What is Kirtan?

Kirtan Music Event

What is Kirtan Music?

Kirtan music is a form of devotional singing originating in India that is gaining popularity in the Western world. A broad definition of kirtan music is a gathering emphasizing participatory, transformational music. The word “kirtan” comes from Sanskrit and specifically refers to the practice of singing mantras. Kirtan is pronounced KEER-tun. 

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Kirtan Definition

Some define kirtan music as chanting the names of God. Others view kirtan music as a form of mantra meditation. Kirtan is a growing phenomenon in the West, often associated with yoga studios or meditation centers. The value of kirtan music as a form of group singing is being studied scientifically as a powerful antidote to isolation and stress in modern society.

Meaning of the Word “Kirtan”
The word “kirtan” means sharing, telling or reciting. Kirtan is a gathering for the purpose of chanting or singing devotional songs in one or more spiritual traditions. There are no particular beliefs required and you do not have to be a musician. 

Other Terms for Kirtan
Chanting is also known as mantra yoga. The word “mantra” is derived from two Sanskrit words. “Man” is from “manas” or mind. “Tra” is from “trai”, meaning to protect or free from. Mantras are formulas with distinct impacts on emotional, mental and spiritual states.

Gaining Freedom through Kirtan
Mantras are used to gain freedom from a limited state of mind. In addition, mantras can be used to revitalize the physical body as well as heal the emotions and the spirit. In kirtan music, mantras are often simple lines repeated in a call and response format between a leader and audience. 

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The Science of Kirtan Music

There are many levels to kirtan, including the physical, social and spiritual. On the physical level, group singing releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin. The sound itself also stimulates the brain as a resonance chamber, positively affecting the pituitary gland, hypothalamus and pineal gland.

Kirtan Benefits for Physical Health
In addition, the lungs and heart are benefitted by an increased flow of oxygen and the process of steady breathing. Finally, sound and the action of the tongue in singing stimulates the 84 meridians that end in soft and hard palates of the mouth. As the tongue stimulates this acupuncture points, endocrine gland secretions are shifted accordingly.

Positive Impact of Group Singing
On the social level, group singing has been shown to be more effective than medication or therapy for depression, anxiety and isolation. In a modern world filled with the poison of isolation, the practice of group singing is a fantastic antidote.

Kirtan Styles and Approaches
When the practice of group singing focuses on devotional or inspirational singing, those benefits may be accelerated even further. Some kirtans are specific to a particular tradition, such as the chants associated with kundalini yoga or the chants written by a particular individual. There are many styles and approaches to kirtan, allowing for variety that appeals to diverse groups.

How Does Kirtan Music Work?

Kirtan is a platform for a profound sharing of energy, heart, and soul. A case could be made for the idea that this is the deepest possible level of intimacy. After all, the heart and soul are the deepest places in our beings, and singing a chant is a tangible release from those places.

Synchronizing through Kirtan
The process of singing vibrates every cell of each person participating. That sound joins with sound that has been vibrating in every cell of everyone else present. The sounds merge together completely, passing through everyone equally. Chanting together synchronizes breath and heartbeat.

Merging with Sacred Sound
Filling oneself with sacred sound creates a oneness with life and energy and source. This can be profoundly moving. The experience of merging with something more powerful than yourself and with the others in the group is an experience that is both spiritual and tribal.

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Who Started Kirtan?

There are many legends about the original founder of kirtan. Some facts are known, although they are mixed with conflicting stories about his early life. In any case, the origin of kirtan is a fascinating story of survival, devotion and rebellion. A baby born near Varanasi, India, in 1497AD had a very rough start in life. At his birth, an astrologer told his father that he would bring evil to his household.

A Baby Becomes an Orphan
Sure enough, his mother died shortly after his birth. At the same time, the baby is said to have spoken the name “Ram” as a newborn infant. He was named Ram Bolo (meaning “I sing of Ram”). When his mother died, his father wanted to get rid of him. A maid in the house pleaded for his life and was given the baby. She raised him for seven years. Then she also died.

An Orphan Becomes a Monk
At the age of seven, the little boy was begging on the streets to survive. Eventually as ascetic monk took pity on him and adopted him. The boy was initiated into the life of a monk and given the new name of Tulsidas. For the next fifteen years, Tulsidas happily studied the scriptures and practiced meditation.

The Monk Becomes a Householder
Eventually Tulsidas decided to be a householder. He met an married a wife whom he loved dearly. They had a son who unfortunately died as a toddler. His wife returned to the home of her family to recover from this loss. Tulsidas was so lonely for her that he set off to visit her. He swam across a river at night to reach her, risking his own life.

The Householder Returns to the Monastery
When he arrived at her family home, she chided him severely, declaring that if he was half as devoted to God as to her, he would reach enlightenment. Upon hearing this, Tulsidas renounced her as well as all aspects of his life as a householder. From that point forward, Tulsidas returned to the monastery and spent all of his time teaching and chanting.

A Hindu God Appears to the Monk
As Tulsidas taught day by day, he noticed an old leper who was always the first to arrive to hear his teachings. The leper sat off by himself. Tulsidas began to suspect that this was no ordinary leper. One day Tulsidas followed the leper into the forest and demanded that he show his real form. The Hindu god Hanuman appeared before him. Tulsidas asked Hanuman if he could also see Lord Ram, to whom he had been devoted from birth.

Tulsidas Meets the Hindu God Ram
Hanuman instructed Tulsidas to move to another city, which he did. One day in that city, Tulsidas was applying sandalwood paste to his students when Ram came before him. Tulsidas was so shocked that he could not proceed. Ram applied the paste to his own forehead and than to Tulsidas before disappearing.

Tulsidas Raises a Man from the Dead
The fame of Tulsidas grew. He was known to perform miracles including raising a man from the dead. Once a funeral procession was passing through the town. The widow begged Tulsidas to bring her dead husband back to life. Tulsidas gathered a group around the man and asked them to recite “Lord Ram.” The man rose from the cot on which he had been carried.

Tulsidas Rebels Against the Caste System
Tulsidas had a dream in which the Hindu god Shiva and his consort Parvati instructed him to compose sacred poetry in the vernacular language. This would allow people of classes other than the Brahmins to read the poetry. This was a dangerous rebellion against the existing religious order.

Tulsidas Holds the First Kirtan

Tulsidas wrote the poetry and began to translate other sacred texts into the languages known by the common people. He is also reputed to have held gatherings in which he taught mantras to anyone who came. These were the first kirtans. He was arrested and thrown in jail for this offense. 

Tulsidas is Arrested for Holding Kirtan
The monkeys of the forest are said to have invaded the town where he was imprisoned, causing havoc in the markets and streets. Some of the other priests and monks believed that this was divine intervention. They asked the emperor Akbar to release Tulsidas, which he did. While in prison, Tulsidas had composed a poem to hanuman, known as the Hanuman Chalisa. Tulsidas is said to have lived to be 126 years old.

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Is Kirtan Music Cultural Appropriation?

Kirtan is quickly becoming a melting pot of cultures and traditions. Some kirtan leaders and participants study Hindu and Buddhist traditions extensively. Others simply love the heart-opening practice and the tremendous sense of community. Sacred group singing can be practiced with music from any tradition.

Kirtan as a Universal Spiritual Practice
I believe that the soul or spirit does not possess cultural or national identity. The soul is the inheritor of all traditions that lead back to the Source of life. I feel that utilizing the amazing gifts of multiple traditions in a respectful way honors all cultures in an expression of the highest aspirations of humankind.

Do I Have to be a Kirtan Musician?

How well you sing or whether you are a trained singer is not a pertinent issue in kirtan music. No prior musical experience is required. In fact, kirtan music is ideal if you are self-conscious about singing. Your voice will blend with everyone around you.

Anyone Can Participate in Kirtan
In addition, science has shown that group singing changes the chemistry of the brain and body. These changes happen irrespective of skill level. Clearly you do not have to have professional experience as a singer or musician to reap the benefits of chanting and kirtan music.

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What Does a Kirtan Leader Do?

Although there are variations, kirtan music generally works like this: the kirtan leader begins a chant. The leader also determines the length and pace of the chant. A single chant or mantra can vary from a few minutes to an extended period of time. If there are multiple musicians, a drummer may also be given the responsibility for the pace of the chant.

Role of a Kirtan Leader
The leader in kirtan music has the role of keeping in touch with the level of engagement among participants. A typical pattern in kirtan music is for a chant to start slowly, speed up with the repetition of a line or verse, and then slow down again at the conclusion. Alternately, the pace of the chant may remain stable but the volume of the kirtan music may become softer to indicate the end of the chant.

Is Kirtan Music a Form of Jazz?

A concept related to the benefits of group singing is referred to as flow. Improvisational music creates a feeling of flow. This is akin to being “in the groove” or being lost in the music. Kirtan music shares this concept with jazz music as well as with other genres such as gospel and blues.

Social Aspects of Kirtan Music
There is also a social aspect to flow. In kirtan, musicians and participants coordinate with each other. For example, the pace varies back and forth within a chant. Everyone has to be cognizant of the shifts that are occurring in this interplay for this to work. In addition, the same phrases may be repeated with a new melody. Studies indicate that improvised musical experiences elicit higher levels of social flow and bonding than highly structured music.

Participating in Kirtan Music
During kirtan music, instrumentalists may play solos for an interlude and then group chanting resumes. This creates a high level of interdependence among the musicians and the participants. This fosters the sense of being in the moment, similar to the concentration that happens during meditation and other spiritual practices. 

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Is Kirtan Music Always Call and Response?

Chanting has been practiced as a call and response format in many spiritual traditions. This is sometimes hierarchical: a priest or guru chants a line and the congregation or devotees respond. A “wallah” is a Sanskrit term for someone who performs an action. A kirtan wallah is someone who performs or leads kirtan music. This is usually a reference to someone leading in a traditional call and response format.

Western Kirtan Styles
The traditional style is not always the case for kirtan music in the Western world, which can be done either as call and response or in a sing-along style. In either case, lines are generally repeated twice. This makes kirtan music easy to learn.

Kirtan Call and Response Singing

Instruments Used in Kirtan Music

Kirtan music is often played on a harmonium. The harmonium is a small keyboard instrument with a hand-pumped bellow and two sets of internal reeds (treble and bass). The level for each is controlled by metal stops on the front of the instrument. Sound is produced when a key is pressed, allowing air to flow over the reeds.

Using a Harmonium in Kirtan
The harmonium sounds something like a cross between a small organ and a bagpipe, producing a unique eerie, longing tone. The sound is continuous, producing a constant through chords, single held notes or melodies. This is perfectly suited for both kirtan music and some Western hymns. In addition, the harmonium is an acoustic instrument, easy to play in a variety of circumstances.

The Function of a Harmonium Drone
The drone of the harmonium establishes the foundation for kirtan music. Some musicians view this as masculine energy. This contrasts with the feminine energy playing melody. The two sounds can move back and forth between dissonance and harmony. This generates a unique sound and interplay.

Other Kirtan Instruments
Kirtan music lends itself to accompaniment by other instruments such as kartals (small hand-held cymbols) or tabla. The tabla is an Indian drum that takes many years of practice to learn. Playing tabla is quite complex rhythmically and tonally.

Modern Kirtan Instruments
All kinds of other acoustic and electronic instruments are now being used as part of kirtan music: guitars, cellos, violins, flutes and more. Kirtan music can also be led acapella, simply with voice and without any instruments at all.

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The Role of Harmony in Kirtan Music

Another topic related to the format of kirtan music is whether everyone should sing the same melody or include counterparts or harmony. Harmony is the use of multiple tones within a structure such as a chord played or sung simultaneously. Barbershop and choral singing are both examples of vocal harmony.

Using Harmony in Kirtan
Harmony is typically a Western approach to group singing. Harmony is also possible with Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or other chants. On the positive side, having some participants or musicians singing in harmony creates a fuller sound with its own beauty.

Singing in Unison in Kirtan
However, some proponents of kirtan music and chanting advocate singing only in unison. Paramhansa Yogananda, one of the early Indian teachers to introduce chanting to Americans, explains this perspective in his book Autobiography of a Yogi.

Yogananda Brings Kirtan to the West
Yogananada states that melody rather than harmony is emphasized in Indian music. Yoganada believed that singing in unison supported an emphasis on the individual’s communion with God. He was concerned that harmonizing with other voices would create a more horizontal focus.

A Western Approach to Kirtan Music
In the Western world, we are accustomed to harmony. This is true in religious or spiritual music as well as popular culture. For example, Gregorian chants are typically sung with several parts. This can create a sense of being transported through the music. Bottom line: both approaches are valuable. Either can be used for kirtan music.

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Is Kirtan Music a Religion or Cult?

Kirtan music is not part of any specific religion or spiritual lineage, although specific leaders or groups may have a guru or shared tradition. Kirtan music is quite diverse. Some forms are meditative. Other kirtan music events are more like a dance party accompanied by Eastern music.

Universality of Kirtan Music
Kirtan may be held in a yoga studio, in a private living room, at a music festival or out in nature. There are workshops and holistic retreats held all over the world that include mantras and kirtan. Kirtan music is not centralized in one place or within one organization.

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What are Bhajans and Mantras?

Bhajans are devotional songs or chants usually based on longer forms of Sanskrit poetry. The word “bhajan” means “singing to glorify God.” Bhajans are typically lyrical and descriptive, relaying various stories or aspects of a divine being. Bhajans are often lively and danceable.

Comparing Mantras and Bhajans
Mantras tend to be shorter and may not address a particular deity or aspect of the divine. Mantras are often less melodic than bhajans. A bhajan may have a complex melody with repeated choruses. Mantras are often one or two lines repeated with only a few notes.

Kirtan Music and Spiritual Protection

Spiritual practices including kirtan music are designed for self-transformation. Most traditions recognize that we have an inherent resistance to change. Even positive change can be disruptive in our lives. There may be forces or energies within or without that would interfere with progress towards greater harmony and well-being at any level.

Kirtan as a Spiritual Practice
For this reason, a discussion of any spiritual practice would be incomplete without mention of the principle of spiritual protection. The concept of spiritual protection afforded by guides, angels, deities, devas or other benevolent beings is a key tenet in nearly every religious tradition.

Angels and Spiritual Protection
In Christianity, angels may serve as personal protectors (guardian angels) or as powerful beings who battle evil and defeat devils and demons. Many depictions of Archangel Michael, for example, show him wearing military-style armor, brandishing a sword and standing on the head of the devil.

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Protective Hindu Goddesses
In the Hindu tradition, the goddesses Kali and Durga are known as fierce warriors. Both are depicted with many arms and many weapons to protect those on a spiritual path. Based on your own traditions and beliefs, you may want to surround yourself with light or with some type of guardian spirit as part of your practice of mantras, chanting and kirtan music.

What is Kirtan Kriya?

Kirtan kriya is a specific meditation technique in Kundalini yoga. This technique involves combining finger movements with specific mantras. This practice has been studied with positive impacts on Alzheimer’s patients. Utilizing finger movements with the syllables of a mantra stimulates the blood flow to the motor-sensory areas of the brain. Clinical research has shown that 12 minutes a day of Kirtan Kriya can improve cognition and memory. You can learn more at Alzheimer’s Prevention.

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What is Kirtan Sohila?

Kirtan Sohila is a specific prayer or set of prayers sung in the evening in the Sikh tradition. The name means “Song of Praise.” One or more of these hymns are also used at funerals. The collection of hymns includes a song by Guru Nanak, one by Gurua Ram Das and on by Guru Arjan.

Meaning of Sohila
The word Sohila is derived from the Punjabi language and means ” the time for sleep.” The Sohila is set to a musical form called a raga. The words translate as a poem of praise. A sample of the lines are as follows, “Yes, sing praises of the Lord, the fearless One of all. I would give my life for that song, which imparts the peace eternal.”

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Kirtan Music and Community

One of the great joys of kirtan music is the sense of community. This is a shared practice with deep roots in  our psychological and biological wiring. Singing together in kirtan can create positive relationships with others. Deep connections and friendships can be formed through this practice.

Kirtan as an Evolving Practice
The practice of kirtan music is also grounding. However, music cannot be held the way that a child or a treasured object can be held. Every chant is different, every time. You are in the present. You are in the moment, sharing the joy of sacred music. This can take place in varying formats and circumstances. Kirtan music is both an ancient art and an evolving practice.

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Author Kathleen Karlsen

Kathleen Karlsen is a musician, artist, writer and speaker. She is the author of two books (Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine) and over 200 articles. Kathleen, her husband Andrew, and their five children live in Bozeman, Montana. More about Kathleen Karlsen.

KIRTAN MUSIC ARTICLE SUMMARY 

This article on kirtan covers covers a wide array of topics: the meaning of kirtan music, how kirtan music affects the brain, what instruments are used in kirtan music, how Sanskrit relates to kirtan music, how kirtan music affects the brain, how kirtan music works and much more! Includes videos with examples of kirtan music.

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