Put simply Kirtan is the means by which one can effortlessly pierce through the chaos and layers of the mind to reach the heart. By constantly singing powerful simple mantras with enchanting melodies, kirtan allows us to delve into the depths of our being. It opens up the love, intensity and innocence we all carry inside of us.
All of us are troubled with incessant thoughts. We have desires and fears which can easily overpower us. The whole purpose of Yoga, as Pantanjali puts it, is ‘Chitta vritti Nirodha’ or to still the fluctuations of the mind. The mind is the key that unlocks the treasures of our soul. Meditation and various other techniques can often demand significant discipline and rigid concentration. But kirtan is different, with other forms of Yoga one has to strive for mastery of the senses and mind. However, kirtan is the thing that directly captures the heart. All one needs to do is to be open. There is no exertion or frustration of effort. The constant repetition of mantra to elevating music naturally transforms our state of consciousness.
Mantras are specific sounds formulated to cross over the mind. They have not been composed but have been revealed to spiritual Masters. Most mantras are in Sanskrit, where every syllable is potent with spiritual vibration. By constantly repeating them, our mind participates in this same vibration and begins to get transformed by it. In this way the mantra becomes a gateway to a transcendent space.
The kirtan mantras are usually in praise of different deities such as Krishna or Rama. In eastern philosophy the one supreme principle or God is revealed in a number of ways. Each deity is a facet, a portal to the ultimate. Krishna for instance is the all attractive, stealer of hearts, while Durga is the divine mother, the embodiment of grace. The different names and forms of God correspond to different ‘bhavas’ or devotional feeling. Bhakti Yoga is the whole process of awakening and nurturing these different ‘bhavas’ until we experience the supreme state of unconditional love for life, humanity and God. Examples of different kirtan chants are ‘Om Namo Narayana’ ‘Govinda Gopala’ ‘Radha Krishna’ ‘Sita Ram’. But there are many more.
Kirtan is not just chanting. The use of music and rhythm provides a captivating context for the mantra to work. The various tunes and beats build an atmosphere to create different moods. Sometimes kirtans can be joyous and full of celebration. Other times they can be deep and intense. Added to this kirtan is not just a private affair. By singing together in a congregation the vibrational effect of the mantra, and the impact of the music is amplified. Like mirrors next to a candle, the spiritual upliftment of one person naturally influences those around. This is the purpose of satsung – being in the company of other positive, spiritual people.
History of Kirtan
It is difficult to track the origins of kirtan. The ancient Puranic scriptures such as the Srimad Bhagavatham mention it as one of the nine forms of devotional expression. They speak of celestial sages like Narada who continuously sings the name ‘Narayana’ whilst strumming on his stringed instrument. Some 1500 years ago the Alvar saints of south India were famed for their ecstatic poetry and songs. But it was around the 15th and 16th centuries that kirtan really became the centre piece of devotional practice. There were numerous great personalities like Tukaram, Kabir, and Chaithanya Mahaprabhu who expressed their sublime states of Divine love. They inspired whole traditions which taught that within the names of God there is a secret, a secret which is no different to God Himself. Through kirtan they transformed the lives of the masses, and turned their hearts to a higher purpose.
The beauty of kirtan is that there is no qualification needed. The Bhakti saints broke through all barriers of birth, religion and gender through their kirtan revolution. One does not need to be an expert singer, a serious Yoga expert or a philosopher. Kirtan works through call and response. The lead singer sings the mantra, and the crowd follows. As the tempo builds one is free to clap, sing louder and even dance. Whether you believe in the deity, or whether you understand the mantra being sung or not, the process of kirtan does its work. The only thing required is a willingness to participate, and a desire to connect.
To perform kirtan one can do it as simply or as grand as one likes. Just two or three people can be enough. In most sessions there is an instrument to play the melody such as a harmonium or keyboard. There is some form of percussion such as a mrdanga and there are bells which keep the rhythm. Often there are whole kirtan festivals and concerts, where electric guitars, violins and saxophones are also played (link to Just Love festival).
Bhakti Marga UK Kirtan Singing
In the BMUK kirtan is sung in a variety of ways. Often the mantras are centred on the names Radha and Krishna as well as Narayana. The chants start slow and build up often to a very fast energetic pace, where everyone is clapping and joining in. The music is spontaneous often breaking out into different mantras and melodies in the middle of the kirtan.
Examples of the different kirtan sessions we do can be found in the CDs we have produced and the links below.