Kirtan and chanting, which are a part of mantra yoga, are an important part of yoga education. In ancient times words and music were used to attain an altered state of mind. Music was an aid to develop the mind, spirit, emotions and sensitivity. In this modern age different forms of music have developed, like rock, heavy metal, jazz etc., but until recent times music was used not to please the mind but to tranquillize the agitations of the mind.
Mantra does not mean 'word of power'. It is something you feel from deep inside, something that comes up from the depths of consciousness to the surface of your mind. Mantra is the unspoken language of the heart. The proper use of mantra can evoke a particular sentiment and sensitize the mind to be receptive to many experiences, both internal and external. Although it is said that Rama and Krishna are the names of Indian gods, or that Devi is the name of a goddess, this is only a religious interpretation. The word Rama is also the sound of a chakra, and yogis had knowledge of the word Rama in its different capacities long before Rama was born. Mantras predate religion; they represent the link between the individual nature and the divine.
Kirtan is both an art and a science. It is sung to evoke a feeling that is uplifting and pure. It is not so much the chanting of the name that is important as the awakening of the bhava, the feeling or emotion that is associated with it.
There is a story about the musicians in the court of the Emperor Akbar. Whenever a musician used to sing, all the courtiers would shake and sway their bodies, hands and heads and say, "Oh what wonderful music!" Akbar thought to himself, "Do all these people really understand music, do they really appreciate it, or are they only making a show of understanding it?" To find out, he issued a proclamation: "Anyone seen swaying to the music will be beheaded." After that no one moved, everyone in the court sat very still - everyone that is except for a few who were unable to control themselves whenever music was played. So Akbar asked them, "Haven't you heard of the declaration that anyone found swaying to the beat of music will be beheaded?" They said, "Yes, we have heard the royal mandate, but death would be acceptable to us because we have enjoyed the bliss of music." So Akbar knew that only a few in the entire court really appreciated the music and that all the rest were just sycophants.
To really appreciate music, you have to follow the four stages of kirtan: (i) singing, (ii) keeping time with the rhythm or taal, (iii) evoking the appropriate mood so that the mind begins to swing, and (iv) swaying the body with the rhythm, which happens naturally when the mind begins to dance. Try this and you will see the difference in the quality of your experience during kirtan.
Kirtan plays an important part in yogic or spiritual life just as hatha yoga, raja yoga, meditation or kundalini yoga do. This is because we exist at different levels of experience simultaneously: (i) at the sensorial level, where experience comes only through the senses, (ii) at the intellectual level, the rational mind, giving rise to likes and dislikes, aspirations and ambitions, etc., (iii) at the emotional level, the level of feelings, of sensitivity, being able to connect with something non-rational, and being in tune with the energy that transforms sensitivity and feelings into emotion, (iv) at the psychic level, which includes latent impressions, ingrained attitudes and habits, samskaras and karmas that define character and self-identity, and (v) at the spiritual level, which can only be directly experienced when the other four levels are in harmony.
In the process of yoga, we have to access and bring each level together little by little, rather than focusing on just one level or dimension - only the body or only the mind or only the feelings. If we are able to develop a fully comprehensive awareness, then, according to the tradition, complete fulfilment, poornata, can be experienced in this life.
Just as in this process, raja yoga, jnana yoga, kriya yoga or kundalini yoga may be important, to the same extent and intensity kirtan is also recommended. Why? What is kirtan? Kirtan is chanting of different names of the self, of which we are a part, an expression; we all express different manifestations and identities of the self. These names are composed in Sanskrit of aksharas, or sound syllables, which never change. Although they may appear to indicate a manifest form of divinity, in which, for example, Rama may invoke the image of Rama, and similarly for Krishna, Buddha and Christ, the mantras do not represent a personalized identity of the divinity but rather an expression of that force and energy. When you chant the names, it is the syllables that alter the patterns of the mind according to the different sound frequencies and vibrations, making it more clear, tranquil and receptive, more complete, thus increasing sensitivity and feeling. This sensitivity will help you connect with the source of your being and then you experience yoga. This is the purpose and meaning of kirtan.
Just as we have an IQ, an intelligence quotient, we also have an EQ, an emotional quotient. The emotional quotient is not just confined to expressions of love and affection, compassion and charity. Rather it is expressed as a sensitivity in all areas, no matter where your mind is directed. Your mind may be directed to a particular point or focus, but there is an awareness in which the whole field is also covered. In chanting the name you are expressing sentiments that are free from the conditioning of such external inputs or samskaras, and you are expressing those sentiments to this pure being, which is your personal God. And if purity is an expression of God why not learn how to connect with that?
Kirtan helps to achieve the state where one is able to express one's feelings towards the pure nature in their purest form. This devotion is different from expressing a religious sentiment. It brings out the pure self and enhances the sensitivity, and one is able to connect with the pure being. And this equals yoga.
Therefore, kirtan has a very prominent place in ashram life, in yogic life and in the lives of all spiritual seekers. Kirtan is yoga for the feelings. Just as hatha yoga is yoga for physical purification, raja yoga is a yogic system for understanding the mind, kriya yoga is a process of psychic awakening and kundalini yoga a process of kundalini awakening, kirtan is a process of awakening sensitivity.
Should mantra be chanted without emotion?
How can one even think of practising mantra without bhava, without the quality of feeling? If you think about it, to think of any action or thought without emotion is hypocritical. When you get angry or feel frightened, is it without bhava? When you are under stress, is it without bhava? Any mental state, whether it is hatred, jealousy, frustration, anxiety, stress or passion, cannot exist without bhava, the associated feeling.
There has to be passion in mantra. In the beginning of mantra practice the mantra is repeated mechanically because one does not know how to connect with the bhava. But when you know how, then by combining the mantra with the bhava, the energy of the mantra intensifies. And that potency has the capacity to invoke God in a physical form in front of you, which means it can change any rule in creation. Mantra performed with bhava has the potential and the capacity to make God take a physical body and appear in front of you. So, if it has the capacity to command God to give darshan, you can imagine just how powerful the mantra is. Even God is subject to the power of the mantra.
It is not the human mind that makes Him or Her appear before you. It is this declaration of God in the form of the mantra and He is bound by that declaration. So, if God can accept the supremacy of the mantra, why can't the power of the mantra change every kind of natural law? Those who have practised mantra with bhava have been able to perfect this quality and realize the full potency of the mantra.
To think of any practice without bhava actually is the sign of an immature mind because mantra will become fruitful only when bhava is associated with it. Just as a feeling is associated with a state of anger, jealousy or stress and tension, or with what you eat and drink, or with a friend or enemy, similarly a feeling is associated with a mantra. How then is it possible to keep the practice of mantra separate from the feeling associated with the mantra? It is not logical. Therefore, whenever you practise a mantra as part of mantra sadhana or sing kirtan, you should also try to project the emotion associated with the mantra into it. Then when you chant or sing the mantra you are able to channel your emotions with full control, and that is quite an achievement for any human being.
Normally, logic follows a predetermined path and emotion follows a different path. Many times emotions cloud logic, and many times logic can suppress an emotion. But when they complement each other, then logic becomes an experience and emotion becomes an insight which gives you wisdom. Therefore, try to feel the emotion of the mantra when you repeat it. That is the real practice of mantra.
Mechanical repetition happens in the first stage of mantra practice in order to stop the natural dissipation of the mind. Once the dissipation stops, then in order to awaken the state of consciousness, to experience the transformed condition inherent in the mantra, the bhava, the emotions, have to be added. Mechanical repetition of mantra is recommended in the first stage in order to create a pattern of mind, to develop an awareness of the mantra for longer periods of time. When you are able to do that, then, in the second stage, add the component of emotion, the bhava, to the mantra and the result will be very beneficial and uplifting.
Does one have to know the meaning of the mantra?
In the early stage, if you are repeating the mantra mechanically, it is not necessary to know the meaning of the mantra. But when the mantra is established in the mind and there is no effort to become aware of the mantra, then at that time the meaning of the mantra is revealed. The bhava becomes associated with the mantra and the meaning is revealed. It is realized intuitively; you recognize it as the underlying reality of the mantra. The guru can help you realize the meaning of the mantra, but not tell you. The meaning of the mantra being revealed and telling the meaning of the mantra are two different things.
Om Nama Shivaya translated literally means 'I bow down to Shiva, I salute Shiva'. Now the literal meaning can indicate an association through respect, faith, belief and devotion, the bhakti, that an individual has for the divine. Those who understand the principle of Shiva will find this mantra very pleasing to their nature They will relate to the bhakti, the aspect of surrendering with respect, gratitude and faith to a quality of the divine which they have felt in their life. In the same way, different people have found their heart and soul connection with Rama, or Krishna, Durga, Devi, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, or Mahavir, which are all different images of the divine force.
The literal meaning will stimulate a feeling in those people with that kind of nature. But for most people, mantras thought of in that way are seen as adherence to a belief system representing a religion. The expression of one's sentiments towards something unique and pure becomes converted into a belief system, and that belief system becomes a religion. The extrovert nature of the human mind will always create a logical justification for everything, even if it is inaccurate and inappropriate.
However, the revealed meaning of the mantra is different from the literal translation. The revealed meaning instantaneously leads you to the experience of Shiva. That is why the guru cannot actually tell you the meaning, but he can help you to understand the meaning. It is like this with every mantra, whether chanting 'Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare', 'Jai Jai Rama Sita Rama, Jai Jai Rama Sita Rama', or 'Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudeva', or any other mantra. The meaning of the mantra becomes revealed when the bhava, intense feeling, becomes associated with it. So, in the end, bhava is the real meaning of the mantra.