The origin of Kirtan
Kirtan first evolved in India as the village people’s spiritual practice some 500 years ago. The Sanskrit definition of Kirtan means to glorify and is sometimes given the longer name of Sankirtan which means to glorify together in community. It was a beautiful practice that connected ordinary people to their divine power in a simple way. Kirtan is as accessible to everyone today as it was all those centuries ago. The practice takes the form of call and response chanting where you have a lead group chanting the calling line and then the ‘sangham’ (the Sanskrit word for community) chants the response. There are also uplifting instruments that accompany each chant such as a harmonium, tabla, tanpura and cymbals. All these instruments combined create a vibrant atmosphere and as the rhythms build to a peak tempo over several minutes, the whole community eventually experiences a state of inner bliss. Kirtan powerfully connects us to the divine vibration of our inner Self in all its multiple aspects. Kirtan in itself is not a religion although it has been used as a devotional practice within the Hindu tradition for centuries because it is such a potent way to connect to divine love.
In the Yoga tradition Kirtan is simply a practice for deepening the reunion with our inner Self. It is commonly regarded as the yoga of devotion or ‘bhakti’ (the Sanskrit word for devotion). The mantras are chanted in Sanskrit with a harmonious melody line where the same mantra is repeated over and over again. Sanskrit is the most ancient language in history. It is a refined celestial language known as the language of the Gods and has been preserved in the Vedas, a collection of hymns and religious texts that were composed in India between about 1500 and 1000 BCE.
The definition of mantra and its place in Kirtan
The definition of mantra can be divided into two parts: “man,” which means mind, and “tra,” which means instrument. In other words, a mantra is an instrument of the mind—a potent sound or vibration that can transport you into deep states of meditation. Mantras also protect us from negative influences and purifies us from within. The difference between Kirtan practice and regular mantra repetition is that in Kirtan you chant the name of a deity or supreme personality e.g. Krishna, Shiva, Durga or Lakshmi. Each deity has a particular vibrational quality like courage, prosperity, steadfastness or fearlessness. There are many other mantras that are not chanted in Kirtan e.g. bija mantras. These are seed sounds which don’t have a particular form or personality as such but are rather elemental sounds that resonate with earth, water, fire, air and ether and can be repeated on a single note and installed into different energy centres of the subtle body as required. These mantras are also extremely beneficial and attune us to a centred space of well of being.
How I discovered Kirtan
I was first deeply touched by this practice many years ago by my spiritual teacher who is a master of Kirtan. Whenever she leads her devotion to divine universal energy is tangible. Back then a thousand people would all chant together in call and response and we were all ecstatic. In that moment I was inspired to one day be able lead Kirtan myself and to be used as an instrument to uplift people to higher states of being.
Kirtan is for everyone
For 25 years now I have led Kirtan for an extraordinary variety of people from all over the world and it has been an incredible privilege to be able to share this exquisite heart opening and uplifting practice. My journey has given me the opportunity to chant with business corporations including Deutsche Bank in London. I have also chanted extensively with recovering addicts who absolutely adore the practice as it fills that unbearable space that some recovering addicts have referred to as the ‘hole in the soul’. I am the resident Kirtan leader at Triyoga in London where a wide variety of people attend my classes on a weekly basis including city workers, yoga students, yoga teachers, parents and children and celebrities. I also work with individuals and many of my private clients are leaders in their field including bankers, lawyers and the civil service.
Kirtan as a tool for deepening relationships
Kirtan is the single most powerful tool I have had in my life for developing more open and connected relationships. In fact I met my life partner in a weekly Kirtan group and we are still happily together seven years later! In my role as a facilitator of chanting sessions people come to connect to their inner voice and to have a breakthrough in their self expression. Many clients report so many powerful breakthroughs in their relationships as a result. One woman said ‘I used to be afraid of my husbands anger. I used to shut myself down around him. After chanting I no longer take his anger personally and I express myself authentically. Amazingly he has been less angry since I have changed!’ In the work place also many report that since chanting they have gained an ability to express their voice in a challenging dynamic with a dominating colleague or boss. Others report a newly found confidence in voicing their creative ideas to managers at work, where previously they might have suppressed themselves. Many overcome their fear of relating to a large group when public speaking and start to relate to their audience in a more open and flowing way. I have also seen business teams work more closely in harmony with each other after opening up in a Kirtan session. One woman reported ‘I feel more connected to all the people in this open plan office after one Kirtan session with Nikki than in all the six months I have been here’. Entertainers and actors also report that their ability to open up in their performance with an audience has gone to a whole new level.
Many clients come to Kirtan sessions to overcome barriers in their romantic relationships. Afterwards they have shared with me the huge difference that chanting has had on their marriage bringing more harmony, love and spontaneity to their relationship. Chanting creates a space within that opens up the virtues of generosity, patience, kindness and most importantly love. I have also worked with many mothers who report that they love to chant regularly with their children with a Kirtan CD in the car on the way to school, the children love it and they say that it brings joy and happiness into their family. One of the most rewarding groups that I have worked with have been recovering addicts which is a journey close to my own heart having fallen to the perils of alcohol and drug use in my youth. It was in 1987 that chanting came into my life and in 1989 I got sober as the power of chanting enabled me to have the most important relationship of all: the one with my true Self. Now it is with great joy that I am able to share this practice with other recovering addicts and enable them to experience the bliss of chanting and to find inner connection in their sobriety.
How Kirtan practice produce such extraordinary results
Kirtan is so powerful because the Sanskrit mantras we chant evolved some 2000 years ago and have been refined and passed on through sacred Yoga lineages. Therefore when we chant Kirtan together we are aligning to the highest vibration that emanates from these mantras. These vibrations open our hearts and minds and uplift us from the constraints of modern day living. When we chant with pure devotion we experience universal grace as the vibrations connect us to our true nature. Kirtan is like drinking the purest water on the planet and is sometimes described as the ‘nectar of chanting.’ One of the most popular Kirtan sanskrit mantras is Om Namah Shivaya which translates as ‘I honour or merge with my own inner Self (the self we are referring to is the universal inner Self as opposed to the ego or personal identity.) This is a powerful mantra and loved throughout Kirtan communities around the world.
At the heart of every human being is a blissful and ecstatic source energy that is completely free. Kirtan is the fastest route to connecting us to the bliss of inner freedom. We are all looking for this state whether we realise it or not. We search for inner fulfilment in the pursuit of success, money, marriage, hobbies and in meaningful relationships. We often seek connection through chasing multiple addictions including technology and workaholism in that endless search to fill that ‘hole in the soul’.
Sanskrit mantras literally transform us from within not into somebody or something else but into remembrance of who we truly are. Centuries ago in India sages have said that the great Self is already attained. They tell us that there is nowhere to get to and that we are already there. Kirtan therefore clears the barriers to remembering our connection to that inner freedom.
If you’ve never experienced Kirtan before…
I say try it. You are in for a treat and you are about to have the most important loving relationship of all… the one with your own true Self!
There are many Kirtan groups opening up in Europe now with wonderful ‘bhakti’ communities emerging – Go and find one near you or you can chant along with a CD. There are many Kirtan artists to choose from online.