The yoga scriptures tell us that for each yuga, which means “age, era or time span,” a specific form of spiritual practice is most appropriate. During the Kali yuga, our present era, the most effective means to attain liberation from the wheel of samsara, is through chanting the holy names of God. The world is sound. All that is manifest proceeds from sound and continues to pulsate as sound vibration. Sound-for instance, the chanting of mantra, like the saying of prayers in many religions-can lead one to God, and as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika teaches, when one reaches God, he or she will find sound (verse 4.100). Mantra is a Sanskrit word composed of two sounds: man, which means “mind,” and tra, which means “to cross over” or “to protect.” The literal meaning of the word mantra pertains to that which can help one to cross over and thus be set free from the habitual, unconscious patterns of the mind.
While the chanting of mantras is often done privately, it can also be done in a group setting. Perhaps due to estrangement from God, the natural world, each other and ourselves, many of us have become socially inhibited and uncomfortable with our bodies and our feelings, resulting, among other things, in tremendous fear when it comes to speaking or singing in public. The yogic practice of kirtan can help remedy this dilemma of modern life.
The word kirtan means “to speak of, to mention.” Kirtan is call and response singing of mantras, the names of God or of God’s glories. Usually kirtan is done in a group where there is a lead singer known as a kirtan-wallah, who recites or sings a line, and then the group responds by singing that same line. Good kirtan-wallahs are able to move the group into deeper/higher levels of ecstasy, where the rational mind melts into the heart, often culminating in heightened ecstatic trance and rapturous tears of joy. One possessed by this euphoria forgets their mundane problems and is transported into a heightened state of awareness where love is the only law. Since the name of God is considered the same as God, singing God’s name is to invoke the presence of God and so come into intimate contact with God-which is after all the aim of yoga: to yoke or unite with God. The soul’s yearning for God urges one onward to explore deeper and deeper states of feeling, because underlying even the most melancholy of love songs is a sweet longing to reunite with the source.
The great 15th century Bengali bhakti saint Chaitanya is considered the “father” of modern kirtan, as he is credited for giving rise to the popularity of kirtan as a spiritual practice. Kirtan existed before Chaitanya, and certainly the recitation of mantra was going on for centuries before he was born, but he was responsible for making it totally accessible and, we could say, hot, hip and definitely holy! He got people up on the dance floor! He was a mover and shaker! The ecstatic experience that arises from singing God’s name and dancing in delightful abandon is not only soul-freeing but frees one on many levels, physical and intellectual too. You don’t have to be a learned scholar and be able to memorize long involved scripture, you don’t have to argue the existence of God, you don’t have to be able to sit alone and meditate in a cave for years, you don’t have to be able to control your breath and stop your heart and you don’t have to be able to bend your body into contortions to practice bhakti yoga. You don’t even have to be a trained musician or dancer. All you have to do is to be willing to loosen up and start singing God’s holy names-the magic of the sound will take care of the rest.
In our culture, disconnection between what one thinks, what one feels, what one says and what one does is considered normal. Through the practice of kirtan, a person can actually “pull himself or herself together” by allowing their suppressed emotions to well up and be purified in the divine mood or bhav where all emotions are allowed. Kirtan is an opportunity to release the heart and all of the pent up feelings that go with mundane repressed life. There is an old alchemical precept that states: through repetition the magic is forced to rise. I think this is what happens in kirtan. You chant over and over again these phrases or mantras set to simple melodies, and the feeling builds until you are exploding with uninhibited intoxication, smiling, laughing, and even sometimes dancing. Once you have such an experience, your perception of what is possible in the realm of emotional experience is shifted, and that can be considered magic. In the bhakti realm, knowing how to perform elaborate rituals, or to debate philosophical concepts, or to perform contorted asanas, means nothing. When the soul is in the presence of God, only love reigns supreme. Kirtan sets the heart free to love and unite with the supreme beloved. When we sing God’s name, our very being becomes transformed through the power of mantra, enabling us to cross over the thinking mind into that state of wholeness-holiness. It is sound which brings form into existence, after all. If the divine presence of God is to reign on earth, then that presence will be brought forth through means of music. -Sharon Gannon