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.
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.