Kirtan hurts my inner child.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Jul 8, 2011
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A call for Kirtan lovers to teach kirtan as a path, not just offer it as a performance to groove to.

Kirtan is worth knowing about & learning, not just monkey-imitating-dancing to.

“alalalalalallalalaallalala​alallalalalaallaalalallala​lalalalala (rock back and forth) repeat: alalalalalalalalalalalalal​alalalalalalalalalalalalal​ al (rock back and forth, smile pleasingly and pleased at oneself and others) repeat, close eyes, think about Divine Mother: lalalalalalalalalalalalala​llalalalalalalalalaalalala​lal (etc until you want to shoot yourself).”

To be clear, I love kirtan, to the infinitesimally amount that I know anything about it. It helps me loosen up and cheer up and the community is great.

Problem is, I and most other kirtan folk know next to nothing about it, never having been taught anything. To my mind it’s asking to cultural appropriation—like jumping in a sacred sweat lodge without any training or approval. No one knows what they’re singing, or meaning, they’re just grooving off the vibe. I’ve interviewed Krishna Das twice about this and, of course, he defends the practice of not teaching, but just charging tickets and inviting folks in and he says folks get a lot out of it. The wafting fumes of spiritual love n’light, however, give me a horrible hangover the next morning. I think those who love kirtan should bother to study it, and instruct others. I’d love to take a kirtan class.

I had the same problem with Buddhist ngondro, when we’re asked to recite sanskrit. At least we studied and knew what we were saying, and said it with some specific intent.

What’s kirtan, some of you may wonder? These will give you a feeling for it:


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


14 Responses to “Kirtan hurts my inner child.”

  1. Ivy says:

    I've participated in kirtan but have never taken a class in it It wasn't all lalalalala smiley for me. It was humbling. I got sad. I got chills up my spine.

  2. Ben_Ralston says:

    To study Kirtan you sing it, you learn to play it. That's how I've learnt it, and that's how I"ve been taught.

    I think that what you're talking about applies to you if you've just been to the odd 'concert' here and there. Then, of course, you don't know the words or the meaning.

    On the other hand, live in an Ashram for a month and that's studying Kirtan. When you do it often enough it sinks into your skin. One day you find yourself being chanted THROUGH. That's the real meaning of Kirtan – as with all Yoga. When you find yourself as a vessel for the expression of divine love. Maybe I should write an article about this…

  3. Ben_Ralston says:

    Ah yes, you felt the *yearning*. Beautiful isn't it?

  4. Megan says:

    It gives you a hangover? That doesn't happen to me….

  5. Claudia says:

    Waylon, when I said in 'Facebook' yesterday "I know what you mean' as you wrote that kirtan hurts your inner child, I had NO IDEA what you meant. Good thing you clarified.

    I've never been to a kirtan here, matter of fact only been to one in India with a student of Jayashree in Mysore and it was clean, no dancing, just chanting, devotion, and it reached within my soul to the point where I started crying and felt embarrased, it completely overode my mind and went trhough me as if I was transparent.

    The pictures you show here show me a very different type of gathering / singing.

  6. swirlybird says:

    Can devotion be taught? There are places the intellect spoils, asserting itself as it does as the master of any domain, yet song doesn’t need meaning. Namah is “bow”, the rest are expressions of divine (however that is spun) in sound form, as are na and ma too. Song can go outside meaning, a pure expression and Being, a word and a work. Om shanti means beingness peace, but you chant it and it’s de-vo-tion or ecs-ta-sy or i’m-so-bored.
    Several documentaries on the Bauls- 30 mins 44 mins 1hr 9mins (extract)

  7. elephantjournal says:

    Soumyajeet Chattaraj This is one thing I love about EJ articles – more often than not, the title would scare away those that react, but those that don't – get to enrich their perspectives even further. Thank you for the videos! 🙂

    # Yeah, we like it *real* 🙂 ~ Ben Ralston

    Jason Gan Kirtan is not the same as singing but it is more like japa chanting, i.e. repeat until you can break through the veil of appearances to reveal your true self, to connect with Atman. Hari Om Om Hari Krishna Hari Om

    The Bhakti Beat Shyamdas, the Sanskrit scholar (and arguably the grandpapa of contemporary American kirtan) answered the question "why do kirtan?" this way: "Because it's fun." Then he added: "And because when you're singing kirtan you tend to remember Hari [God], and remembrance of God is the best thing going." If you want to know more about kirtan, go see Shyamdas perform — he doesn't "just" sing; he teaches…

  8. svan says:

    to echo some of the thoughts posted here, the chanting itself is the teaching – it is completely experiential and I've found that the depth of my experience depends on the depth of the kirtan wallah's practice. I have also approach it in a more meditative way, listening and opening to the sounds rather than dancing, although my body is often moved. I am deeply grateful to Krishna Das for opening my heart to pure bhakti, not through lectures, but through the sound of his own devotion.
    It is such a personal experience – the heart will resonate, or not… Try turning the ear of the mind to the heart when you listen next time and see if it makes a difference.

  9. mia says:

    Thank you for noting it gives you a hang over….I have a life now and being foggy just doesnt work….and I asked for translations and got them. Most of them I could not relate to . Some of it was things I would just never agree to and some was very appropriate if you were a farmer in early times…! Having said all that I do have some tucked away fond memories of times singing chants

  10. Sonyata says:

    I was a Christian for many years, and attended many varieties and denominations. Kirtan is the Hindu equivalent of modern Christian worship music, which is usually simplistic and designed to invoke the spirit of God/Jesus with the promise of euphoria and spiritual awakening. Such is the case of the Kirtan music, but not knowing Hinduism or Sanskrit can make it a challenge. Just to learn all of the deities can take some time. Some flavors of Christianity can get a bit exotic, with "speaking in tongues" and "spastic flailing" sort of spirit led dancing. The same is true of Kirtan, I think.

    There is tremendous power in spirit led music, especially when a group is intent upon the worship of God. It can create a tremendous spirit and emotion, transformation, and healing. It is in stark contrast to the music of the traditional Christian Church, with hymn books and often very eloquently phrases musical and scriptural passages. In the former, the spirit itself is the message. In the latter, the scriptures are embedded in the music, which can make them very easy to remember.

    I am a yoga instructor, and my religion has expanded from Christianity to include the study and interest in all of the world's religions. But I still feel funny in Kirtan, especially if it is flaky sounding.or seeming. Then again, I feel the same way in many of the spirit led Christian churches.

  11. elephantjournal says:

    Please, do!

  12. Andy says:

    For some reason watching people perform Kirtan gives me the douche – tickles. But I'm sure through repetition and participation I could become more comfortable with it.

  13. kathik says:

    Way, I have half a post written on feeling like a poser (sorry) in kirtan. So much of what some insist is Real Yoga doesn’t feel real (or relevant) to me.

    If I were Hindu, I might be totally offended by “pujas” led at a local yoga center. But I’m not, so who knows…

  14. Back in 2008, I published a practical guide to the practice of devotional chanting, _Following Sound into Silence: Chanting Your Way Beyond Ego into Bliss_ (Hay House). It provides a clear understanding of the "how-to"s and benefits of mantra work, spoken or sung, whether solo or in the company of others.