Q&A: Is Kirtan Religious?

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Since the coronavirus quarantine went into effect here in New York City on March 14th, we’ve been offering morning chanting from the altar in our living room here in Brooklyn. While I’m still admittedly working through a bit of awkwardness around singing with a group through the eyes and ears of an iphone, I’ve found this practice of sitting daily with everyone to be a great solace during this time of forced isolation and uncertainty. Thanks for showing up! I’m grateful!

As you’re likely aware, the platform we’re using for our livestreams, Periscope, is open to the public, and not surprisingly, a number of people have been peeking in who are unfamiliar with chanting. While some are internet trolls, many of them are legitimately interested in what we’re doing. Naturally, some questions have been arising for these newcomers as we’re singing and as it’s impossible for me to see and respond to their questions in real-time, I’ll respond to them here as I’m able. If you’ve been watching the livestreams, it will come as no surprise when I say that I tend to write better than I talk, so this forum is a little more comfortable for me in fielding the occasional question.

Oh, and for the record, while I write better than I talk, I sing better than I write. And I read comic books better than I sing.

So, without further ado, here’s the first of some questions that have popped up in the last few days.

Q: Is this (kirtan) something religious?

A: Yes and no.

The chanting we are offering every morning originated in India and is known as kirtan or bhajan. One way to define kirtan is as a type of devotional singing, and in India, it is considered to be a method of sadhana, or spiritual practice. The words we are singing, for the most part, are said to be Divine Names, mantras that represent and invoke the spiritual presence, awareness and happiness that exists within each of us naturally as who we really are.

What do we mean, specifically, by “Divine Names?” Where do they come from and what are they referring to?

Many of these mantras invoke the Names of Great Beings like Chaitanya, Rama or Krishna, Great Teachers from the Vedic traditions who are believed to represent fully-realized human potential; embodiments of wisdom, tenderness, courage, compassion and dharmic action. It’s also my understanding that many of the mantras we’re chanting are considered to be srutis, Names realized in states of deep contemplation by seekers and ascetics, which have ultimately been shared and passed down from generation to generation for the benefit of spiritual seekers. In either scenario, it is believed these mantras have an inherent ability to draw us more deeply into ourselves when put to use through repetition. Simply put, the love, grace, and freedom represented by these Names exist within us already and the mantras tune us to their source.

So, is this a religious practice? In this discussion, we’ve absolutely been using a bunch of words with religious connotations; words like “Divine,” “Devotional,” and “Spiritual.”

While these mantras are associated with the sacred forms, names, mythologies and great teachers of traditional Hindu culture, it is not necessary to be religious or even spiritual to enjoy kirtan or for it to be a transformative practice. While the practice of kirtan may awaken a spiritual mood or feeling within us, we aren’t asked to believe in anything. We don’t need to convert to any particular religion or sect. There is no dogma to follow. We aren’t asked to be anything other than who and what we already are. We can try the practice and if we enjoy it, great. We can come back to it and even integrate it into our lives. And if we try it and we don’t enjoy it, that’s also great. We can move along to something else that might be better for us.

But whether or not we love kirtan, we should try and do something, some sort of practice. If not chanting, then meditation, pranayama, karma yoga, something. There’s so many techniques and paths available to us. It is said that the happiness we are constantly seeking outside of ourselves, the love we are constantly craving outside of ourselves, exists within us, is ever-present and always available. It can be the source of our strength and courage through uncertain circumstances and troubling times. Mindfulness paths like kirtan are tuning devices, redirecting our attention and focus towards that source. So, when we use the term, “devotional” in the context of a practice like kirtan or meditation, I tend to think of it as “devotion to one’s Self, devotion to finding out who we really are.”

If you have any questions or comments, let me know.

I’ll try to post here once a week so long as there are questions I can answer.

See you on the internet.

Devadas

 

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