The spiritual practice of singing kirtan originated in India, and it predates Christianity — if you practice yoga, you’ve probably heard it played in class. Kirtan comes from a branch of yoga called Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of Devotion — the Yoga of Love.
Kirtan is basically an easy and powerful way to meditate. The chants do the work for you, and singing or listening to kirtan is an easier and faster way to get to the place we try to reach in meditation.
Kirtan is a nondenominational practice. It’s about opening your heart and feeling your connection to a deeper place of belonging and love. When we sing kirtan we lose some of the separation between us, and that feels really good.
Kirtan uses mantras — a mantra is a sound or prayer that frees the mind from the miseries of the material world. As kirtan has its roots in India, many of the chants are in Sanskrit, but it is also sung in other sacred languages. Each mantra used in kirtan condenses a spiritual truth and carries meaning in every single syllable. Millions of human beings have sung these mantras over the course of over 5,000 years and they carry a lot of spiritual weight.
Kirtan is a community practice — it’s a participatory, call and response form of singing. With the call and response, the singers create the experience together with the musicians. Here’s the way kirtan works: You sing the chant — either out loud or in your head. When your mind wanders (and it will), you bring it back to the chant — again and again and again. And when the singing stops your mind is quiet and has more peace.
The most important element in kirtan is the voice, and kirtan might be the first time you use your voice as a way to deepen a spiritual experience. You don’t have to worry about knowing the words, or really about singing at all if you don’t want to. It’s perfectly OK to just sit back and be bathed in sacred sound. Everyone can experience kirtan, and it’s the only concert where there’s silence at the end of every song — we stay in silence so we can be fully present to where the chant has taken us. You can also express yourself through movement if you wish.
In the last 10 years kirtan has become something of a phenomenon in the West, which has led to a vibrant independent music scene filled with musicians that play the ancient Sanskrit chants in different Western musical styles from rock to hip-hop. Well known kirtan bands play in yoga studios and festivals around the world — the New World Kirtan Band covers many of these chants and they’re played in our weekly Kirtan/Meditation Circle at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis.
Friday night is kirtan night at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, with either the Kirtan/Meditation Circle or live music. The New World Kirtan Band plays at 7 p.m. on the second Friday of every month, and we regularly feature other kirtan artists. Our spiritual community is sweet, and growing fast. It’s a beautiful way to end the week. We hope you’ll join us!