Kirtan: Singing the Divine Name
A talk given at Kali Mandir, originally published in Namarupa magazine, Winter 2004, and again in Return to the Source, Collected Writings on Spiritual Life.
by Swami Bhajanananda Saraswati
God in Seed Form
My guru, Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati of Allahabad, explained the dynamics of chanting in this way. He told me that if you sow a thought, you reap a deed because thought precedes action. If you sow a deed, you reap a habit because deeds repeated become habit. If you sow a habit, you reap a character because the sum total of our habits is our character. If you sow a character, you reap a destiny because our character determines whom we become. I remember his voice very clearly saying, “Thought is all important. Think only divine thoughts. God is the highest thought.”
All spiritual practices are designed to help us focus on God. We are doing puja, singing kirtan, having satsang, reciting shlokas, meditating on mantras—all to fill our mind with divine thoughts. If we sow God-thoughts then our actions become spiritual, our habits become pure and our character becomes saintly. A saint thinks only of God—there is no second thought. The plant has blossomed. We see in such a person so much devotion, so much love. Divine character is our destiny. Guruji always told me that character is everything.
Sowing implies a seed. A seed contains within it the potentiality of the entire tree. What is the seed form of God? The name of God is such a seed. For me the single most important revelation in spiritual life is that the name of God is God. The great Himalayan yogi Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh said, “All divine potencies, all powers, all divine qualities are hidden in God’s name.”
If we plant this seed deep within our consciousness, it will grow and transform us. If it is planted properly in fertile soil, guarded properly and weeded, it will blossom very quickly.
The question then becomes, “How do we bring the holy name deep into our consciousness?” Our problem is that our minds have become habituated to external hinking. This is because the function of the senses is to bring us information from the outside world. Out of habit, our minds are attached to the outgoing senses and therefore go outward as well. In Pantanjali’s yoga system after restraints (yama), observances (niyama), posture (asana), and breath control (pranayama) comes the very difficult requirement of the withdrawal of the mind from the outside world of the senses (pratyahara). We have to reel this mind in somehow or other. Otherwise concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption (samadhi) are not possible. But the mind is very tricky. The mind does not want to come in. The senses are very turbulent and the mind is completely identified with them. What to do?
The Path for this Dark Age
It is said in the Puranic literature that kirtan is the easiest method for God-realization in the Kali Yuga, the present dark age. This was the central message of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu more than five hundred years ago as well as an important teaching of Sri
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in more recent times. If we are honest and humble, we can see that our position has become almost hopeless. The whole atmosphere is against us. We have no good training. Even if we had loving wonderful parents, did they train us how to control the mind, to internalize it, to detach it from the senses, and to focus on inner spiritual realities?
Our modern culture is pushing us to become selfish and materialistic. But in this, our darkest hour, the holy names of God have descended as a golden umbrella during a dark rain.
How does kirtan help our externalized mind become internalized? Our senses are our weak points. If something is nice looking in front of us, how would we desire not to look at it? We have to look at it. If something is beautiful sounding, how could we desire not to listen to it? But we can use our weakness to our advantage by connecting our senses with God. We must stamp God on everything. Then everywhere our mind and senses go, we will find only God.
“Music tames the wild beast.” The wild beast is our own mind attached to the outgoing senses. Everybody is attracted to beautiful music. If that beautiful music is based upon God’s name and glories, our mind can be internalized, because God is the deepest reality of our being. Even though we are listening externally, what we are hearing is a reflection of the inner reality.
We generally listen to music and sing to entertain ourselves. Hence, there is the danger of using the holy name and kirtan as entertainment. The holy name is God Himself, the Goddess Herself, Brahman Itself—not entertainment. Entertainment is something that happens on the surface level of consciousness. Eventually we have to go beyond kirtan as entertainment. A seed only works if it is planted in the ground.
Inner Attitude During Kirtan
The principles for bringing the holy name deep into our consciousness in kirtan, although mostly unknown in the Western world, are revealed by the devotional scriptures and the nada-yogis who understand the transforming power of holy sound.
We get excited about chanting, but often do not understand what our inner attitude should be. Swami Sivananda writes:
When you sing Hari’s name, feel that the Lord is seated in your heart, that every name of the Lord is filled with divine potencies, that the old vicious samskaras (thought and behavior patterns) and vasanas (mental waves) are burnt by the power of the Name, that the mind is filled with purity, that passion and inertia are completely destroyed and that the veil of ignorance is torn down. Meditate on His form and attributes also. Then only will you get maximum benefit from kirtan.1
Kirtan is our calling out to God.
In the bhakti-yoga tradition of the Bhagavat Purana it is mentioned that there are nine primary practices or forms of devotion. They are hearing (shravanam), chanting (kirtanam), remembering (smaranam), offering prayers (vandhanam), serving the Lord’s feet (pada-sevanam), becoming a servant (dasanam), worship (pujana), befriending (sakhi-jana), and self-surrender (atma-nivedana). All this starts with hearing, chanting, and remembering. These three are the secret of kirtan.
The Mala in Kirtan
The most popular form of kirtan is based upon call and response. One person leads the chant and we listen. Then we repeat the chant and the leader listens. When we respond we should chant as sweetly and as devotionally as we can. And in our chanting we should also be listening. We should learn to hear the sincerity in our chanting. This will adjust our inner attitude. The whole time we must try to remember God, who mercifully appears in the form of the holy name. The purpose is God-remembrance.
Just as we often use a mala or rosary when chanting japa, we need a mala in kirtan as well. In japa we chant a mantra and go on to the next bead, chant a mantra and go on to the next bead, chant a mantra, etc. When we are finished with one, the next one comes automatically. The mala keeps the mantra rotating in consciousness and stabilizes our mind during meditation. In kirtan it is the tune and the rhythm that push the mantra forward and keeps the mind focused. They are the next bead. It is important that kirtan singers and musicians remember this. In japa you create your own rhythm, bead after bead, breath after breath. Swami Sivananda says, “There must be perfect harmony and concord, one tune (svara), one rhythm (tala), when sankirtan is conducted. Then only there will be joy and elevation of the mind.”2
The Energetic Mystery
When you sing kirtan or perform an elaborate ritual, everywhere the mind goes it will find the holy name. The mind gets focused. All of our scattered thoughts become one thought—one vritti. A vritti is a wave or ripple in the mind, any mental modification. The yogis describe it in this way. These thoughts united become a big wave in consciousness which energetically rises up the spine, touching the thousand-petaled lotus at the top of the head. The top of the head is full of nectar which, when touched by this wave, falls in a shower of spiritual magnetism. During a very good kirtan you can sometime feel a downward flow of subtle energy. This is the nectar (amrita) that is falling. It is a very internal yogic experience. We must try to get our mind, emotions, sentiments, and energies focused in one direction. When they move in one direction—how much power! In a really good kirtan, everyone is stunned, amazed. Just jumping around with excitement will often get us agitated externally. But the name will not go very deep. There is a difference between agitated kirtan and kirtan that takes us beyond our body and mind. “Spiritual freedom” means freedom from the senses, not of the senses.
A Strong Warning
The holy name is not a product to be sold and kirtan is not a performance or concert. Kirtan is worship, not entertainment. When kirtan becomes a career, then pleasing the crowd can become more important than meditation on the holy name. As a result, the focus is drifting away from the traditional methods of using sacred sound to invoke God’s purifying presence. Some argue that this is simply an adjustment of the ancient traditions of kirtan to suit the Western modern mind. But we must remember that it is our mental conditioning that keeps us in bondage. Spiritual practice is meant to remove our ignorance and conditioning, not reinforce them. It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking we are advancing spiritually. The art and practice of kirtan must be protected. Kirtan leaders have a great responsibility and must become serious spiritual practitioners.
Along with kirtan, the sages teach that we must seek the company and advice of saints and elders, study the scriptures deeply, chant japa and meditate regularly, engage in deep self-inquiry, consciously develop virtues, struggle to eradicate vices and practice the yogic restraints (yamas) and observances (niyamas). These are the foundations of a true spiritual life. If we build a building without a foundation then we are really building an accident.
According to the bhakti-yoga traditions, the religion of the age (yuga-dharma) is the chanting of God’s names. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Sri Ramakrishna, Anandamayi Ma, Neem Karoli Baba, Swami Ramdas and other great saints of this age have repeatedly said this. It is important to know how it works and for that we need valuable guidance from traditional sources. In order to have something stable, you need at least three legs. These are guru, sadhu and shastra. Gurus are our spiritual teachers and elders. Sadhus are monks, nuns, advanced devotees and other holy people. Shastras are the sacred scriptures and oral traditions. If we base our spiritual life upon these three then we are safe and can progress carefully and surely. Otherwise we may find that at the end of our life we have gotten nowhere—that we were given everything but gained nothing. To me, this is the most frightening of possibilities.
The privilege of knowing, meditating upon, singing, and serving the divine name is God’s merciful gift to us. May the divine seed of the holy name grow and flourish, purifying our hearts, and may we enjoy the harvest of pure devotion.
1 Swami Sivananda, Bhakti and Sankirtan, Divine Life Society (Rishikesh,
1984), p. 104.
2 Ibid., p. 89