What is Kirtan?
Kirtan is a practice that has been practiced in India for thousands of years and has only just began to emerge in the west. There is a wide range of definitions as to what Kirtan is, but simply said; Kirtan is the singing of short Sanskrit verses - or Slokas - set to a simple melody, repeated over and over for a certain length of time.
The full name of the practice is Naam SanKirtan.
Naam means name. San means complete. The word Kirtan is comprised of two words. The first Ki means key. And the second part -rtan comes from the root Ratana which means jewels.
The prefix San of SanKirtan, meaning complete, implies that one should sing Kirtan with complete involvement, complete feeling.
So Naam SanKirtan is then the name, or word, which when sung with complete involvement and feeling is the key to the inner jewels!
In other words, Kirtan is a practice in which we can experience our inner expansiveness, our inner nature.
How is Kirtan practiced:
The form Kirtan takes can be flexible but usually has a few components in common:
- a kirtan wallah leads a group of people into song, singing Sanskrit lines in a simple melody.
- the group sings in a call and response format.
- musical instruments join the group.
- the people join in clapping their hands.
The instruments usually used is a Harmonium, a drum - most often the Mrdengam, cymbals and of course the voices.
Harmonium is the leading instrument, leading the Kirtan and the melody and harmonizing the voices together.
The most important instrument however, is said to be the drum. Why? Because of its connection to the heart.
The drum embodies all the power of a language intuitively understood by every living being. Through the drum all age, genders and race are woven by a common thread; the rhythmic beat of life. We experience this for the first time in the mothers womb, where the continuous beat of her heart is the constant governing our liquid world. The heart functions like a drum and vice versa, so when the Mrdengam starts to play, the heart stirs. The drums vibrations has an immediate impact on our brain and blood circulation. We may not be consciously aware of the effects of the drums rhythms but they subtly bring about a sense of connection, community and harmony. Through the drumbeat we speak directly heart to heart.
How does kirtan work:
Kirtan is a practice that works with emotions, developing the emotional part of our nature. The emotional force is a powerful force that we all have, and as all parts of our human being it needs to be developed. We spend time in school developing the intellect, developing skills, we spend time in the gym perhaps or otherwise developing the physical body but not much time and effort is spent developing our emotions. So they just run wild.
The emotional force is a powerful tool when channelled appropriately.
Kirtan is not about nicely or beautifully. Rather it can be a channel where we can give expression to our emotions in a proper/controlled manner and emotional turmoil can be purified.
However Kirtan is not just an emotional outburst. Kirtan is an art and a science. A big part of Kirtan is listening. To the tone and melody yes, but also listening inside our self and connecting with the inner feeling.
Kirtan is a tool with which we can dive into our emotions without the disturbance of the mind (without the personal story). And through the power of the emotional force one can realize a deeper love, peace and a connection with our source.
Through the intellect we can not reach very deep. But through the emotions we can bypass the mind altogether, like soaring straight up into the sky in a jet plane.
In to the Kirtan you can give whatever you have in your heart at the moment. If you experience sadness due some loss - give it in there. If you have some anger inside somewhere - give it in there. Whatever it might be, happiness, confusion, fear, excitement... Let the your voice in the Kirtan be a vehicle for your hearts expression.
Preparation to sing:
Take a moment to sit as comfortably as possible in perhaps a cross-legged or any other position that you can find comfortable at the moment. Close the eyes, let the body relax and feel the breath, feel letting go of the breath, that the breath can be free and the body breath freely in any way it naturally does. Connect yourself to the space inside the rib cage. Inside the rib cage there is an infinitely large space, feel the expansion and contraction of this space with every inhalation and exhalation of the body. Become aware of your feeling.
What does the words mean:
A question that is often asked in relation to the Kirtan is; what is the meaning of the words that we sing? And is it necessary to know what they mean?
Kirtan is a part of a branch of yoga called Nada yoga which utilizes the vibrations of sound, and it is these vibrations of sound that has the potential of changing our state of cnsciousness.
Musicologists could explain this based on the principle of resonance: when two instruments are exactly in tune with each other and one of them is played upon, it is observed that without touching the other, the wires of both instruments vibrate in resonance automatically.
While music is being played or sung going through the different notes of various octaves, and one note comes into harmony with the vibrations of the mind of a person, the resonance becomes so strong that it holds the mind steadfast, in perfect harmony with what is being heard externally. In this way the mind is gradually led, trained and channelled to attain calmness and repose.
The words that we sing are comprised of Sanskrit syllables that never change. Although the names may be associated with the names of Hindu gods and goddesses, and may appear to indicate a manifest form of divinity, for example Rama may invoke the image of Rama, similarly with Shiva, Krishna, Buddha so on, but the names are mantras, combinations of sound vibrations and do not represent a personalized identity of divinity, but rather an expression of the quality of that force, that potential inside us. When we sing the names, the words, it is the syllables that alter the patterns of the mind according to the different frequencies and vibrations, making it more clear, tranquil, receptive, and thus increasing sensitivity to feeling which can help us connect with the source of our being. As opposed to singing a pop song, a love ballad or otherwise, where the mind and emotions gets influenced into so called lower, mundane qualities of experience, the mantras that we sing in the Kirtan trigger through their vibrations the manifestation of experiences of so called higher qualities of our minds. We can think of Kirtan as singing the names of our higher qualities and powers.
Krishna Das, one of the west's best known contemporary Kirtaninsts has said that "when we sing we are calling out to our own true selves, our own inner nature. Calling out to that place inside our selves that is full and complete."
The union of Kirtan:
Another beautiful thing about Kirtan is that it brings people together.
Kirtan is known to intensify feeling - "Bhava". Some people spontaneously starts to cry because they are so overcome by emotion. Others report a sense of opening or melting in the chest.
Much scientific research has been done, actually, about singing in groups, and has shown that it has a significant physiological effect on the heart. Researchers from the university of Gotenberg looked at how group singing, including Kirtan and mantra singing affects the heart rate variability (HRV) and something called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). They found that when people sang together their heart activity synchronized. This effect is know as entrainment.
While a physicist might tell you that entrainment is natures way of conserving energy, because less energy is used when beings are entrained with each other, we can also understand and experience another effect from being biologically synchronized with each other. That is that we are perhaps not so separated from each other as we might sometimes think! This understanding can help us see the world from a more shared perspective, giving rise to higher feelings such as generosity, compassion and love.
Cognitive musicologist David Huron suggest that experiencing music in groups strengthens social bonds and give an evolutionary advantage to those taking part. He notes that the hormone released in group musical activities is the same hormone released during sex, child birth and breast feeding; Oxytocin - also known as the bonding hormone, creating a feeling of unity, connectedness and communion, taking us away from states of feeling isolated and estranged.
Also, if we really get into Kirtan we can temporarily forget our selves and our environment and feel at one with something significantly vast and ineffably peaceful. Merging our so called little egoic self with the greater cosmic self.
Why practice Kirtan:
Kirtan is one of the easiest ways where we can relaxed and spontaneously give expression to our higher or divine nature.
It is well suited for our age because it relieves the ills that affects so many so acutely. It restores harmony to anyone who is out of sync, stills the restless mind, melts feelings of separateness and enlivens those who feel deadened by the prevailing values of the age.
It is a great practice for people today because it is easy! It can be practiced by young and old in any physical condition, by people of all abilities and concentration spans. You don't need to know Sanskrit. You don't need to be musical. You don't need lots of time to master the practice.