the Essence of Kirtan

This Kirtan  article was written after seeing a need to articulate what is going on at a deeper level during kirtan/bhajan/indian chanting 


When we look around at the ‘spiritual’ haunts these days, we would notice there are many people ‘doing’ kirtan (a simple explanation kirtan = Indian chants), some are held in the various holy cities and places of pilgrimage of India, with its rich tradition; others boppin’ and singin’ in temples and halls in the West, or in local revamped churches, and more commonly now, in one of the numerous yoga schools where rubber bodies seem normal and at any moment you’d expect to see someone scratch their ear with their toes; and there are all those who are at home practicing in the lounge room, a stick of incense burning, a candle, the sunlight or moon gleaming through the window, a few flat notes here and there and only one other living being (that you can see) called Puddles the cat.

What is kirtan?

The word ‘kirtan’ is interchangeable with others; in various Indian traditions it will differ, some might call it Bhajan, Indian Chant, devotional singing; if someone is too pushy about correcting you on what is the ‘right’ name for it, my suggestion is run like buggery, else you may be in for a long period of indoctrination into a cult and “warning, warning, trouble brewing downstream”, it is just a matter of when. What i am talking about here is group singing, where the name of some God, deity, formless principle or a type of benevolent ‘intention’ is used as a focus; the name does not necessarily need to be associated with Indian Gods (whether real or imaginary). The Sanskrit language is often used, and according to some, is the flavour of choice because the words are charged up and I will agree to some degree with this, however so many of us probably don’t get the pronunciation right, nor can discriminate between Telegu, Hindi or whatever other language is used; i will not waste my time with pedantic differing opinions relating to indoctrination and uptight schools of thought. After doing this ‘chanty’ stuff for over 30 years, i think i have experienced and suffered every attitude known to man relating to devotional singing. A great being once said to me “musicians play”, so that is what i do, or more correctly i will say ‘not do’. And this is what this article is about, not-doing.
Not Doing
I am from a long line of ‘not doers’, and that doesn’t imply melting into a sofa, eating pizza and watching sitcoms with canned laughter, bombarded with not-so subliminal advertising at very regular intervals, and reawakening each day to the same experience repeating something from the day before. Those of us who are from a (genuine) Jnana Yoga background, are always ‘disintegrating’. And I say ‘genuine’ because the word jnana is often translated as knowledge, however it is really about experience, and the word ‘knowledge’ is a variable and often described poorly. For those people who don’t know their ’40 famous words from the Indian continent such as chai, karma, kama, sutra, gulab jamun, pranava, dosa, samosa, backshish, total-tosser, train-not-coming’ etc; Jnana yoga is the yoga of the Self, i will loosely say ‘the view point that the Mind of God is everywhere’, the perceiver is the sought, and any movement towards God or liberation is a journey away from where we need to be, (there is no need to elaborate here as this is about kirtan, transformation through music). Many people in the kirtan community are from a Bhakti perspective, where by ‘doing’ things such as prayer, meditation, ceremony, austerities, the (imaginary temporary thought of an) individual moves closer to what is sought (the Divine in some form or formlessness), they the seeker, will eventually get enough bonus points up and receive grace or liberation and be freed from the beautiful world of ice cream, chocolate and intimacy. And there are those who sit between the polarities of Jnana (already Being) and Bhakti (do stuff to get a result), quite comfortably jumping between the two stories and are unknowingly at ease with it (and i would have to say that this is the most common approach)…. no big deal, not my business, just an observation. It is critical though for this article to make sense to separate out Being (Jnana) and Becoming (Bhakti).
Kirtan Session
A kirtan session, is not about the (lead kirtanist) singer, however ‘exhibitions of devotion’ have been known to occasionally happen. At the other extreme, there is an attitude among some people who think if you can play your instrument or sing well that you are ‘performing’ kirtan, this is drivel dreamed up by people who are often musically incompetent or have some sort of difficulty with something else that is troubling them; however that does not mean that there is not a place for everybody in the community somewhere if a person hasn’t yet unfolded the musical genius within or never plans to do so and they just enjoy doodling with the names of the Gods. If we come back to basics and fundamentals of music: in time, in tune, with feeling, it’s the right platform to build on; if these are not achievable, it is best not to attempt to sing at the opera house but to keep it within a small cosy framework or just give endless joy to Puddles the cat. From my observation over the years, if the basics are constantly bypassed, people won’t come back to a community kirtan session, there is a gradual flitting away of participants. Thus the need for home based and small community kirtans are essential for the kirtan ‘culture’ to continue to exist, it not only nurtures the individual to be able to step into a slightly larger environment, it also creates a platform/space so everyone can explore this fascinating tool of transformation in an encouraging safe environment, instead of a larger one where a person may become a little too self-conscious. From my experience, I have seen some people step into an environment where they are out of their depth and they end up never going back as they feel like a failure, it’s a tragedy, I think if we are smart, we can avoid this, the benefits of kirtan are multi-faceted.
The Elements of Kirtan
KIRTAN when we look at the big picture and break it down, involves many elements, it includes the whole congregation of people, those singing, clapping and playing instruments, the chai-makers, the venue helpers, the acoustics of the room, the tunes, the lighting and audio equipment, the ability of the kirtanist to ‘hold’ the space, the intention of the kirtanist, the attitude of those putting on the event, and at it’s extreme worst it could include whether there is a hidden agenda of ‘converting’ people to become members of a cult or sect (RUN, RUN FAST), or it’s subtly a business venture and the main consideration is about the amount of bums on mats; (having said that, kirtans, the bigger they are have overheads and as a musician, this is understood and unless there is a benefactor of some sort, it can be difficult to maintain public kirtans). There are also certain invisible things relating to the musicians on whether they ‘play the singer’, instead of themselves. If the musicians, regardless how skilled they are, do not follow every nuance of the singer where humanly possible, and decide to play their musical history ‘intentionally’, then there will often be a little tension, the singer will be ‘saying’ one thing and the musicians will be ‘thinking’ their way through the music and overlaying things that may not be needed. A skilled musician will have a musical vocabulary in his or her subconscious and it is on tap and will emerge when needed. As a musician I must say regardless of the simplicity of melodies and implied harmony or chordal structures it can be a difficult music form to navigate as there are numerous subtleties and the music happens in the moment.
Disappearing at Kirtan
The ‘process of disintegration’ in kirtan is what appeals to me, it is THE critical element that I have never really heard discussed or written about. I am confident that this is the undisclosed and often unrecognized open-secret of all kirtanists, it is what can pull people unknowingly into a deeper state and/or allow what i call Bhakti-Tears to roll down the cheeks of those present.
Although we may arrive at ‘disintegration’ from different pathways, I think it is not unreasonable to say the greater the ability to ‘drop into emptiness’ in meditation or prayer, the easier it is to create the space for ‘invisibility in kirtan’. The deep meditative states allow space to evolve in kirtan because although ‘thought’ may be there, we can develop an unconscious method of allowing thought to do its own thing without us, a bit like walking through the rain in a raincoat, wearing citronella oil when being attacked by mosquitoes who want to munch on us, ‘detached awareness’ is a form of citronella for thought. As the world we move in is in constant motion and nothing is solid apart from when we ‘freeze frame it’ in thought, I have found there is very little difference between when I am moving on the edge of the deep trance states, that ‘gap’ period when I am about to go in or am coming out, or when I am in a chair with a guitar, a microphone and an ‘intention’ to sing. In my underlying thinking, I perceive all solid objects as thought, the ability to ‘sit on the edge of worlds’ is a given, but not spoken of.
If I came from the perspective where my intention is any other than disintegration, it is much more difficult for the ‘kirtan’ process (my definition of it) to happen; and this is because ‘I’ am in the way. This ‘I’ is not solid it is the imaginary story of who I believe myself to be, this is an ever changing kaleidoscope of ideas that throw themselves on my screen of consciousness which is based in my interactions with the world around me, my ‘within’, my history and where I believe myself to be going. So unless this is abandoned, or it would be more comfortable and less demanding say “to come from the attitude of ‘detached’ from”, there are layers of thought in the way of the kirtan process preventing it to kick in.
The Empty Chair of the Kirtanist
If I arrive to the ‘space’ as a musician, a singer, with an agenda (subtle or big intentioned), I will have to claw my way past and side-step anything that arises in my thought field that will derail me, it will place ‘someone’ in the chair, instead of having an empty space. In kirtan, we just borrow the body (no this is not a channeling dolphin moment); the body which is a manifestation of thought, has with it numerous tools such as the ability to play a musical instrument that we would have developed on our journey through life; the natural skill of making sound; the memory that holds and then recalls the structures and various elements of music such as rhythm, melody, intonation, and other nuances such as relationship to beat. All our musical and other required elements are called from our subconscious.
Riding the Frequencies
From my experience (and I think it is important always to speak from experience, and although observation is a great tool, experience for me has a priority over observation, this is because with experience, we are inside a situation, not outside looking across) a more skilled musician or singer does not make a better kirtanist, nor a worse one. There are many fancy musicians, clever, well trained and precise (and i would fall into this category); and there are singers who have a natural tendency for song, and these people can add to the musical quality of kirtan, and be pleasing to the ear, and also touch people emotionally with their music (and I also was given a small dose of that). But I have to say that there are many pathways into the listener and the great kirtanists ride another frequency, not the same one as a normal singer. I will avoid the word ‘Heart’ because it has a lot of new age fluffy baggage with it that often relates to ‘feel good’ and ‘euphoria’. It would be easy to say ‘heart’, but I’d rather dig around a little more and define it differently.
Getting Our Skills in Order
Having said this, it does not mean that I am supporting the notion of ‘it’s the feeling that counts’, that’s a lazy mans thought. I consider that if someone enters the landscape of kirtan, it is important to work on the core elements such as timing, intonation, musical dynamics, how to communicate with other musicians and singers, how to read and feel the response, how to ‘hold’ the kirtan or chant where you want it and not have it roll down hill out of control; and there would also be all the additional elements that would include not only caring for ones voice and practicing simple vocal techniques, but also necessity to learn how to work comfortably with equipment such as microphones. In order to get the desired result of ‘music’, there are standard rules, hints and guidelines to assist; when all this is in order, the process is easier, it’s very much like planting a tree, a certain amount of care is required, it is not just a matter of throwing the seeds on the ground and going back for the fruit, it may work for pumpkins but in other cases you have to dig in.
Ultimately what is required is a kirtanist needs to get up to speed in the basics of music, it makes it easier for not only themselves but those supporting their kirtan; AND it is important for musicians entering into the land of kirtan to leave everything at the door and listen. If a musician preempts and attempts to ‘think’ with their musical history, it won’t be fresh and the kirtan can be pulled in the wrong direction; we all have a musical history and hear in our mind differently. If possible prior to a kirtan, if you have a role as a musician or support singer, it is better to say to the kirtanist “whatcha thinkin?” It is complex as a kirtan support musician because everybody may not have grown in the same kirtan tradition or in any tradition, not all kirtanists speak the same language or give the same cues. In the situation where there is a revolving group of kirtanists from many different backgrounds, of various skill and experience levels, and in many cases may not have come from the world of ‘music’ , they are not aware there is an unspoken common language, the kirtanist may not realise that they are giving subliminal cues to the musicians and singers and everyone supporting is guessing what is going on. It is easy to misread cues, and to develop some type of working system, it can take some time for all those involved to get a good working relationship as we are working in an environment that includes Indian and Western music, musicians and devotional singers. Musicians often can’t play what a kirtanist is thinking, but will play what they think the kirtanist are subliminally telling them. From my experience of playing numerous styles, great musicians play with an invisible beat or orchestra, and can imply what is not there, and space is quite a safe place when everyone trusts that there is a rhythmic thread holding it together, some kirtanists are not immediately aware of this, and also they may not realize that they are in charge of the rhythm section, not the other way around.
Going through the Door
I think it is important to leave everything at the door when we go to kirtan, start fresh, leave the world at the edge of the Ganges sort of stuff. This ‘work’ of leaving the world behind, starts outside of kirtan and relates to food. Food is what we see, what we hear, what we eat, what we recycle in our thoughts, what we ‘associate’ with; unless there is a detaching from what clutters the mind-space, there will always be something else that is ‘riding’ the frequencies that we are putting out while we are kirtan-ing. It is not only the old adage of ‘we are what we eat’, I will add ‘we sing what we are’, and if we are (temporarily) noise or mind-chatter, then what we are feeding into the field around us and into the world, will reflect that ‘feeling’; thus the quest for emptiness becomes increasingly evident.
I have no illusion that a kirtanist can every moment be ‘absent/ in a state of total emptiness’ at every kirtan, from my personal experience it comes and goes in the same way as things happen in the meditation process, there are layers and numerous factors that are at play, such as our ability within the moment to detach, the environment, head-noise, and what we are dragging with us, and by that I mean the bundle of recent or deep seated experiences that we carry with us which rise and fall in our consciousness; but I do know that if we are well prepared, then something extraordinary happens.
Quantum Kirtaning
From my personal experience what happens in kirtan is, we sit on the edge of a number of worlds, the viewable human world of the senses and a number of others, and we pull on strings that connect each other at various levels. We are connected ‘invisibly’ no doubt in a similar way to which we move in the same air-space, share the same sun and are made of the same elements and molecules, also the ‘fields’ around us overlap. There are parts of the brain that are turned off, and I will confidently say that it is some of these areas that come into play when we enter or encounter other states of consciousness, there is a communication at specific frequencies going on that are indefinable; however we do know intuitively that something is going on, there is a shift, we are being moved at a greater depth of our being.
There is no particular spiritual group who owns kirtan, there are many different ways of doing and ultimately ‘not-doing’ it. It is an unfolding process that is like a great river of sound rolling through space, it sweeps us away with its beauty, its elusiveness and the quest to embrace its sweetness is mesmerizing, alluring and is more-ish, once tasted there is no going back.

Tilopa 2.0

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