For countless ages, seekers have journeyed to the Ganges, or to similar holy places, to absorb themselves in sacred mantras, hymns that have been passed down for generations. These same seekers would often perform kirtan, celebrating special mantras with song and dance. Much to our good fortune, through the Herculean efforts of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, these mantras have finally come West, and kirtan now contributes to the rhythms of modernity. As a result, an exotic musical movement is emerging worldwide, turning age-old sacred chants into a new cultural phenomenon.
I remember the first time I heard kirtan. The year was 1972, and though only seventeen years old, I had been around the corner. In fact, I had been around many corners. The late 1960s was a no-holds-barred time of experimentation and change, offering young whippersnappers like me a whirlwind education in music, sex, politics, and drugs. Ours was a generation that reconsidered values and beliefs like few before us. Harsh realities made themselves known: the Cuban missile crisis, the bullets with names Kennedy and King on them, the Vietnam War. But there were good things, too. And a lot of it: the Civil Rights movement was progressing rapidly, and women’s libbers were getting ever closer to liberation. There was Dylan and Davis. Cream and Coltrane. Sly wanted to take us higher, and Jimi actually got us there. Mush-rooms were anything but portabello and the Maharishi was on the cover of Time with the tag-line, “Meditation: The Answer to All Your Problems?”
The question loomed large, especially as the Beatles went off to India in search of an answer. I, too, had dabbled in Eastern mysticism, though mainly by way of pop culture. To be more precise, I was reading the popular imports of the day: Suzuki and Watts, Isherwood and Mascaro, Castaneda and Gibran. And I was pondering the big questions: “Who am I? Why am I here? Is there a God?”
But even so, nothing could have prepared me for that group of otherworldly Hare Krishnas — complete with exotic dress, hand-cymbals and double-headed Indian drums — making their presence known near my favorite New York concert hall. I was there to hear loud, raucous rock music, but instead I would hear the sweet call of Krishna’s flute.
Like rock-n-roll icons from another time and place, these shaven-headed and sari-clad strangers swept through the area, affecting everything around them. Including me. I was mesmerized by their visual image, and more so by the melodic chants. At first they seemed to blend with the horn-honking cars and general cacophony of New York City streets. But then a sharp contrast emerged — an enticing oasis in the desert of my urban landscape. These were clearly American and European youths, peers perhaps, but their bright saffron robes and multi-colored saris spoke to me of something foreign. I read into their mysterious visage: monasticism and psychedelics, serious meditation and joyful romp. Whatever the case, these people were clearly on another platform of existence, coming from a totally different place, representative of an alternate state of consciousness.
How was I to know that these were Gaudiya Vaishnavas, that — despite their Western bodies — they were the modern-day spiritual inheritors of Sri Chaitanya’s Vedanta? At the time, I had no awareness that “Hinduism” was a misnomer — an umbrella term for the many, diverse religions of India — or that Vaishnavas constituted the Hindu majority. Nor could I know that, 500 years ago, Sri Chaitanya — revered by his followers as a combined manifestation of Radha and Krishna — revolutionized the subcontinent with his method of ecstatic chant, using spiritual vocalization as yoga and developing it into a sophisticated science of ecstasy. How could I know that these were his emissaries, making a public display that would soon change my life?
Their sounds were energizing and, for me, somehow strangely familiar. Though I couldn’t understand the words, which, I knew, were either gibberish or some distant, sacred language, their songs spoke to me with an unmistakable message: “Arise sleeping soul! Move beyond the mundane and become situated in transcendence! Don’t delay! The time is now!”
I was captivated as I watched these surreal, spirited souls position themselves among the hippies and concert-goers on that particular New York evening. They seemed to be in full color while the rest of us were in black and white — a cliché, I know, but true nonetheless. Just then, a large group of about a dozen assumed center-stage, to ensure their presence would be felt. And indeed it was.
The lead Krishna vocalist deftly vibrated his startling if pleasing melodies, and his battery of robed brothers and sisters responded dynamically, electrically, with each line stimulating a current of bouncy spirituality. Call and response, call and response, over and over in euphoric manner. They went through their hypnotic refrain again and again, methodically speeding up the tempo with each verse. The lead singer clearly knew what he was doing, his confidence brimming as he looked smilingly at his enthusiastic comrades. They, in turn, accommodated him, singing progressively faster, their bodies moving to the thunder-like rhythms of their drums. As they teased each mantra from their leader’s lips, the chanting grew louder and more forceful, until the entire area was overtaken by their performance.
After a few moments, I fell into it — not that I joined in. Something stopped me. Perhaps it was conditioning, or maybe it was the fear that, allowing myself their ecstasy, I would never find my way back. Whatever it was, and despite the fact that my body showed no hint of it, my mind gradually obscured the alien nature of the spectacle before me; I somehow ousted the idea that it was unusual. Gradually, without warning, it became simpatico, comfortable. I found myself fundamentally enthralled, until I became one with the chant, at least emotionally. The now frenetic singing and dancing seemed like an old friend, a distinct part of me. I felt deep kinship with these harmonious strangers.
As it went on, their intensity and volume reached dramatic proportions — faces completely flushed, ear-to-ear smiles, eyes rolling. Losing focus, some of them swayed with senseless abandon, while others jumped high, exhibiting blissful glee. Their intoxication seemed to surpass that of the concert-goers around them, and it was obviously more wholesome, triggered, as it was, by natural means and not by drugs.
I looked at each of them, their absorption complete, their enthusiasm contagious. Going far beyond what I thought would be the climax of their earth-shattering exhibition, the now much appreciated — and somewhat envied — street chanters reached a breathtaking crescendo. And then, suddenly, the chanting stopped, and everyone within ear’s reach was visibly stunned. This was my introduction to kirtan. That was some 35 years ago, but it feels fresh and new, and I still relish a good kirtan today.
Adapted from Steven J. Rosen, The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (New York: FOLK Books, 2008).