Kirtana (pronounced keer-ton-uh) is a Sanskrit word that means “praise” or “glory.”
The more common Hindi pronunciation is “keer-ton,” dropping the final “a.” Simply understood, it is a form of song that centers on glorifying God, commonly performed in a “call and response” style of singing. There is Nam-kirtan, which are songs composed of God’s sacred names, and Lila-kirtan, or songs that celebrate the esoteric activities of the Divine. There is Sankirtan, when the songs of praise are performed in a group setting, and Nagara-Sankirtan, when the group is taken into the streets. And there are numerous variations on these terms and themes. But kirtan, in any form, is ecstatic.
A closely related idiom is bhajan (bah-jon), prayerful song, which involves an internal, more meditative technique, usually in a sitting position. This is in contrast to kirtan, normally performed while standing, at least, if not dancing. Bhajan literally means “worship” and is often conceived as a more solitary practice, though it is also generally performed in a group, like kirtan. In addition, bhajan is generally softer, whereas kirtan can become quite strident. Various sects and regions in India will attribute different labels to different forms of prayerful song, sometimes defining bhajan as a subcategory of kirtan and vice versa.
Those particularly adept at such singing are called kirtaniyas (keer-ton-nee-uhs) or kirtan-wallahs (keer-ton-wahl-uhs), and it is wonderful to watch them as they chant God’s names. Usually, traditional, exotic instruments accompany their song and dance. In your average kirtan, you can expect to find a khol—also called a mridanga—which is a double-headed folk drum originating in northeast India. It has a body made of clay or fiberglass, with a small head on the right side (some four inches in diameter), and a larger one on the left (approximately ten inches). A pair of brass hand cymbals, known as kartals, is also a staple in any kirtan performance—the two cymbals, commonly two to five inches in diameter, are tied together by a piece of string or cloth and employed rhythmically, according to the beat of the chant.
Devotional singers often use harmoniums, too—especially in bhajan. Originally from France, the harmonium is a free-reed wind instrument with a keyboard somewhat akin to a piano or an organ. When it first made its way to India, kirtaniyas eschewed its use for devotional music; it was considered only suitable for low-caste street musicians. But in due course it found a home in the yoga of chant. The ektar—a single-stringed relative of the Western guitar—is also used in kirtan, though not as frequently as the other instruments just described. For those who know its tradition, this instrument brings to mind the paradigmatic female devotee, Mirabai, who, in sixteenth-century India, played the ektar while singing her now famous love-songs to Krishna. Bowed chordophones, such as the sarangi or the esraj—violin-like in nature—are sometimes used as well, as are flutes and tablas, and a background drone might be provided by a tamboura, too. But these are for more elaborate kirtans—the khol, kartals, and harmonium are the standard instruments, along with hand clapping. Contemporary kirtaniyas, it should be noted, tend to engage more modern instrumentation, too, because ideally any form of musical accompaniment can serve kirtan’s purposes.
In short, kirtan is an uncomplicated and effective way of communing with God. The Padma Purana tells us, “Because the holy name and the ‘holy named’ are nondifferent, the name is fully complete, pure, and eternally liberated. Indeed, it is Krishna Himself.” Philosophically, this idea can be summarized as follows: matter and spirit are opposites. Thus, since in the material world, all things are relative, and part of that relativity manifests in a thing and its name being different, in the spiritual realm, the opposite must be true: a thing and its name are one. This is the nature of the Absolute.
The implications here are tremendous. If God and His name are the same, by chanting one can get close to Him in every sense of the word. The chanter gets close to Him in terms of proximity, since the name is on his or her lips—and the name, remember, is God. The chanter gets purified by close association and becomes “godly,” cleansed, divinely inspired—thus becoming closer to God in nature. And the chanter gets close to God by achieving the goal of yoga, or linking with Him, through the intimacy of calling His name with love and devotion.
This is the ultimate effect of kirtan, even if, in the beginning stages, one usually remains blissfully unaware of it. Kirtan does not ask us to achieve the highest level. Instead, it dutifully takes us there, sometimes in spite of ourselves. And at any stage, it is joyfully performed, leading to higher and higher modes of spirituality. It gradually takes us beyond the physical, mental, and intellectual strata of existence and situates us in transcendence. Thus, whether we approach chanting as mere entertainment; as part of a yogic regimen; as a night out; or as a method for getting close to God—we benefit from the practice and move upward toward the Supreme.
According to the sages of India, kirtan transcends history: It is “imported from the spiritual realm.” That is, in the highest heaven, one will find God—Krishna, Vishnu, El, Allah, He has innumerable names—glorified with blissful song and dance. Then, as kirtan makes its way to the material world, we find it in humanity’s earliest cultures and civilizations.
For example, the Vedas and the Upanishads, which are among the world’s oldest religious texts, describe the power of sound in minute detail, elaborating on how certain mantras, when properly recited, reveal Ultimate Reality. Kirtan, then, claims both divine origin and a history traceable to the world’s earliest scriptures.
Vaishnavism, whose chief manifestation in the West is known today as the Hare Krishna movement, developed kirtan into a methodical practice, some would say a science, leading to the goal of yoga. With the help of Vaishnava scriptures, such as the Bhagavata Purana and the Bhagavad Gita, adherents came to understand chanting as a highly technical—if also blissful—discipline through which they could expect definite results on the spiritual path.
Indeed, the scriptures state that for each world age, a specific method of God realization is particularly appropriate: In Satya-yuga, millions of years ago, one attained the Absolute through deep meditation; in Treta-yuga, through opulent sacrifices; in Dvapara-yuga, through Deity (iconic) worship; and in Kali, the current age, through chanting the holy name of the Lord.
Even the celestial beings mentioned in the Vedic literature want to take part in this celebration of sacred sound. Vishnu Himself, for example, sounds His conch as a call to spiritual awakening, and, in His original form as Krishna, bewitches all living beings with His silky smooth flute playing. Shiva, god of destruction, plays his threatening drum during the dance of cosmic dissolution. The Goddess Sarasvati, too, is always depicted with vina in hand; she is the divine patron of resonance and bestows blessings on all students of God-centered music. Lord Brahma, the husband of Sarasvati, creates musical scales with the mantras of the Sama-Veda, and uses the specific mantra “OM” to create the universe.
Interestingly, this teaching—that material existence is generated through sound—resonates with the Bible: In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1). Vedic texts state it directly: “By divine utterance the universe came into being.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.2.4) These same texts tell us that just as sound had once instigated the original flow of cosmic creation, so, too, does it play a significant role in humankind’s ultimate goal: “Liberation through sound.” This is a catchphrase in the Vedantic tradition. (Vedanta-sutra 4.4.22) Hence: kirtan.
This is the core practice of Vaishnavas, originating from hoary times and the revelation of the Vedas. Although bhakti (“devotion”), as a principle, is eternal, it took formal shape as a movement in roughly the 6th century CE, with powerful yogis and alluring singer-poets transforming the countryside, conveying truths not only in Sanskrit, drawing on the original Vedas, but in vernacular languages, making full use of new compositions and contemporary song. Most productive were the Shaivite Nayanars and the Vaishnava Alvars, whose devotional poetry might be seen as first steps in the development of modern kirtan. A bhakti movement was in full flower, emphasizing the heart, the essence, rather than rituals and rigid observances.
Bhakti literature and devotional song spread rapidly, accommodating the growing wave of seekers and spiritual adepts that inundated the land. As a result, four major lineages arose in South India, allowing primeval knowledge to flow north and, eventually, around the world. This was done through commentary and explication, practice and revelation. The four lineages owe a debt of gratitude to the following seers: Ramanuja (1017–1137), the initial systematizer for the Sri Sampradaya; Nimbarka (ca. 1130–1200), of the Kumara Sampradaya; Madhva (1238–1317), who appeared in the Brahma Sampradaya; and Vishnu Swami (dates unknown), who reinvigorated the Rudra Sampradaya, which was then reformulated by Vallabhacharya (1479–1545) as Pushti Marg. Many branches, sub-branches and diverse traditions sprouted from these essential four. The most significant in terms of kirtan would be that of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533), who in many ways was the cap on the Vaishnava tradition. His Gaudiya Sampradaya, an offshoot of the Brahma-Madhva line, inspired all of India with ecstatic song and dance, illuminating the science of kirtan as never before. This was inherited by the Hare Krishna movement, which comes in the lineage of Sri Chaitanya.
Sophisticated love poetry, systematic theology, and new revelations came from many quarters. Chief among these, perhaps, was the Gita-Govinda, Jayadeva’s twelfth-century Sanskrit work on the love of Radha and Krishna. Mentioning the names of the great kirtaniyas who developed Jayadeva’s theme might appear like a meaningless litany to the layman, but to those who know the tradition, reciting these names is on a par with the most profound kirtan: Sur Das, Tulasi Das, Tukaram, Namdev, Mirabai, Vidyapati, Chandidas, Swami Haridas, Narottam, Bhaktivinode Thakur. And there were countless others who wrote devotional songs on the same subject, elaborating on divine love as found in the spiritual world. The practice of kirtan is forever indebted to them.
The Hare Krishna maha-mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—is known as the greatest (maha) of all mantras, because it is said to contain the potency of all other spiritual sound vibrations, at least when properly chanted. It is thus the most popular form of kirtan.
The mantra is also considered “the greatest chant” because it is totally selfless: Unlike other prayers, in which the chanter asks for something personal, whether it be health, the protection of loved ones, or daily bread, in this mantra one merely asks to be used as God’s instrument, to serve Him in love and devotion, without any expectation of return. Srila prabhupada gives us the following translation: “O Lord! O energy of the Lord! Please engage me in Your divine service!”
Since it is a mantra composed solely of the names of God, how do India’s sages arrive at this translation? To begin with, the initial word of the mantra forcefully calls out to Radha, the embodiment of devotional energy: “O Radhe! Please engage me in divine service!” One may wonder: If the first word is “Hare,” how is the mantra connected to “Radha”? In fact, “Hare” and “Radha” are one—both names refer to the same Supreme Goddess. But, also, “Hare” is in the vocative, and so the mantra is not merely a passive recitation of Her name. Rather, it beseeches Her, calling out to Mother Hara (Radha) for Her undivided attention. And since She is the embodiment of devotional energy, calling out to Her is, in essence, a prayer passionately asking to be engulfed in that energy—and that with great urgency. The basis of the mantra’s urgency is revealed in the esoteric Gaudiya tradition: Divine service cannot be attained or practiced without recourse to the Goddess, Radha. Thus, the mantra is basically an intense request to be engaged in spiritual service (seva).
Yet there is another dimension to this mantra’s greatness: According to the ancient, mystical teachings of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Radha, the feminine Divine, is supreme, in some ways eclipsing even Krishna, the male Godhead, and this is realized through the chanting of the mantra. Overall, the tradition views God as both male and female—which is more inclusive than the usual patriarchal and matriarchal conceptions of divinity. Radha and Krishna are one, but have become two in order to relish spiritual exchange. And yet the lovely Radha surpasses even Him, for He is totally controlled by Her love. The message is clear: Bhakti, devotional love, conquers God by His own divine arrangement. This is a spiritual phenomenon that reveals itself more and more as one becomes adept in the chanting. On a basic level, it can easily be appreciated as follows: Radha and Krishna are a dual-gendered divinity, a beautiful vision of the divine, showing perfect egalitarianism and spiritual harmony.
If kirtan is the essence of spirituality, this mantra is the essence of the essence. Simply by chanting it, under the guidance of those experienced in its recitation, one can attain the spiritual world.
Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He has published twenty-one books in numerous languages, including the recent Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008).