Devotional Singing

Swami Nityabodhananda Saraswati

When the mind is packed with the worries and troubles of a busy day, there is a particular yogic process which can transport your consciousness from dreary worldliness to sparkling bliss. It is so simple that everyone in the world can practise and enjoy it, whether a rickshaw walla or a managing director, young or old, rich or poor. That powerful electric process of transcendence from worldly troubles into the nectar of bhakti is called kirtan.

In kirtan one or more persons sit in a circle, with a few musical instruments such as mridang, manjeera, dholak, harmonium, sitar, tampura, tabla, etc. and sing the Lord's name in one tune, one rhythm, and at one time. When, by the attractive power of kirtan, minds are tuned toward this process, the bliss of kirtan flows through all. The essential thing is to sing with feeling, so that devotion and joy are communicated to all. This is more important than producing technically correct sounds.

Sweetness of voice is definitely a desired quality of kirtan, but it has not got such fantastic appeal if the heart behind the voice is not open and happy. Happiness comes during kirtan simply because the most important thing in life is to remember the name of the Lord. All your troubles and problems become meaningless in comparison to the magnanimity of the cosmos. Only the name is real and has appeal, all else that goes through the mind at the time of kirtan has no relevance. Of course the subtle vibration of sound or nada has a strongly pacifying effect on the mind. The sound can emanate or vibrate from the navel, where it is called udara; from the chest, known as mudara; or from the throat, where it is called tara. The nada is the medium of communication between one and all at a kirtan.

The magic of kirtan

Nama and mantra combined with raga (melody) and tal (rhythm) are what give kirtan its magnetic attraction, pulling the distracted mind to one point. Raga is a particular arrangement of notes created to stir certain characteristic emotions or feelings. The word raga is derived from a Sanskrit root, meaning 'that which has such magnetic attraction that it completely overwhelms the rational mind'. It is often said that mind is in the condition of raga when it is attracted to a beautiful woman or man. In Indian classical music there are special ragas for each time of the day. When a particular raga is played or sung at the appropriate time, its magnetic power is enhanced so greatly that even the mind which is otherwise engaged can be pulled to it, and becomes completely immersed in the beauty of the melody. Indeed, when work calls, it takes a strong check to stop the mind from running after this source of pleasure and bliss. As an added attraction harmonium as well as voice is employed.

Rhythm or tal is the repetitive wave of intense feeling pulsing through the body meting out the melody or raga. This is stimulated by playing of mridang, dholak, tabla, manjeera or hand clapping. Tal is split up into intricate rhythmical patterns stimulating the energy of kirtan, and making it all the more attractive for the mind which is normally engrossed in worldly affairs.

Not only sound in its gross and subtle aspects (shabda and nada), but also mantra and nama are important constituents in the magic of kirtan. Mantras are special sounds discovered by the ancient rishis in deep meditation. They experienced these sounds as they contacted the inner realms of consciousness deep within the mind. The mantra can be short or long, with meaning or without. Whether written or spoken, it takes the form of one or more specific syllables. Mantra has a powerful influence over the subconscious and unconscious mind and this is something we have to accept. It has been tested and proved scientifically in so many ways. By repetition of mantra there is a general relaxation of the normal physical functions in the body which counters the effects of stress and strain in our busy competitive life. Some examples of mantras commonly sung in kirtans are: 'Om Anandam', 'Hari Om Tat Sat', 'Om Namah Shivaya', 'Hare Ram Hare Krishna', 'Sita Ram, Radhe Shyam'. Often mantra is the name of the Lord, which stirs devotional samskaras in the hearts of the participants, who have been worshipping such forms of God since childhood. This adds still further to the attractive power of kirtan.

Singing to guru or to God

Many songs are sung as an expression of emotion, but kirtan, as a spiritual practice, is meant to be sung to your personal ishta devata or guru. He may be there in physical form, or you could have a photo or a mandir type arrangement. Often in kirtan we sing toward a beautiful arrangement of pictorial images, statues, cloths, and kharaou (wooden shoes) of the guru. The purpose is to stimulate the feeling and form within.

The guru is within you and it is to him that you are singing. When the guru comes to your kirtan, when the universal spirit is awakened in your heart, then the sadhana of spiritual life begins. The consolidation of emotional waves generated by like and dislike, etc. for all the varied objects and people in this world are slowly withdrawn and emotional energy is focused on the inner form of guru. This is bhakti yoga and it is certainly the most appealing and fastest way to progress in spiritual life. When you are singing kirtan, you have no wife or husband, no children or grandchildren, and the song becomes the only reality.

Everything in life is constantly undergoing change, even the life itself, but the mantra and nada exist eternally. So if we can tune ourselves to that realm of existence, we will also be able to experience the eternal reality of existence. There is a flow of bliss in each and every molecule around us taking the form of the Lord living everywhere in all things. This experience of bhakti is our birthright. Swami Satyananda says that it is only the mistakes in our thinking which weigh us down with daily tensions and the events of life which bring success and failure. Until problems are solved by adopting the right attitude to them, kirtan comes as a solace and relief.

While singing kirtan, all the worldly thoughts which manifest within the mind are substituted by the subtle vibrations of the music, which pull the mind away from the senses and increase the awareness and concentration on the ishta devata. When this occurs, you transcend normal worldly consciousness naturally, and the mind evolves through ever growing concentration to higher consciousness and realms of peace and bliss.

'Just as a bee drinking honey notices not the fragrance, so it is with the mind when it is absorbed in nada; the attractions of the outside world become immaterial.'