Kirtan is a form of devotional chanting whose roots go back over 500 years to India. It is a form of Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion) and has the power to open the heart. The singing is accompanied by musical instruments and rhythmic drumming and the audience is encouraged to participate by chanting, clapping and dancing. You will not be able to resist the urge to join in!
It is a call and response chanting or "responsory". Kirtan practice involves chanting hymns or mantras to the accompaniment of instruments such as the harmonium, tablas, the two-headedmrdanga or pakawaj drum, and karatal hand cymbals. In its heartfelt expression kirtan can induce profound states of meditation, bliss and ecstasy.
Just like there are yoga postures for the body to relax and strengthen and tone, there are mantras (special sound vibrations found in the ancient yoga texts) that act as a revitalizing tonic for the mind. Using these mantras for meditation brings the mind to rest in a space free from stress and anxiety. The word “mantra” literally means to “free the mind”.
Kirtan is a very different kind of music. Based on ancient chants, it has the ability to quiet the mind if listened to with intention. Everyone experiences kirtan differently, and it doesn’t have to be a religious experience. You can think of it as a sing-along. A kirtan concert is not your typical concert either. Everyone sits on the floor, although chairs are usually available. The performers are accessible, in fact there’s not much of a distinction between performers & audience. The wallah (leader) sings the mantra, and the audience sings it back. A single chant can go on for up to forty minutes. As you sing with each other you experience a deep connection with the musicians, the other audience members and yourself. And when the music stops, your mind is quiet.
There is a sweet sound vibration that permeates through all layers of coverings and makes God dance. That sound vibration is Kirtan. It is a mysterious connection that draws people to each other.
In a simple word, Kirtan is relief. It has been described as the beating of the heart of the soul. For the twenty-first century person living in the west, life is all about the pursuit of happiness. We are guaranteed life and liberty, but kirtan is the means and end toward achieving the happiness that people are searching for. Through the chanting of the names of God, kirtan awakens the soul to its natural position, connects with God, clears the heart of all the distractions that can stress one living in this high tech age, and at the very least, make a person feel better about their day through the wonderful music.
Something about the kirtan experience goes beyond the music itself, goes to a deeper experience of vibration. We all resonate at different frequencies, and these frequencies change according to what we are doing and thinking. So when we are all doing the same thing-chanting, breathing, and moving to the same rhythms-our vibrations begin to synchronize and the resulting experience is very powerful. The laws of vibration help us out here, because vibrations align themselves to stronger vibrations.
Kirtan is not exclusive to simply those in Indian attire or those who practice yoga. Anyone can join in at any time and joyfully sing along, clap their hands and become a key musician to this age-old art form. It can be performed anywhere that someone is willing to do it. A willingness to perform the Kirtan is the only requirement. Kirtan is a scientific study in the pursuit of happiness. If by the end of a forty minute kirtan, one feels happier, then it has been a success.
Although the kirtan involves music, the underlying art of kirtan chanting is not actually about musical ability or training-it is about the heart. Everyone can participate, regardless of age or cultural background. The purpose of this music is to get us out of our heads and into our hearts.
The kirtan gives us a time to come back to our center. And when this happens, beautiful things begin to unfold. Feelings of inspiration, peace, and a sense of connectedness are common experiences.
"Kirtan is for all people. There are no experts, no beginners. The practice itself is the teacher, guiding us to ourselves. Kirtan allows us to enter into a mystery world-a world where all the logic of our minds, and all of the conditioning are left aside. With Kirtan, we create a temple inside the altar of our hearts, a place of refuge, a place of love, and a place of just being." -Jai Uttal