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Dandavats! All Glories to Sri Guru and Sri Gauranga!

History of Kirtan in ISKCON

Saturday, 01 December 2018 / Published in Articles / 5,051 views

History of Kirtan in ISKCON for a ELM (European Leaders Meeting) project.

By Candramauli Swami

History of Kirtan in ISKCON for a ELM project.

Doing research into how kirtan has evolved in our society from the very beginning, with styles, instruments, singing, arrangements in and outside of temples, street sankirtan etc. Starting with Srila Prabhupada in the early days in NYC and up to the present.


Summary 2

Some technical notes 6

1. Prabhupada’s principles 7

Structure of kirtan 7

Singing, different tunes 8

What instruments to use 9

Harmonium 11

Mrdanga playing 11

Karatala and others 11

Memories from Prabhupada’s times 12

2. Early days with Srila Prabhupada 14

Early days 14

Tompkins Square Park 15

To San Francisco and beyond 17

Records with Srila Prabhupada 18

Krishna Consciousness (1966 December) 18

Mridanga lessons 19

3. First kirtana leaders, musicians 20

Vishnujana Swami 20

Early days 20

Later on as a sannyasi 21

Srila Prabhupada and Visnujana Swami 22

Composing melodies 23

The Transcendental Road Show 24

Radha-Damodara Travelling Sankirtana Party 27

Woman leading kirtans – Yamuna mataji 28

“Govindam” single (1970) 29

Later in Saranagati 31

George Harrison 32

“Hare Krishna Mantra” single 33

“Govindam” single (1970) 34

The Radha Krsna Temple (1971) 35

4. Presenting traditional ragas to the West 37

Aindra prabhu 38

Aindra prabhu’s style 39

Book: The Heart of Transcendental Book Distribution 40

Albums 40

Kirtaniyas who learned from Aindra prabhu 41

Madhava prabhu 41

Govinda prabhu 42

Amala Harinam prabhu 42

Ojasvi prabhu 42

Vrndavana prabhu (mrdanga player) 43

5. Kirtaniya’s, kirtan groups and their style 44

Swamis 44

Gauranga Bhajan Band 44

First generation kirtaniyas 45

Agnideva prabhu 45

Kripamoya prabhu 47

Bada Haridas prabhu 48

Sarvatma prabhu 48

Vaiyasakhi prabhu 49

Second generation kirtaniyas (non-exhaustive list) 50

Gaura Vani prabhu 50

Jahnavi Jivana mataji 50

Bands 50

Gaura Vani & As Kindred Spirits 50

Mayapuris 51

Other styles 53

Traditional ones 53

Modern styles 54

Devotional music recordings 54

6. Evolution of Harinam 57

Generally about harinam 57

Back in the early days 57

Padayatra 57

1976: Srila Prabhupada Inspires Oxcart Padayatras in India 57

1984–1986: Celebrating Lord Chaitanya’s Five-Hundredth Anniversary: 58

1986–1996: The Worldwide Padayatra Explosion 58

Innovations 58

Visnujana Swami 59

Indradyumna Swami’s Preaching Festivals 59

Sri Prahlada prabhu 61

Harinam Groups 62

Harinama Ruci 62

Sri Harinam Mandir Travelling Temple 62

Instruments 63

Accordion 63

Djembe 64

Other instruments 64

Dance 64

7. Evolution of instruments 66

Harmonium 66

History of the harmonium 66

Accordion 66

Aindra Style harmonium 67

Mridanga 67

Creation of Balaram mridanga 67

Balarama mridangas became replaced by Tilak mridangas 68

Mridanga sampradayas 68

Bablu Mashai 69

Learning mridanga nowadays 70

Tamboura 70

Other thoughts on melodies and instruments 71

8. Tendencies summarized 74

What we sing – about the text 74

Mahamantra, Vaisnava-, Bengali- and other, composed songs 74

Other aspects 75

What we sing – about the melody 76

Expertise, instruments and styles 77

Bengali kirtana 78

Festivals and other occasions for singing 79

Kirtan culture 79

Doing kirtan as a living, kirtana celebrities 79

Serving mood. 79

Appearance 80

Problems arouse in Mayapur 80

Technique 80

Volume, amplification 80

Some technical notes

Green notes are those, which are written by me, no exact source, these are based on those information which I’ve heard before, and my conclusions.

Gray texts show the references. Those, which have a * before them, are originally from the Kirtan Standards Book, published in 2008 by the Kirtan Standards Committee, led by H. H. Janananda Goswami. It can be downloaded from internet:

The references are quotations, however, these some parts, which seamed less important, may be left out.

1. Prabhupada’s principles

Structure of kirtan

He said a good kirtana lasts half an hour to forty minutes and the first half an hour is all slow and then it speeds up to a crescendo the last ten minutes. He liked the kirtana that was slow. Also in public programs whenever there were guests he almost always sang (sings standard Hare Krsna tune) or some similarly very simple melodies slowly and just gradually building to a crescendo.

* Revatinandana Das

When Srila Prabhupada first arrived in England in 1969, he told the devotees how, in Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana, instruments were played softly while accompanying the lead singer, and louder for the chorus, back and forth.

* Indradyumna Swami, Harinama Eva Kevalam

Dancing and instruments in the Sankirtan party:

Each party must consist of seven men as follows: two mrdanga, four karatala, and one dancer. One of the karatala players is lead singer, and the dancer dances freely up and down between the two lines of players three on each side as in the drawing.

* letter to Hamsaduta dasa, June 13, 1970

Another proposal is I want to form a sankirtana party in which two members will play mrdanga, eight will play the cymbals, two will play on tampura, and one harmonium, besides that there will be the leader of the party.

* letter to Hamsaduta, LA, January 22, 1968

Although Srila Prabhupada himself taught us many other mantras, he always stressed the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha mantra. He said that at least half of the arati kirtana should consist of chanting of the Hare Krishna maha mantra. For example, in a temple where mangala-arati only lasts for 20 minutes, devotees should only sing each of the Gurvastakam once, in order to leave ten minutes for chanting Hare Krsna. This was a well known dictum in the “early days.”

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

Singing, different tunes

Responsive chanting is very nice; one good singer may lead, and the others may join in. That is the system in India. It is very good for two reasons especially: One, the chanter gets to rest, so he does not become tired, and two, you get to chant and hear, that is the process.

* letter to Hamsaduta dasa and Himavati dasi, March 3, 1968

So far your questions: Any tune can be used. When it is in relationship with Krishna, that makes it bona fide;

* letter to Ekayani, August 31, 1971

Conversation with Allen Ginsburg: The conversation turned to the upcoming program at the Avalon Ballroom.

“Don’t you think there’s a possibility of chanting a tune that would be more appealing to Western ears?” Allen asked.

“Any tune will do,” said Prabhupada. “Melody is not important. What is important is that you chant Hare Krsna. It can be in the tune of your own country. That doesn’t matter.”

* SP Lilamrita

In temple kirtanas, for the pleasure of the Deities devotees should sing specific traditional melodies according to the time of day. A particular melody is appropriate for the morning and another for the evening. At least once Srila Prabhupada stopped a devotee from singing the wrong tune during mangala-arati and said, “Sing the morning tune.” Srila Prabhupada wanted these traditional melodies to be introduced in the West, particularly the Bengali melodies sung in the kirtanas of Lord Caitanya’s day.

* Indradyumna Swami, Harinam Eva Kevalam

Most important is that the melody remains very simple.

* letter to Suresvara dasa, February 3, 1972 / in regards to chanting SB and Bg verses

However, during public engagements it may be difficult for Westerners to respond to traditional Bengali melodies. Srila Prabhupada therefore agreed that other melodies could be sung in such situations.

* Indradyumna Swami, Harinam Eva Kevalam

Another time he told Visnujana that he did not like melodies that had long, extended notes in them. He liked the melody to be filled with the mantra.

* interview with Revati-nandana dasa, Memories, Vol. 1

During the lecture he gave that day he also said, “Don’t harmonize during the response.” The leader may sing little variations, but the group should sing a steady response. One person shouldn’t be singing one melody and another doing another melody during the response. “These things,” he said, “will help one pay more attention to the mantra as one is chanting and dancing. That way one will get the maximum benefit, and the kirtana will also become more ecstatic.”

* interview with Revati-nandana dasa, Memories, Vol. 1

The record which you have sent singing Sri Ram, Jaya Ram, Jaya Jaya Ram, and other Kirtana is really a new turn and we have enjoyed the record so nicely. This Narada Muni song is in your country tune and I think it will attract many more of common man to join the Kirtana so you should practice this standard Kirtana more conveniently so that during your Rathayatra festival you can have this singing with the procession.

* letter to Mukunda, June 6, 1967

What instruments to use

Regarding your question about kirtana, practically we are not concerned with the instruments. They are used sometimes to make it sweeter, but if we divert our attention for using the instruments more, that is not good. Generally kirtana is performed with mrdanga and karatalas, but if somebody is expert instrument player, he can be admitted to join Sankirtana. We can accept everything for Krishna’s service, but not taking the risk of diverting attention to any other thing which will hinder our Krishna Consciousness. That should be our motto, or principle.

* letter to Jadurani, 26 May 1969

My opinion is that it is not necessary for us to utilize these different musical talents for spreading Krsna Consciousness. I would rather see people follow strictly the path of Lord Caitanya and His Sankirtana devotees. We are using mrdanga, karatala, that is enough. We are not musicians. We are Krsna bhaktas. Therefore we do not stress so much importance on these different musical talents. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is God Himself. Had He thought it would have been better to spread Krsna Consciousness by another way He would have done so. But no, simply with mrdanga and karatala, traveling and chanting Hare Krsna, asking everyone to chant Hare Krsna, preaching simply Srimad-Bhagavatam philosophy, this is the process. There is no need for us to try and add anything to this simple method. It will only be a distraction.

* letter to Jagadisa Pandit, 28 December 74

Regarding instruments for temple kirtanas, karatala and mrdanga are sufficient. There is no need of other instruments.

* letter to Rupanuga, 2 February 1975

He didn’t like harmonizing, and he didn’t like melodic instruments during kirtana because the melodies of the instruments would detract from listening to the mantra; although he liked rhythm. Srila Prabhupada said that harmoniums and other melodic instruments are not meant for kirtana, as the ear will follow the music and be diverted from the holy names. Rhythm instruments are good, he said, because they increase the motivation to dance, and dancing in turn invokes devotion.

* Revatinandana Das

You may also have melodious accompaniment instruments, and amplifiers.

* letter to Hamsaduta dasa and Himavati dasi, March 3, 1968

Jhaija (“whompers”) and gongs are not mentioned in Caitanya-caritamrta, but have become accepted in the Bengali kirtana tradition. They were widely used in ISKCON in Srila Prabhupada’s personal presence. Srila Prabhupada often played a gong while chanting Jaya Radha Madhava before class.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

Blowing of the conch shell and horns is very nice.

* letter to Hamsaduta dasa and Himavati dasi, March 3, 1968

You can sing also very nicely, sing also, like songs, with tamboura. It is very nice. (sings:) Cintamani-prakara-sadmasu kalpa, like that, it is very nice. In every temple there should be, one man should play on tamboura and chant. It requires nice pronunciation, and with the sound of tamboura it will be (indistinct). People are coming, offering darsana, and the singing is going on. That is the system in Indian temples. It immediately vibrates.

* Srila Prabhupada, >>> Ref. VedaBase => Charles Darwin

In the early days of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada allowed all kinds of instruments in kirtana. In the first temple at 26 2nd Avenue, guests even played on the innards of an old upright piano There was no mrdanga, so Srila Prabhupada played a bongo drum. This was in accordance with Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s advice: any instrument according to local use. At the Honolulu temple, Srila Prabhupada also participated in kirtanas where the devotees played electric guitars and bass guitars. Even later on, Srila Prabhupada allowed the use of tamboura and other instruments — not in the regular temple kirtanas, but in preaching programs, festivals, etc., as an attraction for the public: “Sometimes we do use [other instruments] to attract, but it is not required.”

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana / Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta II. 146 /


The harmonium may be played during bhajan if there is someone who can play melodiously. But it is not for kirtana and arati.

* letter to Bahudak, 11 January 76

When such [public] kirtana will be demonstrated, only the harmonium player may sit, and all the others may stand up and join the kirtana and dancing properly dressed.

* letter to Hamsaduta dasa, February 4, 1968

Mrdanga playing

With regard to your question about Bengali style kirtana and mrdanga playing, one or two styles is best. To introduce more styles is not good. It will become an encumbrance. Who is that Krsna das Babaji who is teaching? If we introduce so much emphasis on style of kirtana, then simply imitation will go on. Devotional emotion is the main thing. If we give stress to instrument and style then attention will be diverted to the style. That will be spiritual loss.

* letter to Satvarupa, 30 June 1976

He said that rhythm instruments are good for kirtana because they make one more inclined to dance, and dancing, in turn, unlocks devotion…

* interview with Revati-nandana dasa, Memories, Vol. 1

Now, here, the bhakti-yoga system is that if you stick to the hearing of Hare Krsna and the music, melodious music of kohl, karatala, then naturally you become detest full for hearing other songs…

* BG 4.1 — Montreal, August 24, 1968

Bhaktivinoda Thakura sings, mrdanga vadya, sunite mana/ abasara sada yace: “I always desire to hear the sound of the mrdanga.” Srila Prabhupada also advised his disciples to hold mrdanga concerts.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana / refering to Letter to: Dvarakesa, 29 September, 1976

Karatala and others

Srila Prabhupada taught and usually played a simple 1-2-3, although he did sometimes play a slightly more complex rhythm.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

Memories from Prabhupada’s times

We had a kirtana at the Rama-lila grounds, 1976 March, and Dinanatha was leading, and tens of thousands were attending and chanting. After the program Srila Prabhupada and I were alone in the back tent waiting for his servant and the car. As you know, he would often ask rhetorical questions, and he asked me, “So, what did you think of the kirtana?” Understanding this was just a lead-in to his giving me an instruction, I answered with a bland “It was OK.” Srila Prabhupada’s definition to me then was as follows: “No, it was not nice. It was clanging and banging. Kirtana should be sweet and melodious. Come let us go to the ashram and have kirtana.”

And so we went — Srila Prabhupada, his servant, Baradraj, and myself. Except for his servant, the three of us sat in his room and Baradraj played harmonium on the request of Srila Prabhupada, and we had a long kirtana… On Srila Prabhupada’s signal, the kirtana ended. He looked at me, smiling, shaking his head a little, and said, “So… sweet and melodious.” And then he moved on with the rest of preaching and hearing. I had heard him say, and heard that he also said, sometimes stopping kirtana, “No screaming and shouting.”

* Tejiyas dasa, remembrance, 12 Nov 2002

Vaisnava songs and mantras other than the maha-mantra

The devotees had seen in second volume of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam, there was a verse and a purport. In the purport, it was written in verse form, it was names of Krishna. He Krishna Govinda Hari Murari, He Natha Narayana Vasudeva. In the purport, Prabhupada was explaining that Krishna is all of those in one. So we thought this was a mantra of some kind and they were obviously names of Krishna, so we started chanting it. We put it to music, of course, with all the various instruments, and we were singing it… it was kind of like a hootenanny. We were really having a ball chanting this new… because this was at the beginning when there were not very many mantras other than Hare Krishna. So we were singing this and having a great time. When Prabhupada arrived, we all bowed down and paid obeisances and he got on the vyasasana and he spoke to us and said, “Oh, who has given you this mantra?” Somebody said, “Oh, we saw this in your Bhagavatam, Prabhupada.” He said, “This should not be chanted.” He said, “This is not bona fide.” And we were just… talk about thunderstruck! We were so bewildered. He proceeded to explain. He said that “Even they are names of Krishna, unless the mantra is given by the disciplic succession it shouldn’t be chanted, even though they are names of Krishna.” And there’s a verse like that saying that it has to come from the sampradaya. So right after that, then he said, “Oh, so you want another mantra to chant?” And everybody just spontaneously said, “Yes!” and everybody kind of cheered. So he started singing jaya sri-krsna-caitanya prabhu nityananda, sri-advaita gadadhara srivasadi-gaura-bhakta-vrnda, and then he introduced it in kirtan.

Remembering Srila Prabhupada: Madhusudana das

Yamuna: Mumbai, 1970: One morning soon after arriving at Kailash Seksaria’s home, Śrīla Prabhupāda called on a male devotee to lead kirtana. After two lines of Gurv-aṣṭaka, he asked him to stop and asked another devotee to lead. This same thing happened twice again. Then he asked me to lead and did not stop me. When I asked him later about why he did that, he said: Learn to listen. You cannot follow nicely unless you hear nicely and you cannot lead nicely unless you have learned to follow nicely.

Yamuna: In August 1968 in Montreal, Śrīla Prabhupāda had our London group meet with him in the temple room after breakfast. One occasion when he requested me to lead the Maṅgalācaraṇaṁ prayers he interrupted my singing to correct my pronunciation as I chanted. Another time in Mumbai in 1971 on nagar saṅkīrtana, an Indian man criticized my pronunciation and Śrīla Prabhupāda said, “She is doing to the best of her ability. She is doing it in her own way.”

Yamuna: In London in November of 1969 this was evident especially in store-front temples where our neighbors complained of excessive ‘noise’.

Right from the vyāsāsana, he would quietly instruct: Play them softly, quietly. This proved to be difficult for the mostly passionate 20-something devotees at that time—most who generally felt the louder the better.

2. Early days with Srila Prabhupada

Early days

Prabhupada’s kirtanas were lively and captivating, with numerous guests spontaneously rising to their feet, clapping and dancing. Srila Prabhupada, always conducting the kirtana in call-and-response fashion and playing a small African bongo-like drum, would accelerate the chant faster and faster, until after about half an hour it would reach a climax and suddenly end. Chanting along with Srila Prabhupada in this small room on Second Avenue, guests found themselves transported into another dimension, a spiritual dimension, in which the anxieties and pressures of everyday life in New York City simply did not exist. Many soon caught on that chanting Hare Krsna was an intense and effective form of meditation, a direct means of communion with something greater than themselves, no matter what their conception of the Absolute.

Chant and Be Happy – Chapter 3

Indeed, in the early recordings of Srila Prabhupada chanting Hare Krsna in New York, we hear Prabhupada repeatedly chanting a simple melody of only four notes. Although Srila Prabhupada was a competent musician, he deliberately introduced a simple style of kirtana in ISKCON so that everybody could join in without difficulty. Even much later in his pastimes, Srila Prabhupada instructed his disciples not to introduce too many different styles of kirtana, lest it detract from the devotional essence.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

Yamuna: In San Francisco in ’67 and ’68: Śrīla Prabhupāda’s are classic favorites. Those early kīrtanas were non-responsive. In the temple, his congregation of chanters played instruments softly, while Śrīla Prabhupāda mostly played his karatālas and chanted alone. When the rhythm was established, he chanted through an entire prayer – most commonly Maṅgalācaraṇaṁ prayer or Gurv-aṣṭaka prayer—and after finishing, chanted Hare Kṛṣṇa and then the congregation chanted along with him. Nothing quite matches up to the power, purity, or potency of those kīrtanas, where often the entire congregation was tearfully appreciative. During this period, he introduced responsive kīrtanas.

Yamuna: When Śrīla Prabhupāda led kīrtana, he opened sound windows to the spiritual world. It was obvious that his senses and mind were fully focused on transcendental sound. He often closed his eyes at the beginning of a prayer or kīrtana, later, when the beat increased or after some time, he often times opened them to observe his surroundings or the assembled chanters. This was especially true during longkīrtanas.

In temple kīrtanas, he favored playing karatālas or a gong. When alone or with one or two others, when chanting Narottama or Bhaktivinoda’s prayers, he enjoyed playing mṛdaṅga or harmonium. Śrīla Prabhupāda played instruments with expertise, and in a very individual distinct way, whether it was karatālas, gong, bongo drum, mṛdaṅga, or harmonium. His harmonium playing was like no one else’s I have ever heard. He said he asked his father for a harmonium when young, and he obtained one for him. At that time, harmonium was considered a European instrument, not a temple kīrtana instrument.

No matter what he played, instruments were there to support kīrtana. They always took second place to the role of his voice. In other words, his voice was the main dominant kīrtana instrument.

So you can hear him. His fingers walk on the drum. People speak of Olantunji and his walking drums. Prabhupada’s drum talks from his walking fingers (tick-tick-tick, tick-tick-tick, one two, one two three four, one two). It’s a simple thing he’s got going with his fingers on the drum, accentuating his walking beat, along with his own singing and the karatalas and tamboura. It seemed that sometimes he played it strictly, like a metronome’s measured beats. But sometimes it was uneven, more human-like, hitting his fingers in rougher beats. None of it was very fast. He played that drum to accompany his own singing. I thought, “Gee, he’s over seventy years old and thumping on that drum to his own singing.” Yes, you could come to the storefront just to hear him play the drum. Of course, he had a lot more to give than that – Lord Caitanya’s philosophy, Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna, the Hare Krsna mantra.

The drum is for kirtana. You chant over the drum, but still you can be fascinated by hearing Prabhupada’s very simple fingers walking on the head of that brownish and already worn bongo head. There will never be anything like it, even now that we have many accomplished mrdanga players in ISKCON. Nobody plays a bongo drum like Prabhupada did – simulating a mrdanga and yet not simulating a mrdanga. Just playing on that little drum.

Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami – Prabhupada Meditations

And his voice, it was not velvety smooth like cream, but a little rough, some grating there. Not unpleasant, but a man is a little bit rough. Like a man at the end of the day with a stubble of beard, or the way a leader of men is sometimes a little rough in his speech. It is an appealing roughness that comes from working and from singing, not a pampered, delicate thing. An old man’s singing. And not a “man” – but an aged, pure devotee. His singing has its own appeal. It goes along with the drum, the uneven finger beat, and the rough voice. We were entranced by these things, almost hypnotized by each thing he added.

Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami – Prabhupada Meditations

Tompkins Square Park

On October 9, 1966, Prabhupada and his followers sat beneath this tree and held the first outdoor chanting session outside of India. Participants chanted for two hours as they danced and played cymbals, tambourines, and other percussive instruments; the event is recognized as the founding of the Hare Krishna religion in the United States. Prabhupada’s diverse group that day included Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997). Krishna adherents continue to return to the tree to acknowledge its significance.

The Sunday afternoon kirtans in Tompkins Square Park had become legendary. They began in October 1966. We got permission from the Department of Parks to hold a kirtana every Sunday for three hours in the afternoon. Some of the devotees would go there before Prabhupada arrived. We set out a large oriental rug and a harmonium, sat down, and began chanting Hare Krsna. […] Then Srila Prabhupada arrived with a few devotees. He walked the blocks from the temple to the park, which was about a ten-minute walk. Then he sat down and joined us. He played drum himself, and he chanted Hare Krsna for at least an hour. The rhythms would rise and fall like the waves in the ocean, and we would rise and fall with them. He would lead, we would respond, and then he would lead again. […] Srila Prabhupada’s voice was strong. He kept the same tune, and we kept chanting as if we would never stop: Hare Krsna Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare. […] After speaking briefly, Prabhupada again led the kirtana with his drum.

Satsvarupa Dasa Gosvami – Prabhupada-lila: Around the World 1967-1969 & 1972-195

One thing I noticed from the wonderful new Prabhupada videos by Yadubar Prabhu et al, was how inept some of the early devotee musicians were in the early kirtans, for example in what I think was Thompkins Square Park in the ’60s. Someone was mindlessly blowing random notes on a recorder, the harmonium was used as a drone instrument with just one key being held down, etc. We’ve come a long way baby.

* Akruranatha das Dandavats Comment, June 11th, 2007

There were many potentially awkward moments for Srila Prabhupada as he began conducting his movement in America. When wild people came into the storefront and played musical instruments, Prabhupada had to handle it delicately. We rejoice now in recalling how he was so tolerant. And yet those “psychedelic” kirtanas were not really as pleasing to the pure devotee as kirtanas without electric guitars or banging on the wires of the piano. While Prabhupada had some control over events within the storefront, it was more uncontrolled when we went to chant outside in Tompkins Square Park. When someone joined your kirtana by blowing loudly on a saxophone, it was not easy to tell him to go away. But Prabhupada always seemed to know best how to get through such situations.

Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami – Prabhupada Meditations page 118

We sat with him on the rug, inside his world, which he had created within the “big” world of Tompkins Square Park.

I told about the Ukranians, Polish, old people, and younger Puerto Ricans who lived in that neighborhood, and the middle-class American hippies who had come from different parts of the country to live there. The hippies came around with flutes and drums and guitars. Prabhupada sang strongly for an hour and a half, gave a little speech, and then sang again. Then we walked back to the storefront.

Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami – Prabhupada Meditations page 200

We spread a carpet beneath a large oak in the center of the park. Then we form a circle around Swamiji, who takes up a small bongo drum and begins leading the chanting. At first, the crowd greets us with cold indifference but soon warms up as the words of the mantra become more familiar. Swamiji pounds the drum tirelessly. Thirty minutes pass, an hour. Elderly Polish and Ukranian residents stare dumbfounded, then walk away grumbling. Soon more people stand around us and press forward to better see Swamiji. Stryadhisa and I clash cymbals, and Kirtanananda plays the harmonium given by Ginsberg. Someone brings a tamboura, but it is drowned out in the din. Puerto Rican kids run over from the playground, stare with wide eyes, then laugh happily. A jet booms overhead. The Good Humor man gravitates toward us, ringing his ice cream bells. Acyutananda, Brahmananda, and Greg dance in a circle, and the more venturesome spectators join in the chant.

After a long kirtan, Swamiji begins to give a talk, but since the people can hardly hear him, he takes up the drum and starts chanting again. A little boy throws an egg at Rayarama and runs. Our voices begin to grow hoarse, and I wonder how long Swamiji will last. But his voice seems even stronger after the second hour. As he chants, his brow furrows in concentration, and veins stand out on his neck. “Hare Krishna! Krishna! Krishna! Hare Hare!” Allen Ginsberg joins, shaking his head rhythmically and playing finger cymbals.


Hare Rama, Hare Rama,” we reply. “Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” A Negro joins in with a saxophone. Someone comes with a bass drum. Tambourines rattle, and people start getting up to dance. To our surprise and happiness, Swamiji’s park kirtan begins to turn into a joyous celebration, an open party for the Lower East Side.

Hayagriva das – The Hare Krishna Explosion, Chapter 5

To San Francisco and beyond

Early in 1967, several of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples left New York and opened a temple in the heart of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. […] Sunday, January 29, 1967 marked the major spiritual event of the San Francisco hippy era, and Srila Prabhupada, who was ready to go anywhere to spread Krsna consciousness, was there. […] Within a few months of the Mantra-Rock event, devotees in San Francisco, New York, and Montreal began to take to the streets with their mrdangas (clay drums) and karatalas (hand cymbals) to chant the maha-mantra on a daily basis. […]

On May 31, 1969, when the Vietnam war protest movement was reaching its climax, six devotees joined John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their Montreal hotel room to play instruments and sing on John and Yoko’s famous recording “Give Peace a Chance.” This song, which included the mantra, and a hit single, “The Hare Krishna Mantra,” produced in September of the same year by Beatle George Harrison and featuring the devotees, introduced millions to the chanting. Even Broadway’s long-running musical hit Hair included exuberant choruses of the Hare Krsna mantra.

At the now historic mass antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1969, devotees from all over the United States and Canada chanted the Hare Krsna mantra throughout the day and distributed “The Peace Formula,” a small leaflet based on Srila Prabhupada’s teachings from the Vedic scriptures. “The Peace Formula,” which proposed a spiritual solution to the problem of war, was distributed en masse for many months and influenced thousands of lives.

Chant and Be Happy – Chapter 3

It was a new singsong chant, nothing at all like the morning and evening ragas that Srila Prabhupada had introduced. This was an American version for sure: horns blared, drums boomed, and cymbals clanged; it was a festive party sound. Some of the New York devotees were aghast; after hearing the tape through, Srila Prabhupada smiled broadly and expressed his appreciation: “Oh, they have done nicely. Very nice. They are chanting so enthusiastically”. One of the tape bearers protested the modern unauthentic sound. Srila Prabhupada drowned him out. It was, in his opinion, wonderful. He sent a message to San Francisco to let them know he loved their kirtan tape and to go on chanting. Srila Prabhupada then said: “They are chanting Hare Krsna, that is the main thing. It may be this tune or that tune, doesn’t matter – this way or that, but they are sincerely chanting. That is what Krsna wants”.

* SP Nectar – story #6 Wild kirtans

Records with Srila Prabhupada

Krishna Consciousness (1966 December)

This is the cover of the first long-playing record made by the Hare Krishna movement. A man named Alan Kallman and his wife came to an evening kirtana at 26 Second Avenue in 1966, and he was impressed with the kirtana. He was a producer of records, and he thought the kirtana had the potential for a selling record. He went to see Swamiji to talk about it. Prabhupada talked over the financial conditions of how much we would get for it, and he was satisfied. I forget the terms of the contract, but we would buy the record at a low price and sell it ourselves. The recording evening was a wonderful event. About a dozen of us went with Prabhupada to a studio around 42nd St. and Times Square. Before we went into the studio, we had a marching harinama around Times Square, with Hayagriva playing our big bass drum and some of us playing karatalas. In the studio a rock band just finished playing, and as the young men came out they asked us what was the name of our group. Hayagriva said we were the “Hare Krishna Chanters.” We practiced chanting with the studio engineer. He thought we had too many karatalas, and he reduced them and gave us some sticks to play. Prabhupada played a big wooden khol which a friend of the movement had lent him. After about fifteen minutes of practice, we cut the record just one time through. Prabhupada led with a few prayers and then led the Hare Krishna mantra, and we joined in chorus. It was a thrill singing with him in those conditions. The Hare Krishna mantra lasted about 12 minutes, and then they stopped it. Then they recorded a second side of the record. Prabhupada sang by himself Samsara-dava-nala-lidha-loka (Guruvastakam), with Kirtanananda playing the harmonium as a drone. He also spoke an introduction to the mantra. The engineers played the recording out loud in the studio. We were so happy, we all got up and danced to the music.

The artwork was done by an artist at “Happening Records.” It had a nice photo of Prabhupada on the back. He liked it and said, “A swami should look philosophical.” There was a long delay in Mr. Kallman producing the record, which strained his relationship with Prabhupada, but when it finally came out it was worth it. We sold all the records, and many people got to hear the Hare Krishna mantra. The Beatles got a copy and liked it very much. It was our last commercial record, and a disciple named Dinesh produced the second LP, Vande ’Ham, with a sitar player from the Ali Akbar School of Music. That record featured Srila Prabhupada singing “The Prayer of the Six Goswamis,” but nothing ever matched going to Times Square with Srila Prabhupada and recording the first Hare Krishna album. The swami’s voice was strong, and his khol-playing was expert. Our chorus was pretty good too. Ravindra Svarupa heard the recording at a friends and thought it was a “timeless experience.”

(Satsvarupa das Gosvami)

Interestingly, the night before the recording session, scheduled for two weeks after this initial meeting, in December, a guest walks in to 26 Second Avenue with a wooden percussive instrument resembling a mridanga, the two-headed clay drum used in Vaishnava kirtanas. Although common at Hare Krishna temples today, at the time it was unknown among Prabhupada’s followers.

As the kirtana is about to begin, Prabhupada notices it from his dais. His eyes open wide, and he gestures to Brahmananda to approach the young man with the drum and bring it to him, which he does. In a few moments, immersed in the kirtana, Prabhupada is playing like a master musician, and the devotees are enthralled—this is a side of their guru they had not seen before.

We must have this drum for tomorrow’s recording,” says Prabhupada, and Brahmananda convinces the instrument’s owner to leave it with them for the recording session. [This is only one small and interesting part of a very detailed description on this web page.]

Mridanga lessons

There’s a tape available from the Bhaktivedanta Archives of Srila Prabhupada giving a mrdanga lesson.

3. First kirtana leaders, musicians

Vishnujana Swami

Vishnujana was especially well known within ISKCON for his singing voice, and skill at playing instruments, such as the harmonium and mridanga. Musical recordings of Vishunjana would later be released in 1995 and are popularly sold within ISKCON.

By 1973, Vishnujana Swami headed up a team of devotees traveling on a bus across the USA which became famous within ISKCON as one of its most successful preaching parties. The team was named after the deities which travelled with them in the bus, called Radha-Damodara. This bus, filled with ISKCON devotees, would travel from city to city, performing sankirtan, and distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books. Vishujana Swami continued travelling with the Sankirtan Party in this way until 1976.

Tamal Krishna: He was an amazing musician. He had the inside of a piano—the guts of a piano—which he had mounted on a wall. He used to play it like a harp—the most celestial sounds. Whenever he would play, I would think this person is coming from the heavens. I have never heard anyone else play music like that. He could just endlessly create the most beautiful melodies, celestial melodies. It was similar to the music of the day, but the best music I ever heard. Very mode of goodness. Not passion. The way he would play a guitar was also amazing. It didn’t sound like an ordinary electric guitar, more like a harp or something. He was hearing sounds that I had never heard. They were not part of jazz, nor classical music, nor rock. They were different sounds completely. That’s the impression I always had of his music.

Being a musician, he expertly arranged the holes of the flutes so that anyone could easily play the Hare Krishna melody. Throughout the day he would dance up and down Haight Street, piping Hare Krishna to the delight of all the hippies.

Early days

Upendra: He was very intensely painting, but then he’d start chanting, and he’d start painting off the border of the molding. He chanted all the time. It seemed to me at the time, that he was always chanting so intensely that he couldn’t give his attention to anything else he was doing. They had to stop him from driving. The devotees used to take turns driving our vehicle, but when Vishnujana drove he started chanting to the distraction of his driving. So he wasn’t allowed to drive.

Summer, 1968

Tamal Krishna: A decision was made to organize a sankirtana party. At first Vishnujana was proposed as the leader because he was the best musician and singer. But I voiced my protest that his attention should not be diverted from leading the kirtan, that I would manage the party instead.

Yamuna devi dasi: I led the kirtan in the van and when we got there, we all took turns leading the kirtan. There’s a picture of Vishnujana, Tamal Krishna, and I on that first kirtan. I recall that it was at Fisherman’s Wharf, and we had a microphone. It was our first sankirtana out together. Vishnujana and I used to lead kirtans. In those days we didn’t have kirtan luminaries. It was a sharing; whoever wanted to grab the microphone. All of us led kirtan, and Vishnujana’s were relishable. We chanted together for several months, and I can just remember his stamina. He had really intense stamina for drumming for many hours.

Gurudasa: In those days, the main thing that was going on was chanting. Long kirtans. I was impressed with Vishnujana’s sincerity. He really loved kirtan and displayed musical feelings that were the early signs of devotion.

Later on as a sannyasi

The soulful sankirtan of Shri Vishnujana Maharaja illuminated the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and then across the States, from the earliest days of Krishna consciousness. […] Srila Prabhupada, who by his mystic potency sometimes appeared more as a member of ISKCON than the exalted founder-acharya, also expressed a desire to spend a week traveling with the bus party led by Vishnujana Swami.

Patita Pavana prabhu / H.H. Suhotra Maharaja:

Vishnujana Performing Harinama Sankirtana 8-10 Hours Daily!

[…] As the devotees stand along the street near the corner bus stop, Vishnujana begins plucking his tamboura in an ancient drone, chanting the guru-pranama mantras before leading into the kirtan. The devotees chant in response, and some begin collecting change with their conch shells. Soon the ecstatic chanting and dancing attracts the otherwise preoccupied shoppers in downtown Los Angeles. Thousands of persons get the benefit of hearing Lord Krishna’s Holy Name. As Vishnujana sways back and forth, singing so melodiously with the tamboura, the devotees are reminded of the painting back at the temple of Narada Muni playing his transcendental vina. Vishnujana is so attractive that people stop to watch, and devotees approach them with BTGs and invitations to the Sunday Love Feast.

As the kirtan gets going, Vishnujana switches to mrdanga. Though he always wears gloves to protect his hands, after three or four hours of continuous playing they begin to bleed. But he just continues chanting all afternoon, beating away incessantly on the drum as if in a trance. Even when it rains, he carries on chanting and the devotees chant along with him.

From time to time he stops to preach to the crowd. Occasionally, he calls the devotees together to tell them Krishna stories or to talk about Prabhupada. He brings his festive mood to a very obnoxious place, downtown LA, but due to the presence of the Holy Name the atmosphere is immediately spiritualized.

Most devotees spend at least some time distributing magazines, but Vishnujana just chants all day. Whenever he does take a break to distribute magazines the mood of the kirtan changes, so he is always asked to chant. The distribution goes a lot easier when he’s chanting. Revatinandana leads the party in BTG sales with 12-15 each day. That’s considered big for one devotee.

[…] Around five o’clock the party heads back to the temple, where everybody showers and gets ready for sundara-drati. Vishnujana sings one or both of the kirtans for the evening program. Devotees prefer him leading. Revatinandana gets to lead occasionally. Sudama also leads from time to time. Even Tamal leads sometimes. Madhudvisa leads kirtan whenever he can get a chance to do it, but mostly Vishnujana leads because everybody wants him to.

Vaiyasaki Dasa Adhikari – Radha-Damodar Vilasa

Srila Prabhupada and Visnujana Swami

About Vishnujana Swami Shrila Prabhupada said, “By his singing alone, he can go back to Godhead.”

Patita Pavana prabhu / H.H. Suhotra Maharaja:

Srila Prabhupada was said he sung like a “gandharva” (celestial musician), and that “he can make the whole world chant Hare Krishna”. Srila Prabhupada loved his kirtans and often expressed appreciation for their purity and also his musical skill.

There was a story around the LA temple. Tamal Krishna was such an organizer that he organized very nicely the first big kirtan parties in LA with Vishnujana leading. But Tamal wanted everybody to go out with the conch shell and collect money. Vishnujana would never collect. He only wanted to lead kirtan. When Prabhupada came, Tamal went to see him and complained, “Vishnujana won’t collect, Srila Prabhupada, he only wants to chant.” Prabhupada leaned back and smiled, “Yes, he has achieved liberation simply by chanting.” That was the end of Tamal’s plan to get Vishnujana to collect money. And it was kind of like that, Vishnujana didn’t think about money.

Vaiyasaki Dasa Adhikari – Radha-Damodar Vilasa

New Vrindavan, 1972

Satyanarayana: Then the magic began to happen. The kirtan seemed to flow up over the stage from Bharadraja’s lead to Vishnujana’s lead. Vishnujana, playing mridanga near Prabhupada, took over the lead, carefully and lovingly developing the Hare Krishna mantra more and more, encouraged by Srila Prabhupada, who had by then closed his eyes and was beginning to rock his head from side to side, an intense expression coming over his face. As the chanting increased in intensity, Prabhupada’s whole body soon started rocking from side to side, his kartals crashing together with force…

Radhanath: The kirtan was so sweet and so full of bhakti. Vishnujana Maharaja was singing with such feeling, playing mridanga right in front of Prabhupada. Everyone in the audience felt so happy to be with Prabhupada and Vishnujana Maharaja, in the association of all the other devotees. It was such a wonderful kirtan that it appeared to me that Prabhupada could not contain himself. Out of love for his devotees—to reciprocate with joy—he took over the kirtan. When Prabhupada took over, the kirtan increased thousands of steps. No one had seen Prabhupada do that before. He didn’t get up, he just sat on his vyasasana and sang while Vishnujana Maharaja was dancing and jumping and playing mridanga.

Satyanarayana: Srila Prabhupada, clearly overwhelmed with pure and uncontrollable love of Krishna, with eyes tightly closed and crashing the kartals madly, interrupted Vishnujana at the crescendo of his chanting. Prabhupada seemed to have no choice. He had to take the lead away from Vishnujana, and began chanting Hare Krishna so strongly, and so beautifully. Then he began crying. He tried to chant through his tears. Prabhupada couldn’t hold himself back. Everyone went mad. They began screaming and crying because it was such ecstasy…

During this period the famous Paramount studio kirtans (The Vishnujana kirtan with Prabhupada playing mrdangas is on the CD: “ISKCON Classics—Vishnujana Swami Kirtans”) are recorded. Prabhupada had written Vishnujana Maharaja, “When I return to LA, I may call you back just to hear your chanting of Hare Krishna mantra,” and at the studio Srila Prabhupada picks up the mridanga in order to accompany his disciple and pushes Vishnujana Swami forward to lead the kirtan.

Bahulasva das: To see Vishnujan and Srila Prabhupada was the most wonderful thing to watch. Of course, everybody wanted to have Prabhupada lead kirtan when Prabhupada was there, but Srila Prabhupada would always want Vishnujan to lead kirtan. And when they would look at each other, you’d start crying sometimes just to see Prabhupada and Vishnujan looking at each other. There was just so much love the way Prabhupada would look at him. You never saw anybody ever look at anybody like that. Vishnujan would always be emotional and get teary-eyed.

Composing melodies

Being a musically talented person, Vishnujana would invent melodies for the mahamantra. Once Shrila Prabhupada saw him composing a melody at the harmonium. “And what is wrong with my melodies?” His Divine Grace demanded.

Patita Pavana prabhu / H.H. Suhotra Maharaja:

[Los Angeles – January, 1969] For the last month, Prabhupada has been regularly teaching the devotees all the standard songs of the Vaisnava Acharyas. Visnujana is particularly interested in these songs, and they enter deep into his heart. They will become the life and soul of his preaching before long. Srila Prabhupada encourages him and offers to teach him the proper way to play harmonium. The arrangement is that for every new bhajan that Visnujana learns, Prabhupada will give another harmonium lesson.

Understanding Visnujana’s musical talents, Prabhupada gives him the words to a song by Narottama dasa Thakur, Vrndavana ramya sthana, and asks him to compose a melody that his countrymen will like. Visnujana is excited by this service, and the next day he informs His Divine Grace that he already has a melody for the song. Prabhupada asks Visnujana to come by his room and sing the new melody. After hearing Visnujana sing the bhajan, Prabhupada is greatly pleased. He thanks him for the beautiful melody and authorizes him to compose other melodies for the devotees to chant. No other devotee has this authority.

[…] Today, January 16, 1969, Prabhupada finishes the last song that he will teach: Parama Karuna by Lochan dasa Thakur. Dinesh carefully records his spiritual master singing all these bhajans. He has flown out to LA from the East Coast especially to do this service. Prabhupada also has Dinesh record Visnujana singing Vande ’ham and Hare Krsna while Prabhupada plays the mrdanga. Singing the ancient Sanskrit prayers, Visnujana deeply meditates on his spiritual master sitting before him accompanying him on mrdanga. It is at this point, some say, that Prabhupada transfers the kirtan to the first generation of Westerners.

Meanwhile, as Prabhupada tours the East Coast temples, he likes to listen to the recording of Vishnujana that he carries with him. He also likes to play it for the devotees.

Vaiyasaki Dasa Adhikari – Radha-Damodar Vilasa

Many bhajanas are traditionally sung to specific tunes that in many cases are different to the tunes widely known in ISKCON. Many of the tunes known in ISKCON in the West were composed by Visnujana Swami at Srila Prabhupada’s behest.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

The Transcendental Road Show

San Antonio, February 1972: Srila Prabhupada is encouraging the Road Show. He had requested Vishnujana Swami to join earlier, partly to fulfill his own dream many years ago while still in India. One of the reasons Radha-Damodara are traveling is to fulfill that desire of Their pure devotee.

“The moving sankirtan party was programmed long, long ago, even when I was in India. When there was talk about preaching amongst our god-brothers, I used to say to my god-brothers that when I would begin preaching I shall take two trucks, one for sankirtan party and one for carrying requisites, and I would go from village to village throughout the whole world preaching Lord Chaitanya’s message”.

Letter to Rupanuga, April 27, 1970

New Orleans, Louisiana, February 1972: Everyone is so pleased with Vishnujana and his service to the Deities. Meanwhile, Maharaja remains busy revising the show with Aja and making suggestions to improve the overall presentation. Vishnujana and Aja realize that the show doesn’t have a theme and is somewhat of a disjointed concept, more along the lines of a cabaret with folky songs, skits in between, and ending up with a kirtan. Vishnujana Maharaja has brought all his props from San Antonio, so he introduces the Mrgari play first, which the devotees pantomime to his narration.

From the very first moment, Vishnujana has become completely and overwhelmingly absorbed in Radha Damodara and now wants to organize the entire show around Them.

Vishnujana and Aja want to turn the present show into a rock opera, with a story-line and songs that present Krishna consciousness in a popular medium. The show is renamed “First Transcendental Exposition.” Vishnujana’s vision is to have a transcendental, multi-media extravaganza for the senses, with drama, music, songs, a light show, and a slide show, where devotees can simultaneously explain the philosophy of Krishna consciousness and distribute books, magazines, and prasadam.

Atlanta, April 15, 1972: Because the Road Show is an odd entity, most temple presidents have their reservations. Playing rock’n’roll is considered over the top. But the Road Show is based on Kirtanananda’s relationship with Prabhupada, who is encouraging him. The program is starting to get big, starting to have some good results, and Prabhupada is excited about it.

Pittsburgh, September 8, 1972: The Road Show is cooking, and everything is organized. Performing the Rock Opera for Prabhupada is their most important engagement, highlighting a year’s work of traveling and refining the show. All the actors and musicians are excited to perform for their spiritual master.

Nanda Kumar: I was sitting one row in front of Prabhupada, over to the side, and I wondered, what does Prabhupada think of this heavy music? I turned around, and Prabhupada was sitting there with a big smile on his face, tapping his knee, keeping time. So he really appreciated it. He saw that through the music, the preaching was going on.

Srila Prabhupada was pleased to see devotees trying hard to project Krishna consciousness, and that so many people were attracted. He gave his blessings to the Rock Opera preaching concept and encouraged other devotees to participate. He reveals his mind in the following letter, written ten days after seeing the show:

These kinds of dramas about Krishna, Krishna’s pastimes, and also Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes, are very much desirable for presenting to the public widely. So if you can organize your traveling party to present such dramas all over your country, and other places, that will be very much appreciated. Perhaps you can work together with Vishnujana for presenting our Road Show Opera to the public also. I had the opportunity to see that opera in Pittsburgh, and it was very well done, with a lot of drama and dancing as well.”

Letter to Nayanabhirama, September 18, 1972

New York, October 1972: The Broadway producer who saw the show in Boston arrives at the Brooklyn temple one afternoon for a meeting with Toshan Krishna, Bali Mardan Goswami, and Sudama Goswami. After sampling some prasadam, he explains that the show’s success has attracted the attention of important Broadway people. They believe the Hare Krishna rock opera might have a successful run like Jesus Christ Superstar, currently the hottest show on Broadway. He emphasizes the need for a few “minor” revisions to customize it for a Broadway audience. He acknowledges that it’s a great rock opera in and of itself, and he knows that the Hare Krishna mantra is already in another show, Hair, but he is not convinced that deity worship fits the concept of a Broadway act.

Sudama and Bali are willing to make concessions in order to get the show on Broadway. They agree that certain revisions are feasible to make the show more sophisticated, more in accord with what the producer says will work. They believe that Prabhupada will be pleased with a major Broadway production.

That evening the Road Show managers meet to discuss the future. The question is whether to develop the entertainment side for a Broadway run or to retain the original format as a preaching vehicle for schools and colleges. Hearing the proposed changes, Vishnujana Maharaja voices his displeasure. He is an integral part of the project, and his concept is to preach in all the cities and towns as desired by Lord Chaitanya.

Together, Sudama and Bali take over the project and revamp it for theatrical success. Their idea is that Vishnujana Swami should be replaced with Sudama. They don’t consider Vishnujana a good manager anyway, and he’s already voicing his displeasure about the new direction that the show needs to take.

As the presentation veers off-center from its original concept, it finally reaches the point where Sri-Sri Radha-Damodara are taken out of the show. This eliminates the arati segment as well. No one in the cast is happy about this decision. Some see the change as the harbinger of disaster. It’s obvious that the emphasis is now more on performing and less on preaching.

Vishnujana sadly recognizes that he can no longer be part of this project where the leaders are placing Broadway fame above humble service to Radha-Damodara. Maharaja envisions a totally different concept dedicated to pure preaching. After due consideration, he decides to leave the show and carefully chooses the brahmacaris to help him form a new party.

After dressing Radha-Damodara early the next morning, Vishnujana shifts the altar and palanquin from the temple bus to the ashram bus. It’s a practical choice because the temple bus has no storage facilities.

Maharaja gathers his crew, headed by Dayal Chandra because no traveling program can survive without an expert mechanic on board. The newly acquired Suhotra will be the book distribution leader, assisted by Sri Vallabha. Hasyagrami, Sankarshan, and Vishnudatta are musically inclined and will be enthusiastic kirtaniyas.

These brahmacaris happily accept Vishnujana’s decision to leave because he has their love and respect. Vishnujana tells his men, “Let Sudama have the theater. I’ll take the Deities.” He’s happy to give the show to Bali and Sudama. “They can have the money and I’ll take Krishna.”

My dear Sudama,

I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated October 27, 1972, and I have noted the contents carefully. So far the Road Show and this Yoga Village are concerned, these things should be stopped. Simply perform our kirtan. If we divert our attention in this way, the whole thing will gradually deteriorate. He is going far away. All these things are nonsense inventions. Such inventing spirit will ruin this movement. People may come to see, some will become devotees, but such devotees will not stay because they are attracted by some show and not by the real thing or spiritual life according to the standard of Lord Chaitanya.

Our standard is to have kirtan and start temples. What is this “Road Show” and “Yoga Village?” It will be another hippie edition. Gradually the Krishna consciousness idea will evaporate: another change, another change, every day another change. Stop all this. Simply have kirtan, nothing else. Don’t manufacture ideas”.

Letter to Sudama, November 5, 1972

Upon reading the letter, Vishnujana immediately surrenders to Prabhupada’s instruction.

“Jaya! Now we’ll just travel and preach and distribute Prabhupada’s books.”

Radha-Damodara Travelling Sankirtana Party

Started with a half-dozen brahmacaris. There was Narada Muni Prabhu, Vishnudatta Prabhu, Dayal Chandra Prabhu, Sri Ballabha Prabhu, Patatriraja Prabhu, Hasyagrami Prabhu, and Jamadagni Prabhu. Soon Jamadagni left, while Aja, Riksharaja and Sri Galim Prabhus joined. During the two years I was with the RD TSKP, these devotees–and of course Maharaja and myself–made up the nucleus of the party. Bhakta Marty from Denver , who became Mahamantra Prabhu (and now is Bhakti Vishrambha Madhava Maharaja), joined us a bit later. He too became a core Radha-Damodara devotee.

Patita Pavana prabhu / H.H. Suhotra Maharaja:

The Radha-Damodara bus had just gone up in flames in the middle of the desert! The differential on the rear axle got overheated and the grease and oil inside combusted. The devotees barely managed to save the Deities and themselves before the blaze turned the bus into a charred metal skeleton.

Maharaja went to LA and borrowed money from Karandhara Prabhu, the West Coast GBC. He bought a much better bus. The old one was just a plodding school bus; the new one was a long-distance coach. This was the first of a fleet of such busses. In the later part of 1974 HH Tamal Krsna Maharaja arrived from India to re-join his old friend from the Morning Star Ranch. Their teaming up was when the Radha-Damodara TSKP started to expand: first from one bus to three, then finally up to a dozen.

Patita Pavana prabhu / H.H. Suhotra Maharaja:

In the early days of the Hare Krishna Movement in America, Sri Sri Radha-Damodara were the first Deities that most people ever saw. This was because Radha-Damodara did not remain confined to a temple building. Instead, since Their temple happened to be a bus, They were constantly on the move.

Jayananda Prabhu, Vishnujana Swami and Tamal Krishna Goswami had joined the San Francisco Radha Krishna temple within the first year of its opening in the mid ’60s. Together they helped establish Lord Chaitanya’s mission in California while inaugurating the first traveling sankirtan party in the Western world.

The Radha-Damodara Party was the largest traveling sankirtan army the world had ever seen, comprising six buses with numerous satellite vans and cars that crisscrossed the North American continent. They distributed millions of transcendental books and inspired other parties around the world to do the same.

Another time in that same room there was a discussion about kirtan, the Radha Damodar kirtans that we were having on campus or on the street where we set up. Prabhupada was saying we just should use khol and karatals. At that time we had many instruments. We had harmonium, we had esraj-which was like a violin-we had ektara, and we had an instrument that had strings and you play it with little hammers. So there was a discussion where Prabhupada was saying just to use khols and karatals. And Adi-kesava said that people were attracted to the party because of the instruments, and Prabhupada didn’t seem to take that very seriously. And then Adi-kesava said, “But Visnujana said…” and Prabhupada cut him off and said, “Who is Visnujana? I am your spiritual master.” And also in that meeting Prabhupada said that there shouldn’t be any harmonium during the aratis. And previously you hear lot of tapes of Bharadvaj and others playing harmonium. So that was stopped during aratis. And it didn’t seem like Prabhupada just wanted some expert musicians. He wanted devotees. So that was stopped, and that time the Radha Damodar party just went back to mrdanga and karatals on the public kirtans, for a while, and eventually we had a couple of instruments here and there, I had heard with Prabhupada’s permission; I don’t know for sure.

Dravinaksa Dasa, Memories of Srila Prabhupada, DVD #47

Woman leading kirtans – Yamuna mataji

An important apparent contradiction comes from a statement in the scriptures that a sannyasi and a brahmacari should not hear a woman’s voice. But Srila Prabhupada had men and women chant japa together, women led kirtans in the temple and in public engagements, and the women gave classes.

  • Srila Prabhupada had Yamuna (one of our best singers) lead kirtans in front of crowds of guests and devotees, which included of course sannyasis and brahmacaris.

  • Yamuna, Lilavati, Kausalya, and later Parijata, Jyotirmayi and many others used to routinely lead kirtans.

  • “I want to organize a women kirtan party singing the Gita-Gan. Can you help me?” (letter to Gargamuni Maharaja, 1974)

  • In France, when he noticed that Jyotirmayi could pronounce the Sanskrit better than others (she had been taught by Nitai, his personal sanskrit secretary), Srila Prabhupada said that from then on, she should lead the recitation of the sanskrit verses before class. (Jyotirmayi, 1972)

Yamuna devi dasi was one of the first women to join ISKCON, helping to open the San Francisco center in 1967 and the London center later on. One of her first services was to assist Srila Prabhupada in cooking, and she had become one of the foremost experts on Vedic cooking.

Also famous for her singing voice, Yamuna devi dasi’s voice can be heard as the lead vocalist in the famous “Govindam” prayers that are played in all 400+ Hare Krishna centres around the world every morning.

Srila Prabhupada said about Yamuna in the early 70’s that she had reached the stage of bhava.

She described how, when recording the famous “Radha Krishna Temple” album, she and all the devotees were up late in George’s studio as he and Paul McCartney worked on the mixing. Many of the devotees were asleep here and there, so she sat at the harmonium and began chanting, “Bhaja Hure Mana.” She said that during the early and very difficult days in London she had learned that bhajan by listening over and over again to a recording of Srila Prabhupada singing it. “There were no songbooks,” she said.

As she sang the bhajan, accompanying herself with the harmonium, she did not know that George was recording her. Much to her chagrin, he insisted on including the recording on the album, dubbing over some simple hand-clapping percussion. Later it was pointed out that the title had been transposed and sung as “Bhaja Mana Hure”. “It is all right,” Srila Prabhupada had said upon hearing it, “you can fix it later.”

Kalakantha Dasa:

“Govindam” single (1970)

There is an interesting story that I wrote about. It took place when ‘Govindam’ first came out, when the recording was first released. I was in England, and she [Yamuna] was in England, and we sent this recording to the devotees in Los Angeles to show how we were really preaching big time to the Beatles, and we did this record, and so on and so forth. But the devotees in Los Angeles didn’t want Prabhupada to hear this because they thought it was very strange that a woman’s voice would be leading the Hare Krishna mantra. And so they didn’t let Prabhupada hear it. So one morning, just before the greeting of the Deities, Prabhupada was sitting on his vyasasana. When the Deity doors open in Los Angeles, there is a big billow of incense smoke from the charcoals. The devotees use a lot of incense, and when they open the doors, it kind of pours out like a big cloud coming out.

So right before this, Prabhupada said, ‘What about that record that the devotees sent from London?’ He had heard about it. So they told him, ‘It is just Yamuna singing; we don’t want you to hear it.’ And they said, ‘There is no place to play it.’ So he said, ‘Just play it on the system—the speakers.’

So they said, ‘Okay,’ and very reluctantly went and fetched the recording and played it. And it was just at the right time, and it is about six minutes long. As the Deity doors opened, Prabhupada was sitting on his vyasasana, and he didn’t say a word. He just listened with his eyes closed. And devotees got to see streams of tears coming down his cheeks. And that day Prabhupada ordered that the song be played in all temples all over the world at the time of greeting the Deities.”

Yamuna Devi – A Life of Unalloyed Devotion

I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 3 March, 1970, along with the “Govindam” record. The record is so nice that I am playing it at least once in a day and it is giving me transcendental pleasure with tears in my eyes. I am sure this record will be the first-class “hit” as already opined by the experts.

letter to Syamasundara, Los Angeles 8 March, 1970

During his massage Prabhupada heard a letter from Jayasacinandana in Los Angeles written on behalf of a group of brahmacaris. In every ISKCON temple of the world the assembled devotees offer their obeisances to the Deities in the morning as the Govindam prayers loudly play. George Harrison recorded it, and Yamuna sings the mantras. Disturbed by this custom, Jaysacinandana quoted Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur (as well as Srila Prabhupada) that if a brahmacari hears and is attracted to a woman’s singing, it is a subtle fall down. “In light of this, he wrote, many of the brahmacaris approached the temple president to see if it would be possible that when the Deities are greeted in the morning, instead of listening to Gurudasa Maharaja’s former wife singing the Brahma-samhita prayers, we could listen to Your Divine Grace rather than hear a woman sing.” He did not want to change the tape because it has been a standard thing in ISKCON since 1970. “So requested by many devotees, I am inquiring from Your Divine Grace if we could play a tape recording of your singing instead of a woman when the Deities of Rukmini Dvarkadhisha are greeted in the morning. I am sure that all the devotees would be enlivened to hear you instead of electric guitars, the London symphonic orchestra, etc., etc……”

Prabhupada was not pleased. He said that constantly changing things is “our Western disease”. His reply was short and direct. “No! You have made some discovery. All along you have been hearing the recording of Yamuna dasi and now you want to change. It is not ordinary singing, it is not concert. Many people are singing, so it is not bad. Just like Sankirtana. I approve of it. Here in the Krishna-Balarama temple we are hearing the same recording every morning. So if it is good here, why not there?” (Hari Sauri, Dec 1975, Vrndavan, “A Transcendental Diary.”)

Yamuna: As an aspiring devotee for almost forty years now, I have never identified with any occupation. Though I sang on three released records with Apple in the late 1960s—the Mahamantra single, the Govindam single, and the LP that came after it—and although I penned three cookbooks in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I feel I am neither a singer nor an author. These were merely activities I fell into in the course of exploring the culture and practice of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which is what my life is really all about.

Later in Saranagati

Feeling denigrated simply due to her gender, Yamuna left the Krishna Balarama temple project in 1974 to start a women’s ashram in Oregon with her godsister Dinatarini. Upon doing so, she met with criticism from male leaders who said she could never make advancement in spiritual life as she had “left ISKCON” and the association of devotees.

Yamuna wrote to Prabhupada to tell him that she had not left Krishna consciousness or her dedication to him, and to express her fear that she didn’t have his blessings anymore. In 1975, Prabhupada met Yamuna in LA, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had missed her very much at the opening of the Krishna Balarama temple.

The two laughed and joked like old friends, and then responding to her letter, Prabhupada told Yamuna that “ISKCON is where you are chanting the Holy Names of Krishna,” and that “Assocation can be two or two hundred. But you must be compatible. If you are two and you are compatible you can go back to Godhead. But if you are two hundred and not compatible” – here he opened his eyes wide – “Then no one will make any advancement.”,4657

Our beloved Yamuna Devi served as a beacon of spiritual perfection and guidance for all in our tiny little slice of Vaishnava sangha in Saranagati, BC, Canada. She and Dinatarine Prabhu opened their ashram and their hearts for all of us, far and wide, to taste the nectar of their Love for Srila Prabhupada and their beloved Sri Sri Radha Banabehari.

Karunamayi Dasi:

Every summer she and Dinatarine Prabhu held evening Bhaktivinoda Thakura bhajans at their home. Those bhajans were from another realm. The profoundly devotional and meditative mood of those melodious bhajans was indescribable. The Saranagati youth especially were addicted to those bhajans. Everything Yamuna Prabhu did was first class. She was an ocean of devotion, and an ocean of inspiration for the people who knew her and whoever simply heard of her.

Rasamrita Devi Dasi:

There lived the servants of Radha-Banabehari, Yamuna and Dinatarine, whom Srila Prabhupada had instructed in the 1970’s to open a widow’s ashram. They had been doing so ever since, worshiping their beloved Lordships for over thirty years, most recently in this breathtaking ashram they had built with their own hands. […]

They took turns performing the mangala arati. On her singing days Yamuna accompanied herself with a small xylophone-like instrument with a soft bell-like tone that mingled with her gentle, angelic voice singing Guruvastakam, creating a wonderfully mystical devotional atmosphere in the cool Canadian pre-dawn mountain air. Singing, as she insisted, not with call-and-response but in unison created a warm intimacy among the devotees that melted away any bodily considerations of ashram, gender or seniority, bringing everyone present together in an infectious mood of love for Srila Prabhupada and Radha Banabehari. […]

Together with Yamuna and Dina they organized two- or three-week marathons of singing Bhaktivinoda Thakura bhajans each evening, completing the entire “Sarangati” and “Godruma Kalpataru” songbooks by the Thakura.

During the bhajans Yamuna always sat as if in trance, eyes closed, swaying to the music, singing vigorously in her clear and penetrating voice, fully absorbed. At the end of each bhajan she would express deep satisfaction. “Such nectar, such nectar.”

Yamuna would organize the milkmaids to sing bhajans at the Saranagati festivals and play other leading roles in the community. Once, before the Saranagati Rathayatra, she took the bullhorn and made an introductory speech to the devotees standing before the cart. Pointing to the majestic forest-covered hills on each side of the valley, she proclaimed, “There are more living entities here to be blessed by the holy names than there are at the New York Rathayatra.”

Kalakantha Dasa:

What is forever etched in my mind is the kirtan that happened next. Yamuna and Dina both sat directly across from me, and Dina began strumming a tamboura and humming. They then began to sing together—just the two of them—the entire Mangalacaranam prayers. Their eyes remained closed.

I had never been in a kirtan like that. There were no other instruments around, nor were we asked to play anything. We weren’t even asked to sing. We just listened. And that changed my life forever, because as I listened I began to feel something. I was not feeling anything inside myself (I was as unconscious as a brick). I was simply “feeling” something they were feeling. In other words, I was palpably affected and moved by what they were feeling as they sang.

[…] Towards what seemed like the end of the kirtan, I believe we mumbled along, almost inaudibly, to the mahamantra, since none of us were accustomed to serious kirtan. Furthermore, I felt a bit out of my league even being in the same kirtan as these two devotees. The kirtan lasted about 45 minutes. I noted that because I was used to participating in a kirtan for 5 or 10 minutes, and 45 minutes was a total novelty to me.

George Harrison

George Harrison was a pioneer of bringing kirtan music to the west. He often incorporated sanskrit mantras and devotional themes in his songwriting, and even produced rock-tinged kirtan albums.

In 1968, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, sent six of his devotees to London to establish a new centre there, the Radha Krishna Temple, and so expand on the success of ISKCON’s temples in New York and San Francisco. The group was led by Mukunda Das, formerly a pianist with jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and Shyamsundar Das. With the acharya’s blessing, they decided to seek out George Harrison of the Beatles, whose interest in Hindu philosophy, meditation and Indian music had done much to promote these causes among Western youth. In December 1968, Shyamsundar met Harrison at the Beatles’ Apple Corps headquarters in central London, after which Harrison began visiting the devotees at their warehouse accommodation in Covent Garden.

Harrison had first experienced kirtan, or communal chanting, while in the Indian city of Vrindavan with Ravi Shankar, in 1966. Harrison was inspired by the devotees’ music-making, whereby mantras were sung accompanied by instrumentation such as harmonium and percussion. He and John Lennon had similarly enjoyed Prabhupada’s album of chants, Krishna Consciousness. In addition, Harrison had come to appreciate the positive properties of the Maha or Hare Krishna mantra, after he had chanted it when his plane lost control during a flight back from San Francisco in August 1967.

From his first visit to the devotees’ warehouse, Harrison regularly played harmonium during kirtan with Shyamsundar and others. On occasions, the ensemble included synthesizer accompaniment from Billy Preston, whom Harrison was producing for the Beatles’ Apple record label. According to author Joshua Greene, the decision to release recordings by the Radha Krishna Temple came about after one such session of kirtan, held at Harrison’s Surrey home, Kinfauns. Harrison telephoned the devotees the following morning, saying, “You’re going to make a record”, and told them to come to Abbey Road Studios that same evening.

Regarding your recording of Nama Om and Hare Krishna, it is very, very good and everyone says that it is technically all-perfect. So your endeavor to induce the Beatles to cooperate with us is successful to a greater extent. Now when I shall go to London I shall carry with me various other recordings sung by me, and if these recordings can be attuned in the same technical perfection, then under my direction we can produce at least one dozen Hare Krishna recordings in varieties of tunes. I am sure people will like them very much when they are presented through Mr. George Harrison and his company. I am very glad to learn that Mr. George Harrison was playing on harmonium and guitar; Digvijaya and Gurudasa were playing karatalas; Yamuna and Malati were singing; and you were playing dilruba. Kulasekhara is so nice khole player I thought it was being played by Mukunda. Why do I not find the name of Mukunda?

Letter to Syamasundara – Los Angeles 13 August, 1969

“Hare Krishna Mantra” single

Via his disciples, Prabhupada had recommended that the Beatles record the Hare Krishna mantra, in order to spread the message of Krishna Consciousness to the group’s wide fan base. Instead, Harrison chose to produce a version by the London-based ISKCON devotees and issue it as a single on Apple Records.

The recording for “Hare Krishna Mantra” took place at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in July 1969, shortly before a session for the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. Harrison worked through a musical arrangement for the piece on guitar, with Mukunda playing piano. For the recording, Harrison decided on joint lead vocalists over the verses, Yamuna and Shyamsundar, with the other devotees joining in on the choruses. The engineer on the recording was Ken Scott.

Harrison played harmonium during the initial taping, which required three takes to perfect. He then added Leslie-effected electric guitar at the start of the track, and also overdubbed a bass guitar part. Harrison later recalled that he “had someone beat time with a pair of kartals and Indian drums”, and that the other devotees were brought in afterwards to overdub the chorus singing and other contributions.

In addition to various Temple members on mridangam and kartal, a recent American recruit played trumpet. Malati (Shyamsundar’s wife) sounded the closing gong, after the track had built to what author Simon Leng describes as a “dervishlike climax”. Apple employees Mal Evans and Chris O’Dell attended this session also. The latter, along with her mother, joined the backing chorus, at Shyamsundar’s invitation. In her 2009 autobiography, O’Dell writes of the experience of feeling “physically and spiritually changed” after singing the mantra, adding: “Chanting the words over and over again was almost hypnotic … there was a point of freedom where there was no effort at all, no criticism or judgment, just the sound generated from deep inside, like a flame that warmed us from the inside out.”

For the B-side, Harrison recorded the devotees singing “Prayer to the Spiritual Masters”. According to Prabhupada biographer Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, the lyrics offer praise to “Śrila Prabhupada, Lord Caitanya and His associates, and the six Gosvamis” – Lord Caitanya being Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the sixteenth-century avatar of the Hare Krishna movement. The song again features group vocals, accompanied by harmonium, percussion and an Indian bowed string instrument known as the esraj, which Shyamsundar regularly played during kirtan. As for “Hare Krishna Mantra”, the arrangement on “Prayer to the Spiritual Masters” was credited to Mukunda Das (as Mukunda Das Adhikary).

“Govindam” single (1970)

Among the new pieces was “Govinda”, a musical adaptation of what is considered to be the world’s first poem, consisting of Govindam prayers. Gurudas described it to a reporter as a song that “comes from the Satya Yuga or Golden Era of the universe and was passed down through the ages by a chain of self-realized gurus”. Author Bruce Spizer writes that Harrison “went all out” with his production of the track, creating an “exciting and hypnotic arrangement”.

The recording session took place in January 1970, at Trident Studios in central London. Harrison had already created the backing track, which featured rock instrumentation such as acoustic guitar, organ, bass and drums, before the devotees’ arrival. Yamuna was the sole lead vocalist. Also among those attending the session were Preston and singers Donovan and Mary Hopkin, some of whom joined the devotees on the song’s choruses, according to Greene. Over the introduction, Harrison overdubbed esraj, played by Shyamsundar, and lute-like oud, which was performed by Harivilas, a devotee who had recently arrived in London from Iran.

Following this session, Harrison added a lead guitar part and hired members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to overdub string orchestration, harp and tubular bells onto the track. The orchestral arrangement for “Govinda” was supplied by John Barham, a regular Harrison collaborator, and similarly dedicated to furthering Western appreciation of Indian classical music.

Prabhupada first heard the recording in Los Angeles; moved to tears, he asked for it to be played every morning while ISKCON devotees offered prayers in honour of the deities. In their book documenting the first 40 years of the Hare Krishna movement, Graham Dwyer and Richard Cole write that with “Hare Krishna Mantra” and “Govinda” “[becoming] hits across Europe, in Japan, in Australia, and even in Africa … the chanting of Hare Krishna had become world famous”.

Yamuna: From the success of the first Hare Krishna Mantra single, George Harrison and Apple wanted to record the Govindam prayers which we had been practicing for the past several months. The essential melody was conceived of by Mukunda, and although it felt compelling in and of itself, the addition of the instrumentation catapulted it into another realm—one of transcendence. At the time, I was reluctant to sing on the single because I was fully engaged with so many services at the temple. But I also realized the immense preaching potential, and so we recorded it sometime in late January or early February.

Shyamasundara was the second voice that came in after I sang the lead. There were the original six of us. And in those days the studio had eight tracks. So we recorded over and over and over so it sounded like 64 voices. George wanted that number because he liked the sound of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and they had 64 voices. So he wanted to emulate that sound. And, of course, he was able to hire the London String Quartet. Billy Preston played organ, and George played his guitar. A new devotee had just come, who is now Harivilasa, and he played the oud. Guru das and Janaki played kartals, Tamal Krishna, Dhananjaya and others sang, and I played harmonium. Then actually it turned out that after they got all of our voices down, another group of devotees from France were added, including Yogesvara, Mondakini, and others—I don’t know how many, but by the expert mixing and engineering talents of George Harrison and others, it turned into something magical .

The Radha Krsna Temple (1971)

It is an album of Hindu devotional songs recorded by the UK branch of ISKCON. It was produced by George Harrison and released on the Beatles’ Apple record label. It compiles two hit singles, “Hare Krishna Mantra” and “Govinda”, with other Sanskrit-worded mantras and prayers that the Temple devotees recorded with Harrison from July 1969 onwards.

The recordings reflected Harrison’s commitment to the Gaudiya Vaishnava teachings of the movement’s leader, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who had sent devotees from San Francisco to London in 1968. The success of the Temple’s first single, “Hare Krishna Mantra”, helped popularise the Hare Krishna movement in the West, and inspired Harrison’s more overtly religious songs on his 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass. Among the Temple members, former jazz musician and future ISKCON leader Mukunda Goswami provided the musical arrangements on the recordings.

After its initial release, the album was reissued on the Spiritual Sky label and by Prabhupada’s Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, often with the new title Goddess of Fortune. Apple officially reissued The Radha Krsna Temple on CD in 1993, and again in 2010, with the addition of two bonus tracks.

Harrison provided the Radha Krishna Temple with financial assistance and acted as a co-signee of their more permanent accommodation – at Bury Place, close to the British Museum in Bloomsbury. He then met Prabhupada in September 1969, at Lennon’s Tittenhurst Park estate, as the new premises was being renovated. While also producing Apple acts such as Preston and Doris Troy, Harrison was keen to record further with the Temple devotees and release a full album of their songs. In December, he suggested they come up with further material. Scott was again credited as the engineer at these later Radha Krishna Temple sessions. He has spoken of the challenges of recording the participants, many of whom would not remain stationary during a take, and described the project as “absolutely fascinating”.

The musicians on these recordings included Harrison on guitars and bass; Temple members such as Yamuna on lead vocals; and other devotees on backing vocals, mridanga, harmonium, tambura and kartal. Harrison was much impressed with Yamuna’s voice and suggested she could become “a famous rock star”. In a 1982 discussion with Mukunda, Harrison said: “I liked the way [Yamuna] sang with conviction, and she sang [‘Hare Krishna Mantra’] like she’d been singing it a lot before. It didn’t sound like the first [professionally recorded] tune she’d ever sung.” Discussing Harrison’s role in the studio, Gurudas, Yamuna’s husband, has compared him with the Hare Krishna movement’s leader, saying: “George was like Prabhupada, he could be a ringmaster – he could just pull everything together.”

The tracks “Sri Guruvastakam” and “Sri Isopanisad” also featured dobro, an instrument that Harrison came to use increasingly during the early 1970s. Arrangements for all the songs on The Radha Krsna Temple were again credited to Mukunda. A student in Paris at the time, and a keyboard player in his university band, Joshua Greene joined the Radha Krishna Temple over the 1969–70 holiday season, taking the devotee name Yogesvara. He recalls participating in sessions held at Abbey Road and Apple Studio, during which he played harmonium on “Govinda Jai Jai”. Whereas Harrison had limited the length of the earlier recordings to no more than four minutes, to attract maximum radio play, album tracks such as “Bhaja Bhakata/Arati” and “Bhaja Hunre Mana” extended to over eight minutes.

4. Presenting traditional ragas to the West

Although in the early days Srila Prabhupada sang very simple melodies (and this simplicity always remained a top priority), later on he also asked the devotees to sing the appropriate ragas for the actual time period of the day. He especially emphasized this for the arati songs. (It’s important to note, that his melodies were ragas too, but were easy ones, and he also accepted other melodies, which the devotees presented while spreading Krsna consciousness.)

Ragas do not mean certain tunes, rather a musical framework; a set of rules which the melody matches. These rules contain restrictions for the scales for the ascending and the descending part of the melody, as well as certain notes which are frequently used and others which are used rarely and also can mean some musical motifs. There are different melodies which eventually are the same raga.

However, these musical rules set the mood. It can be either devotional or lamenting etc. Each raga has an emotional significance and symbolic associations such as with season, time and mood. The raga is considered a means in Indian musical tradition to evoke certain feelings in an audience. Some of the ragas are connected to some certain personalities like Lord Siva and others. Each raga has its “own unique melodic personality”.

There are two main classical Indian music traditions, North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic), and the concept of raga is shared by both. In ISKCON I’ve seen the Hindustani, most of the time.

Although the raga system is ancient, the ragas continue to evolve all the time. There are ragas which disappear (e.g. the morning Deshkar raga fades into the evening Bhoopali raga, because of their similarity and the musicions perform in the evening), and also new ones appear. There are many that have the origins at the times of Mughal rule. That’s why it is said, that the ragas these days are not pure.

The scriptures describing the science of music state that there are as many ragas as there are species of life. Among them there are sixteen thousand principal ragas that were previously manifested by the gopis of Vrndavana, which have become disseminated throughout the world. Each day has eight divisions (asta-prahara), for which there are eight corresponding ragas. The eightfold eternal daily pastimes of Radha and Krsna and of Lord Caitanya also take place according to the eight divisions of the day. Gaudiya Vaisnava acaryas have revealed that the ultimate purpose of the science of music is to complement and enhance the moods of the Divine Couple during Their variegated eightfold daily pastimes. Gaudiya kirtana therefore employs traditional Vedic ragas during the same divisions of the day, with the specific purpose of pleasing the Supreme Lord.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

These ragas, performed at the correct times, enhance and enforce the subtle energies prevalent during those periods. However, ragas performed at the wrong time disturb the psychic balance. Those who are aware of the Vedic science of music can perceive the awkwardness and rasabhasa of ragas being played or sung at the wrong time. The rendering of ragas at inappropriate hours is considered inauspicious, sinful, and disruptive to cosmic harmony.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

Regarding the presentation of “Govindam” as well as other mantras, the vibration is always pure. I will give the theme and if the sound is Westernized that does not matter. But another point is that this specific sound of Kirtana as I sing is also another introduction of art that can be intermingled with Western art, and such combination will certainly be appreciated. But so far I know that the Kirtana tune is a specific representation of Gaudiya Vaisnavas and this tune is appreciated all over India as unique. They say that the Kirtana tune is the specific gift of Bengal, and that is a fact. So why not utilize this tune in the Western countries under the able guidance of such expert musician as George?

* letter to Syamasundara, L.A. 25 February, 1970

Aindra prabhu

Discovering the very different music of the spiritual world, Eddie moved into the ISKCON temple in Washington, D.C. And soon after, in February 1974, on the auspicious day of Sri Sri Gaura Nitai’s installation and Lord Nityananda’s Appearance, he was initiated by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada and became Aindra Dasa.

Back at the temple, Aindra became known as a rather erudite preacher—he joined everyone else in book distribution on the streets, loved speaking to guests at the weekly Sunday Feast, and was always looking for a way to spread Krishna consciousness.

His unique mood and love for kirtan also emerged early on. “Our neighbours used to complain about our 4am Mangal Arati kirtan,” says Jagara Dasa, who also served at the D.C. temple in the 1970s. “But when Aindra led the chanting—which he often did—he had the necessary constraint to keep the kirtan where it needed to be so that the police who sat outside would not come in and give us a big fine.”

Later, Aindra became a priest for Radha-Madhan Mohan and Gaura Nitai, and would play around with the harmonium in between services, soon working out his first melody: Bhaktivinode Thakura’s short song Jaya Radha Madhava.

He continued to practice, and his skill and love for kirtan grew. Moving to New York City, he converted a truck that would open out into an ornate golden temple. He acquired sound permits and would drive to different parts of the city where he would set up his truck and perform kirtan for eight hours a day. His performances were impactful, inspiring several people to join ISKCON.

Eventually Aindra decided he would like to try organizing a kirtan program in India. Travelling to Lord Krishna’s birthplace of Vrindavana in 1986, he learned the story of the Krishna Balarama Mandir’s 24-Hour Kirtan program. It had first been introduced in 1975 by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada—but without proper management, it began to fade, and by 1978, a year after Prabhupada passed on, it had ground to a halt.

Aindra decided to dedicate himself to the project. He began to soak up the atmosphere of Vrindavana, connect with other kirtaniyas, and learn Indian classical music or ragas, teaching himself the traditional melodies by ear. And eight years after the 24-Hour Kirtan had faded away, he reconstituted it as its own department, organizing a core group of kirtan enthusiasts to ensure its continuance.

There was no denying the program’s austerity, and so Aindra chose men for his team that, like him, would stick it out through all conditions. And kirtan was their life. Full-time members did (and still do) six hours of kirtan every day, as well as chanting Hare Krishna on their japa beads for two hours.

They would each take two of the 24-Hour Kirtan’s three-hour shifts, which start at 1am and run continuously. The kirtan even ran during temple services such as arati offerings and lectures, with kirtaniyas softly chanting “japa kirtan” on their prayer beads.

Madhava Dasa, a second-generation devotee who now travels the world doing kirtan, was amongst the Department’s earliest members, joining when he was only eighteen years old.

Aindra and Madhava became a tight-knit team. “Those were the best years of my life, the most beautiful kirtans,” Madhava says. “They were all about the proper mood. I learned from Aindra that kirtan is not to impress anyone—it’s our way to express our heartfelt feelings for Radha and Krishna and Srila Prabhupada, and our gratefulness at being able to do kirtan and connect with our only shelter.”

Aindra Prabhu began leading Kirtans in the Washington D. C. temple, but after moving to New York City in 1981, he took the Kirtan into the street. Aindra Prabhu was the epitome of a sadhaka, always endeavoring to go the extra mile. For years he chanted one hundred thousand names of God every day, and he gradually increased. He also counseled devotees, studied the books of Srila Prabhupada and the previous acaryas, worshiped Radhe-Shyam in the temple and his personal Deities in his room, transformed the brahmacari quarters into a transcendental art gallery, scrubbed the toilets — and led the electrifying Kirtans that won him a place in devotees’ hearts the world over.

After the inception of 24 Hour Kirtan in 1975, the Kirtan Yajna continued in a somewhat disorganized way for some time. In 1978, however, less than a year after the disappearance of Srila Prabhupada, 24 Hour Kirtana at Krsna-Balaram Mandir unfortunately ground to a halt. Reinauguration commenced eight years later, in 1986, by the determined efforts of Sripad Aindra prabhu, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, with the assistance and support of a few other devotees. He left this world on July 17, 2010 in Sri Vrindavan Dhama after more than 20 years of Kirtan sadhana.

Aindra prabhu’s style

Aindra: I have more or less coined the name for my style of kirtan as progressive kirtan. Just like there is progressive rock, so I have more or less named my way of doing kirtan as progressive kirtan. The kind of kirtan that I have been influenced by is a northern Indian classical style called kayal. Kayal, as far as I understand, means fantasy. I haven’t gotten deeply into that style, but I have incorporated elements of that style in my humble attempt.

What I see about the kayal style is that it leaves room for improvisation more so than the dhrupad style. Dhrupad style is more rigid. Dhrupad style is more concerned with the letter of the law of musical ragas, whereas the kayal style more or less accentuates the spirit of the law of musical ragas. In the kayal style you may add a note to a raga, for example, for the purpose of inspiration or generating a bhava. That kind of reflects the gopis’ mixing of ragas or creating new ragas. The basic principles of the raga remain intact, but some extra note may be added just to enhance the flavor. In that way it tends to enhance the beauty of a raga in some ways.

Daivi Shakti: His kirtanas were absorbing and perhaps hard to imitate.

Book: The Heart of Transcendental Book Distribution

As some of you may know, Aindra prabhu was working on his book for more than six years and then after several years of completion of this treatise, in 2008 we started the work towards its publishing.


Those albums changed everything,” says Madhava’s friend and fellow second-gen devotee Gopala Dasa, who has been part of the 24-Hour Kirtan since 2000. “Before them, the old-school, 1980s, one-two-three style of kirtan pervaded. Vrindavana Mellows introduced a more classical approach in line with basic Gaudiya Vaishnava standards—one with more different varieties of rhythms, karatala playing, and raga melodies.”

  • Cintamani Nam 1.

  • Cintamani Nam 2.

  • Vrindavana Mellows 1. (1993)

  • Vrindavana Mellows 2. (1994)

  • Vrindavana Mellows 3. (1995)

  • Kirtan is our Bhajan

  • Prayers to the Dust of Vraja (1996)

  • Vraja Vilasa vol 1. (1998)

  • Vraja Vilasa vol 2. (1998)

Kirtaniyas who learned from Aindra prabhu

Madhava prabhu

A native of Mauritius, Madhava was given his first drum at the age of 5. At 18, he moved to Vrindavan, a place of pilgrimage in India where kirtan has been practised continuously for centuries. He spent the next seven years living in an ashram, doing kirtan daily with the Krishna Balarama 24 Hour Kirtan Mandali, under the direction of legendary 24-hour kirtan leader, Aindra Dasa. While there he played the mrdanga drum for hours on end, day after day, honing his rhythmic skill and sensitivity. Unbeknownst to him, through bootleg recordings he was also becoming an influential figure in the global kirtan scene, all while sitting on the dusty floor of a small temple in a village in India. When Madhava left to return to the West, his mentor Aindra impressed on him that he had to take the kirtan back with him from Vrndavan – telling him: “Now it is you who must lead the kirtan”. Based in Switzerland, Madhava travels extensively through Europe and the US with his wife Radhika and his band Gaura Prema, enlivening audiences with the power of devotional kirtan. He fuses his Mauritian roots with the influences of India to produce a unique style of kirtan, but one in which the main ingredient is the heartfelt bhakti.

Madhava was born on October 1, 1973 on the island of Mauritius. He was five years old when his parents became fully committed Krishna devotees while staying at home and working at their jobs. Straightaway, they gave him his first mridanga (Indian clay drum), and, motivated by them, Madhava chanted 4 rounds of japa every day until he was 13 years old. As a teenager he rebelled. After some bumps and wild detours his fascination with music led him, at the age of 18, to ask his parents to send him to Vrindavan, the holy city of Krishna. He hoped to join the kirtan party there.

In January 1992, on the very first day Madhava arrived in Vrindavan, he met Aindra das, the leader of the 24-hour kirtan, who asked him to join the kirtan party. Every day for the next 5 years Madhava would play mridanga for Aindra das.

At the end of 1996 he went back to Mauritius. Barely two years later, Madhava returned to Vrindavan for a brief stay and, before leaving, received the instruction from Aindra das to “always chant Hare Krishna, even if you have to do it to the four walls—and never stop practicing your mridanga.”

In 1999 Madhava married Radhika in the UK and a year later he joined her in Switzerland to settle there. For the first 4 years he studied German and carpentry at school while working as an apprentice carpenter. After qualifying as such, he worked full time for 6 years. Meanwhile he was doing kirtan with Sivaram Swami, an Iskcon leader, in Hungary or the U.K over weekends. In 2005 he and some friends formed a group, “Gaura Prema,” and did their first public kirtan in a church in Zürich. Mainly people interested in yoga attended. In response to public awareness in kirtan, the group began chanting spiritual mantras in the many yoga schools in Germany and Switzerland.

In 2009, Madhava’s boss sold the company, leaving him jobless. A year later, a Vaisnava patron intent on promoting kirtan offered to partly fund his cost of living if he would make kirtan his life’s task. That year, for the first time, he traveled around Australia for a month, doing kirtan in Iskcon temples and major yoga schools on the east coast. Since then he tries to serve the Holy Name whenever and wherever he is called.

Govinda prabhu

He was initiated in 1992 in Brooklyn, NY. He performed book distribution from 1991-1998 in NY and across the US.

He moved to Vrindavana Dham in India to join HG Aindra prabhu in his effort of pleasing Srila Prabhupada with the performance of 24 Hour Akhanda Kirtan at the world renown Krishna Balaram Mandir. He visits Europe and USA for book distribution and teaching devotees on playing Mrdanga, Karatala and harmonium.

Born in Budapest/Hungary, he joined the devotees in New York and later moved to Vrindavan to also be one of Aindra prabhu’s main mridanga players for many years. He lives in Vrindavan with his wife where he leads Kirtan and plays mridanga every day. During the summer months May and June he travels to Europe and the US to bring Vrindavan style Kirtan to the west.

Govinda prabhu has been playing mridanga for Sripad Aindra prabhu for many many years. He’s still part of the inner core of the 24 Hour Kirtan Mandali team at Krishna Balaram Mandir.

He has recorded series of kirtan albums titled “Akhanda Nam” (1-2-3) and also produced DVDs, also on learning to play mridanga.

Amala Harinam prabhu

Ojasvi prabhu

He is only western singer who can so nicely sing even traditional Vrijavasi and Hindi bhajans.

Vrndavana prabhu (mrdanga player)

Born in the US, but came to Vrindavan at a young age and was one of Aindra prabhu’s main mridanga players for many years. He lives in Vrindavan with his wife and daughter teaching mridanga at Krishna Balaram mandir, leading Kirtan and playing mridanga on a daily basis. When the need arises he also helps out in the deity department, serving Sri Sri Radha Syamasundar.

5. Kirtaniya’s, kirtan groups and their style


Amongst the kirtan of spiritual masters, different styles can be found. There are some, who sing traditional raga melodies (in a traditional way), e.g. Lokanath Swami, who is famous for his traditional bhajans, and also can be heard on some CDs. Others also sing ragas, but in a westernized way, and there are others, who sing only western melodies, like Indradyumna Swami, who mostly sings on harinams and easily followable tunes are a top priority there. I would say, their style depends on their personality and abilities, but also on other things like which part of the world and which way do they preach.

There are spiritual masters, who emphasize bhajans and kirtans so much, that even audio CDs were published by them.

Just to mention a few of the „kirtaniya swamis”: Lokanath Swami, Bhakti Bhringa Govinda Swami, Sacinandana Swami, Kadamba Kanana Swami, Sivarama Swami, Niranjana Swami etc.

Gauranga Bhajan Band

In the former Yugoslavia, in the 80s, there was the Gauranga Bhajan Band. It was Hare Krsna rock with Harikesa, Sacinandana Swami, Bhakti Vaibhava Swami, Krsna Ksetra and Krsna Prema, the guitar player. It went all over the Eastern Bloc and the biggest concert in Moscow had 46 000 people. Last night (06 July 2015), after 25 years, in Serbia we had a revival of the band going down memory lane – balloons, stage diving, swinging on a rope over the crowd. The trains were filled with young people who had been in the concert, all chanting Hare Krsna. They made many devotees.

Last night we had a three of the original band members: Bhakti Vaibhava Swami, Sacinandana Swami and Krsna Ksetra Maharaj. I (Kadamba Kanana Swami) did a guest performance with a few hundred devotees. Many had been there for the original performances.

Titiksava Karunika prabhu of 1992: “A devotee named Rama-Sraddha had just returned from a tour in Poland with the Gauranga Bhajan Band, which featured ISKCON musicians like Krishna Prema and Harikesa, as well as singing by ISKCON gurus Sacinandana Swami, Bhakti Vaibhava Swami, and Krishna Ksetra Dasa,” T.K. says. “He told me they were doing huge things, and I should hook up with them. He showed me videos of their last tour, and I was blown away.”

Getting the go-ahead from the organizers, and working his way up from mixer to having his own part in the show, T.K. joined the Gauranga Bhajan Band on their Russian tour.

It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, and likely will never experience again,” he says. “The Iron Curtain had just dropped after decades of Communist oppression. Religious people in Russia had been violently suppressed and thrown in jail, and the only way anyone could hear a Beatles or a Rolling Stones record was if they got it on the black market. In fact, the two things that the Communist regime feared the most were religion and Western music. And now, suddenly, just as the Iron Curtain fell and people could do whatever they wanted, here was the Gauranga Bhajan Band, with a foreign religion and Western music rolled into one package! People went crazy for us.”

Everywhere they went, the Gauranga Bhajan Band—with its three-and-a-half hour show featuring drama, Bharat-Natyam Dance, traditional kirtan, and rock music—played at huge stadiums, drawing crowds of ten to twelve thousand people for every performance.

And with the Soviet government turned upside down, the State run by the people, and Western money akin to gold, the devotees were treated like megastars.

We flew from city to city in a private jet that had been used by the President, for less than it cost to take the train in America,” says T.K. “And we rented huge state-of-the-art sound systems for only $2,000 that would have cost us $50,000 back home.”

Even all this, however, couldn’t have prepared the band for their final show, in Moscow. Staged at Luzhniki Stadium, the biggest stadium in Russia and home of the 1980 Summer Olympics, the show also featured pop star Boy George as a support act and drew an unbelievable 30,000 people.

As soon as we walked into that place, we just went, ‘Oh my God,’” T.K. recalls. “We thought there was no way we could pull it off. It was just too big. We were all so scared. I remember as we stood backstage waiting to go on, B.B. Govinda Swami turned to me and said, “Don’t be scared. It’s okay. Everything’s going to be all right.” But I could tell he was terrified, too!”

I was trembling when I walked out onto the stage,” T.K. continues. “But as soon as I started playing, all the fear just left. I knew it was no longer really me playing, but Krishna somehow orchestrating the whole thing. It was an amazing experience. Everyone came down from their seats and stood on the floor in front of the stage for three-and-a-half hours—30,000 people chanting Hare Krishna along with us and breaking into thunderous applause at every little thing we did.”

Although the Gauranga Bhajan Band never reached those giddy heights again, they continued to go from strength to strength, doing more successful tours and releasing the stunning album Chant. Eventually, however, they broke up, due to main organizer Harikesa’s health issues.

First generation kirtaniyas

Agnideva prabhu

Initiated by Srila Prabhupada and preaching and singing in US, he is renowned for his melodious Gaudiya Vaishnava kirtan, Agnidev prabhu sings traditional songs with multi-cultural accompaniment, using both Eastern and Western intruments. In addition to his soul-stirring vocals, he is a master mridanga and harmonium player.

As a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, his study of Vedic philosophy led to the discovery of Bengali devotional music and, in 1972, he began performing Kirtan on New York City streets. He later toured with the South Asian Cultural Exhibition, displaying the art of Kirtan at university campuses across the United States. He continues to do Kirtan at various venues today.

Agnideva prabhu was born in Trinidad West Indies and moved to New York in his youth. His study of Vedic philosophy led him to discover the devotional music of West Bengal. In 1974 he began publicly performing bhajan and Kirtan in the traditional Bengali style. He later toured with the South Asian Cultural Exhibition singing on university campuses throughout Southern California in the US. In his numerous trips to India he has sought out pure kirtaniyas who have helped him evolve a truly traditional style. His influences include the work of Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada from whom he received mantra initiation into the path of pure devotion following Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Agnideva joined ISKCON in 1973 in New York City. Although he had performed in bands as a youth, public kirtan was in fact his last choice of service at first, as he was afraid he would be recognized on the street by people he knew.

Keen to impress upon him the value of truly surrendered service, his temple president announced, “Well that will be your service then!” and sent him out on Harinama Sankirtan.

Going out to chant for six hours a day, Agnideva, then Bhakta Alvin, began by just playing karatalas. But the leader, hearing his voice in the back of the group, asked him to sing for him when he took a break. Devotees instantly fell in love with his kirtans, and the rest was history.

In 1974, Agnideva moved to Los Angeles, and continued chanting on the streets there. One day, Stevie Wonder drove by, heard the devotees singing, and invited them to chant Hare Krishna and play karatalas on his classic track Pastime Paradise. According to Agnideva, Wonder was extremely gracious, and showed interest in Krishna consciousness.

Agnideva continued to inspire devotees with his chanting, as cassette tapes of his kirtans circulated around ISKCON throughout the 80s and early 90s, and became much-loved. After them came his Mandala-published series Smaranam in 2001, Kirtan in 2002, and Yoga of Sound in 2007. He remained dedicated to public Harinama Sankirtan, going out to chant every day. And since 2008, he has begun to travel intensively, becoming a familiar face at ISKCON kirtan festivals around the world, and a beloved voice on kirtan festival recordings.

While bhajans have become less and less popular in ISKCON, with kirtan festivals usually focusing only on the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, Agnideva is on a mission to bring them back, enlivening devotees with them at every gathering.

Bhajans are important to me because when the original Vaishnava Song Book came out, Srila Prabhupada wrote in the foreword: ‘Songs composed by the acharyas are not ordinary songs,’” quotes Agnideva. “ ‘When chanted by pure Vaishnavas who follow the rules and regulations of Vaishnava character they are actually effective in awakening the Krishna consciousness dormant in every living entity.”

Prayers to the Lotus Feet of Lord Krishna” aims for a simple and sweet sound.

That’s what Agnideva Prabhu is attracted to,” says producer Jahnavi Harrison. “So we tried to keep it sounding as natural and organic as possible, with minimal production. It’s like an intimate kirtan with friends.”

When he sings, I think you can really feel the power of someone that has devoted themselves to the practice of kirtan for a lifetime,” she explains. “But his mood is to keep things very simple. He’s down-to-earth and humble, not a showy person at all. I think that’s unique in a time where much of kirtan has taken on a little bit of an entertainment element. That does serve a purpose and is not necessarily all a bad thing. But the more that you can become famous for doing kirtan, the more it can escalate in an unhelpful direction. So I think he brings a lot of purity – and people can appreciate that.”,5943/


  • Smaranam (2001)

  • Kirtan (2002)

  • Yoga of Sound (2007)

  • Prayer to the Lotus Feet of Lord Krishna (2017)

Jananivas: Once, years ago, when I was in Vrndavan, Aindra was performing kirtan suddenly he would jumped up opposite to me and he was facing me and dancing, it appeared as if small deity of Gaura Nitai dancing, so much ecstasy, I could feel it, ecstasy emanating from him. It was like a miracle before my eyes, I was standing seeing that miracle. He was like electric.

Kripamoya prabhu

Kripamoya Das (Michael Harrison) grew up in rural Cornwall, where he regularly sang in church choirs and choral competitions. Aged 17, he heard kirtan at a pop festival near London and was never the same again. He decided to become a student of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, and dedicate his life to practising and sharing bhakti yoga. He has spent over 30 years travelling around Europe as a teacher, speaker and kirtaniya. He lives near Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire where he has raised a family of kirtan children including Kirtan London team member – Jahnavi Harrison. Last year he released his third album called Chakram, a collection of songs from ancient India with world music and percussion.

Bada Haridas prabhu

Bada Haridas has studied and performed Indian devotional music, including Indian classical music and raga since 1975.

Originally trained in classical music and jazz, he earned his degree from the University of Southern California (USC) in music composition, and a scholarship for his graduate studies at the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Montreau, Switzerland.

Bada Haridas artistically blends his many influences to create unique music in celebration of the divine. A sincere practitioner of bhakti yoga, there is a depth to Bada Haridas’ music and quality of singing that is simply captivating. Kirtan, the devotional singing of Krishna’s names, became his music and his personal connection to the divine. Learning the Sanskrit and Bengali songs and prayers, studying the ancient melodies and ragas, and teaching himself eastern instruments to accompany kirtan, Bada Haridas became a sought after kirtan leader and teacher.

His teaching expanded beyond the local ashrams to high schools, colleges, and universities. With his knowledge and training in both western and eastern music, and his experience in composition and arrangement, he began assisting kirtan singers in recording and producing.

Others began recording and distributing Bada Haridas’ kirtans, though these early recordings were often of lesser quality. Requested to make his devotional music available to a wider audience, he taught himself recording engineering and built a studio.

In his studio an amazing array of artists and projects are immortalized in digital sound: young kirtan artist’s first albums, known kirtan artist’s albums, children’s plays and narrations, fusion music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, and more. It is also in this studio Bada Haridas produces his albums and kirtan courses. He has produced numerous recordings of Vaisnava songs and poetry, especially the works of Narottama Das Thakura and Bhaktivinoda Thakura.

He travels internationally, presenting seminars on Vaisnava songs and devotional practices. He is also a celebrated Kirtan singer and performs at festivals around the world.

Bada Haridas, his wife and two children currently live in Gainesville, Florida, where he teaches mridanga, harmonium, voice, and music theory and composition. In his home studio he composes, arranges and records devotional music in traditional and contemporary styles. In addition to producing his own original music, he produces recordings for many other artists.

He has many albums like Lalasamayi, Om Purnam, Sri Nama, Maha Mantra LIVE, Seeking Your Shelter and Gaura Smaranam.

Sarvatma prabhu

Recognized for his unique harmonies and melodious style of chanting- from mellow, to jazzy, to world beat- Sarvatma has been absorbed in kirtan since 1980.

Having lived as a monk for 17 years and and now married for the last 16, Sarvatma travels throughout Europe and the United States, leading kirtan at major music festivals. He has also recorded several studio albums.

He said: „Kirtan is a means to transport the Holy Name from the spiritual realm to the heart of all living entities. It should be melodious and pleasant. When it is loud and chaotic, as some deliveries are, I’d prefer to chant japa in a solitary place. It is our duty to learn the art of kirtan, just as it is the duty of a cook or painter to learn and improve their particular disciplines.”

Vaiyasakhi prabhu

By 1970, he found himself back in London and enamored by Krishna devotion. Soon, in 1973, he was committed to the path of devotion, or bhakti-yoga, and, just two years later, he received formal initiation from His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.

On his Guru’s request he journeyed to India in 1975, both for personal purification and to proclaim the renaissance of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s bhakti movement. He travelled the entire subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, serving the mission of bhakti-yoga.

By 1978, he arrived in Bangladesh, where he imbibed the culture through his pores, becoming fluent in Bengali and learning the ways of the local people. On a boat trip down the Meghna River, he chanced upon a local kirtan band on their way to a festival. Deciding to follow these happy minstrels and their soulful kirtan music, he would also attend that same festival, changing his life forever. It was there that he discovered the ancient Bengali art of raga-kirtan, which touched his soul in the deepest possible way. Never before had he heard such angelic singing, and he resolved to use his own considerable vocal talents to spread this technique around the world. He returned to London with his own style of kirtan, a blend of ancient Bengali and modern contemporary music.

Today Vaiyasaki Das is a much sought-after performer, conducting workshops, doing concerts, and leading yoga festivals and retreats worldwide. Sharing his heart through music and chanting is the basis of his life. He has delighted audiences and taught Bhakti-yoga in 64 countries with people from all walks of life and cultures, and performs his music with a mission to uplift the consciousness of the planet.

His knowledge of the vast repertoire of Indian bhajans and kirtans has provided the foundation for a new generation of artists, in the flourishing genre of music for yoga and mantra meditation.

Vaiyasaki Das’s CDs include: The Way of Love, Charana Kamal, Kirtan Rasa, Hari-Nam-Ananda, Transcendence, Vrindavan Chandra, Chaitanya Chandra, Ratha-Yatra USA, The Turning Point, Best of Vaiyasaki, Sri Krishna Divya Nam – the beautiful divine name, & Kirtan Explosion -high energy kirtans.

Second generation kirtaniyas (non-exhaustive list)

Lately, many of the well-known kirtaniyas turned to the traditional ragas, presented by Aindra prabhu. Some of these melodies are changed a bit (it can be done as raga doesn’t mean fix melody but rather a musical framework, so an expert musician can change the melody, carefully considering the rules of the particular raga), and there are different variations of some of these „melody-sets” too. Actually, amongst the well-known kirtaniyas, I couldn’t find anyone, who doesn’t prefer these traditional type of melodies.

Kirtaniyas like Akincana Krishna prabhu, Gaura Vani prabhu, Saci Suta prabhu, Jahnavi Jivana mataji, Tulasi mataji, Acyuta Gopi mataji etc. Cultivate this style.

Gaura Vani prabhu

Gaura Vani was born in Los Angeles, but at the age of six, moved to Vrindavan, India to study sacred music at a gurukula. There, he learned how to play traditional Indian instruments, such as the harmonium. He brought his knowledge back to the United States, where he formed As Kindred Spirits with Shyam Kishore, a professionally trained Indian percussionist/multi-instrumentalist.

Jahnavi Jivana mataji

Like a river to the sea: her genuine, heartfelt devotion clearly won over Soul Traveller’s editors, who noticed something special and raved, “Pure, prayerful melodies emanate from Krishna devotee Jahnavi Harrison’s lips on every track of Like A River To The Sea. There’s no doubt about it: This woman is singing to God.”,5316


Gaura Vani & As Kindred Spirits

As Kindred Spirits was founded in 1998 by Gaura Vani and Shyam Kishore to bring kirtan, a genre of spiritual music from India, to the United States. The music “combines traditional Indian kirtan music with Western elements such as 12-string guitar, gospel choruses, and hip-hop rhythms”.

The band performs regularly at yoga studios and temples, along with touring to larger venues and festivals, such as Lollapalooza. They also tour internationally to countries such as Brazil and India. They also founded the first ever sold-out Chant4Change kirtan-festival in Washington, DC during President Obama’s inauguration.

In 2009, As Kindred Spirits became the first band signed to Equal Vision’s new, kirtan sub-label, Mantrology. Their second album, Ten Million Moons, is the first release on Mantralogy.

Band members:

  • Gaura Vani – vocals, harmonium

  • Shyam Kishore – tabla, sarod

  • Vrinda Rani – bharatanatyam dancer

  • Acyuta Gopi – vocals

  • Ananta Govinda – mrdanga (khol) [brother to Acyuta Gopi]

  • Jvala Mukhi – backing vocals, tamboura

  • Nistha Raj – violin

Various other musicians perform at various shows, most being local musicians.


  • Nectar of Devotion (2003)

  • Ten Million Moons (2009)

Gaura Vani combines sitars and chants with rock for a genre-defying musical mix.


Band Members:

  • Visvambhar Sheth – Vocals, Harmonium

  • Krishna Kishor Rico – Flute, Mrdanga

  • Balaram Tirtha Rico – Mrdanga

  • Vrinda Sheth – Bharat Natyam Dance

The Mayapuris have crash-landed into the kirtan/chant genre, quickly becoming the most talked-about group in this growing scene of exotic world music. Their story starts in the quiet backcountry of North Central Florida, Alachua, a small village-esque town known to some as the capital of the underground grassroots-kirtan movement in the West.

India 2001: The Mayapuris were teenagers fresh out of international boarding school where they trained in kirtan, a musical art form that has existed for thousands of years. They wanted the sound of their thunderous mridanga drums to shake the globe. Naming their group after the holy village of Mayapur, where the kirtan movement started, The Mayapuris traveled the world enthusing crowds with their dynamic drum dances and kirtan performances. In the summer of 2009, Mantralogy, a division of Equal Vision Records, signed The Mayapuris and placed them in the studio with kirtan producer Gaura Vani (As Kindred Spirits, Prema Hara, Ramya). Their debut album Mridanga (June 22, 2010/Mantralogy) brings a youthful and hip new energy to kirtan.

Rhythm is a universal language,” explains the Mayapuri drummer, Bali, “It transcends all external barriers. Everything. Race, religion, tongue, creed, culture. It’s the heartbeat of the universe.” The Mayapuris are unique in that they all originally were drummers before they became kirtan multi-instrumentalists. Their music is driven by rhythm. It’s the language they speak best.

Joined to its rhythm is the stirring musicianship that evolved after years of training, classical instrumentation mixed with the spontaneity of fiery vocals, a place where funk meets math and melody to produce beautiful music.

Vish was in a Boston hardcore punk band after returning from India. When Kish isn’t studying classical Hindustani flute he’s grooving to reggae. Bali was the front man and lyricist for a hip hop group while immersing himself in South Indian Carnatic drumming. And Vrinda cites Michael Jackson as one of the greatest musical/dance influences in her life (this coming from someone who studied in the ‘Ivy League’ of South Indian classical dance). Together they invoke the influence of an international community of musical spirit: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan meets a 21st century group of musical upstarts.

Our music is the hybrid offspring of our upbringing,” Bali adds, “Mridanga grooves, it builds, it’s an ancient tradition with a fresh spirit.” This is more than a kirtan album, it’s a life story broken up into chapters. It represents the Mayapuris; who they are and what kind of sound they embody. “Our music is infused with emotion, with passion, love, playfulness. We’ve grown up with it. We live it,” says Kish, “The band, the album, the shows… they are an offering. We love making music. We love being Mayapuris.”

In fact, the Mayapuris’ live performances usually begin in a prayerful, meditative way, building slowly. Kish’s flute and Vish’s harmonium create harmonic melodies, as Bali’s drum keeps the beat. “We try to give people a very unique kirtan musical experience,” Bali says. “For us, kirtan means spirit, prayer, spontaneity and love, and we try to embody that in our shows.”

As well as kirtan, The Mayapuri’s show includes mridanga presentations with acrobatic dancing, complicated mathematical rhythms, and head nodding beats. Meanwhile Vrinda, who studied Indian traditional dance for five years at Kalakshetra—“The Harvard of Dance Schools”—in Chennai, India, tells the kirtan’s story with interpretive dance.,1936

Other styles

One can also hear other, special types of bhajans, kirtans too. Some of them also have a traditional sounding and mood, while others are quite modernized styles. The purpose of the latter is mostly preaching.

Traditional ones

Bhajans infused with Krishna lila – Hari Bhakti Dey

This prodigy young man is romancing the devotees, with his old-fashioned Ravi Shankar style melodies and charming personality. He expertly takes the audience on a journey of Krishna stories, straight philosophy and elegant old-India ragas from by-gone ages and ancient villages.

He was trained in Bengal and then in Mumbai, by some of the world’s noted classical musicians. For him, kirtan means a trained ear. Knowing how to play, what to play, and when. Making the kirtan attractive, enchanting and mesmerizing is his goal.

Hindi bhajans – Ananta Nitai prabhu

I was fortunate to receive training from great kirtan leaders of ISKCON like Aindra prabhu, Nitai prabhu. etc. I took special training in Calcutta from renowned kirtan singers Nimai Mitra an Manoranjana Bhattacharya.

Difference in style is on his albums.

Swarupa Damodara prabhu

Swarupa Damodar Das is a self styled kirtan singer who started singing at the age of 7. He is loved by the devotee community for his melodious kirtans and has been spreading the glories of the Holy Names through his devotional albums all over the world.

Difference in style is on his albums.

Modern styles

Orchestrated kirtan – Bhakti Bhringa Govinda Swami

Bhakti Bhringa Govinda Swami had projects of doing kirtans accompanied by symphonic orchestras, like Lughansk Philharmonic Orchestra or KZN Philharmonic Orchestra on 31 March 2013, the Ratha Yatra in Durban.

Indradyumna Swami: One of the highlights of the Festival of Chariots in Durban was BB Govinda Maharaja singing the holy names accompanied by the famous 65-piece KZN Philharmonic Orchestra. He was backed up by a chorus of Bada Haridas, Jayadeva das and the local 12 member Kwa Mashu choir. At the end of the 90 minute program the production received a standing ovation from over 4,000 people in the audience. The mood was very much like Vrindavan!

Mantra choir – Jayadev prabhu

Mantra Choir is a unique experience in community devotional expression. Sitting somewhere between Rock Choir and the popular kirtan performances of the likes of Krishna Das, Mantra Choir blends the ancient euphoric call and response art of kirtan with upbeat counterpoint melodies to provide a beautifully rich sound and experience. What is unique about Mantra Choir is that the audience literally become the performers! Everyone can take part regardless of musical ability or previous singing experience. Jayadev breaks the audience into sections and gives each section a counterpoint of one of his beautiful self-penned mantras to sing. Once that section is comfortably singing their piece, Jayadev moves onto the next section and so on, until everyone is singing blissfully in perfect harmony.

Kirtan and other songs with guitar (e.g. Akrura prabhu)

Devotional music recordings

Apart from the singers mentioned above, the list of contemporary devotee bands and singers of spiritual music is limitless. We can say, practically every style is represented from metal through rock, till reggae. Even symphonic orchestral music.

A few examples:

Krishnautix (1984)

At the Berkely temple at that time, we were encouraged to use our talents for Krishna,” he says. “Many of us would listen to Change of Heart and other albums by Mangalananda, who had been encouraged by Srila Prabhupada to write Krishna conscious songs. Some of us would even sing and play guitar while we were out on the road.”

Titiksava Karunika began writing devotional songs, which seemed to just well up from somewhere deep in his soul. Trading the paintings he sometimes sold for recording equipment, he built a small studio behind the Los Angeles ISKCON temple, and started the band Krishnautix with keyboard player Govinda-bhasya Dasa in 1984.

Transcendence (1994)

Havi prabhu – Symphony of the Soul

Madhavas Rock Band

Premamaya Vasudeva prabhu

Ananda Monet – Inevitable Time

It’s not actually a traditional kirtan record, but a grand film-score style album that tells the story of the devotional epic Mahabharat through musical vignettes. Ananda, a Russian-born gurukuli now based in the UK, grew up singing the Sanskrit lyrics from the Bhagavad-gita and Puranas, and brings a lot of emotion to her powerful vocals.,5316

Madi prabhu – Bhakti without borders

It features duets with 12 Vaishnavi chanters singing traditional bhajans to infectiously catchy melodies.,5316

Jahnavi Jivana mataji – Like a River to the Sea

Shelter (Hare Krishna hardcore punk band)

6. Evolution of Harinam

Generally about harinam

I shall call you and some other students to assemble there to practice sankirtana in a systematic way. Of course, chanting Hare Krsna does not require any artificial artistic sense, but still, if the procedure is presented rhythmically, then the people may be attracted more by the transcendental music.

letter to Upendra Dasa, 1 June 1968

Also, H. H. Indradyumna Swami and Sri Prahlada prabhu wrote a Manual Book, entitled Harinama Eva Kevalam, which describes how to properly organize harinams.

Back in the early days

Back in the ISKCON of the 70’s, Tamal Krishna Goswami had a team who did Harinam every day. They all wore matching yellow skivvies and brown sweaters. The effect was striking and very pleasing to the eye and the mind. Prabhupada very much appreciated this. He wanted that people should have respect for the Holy Name when it was being chanted, not that they should say: “Look at those hippies.” To this end, devotees should be dressed nicely.

The Art and Science of Harinam Sankirtan Yajna


Although the kirtan style of Padayatras is not different from the style of any other harinams, the appearance of this type of sankirtan is significant, and based on the will of Srila Prabhupada.

1976: Srila Prabhupada Inspires Oxcart Padayatras in India

As early as 1969 Srila Prabhupada had advised his disciples staying with him at John Lennon’s estate outside London to use the land offered by John to grow fruits and vegetables and then transport them by oxcart to sell in the city. He spoke a similar message to a guest in Mauritius during a morning walk: “What is the use of a car? If you can get everything locally – basic necessities – then where is the need of a car? If you acquire a cart, you can have an oxcart. That’s all. Why should you hanker after petrol, oil, machine, this, that – so many things? Why?”

His instructions on conducting oxcart padayatra to bring Krishna consciousness to the villages of India resulted in two long padayatras in 1976. He appointed Lokanath Swami, an Indian disciple who grew up in a village, the leader of the group walking from Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, to Mayapur, West Bengal. Their most important programs took place in the evening in halls, temples, and courtyards, and on farms. Because entertainment and public events were rare in the countryside, entire villages would attend the programs, which consisted of an arati ceremony for the traveling deities (Sri Sri Nitai-Gaurasundara [Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Nityananda Prabhu]), a long kirtana, a philosophical talk, and prasada. The biggest attraction may have been the few Western devotees, since at that time most of the villagers had never seen a foreigner. The main reward for Lokanath Swami was seeing Srila Prabhupada’s beaming smile when they reached the Allahabad Kumbha-mela and his overwhelmingly loving reception when they arrived in Mayapur.

1984–1986: Celebrating Lord Chaitanya’s Five-Hundredth Anniversary:

ISKCON’s first grand-scale padayatra, led by Lokanath Swami, was a phenomenal success. Some of the highlights: an elephant, several oxcarts, a camel cart, tent programs attended by thousands, kirtana groups of 50 to 200 devotees from different nations, a large advance party with up to seven vehicles, book distributors joined by busloads of local devotees, amazing receptions, Food for Life prasada distribution almost every day, dioramas and exhibits, numerous favorable articles in nationwide newspapers, meetings with officials, VIPs, politicians and religious leaders, visits to many places of pilgrimage, and about twenty thousand people viewing Sri Sri Nitai-Gaurasundara daily. Padayatra had revealed itself as a truly grassroots movement for spreading Lord Chaitanya’s message. It was just too good to stop in Mayapur.

1986–1996: The Worldwide Padayatra Explosion

In 1991 Lokanath Swami, now ISKCON’s Padayatra Worldwide minister, started to plan for padayatras in a hundred countries as his Centennial offering to Srila Prabhupada. The first walks were in Mauritius, Guyana, the USA, Mexico, and Ireland. Padayatra was emerging slowly but definitely as an effective tool for spreading Krishna consciousness, and it gradually gained support from ISKCON leaders and members. Another reason for the padayatra explosion was that organizers learned how to adapt the program to their own countries – using horses instead of oxen, or using no animals at all, driving through uninhabited areas, and using boats or planes to get from island to island, as in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean.


After 1996 the padayatra fever generated at the time of the Centennial kept burning strong. Many countries organized new walks

ISKCON devotees kept innovating. One successful innovation was to take part in existing walking pilgrimages, such as the Walk for Peace to Assisi in Italy, the St. James Way in Spain, and the Dindi-yatras in Maharashtra, India. This reduced the devotees’ organizational work and increased the opportunity to share the maha-mantra and Lord Chaitanya’s message with a huge number of souls.

Visnujana Swami

In the previous section, written about Visnujana Swami details about the Radha-Damodara Travelling Sankirtana Party can be read. The interesting point mentioned there is that Srila Prabhupada limited the use of instruments for only mridanga and karatal.

Indradyumna Swami’s Preaching Festivals

Indradyumna Swami’s Polish Tour is definitely worth mentioned as a milestone in kirtans and especially in harinams. One important point is that in the evenings there are ecstatic kirtans, however in the mornings there are long harinams for the people to hear the Holy Name, and also to be invited for the Festival itself. Sri Prahlada prabhu’s harinams are remembered by many, and even now many devotees sing his simple, joyful harinam melodies.

Indradyumna Swami organizes Krishna Fests in different locations, just to mention a few:

  • Polish Tour and Woodstock

  • Krishna Fest in Gujarat

  • Festival Tour East Coast USA

  • Increasingly in other parts of the world such as Australia and Brazil…

In 1979, at age 29 he took a vow of lifelong dedication to missionary activities as a celibate monk and entered the renounced order of sannyasa as Indradyumna Swami Maharaja. In the same year he founded a traveling festival group that toured all over France sharing India’s spiritual teachings and cultural traditions of music, dance, and food.

Indradyumna Swami has been involved in coordinating the annual Festival of India tour in Poland since 1990. The festivals seek to introduce people to India’s ancient cultural traditions through a feast of entertainment and education involving: classical Indian dance performances, theatre with larger-than-life puppets, presentations on Vedic texts such as Bhagavad-gita, musical performances, graphic exhibits, stalls with books and handicrafts, vegetarian food. The events are attended by between 5,000 to 10,000 people at a time.

Since 1990 Indradyumna Swami Maharaja’s activities have increasingly centered on coordinating massive cultural events each year in Poland and increasingly in other parts of the world such as Australia and Brazil.

Running from July 13th to 16th this year, Krishna’s Village is an ISKCON success story, one of the biggest outreach efforts in the world. It’s been part of Woodstock since the music festival’s inception 22 years ago in 1994, when organizer and renowned philanthropist Jurek Owsiak saw a similar vision in traveling preacher Indradyumna Swami.

Woodstock began with around 30,000 participants in total, and 120 devotees working in Krishna’s Village of Peace. With its promotion of non-violence, a drug-free lifestyle, and reciprocal service – Owsiak fronts the cash for the festival and the youth of Poland raise it back in one street collection day – it was a perfect fit for the Hare Krishnas.

In the Mantra Yoga tent, running twelve hours a day, devoted chanters like Badahari Das, Sacinandana Swami, Madhava Das, Mahatma Das, Acyuta Gopi Dasi and Indradyumna Swami led back-to-back ecstatic kirtans with up to one thousand youth joining in from 4pm till 1:30 in the morning. And on each of the four days of Woodstock, devotees took Jagannath’s colorful chariot on a beautiful, celebratory Rathayatra parade through the festival site.

During both of these efforts, video footage shows young rockers dancing in synchronized moves with the devotees, jumping up and down with their arms in the air, swaying with their eyes closed and earnest expressions of meditation on their faces, and taking the mic to sincerely chant the maha-mantra themselves. The deeply moving sight has to be seen to be believed.

Many of these kids have been coming to Krishna’s Village of Peace for three, four, five years in a row, and they keep coming back to experience our kirtans,” says Indradyumna Swami.

By: Madhava Smullen for ISKCON News on Aug. 4, 2016

And from January 12th through February 6th this winter (2012-2013), missionary Indradyumna Swami continued this effort with Krishna Fest, a major festival tour throughout the Indian state of Gujarat.

Taking a small group of devotees with him and travelling by train across the Baltic Sea Coast that first year, he booked small halls with a capacity of only 50 to 100 people and presented a simple program of bhajan, dance, theater, lecture and kirtan.

Today, his Viva Kultura Foundation puts on over forty events in Poland every summer, with audiences of three to five thousand people each night.

Their twenty-one-date tour began with a triumphant performance on January 12th to 3,000 people in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s former capital and its largest city. Performing for several nights in each location, the tour then travelled to the cities of Anand, Rajkot, Dvaraka, Baroda, Bharuch, Navsari, and Surat, with each show drawing huge crowds of anywhere from 2,000 all the way up to 8,000 people.

In between shows, meanwhile, the touring group also chanted on city streets in Harinams, and participated in local Rathayatra festivals.,3745

Sri Prahlada prabhu

Sri Prahlada was practically born into kirtan and has been singing and playing kirtan across the globe since childhood. He developed his initial fascination with kirtan attending school at ashrams in Australia and India. A natural musical talent, at age 12 he won a recording contract with record giant EMI, releasing two singles and an album entitled “Through the Eyes of a Child”. Sri Prahlada has performed kirtan in traditional, as well as rock and reggae styles before audiences of tens of thousands. Along with the likes of Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, he features in Steven Rosen’s book The Yoga of Kirtan which contains in-depth interviews with 20 western kirtan artists.

At age 15 Sri Prahlada took formal spiritual initiation into the Chaitanya Vaisnava tradition from Hridayananda dasa Goswami. Sri Prahlada has also been mentored by the renowned bhakti-yoga master Indradyumna Swami traveling as his assistant, secretary, and lead kirtan singer, from age 15 onwards for about 18 years.

Now based in Sydney Australia, Sri Prahlada often performs with the five-piece band featuring the hypnotic harmonium, rhythmic bass and mridanga drum, melodic guitar, chiming karatals, and vocal harmonies. Sri Prahlada’s heart and soul permeates every moment of every kirtan he sings, transporting his audience to the realm of spiritual consciousness.

As Sri Prahlada began to play the harmonium and chant, I saw many of the yogis break their meditation and open their eyes in astonishment. Others closed their eyes and began swaying to the beautiful melodious kirtan. Within 30 minutes practically everyone was dancing in transcendental ecstasy.

Indradyumna Swami Maharaja

Apart from his kirtan leading, Sri Prahlad is also famous for writing many mahamantra tunes, which – by their joyful mood and simplicity– are quite suitable, and also often used for harinams.


  • One Voice, One Heart (2013)

  • Offering (2016)

Harinam Groups

Harinama Ruci

Today, travelling group Harinama Ruci is one of the simplest, most distilled examples of Sri Chaitanya’s message you’re likely to see — bright, colorful, happy, and always chanting, dancing, and making people smile.

The group was started eight years ago by Visnujana Das from Slovakia, who spent three months with the international Harinam party in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s birthplace of Mayapur, West Bengal, and was inspired to start his own.

I returned to Europe and tried to put a group together and travel around doing daily Harinama Sankirtana,” he says. “Some days it was just me and one other devotee. But gradually Krishna started sending devotees from all over the world. We called the group Harinama Ruci, which means ‘taste in the holy name.’ We want to get that taste ourselves, and also give it to others.”

There are currently ten young men, most of them celibate monks called brahmacharis, in Harinama Ruci. Among them organizer Visnujana, 36, from Slovakia plays the mridanga drum and takes the group’s stunning photos. Syama Rasa Das, 34, from Croatia, sings and plays accordion. Goura Karuna Das, 32, from the Czech Republic, distributes Srila Prabhupada’s books from his folding bike, and plays his trademark vuvuzela trumpet.

And finally, dancer and kartal player Harinamananda Das, 26, from Australia is the group’s “flying brahmachari,” appearing airborn and executing improbable aerial acrobatics in practically every photo.,5011

Sri Harinam Mandir Travelling Temple

Our group of brahmacaris from Sri Harinam Mandir in Tallinn, Estonia departed on the 15th of May 2012 on two vans to a whole summer long European Harinam Sankirtan tour. And traveling with us are the wonderful Deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra.

In April, in Estonia we had our very first 3 day long Kirtana Mela festival with around 150 devotees taking part.

Deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra came to Tallinn and were installed during this grand festival. Now the Deities are traveling together with us to share Their mercy with all the people we meet on our travels.

Every day we are performing public Harinamas in various different cities of Europe.

During our tour we have made Ratha-yatra festivals already in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Czech Republic.

Until this day our Sankirtan group was traveling on two vans. But lately there have been so many devotees expressing their desire to join us on this adventure, that we have decided to purchase a large bus. For this purpose we received blessings from spiritual masters. The main advantage of our journey is that everybody is together and engaged in the one most important thing – spreading the glories of the Holy Name of the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna!


I want to form a sankirtana party in which two members will play mrdanga, eight will play the cymbals, two will play on tampura, and one harmonium…

letter to Hamsaduta dasa, January 22, 1968

Pancadravida: Do we use like a marching band in the Ratha-yatra? If we used a marching band, a lot of people come, like a parade, like they use in the parades with trumpets and drums and all these things.

Prabhupada: I think you can introduce in Africa also. (laughter)

room conversation, Mayapur, February 24, 1974

Another time in that same room there was a discussion about kirtan, the Radha Damodar kirtans that we were having on campus or on the street where we set up. Prabhupada was saying we just should use khol and karatals. At that time we had many instruments. We had harmonium, we had esraj – which was like a violin – we had ektara, and we had an instrument that had strings and you play it with little hammers. So there was a discussion where Prabhupada was saying just to use khols and karatals. And Adi-kesava said that people were attracted to the party because of the instruments, and Prabhupada didn’t seem to take that very seriously. And then Adi-kesava said, “But Visnujana said…” and Prabhupada cut him off and said, “Who is Visnujana? I am your spiritual master.” And also in that meeting Prabhupada said that there shouldn’t be any harmonium during the aratis. And previously you hear lot of tapes of Bharadvaj and others playing harmonium. So that was stopped during aratis. And it didn’t seem like Prabhupada just wanted some expert musicians. He wanted devotees. So that was stopped, and that time the Radha Damodar party just went back to mrdanga and karatals on the public kirtans, for a while, and eventually we had a couple of instruments here and there, I had heard with Prabhupada’s permission; I don’t know for sure.

Dravinaksa Dasa, Memories of Srila Prabhupada, DVD #47


Some devotees like to play harmonium on harinama-sankirtana. But much more practical for walking harinama is the accordion, which is designed to be played while standing or walking.

Harinama Eva Kevalam


Akincana Krishna: Devotees are fond of Djembes because they`re much easier to play than mrdungas and because they are easier to tune. But mrdungas are transcendental and infinitely more sweet if they are played and tuned correctly. If devotees would take the trouble to tune their mrdungas, they could achieve the rich bass sound they seek from the djembe — no djembe required! And if they would take a little trouble to learn how to play mrdunga sweetly, I`m sure the whole movement would immediately lose their taste for djembes. There is simply no comparison in terms of the beauty of the sound and subtlety of the instrument. When djembes are brought into kirtan, the sound of the mrdunga is immediately lost, and the sweetness of the sound is destroyed. Perhaps part of your committee could be to train devotees in properly playing and tuning mrdungas — I think such a move would very substantially serve the sankirtan movement.

Aindra: That’s why I don’t allow djembes when I perform sankirtan. At one time I allowed it, but after gaining experience as to what happens when I allow it, I decided that definitely I shall not allow djembe to accompany my kirtan. The djembe has its appeal perhaps because it is easier to play than a mrdanga nicely. But the djembe is a tamasic instrument, which totally overpowers and obliterates the beauty of the madhurya mrdanga vibration. Of course someone could argue that Lord Caitanya didn’t have a harmonium, but certainly Lord Caitanya didn’t have a djembe in his sankirtanparties. If the djembe must be used at all, it should be used outside. But even then the tendency is for it to overpower the mrdanga and to impede the beauty and sweetness of its vibration to move the heart which in and of itself is a transcendental sound which moves the heart toward Krishna.

Other instruments

Horns like the trumpet and bugle are also a nice addition to harinama-sankirtana. Srila Prabhupada said that horns were also played in Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana: “mrdanga, karatalas and that bugle.”

room conversation, March 5, 1967, San Francisco

You may also have melodious accompaniment instruments, and amplifiers.

letter to Hamsaduta dasa and Himavati dasi, March 3, 1968


Srila Prabhupada wanted that for Sankirtana (chanting in the street), women stay in the middle to be protected.

Prabhupada also approved of formation dancing. Formation dancing is good for public Harinam, and when done right, is good for sweeping people up into a collective ecstasy that can bring them to the same platform of experience of the kirtan as the devotees. Formation dancing should be sweet and devoid of passion. People like to feel part of something, to experience camaraderie. This type of dancing can help them to have this experience.

The Art and Science of Harinam Sankirtan Yajna

Since early days, the dance moves used in harinams evolved. Some youtube videos summarize the different type of steps and arm and hand movements which can be used by matajis to nicely accompany the harinam. As far as I know, this system was developed by the Russian matajis, and the interesting point is, that the movements also have a meditational significance. Some of these remind the dancer of the Lord e.g. showing how He holds His flute, others represent some types of services, like playing on karatal, picking flowers, making garlands, strewing flower petals in front of the Lord.

7. Evolution of instruments


History of the harmonium

Unlike the instruments that have been previous taught or examined in the music of India, the harmonium is one of the most frequently used instrument that has no Indian origin. The harmonium was actually a European organ that was used in churches during the medieval time frame. The look of the harmonium then was almost similar to a piano. There is was a huge number of keys, a chair to sit down, and a foot pump for the air. This way, the musician could play the harmonium with both hands. European music requires this, it is mostly harmonic through the use of chords. A chord is when three or more notes are played simultaneously.

When the British came to India in the 18th century, they brought their harmoniums also. Although the foot pedal was still retained, the hand pumped version was introduced. When the harmonium came across to North Indian musicians, they immediately favored this instrument for few reasons. When the hand pumped version came out, it did not require foot pedals. For an Indian musician, it was discipline and practice to sit on the floor. Thus, this format of a floor organ worked well. Secondly, the harmonium was able to go with the flow of the voice pretty well. Thirdly, it was much easier to learn than sarangi. Sarangi is a bowed instrument which was used to accompany vocalists. However, it was very difficult to play. Even though one hand was required to pump air, it was not a problem, because Indian music does not have chords. Since Indian music is primarily melodic, only hand was needed to pump and one hand was needed to play the melody.

The harmonium is not strictly limited to Indian styles. Western forms, in terms of chord changes, are currently integrated into the North Indian forms of music. Chord progressions introduce a different form of modality. Chord progressions, however, will not be found in North Indian classical or semi classical.


For temple bhajans, harmoniums could be used, but for harinams, while walking and dancing, it wasn’t suitable. I didn’t find any information about how it came into use at first, however, lately it is used in harinams in many countries of the world. (In temples it’s not used.)

Aindra Style harmonium

Aindra: I hate accordions. The sound is weird and it brings back memories of Russian bar music. That’s why I have developed this other style of small harmoniums, to offer an alternative to the accordion.

This type of harmonium has some limitations, smaller scale, no scale changer, no drone funcionality, also needs the player to be more conscious about the use of the air pump. However, it is portable, and the sound is much more like the harmoniums, than the accordions.


Nowadays there are different varieties of mridangas.

  • Clay drums with leather straps and leather head.

  • Metal drums with leather straps and leather head.

  • Fiberglass drums with leather straps and leather heads.

  • Balaram Mrdangas – Fiberglass body and plastic heads

Bablu Das – Introduction of Basic Mridanga Book

Creation of Balaram mridanga

Summerized info of

Some time in 1972-73 Srila Prabhupada saw that the East Indians were not carrying on the tradition of making the original mridangas and kartals. So Srila Prabhupada sent out a letter to all the GBCs indicating that some men should be sent to India to learn these arts.

Ishan prabhu saw a letter expressing Srila Prabhupada’s desire in this connection, so although being a grihastha, having one child, he arranged to go to India, to learn this kind of art. (There were about half a dozen other devotees in order to learn.)

There was two types of things to learn: from the clay man the making of the shells and from the leather man the making of the drums.

Several problems arouse while learning:

  • they weren’t motivated in sharing their secrets

  • language problems

  • later on learning was suspended for some time due to some changes in mridanga business

After Ishan prabhu learned this art, he had a talk with Srila Prabhupada:

Srila Prabhupada said, “It takes so much work to make one of these drums. And our men throw them down like pots. So go to the west. Use your western technology. Make a drum that they cannot break. And put a strong strap on it. The day will come when there will be big, big sankirtan in the streets. And the people will want drums. And we will give them drums.”

So Ishana prabhu went to Los Angeles (because there were so much plastics industries) to create an unbreakable drum. He went to several western temples canvassing for financial support for the project. Montreal, Toronto, New Orleans. It was a good idea, but results were slow in coming. Temple presidents thought he should do something more usefull. In the end Karandhar prabhu funded everything.

After 6-8 months it happened. He had a shop. It was set up. Ranadhir prabhu was his liason to the different suppliers. Metal rings, raw urethane, fiberglass shells, inserts, straps, heads from special molds made by Remo Drum Company. We had all the equipment, the materials. Production began. And so did distribution.

There was also a book published by Duryodhana-guru prabhu, which was entitled Introduction to the Balaram Mridunga. It contained the construction, tuning, the bols, playing position and rudiments of the mridanga. Also included 16 lessons to learn Mrdunga, and the mridanga course by Srila Prabhupada, mentioned before.

Balarama mridangas became replaced by Tilak mridangas

Summarized info of

A few years ago the Balarama mridangas were replaced by the new Tilak mridangas. The concept hasn’t changed. As the creators wrote, these are the same, only new and improved. These are available in different colors and sizes. (By improving the production methods these drums could be produced in a large quantity, so the price could be reduced.)

Mridanga sampradayas

There are four sampradayas:

  1. Gadanhati: this sampradaya originated from Srila Narottama dasa Thakura. It is accepted by the acaryas as the purest kirtana and bhajana style, but it is such a high level that hardly anyone today is able to play in authentic Gadanhati style.

  2. Manoharasahi: this is the style established by Srinivasa Acarya and is the best-known kirtana style among the Gaudiya Vaisnava societies. It is also pure. It is easier to learn than Gadanhati but not as deep or as sweet. All mrdanga players should first learn according to this sampradãya, and when they have mastered it, they can enter the vast ocean of Gadanhati. There is connection between these two sampradayas and their specific features.

  3. Reneti: This sampradaya was started by Syamananda Pandita. It is a special blend of classical kirtana music and an expression of Syamananda’s devotion. The name comes from its place of origin in Midnapura, in the district of Reni Hati (Orissa). Reneti kirtana remained provincial and gradually it became less well known than the Manoharasahi style. Reneti is less pure than the first two sampradayas, but it is not offensive to use it in Krsna’s service.

  4. Mandarini: the origin of this style is unknown and the acaryas no longer accept it as pure. Therefore, one should not play it for Krsna.

Bablu Das – Introduction of Basic Mridanga Book

In the early days, Srila Prabhupada taught the devotees how to play mridanga, but later on, in India, two main mridanga gurus were accepted:

  • Bablu Mashai teaches both Manoharasahi and Gadanhati mrindanga mantras.

  • Master Pankaj teaches Gadanhati. (On his booklet it can be read, that the mantras of that book coming by the Parampara from Narottam Das Thakur.) In the 24 hour kirtan in Vrndavana it’s the style learned from him which is used by Govinda prabhu, Vrndavan prabhu etc.

Bablu Mashai

As a young child, Bablu showed his inclination toward the mridanga. He would grasp any item and hit it with his thumb and four fingers alternately — a technique known to mrdanga players. He got a small clay mridanga. It became his constant companion. He would roam the streets of his village, looking for sadhus performing kìrtana; then he would happily sit with them and accompany their singing.

When Bablu was six years old his father began to teach him mridanga. One day a babajì came to their house, performing his weekly madhukari (begging for alms). As he sat down to sing in front of the Deities, Bablu sat beside him and played his small mridanga. The babaji was Radhacarana dasa Babaji Maharaja, one of the greatest musicians of his time and a very exalted and respected Vaisnava, he started to teach him.

He had no time for childhood activities. Every morning he rose at three o’clock and practiced the mridanga until seven. Then he took bath, ate breakfast, and went to school. In the afternoon, his guru taught him for two hours, and often he practiced for two more hours. His daily quota was eight hours of practice, including class, seven days a week. In that way, he learned the vast knowledge of mridanga playing, and his hands became perfect.

At the age of twelve he joined a professional kirtana band along with his guru.

When Bablu was fourteen, he started to teach mridanga at the ISKCON Gurukula in Mayapura.

At the age of nineteen his guru directed him to his second guru, Jagadbandhu Ustad.

As his employment at the ISKCON Gurukula became increasingly full time, he gave up his career as a professional musician. His mission was to preserve and transmit the knowledge he had inherited from his teachers by training willing and eager young students. He trained a Gurukula kìrtana band.

After five years, his second guru handed him over to the foremost authority on the mridanga, Haridasa Babaji Maharaja Visarada, Bablu’s third and last mridanga guru. Under his guidance, Bablu studied the vast ocean of padavali-kirtana, the topmost musical system, which describes the eternal lilas of Radha and Krsna through long, elaborate songs and mantras. Unfortunately Bãblu could not complete his training, because Haridasa Babaji Maharaja left the world a few years later. The knowledge, however, was not lost; Haridasa Babaji Maharaja’s books were left in Bablu’s care.

From 1982 until 1995, Bablu served as a mrdanga teacher at the ISKCON Gurukula in Mayapura. He tirelessly trained more than 300 students, inside and outside of ISKCON, in the pure style of Gaudiya Vaisnava music, and it was mainly by his endeavor that the Mayapura project became renowned for its high standard of kirtana. Since 1995 he has been teaching mrdanga at the ISKCON Gurukula in Vrndavana, where he is a source of inspiration for the young Vaisnavas who are eager to take up the pure Vedic system of mridanga playing.

The twelve-month Mridanga Course Book

Learning mridanga nowadays

On the other hand, the worldwide-known kirtaniya and mridanga-player Madhava prabhu, after joining Aindra prabhu’s 24 hour kirtan party, didn’t have a mridanga teacher.

Nowadays there are some documents available on internet which contain many mridanga mantras from the above mentioned bona fide mridanga gurus, and lots and lots of videos containing mridanga rythms with unknown source. As time goes by, devotees learn more and more complicated beats with speculated decorations, although Jiva Goswami mentions, that it is offensive to play speculated beats on the mridanga, because it is the representation of Balaram.

Those, who want to make sure to learn from a bona fide source, can attend the Mayapur Kirtan Academy, the Bhaktivedanta College (Radhadesh) Kirtan Course. There are online classes too, like, and also travelling mridanga teachers like Bablu prabhu or Devadharma prabhu.


Although, when we talk about Vedic instruments, we mean mridanga and karatals, and with Srila Prabhupada’s approval, we also use harmonium, there was another instrument, which he sometimes encouraged the devotees to use, and that is tamboura. It has some historical roots, so didn’t evolve in the history of ISKCON, however, worth mentioning.

It may be questioned why Srila Prabhupada let the devotees use this stringed instrument, as he didn’t like melodic instruments. However, the tamboura is not a melodic instrument, but a so called drone instrument, which is used in the Indian raga system. It keeps one tone throughout all the song, and because of it’s “monotonity”, it won’t draw attention away from the Hare Krsna mantra. On the other hand, this instrument is not suitable for western type of tunes, especially not for those, which are accompanied by chords on harmonium.

Prabhupada said, the party should have two mridanga players, one harmonium player, one tamboura player, and at least six karatala players.

Satsvarūpa Dāsa Gosvāmī – Prabhupāda-līlā: Around the World 1967-1969 & 1972-1975

Prabhupāda: Yes. You can sing also very nicely, sing also, like songs, with tamboura. It is very nice. (sings:) Cintāmaṇi-prakara-sadmasu kalpa, like that, it is very nice. In every temple there should be, one man should play on tamboura and chant. It requires nice pronunciation, and with the sound of tamboura it will be (indistinct). People are coming, offering darśana, and the singing is going on. That is the system in Indian temples. It immediately vibrates.

Philosophy Discussion on Charles Darwin

Usually, the devotee playing the harmonium is the leader, but when there is tamboura, that player will be the lead singer.

Regarding Kirtana Party: My idea is that at least one dozen persons should form a Kirtana Party. Two persons play mrdangas, eight persons play karatalas, one person playing tamboura, and one person playing melodious harmonium. The person who will play on tamboura will be leader singer. You have just calculated what I want, when you suggest that the leader should sing as I do, and the others will respond. That will be very nice.

letter to Hamsaduta – Los Angeles 4 February, 1968–_Los_Angeles_4_February,_1968

Other thoughts on melodies and instruments

Originally, Srila Prabhupada started to sing very easy tunes, and every type of instruments were suitable for accompany these kirtans. However, singing the Holy Names developed into two directions. One of these is to sing ragas, and the other is the western type of tunes. There are big arguments which one is the better. Some of the reasons pro and contra:


+ There are things which Krishna likes and others which He dislikes. As far as we know, He prefers the raga-system. Also, Srila Prabhupada in some circumstances had the instruction of singing ragas according to the actual time of the day.

+ If we please Krishna, by singing that He likes, everyone will be satisfied, as by watering the roots of the plant, all leaves will be nourished.

+ The raga system is also “designed” to express some certain devotions, this way, meditation can be done in some certain devotional moods, like separation, joyfulness etc.

Western type of tunes:

+ All that Krishna needs is the devotees’ love and devotion, which also can be expressed by made-up tunes, for the pleasure of the Lord.

– The adaptation of the melody of existing songs can divert the meditation.

+ Easier tunes can be followed by the crowd, also more suitable for preaching.

For western tunes, the melodically accompaniment is mostly based on chords, and the western type of instruments are suitable for that. However, the system of Indian music is different. For example, instead of harmonizing, there are drone instruments, which keep one certain tone throughout the whole song. Even the tuning of instruments is different.

Janananda Gosvami: It is common in ISKCON kirtan, both in the temple and outside, to use no end of musical instruments besides the mrdanga and karatals (including whompers). Probably the most common being the djembe and accordion. Saxophones, violins, other stringed instruments, tamboura etc., flutes, trumpets to name a few are also often to be seen. There is no end of the opportunity to introduce more.

We have seen Srila Prabhupada’s leniency in many cases – mostly early ones – and also his more restrictive advice on instrumentation in Kirtan. There is clearly a difference between certain standards in regards to Temple kirtan, bhajan and public (in the sense of street sankirtan, festivals, halls etc…). Naturally we are taking this into account.

Akincana Krishna: In general, Western instruments have nothing to offer Vedic culture. Indian instruments, such as those played by Indian classical musicians, are much more suitable for kirtan, if we must use instruments besides the mrdunga and kartals. Saxaphones and guitars and trumpets are from a lower level of culture. Why should we use these things? To my mind it`s something like dressing the Deities in blue jeans and offering them pizza. Again, if devotees are interested in using other instruments, I think the real need is for devotees to take the trouble to learn instruments connected with Vedic culture — not the passionate and ignorant instruments of the West.

There are examples in our movement of devotees who sing and play the mrdunga and other Indian classical instruments such as bamboo flute and violin very beautifully, based on Indian classical standards. When these devotees do kirtan, I always think it is infinitely more sweet and transcendental than when devotees use instruments like djembe and accordion.

Aindra: If devotees can learn how to play instruments in the Indian classical style, it goes a long way to enhance the transcultural experience of sankirtan. If you learn how to play the mrdanga nicely, according to a traditional mantra system, that generates the type of vibration which takes the kirtan to another cultural dimension. Similarly with the violin—someone may play the violin in a western classical style, but I think for kirtan it is much better to play with an Indian classical style. Have you ever heard Indian classical guitar playing? It’s outrageously good, tremendous. Have you ever heard Indian classical clarinet? It’s tremendous. Have you ever heard classical Indian flute? Compared to the occidental style of flute or violin playing, the Indian classical style is much more appropriate for kirtan. When you play those instruments in kirtan in a western style, I think it’s not as harmonious. The same can be said for harmonium playing. Srila Prabhupada played harmonium in an Indian classical style. He didn’t use chords. It’s not that the Vedic culture doesn’t lend itself to higher cultural expression than other so called cultures of the world. The highest cultural expressions in the world are Vedic cultural expressions. It’s not like you are going to lose something by learning how to play the instruments in accordance with the Vedic way.

Akruranatha: Didn’t kirtan styles change over time? I recall reading (was it in one of Satyaraj Prabhu’s books?) that Narottama das Thakur introduced a style of kirtan that was innovative (maybe combining praise of Lord Caitanya that was popular among Bengali devotees with glories of Radha-Krishna that were popular with the devotees in Vraj?)

But we want innovations in style (if at all) to be truly inspired from the spiritual world. I have never much cared for many attempts to add devotional lyrics to popular western forms of music (e.g., “Krishna rock”), and yet sometimes I find it is done very effectively and successfully and I love it.

8. Tendencies summarized

What we sing – about the text

Mahamantra, Vaisnava-, Bengali- and other, composed songs

Regarding authorized songs, you may inform George that authorized songs means the songs which were sung or composed by self-realized Acaryas. It is an injunction in the Vaisnava regulations that unauthorized songs or statements should never be heard. The comparison is given that milk, although very nutritious food, if it is touched by the tongue of a serpent, it acts like poison. So I am giving herewith a few lines of authorized songs which you may deliver to George.

letter to Syamasundara, L.A. 25 February, 1970

Devotee: Is chanting Vaisnava songs on an equal level with maha-mantra?

Prabhupada: Yes. But first of all understand what is the maha-mantra. He krsna, Hare Krsna, “O the energy of Krsna, please accept me.” This is the prayer. This is addressing, He Krsna, Hare Krsna, “Hara, Please, now I am engaged in this material service; kindly accept me in Your service.” This is the meaning of Hare Krsna. So a relationship, requesting something. So all these songs are like that, requesting relationship. Therefore they are the same.

* SB Lecture, January 20, 1974

While bhajans have become less and less popular in ISKCON, with kirtan festivals usually focusing only on the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, Agnideva is on a mission to bring them back, enlivening devotees with them at every gathering.

Bhajans are important to me because when the original Vaishnava Song Book came out, Srila Prabhupada wrote in the foreword: ‘Songs composed by the acharyas are not ordinary songs,’” quotes Agnideva. “ ‘When chanted by pure Vaishnavas who follow the rules and regulations of Vaishnava character they are actually effective in awakening the Krishna consciousness dormant in every living entity.”,5943/

Radharani ki jaya, maharani ki jaya (a Brijbasi folk-song) and Jaya jaya radha-ramana haribol (an invented pop “bhajana”) are other examples of catchy jingles that have been introduced in ISKCON kirtanas. Considering his attitude towards similar non-standard chants, it is unlikely that Srila Prabhupada would have approved these innovations.

Preferably, they should be discontinued in all our centers.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

Besides the mantras and prayers discussed above, devotees who come to Vrndavana think it is very transcendental when they pick up the local songs and prayers. They think that by such practice they are assimilating the culture and entering into the Vrndavana mood. Subsequently their example is carried back to other temples by devotees who don’t know any better and think that whatever they heard chanted in Vrndavana is safe to import. This was not Srila Prabhupada’s view. He did not even chant Radhe-Syama as a greeting when in Vrndavana. He would always say Hare Krsna.

* Harikesa Swami, Vaisnava Journal

Lately Vaisnava songs have become less and less popular in ISKCON, with kirtan festivals usually focusing on the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. However, some devotees started to sing Brijbasi folk-songs, this way trying to absorb the mood of Vrindavana.

It’s also important to note that in our days there are many albums containing spiritual themed songs, written and performed by devotees. Even Prabhupada encouraged some (e.g. George Harrison and others) to write songs like these, but these were never meant for temple “use”. It was like this in the early days, and it’s like this even now, the only difference is only the quantity of these songs.

Other aspects

Today it is common to hear kirtanas composed of words such as: “Gauranga,” “Nityananda”, “Nitai, Nitai, Nitai, Nitai, Nitai Gauranga,” “Gaurahari,” “Gaura Gaura”, “Nitai-Gaura,” “Nitai-Gauranga,” “Gaura-Nitai”, “Gaura-Nityananda Bol, Haribol”, “Gaura Sri Advaita Bol, Haribol” “Gaura Sri Gadahara Bol, Haribol,” “Gaura Sri Srivasa Bol, Haribol,” “Jaganatha Haribol,” “Radhe Radhe

Govinda, Govinda Radhe,” “Haribol, Haribol,” “Hari, Hari Haribol,” “Hari, Hari, Hari, Hari, Hari Haribol,” “Jaya Radhe,” “Radhe, Radhe, Radhe, Radhe Radhe Govinda,” etc.

In spite of the fact that these are holy names of the Lord, ISKCON devotees should not indulge in this type of kirtana because it was disapproved by the founder-acarya of ISKCON.

* Danavir Goswami, On chanting

Another practice that seems to have developed is that of ending kirtanas by chanting mantras composed of the names of the temple’s Deities. Thus a typical ISKCON kirtana might end with several refrains of something like this:

Jaya Prabhupada Jaya Prabhupada Jaya Prabhupada Jaya Prabhupada! Jaya Gaura-Nitai Jaya Gaura-Nitai Jaya Gaura-Nitai Jaya Gaura-Nitai! Jaya Jagannatha Jaya Jagannatha Jaya Baladeva Jaya Subhadra! [A recent variant: Jaya Jagannatha Jaya Baladeva Jaya Subhadra Jaya Jagannatha!] Jaya Giri Govardhana Jaya Giri Govardhana Jaya Giri Govardhana Jaya Giri Govardhana! [That’s if the temple has a Govardhana Sila.] Jaya Radha-Govinda Radha-Govinda Radhe! Jaya Radhe Jaya Radhe Jaya Radhe Jaya Radhe! [A recent popular variant puts a “Sri” before the last “Radhe.”]

Where has all this come from? Did Srila Prabhupada teach us all this? Is this how he chanted? Did he ask us to chant this way? What’s going on? And where will it lead? I’m sure new bhaktas are being trained to feel this is all compulsory. What’s wrong with plain old Hare Krsna?

* Jayadvaita Swami, Bugs in Lithurgy

There is one interesting point about the chanting of Jaya Gurudeva. Srila Prabhupada was agains it originally, considering it as impersonalism. He said, when one glorifies the guru, the name has to be there. Also, Krpamoya prabhu had a story about this. On one occasion, in the February of 1977, Gaura Purnima Srila Prabhupada also added, that when someone wants to sing Jaya Gurudeva, he should sign it before singing Jaya Prabhupada, so he finishes with the personal name of the spiritual master. However, in our multi-guru ISKCON, sometimes the generic form of Jaya Gurudeva, as a glorification of all the ISKCON guru-vrnda, is chanted by the disciples who are leading kirtana, not before Prabhupada’s name but after. So it means that if you’re a Prabhupada disciple who’s now at a kirtana being led by a junior, you are then guilty of contravening Prabhupada’s explicit instruction, because the gurudeva that you’re being asked to chant cannot indicate your gurudeva if you sing it after Jaya Prabhupada.

Based on Jayadvaita Swami’s Kirtan Reform Workshop 2014

What we sing – about the melody

In the early days, Srila prabhupada sang the easiest, most followable melodies for Hare Krishna. And there were other melodies for the Vaisnava songs too. For the Maha Mantra, he didn’t have many tunes. He was agains using other tunes (which has an unknown origin, many times some Bollywood song etc.), however, he accepted those melodies, which his disciples wrote, especially, when it supported preaching. Also, when devotees had the opportunity to get to know Indian ragas better, he encouraged them for singing them, using the appropriate melody for the actual time of the day. But he always emphasized the fact, that the focus should be on the Maha Mantra.

Later, when the devotees got to know Indian ragas better – by listening to Aindra prabhu’s albums – for some groups of devotees the desire was there to cultivate that kind of style and mood, and these tunes started to gain ground more and more.

Lately even these melodies started to evolve. Every kirtan leader has a different mood, so there are slight changes in how they sing, and how they play it on harmonium. (In some cases, different type of harmonium accompaniment can change the mood of the melody quite a lot.) But there are bigger differences too. In some cases the melodies are modified a bit more, so it’s esasier for the western devotees to accept it.

Lately many of the devotees do not know the origin of the melody, so in case of ragas they are not able to do the timing right. Because of limited harmonium skills, ragas may be accompanied by chords on harmonium.

On the other hand, in Srila Prabhupada’s times, there weren’t nearly as many tunes as these days. There are many Hare Krishna tune adaptations from pop music, and so many other sources. New melodies are written too. Melodies got a lot more focus as previously.

The quarrel is there for such a long time if easy western melodies are better or the – sometimes easy, sometimes tricky – Indian ragas, however, we should also consider that the time, place and circumstances are also important aspects…

Expertise, instruments and styles

Srila Prabhupada was always opposed to SPECULATIVE KIRTANA STYLES. Srila Prabhupada’s personal style of simple chanting in a pure and melodious fashion did not change when he was in India. Historically speaking, it can be traced that in the late 60’s and early 70’s however Western devotees coming to India had no place to stay but in some Gaudiya Math temples. In some of these temples, all different kinds of mantras were chanted without restriction. Although these mantras did not seem improper, Srila Prabhupada did not want us to use them in our temple kirtans.

Later, other instruments such as harmoniums, violins and ektars were introduced into popular Bengali kirtana. To restore kirtana to an act of worship rather than a musical performance, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura restricted the use of instruments to mrdangas and kartalas only.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

My opinion is that it is not necessary for us to utilize these different musical talents for spreading Krsna Consciousness. I would rather see people follow strictly the path of Lord Caitanya and His Sankirtana devotees. We are using mridanga, karatala, that is enough. We are not musicians. We are Krsna bhaktas. Therefore we do not stress so much importance on these different musical talents. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is God Himself. Had He thought it would have been better to spread Krsna Consciousness by another way He would have done so. But no, simply with mridanga and karatala, traveling and chanting Hare Krsna, asking everyone to chant Hare Krsna, preaching simply Srimad-Bhagavatam philosophy, this is the process. There is no need for us to try and add anything to this simple method. It will only be a distraction.

* letter to Jagaisa Pandita dasa, 28 Dec 1974

Yamuna: No matter what the style of kīrtana, a great kīrtanīyā at the least knows that there is no difference between the Lord’s holy name and the Lord Himself.

Srila Prabhupada mostly emphasized the use of mridanga and karatala, especially for kirtan. In some cases he also suggested the use of harmonium and tamboura. The principle was that the focus is always on the Holy Name. We should note, however, that in “Govindam” by George Harisson, which is played in every temple of the world, every morning, on his instructions, there are many other instruments, even oud, which is an instrument from the Middle-East.

In the early days Srila Prabhupada encouraged everybody to take part in the singing by playing many kinds of instruments, however we know that some principles changed within those few years. While in the beginning Srila Prabhupada may wanted to engage everyone, later, the focus was more on doing kirtans and bhajans properly. He could expect his disciples to follow spiritual principles, which he couldn’t do in the beginning.

Lately we can hear many instruments in bhajans and kirtans, and many different styles. Singers and mridanga players became quite expert, however, we can say, some know the theory too, some do not, some play traditionally (melodies, mridanga mantras), some do not. There are many speculations too…

Another time he told Visnujana that he did not like melodies that had long, extended notes in them. He liked the melody to be filled with the mantra.

* Interview with Revati-nandana dasa, Memories, Vol. 1

Bengali kirtana

Some musically inclined members of ISKCON (both Bengali and non-Bengali) have specialized in Bengali kirtana, and thus added a cultural asset to our movement. Srila Prabhupada did not personally introduce such kirtana in ISKCON, but he did express appreciation of it. For instance, he liked to hear the Mayapura gurukula boys singing in their sweet, high-pitched Bengali style. And he praised Acyutananda Swami in the foreword to “Songs of the Vaisnava Acaryas” for “having learned to play mrdanga like an expert professional” (which means like a Bengali professional).

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtan

However this form of kirtan filtered into our movement very quickly since it was new and exciting and therefore rapidly accepted by the kirtan leaders. Variety is the spice of life. This variety however, did not actually please Srila Prabhupada. Now one may say: “Okay, I accept that Srila Prabhupada wrote about exclusive Hare Krsna kirtana which he desired his followers to sing. And I accept that Srila Prabhupada himself always lead kirtans by chanting the maha mantra and never used the other types of chants often used by Bengali devotees. But did he ever get personally involved in correcting improper chanting?”

* Danavir Goswami, On chanting

Festivals and other occasions for singing

In our time, there are quite a lot of possibilities for chanting together. From the original occasions, like harinams and other temple programs (including the Sunday Program) and festivals, a lot of festivals and preaching programs evolved, revolving around the Holy Name like:

  • Kirtan Mela, Holy Name Festival, 24 Hour Kirtan

  • Mantra Lounge in England

  • Harinam, Padayatra

There is a difference between programs for devotees and programs for preaching. Kirtan Melas, Holy Name Festivals are basically for devotees gathering for chanting together, some other events also appeared which resemble more like Holy Name concerts. That’s more for preaching, because these can also presented as cultural events and also as spiritual programs. (Musicality seams to be more important lately, because there are many yoga communities too doing kirtans, nicely presented, so there is some “competition” going on.) The audience sometimes joins the chanting, sometimes not. And there are harinams and Padayatras too. These put more stress on the joyful common mood then the professional musical presentation.

Kirtan culture

Doing kirtan as a living, kirtana celebrities

Apart from the musical aspect, there are some other types of differences in kirtans. In the early days, singing was “only” a service to the Lord. However, for some of the well-known kirtaniyas it also became a living. As they do not live in the temple and this is their main service, some of them started to record albums and can be invited for programs. They started to travel worldwide.

On the other hand, for some devotees there is also a tendency to approach them as celebrities. Asking signatures, taking photos together…

Serving mood.

Fortunatelly, the princible of serving mood seams to be unchanged. As in the early days Yamuna mataji had other services like cooking for Srila Prabhupada, and Aindra prabhu did other services like distributing prasadam, and even the menial service of cleaning toilets, nowadays we can see such inspiring cases like kirtaniyas collecting garbage on Woodstock festival.


Appearance – in case of both kirtaniyas and other participants – also changed in time. We know what kind of clothes and appearance Srila Prabhupada cultivated, however, as time passes, individual hairstyles and design of clotes etc. appear.

Problems arouse in Mayapur

One of the reasons why some leaders no longer attend Mayapura kirtan mela is due to the style and mood of the kirtans, as well as the attire, appearance and kirtaniya status of singers (all of which are also reflected in the audience).

These factors combined seem to promote a kirtan culture foreign to Srila Prabhupada’s disciples.

Comments on Kirtan Mela in Mayapur 2017 (Sivarama Swami, Feb. 23.)

I also have a question about the long warbling, trilling singing going on. This is when the lead singer is not singing the mantra but just making some musical sound. When I was a young devotee at the Los Angeles temple (1970) Srila Prabhupada was staying there for several months. He was in his quarters and when he heard the lead singer doing some of these vocal gymnastics every now and then between singing the mantra, he sent his servant down immediately and stopped the kirtan.

Comments on Kirtan Mela in Mayapur 2017 (Badrinarayan Swami, Feb. 23.)


Volume, amplification

I’ve heard senior devotee once say:

Devotion can’t be measured in decibels… but passion can.”

Comments on Kirtan Mela in Mayapur 2017 (Radhe Govinda prabhu, Feb. 25.)

Proponents of super-loud kirtanas may cite that in Lord Caitanya’s kirtana parties at Rathayatra eight men played mrdangas and thirty-two played kartalas. However, Bengali kirtana is generally sung in a high octave that can be heard even over the sound of many kartalas. Furthermore, Bengali kirtana is mostly played with fairly small kartalas (diameter approx. 6 cm.) that add a sweet chime to the singing, rather than drowning it out altogether. Another consideration is that traditionally, Bengali kirtana was generally conducted in the open air or in an open pavilion, so even if loud percussion instruments were used, the volume would not be increased by reverberation against walls.

* Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Kirtana

You may also have melodious accompaniment instruments, and amplifiers.

* letter to Hamsaduta dasa and Himavati dasi, March 3, 1968

It’s also mentioned in Harinama Eva Kevalam, there it’s stated as referring to harinam.

For more than a month, Prabhupada has had to ask daily that devotees not use the microphone for performing kirtana: “They think that their voice becomes sweet from using it. Actually, they sound exactly like a raksasa.”

* TKG’s Diary, page 149

I was personally stopped by Srila Prabhupada in 1975 for singing the refrain over the microphone while I was leading a midday arati in the Krishna Balarama Mandir. He heard me from his rooms and sent Upendra, who was his servant at that time, to tell me to stop singing continuously over the microphone. He said only the lead should be amplified, not the response.

* Hari Sauri Das to Candrasekar Acarya Das, Date?

Rebirth According to the Bhagavad-gita; Epistemology, Ontology and Ethics
Sankirtana Expands from Mayapur

2 Responses to “History of Kirtan in ISKCON”

  1. radhesyamaji says :

    Please, where can I download this article on pdf…

  2. Gauragopala dasa says :

    Lets not forget the Emperor of kirtan the great Madhudvisa ex Swami. Srila Prabhupada gave him that title and also called Vishnujana the King of kirtan.

    Over 46 years in ISKCON the 3 greatest kirtan leaders was Srila Prabhupada himself with a kirtan Prabhupada lead in early April 1972 at Melbourne Town Hall Australia that I was present at.

    Srila Prabhupada's chanting of Jaya Radha Madhava and then the Hare Krishna of the mantra was amazing and no kirtan in my experience has ever surpassed Prabhupada's chanting.

    And second, a kirtan lead in Downtown Sydney in August 1974 by Madhudvisa prabhu ACBSP is the best kirtan I have ever been involved in on the streets on any City

    And thirdly the amazing kirtans blissfully lead by Vishnujana Swami that we played on tape around our Temples constantly from the beginnings of Australian ISKCON

    All glories to the great Sankirtan leaders and devotees of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu

    Your fallen servant Gauragopala dasa ACBSP