Recently, I was asked to explain the benefits of kirtan to the owner of a yoga school who was considering organizing a kirtan concert. My response was that in kirtan people experience:
• Inner peace
• Opening of the heart with feelings of love and compassion
• Connection with the Divine and other kirtan participants
• On occasion, goose bumps and tears as the heart jumps with joy
I then offered that there were three authorities from which to understand the benefits of kirtan:
1. Personal experience
2. Academic research findings
3. The authority of Vedic-yoga texts.
Many kirtan authorities share that the benefits of kirtan cannot be explained in words, it has to be experienced in order to be understood. How do you explain the taste of a mango to someone who has never tasted these fruits? You can intellectualise over the taste by saying its something like a cross between a peach, pineapple, and an orange, but until a person tastes a mango, they can never really know it’s flavour. The same is with the experience of kirtan – you have to experience it to know what it is. Sacinandana Swami put it eloquently when he wrote: “Words can show us the direction in which to look for the kirtan-experience, but only when you sit down, move towards your inner space, and then sing out, will you start to know what kirtan reallyis. Because at that time your soul will rise up and start to dance…”
Another thing is that different people will experience kirtan differently. Some people might immediately love it, like meeting a long lost friend or returning home after a long time away. Others might take a little while to get used to an unfamiliar experience. Additionally, kirtan can often sound raw and unpolished. Hence, some might find the mango a little green – immature and therefore unpalatable. But in India, people love green mangos (eaten with salt and chilli powder pickled) as much as they love ripe mangos. They can also discern between different varieties of mangos – some are sweeter and others have a slightly bitter taste, others stringy, and others are more or less firm. Similarly, a kirtan connoisseur can discern and appreciate different varieties and flavours of kirtan.
My personal experience of kirtan is that when the lead chanter and the group participants are sincere and sing from the heart with devotion – there is nothing in the world that has the power to move and uplift me like kirtan. When I look back on my life, my happiest, most blissful moments, were all in kirtan.
Academic research findings
In the past several years, with the increasing awareness and appreciation of kirtan in the Western yoga community, it has also come to attract the attention of academic researchers. In the USA, Black and Vaugn made kirtan the focus of their Masters theses (respectively in music and psychology), kirtan while Cooke made it the focus of her PhD in music. Each of these qualitative studies involved interviews with kirtan participants. Interestingly, three similar themes emerged relating to the benefits of kirtan. In each study it was found that kirtan:
1. Induces a powerful sense of connection with the Divine.
2. Induces trance like meditative states of altered consciousness, including feeling of spiritual upliftment that last long after the kirtan event has concluded.
3. Opens the heart, allowing greater connection and community amongst other kirtan participants, even those of diverse backgrounds and traditions.
The teachings of the Vedic-yoga texts
Interestingly, study of the Vedic-yoga texts reveals similar themes, but describes the benefits of kirtan at a deeper level. This is a level that is not consciously perceptible to the senses. My analysis of the Vedic-yoga texts unveils five themes:
1. The first benefit is that kirtan chanting destroys negativity. The Yoga Sutras (1.27-31) state that chanting om destroys “disease, procrastination, laziness, doubt, pain, nervousness, and lamentation”. According to the Vedic-yoga tradition, such negative conditions as disease, and mental distress are the result of deeper negative psychological impressions from unwholesome actions performed even in previous lifetimes – bad karma. Therefore, the more important benefit of kirtan is that it destroys the seeds of negativity waiting to sprout as the result of negative karma from previous lifetimes. In this regard, the Brhad-vishnu Purana goes as far as saying that chanting one holy name destroys more negative karma than a person is able to commit. It is natural that when a person is free from the burden of negativity they will be peaceful and happy. This leads us to…
2. The second benefit is that it awakens blissfulness or natural joy within the heart. Arjuna declares in the Bhakgavad-gita (11.36), “the world becomes joyful upon hearing your name”.
3. The third benefit of kirtan is that it is easy to perform. The Skanda Purana states that chanting the name of Hari (a name of the Divine which means one who takes away all distress) just once, guarantees liberation. Because it is easy, it is also described as the most practical method for attaining spiritual perfection, particularly in this age, hence…