THE ECSTASY OF KIRTANA
Kirtana is a Sanskrit word that means “to praise” or “to glorify.” Kirtana is primarily used in a form of call and response chanting of sacred Sanskrit names of Hindu deities (LaTrobe 10). Through the centuries, kirtana metamorphosed into devotional hymns and mantras extensively glorifying the great deity Krsna (Kinsley 1979:176). It is also known as sankirtana which encompasses group acting performances, storytelling, singing and dancing, accompanied by drums and various exotic instruments (Delmonico in Bryant 549).
Kirtana has historical roots in the 6th century when a new form of devotional worship arose in the Tamil speaking part of southern India. The two main groups of Tamil poet-saints were the Alvars and the Nayanars who attributed special devotion to their gods Visnu and Siva respectively. These poets traveled from temple to temple or village to village singing ecstatic hymns and praises in adoration of their gods. They promoted the use of all the senses and the body to enhance a fuller experience of divine bliss (Dehejia 13). Tamil saints not only walked the path of love themselves but through their songs they promoted love and devotion toward God. They attracted many followers because their message was simple; all that was required was an intimate and constant abiding love of God. Followers did not require a deep knowledge of the scriptures or need to be learned in philosophy or religious tradition (Dehejia 13).
Tamil hymns composed by the saints were often set to the music of traditional ballads so that everyone could join in singing the responses (Dehejia 30). Hymns were expressly designed to move the hearts of the listeners to a passionate love and devotion to God. Followers of Tamil poet-saints were encouraged to engage in ecstatic and emotional singing, dancing and worshiping of the gods. This newly created culture became known as bhakti – a passionate and personal love relationship between the Beloved and the Devoted (Bhattacharya 47). Sensuous, erotic, and ecstatic personal experience with God were prominent characteristics of early Tamil bhakti saints and their followers.
Bhakti had its main source already in the first century from the Bhagavad-Gita, a dialogue between the god Krsna and his friend Arjuna. The Bhagavad-Gita, or simply the Gita, was handed down orally in the form of hymns, ballads, and folk-songs. The philosophy of the Gita was a religion of love that embraced God’s creatures as brothers of the same family; it did not recognize classes, castes, sexes, or races (Bhattacharya 49). The bhakti movement was a resistance to ritually oriented orthodoxy dominated by priests. It took mantras out of the temples and into the streets where all peoples could engage and connect with their deities through singing and dancing. Thus, promulgated by the Tamil poet-saints who sang songs of total devotion for their God that disregarded caste distinctions and other hierarchies of orthodox Hinduism (Peterson 9), the bhakti movement is about deep social reform and liberation for the masses (Hawley 8).
Kirtana was the outcome of the bhakti movement. In the bhakti tradition, communion with a deity was described as blissful, intoxicating and overwhelming and often culminated in weeping, singing, and impulsive dancing. An early proponent of kirtana was Sri Caitanya, a 16th century Bengali mystic who is said to have introduced kirtana as an exceptional way of attaining and expressing bhakti (Kinsley 1979:177). So great was his intoxicating love for Krsna that he often appeared to be a lunatic as much of his life was spent in continual fits of uncontrollable weeping and wailing, laughing, singing, and dancing in ecstatic love (Kinsley 1974:291).
Kirtana was used by Caitanya and his followers as an effective medium of communication and proliferation of emotional bhakti (Chakrabarty 18). When orthodox Brahmans attempted to ban kirtana, Caitanya organized a massive demonstration where thousands came out in the streets. Led by kirtana singing and dancing groups, the people soon began to sing, dance, cry and weep. “Men grew almost insane in ecstasy…the kirtana sounded like an earth-shaking roar, the impact of which was very much enhanced by the continuous sounds of drums, cymbals, and clapping” (Chakrabarty 19). The Caitanya tradition proposes that kirtana is the proper form of religious worship for the current age, the Age of Kali, the Age of Quarrel (Delmonico in Bryant 549). Kirtana leaders will occasionally remind participants that chanting the names of God prepares one for salvation during Kali Yuga which is a period of dishonesty and spiritual degradation (Cooke 24).
While there is no structured pattern followed in the performance of kirtana, chanting and singing praises to Krsna is often followed by ecstatic and frenzied dancing. It is common for the whole kirtana group, including the musicians, to get up and dance as they play their instruments or clap their hands. Some kirtana singers will smoke marijuana before they sing to enhance the intensity of the experience (Henry 36). When the devotees sing and glorify Krsna a celebratory excitement permeates the gathering, and many will fall into trances or become giddy like children. Even grave, old men with perfect manners will succumb to the powerful crescendo of sound and movement and engage in blissful devotion to Krsna (Kinsley 1979:181).
Kirtana is often held in the evenings along a riverbank or at the centre of a village. To the villagers, it is a religious and social event. The leader of the kirtana, known as the kirtankar, can capture the hearts of illiterate listeners and encourage them towards a deeper spiritual life (Naikar 96). Although most kirtanas are meant to glorify God, they also provide opportunities for the kirtankar to teach, expose social injustices, and even provide entertainment in the form of plays. Participants become active players in the poem being sung by the kirtankar and strive to communicate with the deity. For example, if the theme is Krsna playing with the gopis (milkmaids), devotees will get up and dance in circles, often culminating in an ecstatic frenzy of jumping, clapping of hands, beating of thighs, and rolling on the ground (Kinsley 1979:178). It is written in the Caitanya-bhagavata that a kirtana held at the home of a companion of Caitanya became so exuberant that some devotees could not keep their clothes on and others passed out in an ecstatic trance. (Kinsley 1979:177).
Musical instruments are an important characteristic of kirtana. Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas and the Upanisads consider music and musical instruments as sacred sounds closely identified with the Hindu Gods and Goddesses (Beck 20). For example, Lord Brahma, creator of the universe, is portrayed as playing the hand symbols. Lord Krsna plays the flute, prompting the gopis to dance ecstatically with him in the moonlight. Lord Visnu plays the conch shell and Lord Siva the damaru drum. Each of these instruments represents Om, which is Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. The notion of sacred sound expresses the connection between the human realm and the divine (Beck 20).
Kirtana events typically include flutes, drums, cymbals, harmonium, and various stringed instruments. One of the oldest and most popular musical instruments used in traditional kirtana is the bamboo flute, including a bamboo nose flute (LaTrobe 111). These flutes have since been replaced with the more vigorous clarinet. The clarinet provides musical reinforcement for the singers and can be heard above the clashing cymbals and robust drum rhythms.
The kohl drum is a double-sided drum made from a piece of jackfruit wood which has been hollowed out and covered with pieces of goatskin leather (Beck 23). A black paste made from a mixture of rice flour and stone dust is pressed layer upon layer on top of the skin. According to ancient literature, the black paste represents the crying eyes of Radha after her painful separation from her lover Krsna (LaTrobe 107). The kohl drum, and the kartal, small wooden clappers with six cymbals inside, are central to the kirtana performance as they provide the rhythmic foundation of the music. Exotic sounding stringed instruments include the sitar, ektara, and the ananda laharii, which means “waves of bliss” (LaTrobe 111). Single stringed instruments such as the ektara and the ananda laharii are symbolic of single-mindedness towards spiritual goals (LaTrobe 110).
Music was viewed as a personal journey toward moksa (liberation). The bhakti movement emphasized that moksa also depended on one’s emotions and the deepness of one’s personal relationship with the deity (Beck 24). Singing and chanting, accompanied with musical instruments connected deep religious ecstasy with spiritual self-realization for participants of kirtana.
Chanting became popular in the western world when a charismatic Indian monk named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought kirtana to North America in the mid-1960s (Ketola 312). Challenged by his guru to preach Lord Caitanya’s message of devotion to Krsna and bhakti yoga throughout the world, the penniless samnyasi travelled to New York on a cargo ship where he soon attracted a group of devotees, mostly hippies (Ketola 312). One day he took his followers to a local park for a public kirtana. The dancing, singing, and chanting attracted significant audiences and soon kirtana became very popular. Shortly after his arrival in America, Swami Prabhupada formed the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the Hare Krsna movement which pushed kirtana into the public limelight. Converts to the Hare Krsna movement became known for their public chanting of sacred Vedic deities specifically the mahamantra (the great mantra):
Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
As the sound vibrations of repeating the holy names of deities are sacred, singing and chanting kirtana benefits the listener, performer and the environment where the names are sung. Participants who sing kirtana and repeat the mahamantra claim to experience both a transcendental connection with the Divine and physical sensations of bliss that has even resulted in healing of physical and emotional ailments (Cooke 124, 125).
Kirtana serves to unite spirituality through bhakti yoga – the yoga of love and emotional attachment to God and can be found in many yoga studios today. Kirtana is sound vibration and chanting mantras invokes the presence of God himself. Participants who combine kirtana and bhakti yoga claim to experience peace and happiness (Brown 2012:77).
Kirtana has influenced modern-day styles of popular music such as reggae, hip-hop, and dubstep (Brown 2014:458). Hare Krsna festivals all around the world feature popular kirtana artists. Kirtana experienced through call and response chanting, singing, dancing, or yoga is likened to a divine love affair between the devotee and God. It is a religion of the heart, a process of pursuit, continuously changing, full of surprises and hidden delights, delicate and yet passionately ecstatic, all in the quest of a perfect union with God and self.
Beck, Guy L. (2007) “The Magic of Hindu Music.” Hinduism Today, 29 (4): 18-27. (October/November/December 2007)
Bhattacharya, B., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2003) Bhakti: The Religion of Love. New Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors Ltd.
Brown, Sara (2012) “Every Word is a Song, Every Step is a Dance: Participation, Agency, and the Expression of Communal Bliss in Hare Krishna Festival Kirtan.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed on October 28, 2018.
Brown, Sara Black (2014) “Krishna, Christians, and Colors: The Socially Binding Influence of Kirtan Singing at a Utah Hare Krishna Festival.” Ethnomusicology 58 (3): 454.
Chakrabarty, Ramakanta (1986) “Vaisnava Kirtana in Bengal” Journal of the Indian Musicological Society 17 (1): 12.
Cooke, Jubilee Q. (2009) Kirtan in Seattle: New Hootenanny for Spirit Junkies. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed on October 28, 2018.
Dehejia, Vidya, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
Delmonico, Neal (2007) “Chaitanya Vaishnavism and the Holy Names” In Krishna: A Sourcebook, edited by Edwin F. Bryant and MyiLibrary, 549-575. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hawley, John Stratton (2015) A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Henry, Edward O. (2002) “The Rationalization of Intensity in Indian Music.” Ethnomusicology 46 (1): 33-55.
Ketola, Kimmo (2004) “The Hare Krishna and the Counterculture in the Light of the Theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 16 (3): 301-20.
Kinsley, David R., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1979) The Divine Player: A Study of Krsna Lĩlã. 1st – ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Kinsley, David R. (1974) “Through the Looking Glass: Divine Madness in the Hindu Religious Tradition.” History of Religions 13 (4): 270-305.
La Trobe, Jyoshna (2010) “Red Earth Song. Marāī Kīrtan of Rāṛh: Devotional Singing and the Performance of Ecstasy in the Purulia District of Bengal, India.” PDF. Accessed October 09, 2018.
Peterson, Indira Viswanathan (1989) Poems to Śiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Ramaswamy Sastri, K. S., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2003) The Tamils: The People, their History, and Culture. Vol. 1-5. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON)
Hare Krsna Festivals
Popular Kirtan Artists
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Joey Grace (Fall 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.