Last month, yogis thrilled to the news that kirtan wallah Krishna Das was not only nominated for a Grammy but also slated to open the ceremonies in Los Angeles. Though he took the stage before nearly 30 million turned on their televisions, Krishna Das sang to what was likely the largest kirtan audience in the U.S. in 87 years, since Paramahansa Yogananda led 3,000 people in a call-and-response hymn at Carnegie Hall in 1926.
Kirtan’s roots reach back much further, to 1,700 B.C. and the verses of the Sama Veda. Singing is one of the devotional practices of Bhakti Yoga, an ancient tradition that enjoyed a renaissance in India during the 15th and 16th centuries, when bhaktins like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu traveled from village to village, dancing and singing in the streets (a tradition still followed by some Hare Krishna devotees).
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Though most often defined as the path of devotion, Bhakti Yoga can also be thought of as the yoga of relationship, centering on an individual’s interaction with the entire spectrum of the Divine. Like a hologram, each of us has many facets or layers that reflect aspects of the universal, represented by Ganesha, Shiva, Krishna, etc. At every relationship’s heart is the practice of giving and receiving, mirrored by kirtan’s call-and-response form. The singers and audience give and receive to each other in turn, all the while offering up to the Divine.
Continuing through both Hindu and Sikh traditions, kirtan is now familiar to Westerners who frequent yoga studios and festivals. Many contemporary kirtan musicians visited ashrams in India in the 1960s and 1970s, where they were introduced to traditional melodies and lyrics. (Several, including Bhagavan Das, Jai Uttal, and Krishna Das, were devotees of Neem Karoli Baba.) At the same time, Indian music gained a worldwide audience when the Beatles’ George Harrison experimented with the sitar and later incorporated the maha mantra in his #1 Billboard hit My Sweet Lord.
Today, rock, folk, blues, funk, and reggae influences make kirtan’s lyrics—usually simple repetitions of divine names in Sanskrit, Hindi, or Gurbani—more accessible to Westerners. Sometimes lyrics are sung in English, and performers may even echo a familiar refrain, as Krishna Das did onstage at the Grammys, riffing on the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” during a chant to Narayana (Vishnu).
All this innovation has riled traditionalists, who believe that modern kirtan trivializes a spiritual practice. Yes, sometimes the Sanskrit is sloppy, and many of the instruments are electrified—but so are the audiences. And making the spiritual more accessible has always been kirtan’s aim. One doesn’t even have to be a devotee to experience its benefits. The call-and-response chant is a form of pranayama, and repeating the lyrics or mantra involves one-pointed focus. The songs start quietly and build to a rousing tempo, with participants reporting feelings of deep connection and joy. As Dave Stringer has said, during kirtan “you’re not just listening to the music, you are the music.”
Do you have a favorite kirtan musician or favorite kirtan venue?