Paying to Pray: Why Kirtan Should Be Free. ~ Matthew Gindin

Via elephant journal
on Jun 14, 2013
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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 GindinMatthew 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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73 Responses to “Paying to Pray: Why Kirtan Should Be Free. ~ Matthew Gindin”

  1. Richard says:

    Great Article, fully agree with your assessment.

  2. Sara says:

    I love this. I sing with two kirtan groups where I live now, and I always feel weird about charging for the event. At the same time, I also know others who lead kirtan who feel that they should get paid for it because they are providing "expertise" and because they "live the lifestyle", which seems a little off to me. My take? I wholeheartedly agree with donation-based kirtan. People shouldn't be made to feel like they have to pay if they want to get together with others and sing the names of God. Placing a fee requirement for a kirtan event just seems exclusionary, and yet another way of making yoga become inaccessible to all who wish to give it a shot. Thank you for our article; I found it to be very inspirational.

  3. Singerbabe says:

    I agree with the article, to a point. Musicians and facilitators are housed in bodies that need things… housing, healthcare, food, etc… all which cost $. I co-facilitate a community choir with a sliding scale fee. It is modest and mostly pays for the beautiful space. We never turn away or shame anyone who can't pay.

  4. sordog1 says:

    You are right. Kirtan should be free. Capitalism also must change so that all people have their basic minimum needs met. This means all people have a right to water, food, shelter, and health care.

  5. Thaddeus1 says:

    Thank you for this well-written and well researched piece Matthew. You very sweetly and succinctly point out what followers of bhakti have been saying for ages. Unfortunately, with the recent "popularization" of kirtan, and all forms of yoga, the standards continue to fall.

    In the above link, Sripad Aindra Prabhu puts it very simply, performing kirtan for one's own glorification results in little more than "sinful" reactions for all involved.

    Posting to Elephant Bhakti. Be sure to Like Elephant Bhakti on Facebook.

  6. Savitri says:

    Thank you very much for this article. I've got into troubles several times in the past because of the same topic. To a bhakti-yoga practitioner who teaches Kundalini Yoga, and to someone whose spiritual practice is with strong influence of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Guru Ram Das, chanting is a large part of the practice. "Community Kirtan" should be about a community coming together, singing praises of the Holy Name, not about individual kirtan "leaders" and not about paying them. If we must pay to hear someone sing, be it $10 or $25, we're in a concert and not in a "kirtan"! In a bhakti-yoga tradition, the "singer/s" is not in the centre. It is the Goddess in the centre and we are serving Her. She wants to listen to the devotional quality of our hearts. The consciousness of the kirtaniyas-kirtan wallahs is also very important, especially if we consider chanting as uniting the finite self with sacred sound vibration of the Holy Names. Therefore, we should discern whether it is material or spiritual consciousness that we are looking for. Although contribution for space rental is of course acceptable, it should not be set or compulsory. Even with only $10/person "donation", if the rent is $25 and 25 people attend, that is a concert with $225 profit, not a kirtan. If you see me going to Snatam Kaur's concert, there I've said it, I'm going to a concert, not a kirtan. Thank you once again for writing this important topic.

  7. David Michael says:

    I guess all the modern-day American kirtan leaders should be breathatarians and live in caves. God forbid they should drive cars to the events and/or travel around the country. All the kirtans I am involved with allow poor people in for free. In a pure world, kirtans should be done for no fee BUT: In America, musicians cannot get grants or government support for their work traveling around leading kirtans so I guess you are saying that only independently wealthy musicians should do it.

  8. Iris says:

    People do not have to pay to pray – you can pray anywhere, at any moment – alone or with a group of people.

    I take it from your article that you too must have your eyes open at these kirtans since you are noticing all the other people with their eyes open…. And their open eyes are from more interest to you than what you describe is the actual focuse of kirtan.

    What is so different from an acupuncturist or any doctor for this matter, charging a fee to help a patient to get back to health?

    If you feel the kirtans you want to attend should be free – go to one that is free or organize one…

    Hari Bol

  9. Ian says:

    I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding here that causes this article to frame the subject in an unfair way. There really are two different kinds of events:

    One is the community kirtan that Mr. Gindin is referring to, which operates in exactly the way that he has described. Such events are free, or collect non-compulsory donations to support the venue, and the leading of the chants does tend to be more distributed among those who attend. These are beautiful events that are wonderful to attend and fun to organize. Highly recommended!

    The second type could perhaps be referred to as a "kirtan concert", that features one or more professional musicians who facilitate the experience for an audience, although interaction and participation with the audience is still primary. For those who think this is a purely Western invention, you are incorrect. There are concerts of this type that have their place in the path of Bhakti Yoga in India and have been going on since before Chaitanya's revolution. The difference is that in India, the musicians are paid by a wealthy patron, a devout Hindu who sees it as his or her sacred duty to use their wealth to provide such concerts for their communities. I myself have, as a kirtan singer, worked under such circumstances, where a wealthy Indian man paid me and my fellow musicians to provide sacred music for various events, allowing everyone else to attend for free while still supporting us in our music studies and spiritual practice. In most cases, the name of the patron was not made public. In the West we have no such system, so those of us who wish to devote their lives to music and spiritual practice, helping to expand the Bhakti community, are required to ask each attendee to pay a small amount, to help support the musicians in paying the overhead that it costs to live as artists. If there were more patrons supporting these concerts, then perhaps such a system would not be necessary. If we lived in a more socialized system, where basic needs of life were provided by society, then perhaps such a situation would not be necessary. Whenever possible, I have tried to offer opportunities for those who do not have the cash on hand to attend such concerts to earn their ticket by volunteering in some way. Also, there is the idea of creating recordings of kirtan music, which helps immeasurably in spreading awareness of these practices in the West. Creating such a recording is an expensive enterprise, again, unless there is a wealthy patron paying the bill.

    One of the previous posters made the right point: do we expect doctors to provide medical care for free? If we value musical talent, then should we expect those who devote their lives to refining the craft of music to provide that experience for free? If you don't value musical talent, nobody is forcing you to buy a ticket.

    It's not a perfect system, I'll admit, but it's still in its infancy. Ideally we should be able to do a sliding scale that allows everyone to support the artists to the degree that they are able, including the idea that the folks who have plenty of money will actually agree to pay more, so that others who can't pay less. We're working on it, but it goes against the nature of our Capitalist society, so it's an uphill battle.

    The unfortunate thing in this discussion is that there are some people who have decided that they are the ones who KNOW what IS true devotion and what's NOT, and they feel it's their right to push that opinion on everyone else, maligning the intentions of anyone who disagrees with their philosophy. I believe that there is room in the universe for community kirtans and kirtan concerts. It's up to each person to choose what suits them personally, and nobody should be listening to the soapbox preachers who say you're going to Hell if you buy a ticket to a Krishna Das concert (not necessarily Mr. Gindin's attitude, but I've met others who do say such things). If KD opens your heart, save up your pennies and go see him next time he comes to town. If not, attend your local community kirtan, or start one in your living room, and have a blast! I think both are great experiences.

  10. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi David
    American kirtan leaders should not be breathatarians, they should get jobs. In India kirtan wallahs do not recieve "grants or government support". They have jobs and in the evenings or in their spare time they lead kirtan. Some of them do not have jobs but live with their whole lives dedicated to God, wondering around from ashram to ashram leading kirtans. It is true that the ashrams will give them food and lodging- it is also true that this lifestyle makes many of them poor to a degree that a western "starving artist" cannot even imagine. Why do they do this? In order to get closer to God, in order to serve others, in order to delight in life and God. Your comment seems to assume that I am saying kirtan wallahs should offer a professional service for free. That is not what I am saying. I am saying that leading kirtans is not a professional service, it is something wallahs offer to their communities and to God for the sake of others and God, not as a product others need to purchase, and not as something they feel they have a right to be payed for. Thank Goddess these people don't seem to think that "time is money".

  11. Iris says:

    "The unfortunate thing in this discussion is that there are some people who have decided that they are the ones who KNOW what IS true devotion and what's NOT, and they feel it's their right to push that opinion on everyone else, maligning the intentions of anyone who disagrees with their philosophy. I believe that there is room in the universe for community kirtans and kirtan concerts."

    Thank you for saying what I was feeling. I guess we all have plenty of opportunity to "live up to “love God” and “love people”. "

  12. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi Iris

    You made three interesting comments:

    1) "I too have my eyes open.." Yes, true, I do occasionally look around, either because of distractability or boredom or restlessness or what have you-and sometimes out of affection for others, wanting to see the others there. My point is not that one should never open their eyes at a kirtan. My point is this: I have done this at both western kirtans and at traditional ones, and I have seen the difference is the way people participate. My interest is not in putting down westerners, but in trying to communicate what traditional kirtan is in the hope that some people will understand what I'm saying and relate to kirtan differently..

    2) My whole article is meant to be an argument against the idea you present here, so I won't say much. One point: the kirtan wallah is not offering a professional service to others. That's an important part of my point: kirtan is about a community doing something together, and about individuals praying to God, and paying the wallah makes it seem like the wallah is performing a service for others- your comment in fact illustrates the way that paying for kirtan creates that idea.

    3) My prayer practice is not currently kirtan. I wrote this article out of love for kirtan, which I have benefitted from alot in the past. I am an experienced meditation teacher, however, and I do lead a free meditation group. Your comment seems to suggest that one should not criticise others but simply set a good example oneself. I don't agree- I believe that respectful criticism and healthy debate are desirable and important in spiritual communities.

    Hari Bol!!


  13. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi Ian

    Hi Ian

    Thank you for your very interesting and informative reply. I was under the impression that musicians in India were hired to sing bhajans or simialar types of music- ie. to sing sacred songs to a listening audience, not to lead kirtan. Are you saying that wealthy patrons pay musicians to lead kirtan, not to sing sacred music for them? It sounds like that is what you're saying, but you can clarify? Even if that is the case, we could do something simliar here by fundraising for a kirtan then offering it free to participants. Other spiritual communities do things like that all the time.

    I respect and understand the opinions you stated. I do want to clarify that I have gone to see Krishna Das, who i love, and cretainly don't mean to argue that there is no value in "kirtan concerts". The argument I am making is that kirtan can be more inclusive, more subversive, and more spiritually focused than those concerts tend to be, no matter how beautiful they are, and how much some of those present benefit from them.

    You also argue in favor of compromise with capitalist practice and our mainstream cultural values. Here I simply cannot agree. This compromise happens too much it seems to me, and I am tired of hearing constant defenses of this type of compromise in the spiritual community. What we need is more radical, much more radical spirituality!!

    I think all of us, myself included, are far too compromising, too complacent, too full of rationalisations already. I wrote this article because I'm trying to push the edge. Our society desperately needs more people willing to rewrite the rules of the game, not choose "reasonable" approaches.

  14. Janice says:

    Thank you for a really good article. I'm relatively new to Kirtan but have fallen in love with the practice. From what I've learned and read, I understand the need to keep ego out of it. Then I find myself struggling not to judge others' egos, all the while knowing, that too, is ego. Augh, we humans!

    That said, I am grateful for the many artists who share their knowledge and performance and feel supportive of their travels to share Kirtan with more and more people. The travels take money, the halls take money, and if nothing else, the janitor to clean up or the caretaker to lock the doors all, frequently, take money.

    I attend two Kirtan events each month. One invites a love offering, one has a "suggested" love offering. I do agree that a donation is a donation and there should be no suggestion or "required donation." Keeping in consciousness the love and devotion that's the true purpose of Kirtan is something we need to keep in the forefront and from that place choose those things we pay for carefully.


  15. Meghan says:

    Fantastic article. I have so often found myself looking for Kirtan, and even planning to go up until I see that "suggested donation" … Suffice it to say that 1) as a student I tend to shy away from any and all fees but more importantly 2) there was always something just not right about it… as though if they couldn't understand it should be free, then it wasn't a session I felt would be worth going to. You put into words what I didn't even know I was feeling. Thank you.

  16. David says:

    In any spiritual or religious practice, especially during times of expansion and change, there are going to be those individuals who adhere to a more fundamentalist view. Typically, those are the people that claim that change or expansion is somehow against the 'true nature' of the practice or religion. Depending on the ego involved, the judgement may be much harsher. This has been true for thousands of years. True for Christ. True, I'm sure for Chaitanya.

    Matthew, for someone advocating imposing "radical spirituality" on the world, I am surprised by your closed-mindedness to this. As much as you dislike the practice of charging for 'kirtan concerts' they go on and they will continue to go on and probably grow in numbers.

    Why? Because they are doing good in the world. Because they are being used as a vehicle for people to return to themselves. For people to liberate themselves.

    In your mind, and the mind of others, the only way is the most ideal way… by whose standards? Who sets the rules? You? me? You're not advocating for radical openness and spirituality you're advocating for the world to live by your standards. You're advocating for a dictatorship. The world doesn't work like that and it's a good thing. There is room for the community kirtan and for kirtan concerts because not everyone is on the same path or the same "level". Isn't it better to reach someone who gets dragged to a kirtan concert than to not reach them at all?

    Four months ago, i was someone who had no understanding of kirtan. Never even heard the word before. My only understanding of hare Krishna was from the movie airplane. The kirtan concert that you so vehemently oppose changed not only my life but may have saved my marriage. It opened me up to a new understanding of spirituality. I practice kirtan by myself every day. Its all i listen to and by listen to, i mean CDs and mp3s which cost money to make and market.

    Who are you to decide that leading kirtan should not be a profession? You administer acupuncture as a profession, do you not? Do you charge for it? kirtan leaders are providing a service just as you do. Just are you are are saying it shouldn't be a paid profession there are those in the traditional medical community that say acupuncture isn't real medicine. Should we not allow you to charge for your gift and passion?

    Your article goes through a long list of assumptions for someone like me who attends a kirtan concert and while they may be true for some, i know firsthand that they are not the case for most. Most are so struck by the experience, by the love in the room that they are buzzing about it for days. For many it is the beginning of a spiritual path they were searching for.

    Everyone is not going to find kirtan the way you found it and maybe it won't be as pure or powerful. Sometimes all source and spirit needs is an opening. Someone lost in the world to just stop and chant however they find it. Isn't that better for all of us? If you truly try to live by the principles of "love God" and "love people" how could you argue otherwise?

  17. sara lee says:

    Whew! This is a tough subject, so this is going to be a long response. I take a risk here, as this may ruffle some feathers.

    I sing kirtan, which I learned at an ashram, long before people were attending kirtan "concerts”. It just doesn't feel right to charge money. Sri Aindra Das Baba was adamant about it being sinful and spoiling the purpose of kirtan to do it for profit. He said it was ok to accept money for travel expenses, but there should be no fee for kirtan. However, Sri Aindra was a pujari at the Vrindaban temple, and was supported there. If the kirtan wallah is not sponsored, he or she would need to have another way to make money and then just sing for the love of the Divine. But so many kirtan wallahs we love to chant with travel and tour, and this is costly, and no employer would allow them so much time off from a job. For example, Jai Uttal, Wah, etc. are not temple priests or pujaris and are not sponsored by religious organizations, and they have bills and families, and if they had “day jobs”, they could not tour, and we would maybe only get to sing with them once every 5 or 10 years, so I feel mixed about this, especially since I don't live near any big temples, where kirtans are held on a weekly basis, and I love love love kirtan, and would love to sing it with others every day if it more nearby opportunities were available. When kirtan wallahs tour with musicians and several group members, taking planes, etc., that involves lots of expense. Still, I haven’t been able to reconcile paying $35-$40 for a seat at a Krishna Das "concert"—just doesn’t seem right. I've paid for many kirtan events and festivals, and purchased many kirtan CD's, but I don't go to many anymore, though I confess I usually don’t miss a nearby opportunity to chant with Jai! Through my kirtan years since 1978, I've come to prefer house and temple kirtans, and holy festival Harinam Sankirtan. I especially love chanting in temples because the response is so full and wholehearted, the mood so devotion, as there is a shared object of our affection—the Deity. I have experienced such heart-opening, transformational, bliss, singing with devotees in temples and at spiritual festivals– all chanting with the focus on the Divine, singing for the Divine. And money is not required—people can donate if they wish—that is how I wish it could always be.
    In summary, I’ll probably still attend the occasional kirtan events in rented halls that charge a fee (though I usually choose to do seva instead) but I am attending more temple and festival programs, where kirtan is worship for worship sake.

  18. Marianne says:

    Right on, David. Unless you can look into the heart and mind of someone who is singing the name, who are you to judge whether or not they are having a "pure" experience? Someone can be singing and dancing with their eyes open at Bhaktifest and experiencing union with the Divine.Someone else can be chanting with their eyes closed at a free community kirtan led by and unpaid wallah and be thinking about hitting on the guy's wife sitiing in front of them.

  19. Lovewillfindaway says:

    I used to manage many Kirtan artists here in the USA also do their bookings and negotiate fees for them at festivals and yoga studios from LA to New York to Vermont. I started out as a Volunteer because I loved Kirtan in it's 'pure' and simple form by chanting and connecting with these beautiful ancient mantras. I also loved Kirtan because it allowed me express myself emotionally through singing with loved ones. I use to visit the Hare Krishna Bhakti Centre in New York all the time and thats how I came across it, and then met some Kirtan artists from other styles at the yoga schools and festival. However over the years more Kirtan artists here in the United States started contacting me for management and bookings. I heard first hand that some of these commercial Kirtan artists would mock, deny-existence and belief to these chants, their traditions and mantras. I once received an email from one controversial Kirtan rockstar who I managed at the time (weird I know) and who currently headlines many festivals here saying that He thinks all the mantras are nonsense, but the irony is that he was doing it full time and traveling the world selling tickets to it. It is a sad truth that a lot of the big-name Kirtan Artists in the commercial and modern Yoga community in the USA dont even believe in it and are driven by their own greed, money and ego. Trust me, this is the tip of the ice berg as far as hypocracy goes. I love this article – as a Kirtan lover, advocate for love and peace and ex-manager of some of these popular so called Kirtan leaders – I agree with this article, the best thing you can do is to find a church, temple, park, any space – sit with friends and jam! Forget the rockstars…they dont even know what Kirtan is!

  20. Keli Lalita Reddy says:

    There are plenty of ways to enjoy kirtan for free, if that's the way you feel it is most pure. There is a weekly feast at basically every Iskcon temple around the world, and any one can learn a simple mantra from a piece of paper, transliterated into one's own spoken language, and chant it alone or with friends. However, what you suggest in your article is JUST NOT PRACTICLE. I would like to focus on Jai Uttal in my response, to keep it simple, and because you used his picture in your article.

    I would like to ask this- how would Jai Uttal buy his kid food or sneakers if he didn't get paid? What other job could Jai have really? His Dharma and Karma and practice are all about kirtan. And wouldn't it be a crying shame if he just chanted in his room, or something, and didn't tour and bring his gift around the world, and was like a dentist or something?

    In India, where the culture of Bhakti supports kirtan, people contribute heartily to temples, and in those temples Kirtan is chanted daily. However, so far America, they don't do that as much. Money, in the most basic sense, equals energetic exchange, if we have a healthy non- threatened relationship to it. So Kirtan wallas, who have to eat and pay rent and travel to where you are and buy airline tickets etc, need to charge money, so that their energetic contribution is balanced. And they have kids and grandkids who need things like clothing and food and to get their teeth cleaned. Try walking into a grocery store and offering making a contribution for vegetables. Sound ridiculous?

    It's always ironic to me that people from the "spiritual scene" want Mantra Revolutionaries such as Jai and Krishna das, Wah! or any of them, to scrape by on donations, while they have no problem paying a lawyer 150$ an hour. Such a strange standard. Such a silly one. Why be so judgemental of people making a living through their BEST gift! ? We should rejoice to be in their presence and send the anonymous gifts and leave tips at the door. Because they change our lives for the better, in the deepest sense of the word.

    The great thing is that people get to choose. I've never yet seen anyone physically forced into a kirtan that costs money. They choose that because they feel comfortable with it. Hell- I think 25 bucks is peanuts to be a part of associating with Shabdha Brahman- God manifest in sound vibration. In fact- the experience is priceless, and eternal in nature. I could not even take my kids to see Ironman III for that much, or buy coffee for a few friends for that much. SO sign me up.

    And for people who want the same thing for free, I recommend heading out to a local ISKCON temple, many yoga studios have free kirtans or friends living room, where you can be in a kirtan for free.

    Or joyfully give at the door, the amount they ask for and more if you support the donation model, for what truly is the greatest gift in this Iron Age of Kali- the Holy names of the Beloved.

  21. Richard Davis says:

    This is a fascinating conversation, and I agree that the original post is somewhat extremist and close-minded to the realities of our modern world. I have been a professional musician for decades, and have frequently played with some of the kirtan "stars" referenced in these posts. I also play with many kirtan artists who have made the choice to travel around and offer kirtan in yoga studios, private homes, at festivals. As I have a good job teaching at a music college, I often do not ask for money. That is my way of supporting these kirtan wallas who are trying to make a living offering their music. No one is getting rich doing this, even Jai Uttal, Krishna Das and Sanatam Kaur. In fact, many kirtan wallahs barely get by. You cannot expect people to travel, give their time and never receive anything in return. I don't see the objection to kirtan artists and musicians receiving some fee for what they do whenever possible. And if the audience receives something in return – in this case, hopefully an uplifting of their spirit, why should their not be an energetic exchange that includes an offering by the audience member?

    In addition, I agree with the somewhat sidelong look at the hippie dancing, yoga designer clothes, and other distractions of kirtan. I prefer the more traditional kirtan and generally do not care for hip-hop and other hybrid kirtans. But I have learned not to judge what is "right" for someone else. Who am I to say that these stylistic amalgams do not touch someone else? Remember, that for many of us baby boomers, it was The Beatles (read: George Harrison) who were our entry into Indian culture. That was a stretch for Indian folks, but spoke to us. I have learned that acceptance and non-judgement is crucial to spiritual maturity.

    In general, some of the comments in this conversation are disappointing because they seem to come from the intellect, not from the heart. Kirtan is all about the heart. There are kirtan artists who are incredibly heart-driven. I would pay to participate in their kirtans because I know I will receive something of value in return. On the other hand, their are many kirtan artists who are coming from their ego or their intellect, and whether it is free or for a price, those kirtans are worthless to me.

    Just three days before he died last January, my good friend Shyamdas wrote in an email to me: "Humility is the main goal of the kirtan wala." I suggest seeking out those kirtan leaders who embody this teaching, whether it costs a few dollars or not. It helps no one to be extremist and say, "One should never charge for kirtan." But we can make the world a better place by supporting those who spread love.

  22. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi David

    Thank you for your comment. It strikes me as pretty amazing that I advocate keeping a spiritual practice free and am accused of being a "fundamentalist" who is "imposing radical spirituality on the world" !

    It is true that my article is critical in tone. That doesn't mean that I am trying to impose anything on anyone, it just means that I am putting forth a passionate, and critical, argument. If you read it, and my replies, carefully, you will see that I explicitly do find value in the work of people like Krishna Das. I also think that in one aspect of their work they are making a mistake. Am I not allowed to disagree with their choices publically? Hmmn, that sounds like a kind of fundamentalism itself.

    I have been clear that I respect "kirtan concert" leaders but disagree with their charging. I advocate other ways of arranging kirtans. In my books when someone offers reasoned, respectful criticism along with practical proposals for how something could be done otherwise that hardly makes the person a fundamentalist.

    I have already laid out my argument in the piece for why I think kirtan should be free. Your argument seems to be that

    1) I am judgemental, purist, and trying to impose a radical view on others. None of that is an actual argument against what I said, it is just a way of trying to put what I said in a bad light. For instance, if I object to Monsanto's sale of GMO seeds, some people with a vested interest in Monsanto will accuse me of being "judgemental, purist and radical". Those type of arguments don't lead anywhere. (And no, I am not comparing you to Monsanto, it was just the first thing that came to mind as obviously worthy of criticism).

    2) You argue that leading kirtan is a professional service which people have a right to charge for. I have already stated why I think we should not chose to view it that way.

    3) You argue that there is value in "kirtan concerts". As stated in the article and comments. I agree.

    4) You also state that the new capitalist version of kirtan is "change, or expansion" which my fundamentalist mind resists. You compare people making kirtan into a concert which people need to pay to attend to the liberating activities of Jesus or Chaitanya. Just as people resisted Jesus or Chaitanya, I am resisting professional kirtan.

    Aside from the somewhat overly dramatic tone of these analogies, let's remember that Jesus though the money changers out of the temple, accusing those who were buying and selling there of making it "a den of thieves". In Chaitanya's world religion was often limited in key ways to the upper castes, men and the upper classes, and he burst through those divisions and offered it free to everyone.

    "Change" is not inherently good, or inherently bad. Some changes should be embraced, and some resisted.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion


  23. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi Sara Lee

    Thank you for your comment. Yes, it is a tough issue, and I sympathize with all of what you said. My suggestion is that we look at other ways to fund kirtan- there are spaces which owners will donate; fundraising allows those with means to pay the expenses and those without means to attend with dignity. Communities can also raise money and then invite the teacher to travel over and pay his expenses, as happens in some communities I have been a part of.

    Also- I have offered a number of things for free over the years. I have told people at the end- "There is no charge to attend today. Donations are accepted, but they are not expected- I want to make that clear. You do not have to donate, but if you want to (smiling) I won't stop you." or something like that. I almost invariably receive more in donations than I would have recieved if I had charged a fee. One of my teachers, who was a monk, had similar experiences- his monastery recieves around 100,000$ a year in unsolicited donations, more then enough to house and care for 8 or so monks.

    That is just my experience, and I know donations don't always provide enough in every situation. I do think it is worth a try, however. My teacher used to say that we are shortchanging people- underestimated them- by not giving them time to learn to be givers, not payers. I remember one time I taught meditation to First Nations people in Canada. These people, who had a tradition of giving in their culture, gave embarassingly generous donations (including a handwoven blanket and the upper torso of a caribou!!) And they were not wealthy. I think westerners can learn to be givers too- to pay has little dignity or beauty, but to give has much.


  24. Ian says:

    Thanks for this level-headed response David! The one I was crafting was far more more fired-up about the hypocrisy inherent in this article, but the harshness in my tone would have only added to the negative vibe on this page. You've said everything I wanted to say, but in a nicer way. Prema!

  25. The same argument could be used about Yoga teachers or writers or practically any profession. It's not money, the amount of money, fame or where someone sits that makes kirtan pure. It is your intention and your intention is being constantly witnessed by the Lord. God's knows our situation and our motivations completely. Judging the intention of others is not our duty, it is derived principally from envy and it keeps us on the relative material plain. Kirtan is meant to reawaken our loving relationship with the Supreme Absolute plain through sound vibration. Everyone is part and parcel of that Supreme Energy and there is nothing material that can prevent that union from happening. Someone may be rich or poor, a talented musician or tone deaf. It is really their intention that makes kirtan truly kirtan. So if your intention is that I'm going to make $1,000 by singing kirtan tonight and that money will be the source of happiness for me or your intention may be why should I pay someone for singing kirtan, I'm going to keep my hard earned money and that will make me happy. Well both intentions need to be examined.

    I have been involved in the kirtan world for several years and for the last few I have been involved on the financial side. No one is getting rich from performing kirtan but that's a relative point that can only be argued on relative terms. Is $10 right but $25 wrong? Who cares. There is nothing that keeps people from gathering for small free communal kirtan and there's nothing that keeps that kirtan from being pure and enjoyable. There is also nothing that keeps someone going to a Krishna das kirtan and paying a fee from having a pure kirtan experience.

    I've been to several kirtans where I've paid a set or suggested fee. I've never felt cheated by that in any way. In fact, I was left with a good feeling that I was contributing to something that was helping the world. My impression of Krishna das, Jai Uttal, Gaura Vani, etc. is that they want share the experience of kirtan with people because that is the order of their gurus. I witnessed no rock star mentalities or concept of a monopoly on chanting, only an encouragement from their years of experience, that kirtan is something beneficial that everyone can incorporate into their lives.

    If you don't want to pay something to go to a kirtan then don't. But let's not start fault finding and politicking our small counter cultural movement into even smaller groups. Just pray to God with sincerity whether you are leading a kirtan for 5,000 people, chanting alone at home, writing a blog or responding to a blog. That is our only hope living and spreading the true kirtan movement.

    Saci Suta dasa

  26. Luckily, you don't have the power to stop us from forging meaningful careers in kirtan.

    There are many levels of engagement with kirtan. Some folks listen to albums, some go to kirtans, some learn instruments and chant every day or gather friends to chant. It's all excellent, because any amount of interaction with a medicine music such as kirtan is nourishing, healing, awakening.

    And then some of us feel so strongly about it, that we decide to dedicate our whole lives to the practice – to studying, sharing, exploring, enjoying, teaching this beautiful form of music that can so readily tune us in to great love, to the intimate presence of the divine.

    If we were in 16th century India, when this impulse to devote our full lives to kirtan takes over, we would head to an ashram, you are right. India has an amazing culture around its ashrams. I've spent a lot of time at Indian ashrams and know how valuable it is for a community to be fully devoted to spiritual practice in that way. They fountain it, and pilgrims and villagers can drink of that fountain.

    However, many of us are not living in India, and so some things are different. There are options. Yes, some will decide to shave their heads, give up family life, wear saffron robes, and live at an ashram. That's beautiful, and powerful. Others of us decide to stick with the family life and its myriad responsibilities, and to cultivate a career.

    If you want all American kirtan leaders to get jobs, you are deeply misguided Matthew. Many of us have meaningful life work in kirtan, and don't want to spend 40 hrs a week doing anything else. There is nothing wrong with people who have dayjobs spending their free time with kirtan – that's beautiful. But in America and in every other country, we have a TON to gain by supporting spiritually-inclined musicians in directing all their time and passion into kirtan. A "career" is just one format for this to happen.

    Yes, careers in kirtan. If you are against it, please throw away all of your recorded kirtan music and don't listen again – it was recorded by recording engineers, musicians, producers, record labels, whose career energies have been invested in the divine. If you are against it, please do not attend kirtans and festivals with professional kirtan leaders – the musicianship and bhav they have cultivated through years of practice may inspire me, but if the money they make turns you off, don't go.

    Personally, I love kirtan, and I dream of the world being lit up with passion for the divine, and the beautiful sounds of darshan-inducing music. It's amazing stuff, we've only just scratched the surface. And if anybody's soul is itching to spend more time and energy with kirtan, I encourage them to DO SO. Don't listen to the naysayers. Find a way. Reach for it. Don't be ashamed. A blogger might think you are "doing it wrong" but that doesn't matter – what matters is the practice – where you drop it all, the concerns, the judgements – and search for that love, dwell in that love, love that love, that soul-saving love, and chant if it brings that in to focus more easily.

  27. Beautiful sentiment Iris, thanks for sharing your voice here, I was happy to find your perspective while reading the comments! Specifically, your first sentence —

    "People do not have to pay to pray – you can pray anywhere, at any moment – alone or with a group of people. "

    — is perfect. Important. While there may be people devoting their entire career to kirtan, and thereby furthering the community and artform, there is also an always-hugely-larger part of the kirtan community that is free, simply, the act of praying, of chanting, at home, alone, or with friends, in a field, in the street, in the day, in the night, out loud, or with a whisper. That some people are walking a kirtan career path does not make it any harder to access the intimate freedom of prayer.

  28. Hey Matthew,

    This is an interesting topic, and I'm enjoying responding to a couple comments above.

    I also want to request that you remove the photo of Jai Uttal from the heading of this article.

    I feel for Jai ~ it's hurtful for his image to be dragged into such a critical article.

    I know often we don't consider the feelings of people with celebrity in this culture, but that's something that we in the kirtan community should not perpetuate. Jai is a friend and teacher, a beloved source of inspiration to many of us in the community, and to feature his image in a negative article such as this is beyond unkind.

    Probably you just hadn't considered this aspect of it, all good. Perhaps you could replace it with a more generic image of kirtan, chanting, or whatnot. I imagine you were choosing what felt like a "generic" kirtan image, and didn't intend to be singling out a certain kirtan wallah. But, please feel into it and consider swapping the image if you get a chance.


  29. Wow, yes. This was so eloquently and heartfully written. I love the Mantralogy crew… Y'all are a beautiful example of how career and commerce can be handled, without detracting from the primary mission: Sharing this musical practice for reconnecting us with the divine.

    Mantralogy's albums are soooo nice to listen to… and their artists are such good people, with that spark of passion for kirtan, the love of its potency, and the willingness to share it with the world.


  30. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi Ian

    The vibe seems mixed to me, some criticism, some praise, some agreement, some debate. All of which I take to be healthy. I am glad you didn't add your "harsh comments", as that's never a good idea.

    What is the "hypocricy inherent in the article", Ian, if you don't mind clarifying? And why are you so angry about me suggesting a certain type of community gathering should be free to attend? With regards to hypocricy, I've mentioned in the comments that I have offered free spiritual gatherings (meditation, not kirtan) for years, and free kirtan in the past. So how am I a hypocrite?

    Surely the fact that I am criticising commercial kirtan can not itself be so incensing, can it? Why? I have explicitly stated several times that I respect western kirtan artists and see value in their work, but disagree with them on this issue. What is so enraging about that?

    If I had accused specific people of faults or insulted them I could see why some might be upset. But so far, ironically, only those writing in to comment have engaged in that kind of behaviour, and towards me! Ironic.

    If advancing the argument I have made here makes me "fundamentalist, closeminded, purist, hypocritical," pushy, and just darn right offensive, well than I'll have to wear those colours with a smile (and a wink, perhaps), because I believe in what I said.

    Prema to all, even those I disagree with


  31. Hey David,

    There have been a few replies addressing this perspective, but my gosh, yours is the most personal and touching. I shed some tears reading about how a kirtan concert changed your life, and may have saved your marriage, and now you do it all the time.

    So many of us have stories like that – we weren't born in to this practice, but then somehow it got to us, and against all odds we got hooked, and saved in a way. For me, before finding kirtan my life was split in an agonizing way – I loved meditation, I was raised as a musician, and I was coming of age and needing to find a career path. Finding kirtan was like somebody switching the light on finally — "Oh!! You mean music can BE a spiritual practice? I don't have to choose which path to take?? Thank God!!!" and having a family friend encourage me to really Go For It when my heart was calling me to do kirtan full time, it's a beautiful thing. Not without its challenges, and not without its critics, but there's nothing greater than heeding the call of the divine when it enters your life in the weirdest manner.

    Oh, and it all started with Krishna Das and Jai Uttal. For me, and for tons of us. Professional kirtan wallahs. Big hearts.

  32. notagreeing says:

    yoga, meditation, ayurvedic knowledge and healing through accupuncture should also be free?

  33. Thaddeus1 says:

    To read through these comments is quite interesting. I think there are some finer lines available than the ones being drawn and that this is a good and healthy discussion, with significant points on both sides.

    I don't, in anyway, read from Matthew's article that it is improper for one to necessarily make a living doing kirtan. What he opposes is the "commercialization" of such an enterprise. The commercialization of yogic/spiritual practices/teachings has been criticized from their inception. Srila Prabhupada makes no bones about the impropriety of "selling" one's services in the recitation of the Bhagavatam. I imagine the same would apply here.

    I think it comes down to this. Yes, individuals choose to dedicate their lives to kirtan. This is a wonderful choice, but implicit in such a choice is an agreement to surrender to the will of the Lord. Krsna instructs that none are more dear to Him than those who dedicate their lives to spreading His name. Is the idea that if one chooses this path, that somehow or other Krsna will fail to follow through on His agreement of protecting His devotees?

    Living as a kirtan wallah is to choose a life of faith. I don't think one need fear starving if s/he is sincere in his/her endeavor. The Lord will provide, provided we are sincere.

  34. Matthew Gindin says:

    Thank you for the beautiful comment, Thaddeus. I don't think the type of faith you describe is something only for people in India, or a thing of the past. I think it is available to us now also, though I myself still have a lot to learn about how to access and embody it.

    That doesn't mean I think that the path you describe is for everyone, and I am not trying to "push" anyone to adopt it. I do think that we in the West discount the more radical possibilities too easily, and I am interested in pushing the edge in a more adventurous direction.

  35. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi Saci Suta Dasa

    Thank you for your comment. I do think you've misread the article a bit. I am not concerned with "purity" but with inclusivity and the community and personal dynamic of kirtan. I am happy to give something to go to kirtan- and I am not unhappy about paying, by the way, since I have generally been able to afford it. I am opposed to commercialisation for other reasons, which I won't restate here since the article states them. For the record, I enjoy giving people like Krishna Das money. That's not the point.

    My point is not to "fault find" or "politic" but to try to keep a counter cultural practice counter cultural. That very aspect of kirtan, and yoga, is fast disappearing these days, and the only way to keep it alive is to find creative ways to do so.


  36. Interesting indeed. "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." He does use the word "earnest" but I have to point out that it is not that simple. Bhakti Yoga was presented in various formats prior to Srila Prabhupada and Neem Karoli Baba's students propagation. What about Swami Vivekananda (1893) ? Yogananda (1920) ? Amrit Desai (1960) ? Swami Vishnu Devananda (1959)? All of these teachers predated Prabhupada's arrival in the U.S. in 1965. Is the autor implying that Bhakti Yoga was not taught by Yogananda and people of North America were not practicing them in earnest ? Laying out inaccurate details about the history of Bhakti Yoga in North America sets the tone for the whole article. I could go on about the rest of the article, but I decided to just start at the top and point out the lack of accuracy. If his opening stament has over looked 100 years of our young history of Yoga in America what does that say abou his ideas? I hear the word Fundamentalist ringing in my ears!!! 🙂

  37. Saci Suta Dasa,
    Thank you for bringing the love to the debate!!
    Jai Guru!
    Pritam Hari Singh

  38. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi Daniel

    I've already responded to you by private email, but I'll reiterate here for those who read your comment. This article was previously run with a photo of a singer by a fire which turned out to be Jai Uttal. I did not pick this photo or know that it was Jai. Ej chooses the photos for the articles.

    I forwarded Daniel's concerns to ej and requested they change the image, and they did. I'm glad Daniel brought it to our attention, as I agree with the sentiments about celebrity, etc. Daniel mentioned in his comment.


  39. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi Pritam

    Thank you for your comment. Yes, I did choose the word "earnest" intentionally and carefully. I also was referring to kirtan specifically, not to Bhakti yoga in general. What I said was entirely accurate- previous to the 60s kirtan was a very rare activity in North America. The swamis you mentioned engaged in kirtan with a very limited group of disciples in the West.

    Your comment suggests that the rest of the article is inaccurate and fundamentalist. "Fundamentalist" is a very vague term- what exactly do you mean? You obviously intend it as a criticism of the article, but I'm left not knowing what exactly your criticism is.

    I believe I have demonstrated that what you claimed to be inaccurate was in fact accurate. Would you be so kind as to share with me what the apparently many inaccuracies in the rest of the article are?

    Thank you
    Best wishes

  40. Keli Lalita says:

    Yes Richard! Humility! And how can we judge what another person is feeling while they are chanting. We can only strive to be humble ourselves. Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu recommended that we chant the holy name in a humble state of mind, thinking ourselves to be like a straw on the street, and that would we should strive to be more tolerant than a tree. He also predicted that Kirtan would be chanted in every town and village, which I see as a reality that is actually manifesting.
    Let's all rejoice in that. Let's rejoice in the wonder that so many people together to raise their voices, in sacred mantra. This works to change our hearts and our bodies on a cellular level like medicine, WHETHER WE FULLY UNDERSTAND IT OR NOT, just like medicine. We don't have to know how it works for it to take effect. Not everyone is a self realized sage just yet. We all carry our conditioning. At least if someone is there chanting from their intellect, as you said, the power of the HOLY NAME, which is promised in all the revealed scriptures to be absolute( in fact they are marinating in Shabdha Brahma, the Divine FULLY manifest in sound), the people listening and the person chanting, will all become purified. The Holy Name is that potent.

    I like Radhanath Swami's teaching which basically applies to basically everything in my life: Be VERY strict with your self, and VERY liberal with all others.

  41. New2kirtan says:

    Hi Matthew! What a great article and very interesting topic for discussion. I will only state my experiences with the kirtan community in my area. I must admit that before I stumbled across a free community kirtan in my city, I had no idea what it was. I went and loved it! It changed my life to some extent and I feel like I found my place. I don't live the lifestyle but I certainly put to practice the feelings, devotion, and prayers. I wouldn't have explored it if it hadn't even for free. Now on the flip side of that, I wanted more of it so I explored deeper and found Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, and Wynne Paris. Something about the way they sing or vibrate sound that seems to connect with me. I not always have the means to support them when they are in town but I am happy to contribute when I can. With that said, I completely understand your article and I understand what the post from Ian speaks of as well. I wonder and would challenge the western way to find something which can support both sides of the coin? I came across an event once that offers free kirtan all day with local bands. It's donation based, not required or suggested. Later in the evening when a well known professional artist plays, there is a fee for that.
    I think given the way our society regards tour groups, professional musicians, and other entertainers,it would be a difficult task as there is always a price to pay for something. If they only played in places of worship across the country, then great but like someone mentioned before, if they are touring it is for the purpose of spreading the word. They have dedicated themselves to the enlightenment of others on that subject but they still need to eat and pay bills etc..unless they live the simple way. However, our society I think expects more and needs more or maybe our government does…I enjoyed your article and thanks for posting!

  42. You rock, Keli. Well said. <3

  43. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi New2Kirtan

    Thank you for the lovely reply, and your story. I agree with you that compromises are needed some times and that in some circumstances charging to attend kirtan would be justifiable. My point is a more general one about promoting a cooperative, egalitarian, and inclusive kirtan. I would rather see kirtan be offered on a donation basis generally and occasionally there be a fee- not the other way around.

    Thanks for your comment!

  44. Thank you for taking Jai's image down. My initial reaction to seeing his picture at the head of a piece like this was gut wrenching, and it was in very poor taste for EJ to select it. I'm sure if anyone at EJ had any idea of what a tremendous advocate, ally and selfless supporter of kirtan and kirtan artists Jai is, no one would have dreamed of using his image.

  45. I grew up singing kirtans, and sang exclusively in the temple for a long time. I used to think that kirtan should ONLY be sung in the temple, facing the deities or the guru. Anything else was "performance" and for self-glorification. In the beginning I would cringe at Western kirtan singers' Sanskrit pronunciation, or at over the top performances. I deemed them too sexy, too diva-like, too unaware of the culture and tradition of kirtan. But a few professional kirtan artists touched me very deeply with their recordings and concerts, and I couldn't deny that what they were doing was valuable.

    Then my own guru encouraged me to sing kirtan publicly, and over the last five years I've brought my personal practice out into the world. Let me tell you, there are a lot of ego hooks involved in singing kirtan before a paying audience, whether at a huge festival or a small yoga studio. My need for approval, attention, inclusion. Self-loathing, deep insecurity, or haughty elitism—it all comes up when I get behind the mic. I see it arise, and feel my discomfort with it, and practice turning my heart towards God and asking for the humility to offer my gifts in service to the "assembled devotees", to support them in their devotion. I practice letting my fake kirtan singer/yoga teacher persona go. And what a blessing that is!

    I could not do what I do for free or for donations, as much as I'd love to. My experience is that people simply do not donate enough to meet the expenses of doing a public kirtan. We have to pay our sound people $200+ per gig, and if we run our own sound, keep in mind that we probably spent at least $1000 on a small and modest sound system. We meet to rehearse before these events, often for 10 hours or more. We travel. I spend an average of 20 hours per kirtan on graphic design, updating websites, promoting on facebook, email blasts, etc. We record CD's so that we have something to offer that people can take home and enjoy. Most kirtan artists spend around $10,000 – $20,000 on each record (and that's very low budget in the music world). The producers and engineers have families to feed, too. Most of this is never recouped, because in our "genre" many people feel that our music should be free, so they copy and distribute it as they please.

    The time, money and energy we are putting out there is not in the hopes that we will get rich, or even that we will make as much as the average working professional. We don't have health care, and we all have other jobs, with a few exceptions. We do it for the love of kirtan and the hope of spreading the joy and healing of it as far and wide as possible. We hope that more people will take it up as a personal practice. That some of them will feel drawn to go to a temple or ashram and learn more about the bhakti tradition. I'm not wealthy but I am profoundly happy in my work and deeply grateful to be part of this community. I make enough from kirtan and teaching yoga to pay my bills. I attend community kirtans whenever possible. I still go to temples. I do benefit concerts and often sing backup for other artists for free or trade. Those who can afford to pay me, do. The donation thing isn't always practical. The last time I did a donation-based kirtan concert (with no suggested amount), we had 70 people in attendance. The venue generously gave us 100% of the proceeds, which amounted to $315. We were an 8 piece band that night. Do the math.

    What I do now is try to make it possible for anyone who can't afford to pay to come as my guest. They have to take the initiative to ask, but I've never turned anyone away from a kirtan, class or workshop for lack of money.

    I've learned to appreciate the artists that I previously felt were distasteful, egotistical and out of touch with the tradition. Everyone is doing their best, and we are supporting each other in learning and growing. Most of those kirtan "rockstars" out there are just really sweet, kind and talented people who are following their hearts and trying to use their talents to offer something beautiful and healing into the world. They support the up and coming artists, they do all kinds of charity work, and they live pretty simple, humble lifestyles. I'm amazed that people have anything critical to say about these people. They're human, they're hard working, and they are trying to do something meaningful with their talents. Give them a break.

    On a final note of personal preference, I really enjoy kirtan presented by artists/groups with a very high level of musicianship. It's wonderful to celebrate their gifts and creativity. There's nothing unspiritual about "performing". It's very spiritual. Look at Bharatnatyam dancers—that is a complete performance! Yet it is rich with feeling and devotion, and totally worth paying to see. I also have experienced some of the most incredibly devoted, heart-wrenchingly beautiful kirtan performed by people who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket or keep a beat at all. It's a beautiful mystery as to what makes it "pure" or "egotistical", but I have a feeling that it's very much in the eye [ear] of the beholder.

  46. Sahadev says:

    Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh wrote:

    “In kirtan, where there is the personal element with self-interests, with the desire for name and fame, there cannot be any growth. It becomes a business. It becomes a personal enterprise. God is far from those who work with ulterior motives but outwardly profess to be bhaktas. People ascend the platforms to exhibit their devotion. This is highly dispicable!”

    As for Swami Sivananda’s example, it was written of him: “He never appeals for funds; sincere devotees themselves give donations voluntarily. They have requested him to keep them informed of the occasions on which they can serve. He never collects money by doing Kathans or delivering lectures. During his tours he always spent his own money. He met his railway fare. He never gave any hint even for collection of money. He says: “To go to a place with the sole object of collecting money is lowest form of begging. The money will come by itself at the threshold if there is sincerity in the work. If money comes by itself I will work; otherwise I will keep quiet. Lakshmi dwells where there is sincerity in service.”

  47. PeggyB says:

    The Hari Krishnas were encourage by Prabhupad to solicit aggressively for funds back when they sold books, flowers and incense, and today many are competent business people, I'm just saying people of all sorts and lifestyles have to live. Who's to say whose intention or tradition is more "authentic" In many ways I would rather pay some one who admits to needing to make a living, and isn't professing to know what's best for my soul.

  48. sara lee says:

    Regarding Peggy's comment, an important distinction– Srila Prabhupad's disciples were not encouraged to sell kirtan…that was always free. Goods could be offered for a donation, but the Holy Name could not be sold. In fact, the temple kirtan was joyously brought to the streets for all. Kirtan is worship–not so with incense and flowers, which can be USED in worship but they are not worship. Prabhupad strongly opposed charging for chanting. Since he is the teacher who spread this love of kirtan to us in the U.S. in the first place, the record should be set straight.

  49. Matthew Gindin says:

    Hi All

    Thought I'd post a quick reply to the many more or less hostile reactions to this piece in the hopes of clarification and also diffusing the anger the piece is provoking.

    I understand that there are arguments that can be made in favor of pay-to-attend kirtan concerts, and I welcome those arguments and open discussion and debate about the issues I've raised. To be clear, what I'm arguing for is this: there should be no charge to attend kirtan. Donations should be accepted, but not expected or required.

    I have been surprised and a little rattled to see how many repliers seem to be misreading the basic point I'm making. I'm sure that is partially my fault- I must have to some extent been unclear.

    The point of this article is NOT the following:

    1) professional kirtan wallahs are inauthentic, impure, badly motivated, or worthless

    2) we should hold to tradition and never innovate because tradition is the only thing that is authentic and is always better

    In fact I think this:

    1) many professional kirtan wallahs are lovers of kirtan who are beautiful people and their activities certainly do have value. What I stated in the article was that I respected them but disagree with their choice to professionalise kirtan. Some commentators seem unable to understand that it is possible to love and respect certain people and disagree with an aspect of what they are doing.

    2) My point is not that kirtan should be free because it was traditionally free. My point is that kirtan should be free so that everyone can attend, and so that the wallahs do not become professionals, thus creating a more egalitarian and inclusive kirtan as opposed to a heirarchical structure/commercial stricture. What I try to say in the article is that traditional kirtan, which is generally fairly egalitarian and inclusive in this way, is partically great BECAUSE it was egalitarian and inclusive in this way. What I am saying is "that was good, maybe we should try to keep that as much as we can" NOT "that was traditional, so we should not change it".

    One other things I wanted to clarify: in the article I criticise some thngs I've seen at western kirtan. My feeling is that those things are encouraged by "kirtan concerts" more than they are encouraged by traditional kirtans. My point is not simply to criticise western kirtans, but to criticise some aspects of western kirtan culture which I feel are encouraged by its professionalisation and commercialisation. I am speaking in general terms here, and what I said of course does not apply to every case or every community or every kirtan wallah. I am just discussing a general trend that I have seen.

    Some people seem entirely opposed to criticism of any kind. I cannot agree. I also find it ironic that people who are opposed to "judgement" and "criticism" should write in and criticise and judge both the article and myself!

    My loving, non-judgemental and non-critical critics have accused me of being fundamentalist, hypocritical, extremist, closeminded, fanatically purist, and apparently generally ill-informed, daft and hateful. And all for arguing that everyone should be able to attend kirtan!

    But that is the type of impossible contradiction that we get in to when we oppose all criticism or standards and try to claim that nothing should be judged and everything is good. I think that criticism and debate are healthy and essential, and do not indicate a lack of love. In fact, in many cases they indicate exactly the opposite: love. Someone who loves cares, and that sometimes means criticising or debating.

    I engage in practices like kirtan and meditation to make myself a better person, and to make the world a better place. That means some things are better than others. Some may disagree, in ehich case I would challenge them to explain how love is not better than hatred, peace is not better than war, and it is not better for everyone to be part of community, but in fact better for the poor to be left out- for example.

    I can see that my taking a stand that says that some ways of doing things are better than others is making some people angry, especially those who are doing what I argue should not be done. Please do not be angry. I am not intending to devalue you or your intentions, and I hope that you benefit many people through your activities. I do, however, respectfully disagree with your choice to charge for attendance at kirtan, if that is what you are doing (By the way, letting those who ask you if they can come for free come is in my opinion not good enough- many many people are too embarassed to ask for such a thing in my experience, and I don't think they should have to ask in the context of kirtan).

    If you disagree with me, I hope we can disagree in love. I think if you reflect for a moment on what my intentions are- to promote inclusivity and some of the dynamics of traditional kirtan I think are beautiful and transformative- you will realize that it doesn't make sense to be so angry with me or feel that I am in some way an enemy or an attacker.

    Love and best wishes for peace to all


  50. Bhakti says:

    Agreed whole heartedly kirtan should be on a pay what you can love offering basis.

    Here in Las Vegas where the kirtan community is smaller than most cities of similar population our family personally gets an uneasy feeling upon entering events holders home and there is a fancy framed sign saying "Tonight's event is 15/20 etc dollars" and a person awaits making sure everyone pays up. This adds up fast to an expensive family night out and we have only attended a limited number of their events due to this and also a vibe that feels kinda off and unwelcoming which is very likely related. Somewhere in the mix it honestly feels out of balance with heart space and pray someday they get it and this to will pass and transform into alignment with a higher vibration for the better of all beings to chant and be happy and trust that the financial prosperity will flow without having to have it as the focus.