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Kirtan - Ancient Meditation Music and Yoga Chants 

by Tim McEvitt

krishna kirtan ireland

Singing from the Heart

The goal of kirtan as a Yoga practise is to connect those who sing the mantras or verses with the spiritual essence in us all. 

The best kirtan experiences touch us in a deeply emotional level, because kirtan is actually all about relationship. With music or singing in a general sense, everybody appreciates an expert singer who puts his or her 'heart into it'. They emotionally connect with everyone who hears them. You stop, you listen, you feel, and you are inspired. For example, sometimes in the mainstream TV singing competitions someone comes along and bursts out in a powerful voice - they win the day when they actually emotionally connect with their audience and humbly get everyone to be on their side.

So a really good kirtan has similarities - all the chanters form a subtle bond with each other, and then through the music and mantras, they experience a spark of the Divine. 


Kirtan is as old as the hills, but in recent history kirtan was first particularly promoted by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu from 1509AD after he took initiation from his spiritual master. At that time in India logic and debate were very highly regarded - the masses attended debates between scholars almost like people attend football (or cricket) matches today! At first many great gurus, yogis and scholars derided the kirtan, or sankirtan movement introduced by Chaitanya and Nityananda. They regarded it as sentimental claptrap! However, later scholars were humbled and defeated in debate by the much younger Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He explained in detail the deep philosophy behind the chanting of mantras through song and music. (ref. Chaitanya Caritamrita)

He showed from the Bhagavata Purana (Canto 12 Chapter 3) where it is explained that whereas in previous Ages other kinds of meditation where recommended, in the current period Kirtan is the yuga-dharma, the recommended spiritual process for the present day (ref. SB12.3.52).


Traditionally kirtan takes the following shape: a leader chants a mantra or verse, and then everyone else responds following his / her lead. The kirtan may be slow and melodic or fast and rhythmic, and, when the chanting builds up, there is sometimes spontaneous dancing.

From a classical point of view, the principal musical instruments that often accompany the kirtan are: Karatalas (bell-like hand cymbals), mridanga (percussion), flute, vina (stringed instrument) and harmonium (keyboard organ). However, there are no hard and fast rules, and kirtan with electric guitar, violin, or any modern or European instruments take place in today's world. Because, essentially peoples' spiritual goals and attitudes are more important then details like the instruments being played, or even if someone has a nice singing voice or not.

A Little Temple Illustration

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati (b.1874) was a leading guru in India in the early 20th century. His disciple A.C. Bhaktivedanta would later introduce kirtan to non-Indians globally. Bhaktisiddhanta founded 64 ashrams throughout the Sub-continent. In one such ashram there were many monks and every time the guru would visit he often asked one particular disciple to lead kirtan during the 4.00am morning service. Now, this disciple had quite a 'poor' and out of tune singing voice, yet Guru Maharaja wanted to illustrate that the material ability of singing wasn't really the key factor: it is the chanter's humility and devotion that are the main points to note.

Mind you, in kirtans nowadays most of us tend to prefer nice singing, interesting beats, melodious instruments and a comfortable atmosphere! Still this is a simple point to take into consideration...


New York Times article about kirtan becoming more and more 'mainstream': Yoga Enthusiasts Hear the Call of Kirtan


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