Guy L. Beck’s chapter on Hinduism and Music helps to illustrate the historical setting for how music and yoga spirituality came to be what they are in America today. While Mulasagaonkar’s article helped to define music and yoga and music’s relationship to the body, Beck’s chapter offers a detailed yet succinct history of music within Hinduism and specifically Bhakti-rasa (devotional love). To my knowledge that I’ve learned through my various yoga teacher trainings, the concept of Bhakti yoga comes from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the great Indian epics depicting the story of Krishna and Arjuna and the conversation they had on the battlefield at the beginning of the Mahabharat War. Bhakti yoga is offered to Arjuna as one of three ways to attain liberation.
According to Beck, new Bhakti movements in the sixth century favored a devotion- centered Hinduism, including devotional music (Bhakti-Saṅgīta) that was composed for worship in regional vernacular languages (361). Ruckert mentions, “the Bhakti Movement, a devotional tide that swept over North India from the south in the fifteenth century and enjoyed a great flowering for the next two hundred years. Sharing some ideas with the Protestant Reformation in Europe, the Bhakti Movement favored vernacular languages and an individual’s relationship to God as being more important than the formal language (Sanskrit) or the strict regulations of organized religion (Ruckert 2004, 61-62).” “The singing of divine names. . .is called Nām- Kīrtan or Nām-Bhajan. . .it was first brought to the West in 1965 by ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in the form of the Hare Krishna Mahā Mantra (Beck 2014, 363).” With the Beatles visit to Rishikesh in 1968 and George Harrison’s recording of “Hare Krishna” in 1969, Nām-Kīrtan became quite popular in the West and continues in various modern sub-cultures that practice Bhakti yoga today.
Similar to Bhakti yoga, through the practice of Kīrtan, “Hindu religious music is usually a group endeavor. . .lead singers often accompany themselves on harmonium. . . group singers, who may play other instruments, repeat after the leader in unison in call and response format. . .In many current religious congregations, earlier styles of devotional music have been replaced by less formal types of Bhajan that promote greater class and gender egalitarianism, are not tied to liturgical action, are more flexible regarding attendance and time, and that allow for eclectic religious views (362-363).”
In researching articles for this paper, I encountered a thesis titled Buying Spirituality: Commodity and Meaning in American Kīrtan Music by Matthew DelCiampo, written in 2012. DelCiampo’s paper was an examination of the commodification of kīrtan experiences and the marketing of spirituality used by kīrtan leaders. He worked with a couple different kīrtan organizers and centers for his research, including the same person I bought my first harmonium from, and whom I was able to interview on February 13, 2020, nine years after they worked with DelCiampo in Boston. While attending an event that they led in Boulder, CO on January 25, 2020 I noted the following observations:
Driving down a dark county road in Boulder, I would have missed the turn off altogether if it hadn’t been for the homemade sign with the word, “Kīrtan” and an arrow pointing left. After finding a parking spot in the unpaved lot I followed a path marked by, “Namastè” signs around to the back of the building (house?) and entered the performance space. There was a table set up to the left of the door and I signed in after taking off my shoes. The space was set up with back-jack style seats that allow for people to sit on the floor and have something to lean back against, facing a stage/altar area with several instruments, microphones, and religious iconography that were mainly Hindu but also included Tibetan prayer flags and symbols I’d seen before at Sikh temples. There was also an area behind the seats that was open for people to dance and move if they wanted. Before the musicians started the kīrtan, there was music playing: an eclectic mix of pop, reggae, and Motown. The stage was set up with various instruments: guitar, bass, harmonium, tambourine, a drum that looked similar to a Celtic bodhran, shakers, and a couple non-Western and non-Indian instruments that I’d never seen before, including, what was explained during the kīrtan as an Egyptian drum. When the music did start, the kirtan leader took the time to ask all the participants if they’d chanted with them before, if they’d chanted on their own or with other groups, or if this was their first experience of chanting. They would give explanations and translations for each of the mantras that were sung and even had a projector set up showing the words so that everyone could sing along even if it was their first time and they didn’t know what any of the mantras were. After each song there would be a few moments of silence and then they would check-in with the audience. This was different from most kīrtans I’d been to with more Hindu participants, where the lead singer would simply flow from one bhajan to the next without giving translation or pause, assuming everyone present was familiar with the mantras. At the end of the kīrtan, during the last song, “Om Shanti Om,” they passed a microphone around to let anyone who wanted to have an opportunity to lead part of the chant if they wished.
In my interview, they outlined the four levels to their school for teaching kirtan: level one—learning how to chant at home; level two—sharing with others; level three—leading a band; level four—professional tours, festivals, and albums. They’re in the process of developing a fifth level that addresses personal development needs for someone that is holding space and facilitating the kind of spiritual experiences that are often associated with kīrtan. Classes and lessons are offered in-person, and they launched their first online workshop last year. They defined kīrtan as sacred chanting of Sanskrit mantras from India. They were first introduced to it in April of 2000 when they took a yoga class where the teacher chanted at the end and they fell in love with the music and how it made them feel. In their description of what kīrtan is, they say that the Sanskrit mantras are important because instead of identifying with something external, Sanskrit mantras go in through the heart and to the heart of the Divine. This is a form of yoga called Bhakti yoga.
When I asked them about the challenges of keeping the integrity of the practice while keeping it accessible, they said:
“I’m actually hoping to write a manuscript in the spring and plan to call it The Future of Kīrtan and the need for an integral approach to kīrtan. First, there was an amazing black music critic and philosopher named Albert Murray in the post-WWII era. He spoke and wrote about how there’s three kinds of art: folk art, pop art, and fine art. He was using the music of his time as an example; he said blues is folk art. It’s got deep cultural roots but doesn’t have high technical skill demands. Pop music doesn’t stick around long because it doesn’t have deep cultural roots, but it does have high technical demands. Then fine art has deep cultural roots and high technical music demands. So, classical music—whether it’s classical Western music or Hindustani (classical North Indian music) or Carnatic (classical South Indian music), those are all fine arts. Those require a lot of education and you must understand the cultural background. Kīrtan is a folk art. You know, in the fifteenth century in India there were some people who had the mantras and some people who didn’t. So, in deciding to share the mantras, the people who had that knowledge didn’t just go out and say, “ok, here’s the mantras—now go to music school for twenty years.” They said, “Take them and mash them up with your folk music and however you do them is great!” That’s what folk art is. Now we have people over here in the West who on the one end are the “purists” who tend to be rigid and ideological. Then you have people way on the other side, and these are the hedonists who take a pop art approach and think, “Well as long as people like it, then it’s good!” These are the people who take a big, long rock song and smack a little “Om Namah Shivaya” on the end and everyone tells them how wonderful they are, and they go, “Oh wow! Look, I’m so great—I’m so spiritual!” I think what I’m trying to carve out for an integral kīrtan is the middle ground. How do we create music that is a functional fit for our society while retaining the essence of the practice? That’s what I’m really about.”
They reference Paramahamsa Yogananda and the chanting that he did with the Self- Realization Fellowship in Kriya Yoga as the beginning of chanting and kīrtan in the West. On March 7, 2020 they performed another kīrtan in Lakewood, CO. It was a celebration of both the 100 th anniversary of Paramahamsa Yogananda’s arrival in the West in 1920, and the day that he took his Maha Samadhi (left his body) on March 7, 1952. The atmosphere for this kīrtan event was markedly different than the other event, in part because the setting was in a temple as opposed to a yoga studio. The music on in the background before the kīrtan was a single melody on repeat that played while a slideshow on screens showed images and quotes of Paramahamsa Yogananda, one of which showed Yogananda playing a sarangi, a classical stringed instrument from India. Also, before the kīrtan started there was a short presentation by the resident monk of the temple, who was introduced and listed on the program simply as “Swamiji” a Hindu honorific title. Swamiji spoke of Paramahamsa Yogananda and about Kriya Yoga. He stressed that in Kriya Yoga, the difference from Hatha yoga, is that instead of focusing on the body the focus is on the mind. He referred to the same verse of the Yoga Sutras that I did at the beginning of this paper for the definition of yoga: Yogaḥ citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ. He said that Kriya yoga is more about meditation and getting the mind to stop so that yoga or union with the Divine can happen.
In the community for the lineage I’d followed there was also has a book of bhajans (spiritual songs) that goes beyond chanting the Divine names. There are several hundred bhajans or poems, presumably in Sanskrit, to many different deities, and included Sufi, Sikh, and Christian songs. The words are all given with English translations and chord progressions, however, there is no indication of melody or raga (classical Indian melodic structure). Some rare bhajans have a specific tāl (rhythmic cycle) indicated, but most do not give any indication of rhythm or tempo. This collection is mostly meant to be a reference for a musician that is already familiar with these songs—or a starting place for one to creatively innovate their own melody and rhythm for the lyrics, not a method for learning how to play or sing them a specific way.
My first event with this community was when the Guru (spiritual leader, teacher, living saint) came to Denver on March 14, 2016. I had been invited to bring my viola and play with the other musicians for the event. I remember speaking with one of them over the phone in preparation and asking if there was sheet music or anything written down for the songs, or at least a recording I could learn from. They said they would send me some recordings and they had the lyrics and chord progressions. They also told me that if we were lucky Guruji would sing those specific songs, and if we were really lucky—he’d sing them in the same key that the chord progressions were written in, otherwise it would all have to be figured out in the moment.
Later that summer, I visited the ashram in Germany for their annual bhakti festival and Guru Purnima celebrations. Guru Purnima is a Hindu holy day reserved for the celebration and honoring of all teachers, saints, and spiritual leaders. I recall sitting in the corner one morning with the musicians and playing for the morning prayers on my viola, amazed at the number of people from around the world sitting with me. Few of us spoke the same language, but we all knew the songs and took turns playing and singing. The formal ceremony ended, and the musicians kept going; the gentleman to my left jumped up to the microphone and started to sing. All sense of time disappeared and the only thing I was aware of was the music. Though the musicians kept playing, I eventually packed up and went outside to find my friends. When I found them and asked what time it was, they informed me that I’d been in the temple playing and singing bhajans for over 4 hours.
A couple days later, in preparation for the Guru Purnima celebrations, all the groups of musicians from different countries were scheduled to perform at intervals starting at 6a and go through 6p, leaving the different groups to find odd places to practice together at odd times before their performance. I recall walking into the dining hall late in the evening the night before and a group of musicians from Poland were in full “jam band” mode. My friends and I started referring to the event as the “Bhajan Olympics.” In addition to performing with the North American group, I watched performances from several other countries: the group from Italy had transcribed their own arrangements into Western notation and had a conductor; there was a group of African drummers; a Bharata Natyam classical Indian dancer, and many more.
The emphasis was for everyone to express their devotion however was most fitting and appropriate for them according to their own heritage and art form; personal authenticity over Indian cultural authenticity; correct intention over correct pronunciation.