Kirtan: Chanting the Names of God


Like a silkworm weaving her house with love from her marrow,
And dying in her body’s threads winding tight, round and round,
I burn desiring what the heart desires.

Cut through, O Lord, my heart’s greed,
And show me your way out, O Lord white as jasmine.

– Mahadeviyakka

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move,

Such a love as none can part,
Such a heart as joys in love.

George Herbert

In Spring 2006, I came across an ad from a local yoga studio advertising kirtan. The ad was simple: “Kirtan – chanting the names of God.” It was a Tuesday night, nothing was going on, and I was curious. I walked down to the studio on W. 13th Street, NYC, and into a room with about fifty people seated on cushions and chairs, organically forming a fan around several musicians seated on bolsters against a wall. I grabbed a cushion, found a place toward the back, and took a comfortable, cross-legged position as the musicians finished their sound checks on instruments I had rarely seen before: harmonium (small hand-pumped organ), tablas (North Indian drums), kartals (small hand cymbals), and a mrdanga (a dual-headed Bengali drum). Two hours later, I emerged from that simple, non-descript room in a state of bliss and openness like nothing I had encountered before. What had happened in between? I had experienced my first kirtan and I couldn’t wait to experience another.

Walking home from the yoga studio up Eighth Avenue, that state continued. Traffic, noise, people… all was bliss. In John Wesley’s understated terms, I had experienced “a strange warming of the heart.” I had done enough spiritual practice by then to realize that I was in an altered state very similar to some of my deepest meditative moments, but I hadn’t done any real “work.” And rather than simply being at peace, or even at one with the universe, I felt as if I were in love – in love with God, in love with everyone on the street, in love even with myself.

There are many ways into the brain-and-body space ecstasy, into that state which faith traditions would call union with the Divine. Deep meditation, prayer, or breath work (pranayama), physical and sexual practices such as yoga and tantric maithuna, ritualized experiences of pain, psychotropic drugs, and for some, even a simple piece of chocolate – can trigger significant changes in physiology and psyche, altering our experience of ourselves and of our world. At its best and most transformative, such ecstatic experiences open the door into the realm of the non-dual; a place of blissful union with that which is neither ourselves nor other than ourselves, which leaves us a bit different than we were found.

One such practice is kirtan chanting. Kirtan is deeply personal and highly communal, simple, and can open the heart of even a first-time participant into a blissful experience of divine union – and then do so over and over again. Kirtan of late has been attracting a large number of practitioners from diverse (or from no) faith traditions, and in our so-called “secular” age kirtan events fill large halls and churches in America to the rafters. Kirtan is gaining in popularity to such an extent as to warrant articles in the New York Times1 and a nomination and performance at the 2013 Grammy Awards.2

Deceptively simple, kirtan (Sanskrit: “praise”) is a joyful and dynamic form of devotional chant. In kirtan chanting, a call-and-response dialogue grows between the kirtan wallah (singer or “caller”) and the congregation;3 whatever the wallah sings is repeated by those present. What is sung is often a simple set of words (a mantra), typically invoking some form of the Divine Name. At times, the singing can be mantric, unchanging, hypnotic; more often, the wallah takes the congregation on a journey that is both inner and outer; as the wallah intensifies the sung short mantra, the musical accompaniment follows suit, and the congregation’s singing becomes livelier and eventually ecstatic, with increases in both tempo and volume.

Several “peaks and valleys” may happen during a single piece of chant, which typically lasts at least ten minutes, sometimes twenty minutes or more. The wallah and the congregation enter into an intuitive partnership, reading and responding to the spiritual devotion of one another, leading to a deeply satisfying experience of blissful Presence. Bathed in this presence, the chant eventually drops quickly in intensity and speed and then moves into silence.

The silence experienced after chanting kirtan is like no other silence; in this silence, it ceases to be a matter of faith or dogma that the Divine can be met in stillness – this meeting becomes experience. Such a silence is easy to keep, even for extended periods: how hard is it to look for minutes on end into the eyes of your beloved? Kirtan opens the heart to that kind of deep pregnant silence, in which you are joyfully alive to the immediacy of reality: in traditional language, you experience being both lover of and beloved of God.

I know of a country that spiritual flatness does not control,
nor constant depression,
and those alive are not afraid to die.
There wildflowers come up through the leafy floor,

and the fragrance of “I am s/he” floats on the wind.
There the bee of the heart stays deep inside the flower,
and cares for no other thing.

– Kabir

In kirtan chanting, the music itself opens this door of perception. The repetition of one or two simple mantras or phrases might sound like a recipe for tedium, but the opposite is true: the mind become free, having been given the Divine Name in some form to chew on, and the heart opens to the affective and concentrative power in the music. It is a spiritual non-practice, in the sense that you need not steel the will nor struggle with distractions, nor attempt to control or concentrate the mind; the kirtan chanting does all this for you, taking you on a ride like no other.

Kirtan differs from most Western religious musical forms in several ways. First, kirtan chanting is never performance (no deeply religious music really should be, but we’ve all seen it!). This is not a form of music to be “appreciated” although it is often quite beautiful and moving. The most highly-trained vocal acrobat will leave congregations flat if there is no devotion, no deep upwelling of the call from the depths of the wallah. And the opposite is also true; deep devotion can cover a large number of musical sins and produce wonderful results. Like other folk musical forms, it is the soul, or spiritual guts, of the music that really counts. English doesn’t have a good word for this quality: in Sanskrit, it’s called “bhava” (a so-intense-that-it’s-easy-to-catch devotional joy-within-longing). One western near-equivalent comes from Roma flamenco culture: duende (literally, “demon”: one “has a demon” in the sense that one is tapping into, and a conduit of, something greater and more profound than anything a single personality could create).

Kirtan is also not theology put to music. The “text” of a kirtan chant doesn’t strive to inculcate lessons in faith history or morality. The purpose of a kirtan mantra differs from the purpose of a hymn text.

While the hymn text may seek to educate, elucidate, or generate emotional response from the personality, the kirtan mantra is a tool for re-wiring the person, objectively proven through studies of the effect of chanted mantras on brain-wave patterns: chanters show, in 10-12 minutes, shifts in brain-wave amplitudes consonant with the brain-wave profiles of deep, long-time meditators.4 In sum, “Chanting is a short cut to ecstasy. Mantra repetition is a simple, enjoyable, and powerful procedure for purposefully reorganizing your consciousness.”5 And we are discovering now in neuroscience that our consciousness – or at least our brains – can certainly be rewired, reorganized, in more complete and measurable ways than ever imagined.6

The Divine Name

The use of the Divine Name, prevalent in Hindu kirtan (where there are so many beautiful Divine Names!), is known too in Christian mysticism: the hesychasts have used the repetition of the Divine Name as a means of opening and entering the heart (and transforming the consciousness) for centuries, documented in the Philokalia.7

Does the repetition of a single name or phrase become boring? Not in the context of kirtan. The musical settings and participatory singing of all those gathered work to create a profound space that can be lively and ecstatic or deep and hypnotic, but never boring. We use a Divine Name to enter the sacred space of the heart, and the response to the love and bliss the heart encounters in this practice is to utter the Divine Name. Mantras used in kirtan can literally be traditional names for God, or can be a collection of titles or phrases descriptive of the Divine.

Kirtan chanting is rarely sung in the vernacular. In the United States, the growing kirtan movement uses Sanskrit almost exclusively. Even in India, Sanskrit is not the spoken language of those who gather to chant: it is a liturgical language reserved for scripture and spiritual practices such as kirtan. Is this an example of religious conservatism in India, or of exoticism in the West? Not at all. There are good reasons for using traditional languages in kirtan chanting.

First, it’s important for the chanters to engage with the experience of the sound of the chant in their bodies. When we chant in our native tongue, we tend to go immediately to the meaning of the text, straight to the cognitive, bypassing the sound experience of the body. We more easily deaden the sensitivity of sound experience. When there’s the “extra step” of translation, there’s a space, a break, before “meaning” sets in when one can more easily feel the sounds of the chant in the body. This doesn’t mean that chanters do not get translations of what’s being sung; they do, because for many people it’s important to know what they’re singing. It does mean, however, that one encounters sound in a more conscious way, and really feels the vibration of the sounds in that sacred, embodied space between utterance and cognitive connection.

And where there had been but a makeshift hut to receive the Music,
A shelter nailed up out of our darkest longings,
With an entry-way that shuddered in the Wind,
You built a temple deep inside their hearing.

– Ranier Maria Rilke

Secondly, there is a science to the structure of syllables in a kirtan mantra. This science, called nada yoga, comes from observing the psychological and physiological effects of certain sounds, particularly vowel sounds, on the human being. You can try investigating some of nada yoga yourself: Sing a long aaaaaahhhhh… On your exhalation, pause, and take stock of yourself. Next, sing a high and sharp eeeeeeeee! on your next breath out. Pause again, and see how you feel. Certainly you can see that these syllables have different effects on your psyche, and if you are deeply observant (or have a home laboratory), you will find subtly differing effects on the body as well: a change in pulse, activation of different muscle groups, hormone level shifts, etc.

Sanskrit is a particularly excellent language for chanting as there is a high occurrence of “aaah” sounds. Without getting too deeply into the science of nada yoga, we will simply mention that this sound in particular is quite powerful in accessing our “spiritual” selves: it represents the primordial human vocalization, a sounding of the vocal cords unaltered by the tongue, lips, or other organs of speech. We find this syllable present as the first half of the tetragammaton: Yah (the Hebrew name for God) and in Jesus’ term for God, “Abba” (he might have added “Amma” as an option today). Latin, too, has a high proliferation of “aaah” vowels, and is an excellent language for kirtan chanting.

Music of the People

Kirtan is the music of the people. Its popularity is connected with religious reform in India carried out by a number of poet-saints through many centuries, the best known today being Caitanya, who was active in the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries in Bengal. Caitanya popularized kirtan as a means to divine union for those unable or unwilling to enter the twelve-year period of Vedic study mandated by the Brahminical status quo (and closed to all women and to men of lower or no caste) or unwilling to become sannyasins (renunciates) who forsook everyone and everything to live lives of asceticism and silence.

The road to you is blocked
By temples and mosques [and churches and synagogues].
I hear you call, my Lord,
But I cannot advance—
Masters and teachers bar my way…

– Madan Bāul

Caitanya, taking his cue from the more overtly theistic and devotional developments found in later Indian scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Puranas, taught a way of union with God that is accessible to all – regardless of education, lifestyle, or inherited dharma (caste). The history of kirtan is the history of a movement of popular religious reform and renewal.

Music of Hum and Heart

Another element adding to the power and attraction of kirtan is the instrumentation used in the music itself. The use of sustaining/droning instruments together with percussion creates an entrancing and spellbinding experience. These categories (sustaining/droning and percussion) are not traditional kirtan terminology; they are developed here to help explore the functionality of the instruments employed. Both, in different ways, help to focus the concentration of participants and open them to deeper levels of consciousness.

Sustaining/droning instruments (harmonium, dotar, tamboura, etc.) help create the experience of “the hum,” the vibrational sustain that can serve as a magnet for interior focus and attentiveness. It is partially this experience of “the hum” that makes the mantric repetition of the sacred syllable Om (Aum) such a powerful spiritual practice. Monastic orders who employ the chanting of Om as their main spiritual practice emphasize that the “…mmm” portion of the Om should take up half of the time chanting each syllable; the hum is not simply a closing of the vowel sound; it is integral to the practice of uttering this seed syllable, the source of all mantras.

Concentrating on the vibrational drone of the hum can be easier and more pleasantly soothing than concentration on the breath, the heartbeat, or an energy center in the body. In addition to its concentrative power, the hum energizes and aligns the systems of the body. This is not theoretical esoteric physiology; this is simple human experience. Try this: spend five minutes focusing on your breath or heartbeat, and then spend five minutes humming and focused on that hum. Take your inner temperature after each exercise. Which leaves you feeling more balanced? More alert? More energetic?

In her book The Sacred Art of Chant, Ana Hernández writes that “Humming helps to increase energy and stamina; improve clarity, focus, and reading comprehension; balance brain waves; and strengthen the immune system by increasing the number of our antibodies.”8 The sustained drones often employed in kirtan help create an inner hum, allowing us to access and tend to the deep parts of ourselves that can become disconnected and imbalanced. This hum that comes from harmonium, tamboura, and other instruments used in kirtan – much like our own humming – stimulates the tenth cranial (vagus) nerve, which connects the ear to our deepest involuntary centers, those parts of the body in which “interchange” or transformation occurs: heart, lung, and stomach.9

As children who hummed, we intuitively knew how to help keep ourselves whole; we abandoned this self-healing practice when at some point we stopped humming… and for many of us, that may have been decades ago. Experiencing the drones/hums in kirtan helps restore that balance and renews and charges our spiritual system, often grown old before its time.

The percussion associated with kirtan (tabla, mridanga, dholak, etc.) takes us even deeper into memory. Drumming itself can be a path to inner states; shamans often employ drums to enter trance, and anyone who has participated in a drumming circle can attest to the trance and at times ecstasy-producing quality of deep and sustained hand- drumming. The drum is arguably the oldest piece of spiritual “technology” (after, perhaps, the breath itself) through which ancient adepts could enter into transcendent states. Pre-Aryan images of the “Lord of Creatures” found in India (possibly the original source for the more modern god Shiva) show a human figure seated in meditation with what appears to be a dual-headed hand drum. What is it about the drum that makes it such a powerful, almost magical, aid in accessing the depths? To answer that question, let’s look briefly at the research of Dr. Stanislav Grof.

Grof used LSD and later holotropic breathing to allow his research subjects to enter deep states no longer accessible to conscious memory. Through his work, it became apparent that, although inexplicable via the neurobiological understanding of his time, his subjects held strong emotions and verifiable memories connected with their own birth and pre-birth uterine states.10 The pre-memory of these states was alive and active in his patients’ psychological structure, and informed their behavior and understanding of reality on a pre-conscious level. Grof’s work, then, implies that we carry deep within ourselves a memory of a time when our world resounded with the sound of our mothers’ heartbeat, and that this memory still informs who we are in the world today.

Before birth (Grof) and as very young children (Jung) we are deeply present to the archetypal/spiritual world, and only gradually lose that connection as we grow and individuate. This archetypal world has, one could say, its own sound track: the beating of the heart of the mother (or, of the Mother). Soothing and nutritive as it may be, our work in achieving authentic adulthood involves a break with this world, an experience of individuality, a gradual or abrupt leaving of the Garden of Eden. As adults, we seek to re-encounter the Divine world, but this time as individuated beings who, trapped in the anxieties and loneliness of narcissism, hold the healthy desire of reconnecting with our Source and End.

Devotional traditions, such as Christianity and the devotional (bhakti) forms of Hinduism, hold that this reconnection is not a loss or dissipation of the self into the Divine, but rather an endless and bottomless process of self-offering and ecstatic surrender. This process makes best use of our life of desire – our erotic life – in bringing us deeper and deeper into God. As Christian mystics stretching as far back as Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century CE) have always taught, the spiritual life is rooted in the erotic life. The majority of bhakti and tantric teachers of India would agree.

O night! O guide!
O night more loving than the dawn!
O night that joined The lover with the Beloved;
Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!
Upon my flowered breast,
For him alone kept fair,
There he slept
There I caressed,
There the cedars gave us air.

– John of the Cross

Riding the blue sapphire mountains
Wearing moonstone for slippers
Blowing long horns
O Shiva
When shall I crush you on my pitcher breasts?
O Lord white as jasmine
When do I join you
Stripped of body’s shame
And heart’s modesty?

– Mahadeviyakka

Hearing an old song on the radio can immediately propel us back to a distant memory: the high school prom, a first date, an early childhood memory of a holiday or birthday. We not only remember the event, but can even find that we re-inhabit the inner state we held at the time – the care-free air or trepidation of a child, the boundless energy of our teen years, the deep longing of first love. In much the same way, perhaps, the hearing of the “heartbeat” in kirtan helps us remember the state of the Divine Life that we once “knew” as pre-individuated beings and now seek in clear consciousness.

Tabla, mridanga, and other Indian drums are capable of a “swooping” sound on their bass (bayan) heads, a sound many people in the West typically associate with Indian music. This deep swooping is an unmistakable imitation of the human heart beat, and can be experienced clearly if one develops a deep sensitivity to one’s own heartbeat11 or, perhaps easier, has access to a stethoscope. The experience of heartbeat is deeply woven into the fabric of kirtan. And while not every piece of kirtan chanting will employ this clear reminder of the heartbeat, much of it does, and the sense of heartbeat and attunement to the heart fully pervades the kirtan experience, even in those rare cases where the percussion is assumed and not stated in the music.

Final Thoughts

Kirtan chanting, like the states of connectedness and ecstasy it produces, must be experienced to be fully understood. Simply observing or talking about kirtan is no more useful than observation or study of any other “transitional space”: the externals can be described, models can be tested, but the experience itself remains unassailable. Only participation, serious “play” as is undergone in religious ritual or fantasy enactment, can open up the reality of what kirtan is.

Luckily, kirtan today is everywhere: from large venues in 1000-seat auditoriums and churches to local yoga studios and home salons, kirtan events occur with greater frequency and in more venues every year. As kirtan mainstreams, there will be more and more opportunities to participate more and more often in this shortcut to ecstasy. And, as with any other state of consciousness, the more time we spend in ecstatic divine union the more our “normal” approaches such a mode of consciousness. So chant on, and enjoy the ride along this shortcut to ecstasy.

Notes and References

1 Eckel, Sara. Yoga Enthusiasts Hear the Call of Kirtan. The New York Times (March 4, 2009).

2 Krishna Das, perhaps the best-known American kirtan artist, performed during the pre-telecast portion of the 55th Grammy Awards and was nominated for “Best New Age Album” for his album Live Ananda.

3 “Congregation” is used here intentionally. Those present are not a “audience” i.e., those who hear (Latin: audire), but rather are those who intentionally gather together (Latin: con/cum + gregare).

4 Khalsa, D.S. et al. Cerebral Blood Flow Changes During Chanting Meditation. Nuclear Medicine Communications. 2009, 3–6.

5 Bruder, Kurt (Kailash). From Sound into Silence: Chanting your Way Beyond Ego Into Bliss. Hay House, (2008)., p. x.

6 Schwarz, Jeffey and Begley, Sharon. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: Harper Collins (2002).

7 For a good edition in English, see Kadloubovsky, E. and Palmer, G.E.H. trans. Writings from the Philokalia: On Prayer of the Heart. London: Faber and Faber (1951).

8 Hernandez, Ana. The Sacred Art of Chant. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths (2005).

9 Kalyani, B. G., et al. Neurohemodynamic Correlates of “OM” chanting: A Pilot Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study. International Journal of Yoga. 2011 Jan- Jun; 4(1): 3–6.

10 Grof, Stanislav. Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. Albany: State University of New York (1985).

11 Bair, Puran and Bair, Susanna. Living from the Heart. Tucson, AZ: Living Heart Media (2009).

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