Well let's just cut to the chase, shall we? I can honestly say for myself I have never had with mantra the level of wide-open-hearted, overflowing-with-blissful-ecstasy feeling like I've had in Kirtan AND with singing Kirtan I've never had revelatory insights into the structure of my own being and Beingness itself like I've experienced with chanting Sanskrit mantras.
While completely anecdotal let's try to unravel why this might be so... how are mantra and kirtan different?
Both harness the inherent energy within sound to affect our being on different levels. Both can uplift the emotions, liberate and expand energies, and ultimately lead one to Enlightenment. But they do it though through different sonic means and thus create somewhat different results.
Simply put: to be a mantra it must have been revealed by a Seer or Rishi(ki) for mantras are considered to be revelation in the form of sound or shruti.
Vedic mantras were revealed to Poet-Seers and after years, possibly thousands of years!, of oral transmission were written down for preservation around 1500BC in what have become known as the Vedas. "Veda" means "knowledge". The Vedas are comprised of four written volumes encompassing multi-verse hymns, prayers, rituals, and incantations. They are traditionally learned through teacher recitation and student repetition ranging through various levels of formulaic complexity in order to accurately preserve the tradition and the power of the original revelation. Brahmin priests devote their entire lives to preserving this phenomenal tradition and enacting Vedic rituals: they are the keepers and protectors of these sacred sounds.
Vedic mantras are meant to be chanted aloud for they seek to strengthen the connection between our individual nature and Cosmic nature, to align ourselves with Dharma. Many are chanted using only three tones: a fundamental, tone below and semi-tone above.There are strict rules to follow in regards to pronunciation, meter, and intonation.
Here is an example of Brahmin priests chanting the popular "Gayatri" mantra from the Vedas:
As you can hear, the chanting is strong, precise, rhythmic, and percussive. To chant it otherwise is thought to dilute its power. The "Gayatri" mantra is a prayer to the sun but the word "Gayatri" actually refers to a Vedic metre of 24 syllables and is also considered a Goddess. This should give you a sense of how critical it is to maintain the original metre! And while the Gayatri is traditionally chanted 108 times within the context of a longer daily ritual, many Vedic mantras are just uttered once.
Other popular mantric verses from the Vedas, which are only a few lines long, include the Mahamrityunjaya mantra, Asato ma, and Purnamidam. Learning and refining Sanskrit pronunciation takes some discipline but as far as I'm concerned is well worth the effort due to the rich spiritual rewards. It can be easy to disconnect emotionally while chanting Vedic mantras but such mantras bring light in the form of sound into our practice... illumination! While some may pull us back towards the original state of Unity that they arose from, triggering deep meditative states, others may have a more general illuminating effect on our being. When we chant Vedic mantras we are tapping into the energy of a living tradition that is thousands of years old... or as some would suggest, a living tradition that is timeless and eternal!
And, hey, if my 10-year old can learn to chant simple Vedic mantras, so can you. While she does not adhere to tradition but instead dances rhythmically while sometimes pretending to play air guitar, she loves to chant!
In my effort to oversimplify for the sake of this blog, I'm contrasting Vedic mantras which are typically verses, with shorter mantric phrases used for repetitive chanting. This repetitive chanting is called japa and is derived from the root jap-, meaning "to utter in a low voice, repeat internally, mutter". I do japa daily to cultivate mental/emotional/spiritual states and to dive into meditation.
Such an example of this would be the chanting of "Om namah Shivaya" repetitively in order to attain a meditative state and ultimately Samadhi. Many people use mala beads to mark their repetitions. Most of these mantras are Puranic mantras, arising from the post-Vedic period, inspired and drawn from the revelations of the Vedas. They primarily focus on the qualities of particular deities and awakening these qualities in ourselves. They are devotional in nature: "I surrender to Shiva".
Such mantras can be chanted aloud, spoken, or recited internally. (In fact they are considered at their most powerful when chanted mentally, when the vibration is held inside!) Japa can be a powerful anchor for the mind to lead one into meditation. Confession: I have a new Fitbit and I'm in a "bit" of a Fitbit honeymoon. While chanting japa and meditating, my Fitbit registers me as being in a state of deep sleep. Again, most of these mantras are chanted on three tones which leads rapidly to a deep brain entrainment.
The vibrations of the mantra purify the energies of the chanter and expand latent spiritual qualities within their being. In fact, the mantra is the deity in its sonic form! For example, while a Shiva mantra leads one ultimately to the state of formlessness, beyond thoughts and feelings, Durga provides the experience of fearless, and Lakshmi connects one to a sense of fullness and gratitude.
Here is an example of japa, although as I mentioned previously such mantras could also be spoken, whispered, or recited internally:
The Tantric tradition also uses japa repetition of mantras (in addition to complex rituals) but many of these mantras require initiation from a teacher. Tantra additionally harnesses the inherent energy within more elemental, pre-linguistic sounds such as the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet and seed sounds known as bijas.
As far japa goes, it's pretty easy to fall into rote, mindless recitation. Japa requires a delicate balance of focus and surrender. Like most good things in life! If we can do so, then with repetition the mantra unfolds, and the energy intensifies within your being. For example, I knew Ganesh was a wisdom "deity". I knew he represented OM. But I never could have anticipated the ecstatic, rhythmic musical complexity of this energy dancing through my body! Simple mantras such as these just blow my mind, frankly. How such profound, phenomenal experiences can unfold from a few sounds is, well, I'll say it, magical! To chant mantras is to expand and move Divinity through your being.
AND NOW KIRTAN!
Stated simply, kirtan is devotional singing often with musical accompaniment. Kirtans have melodies and are free in their form. Some involve call-and-response chanting with a group, while others do not. Kirtans are not necessarily mantras set to music, although some are, and Kirtan does not need to be in Sanskrit.
What Kirtan often is, is ecstatic.
Kirtan emerges from the greater tradition of Bhakti. The devotional bhakti movement took formal shape in the 6th century with singer- and poet-yogis drawing on the insights of the Vedas but doing away with rituals and strict rules. They burst forth with contemporary songs and poetry in the common languages of the day. They danced and celebrated unconditional love for God, emphasizing the importance of cultivating the heart.
"Kirt" means "to name, to celebrate, to praise". Kirtan usually focuses on chanting the name(s) of God, such as Krishna and Ram, or celebrating their stories through song. These names and stories are often drawn from the Puranic tradition. It is the main practice of Vaishnavas.
Here is an example of a traditional Indian kirtan:
Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, could be credited for bringing kirtan to the West. In the 1960s he led the first group of Westerners in chanting Hare Krishna in a park in New York City. Currently, the Western Kirtan movement is predominantly lead by the likes of Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, and other devotees of Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba.
Kirtan in the West usually involves call-and-response singing. Kirtans often begin slowly and meditatively, and energy is raised through rhythm, melodic variations, and increasing speed. Intensity often builds over time while the musical accompaniment expands. One kirtan song could last half an hour!
Those who lead Kirtans are called kirtaniyas or kirtan-wallahs. Most use a harmonium: think small piano keyboard meets accordion and accompaniment could be percussion, bass, guitar, you name it!
The power of kirtan comes through the vibratory power of the Sanskrit names for God, the emotional impact of the music, and the elevated spiritual state of the kirtan wallah. By chanting the various names of the Divine (Shiva, Rama, Sita, etc), chanters reign in those usually unwieldy emotions, purifying and awakening emotion in its purest form. Of course we all intuitively appreciate the power of musical melody and won't delve into this now! Participants are also raised up by the emotional and spiritual state of the kirtan leader... and of course, this becomes amplified with the power of the entire group!
Here is an example of kirtan with Ragani, a popular American devotional kirtan singer:
Kirtan harnesses the power of our emotions. It is Yoga (the state of Union) through devotion. It is a direct highway to the Heart.
CODA (THAT'S MY WAY OF SAYING THIS IS COMING TO AN END!)
Kirtan can be a heart-expanding, joyous experience. It's powerful to tap into the inherent power of our own voice and to connect spiritually in community. But always chasing the ecstatic high can be a spiritual trap for some and we don't want to be dependent on a group to uplift our state. Chanting mantra within one's personal practice can be truly empowering for it provides us with a plethora of spiritual tools to step into spiritual independence. They are powerful tools for meditation and they allow us to cultivate and expand the different spiritual qualities "encoded" within the mantras within our own being.
But I'm not trying to claim one is superior over the other... at all. Both are powerful. The power of a joyous group and the power of peaceful solitude. Both are beautiful. The beauty of uplifting music in community and the beauty of basking in the rays of revelation.
Take your pick. Or integrate both into your life. Because, hey, as the saying goes, all roads lead to OM.
The mantric tradition is vast and deep, and thrives within the teacher-student relationship. If you're interested in learning some Sanskrit for mantras or for chanting kirtan, I love teaching students who wish to go deeper. Maybe you would like to add Vedic mantras to your yoga classes, maybe you are a healer who is interested in energetic practices to balance the body, maybe you would like to learn mantras for meditation or to fuel your Hatha yoga practice. For more info on private lessons, please see here.
There'll be a Summer Celebration: Yoga and Chanting this Tuesday. There's only a few spots left! To rsvp and for more info, go here. This will be a great intro to those who are new to mantra. There'll be some call-and-response singing, mantra for meditation, and suggestions for home practice. Experience mantra as a mystical gateway to the heart! Yoga teacher Brandee Safran will begin the evening with some gentle, relaxing yoga.
Here are my "musings" on mantra and sound as a transformative path.