Primetime Kirtan

tanpura2_srivatsaBy Gopala dasa

Baton-waving attendants guide motorists into neat rows, ensuring orderly and efficient use of a sprawling parking lot. Late arrivals ditch their vehicles on unoccupied patches of grass on the lot’s periphery before swarming into the venue and scrambling for whatever seats remain. The lobby teems with fans that snatch up the latest merchandise and eagerly sign up for mailing lists.

The scene described above is one that ensued before the concert of a professional recording artist on a nation-wide concert tour. What may come as a surprise, however, is that this artist is a self-described “kirtan-wallah.”

Of course, I am by far from the first to acknowledge that kirtan-yoga has truly “arrived.” The industry (and yoga is indeed an industry) has prominently embraced this enduring trend in its premier publication, Yoga Journal.

I attended the mobbed kirtan-yoga concert under discussion mainly as a gesture to two old friends who share an interest in things spiritual, including mantra meditation. I did not expect to be wowed (and I wasn’t) by the devotional atmosphere in the performance venue, nor bowled over by the basic philosophizing that the kirtan-wallah interspersed throughout his set. “Om namah shivaya” and other Sanskrit mantras in the dative case flow effortlessly from the lips of many yoga practitioners. At the concert performance that inspired this article, so too did “hare krishna.”

I nevertheless found myself somewhat conflicted about the scene that unfolded before me—hundreds chanting confidently and others swaying and dancing in the aisles with enthusiasm. From a Gaudiya perspective, the kirtaniya’s explanations of the mantras lacked—to put it generously—a certain theological depth and accuracy. In fact, nothing even close to the conceptual orientation of krishna-bhakti was put forward. I found such a deficit to be both discouraging and dismaying. At the same time, I was not certain that I could write off the kirtan participants’ genuine interest (and seemingly good nature in general) as the by-product of something entirely insidious.

I tried to think about what it might take to effectively expose those who appreciated the chanting and related explanations to a much fuller understanding of the maha-mantra (a “big hit” at this concert) and its theological underpinnings.

Of course, Srila Prabhupada often cited a verse from the Padma Purana that strongly cautions against hearing the chanting or scriptural recitation of those who believe the culmination of such kirtan to be exclusively monistic. Indeed, hari-kirtan in the line of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is to be regarded as categorically different from kirtan conducted by those who do not understand (or accept) the full ramifications of nama-dharma. Certainly many of the statements made by purveyors of kirtan-yoga, both in the performance that I saw and in interviews such as those featured in Satyaraja dasa’s 2008 book on the subject, fall far short of “golokera prema dhana hari-nama sankirtana.”

When faced with the unprecedented surge and acceptance of kirtan-yoga, however, I suppose one option is to simply plug one’s ears and hope that authentic Gaudiya kirtan will somehow overwhelm the many popular variants now enjoying commercial success. Perhaps it would be more effective, however, to listen just enough to this new wave of kirtan enthusiasts, such that we understand the movement’s appeal. It seems that the inclusive and open-ended nature of kirtan-yoga (I heard the kirtan-wallah say, “Even I don’t know what the mantras mean.”) is at least part of the attraction, especially for westerners who find in the practice a welcome break from the rigidity of Christianity or Judaism, or the vacant confines of secularism.

It is indeed possible for Vaishnavas to foster the growth of the kirtan enthusiasts’ movement from imprecise, impersonal, and even somewhat irreverent conceptions of the holy name and various mantras to conceptions imbued with sambandha-jnana.  For example, in his review of the recent CD, “Ten Million Moons,” issued by Gaura Vani & As Kindred Spirits, Guru-nistha dasa drew attention to a group that has combined excellent musicianship and creativity with a Gaudiya message and lifestyle.  That group has also effectively marketed itself in ways that attract, rather than alienate, listeners of more “mainstream” kirtan artists.

One can also imagine Gaudiya teachers holding public programs in yoga studios and similar venues, interspersing more conventional lectures with kirtan, and including in those lectures inviting (rather than coercive or dogmatic) statements about why particular mantras are powerful and particularly worth integrating seriously into one’s practice.

Whatever the approach, it would seem that a type of “intervention” in the kirtan-yoga scene by thoughtful Gaudiya Vaishnavas would be opportune. However, that intervention must be tempered and informed by an appreciation and respect for the reasons why so many practitioners of ashtanga-type yoga exercises are beginning to participate in kirtan. If, on the other hand, Gaudiya forays onto the kirtan-yoga scene are tinged with sectarianism and unbecoming rigidity, the persons we may wish to engage in the fullest and most sublime form of kirtan may end up listening for sweeter tunes elsewhere.


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8 Responses to Primetime Kirtan

  1. I once attended a kirtan event of a famous kirtaniya who is a student of an Advaitin guru and was somewhat disappointed by the lack of knowledge evident in his explanations of the chanting. While there is certainly power to “just chanting” without knowledge, chanting with sambandha-jnana is much more powerful, yet it seems that few appreciate this point. And judging by the gyrations of much of the audience I would say that many might think having a conceptual orientation to the chanting somehow gets in the way of enjoying the good vibes. The whole scene was sort of a more sattvic version of a Grateful Dead show. I can only hope that an influx of knowledge will take kirtana in the yoga world beyond the sensual to a deeper level of understanding and appreciation.

  2. Gauravani and As Kindred Spirits are on their first kirtan tour across Canada and the U.S. right now. I recently attended one of their concerts at a devotee’s yoga studio in Kansas and it was really nice to see how Gauravani interspersed his kirtan with lessons about Guru, Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and the meaning of mantra meditation. It is exactly devotees like these who will make Gaudiya Vaisnavas more prominent in the kirtan scene in a very powerful way. We need more devotee bands like this.

  3. Well even though this Harinam is not organized from pure Vaishnavas it is nonetheless a an opportunity to awaken the soul to something beyond the material body and cleanse the heart.

    When such persons come in contact with devotees they will hopefully be more receptive to further development of purity as we not only give them the Holy Name but prasadam and Prabhupada’s books.

    All glories to Lord Caitanya’s Sankirtan movement!

  4. I feel that this article needs to be seen from a cultural aspect as well. If this article was written about a “Kirtan-yoga” concert in Vrindavan or Mayapur, India, I would agree with the perspective of the author a lot more than if the “Kirtan-yoga” happening is in the Bronx, New York.

    There are many articles that show that in the West, music videos on the internet and on TV have become a lot more lewd and crude. Whereas scantily clad girls gyrating their hips on music videos were just ‘ornamental’ in pop music videos of the past, today, they are the main course. A lot of the lyrics, not to speak of the videos, of hip-hop culture, is quite “out there.”
    So from that perspective, I am happy when I see people from any spiritual discipline putting energy and effort to make their voice felt. Certainly, from Blue-Grass to Islamic calls to prayer, there is a lot of beautiful spiritual music that can be appreciated.

    Admitted, gurukuli devotees like Gaura-vani of As Kindred Spirits has a great opportunity to dominate the ‘Kirtan-yoga’ culture because of their background. And we have cause to celebrate.
    But I think Vaishnvas should encourage anyone making any effort into ‘Kirtan-yoga’ if it comes from any religious background, what to speak of if they are trying to chant Vedic mantras.
    Not many of us started speaking fluent English the first time we babbled as babies. I feel that the rise of “Kirtan-yoga” should thrill Vaishnavas who have a great opportunity to encourage those trying to take their baby steps into spirituality through “Kirtan-yoga.”

    • I very much agree that the cultural aspect matters. Thus the fact that the concert I described occurred in Chicago – and not Mayapura – is precisely the point. Kirtan yoga is a huge phenomenon in the USA, and it represents a welcome break from the type of Western music and imagery that you describe. In the article above I am careful not to disparage or harshly criticize non-Gaudiya kirtaniyas (or their fan base). On the contrary, I caution against simplistic and sweeping condemnations of kirtan yoga, such as have been made by conservative Gaudiya’s online — especially in response to Satyaraja’s very ecumenical book.

      At the same time, if a popular kirtaniya gives a purport to the maha-mantra that is simply wrong or made up, as Vaisnavas we should feel impetus and obligation to intervene philosophically and, in this case, musically as well. My personal enthusiasm for kirtan yoga is a bit curbed when the meaning of mantras is relativized or impersonalized by both performers and participants.

      However my hope, as I say in the article, is that GV intervention/participation in kirtan yoga will be thoughtful, respectful, and appreciative of the phenomenon’s broad appeal. I believe we agree on this entirely.

      • Ah, with that explanation, I am a lot more onboard with where you stand. I was unaware that your article was a response to the more conservative criticisms from other Gaudia Vaishnavas on Kirtan yoga. Thanks for taking time to respond.

      • Also, which of Satyaraja’s books are you referring to?

        • In retrospect I could have been less subtle about my own stance, and directly challenged some of the dismissive critiques of kirtan yoga from within GV.

          The Satyaraja book I refer to is the one linked in the article above — “The Yoga of Kirtan.”

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