Review: The Yoga of Kirtan

Steven J. Rosen, The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting. New York: FOLK Books, 2008.

Reviewed by Jubilee Q. Cooke, Ethnomusicologist
School of Music, University of Washington

When most Westerners think of “yoga,” they likely conjure up images of headstands and deep stretches to maintain health and fitness. But another form of yoga, rapidly gaining prominence in the West, is clearly presented in Steven Rosen’s book: The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting. Kirtan is musical yoga, the practice of singing God’s names in call-and-response form. In connection to this devotional practice, Rosen, a renowned Vaishnava scholar, presents an inspired offering of knowledge, communion, and music in an easily accessible format. His conversations with twenty-one kirtana singers, or kirtaniyas, and his short introductory and concluding essays are lively and engaging. Rosen’s book will interest both yoga students and kirtana enthusiasts who wish to understand the deeper significance of their practice. Those who already lead kirtana and longtime practitioners of sacred chant will expand their satsang, their spiritual community, as they connect with these dedicated maestros of chant through the intimate dialogues.

In addition to its clear appeal to students of yoga and sacred chant, The Yoga of Kirtan is also appropriate for scholars. Although its style is not typical of academic literature, the book holds much to glean from Rosen’s friendly presentation and well-informed but relaxed interactions with the kirtana singers. As each kirtaniya is prompted to share their biographical information, we learn of musical influences as varied as Hindustani classical music, Irish sean nόs, Hebrew chant, George Harrison, and American gospel and blues. Many interviewees speak of their Judeo-Christian backgrounds and how their faith deepened through the Eastern practice of kirtana. We gain an in-depth view of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, from a musical perspective, through Rosen’s conversations with several disciples of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. But the author’s approach is non-sectarian, and he has included a wide selection of kirtana singers. Dave Stringer serves as the musical ambassador for Kashmiri Shaivism and Yofiah for Jewish kirtana. Deva Premal and Miten embrace a more ecumenical approach through their interfaith chants. Snatam Kaur informs us of her Sikh faith. And several devotees of Neem Karoli Baba, most notably Krishna Das, share stories of their beloved “Maharaji.”

Some other features of this book are the remarkable experiences shared by each interviewee. A few highlights were Yamuna Devi’s vivid recollections of working with George Harrison in the late 1960s to record the groundbreaking single “The Hare Krishna Mantra” and later the “Radha Krishna Temple” Album. In one of the most entertaining anecdotes, Trinidadian kirtana singer, Agni Dev, speaks frankly of the challenges in acclimating to New York winters while singing kirtana publicly in the streets as a Hare Krishna. And Australian kirtana leader Sri Prahlad gives a moving account of how kirtana helped raise consciousness about the persecution of Soviet Hare Krishnas and motivated political action on their behalf. The book rewards the reader with numerous other such gems generously scattered throughout the chapters.

An audio CD compilation of eleven interviewees is included so that readers may also hear the “yoga of kirtana.” While the sacred names that each kirtaniya chants are primarily from the Vaishnava tradition, the stylistic rendering of each track is about as diverse as can be. We hear Dave Stringer’s lush “Devakinandana Gopala” fusing jazz, pop, and gospel choir with more traditional handclapping and call-and-response form. “Nam-sankirtan” features the equally powerful sound of Latin American pop phenomenon Havi Das, minimally adorning the holy names with intricate drum patterns. And then there’s the finely produced “Radha Rani” showcasing Jai Uttal’s Ali Akbar Khan-trained voice and old-timey banjo picking. The CD also includes a newly released track of kirtana sensation Krishna Das singing “Jaya Bhagavan” live in concert.

This unique book will inspire the reader to travel further into the divine realm of kirtana and offers many signposts to assist this journey. Rosen’s guide to the accompanying CD and his short introduction to each chapter function as a discography for further listening. The website or contact information for each kirtaniya is provided at the end of each interview. Also included is an extensive bibliography of both scholarly and popular literature for related reading.

As an ethnomusicologist and researcher of kirtana, I have found scholarly sources on kirtana as practiced in the West wanting. Kirtana has been covered in the popular press, in a few works geared towards kirtana audiences, and by ethnomusicologists who have studied its manifestations in India. By providing the most thorough coverage of kirtana’s transformation outside of India to date, The Yoga of Kirtan fills in many gaps in the aforementioned literature.

The book’s treatment of popular kirtana is excellent, but also significant is the mention of lesser known styles of kirtana. Although it includes only one interview with a South Asian kirtaniya, Bhakti Charu Swami, the book offers much information on kirtana in India through the experiences of Western kirtana singers seeking deeper understanding. As an ethnomusicologist whose discipline requires participant-observation field research, I highly appreciated the accounts of Vaiyasaki Das, Karnamrita Dasi, Ragani, and Shyam Das who spent years immersing themselves in the study of South Asian music. Most may be familiar with kirtana as the simple call-and-response chanting of the names of God, but these kirtaniyas also inform readers of more sophisticated and learned kirtana styles. I was especially interested to learn of dhrupad singing in kirtana through the interviews with Shyam Das and Karnamrita Dasi. Dhrupad is the oldest style of Hindustani classical music, with roots in the Hindu temples of India. As a beginning student of dhrupad, I have great admiration for those who have dedicated themselves to this music which, in addition to being a sacred art form, has the most refined sense of pitch imaginable and commonly uses 7- and 10-beat rhythmic cycles.

In the concluding interview, Vaiyasaki Das introduces yet another style of sacred chant, by bringing us into the complex world of Bangladeshi lila kirtana. He tells how devoted audiences attend marathon kirtanas at which the deities’ lives are dramatically reenacted and how educated listeners appreciate raga, the use of specific melodies at different times of day. The interview is appropriately placed at the end because Vaiyaskai Das’ descriptions of traveling in Bangladesh in pursuit of this music leave the reader hungry for more. The Yoga of Kirtan presents an impressive selection of sacred chant, scriptural and historical background, and intimate expertise, but it also nudges readers towards the even vaster world of kirtana that awaits their discovery and participation.

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5 Responses to Review: The Yoga of Kirtan

  1. The article is very nice and well worth reading, but I think her description of Steven Rosen as a “renowned Vaishnava scholar” is a bit much considering that Rosen is not one of the most senior disciples of Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada nor are his writings free from some peer criticism.
    I think that such superlative descriptions of the author or any similar professional author are a bit sensational and better left unspoken. Let the readers make up their own mind about the level of the author.
    Otherwise, I think the book is a good idea and a good presentation of the teachings of Sri Chaitanya in an updated format.
    Rosen is undoubtedly a well-read practitioner of bhakti-yoga. The book will most likely attract and initiate many readers into the Sri Krishna sankirtana movement.
    The pragmatic approach of Rosen is laudable.

  2. IMO kirtan was intended to (and should) be something akin to the shamanic chants and dances so widespread among the ancient native cultures all over the world. I am surprised that the author has not made that connection. The classic Vedic tradition contains many shamanic elements, including magical incantations and use of mind altering substances like the soma juice.

    • Citta Hari dasa

      The classic Vedic tradition contains many shamanic elements, including magical incantations and use of mind altering substances like the soma juice.

      I wondered about this and from what my web search revealed about soma your statement appears to be somewhat inaccurate. The substances used by shamanic cultures (e.g., ayahuasca, psylosybin, mescaline, etc.) are indeed mind-altering substances, as you say: hallucinogens or entheogens or both. Vedic soma is most widely associated with the plant ephedra (with the active ingredient being ephedrine) and does not fit into that category; its effects are said to be more akin to adrenaline (less powerful and longer lasting). It was praised for its energizing effects and is said to have been consumed by Indra just prior to going into battle (not something one would do having just ingested hallucinogens, if one wanted to stay alive, that is). It’s also said that soma prevented sleep, which would make the wide usage by Vedic brahmanas easily understandable–they could stay up late and chant their mantras without passing out!

      • Actually, Soma rasa is made on the Moon. The real Moon, not the imitation Moon and was brought from there to Earth on occasion, but that was rare.
        It had nothing to do with Methamphetamine.
        It was much more celestial than that crude substance that is highly destructive to the physical body.
        The notion that Soma was some psychoactive hallucinogen or methamphetamine is the product of the human imagination.

      • I do not believe that the soma plant contained ephedra or a similar stimulant. I did quite a bit of research on that subject. Based on the Vedic tradition, the soma plant produced very powerful psychic effect and allowed to journey into the higher realms (in the subtle body). That plant is now extinct. Most common hallucinogenic plants allow shamans to enter the lower worlds. Naga babas use ganja to enter the realm of Nagas, it is part of their secret tradition.

        Vedic shamanism was a shamanism generally in the mode of goodness, but there are many passages in Atharva veda that suggest lower mode shamanism was practiced as well.

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