A New Experience of Community
Waves lapped against the gentle beach in the darkness as I listened deeply to the ocean, and the lingering exhalations of the other sixty people around me. The moon was rising over the water behind Snatam Kaur, GuruGanesha Singh and Manish Vyas, who watched us silently with light in their eyes as the music slowly faded. They had just finished leading another evening of beautiful kirtan (call and response singing) during their sacred chant retreat in Mexico.
After a few moments, Manish gently broke the silence, “Listen to the waves, and then listen to the space between the waves. Find yourself in that space.” This is where the kirtan had carried us, to this space, this deep silence between the waves. As Manish spoke to us, I could still feel the mantra coursing through my bloodstream with each heartbeat, Snatam’s voice carrying on into the silence. I felt such a sense of joy, my heart wanted to burst. I looked around and saw my emotions mirrored in the expressions of the people surrounding me. And suddenly, there was no space between the person next to me and me. We became so deeply connected by that shared experience, that there was an intimacy created beyond explanation. I did not know these people before we arrived at this kirtan event, but we left as family.
Connecting Through Kirtan
This experience of deep connectedness and community is being expressed by people attending kirtan gatherings and concerts all over the world. For many, kirtan has become their favorite practice of devotion, but for some, kirtan is a completely new experience. The idea of chanting in a group is completely foreign to them.
Akasha, a yoga teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, went to a David Newman (a.k.a. Durga Das) concert earlier this month. “I brought a bunch of my students to the concert,” he said. “They all had strong physical Yoga practices, but had never been to a kirtan event before. We don’t get kirtan artists touring through Birmingham. There were some people who came who had never chanted in their lives. Half-way through the night, I saw them rocking back and forth with their eyes closed, singing their hearts out. My students said that they felt electric afterwards. The experience of devotion towards oneness and towards each other was so strong. It didn’t matter if you could sing or not, everyone was chanting along.” And that’s the thing about kirtan; we are carried by the group energy to an exciting exploration into whom and what we are.
Kirtan is a new kind of concert experience here in the West. It’s not so much a performance as a journey into the self through the practice of listening and singing. And while there might be leaders at a kirtan concert, everyone is a part of the music. In kirtan, everyone sings. Snatam Kaur calls her concerts “coformances” rather than performances because she says the audience is an equal part of the music. Kirtan is a practice that started in India thousands of years ago, but in the last decade has become a phenomenon across the United States and has transformed musically to appeal to the ears of American audiences. Two recent books chronicle this movement and interview and track the evolution of some of the most popular kirtan musicians including Krishna Das, Deva Premal, Bhagavan Das, Snatam Kaur, Ragani, Jau Uttal, Dave Stringer and Wah! Linda Johnsen, author of Daughter of the Goddess and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism, recently released a book called Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Path and Journal of Vaishnava Studies editor Steve Rosen’s (Satyaraja Dasa) The Yoga of Kirtan also includes an audio CD of the music.
There is a theme that runs through the unique stories I hear from people who attend all of these various musicians’ kirtan events. People feel like they become a part of something bigger than themselves. Even after having gone to kirtans for years, I will sometimes find myself in the midst of an entirely new energy at a kirtan concert. The first time I saw Dave Stringer perform, I was seriously blown away by it. It was a packed house, and he carried us with him in the progressively building nature that is the trademark of kirtan. In addition to the deeply peaceful feel of some of the kirtan concerts I had been to, at Dave’s I got up to sing and dance at the back of the room with a group of strangers – and through that experience, we really connected. It was such a different experience of kirtan for me that I realized I wanted to experience them all. I wanted to feel the uniqueness that each kirtan artist brings to the group.
It didn’t matter if you could sing or not, everyone was chanting along. And that’s the thing about kirtan; we are carried by the group energy to an exciting exploration into whom and what we are.
I asked Hargobind, my business partner, about Krishna Das’ last concert. “Krishna Das is hilarious,” he said. “He tells these hysterical stories about India and his Guru and chanting. Through his humor and stories, you feel connected to him, like he’s just a guy you might hang out with. And then he starts singing, and his chants are so rich and upbeat and simple, that you feel relaxed and comfortable enough to join in, and so energized once you start chanting that you are really pulled into it. So you chant, even if you didn’t expect to.”
For a lot of people, this unique experience of feeling comfortable singing in public is in itself a feat. Our western sensibilities have been so tuned to the performance aspect of singing that the act of singing is accompanied by fear. Overcoming this fear alone can be life-changing. And once the fear disappears, the practice of chanting as a group brings with it layers of transformation that unfold the more we chant.
GuruGanesha Singh, a touring kirtan artist and an accomplished guitarist says, “In chanting, there are no bad sounds. In Kirtan, everyone’s voice is nectar.” While sitting in the audience at a kirtan concert, singing along, you can really experience just that: your own voice becomes as beautiful as the performers’. All of the voices merge together to become one voice.
When I asked Mahan Rishi, who has been organizing many kirtan concerts over the last few years in Philadelphia about this experience of community at the events, he said, “Kirtan concerts evoke a sublime, beautiful sense of heart. The kirtan environment creates softness where people can let go and feel a part of a mass flow of compassion. In the 1970s, I went to a Neil Young concert at Madison Square Garden. Neil Young walked off the stage in the middle of the concert and announced, ‘The Vietnam War is over.’ This wave of love went through the stadium. Kirtan is like that. People feel love within themselves that is universal and open when they chant. And the kirtan environment feels so safe and caring that they feel free enough to share it.”
“Each musician holds a different energy. They help to infuse something unique through their own way of chanting,” he continued. “Deva Premal and Miten hold an amazing energy. They know how to really create that inner dance between themselves and the community. There is such a depth that comes from them that it allows people to really connect with the profoundly soulful part of their heart. They combine that with a playfulness that gives it a universality that emanates from their music. Their concert in Philadelphia was unbelievable. We all felt it for weeks afterwards. So many people reached out to us feeling so moved by the event that they wanted to carry that connection forward.”
“The real reason I do these concerts is for Philadelphia: to help build the community consciousness. The kirtan events connect the Yoga centers and the Yoga students and create community in ways that nothing else does. They dissolve the boundaries that can’t be dissolved in other ways. The chanting blends the different Yoga traditions as well and has brought a lot of people beyond the separateness to a much greater state of harmony.” Listening to him, I realized that what kirtan does for the individual, it can also do for groups, bringing communities together.
Manish Vyas, who grew up in India studying classical Indian music, says, “Kirtan in India is a very ancient spiritual phenomenon. It was known as a layman’s way of connecting to the divine. Not everyone is a scholar or has had a chance to practice a path, so the simple men and women had kirtan as a tool to dissolve and merge with the divine. My teacher, Osho, said that kirtan is one of the simplest and most powerful techniques of meditation. It is so effortless and joyful at the same time that the kirtan participants just have to allow the music and rhythm to take over and simply flow with it. What happens next is a huge whirlpool of energy generating from the phenomenon of group singing and dancing. And in a group, one’s separation from the other dissolves. In that space, one is finally ONE, even for a few moments. We use so many methods and techniques to find this union, and through kirtan, it is accessible effortlessly.”
That is the amazing thing about the group chanting experience. It just happens. You feel your voice emerge almost without intent. And it feels perfect.
Markus Sieber, who is half of the band Mirabai Ceiba, says, “Chanting can be like a light in the darkness. You can sing for your pain, for your sadness, and it can transform you. Singing and playing music together is a way of subtle communication beyond words.” When you hear Mirabai Ceiba in concert, you feel all of those things and more. You are sharing those songs of longing with everyone around you and breaking through to a new place together.
Valerie Ortiz, who saw Snatam Kaur’s concert in Virginia last year said, “Snatam’s concerts just open your heart wide open. And then all you are is love.” And in a room full of people, that love has plenty of places to land.
Karan Khalsa is devoted to sharing sacred music and technology through her writing and her business, Spirit Voyage: spiritvoyage.com