Kirtan as (Interfaith) Sacred Music
springboards for listening and reflection
What is Kirtan and Who Is Doing It?
Kirtan in One Minute and Thirty Five Seconds
Kirtan or kirtana (Punjabi: ਕੀਰਤਨ, Sanskrit: "praise, eulogy"; also
sankirtan is call-and-response chanting or "responsory" performed in India's bhakti devotional traditions. A person performing kirtan is known as a kirtankar. Kirtan practice involves chanting hymns or mantras to the accompaniment of instruments such as the harmonium, tablas, the two-headed mrdanga or pakawaj drum, and karatal hand cymbals. It is a major practice in Vaisnava devotionalism, Sikhism, the Sant traditions, and some forms of Buddhism, as well as other religious groups....more
Sounds into Silence
Podcasts from New World Kirtan
interfaith voices from around the world (collected by Kitzie Stern)
thanks to the divine mother in all her forms (collected by Kitzie Stern)
interview with on local (grass-roots, available, affordable) community Kirtan
fresh tracks offered by Kitzie Stern for spring, 2018
Kirtan and Hindu-Western Interfaith
Rev. and Dr. Beth Johnson
Kirtan Singer, Hanuman Lover,
and Justice Advocate
Singing the Mantras
Reflections from Rev. Dr. Beth Johnson on Kirtan and Process Thought
“Here is what I notice about kirtan and process thought: What comes to mind is, like process thought, kirtan affirms the individual and the community. What I mean is that when we do kirtan in a group it is still a solitary process, we are experiencing our own relationship with the divine…we are feeling God in our heart and we are opening our hearts in response to God. When we do that in a group we are also having a collective experience. Our voice join with the voices of others and becomes one with them, even while retaining its uniqueness. In this way kirtan affirms the individual and the whole.
I think about why and how singing the mantras can transform the world. I say this because there can seem to be a focus the individual benefits of this spiritual practice without an emphasis on the rest of the world or, especially, on activism. I have had to think about this because I’ve wanted to reconcile my kirtan practice with my work in the world, which lately includes a very real urgency for what I believe is a need for radical revolutionary change.
What I’ve come to is that the practice of kirtan opens our hearts in extraordinary ways, and with an open heart we can open to the world. Jai Uttal talks about this in the interview, and my experience bears this out – I live a deep and abiding joy even as I know the dire state of the world…even amidst sorrow or deep concern for the world, it is the joy that allows me to live with an open, broken heart. Remembering that kirtan is prayer, it is bhakti yoga, a path of devotion – so the element of devotion to God is essential for me. (And especially if you remember my utter devotion to Hanuman!)
If we are devoted to God we will be in service to the world because there is no separation between God and the world. We are One.”
How I Came to Love Hanuman
It was an accident. Really. It happened without me realizing just what was going on. I mean I didn’t set out to fall in love with the Monkey God. It started innocently enough. I began chanting with Krishna Das, in person whenever possible, and daily with his CDs. He is featured on this website: see Hare Krishna and Amazing Grace. I moved on to others – now I chant with many different kirtan wallas, but Jai Uttal and Krishna Das remain very dear to me.
Kirtan opened my heart in an extraordinary way. Singing the Divine names brought me not only to ecstasy – it brought me beyond ecstasy. It still does…sometimes, but I’m not attached to that…mostly. Chanting the Divine names brings me into the Oneness where the Name and I are One. It connects me to the inner guru. At times I’m not singing the chant, the chant is singing me.
When I first started doing kirtan I sang a lot with KD’s album, “Live On Earth.” It was there I first heard the Hanuman Puja, a beautiful prayer to Hanuman, and also the Hanuman Chalisa – forty verses to Lord Hanuman written by 16th century Indian saint, Tulsi Das.I was drawn to learn the Hanuman Puja and sing the Hanuman Chalisa. I sang it daily. Reading the words, memorizing what I could, I sang at home. I sang at work. I sang in the car. I sang it in the veterinarian’s office waiting for my kitty to be seen. I sang it to myself while I was waiting at the doctor's office. I sang it while my car was going through the car wash.
The Chalisa recounts Hanuman’s life and exploits, originally told in the Indian epic the Rayamana. Within Hanuman’s story we find profound spiritual lessons and adventures for the soul.
Here’s my very brief telling of the story:
Hanuman was born to Anjana, a Vanara, or monkey, through the intervention of Vayu, the wind God who brought the seed of Lord Shiva to Anjana in order to fulfill the need for Shiva to incarnate and join Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, in Rama’s quest to rid the world of evil that had come in the form of a ten-headed demon, Ravana. What a beginning!
And from the beginning sweet little Hanuman was mischievous. His mother told him that all red fruits would be his to eat, so one day, seeing the sun he leapt up to grab it and chased the sun only to be struck down by a thunderbolt from Indra, the Deva of the heavens, who was annoyed that Hanuman stopped an eclipse in progress. That is how Hanuman’s chin became red and he got the name, Hanuman, which means the one with the broken cheek. Vayu was so upset he took Hanuman and withdrew all the air from the world. The gods beseeched Vayu to release the air, in return they granted many boons to little Hanuman. He was given extraordinary powers: immortality, the ability to shape shift, great strength, the power to become very tiny or very large, to leap and reach far, and many more – in other words, Hanuman became a powerful being.
Hanuman was still a somewhat naughty child. He bothered the Rishis while they meditated by pulling their beards and disturbing them. In response to this, Hanuman was given a mild curse – he would not know his powers unless he was reminded.Hanuman is also known for being very learned, having studied with Surya, the sun god, by traveling facing backwards and coming to all knowledge.
Hanuman met Ram and his brother, Lakshmana when they were wandering through the forest in search of Sita, Ram’s wife, who had been kidnapped by the demon, Ravanna. Hanuman joined the search along with a throng of monkeys and bears. Hanuman recognizes Ram as his own beloved and bows before him - vowing to serve Ram with selfless devotion. Some say it is Shiva recognizing Vishu and recalling his desire to assist Vishnu in ridding the world of evil.
At this point Hanuman’s most well-known and exciting exploits begin.
While on their search, Lakshmana was struck ill only to be cured by a certain herb. Hanuman jumps to a mountain in search of the herb. With no time to waste, Hanuman carries the mountain with the saving herb to Lakshamana. He leads the search for Sita, finding her in Lanka, where she has been held captive. When faced with crossing the vast ocean to get to Lanka, the other monkeys assure Hanuman that he can leap over the ocean, and so, reminded of his powers, he does just that. Hanuman makes himself tiny to sneak into Lanka. He finds Sita desolate and despairing. He gives her Ram’s ring to show her he comes in her husband’s name and assures her Ram will rescue her.
Hanuman fights Ravana’s demons, making himself huge to break the ropes used to tie him up to immolate him, with his tail on fire burns down Lanka and douses his tail in the ocean. Hanuman leaves Sita to bring Ram to her, insuring that Ram himself rescues his beloved wife, and Hanuman takes none of the glory.
Back at the court, Sita presents Hanuman with a precious necklace. Hanuman immediately begins biting apart the gems, much to the horror of those watching. They say, “Silly monkey, what are you doing?” Hanuman replies that he is looking for Ram for Ram should be inside all things. The others ask, “So, is Ram inside of you?” In that moment, Hanuman rips open his chest and there reside Ram and Sita. In gratitude for Hanuman’s love and service Ram embraced Hanuman and offered himanything he wished. Hanuman said he wanted to remain in the world and be present wherever Ram's name was spoken.
And so it is that Hanuman remains available to all of us This is the message of Hanuman Chalisa. We recount Hanuman's story and his many attributes and he is as near as the breath. And so it was that I sang the Chalice day and night.
Enter Hanuman. And I mean that literally. Into my wide-openheart walked Hanuman and there he lives. Just like Ram andSi ta live in his heart.
The fact is I want to be like Hanuman – I desire to be the ultimate devotee so that everywhere inside of me and outside of me is God’s name written all over me. If I were to rip open my chest, I want Hanuman to be sitting there, with His chest ripped open and Ram and Sita sitting inside of Him.
Hanuman is the ultimate devotee, showing utter devotion to God, to love, to the One. Hanuman is the model of humility, responding to the lure ofego-less, selfless service, and needing to be reminded of his power. He doesn’t strut around displaying his power. He acts in love for love as love.
Some people have asked me if I “believe” in Hanuman. That’s like asking me if I “believe” in love. We can understand Hanuman (and the other gods and stories) as archetypal, and that understanding has been helpful for me over the years as my relationship with Hanuman has developed – it gave me handholds in what was becoming a mysterious, and sometimes surprising, experience of utter love and amazing boons. Finally, I just let go of the handholds. I let go of explanations. I rest in Oneness. I merge with Hanuman and find within Him and the stories the timeless truths and boundless love that guide this mystic’s path. Chanting the Hanuman Chalisa opens my heart, reminds me when my soul is captured by fear or insecurity or uncertainty that there are forces at work to bring me back to who and whose I am through the power of spiritual practice.
So, how did this happen? Could it be that copy of Ram Dass’ groundbreaking book, Be Here Now, that I first saw when I was sixteen years old, which had a picture of Hanuman standing with his chest ripped open?
The book tells Ram Dass’ story of transformation from Richard Albert to Ram Dass and his meeting with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba (also the guru of Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, and Sharon Salzberg) himself said to be an incarnation of Hanuman. Maybe my long association with Ram Dass, Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, and by extension Neem Karoli Baba, lived in me, and prepared me, years later, to enter into a relationship as a devotee with Hanuman. If, indeed, as process thought tells us, our past informs our becoming, then that influence has lived in me and came to fruition just when I was ripe for the fullness. I respond to the lure of Hanuman by remembering that the Son of the Wind is as close as the breath and by serving the world with my heart wide open.
Pavantnayi sankat harana mangal murti roopa
Ram lakhan sita sahita hrdaye basahu sur bhoopa
Son of the Wind, destroyer of sorrow, embodiment of blessing,
Live in my heart, King of Gods, together with Ram, Lakshman, and Sita.
Reflections at the Intersection
of Process Theology and Kirtan
Can Singing Mantras Help the World
Healthy Hybridity or Spiritual Stripmining?