Kirtan 101

January 6, 2015    BY Linda Johnsen

Want to energize your spiritual life? Whether you’re melding your voice with a hundred others in traditional call-and-response or chanting mantras in your bedroom as a devotional prelude to meditation, kirtan can be a powerful and surprisingly effective form of spiritual practice.

Kirtan as we know it today took shape about 500 years ago in West Bengal. A kirtan leader would sing out holy mantras and the audience would chant them back. This was not a concert; it was a participatory event in which everyone present created the music together. The audience traditionally sat on the ground around the musicians, or danced with their arms raised toward the sky—singing with abandon.

The Sanskrit root of the word kirtan means “to cut,” explains kirtan leader Bhagavan Das. “To do kirtan is to cut through discursive thought and subconscious gossip. It means to cut through conflicting emotions and conceptualizing. Outwardly it’s the Sing Along Club. It appears to be a concert or a show but it’s really the deepest inner temple. We use the energy of our voice to transcend the energy of our mind.”

Blissfully singing the sacred sounds helps untie the knots at your heart center and clear the mental debris out of the brain’s energy centers.

You don’t need to know what the Sanskrit mantras mean to experience the full force of the practice; in fact, not knowing the meaning helps you steer clear of your analytical mind and stay with the feeling of the words. Blissfully singing the sacred sounds helps untie the knots at your heart center and clear the mental debris out of the brain’s energy centers. When the music ends, sit motionlessly for several minutes and experience the living silence. The divine presence you sense is your own innermost nature.   

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.

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