I recently saw an ad for a kirtan.
Cost to attend: $25.
This bothered me.
Kirtan is a communal spiritual practice which began showing up in earnest in North American settings in the 1960s through the activities of Srila Prabhupada, the guru of the Hare Krishna movement.
In the ’70s it spread further through the growth of American ashrams and through students of Neem Karoli Baba like Ram Das, Bhagavan Das and Krishna Das.
In the last 20 years, devotees of Hatha Yoga have taken it up as the soundtrack to yoga classes (although that trend seems to be passing in favor of pop music in many places).
What is Kirtan?
Kirtan is a devotional practice central to Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion) in the Hindu and Sikh religions. It was popularized in Hinduism by Chaitanha Mahaprabhu (1486-1534) and in Sikh tradition by its founder Guru Nanak (1469-1539).
In essence, kirtan consists of singing names of God.
This beautiful group practice is usually led by a kirtan wallah. The wallah sings out a name, often accompanying himself on a simple instrument while playing the melody of the mantra being chanted. The wallah then repeats the melody on the instrument without chanting, and the others present sing the holy words back.
The wallah is free to creatively vary the melody and to speed up or slow down. Everyone enters into a kind of joyful contemplative ecstasy together, drawing closer and closer to God in all Her beauty.
God might be experienced in the form of Krishna, or Lakshmi, or Shiva, or Ekomkar, or Satnam, or all of the above, in any given session. The session might last for hours. It might last all night.
Usually there is not just one wallah; people take turns freely.
And you know what? No one is charged to attend.
You know what else? The wallah is not seen as a performer. The wallah is not a rock star. The wallah is just the chant leader.
Of course, some wallahs sing better than others, and some are more popular. But that doesn’t make them, in the public conception, artists or performers.
I remember a Kirtan at Shivananda Ashram in Val Morin, Quebec. One of the Swamis began to lead, choosing a certain mantra and melody. The mike was then passed through the crowd to people who signaled they would like to lead a chant.
Two women lead, one after the other, offering haunting traditional melodies.
Finally, the mike came to an Ayurvedic doctor from South India who was visiting the Ashram.
He yelled, “Rama bol!” (Praise God!). He then led the kirtan with such passion and artistry that he had a room of 100 people clapping, drumming, and dancing in ecstasy within moments.
All of us together faced the puja (shrine) for worship (except the swami). I couldn’t see the good doctor’s face, nor did I ever learn his name.
Jump forward a few years. I have been to several attempts at Western kirtan led by Westerners and usually been disappointed (though not always).
The reason is simple: generally people don’t know what they are doing.
How could they? They don’t know the mantras; they don’t know the melodies. They’re struggling just to remember that when the wallah sings, you are quiet; and when the wallah is quiet, you sing.
More perniciously, however, people are confused about some fundamental things.
Whereas at Indian kirtans most people have their eyes closed, at Western kirtans, most eyes are fixed on the wallah or on each other or perhaps on those who inevitably rise up and dance sinuously around the edges of the crowd like some cross between a Christian revival meeting and a belly dancing convention.
People care what their voices sound like. This is not generally true in a traditional setting, as anyone who has been to a down-home Indian kirtan can testify.
Out-of-tune wailing is common, as it should be.
Out-of-tune wailing should be common, because kirtan is about God, not us. Of course, we should sing with beauty and artistry if we can. Fundamentally, what we are doing is not about that. It is about praising the divine, getting close to the sacred and leaving behind our egos and worldly relationships for a short while to soar into the heart of the Self, the loving arms of the Mother of all things. It’s about dancing to the sounds of Krishna’s flute, not showing off our own riffs or the sway of our hips.
All of which brings me to my point.
When kirtan is led by a certain person, or group of people, who charge others to attend, a number of things inevitably follow:
First of all, the entire event is reframed as an experience that certain people are, at bottom, purchasing from other people. The sellers are now responsible for creating an experience for the buyers, which means that they need to be performers and artists.
People will attend the kirtan and feel it was, or wasn’t worth their $25. They will discuss the wallah and his voice or her style. This in itself automatically shifts the whole activity away from being a humble offering to God and a shared communal feast of Her love.
Most people’s attention will be on the wallah instead of the Goddess, and they will expect the wallah to create the experience for them. This is likely to discourage, not encourage, the hard work of learning the mantras and melodies.
Since performance is accentuated, people are likely to feel that they need to sing well. This will lead people to focus on the quality of their own singing with all the attendant self-consciousness, shyness, self- reproach and/or egotism. All of which goes exactly in the opposite direction of kirtan, which is about becoming so absorbed in the singing that you forget yourself and dissolve in the ocean of divine love. Or at least come a little closer to that.
Lastly, the most important problem.
If kirtan is kirtan, then it is about a bunch of people getting together to sing to the Divine. Period.
If there is a charge to attend, then some people will not come. Who? The poorest among us, of course—single mothers, low-income families, students, people who thought they could make a living teaching yoga. You know.
How does this make sense?
For Shri Chaitanya and Guru Nanak the great popularizers of kirtan, it was all about throwing open the way to the divine to everyone.
In India the bhakti movement, which transmitted kirtan to our day, was known for transcending caste barriers and including poor servants, women, and even outcasts.
Is this trend of inclusion something we want to reverse here in the West?
Some may object with practical concerns.
Some may ask, “How will we rent out the hall?”
My answer, “Don’t rent out a hall. Find a church, temple, house, yoga studio, or field that is free.”
“We can’t find one big enough,” you say.
Good for you. My suggestion, then, is to find a venue which will allow the event to function on a donation basis. I guarantee you can find such a venue.
If you do this, please do not post a “suggested donation.” That is not a donation. That is a fee.
I have even seen, recently, a poster which listed a “required donation.” Kali save us from this nonsense. A required donation, people, is a fee.
A donation is voluntary and is not set before hand. Got that? Great.
When events are free and are co-created, then people need to invest themselves to make them work. When people invest themselves, they find value in what they are doing. They learn. They grow.
What about Krishna Das, Wah!, Snatam Kaur and other teachers who popularized kirtan in the West and charge for their concerts?
I respect all of the above and have benefited from their teachings and music. I do think, however, that they have made a mistake in spear-heading the professionalization and commercialization of kirtan in the West.
In its original context, kirtan was culturally subversive and arose out of communal relationships of equality and cooperation. This is sometimes true in its Western context as well, thankfully, especially in ashrams, gurdwaras and temples.
The challenge we face, however, is the increasing invasion of kirtan by the capitalist ethos, even among those whose intentions are good.
The “ethics” of our market culture are so pervasive that we sometimes reproduce them even when we have no intention to do so, and without realizing it- even in the midst of supposedly “spiritual” activities. The only remedies are dialogue, education, resistance, and re-imagination.
Matthew Gindin, R.Ac., is an acupuncturist, ayurvedic counselor, meditation, qigong and yoga teacher living in Vancouver, BC. He began teaching meditation and yoga after living as a Buddhist monastic for three years. He regularly lectures on yoga philosophy, Buddhist psychology, holistic medicine, and Jewish spirituality. Being curious and perhaps a little too thoughtful, Matthew has explored and practiced neo-shamanism, tantric yoga, all of the major schools of Buddhism and Daoism. His core spiritual commitments are to the contemplative life, positive action in the world, and his home tradition of Judaism whose two core demands, “love God” and “love people” are what he tries to live up to. In addition to his professional site, Matthew blogs at Blue Waters, Blue Mountains and Talis in Wonderland.
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