Now and again I like to see what other kirtan practitioners say about the benefits of this practice we are doing together, and this article by South African ISKON kirtan wallah, Sri Prahlada, does a good job in expressing the benefits of the practice from several points of view. His website doesn’t seem to be active since 2017, but hopefully he is still keeping Kirtan alive in South Africa. Enjoy!
Sharing a Lifetime of Kirtan
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.
Most 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 things? You can intellectualize over the taste by saying something like a cross between a peach, pineapple, and an orange, but until a person tastes a mango, they can never really know the taste. 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 really is. Because at that time your soul will rise up and start to dance…”
Another thing is that different people will experience kirtan in different ways. Some people might immediately love it, like meeting a long lost friend or returning home after a long time. 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 flavors 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. I sometimes share that 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 within the Western yoga community, it has also come to form the focus of research by academics. Researchers in the USA, Black and Vaugn made kirtan the focus of their Masters theses, respectively in music and psychology, 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 induces a: 1. Powerful sense of connection with the Divine 2. Trance like meditative states of altered consciousness, as well as feeling of spiritual upliftment that lasts long after the kirtan has concluded 3. An opening of the heart that allows greater connection and community amongst other kirtan participants, even those of diverse backgrounds and traditions.
The teachings of the Vedic-yoga texts
Interestingly, analysis of the Vedic-yoga texts reveals similar themes, but describes benefits of kirtan at a deeper level. This is a level that is not consciously perceptible to the senses as described in personal anecdotes or revealed from the findings of academic research. Analysis of the Vedic-yoga text’s descriptions of the effects of chanting reveals five themes:
1. The first benefit is that kirtan chanting destroys negativity. The Yoga Sutras (1.27-31) state that chanting 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 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 Bhagavad-gita (11.36), “the world becomes joyful upon hearing your name”.
3. The third benefit of kirtan is that it is easy to perform. According to the Skanda Purana, chanting the name of Hari (a name of Krishna 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…
4. The fourth benefit is that it is described as the topmost spiritual process. The Srimad Bhagavatam describes kirtan as the “ultimate spiritual practice” (6.3.22) and as the “doubtless and fearless way of success” (2.1.11) in any endeavor – spiritual or material. Similarly, Bhagavad-gita (10.25) describes it as the topmost form of sacrifice.
5. Finally, the fifth benefit of kirtan is that it creates Divine connection. This transpires both as Divine presence and as loving affection between the chanter and the Divine. Regarding connection as Divine presence, Krishna tells Narada in the Padma Purana; “My dear Narada, actually I do not reside in my abode, Vaikuntha, nor do I reside in the heart of the yogis, but I reside in that place where devotees sing my holy names”.
The most beautiful thing about the loving affection that awakens between the chanter and the Divine is that it is mutual. The chanter comes to love the Divine, as Arjuna tells Krishna in in the Bhagavad-gita (10.25) “everyone becomes attached to you” upon hearing your name. And the Divine comes to love the chanter, as Krishna declares in the Adi Purana, “When a person chants My name, whether out of devotion or indifference, then the chanters name will remain forever in My heart. I will never forget such a soul”.
As stated above, the benefits of kirtan described in the Vedic-yoga texts is similar to those described in people’s personal experience, but goes further by describing benefits at a level that is beyond the purview of our limited sensory perception. For example, people’s experience and research findings states that kirtan relieves distress and induces a state of peacefulness. The yoga texts reveal, however, that the effects of kirtan go much deeper by destroying negative karma even from previous lives that is yet un-manifest or still at the level of negative desires. Similarly, while experience and research describes a felt sense of spiritual connection. The yoga texts reveal that this connection is mutual and reciprocated by the Divine, that it touches the heart of the Divine, who “will never forget” the name of the person who chants the holy name”.
The teachings of Chaitanya
Chaitanya is the personality who 500 years ago, revolutionized spirituality in India by promoting kirtan as the easiest and most practical path to enlightenment. He wrote eight stanzas of spiritual instruction called the Shikshastakam. The first of these stanzas summaries the teachings of the Vedic-yoga texts by describing seven benefits to chanting similar to those described above. These are that kirtan...
1. Cleanses the heart of all sinful impressions and desires
2. Destroys all suffering by ending the cycle of birth and death
3. Awakens all auspiciousness and good fortune
4. Reveals knowledge of one's true spiritual nature and relationship with the Divine
5. Awakens the highest bliss
6. Delivers the nectar of immortality
7. Allows one to share the highest Divine love by purifying one of all selfish desires for personal pleasure.
In conclusion, analysis of people’s personal experience as well as the Vedic-yoga teachings reveals that kirtan offers wonderful material, emotional, and spiritual benefits – for body, mind, and spirit. Sometimes kirtan is compared to India’s legendary kalpa-vrksa “wish-tree”, which can grant wishes. So why limit our comparison of kirtan to a mango which must be experienced to know its flavor? A wish-tree can deliver custard apples, pineapples, coconuts, and anything else you might desire. What benefits have you gained from kirtan? What are your most memorable kirtan moments?