OM: Kirtan and Beyond
Over the years, music has taught me that you don’t need to understand why or how a piece affects you the way it does to appreciate its effect on you. Instead, what’s most important is to accept and rejoice in the emotion that music brings and uncovers within. What draws so many people to musicianship and performance is the power to channel emotion through sound so that it can be accessed and internalized by another, regardless of place and time. To do this, a performer must be one with art; there must be free communication between skills of the mind and inspiration from the soul. Musicians respect and revere this communion.
The majority of the public is not trained in music theory or performance. Especially here in the US, where jam-packed stadiums are common occurrences for larger acts, there is a growing separation between performer and audience. Yet, in many places throughout the world, the relationship between performer and audience is far different. Contrary to the traditional idea that a musician delivers a work of art to listeners, many populations have musical traditions that not only lessen the distance between performer and audience, but at times involve and completely blur the boundary between artist and consumer. Although this can occur in secular environments where music is heavily stylistically dependent on call and response or dance, such as with Hip-Hop and many Latin genres, almost all of these instances have heritage and culture that can be traced back to devotional song.
Just beginning to take root here in the US, Kirtan is a form of chanting that has been practiced for centuries in India as a method for any person to open their spiritual side to others and connect with one’s own spirituality outside of a traditional religious setting. Although Kirtan is a Hindu practice and chants are recited in the ancient language Sanskrit, it has been adapted into other languages local to the Indian subcontinent, such as Punjabi (used by Sikhs, practitioners of the distantly related religion Sikhism). Many Kirtan chants are based upon traditional Hindu stories and beliefs, and invoke specific deities such as Shiva, Hanuman, and Ganesh. A common chant, called “Hare Krishna” is recited as follows:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krisha
Krishna Krisha, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama, Hare Hare
These chants, called mantras, are often accompanied by drumming or other repeated melodies played on tuned instruments. What makes Kirtan so unique and powerful, and so beloved by its participants, is the way in which it is conducted. A leader, called a Wallah, conducts the mantra, and everybody in the audience follows along aloud or in personal meditation. Mantras are repeated many times over, sometimes for hours. In this repetition, participants often claim to reach a sort of meditative bliss where reality recedes and an alternate existence takes its place. In this reality, the singular identity of an individual chanting in the crowd becomes one with the voices of all those surrounding them. A connection is formed between all those participating; it is this human connection that is believed to be symbolic of, if not directly related to, a link with the divine. The goal of Kirtan is to dissolve the boundaries that separate humans from one another and from the truth that pervades reality; by merging with sound through chanting, those who practice can realize the unity they have with one another, and take one small step closer to spreading compassion and understanding: the goal of every prophet and teacher throughout human history.
With the explosion of Yoga practice in America, Kirtan has found a growing but hesitant consumer base with which to expand its own reach. For many people Yoga is a secular pursuit, done as a means to gain strength, flexibility, and relaxation; yet, many Yogis and Kirtan practitioners disagree with the notion that a secular pursuit mustn't be a spiritual one. Both Kirtan and Yoga can be practiced without associating with Hinduism, and without betraying the rules of another religion someone may already be a practitioner of; what is key is to focus on unity with others, a unity in and with love itself, and a unity between all the elements of an individual persona that these practices develop.
Some popular Kirtan artists stick to the pervasive, tonally pure sounds traditionally found in the genre; one such artist is Bhagavan Das with the song “Radhe Govinda Bhajo”:
However, some other artists are reshaping the traditional themes of the genre and combining it with others to invigorate and redefine what devotional song can be. An English teacher of mine introduced me to Kirtan in high school during the yoga club meetings she led. We would practice to a playlist consisting of Kirtan and other spiritual music, like Reggae; one day, a particular song stuck to me. This song was “Om Namah Shivaya” by MC Yogi, and I had never heard anything like it. MC Yogi is a genre-bending artist who combines Kirtan with hip-hop, EDM, and other genres to create positive, uplifting songs of praise and inspiration. Listen to his songs “Be the Change” and “Dancing in the Sun” here:
There is a consciousness that emerges in the spaces between the sounds of tribal drums in a drum circle, a light that seeps into the world when the Rooke Chapel Choir fills the atrium with reverberant sound. Devotional song takes many forms, and comes in shapes and sizes that fit everybody in some way. Kirtan has begun to fill this niche in my musical soul, and has provided me an outlet to explore my own spirituality and religious practices. Regardless of your beliefs, Kirtan and other styles of music offer a seemingly infinite number of paths to relaxation, joy, and love; and all it takes to get started may just be a little “OM”.
Image via Wikipedia. Other Citations: Hare Krishna Sanskrit : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hare_Krishna_(mantra)#/media/File:Hare_Krshna_(Mahamantra).png