das

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    1. Whether simple or complex, the bhāva (feeling) is what is most important. Some very simple music has no soul, and some very complex music has no soul. Some very simple music is full of soul and feeling. Some very complex is full of soul and feeling. Sometimes it takes complexity to draw the attention, focus, and śraddhā. Sometimes it takes simplicity. Both complexity and simplicity have to coexist in a dynamic balance, and both to serve the bhāva (feeling) of bhakti (devotion).

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