The Function and Relevance of Kirtan
[00:00] Bhajan – A Devotional Hymn of Praise
Jai Guru Deva. Today we’re going to take an expanded approach to examining the subject of kirtan, K-I-R-T-A-N, kirtan. Actually properly, the word in Sanskrit has an A on the end kirtana. And kirtan designates a style of singing, and we should get our notebooks out because there’s going to be a lot of Sanskrit words today.
Singing bhajans, a bhajan, B-H-A-J-A-N, is a devotional hymn of praise to a particular impulse of creative intelligence, a Deva, a shining one, a god, as we would say in English, or to Supreme Being, God, capital G, as we would say in English.
Or to some other form, like, for example, there are kirtans that simply praise certain texts like Bhagavad Gita, or Mahabharata, or Ramayana, or even there’s a kirtan that praises Veda.
And so it’s worth examining what kirtan is, what it has become. And kirtan is a fairly easy thing to understand, as it has become.
[01:30] A Taste of Home Away from Home
Kirtan has become a chanting methodology, which actually was popularized about 600 years ago by the Sikh community, S-I-K-H. The Sikh people are people whose origin is, and spiritual and cultural origin, is in the Punjab, the northwest of India, and the Sikhs are a people who followed the teachings of a great master by the name of Guru Nanak.
They have their home base and spiritual center in Amritsar. Amritsar, A-M-R-I-T-S-A-R, Amritsar. A golden domed temple there.
The diaspora, and you know what diaspora means, I’m sure, but I’m going to define it for you anyway. The scattering of a people, a culture, all over the world. So the Indian diaspora, that is to say, when Indians went off to Kenya to work, when Indians went off to various places seeking employment or perhaps even part of indentured servitude during India’s phase of being colonized.
Very often, the way they felt at home was to practice kirtan. Kirtan then would be groups of people sitting together and someone would lead.
[02:58] Hare Krishna
And let’s just use the example of the Hare Krishna which is Vaishnava.
Vaishnava means in worship of that impulse of creative intelligence known as Vishnu. Vishnu is deemed as the maintenance operator function of the Supreme Being set of the Vedic worldview.
And Vishnu has several incarnations, nine so far, and of those, one of them is Krishna. And so there’s a bhajan that is referred to as the Hare Krishna mantra. Now when we use mantra in this context, it needs to be made clear that these are not bija mantras that are used for transcendence as we use in Vedic Meditation.
These are mantras which we refer to as Vedic mantras, Vaidya mantras which have intentional meanings, and which are used for descriptive or devotional purposes. So the Hare Krishna mantra might start off as Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
And then the group would begin to join. If there was a large enough group, it would divide into two. One side of the group. would sing the Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, part and the other side of the group would sing the Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, part and then they would go back and forth.
And as they went back and forth, each singing their own part, it was called the call-and-response method, and this was popularized again by the Sikhs and also by the Vaishnavites, the devotees of Vishnu, largely in the Indian diaspora.
[05:22] Attuned With the Qualities of Divine Beings
It was practiced more outside of India hundreds of years ago than it was inside of India. And it was the diaspora who brought this back home.
Another chant that would frequently be chanted would be in praise of Lord Shiva. Shiva is that operator that disintegrates anything that has become irrelevant, therefore also thought of as the renewer.
And so a Shiva kirtan mantra would be something like, Om Namah Shivaya, Om, and then this would be repeated sometimes in the call-response method, sometimes in just people all chanting together.
And the idea behind kirtan and the chanting of bhajans is to have one’s awareness attuned with the qualities of the being, the divine qualities of the being whose name they are intoning.
And so there are many different bhajans, that is to say kirtan mantras, that are chanted in many different contexts and in many different styles.
[07:00] Mahakumbha Mela
And typically a kirtan will start off with the singing happening at about the tempo that I demonstrated just now, and then it will speed up and speed up and speed up until it’s being sung back and forth or from beginning to end, very, very quickly, until it can’t be spoken, it’s being done so quickly and then it will all dissolve, usually with some laughter, into starting over again very slowly.
My fondest memory of being caught up in a kirtan was in about 1988, perhaps it was ’87. I’m an old man and things are getting a little foggy now as to which year which thing happened or even which decade which thing happened, but I’m sure it was the late 80s.
I went to the Maha Kumbha Mela. Maha means great. Kumbha means a container, and Mela means a celebration, a festival. The Maha Kumbha Mela is held every 12 years in what used to be called Allahabad in central India, now returned to its Sanskrit name of Prayagraj.
Prayagraj is the ancient Sanskritic name, before the Mughal invasions came to India and changed names of cities. So, Pragaraj is home to the Maha Kumbha Mela.
Pragaraj, during most non-tourist periods, is a city of perhaps a few million, maybe one or two. But during the Maha Kumbha Mela, first thing that turns out are the 40,000 or so providers who are providers of spiritual teachings.
[08:54] Sangham Triveni
It’s considered that if you have something to teach, then it’s incumbent upon you to show up at Kumbha Mela. Even if you’re a yogi in silence living in a cave in the Himalayas, it’s considered to be incumbent upon you to turn up for Maha Kumbha Mela to see if there’d be anybody who would like to learn from you.
The Maha Kumbha Mela goes on for one month. The 40,000 or so providers of various teachings, all of the spiritual movements of the Indian subcontinent are represented there.
And then come the aspirants, the seekers, who are seeking a teaching, and who are also wanting to take a dip into the confluence of the three sacred rivers, Ganga, also known as Ganges, Yamuna, also known as Jumna, and Saraswati, the subterranean river that appears through a hole in the confluence between the Yamuna and the Ganga.
There’s a place where these three rivers all meet called the Sangham, S-A-N-G-H-A-M. Sangham Triveni. Sangham Tri-, T-R-I means three, Veni means like blood vessels or veins flowing. A flowing conduit. Sangham, the place of the three meeting.
And these people will number somewhere between 30 million to 50 million people, sometimes more, who will arrive there for the whole month of January and into February, once every 12 years.
[10:47] Millions of Moonlit People
And I went along to one of these. I’ve been to almost every one during my time of… my own spiritual path, starting in the 1960s. And there on a moonlit night was a particular time for people to take a dip in the river, which happened to be at about 3am. But the queue to get into this particular spot included something like 30 million people.
And so there they were. If you’ve never seen that many people in one place before, it’s quite an astonishing sight. There are hills all around Allahabad, and the people were gathered in the darkness, with the moon shining at its full, by the tens of millions.
And that means shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, back to chest, jammed in, to a spot, into a place, something the size, the population of an entire large city, just in one place.
People as far as could be seen all the way over every hilltop in the moonlight, in the farthest distance was nothing but people, and all standing there.
[12:12] Kirtan En Masse
And then way in the distance, somebody began a chant, and they did the call part of the chant. And then over on the side in which I was standing, the response part of the chant came.
And people caught on very quickly, and it was a mass kirtan of 30 to 50 million, give or take, voices all singing in unison, calling from one side, in the far distance you could hear them all singing, and then our side all responding.
And I can remember seeing the gleaming whites of the eyes and the gleaming teeth of all the people under the moonlight as this chanting went back and forth, back and forth across this enormous valley on the river with the moon shining on the two rivers that were conflowing into the Triveni.
And it’s really quite an uplifting few hours. Made it very easy to stand and shuffle. You had to shuffle in order to walk, in order to move with this crowd, to be able to stand and shuffle for hours on end with this kirtan happening, spontaneous kirtan.
[13:31] Kirtan Around the Corner
Kirtan is also something that’s practiced by a wide variety of spiritual movements that come out of India, notably the Vaishnavites known as the Hare Krishna movement, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. Also known as Hare Krishnas.
You can sometimes see in western countries, members of those groups chanting very vociferously and enthusiastically in urban centers. They like to have a public display of their chanting.
The Siddha Yoga Movement, which is the movement founded by Swami Muktananda and which is now run by his niece, Swami Chidvilasananda, also known as Gurumayi. They also make use of the kirtan methodology in their large group meetings.
This is what kirtan is and what it has become, and sometimes you’ll see advertisements for, hey, there’s a kirtan going on around the corner. And it might be Westerners chanting to the best of their ability, and God bless them, you know, trying to sound out the words correctly, but most Sanskrit spoken by Westerners is with a very heavy accent to put it mildly.
Sanskrit is a very precise language, the effects of which are only had to the fullest extent, to the extent that pronunciation is accurate.
So what is the effect of kirtan and what is its relevance to us in Vedic Meditation and Vedic meditators? In order to understand our approach to it, we have to go back to the origins of the word kirtana. And kirtana is not found as a word anywhere in the entire Veda.
We do find another word mentioned several times, anukirtana, anukirtana. Anu, in Sanskrit, it means quantum. A quantum is the smallest discrete packet of a system. So a quantum of light is a photon, a quantum of gold is a gold atom, and so on.
A quantum. The word quantum, if we translate direct into Sanskrit, is the word anu. A-N-U. Kirtanam. Anukirtanam is referenced in the 10th Mandala of Rig Veda. And really, the Vedas themselves are a form of anukirtanam.
In Anukirtanam, there is non-participatory listening to chanting.
[16:36] Rounding on Retreat
So many of you have availed yourselves of coming on a retreat to experience industrial-strength meditation, Vedic Meditation, where we do a phenomenon known as rounding.
A round means we practice yoga asanas. That’s the physical bending and stretching that today has become known as yoga in the West, but properly is called asana.
The pranayama—pranayama means the administering of prana to oneself. Prana is the life force in the air—which is done for a few minutes after the asana, and then meditate in the usual way, followed by stretching out, and lying down.
We do this in a particular retreat environment where there are no impacts of daily routine on your experience, no phone calls to make. We encourage you to switch off Instagram and Tik Tok and all of those other nuisances and to minimize any intrusions from the outside world.
Well, with supervision of qualified teachers of Vedic Meditation, you’re able to do multiple rounds, as I’ve just described asana, pranayama, meditation, lying down is one round, and this is referred to in the colloquial way of meditators as “rounding.”
Part of rounding, as is provided by me when I hold my retreats, is a form of anukirtanam, because in the evening there is an opportunity to stretch out and listen while Sama Veda pandits intone the Vedas in the Sama Veda meter.
[18:33] Agnimile Purohitam
So the whole of the Veda is sung. Veda is actually a song. It’s the song of life. It is the song of the blueprint of creation. So Rig Veda starts off with a praise of Agni, and when intoned and listened to properly in the anukirtana methodology someone has to be in close to transcendental consciousness.
This is the quantum part of anu. Anu, quantum. Kirtanam. The anu part means the person who is the listener. The recipient of the kirtanam. The kirtan, as we would otherwise call it. Doesn’t sing.
They sit in their simplest form of awareness and listen while someone who is an expert in pronunciation and in meter intones the Veda in its purest pronunciation form, creating its maximum impact.
So in the Rig Veda, intoning of the first words of the first verse of the Veda, which state, I adore Agni, I am the kindler of the fire. I bring to the fire all of that which is useful, and make sacrifice, and from this I become adorned with abundance. And the words for that are Agnimile purohitam, yagyasya devam rttijam huttaram, ratnadatamam.
[20:24] An Effect on Consciousness
And when intoned in the Rig Veda meter in the anukirtanam method, someone is listening in complete silence in almost transcendence. This is the quantum part of the anu, anu means quantum, of the kirtan.
There has to be somebody who’s experiencing close to the level of para—para, P-A-R-A, means transcendence—in order for the pronunciation to be properly received into the big consciousness receptacle. And then the pronouncers begin. Agnimile purohitam yajnasya devam rtvijam hotaram ratnadhatamam.
So this is the sound of the Veda as pronounced in the Rig Veda meter. When it’s pronounced in the Sama Veda meter, the same words are chanted like this, Agnimile purohitam yajnasya dev…, and so on.
And so then, Sama Veda has the effect, due to it’s meter, of causing in the listener the anu of the anukirtanam—the anu is the listener, the quantum listener, who’s in that para, in that deep consciousness state—to begin having experiences of Unity Consciousness. But it is incumbent upon the anu, upon the quantum listener, not to chant, but simply to enjoy the waves of the chanting being carried out by the ones whose expertise is in the chanting.
[22:42] The Witness Benefits Most Greatly
And then in the traditional Vedic style, Veda predates Hinduism by thousands of years. The source of modern day Hinduism is Veda. So, the kirtan, the anukirtanam method of the Veda would be that the chanters and the witnesses of the chant would switch places, and the witnesses would become the chanters and the ones who had previously chanted, would now become the ones who were the beneficiaries of the chanting.
The beneficiaries of the chanting, according to the Veda, are never the ones who are chanting. The beneficiaries of the chanting are whomever can witness it from the least-excited consciousness state. In fact, in the Veda itself, it states that engagement in chanting causes a feeling of tiredness because there’s effort involved.
There’s effort involved. But in anukirtanam, there’s always a witness, and those who do the chanting have their opportunity for transcendence as well, before and after the chanting, but during the actual chanting, it’s the witness who benefits most greatly.
[24:07] Anukirtanam and Vedic Meditation
When people learn Vedic Meditation, they are participating in a form of anukirtanam from the very beginning, the first day.
We ask them to please witness, in silence, while we perform a ceremony of gratitude to our holy tradition, that is to say, the Vedic tradition of masters going back to time immemorial, and then every time someone learns Vedic Meditation, they hear, and they participate in an anukirtanam.
So the anu part is the initiate, the new initiate, who simply witnesses in silence and the kirtani is the Initiator, who sings that beautiful song.
Anyone who’s ever learned Vedic Meditation has heard that song and has been a participant in anukirtanam.
[25:11] Puja in Person
When we train Initiators to be teachers of Vedic Meditation, that’s someone who can initiate someone else into the practice, we go to great pains, over a 12 week period, to be sure that the ceremony of gratitude, known as puja, is learned and learned how to intone it without any foreign accent in the pure Sanskritic form of it.
And in fact Initiators have an opportunity not only to be tested by expert pronouncers, whom I’ve trained, but also even by the king of the yogis himself, Swami Kailashanand Giri, who listens to us performing Puja and singing puja to him and gives his nod of approval to our no-accent approach.
This also then plays into the importance of, when we’re analyzing anukirtanam, where there is an anu, a witness, a quantum, the quantum field, to the kirtan, which is the Puja, why in Vedic Meditation, we insist on individual one-on-one, live, in-the-flesh, face-to-face, non-electronic performance of the Puja.
The Puja ceremony must be done with an actual person who’s being initiated into it, playing the role of anu, in the room with the person who is intoning the Puja. Because there is a dynamic that’s created in that person-to-person.
[26:56] Maintaining the Purity of the Teaching
When I say person-to-person, sometimes people will assume that Zoom is also person-to-person. This is an electronic replication of person-to-person.
Rather than that, an actual person-to-person, then therefore let me be literal and say molecule-to-molecule, access to the ancient Vedic knowledge, to enliven the consciousness of the recipient who’s about to receive their bija mantra from our tradition of masters, as represented by the Initiator who’s in the room with them performing the ceremony, it’s of vital importance that this be done in an in-person format.
We really drive this point home in our cleaving to the purity of the teaching, which also brings with it the maximum effectiveness of the teaching.
[27:47] The Forgotten Art of Transcendence
So then anukirtanam, over a long period of time, began to lose the anu part, the quantum-witness part. That concept of there being someone who is in the least-excited state and who is the innocent witness of, and the receptacle for, the vibratory sounds of Veda being chanted by the kirtani, the one who is playing the role of chanter, and then the one who is the beneficiary of the intoning of sound.
Over a long corridor of time, as the techniques of transcendence, techniques of diving into the bliss, became forgotten, as generations passed, fewer and fewer people could remember the techniques of how to transcend, how to get to that anu state, how to get to that quantum state, and to rest in that full awareness.
And so all that was left was kirtanis, the chanters, the people who would do the chanting. And it can feel quite good to chant if you don’t know how to transcend. Compared with transcending, chanting is hard work, and being able to sit in that least-excited state and having it vibrated by someone is always far more delightful.
[29:22] A Regal Recipient
It’s a little bit like having some kind of massage. If you have to massage yourself, you can do so, if there’s nobody around who’s an expert, but if there’s an absolute expert massage person around and you can just be silently the recipient of the massage, and yourself not have to do anything, it’s always a thing we would opt for far more readily. It’s a much more regal experience than having to massage yourself all the time.
And very similar, a crude juxtaposition perhaps, but very similar, having our least-excited state awakened and enlivened by an expert kirtani, someone who is practicing the sound making, and doing anukirtanam, is far more regal and this is the approach that we choose to take in Vedic Meditation.
We like to be the recipients of the process of the intoning of sound, and we prefer to minimize the amount of time that we are the intoner of the sound because we want to advance that consciousness state.
[30:48] A Preference for Listening
And there’s a certain degree to which it’s important when we are growing in our capability as meditators, and if we want to become Initiators, there are certain things that we have to learn.
So, for example, when you learn Exploring the Veda, my course, in the source, course, and goal of all Vedic knowledge, even in the very first installment of Exploring the Veda, we practice and learn to sing, Saha Nav Avatu Saha Nau Bhunaktu Saha Viryam Karavavahai, Tejasvi Nav Adhitam Astu Ma Vidvishavahai.
And this beautiful intonation, Let us be together. Let us eat together. Let us be vital together. Let us radiate life, the truth of life. Never shall we denounce anyone. Never entertain negativity.
This is the meaning of that. And this is also a form of anukirtanam. You can practice it by singing it, or you can simply be the listener to it.
And whenever faced with that choice, you always prefer to be the anu, the quantum, rather than to be the chanter.
[31:57] Transcendent Relief
People very often will say, “Well, when the Hare Krishna people practice their chanting, they report having very heightened experiences as a result.”
Maharishi, my teacher explained it in the following way. You begin singing Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. And you sing it, and sing it, and sing it, and you sing it faster, and faster, and faster, and over, and over, and over again.
And then after a while the tongue becomes tired, and after a while the jaw becomes tired, and after a while the voice becomes tired. And then after a while, even the intellect begins to become tired. And then what happens is there’s a moment where you just can’t anymore, and you stop. And in that moment of stopping, there can be a moment of transcendence.
And that moment of transcendence is experienced as a kind of a deep silent bliss, but it’s attained through lots and lots of effort in advance of it.
You carry out lots and lots of effort, and then when the effort stops, that’s when the moment of transcendence occurs. But this is then interpreted as, it was the chanting that made the transcendence occur and so let’s do more of the chanting now.
[33:23] Nishkam Karma Yoga
In our methodology we make use of bija mantras and we are the innocent witness of a sound which, the sooner it fades away and stops the happier we are.
Mantra repeating, repeating, fainter, more charming, even fainter, even more charming, and then gone. And then the mind is in that transcendental state. Minimal effort.
Nishkam karma yoga. Nishkam means through activity hardly done. Nishkam karma. Through action hardly done comes yoga, transcendence. Yoga properly means unification of individual mind with universal mind. Nishkam karma yoga. Through activity hardly done comes transcendence.
Now when we become experts in transcendence, then we become experts in being able at will to sit in that least-excited state and allow someone else’s hard work, their chanting, to be enjoyed by us and to be the beneficiary of this. We are the anu in the anukirtanam.
[34:37] Pronouncing Impulses of Creative Intelligence
So this is the story, in broad brush strokes, of what kirtan has become compared to what once it was and what it actually can be again. From our Vedic perspective, we want to take great care whenever we’re using the sounds that are the invoking sounds of great deities.
If we’re going to say Saraswati, we need to say Saraswati [Saras-vati], not Saraswati [Saras-whati] or you know, Saraswati [Saraas-whati] or something like that.
We have to take care that we don’t inadvertently bring some kind of disgracing to the names and pronunciations of these impulses of creative intelligence, who are very tolerant.
When you’re an adult, if you’re dealing with kindergartners and they pronounce words incorrectly, it’s sort of cute, and even if they get your name wrong… Maybe your name is Anita, but instead of saying Anita, they say Nisi. And so they start calling you Nisi and you’ll kind of go with that.
But if they grow into adulthood and they’re still using kindergarten pronunciation forms to say things…
[35:58] I Want Wawa
If a kindergarten child comes and says, “I want wawa,” it’s very cute. I want water. I want wawa. And the teacher or whoever say, “Certainly you can have this.” So cute. Let’s record that and send it around the place. I want wawa. How cute.
But if an 18 year old, who’s supposed to be graduating from high school, approaches the teacher and says, “I want wawa,” it’s not terribly impressive. We’re supposed to have learned something.
And so as we, as we grow in our introductory days into Sanskrit, which is the divine language of Veda, and which has very specific outcomes, cascades of outcomes from pronunciation, we want to move in the direction of perfection of pronunciation so that we get the proper effect for what we are desiring.
And we’re very cautious and because we’re traditionalists in Vedic Meditation, we’re very much traditionalists, we’re very cautious about the inadvertent invoking of impulses of creative intelligence.
Whether the methodology is not quite correct or the timing, very important, is not quite correct, then we can end up becoming like the apprentice of a great wizard, who, when the wizard was out of the room, got the book of spells, and created all kinds of catastrophic effects, and didn’t know how to reverse them.
Sanskrit and kirtan, these are very powerful methodologies, and in order for us to really receive long-term, sustained benefit, we have to really know what we’re doing.
There’s another form of the anukirtanam, which is very, very powerful. In its most elaborate form, it is known as yagya. And in yagya, the pujari, the pandit who’s carrying out the yagya, is the one who is in charge of the proper intoning of the sounds of Nature, the sounds of all of the impulses of creative intelligence.
And you, the beneficiary, the one who is sitting and enjoying the performance of yagya, there’s always a fire involved and there’s the pouring into the fire, various elements, precious elements that are carried, in clarified butter, herbal products, mineral products, and then various Vedic mantras are pronounced in a very specific sequence in order to build and create a sequential elaboration of phenomenology, which is highly desirable.
In our Vedic Meditation world, because we are traditionalists, we really prefer to have those who are the experts in yagya perform our yagyas, and for us to learn how to be the anu, the quantum, the innocent witness who sits in the simplest form of awareness while enjoying all of the benefits of the yagya.
[39:47] Destructive Interference
Yagya is also a form of anukirtanam, but with emphasis on the anu being a very important element of it. Who is the anu? This is what it all comes down to. If there is no anu, then there’s no, there’s no para, there’s no transcendence, and all we have really is sound. And the sound may be being received on a very superficial level of consciousness, on the very surface value, up where the waves are in the ocean.
When waves are in contact with other waves, you get destructive interference. You know, you have thought-filled minds hearing and pronouncing various kinds of Vedic sounds with varying degrees of expertise, then you have destructive interference happening and a lot of chaos can occur.
If there’s no one who knows how to let their awareness experience the vibratory characteristics of sequential elaboration of Vedic sound from the level of para, if there’s no one who is able to hold down the entire performance by being in that silent state in para, then all of that activity that’s going on really just creates more chaos.
So the timing of invocation, because all kirtan is supposed to be invocative, it’s supposed to invoke those impulses of creative intelligence, but with respect to correct timing.
Who is in the room? What is the timing for that person? What is the season that we’re in? What are the geographical characteristics of where you’re sitting? Where are you? Who are you? What are you? All of these things need to be taken into account very carefully before we start a process of the formulae of awakening those deep impulses of creative intelligence.
[41:53] Become the Innocent Witness
All of this is kirtan as explained to me by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the understanding of it, the definition of it, the description of it, how to get the most benefit from it.
Over the coming weeks, months, and years, I do intend to give us greater opportunities to experience anukirtanam, and to experience it in its fullness, we have to have expert pronouncers of Sanskritic words and not try to make ourselves into these experts with our Missouri accents and our Kiwi accents and our Aussie accents and our California accents and so on.
We need to have these pure Sanskritic sounds intoned by people who absolutely are the experts in it, and then to learn how to be the anu in the anukirtanam.
How to be the innocent witness, how to be the experiencer from the level of para, how to be the receptacle into which all those beautiful vibrations land and assemble themselves in order to make the recipe for a delicious Ayurvedic meal of the outcomes of practicing anukirtanam.
Jai Guru Deva.