Kirtan: the magical power of Bhakti yoga
Interview with Atmapriya (Christoffel Hendrickx) prepared by Dee Leborgne
Nowadays kirtan singing is becoming more popular among spiritual seekers and yogis. Kirtan is only rarely included in the classes offered by most studios. Practised in temples and communities in India for millennia, kirtan now has become extremely popular on youtube. Expressing one's soul is the only thing that really matters. Unlike the traditional chanting of meditation mantras, for kirtan practice codes are erased in favour of opening the heart! In this interview, we spoke with Atmapriya (Christoffel Hendrickx), an urban yogi who after training at Swami Satyananda Saraswati's yoga school, carries the message of Sanatana Dharma and shares the practice of kirtan with the spiritual community in Europe.
What is the meaning of the word kirtan?
Kirtan basically means "song". It differs slightly from the meaning of bhajan "poem for the Divine". There is a difference of purpose. Bhajan is often more complex than kirtan. Bhajans are usually sung by an individual who addresses a certain deity (Ganesha, Shiva, Krishna,...) or who has a divine purpose (knowledge, transformation, abundance). While kirtan is most often the repetition of divine names and qualities (namavali), bhajan can be composed in a very specific and elaborate way. There are different names for bhajans depending on the number of verses (for example, chaleesa applies when there are 40 verses, arati the song that accompanies the offering of fire).
The musical part is supported by instruments such as harmonium, guitar, or tablas. For neophytes, Kirtan can almost resemble a folk event rather than a spiritual practice. Meditation with mantra recitations is often done in silent repetition or in minimal musical compositions (such as Vedic three-note chant). The practice of kirtan for yogis is an equivalent of night events with people dancing to mantra and percussion.
Funny thing I know is that the Harmonium, which has become a symbol for Kirtan, was originally an English instrument to replace the large church organs when the English invaded India. Soon it was adopted by Indian culture for musical sadhana. This is why it is not a typically Indian sounding instrument (because there are no quarter notes or no ways to 'bend' the sound for typical Indian ragas). This is probably why it was easily adopted again by Western culture for contemporary Kirtan concerts.
Where does kirtan sit in the yogic system?
There are several links, of course, yoga has many approaches and different historical influences. Kirtan is part of the pre-Hindu way of life, the Sanatana culture, part of a tantric lifestyle: a lifestyle in which all common activities and every day living are part of the spiritual practice and personal transformation. Technically speaking it sits in the branch of 'Bhakti Yoga', the path of the purification of emotion to devotion. It is used to obtain higher states of consciousness through expanding and uplifting everyday emotions. For example, you can feel sad over something like world famine and this sadness can be transformed into devotion to the idea of abundance and love for all beings. When experiencing this positive energy it is easier to free the mind and body from resistances and move forward to positive solutions.
For people with an emotional composition (empaths, sensitive people, …) bhakti yoga is extremely liberating. In the west, it is not so popular because of our individual relationship to Christian inquisition like policies and the trauma around a culture of shame. Devotion is often considered a weird religious expression by Western societies because of a lack of understanding of the Bhakti Yoga system. Christ you could say was a Bhakti Guru, a master of devotion and psalms and religious chanting can be similar to Kirtan if you will.
One could say Kirtan is yoga for the heart. In traditional integral yoga, it is said that aligning head, heart and hands is the main key to a fulfilled yogic life. That is why practices are prescribed for the head (purification of mind and focus through hatha yoga, jnana yoga and raja yoga) heart (bhakti yoga) and hands (karma yoga).
The other link, of course, is the link to a mantra, the practice of sound healing through the use of vocal invocation of Sanskrit syllables. Mantra yoga is the most important practice in tantric yoga traditions, not asana as is assumed by most people.
Social and community aspect of kirtan
In the ashram system kirtan is like the social night out, a community event to relief the ego, harmonise the community, expel negative emotion and built up positive emotions. The only difference with an urban night out is that the energy that is brought up is not expelled by negative behaviour like gossip, drinking alcohol or sleep deprivation. Usually, Mauna or sacred silence is practised after Kirtan. Special Akhanda kirtan sadhanas (mantra marathons) are prescribed for celebrations like Guru Purnima (the full moon of the masters) and bring together international sanghas of yogis and musicians in sacred places.
In India, there are ashrams where Akhanda kirtan is part of the unstoppable cleansing of spacial energy with a mantra in temples or the Tapo Guni of a Saint (the place where a master became enlightened or reached samadhi). Swami Shivananda of Rishikesh, for example, started a Maha Mantra (Hare Krishna) Kirtan for peace in his ashram at the beginning of World War 2. This is still being sung non stop 24/7 until world peace will be a fact.
What are the effects and goals of kirtan on an emotional, mental and spiritual level?
The main purpose of Kirtan is to cleanse the emotions. All yoga practice starts on the tangible physical level. The use of vocal chords, breath and associated muscles makes the practitioner more present with his or her body and develops the awareness and breath capacity just like any Pranayama (breathing method for expansion of energy). The coordination of fingers playing an instrument keeps the musician grounded and present as it is easy to lose touch with body and earth when practising just mantra. Because of the strong building of energy an emotional shift occurs during kirtan. People come in with their burdens and pains and leave exalted and cleansed. A mantra is the practice of mental liberation (mantra literally means that which liberates the mind) so the direct effect of chanting mantra is the capturing of focus and attention. By keeping this mental expansion going you tap into the power of resonance in the complex system of frequential sound healing related to energy circuits in lines through the body (nadhis) also referred to as 'nadha yoga'. Kirtan combines the qualities of sharing experiences and community with this ancient yoga science.
Spirituality to me is in the discovery of the changeable quality of our body and mind and the connection to a higher purpose. Once our emotions, thoughts and bodies are purified through a practice like Kirtan, we realize there is more than just these pains and doubts we identify with. Kirtan brings an ecstasy, a feeling of connection and of purpose and can lead to major spiritual breakthroughs. Some disciples have taken it on to take Kirtan into the world to help liberate lost souls and we can see in societies how this helps to build community and prevent self-destructive behaviour in people.
Where does the purity and intensity of kirtan come from?A more traditional kirtan is usually Sanskrit Mantra only and done by certain traditional rules: a harmonium is used to play a melody of keys rather than chords, so people can follow the exact musical pattern of a traditional mantra which is said to invoke the most effect of focus and it uses and connects different energy centers in the body (chakras). There would usually be mridanga or tabla (Indian drums) and manduras (mini symbals) for guiding the students in tempo and rhythm. Contemporary kirtans are often more like group chanting sessions in circles or with more instruments where traditionally it would be a little group of teachers in front guiding the rest of the class in call and response fashion. Kirtan is not a show, it is a very humble effort of a disciple to guide students in having a similar devotional experience as their own. Having this depth of experience and focus to hold the energy of a large group would require a continuous mantra sadhana and devotional lifestyle. Anyone can sing a mantra to people but it would definitely be a different experience with a Kirtan Whalla. Kirtan is also not about musical quality but about the energetic depth of the experience. I have had the worst voices guiding me in some of my best kirtan experiences. The ability to sustain an energy over time and resonate your own hearts frequency has little to do with technical musical skills, however, the person guiding music be confident and strong as to not lose balance and keep holding space even when making slight 'mistakes'.
Kirtan and Yoga Sadhana
Nothing is a must, each has their own path. But if singing rings a bell, this path can be very fast, effective and intense for spiritual advancement. At first, going to a kirtan night can be like going to a Hatha yoga class. Once you start practising alone at home, choosing your own mantras and creating your own melodies, you will penetrate deeply into its essence and develop levels of your being that you probably could not reach with asana or silent meditation.