If you’ve never attended a kirtan, I highly recommend it. If you have already taken part in a kirtan, then you know how wonderful they are. Kirtans consist of call-and-response chanting, usually in Sanskrit. In some ways, they are like Taize services, although the music of Taize stems from the Christian tradition. Both Taize and kirtan rely almost entirely on singing, and the goal is to offer some sort of spiritual experience or practice. Plus, participation is super easy.
Kirtan’s origins are found in the bhakti tradition of Hinduism, which began in the southern-most tip of India (Tamil Nadu) in the 7th century BCE. Traditionally, kirtans have been associated with the religious traditions arising out of the India subcontinent – Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Nowadays, however, they are enjoyed around the world. During a kirtan, mantras are sung repeatedly. The point is to create a meditative state where the mind is quieted and one is able to approach the sacred core of existence.
The chants are ancient, so they come from both nowhere and everywhere. Anything that arrives to us from antiquity has been adapted and changed, and kirtan mantras certainly fall into that category. Although certain chants and phrases are common, as they are handed down and passed around, both the words and the tunes morph over time. Many kirtan leaders also write their own chants. In most cases, the mantras are in Sanskrit, but kirtans associated with the Sikh tradition may be in Punjabi. The chants last for at least 3-5 minutes but can be as long at 30-40 minutes. Instruments are also used. Some of the more common instruments include guitar, various types of hand drums, the harmonium (hand-pumped organ), and hand cymbals. I’ve also seen kirtans that make use of tambourines, simple pipes/wind instruments, keyboards, and various other stringed instruments, including sitars and violins.
The Sanskrit mantras are briefly taught prior to the chant by the kirtan leaders. Usually, the oral tradition is used, and the leaders simply state the words of the mantra rather quickly. Sometimes, the words are written down in a little booklet. With Sanskrit, you can simply sound out the translation, but I wouldn’t recommend reading off a sheet of paper as that somewhat misses the point. Once the chant begins, the leader will sing a line or a part of a line, and then everyone echoes it. Honestly, it couldn’t be simpler. If you don’t quite get the words, just hang in there. The lines are repeated many, many times, so you can just jump in as you are able. Kirtan chanters tend to be open-hearted folks, which makes it easy to show up and join in. Trust me, no one will be watching to make sure your chant is completely correct. It’s not a middle-school science test, it’s a kirtan!
At American kirtans, you are likely to have seating options. At smaller kirtans, you can sit in chairs provided toward the back of the audience space, or you can sit on pillows on the floor. Often, pillows are provided, but feel free to bring your own. I’ve also seen people arrive at kirtans with portable, padded chairs that can be placed on the floor and opened to create a seat and a back. Large kirtans are often held in theaters or auditoriums. For those, you simply sit in the seats provided. As with many other Eastern traditions, shoes may be optional. At smaller kirtans, people often remove their shoes beforehand, leaving them in the entryway, in small cubbies, or in the “shoe area.” You might want to check out your socks before you leave home to be sure you’re comfortable with what you’ve got on. At larger kirtans, people often leave their shoes on. As always, take a look around, especially if it’s your first time, and do whatever everyone else does and/or whatever you’re comfortable with. Remember, kirtan leaders and chanters are not there to judge you, so try not to make a big deal out of something that is not a big deal.
I know…you probably don’t speak Sanskrit. Fast fact: Most people in America do not speak Sanskrit. This is not a good excuse. Even yoga teachers tend to know only the words for poses – or asanas as they are called in Sanskrit. Just go with it. Personally, I find it much easier to reach a meditative or spiritual state when I’m singing in a language other than English. It keeps my mind from focusing too much on the words. Instead, I can focus on the musical flow, the sounds/tones of the melody, the mood, and my connection with other singers in the room. In Taize, the chants are often in Latin or Italian or French. In Jewish services, the songs and prayers are often in Hebrew. With kirtan, I can simply add Sanskrit to the list.
My most recent kirtan experience was a regular weekly event here in Asheville, NC led by the group Sangita Devi. They perform kirtans at the Nourish and Flourish venue every Tuesday evening. The heart and soul of Sangita Devi is found in Samata Amy DeCori, a student of mine many years ago at Warren Wilson College. She has been leading Asheville kirtans for about 12 years now and has built up quite a following. She also shares kirtan chants with the preschool/elementary school kids who attend the school where she works. So, yes, in case you’re wondering, kirtans are great for kids, too!
Samata’s interest in kirtan started with a trip to India. As a college student, Samata participated in an 8-week, faculty-led trip to India and then stayed for an extra month when the class ended. Although she never participated in a kirtan there, she was struck by the devotion seen in the eyes of the native people. It was same devotion she had seen in her Catholic grandparents. And it was the same devotion Samata felt in nature.
Samata’s first kirtan experience was actually in the woods surrounding Warren Wilson College with a small group of friends. And there it was again – that feeling of devotion. She and a couple of friends began to lead kirtans together. When that group faded away, Samata bought a harmonium, learned how to play it, practiced the chants, and started leading the weekly kirtans herself. Her commitment to the practice of kirtan is both impressive and profound, and I was curious about how a kirtan leader would describe the kirtan experience.
I finally caught up with Samata while she was in CA on a spring break trip. For Samata, leading kirtan is her spiritual practice. Kirtan leaders emphasize different aspects of the experience. Samata regularly encourages participants to set intentions prior to the evening or before a particular chant. As she puts it, “I want to help people bring their awareness to the energies present in the mantras. I want to guide people into their interior world.” Samata truly enjoys sharing her spiritual practice with others, but she also encourages participants to use the chants in a somewhat conscious manner. She wants the energy of the mantras to enrich both the lives of those who chant and the lives of those around them.
So get thee to a kirtan! If you enjoy singing, even if you’re not particularly good at it, then kirtan is definitely worth a try. One of the things I love about my life at the moment is that I have many opportunities to sing. In academia, I sang once a year, at the graduation ceremony in May. It was the school’s alma mater which was rather hymn-like, but didn’t really evoke many spiritual feelings. Kirtans, on the other hand, provide a great spiritual space for me. I get to sing, I don’t have to worry too much about the words, and since everyone else is singing, too, I can simply enjoy the experience. As Samata said, “My spiritual path has been chosen for me. I just keep listening.” And chanting, too. Why not join in?
Want to find out more?
For additional information on Sangita Devi and their Asheville kirtans, check out Sangita Devi Kirtan on Facebook. If you’re in Asheville and would like to attend, feel free to contact me, and I’ll go with you if I am able. If you like to plan ahead, Sangita Devi also leads a very large kirtan every year on New Year’s Eve.
Kirtan is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S, so if you’re not in Asheville, do an internet search on kirtan in your hometown to see what’s around.
Many kirtan groups put out CDs and go on tour. Krishna Das, Shantala, Snatam Kaur, and Russill Paul are just a few of the folks who have visited Asheville recently. Tour schedules can be found on their web sites.
And if you would like to get a sense of how kirtan works, check out these You Tube videos:
Krishna Das – Recording of a live kirtan chant for his album “Pilgrim Heart” (in Sanskrit and a good example of call-and-response chanting)
Shantala – recording of a live kirtan in Portland, OR. Another good example of Sanskrit call-and-response chanting