Kirtan is an important aspect of yoga. Kirtan is not religious chanting, nor is it just singing one word many times. It is part of nada yoga, the yoga of sound, in which you produce sound waves and follow them with your awareness. By singing kirtan, you are able to withdraw yourself from the body and external environment. You are traveling by the jet of emotions, and therefore you do not confront the mind at all. In raja yoga you have to fight with your mind, but in kirtan you bypass the mind.
Five centuries back, a great sannyasin named Chaitanya lived in India. He was also known as Gauranga because he was so fair. He was a very great scholar and intellectual of his time, and wrote an important thesis on economics. But suddenly he had a higher vision and realized that the intellect is a barrier in spiritual life. So he renounced everything and embraced sannyasa. He was intent on developing the devotional aspect of his being, and he found the system of kirtan very effective for that. He used to sing the Lord’s name day and night as he traveled throughout the country. Whenever Chaitanya sang kirtan, he would go into a trance and continue singing ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare’ for hours at a time. He always had a gathering of villagers following him, singing and dancing as they moved from one village to another.
Chaitanya was a devotee of Krishna. He said that when man’s thoughts are totally corrupted, and one does not find enough strength to control the mind, then all other forms of yoga do not really work. When your mind is tossed by desires and passions, then even your devotion to God is not honest devotion. When you are fantasizing about the sensualities of life, and your mind is filled with cruelties and terror, how can you really think about God and transcend the gross awareness of life? The easiest way then is to sing His name and other than this, there is no sadhana.
There are only three qualities required by a devotee to reach God. First, you should consider yourself an inseparable part of the universal life plan, and become humble like a blade of grass. Second, you should be as enduring as the tree which faces summer, winter, storm and wind. And third, you should tune yourself to God by singing His name. If you embody these three qualities, then you can have the vision of the divine.
Since the time of Chaitanya, there has been an incessant tradition of incorporating kirtan with other forms of yoga. Side by side with the rigorous forms of yoga and the practice of meditation, melodies, and the tender, delicate yoga of kirtan should also be practised.
Learn a few simple kirtans and then sing them together with a group, not alone. Form a group of about fifteen people, select one kirtan and one melody and let one person lead the kirtan. The leader sings the words first and then the others sing them after him. Only a few simple instruments are necessary – cymbals, a harmonium, and in particular, a drum. This is the most important instrument because its vibrations have an immediate effect on the brain waves and the blood circulation. In fact, the rhythm of the drum is a sound to massage both the body and the mind.
Sing kirtan for about half an hour, then sit quietly for meditation. Through kirtan you can liberate yourself from blocks and complexes. If you completely involve yourself in kirtan, when you sit for meditation, you will find that the highway is very clear. There will be no traffic jam on the mental plane.
Forget that you are a gentleman, a great man or woman, a professor, an engineer, a scientist or a doctor. These are limitations of the personality. They are not your definitions; they are superimpositions. When you say, “I am a professor” or “I am a lady from a great family,” you are superimposing something on yourself. When you sing kirtan, you must come down to the point of humility and say, “I am nothing.” Only if you can maintain this attitude will you be able to transcend your complexes and blocks.
Kirtan is not an intellectual yoga, but each and every sound that is produced in kirtan goes deep into your consciousness. Intellectuals try to understand kirtan, but for them it is very difficult, because kirtan is mainly concerned with the emotional personality of the individual. Although the emotions are not properly understood and used, they are very powerful tools in the hands of man. Through the intellect, you cannot go very deep; you cannot realize the consciousness. By means of the intellect you can know about God, the truth, and so many things, but you can never experience them.
There is a great difference between knowledge and experience. I will tell you a true story which will illustrate the point. Once, while I was traveling to Australia by plane, I met an English professor who had written a book on Indian sweets and presented it to his university as a thesis. It was a very beautiful and well-written book. The professor had a good knowledge of Indian sweets. We discussed the subject for hours. Later, when we were eating our dinner, I opened a box of sweets which had been given to me by the airline company. The sweets were rasgulas, a very famous Indian sweet. Just as chocolate is your weakness, rasgula is ours. So, when I started to eat the rasgulas, I remembered the professor and took some to him. He ate them and he experienced them. Afterwards, he asked what sort of sweets they were.
I am trying to distinguish between knowledge and experience. There is no doubt that the professor had a thorough knowledge of Indian sweets, but he had no experience of them. Intellect is a medium of knowledge and emotion is an instrument of experience. If you want to experience peace and God, you have to develop the emotional side of your nature. If your emotions are blunt, you can go to the temple and talk about God for days together or you can speak about him from the church pulpit, but He will be far from you. However, if your emotions are charged, just by hearing about God you can enter into a trance and experience Him. This is because the emotions are the eyes through which you can experience a greater love and awareness.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance that a raja yogi or a hatha yogi develops his emotional personality. How can he do this? There are many ways, but the easiest, cheapest and safest method is kirtan.
In 1943, when I first joined the ashram in Rishikesh, I was not a very emotional or devotional type of person. Therefore, the first daily duty that I was given was something which I did not like. A year before my arrival, Swami Sivananda had made a resolution that unbroken kirtan of the Mahamantra would be chanted in the ashram till the very last. So, in one corner of the hall a swami or layperson always used to sit and chant, ‘Hare Ram, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.’ After one hour another person would replace him. Thus, the kirtan continued for twenty-four hours.
It was a very difficult resolution to keep, but it was the unbroken kirtan which became the nucleus of Swamiji’s mission. I was given the duty to sing for one hour during the night. So I had to sleep in the hall, wake up at a particular time, and sing the name, it was so dry and tasteless for me at that time, but I used to do it anyway.
After some time, however, I began to have experiences. I cannot say why they came to me, but one night while I was singing the name without any life or feeling, suddenly I found myself in the midst of wild animals, tigers, wolves and hyenas. They were all moving in to attack and tear me to pieces, and I was stricken with fear. That was the first time I experienced the feeling of fear. Before that I had always been fearless. I could travel alone through the wild forest the whole night without any fear. I could face anything fearlessly. I never knew what the experience of fear was.
In dream, however, I experienced that fear. I began to scream, because I did not know how to escape. At that time a very big elephant came towards me. With his trunk, he just elevated me onto his back, and all the fear vanished. After some time, I found that it was not me sitting, it was Buddha. This was a wonderful dream or vision that I had while singing the name. Many other visions followed.
Actually, for so many years, it was for this range of experiences I had been working for. I did practise pranayama, and so on, but that was not so effective. Perhaps my constitution, my samskaras were very hard. However, what I could not achieve with so many years of sadhana, I achieved by singing a name in which I did not even have faith. Even though I did not like that kirtan job, I did it because it was giving me experience after experience, and all of them were fantastic and beautiful.
Swami Sivananda loved kirtan immensely. When he sang kirtan, he used to start dancing. During the kirtan, he would become completely inspired and transmuted. Here was a sannyasin, belonging to the highest order of Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of jnana yoga, dancing like a fool. He was a person who represented the highest philosophy of pure monism, and when I saw him dancing like a mad man, I began to doubt my rational approach to reality. I began to think that my concepts about spiritual life were merely intellectual. My knowledge came from the upper crust of human existence. Then I gradually started getting into the mood of singing kirtan.
Even today, my approach to life is totally rationalistic. I do not believe in the many gods of the Hindu pantheon. I don’t even believe in a personal God. I believe in supreme, total consciousness. To imagine that someone is sitting in heaven looking down at everyone is foolish for me. I don’t think that God exists as a judge of man. I don’t even think that he hears our prayers. When I pray I know that I hear, and I hypnotize myself. But even with this rational approach, I am still very much affected by kirtan.
When I used to sing kirtan things developed in such a manner that, as well as the singing, the music also began playing in my mind. This experience is more than pleasant, it is total bliss. However, there is a moment when the mind merges with the music, and I cannot bear it.
There were many times where I just escaped from accidents. Even while traveling by car it is not possible for me to listen to music. In fact, whenever I hear that the Ramayana is being sung or any other type of music, I have to withdraw myself completely so that I don’t hear it. Music is a very high dose for me. That is the reason why, even though I like to sing, I rarely allow myself to do it. However, there is one thing I know for certain – I will leave this body singing. This is a very clear indication that has come to me. Therefore, as it is not the time for me to leave this body yet, I don’t often sing.
—January 1982, Sivanandashram, Munger —printed in YOGA, Vol. 20, No. 8 (August 1982)