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The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting

Sunday, 13 July 2008 / Published in Announcements / 4,470 views

Book Review by Lakshmi Nrisimha Dasa

Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa), prolific author and renowned expert on Gaudiya Vaishnavism, has hit new strides with his latest literary offering – a book about kirtan, the sonic form of yogic spirituality. The Yoga of Kirtan is truly a groundbreaking celebration of yogic practice, engaging 21 well-known kirtan singers in conversation – transcribed interviews. Their insights give readers a comprehensive understanding of what chanting actually means, both in terms of practical application and inner development.

Bhaktivinode Thakur, one of the world’s most profound and versatile devotional writers from 19th-century India, has encouraged his readers, regardless of culture or religious affiliation, to seek out saragrahis (“truth seekers”) from all traditions. His words ring loud and true today in our modern, globalized world, which has now exposed the potential of spiritual chanting to a broad, multi-denominational audience.

Along the lines of Bhaktivinode’s mandate, Satyaraja managed to locate representatives of the kirtan tradition in its many manifestations and conducted interviews revealing the phenomenal effect chanting has had on these individuals in their lives and work. I found all of the interviews engaging and informative and particularly liked the revelations of Shyamdas, Vaiyasaki, Bhakti Charu Swami and Krishna Das. But all of the interviews provide a riveting and specific glimpse into each artist’s calling as a kirtaniya. By making good use of the warm and friendly interview format, with its highly accessible conversational tone, Satyaraja, like an archeologist, has successfully unearthed artifacts of kirtan knowledge and lore, revealing little known details of its history, performance, and esoteric meaning.

Most readers, then, will naturally be fascinated by the interviews – which make up more than 80% of the book, offer a good read, and indeed contain more than a lion’s share of valuable information on kirtan. However, I found the other sections of the volume even more illuminating.

The dedication itself – to “the kirtan tree” in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park – sets the tone and establishes the importance of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who held the first outdoor kirtan in the Western world (in 1966) in front of this very tree. The Prologue picks up from there, explaining the nonsectarian and universal power of the holy name. It shows how kirtan exists in all religious traditions and is a practice that can easily enhance one’s spiritual life – regardless of one’s particular affiliation or non-affiliation.

The Introduction is a gem of writing as Satyaraja talks about the first time he ever witnessed kirtan, personally, when he was just a teenager attending a rock concert in New York. From there, he shows his time-earned knowledge as a scholar, launching into specifics about kirtan terminology, explaining the various instruments used in kirtan performance, and detailing the history of sacred chant in India. He looks at Vedic mantra, esoteric poetry, and the power of sound.

This leads to his deep if also easily absorbed explanation of the maha-mantra (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare), which may be the most important part of this already astounding
Introduction. Satyaraja here explains why it is considered the best of all mantras, how it is nondifferent from God, contains the potency of all other mantras, and even champions the cause of women’s rights by accentuating Sri Radha, the female dimension of the Supreme.

It is urgent to understand – and the book makes it clear — that the maha-mantra is not the exclusive property or penchant of one small Gaudiya Vaishnava sect. It is “the great mantra” that, if approached openly, honestly and with great sincerity, will clear the heart of all misgivings and doubt about one’s constitutional position as spirit soul. It is virtually impossible to taste honey by licking the outside of a honey bottle, and the unlimited, boundless bliss that is contained in this mantra of mantras can only be approached when one recognizes the amalgam of personality and sound that exists in its sweet recitation. The book inspires one to enthusiastically open the jar and to taste the honey! Satyaraja’s lucid insight into the domain of this mantra is a great service to the yogis and yoginis of the world, no matter what specific discipline they might adhere to. Thus, the Introduction gives the reader all necessary background, so that now the interviews will have greater meaning.

And then there are the appendices. As a 35-year practitioner of Bhakti Yoga under the guidance of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, I was keenly interested in the appendix that dealt with the sacred syllable OM. Every yoga practitioner has come in contact with this most sacred of sound vibrations, yet its complete understanding has always been shrouded in the esoteric explanations of various Vedic texts, and in the writings of modern-day yoga teachers. In that short segment of the book, however, Satyaraja has given me enough information on the meaning of OM to keep me pondering for a lifetime – clarifying the little bit I had previously understood from Vedic and modern sources. I lecture frequently on the Vedas, specifically from the Gaudiya Vaishnava perspective, and so this section will find a home in my personal reference library.

The other appendix, on Sri Chaitanya, the “father of modern kirtan,” is equally valuable. Numerous books have been written about the life and teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. But those works have pretty much remained the exclusive property of the Gaudiya Vaishnavas and, to a much lesser degree, South Asian scholars. Although Srila Prabhupada made Sri Chaitanya readily available through his easily approachable translations and purports, the appendix in this book gives even the casual reader some significant if also encapsulated insight into just who He is, underlining His divine importance in the landscape of the kirtan world. Few yoga practitioners, in fact, are aware that it was Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who broke open the storehouse of love of God and distributed it freely to the common people through the medium of kirtan. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to understand the profundity and emotional depth of sacred chant without recourse to His divine personality.

In short, this book is a must read for the seasoned yogi or yogini, but it is also a must for the neophyte practitioner and even for the mildly curious. Both teachers and students of Hinduism will also find much between these covers. Add to that a CD with over 70 minutes of kirtan music, and this is a package that is not to be missed.

Available from:

The official website of Vedavyasapriya Swami
New article by Ravindra Svarupa dasa

5 Responses to “The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting”

  1. Akruranatha says :

    I just attended my first “japa workshop” in Milpitas (near San Jose) this weekend.

    It was interesting to see how devotees are learning to present and package this essential philosophy (of how to chant Hare Krishna) in a way that will appeal broadly to many people interested in yoga or New Age and human potential seminars, and yet to not compromise Prabhupada’s teachings, and to provide something very valuable for even long-time devotees.

    The workshop was, culturally, a little different from things I have become used to in ISKCON, but it was nevertheless really wonderful and helpful, and I look forward to going on one of the “reatreats.”

    I also look forward to reading this book about kirtan. Maybe it is well positioned to catch the growing wave of general interest in kirtan and introduce thousands or millions of new people to chanting the Holy Names.

    On book distribution a couple weekends ago in Santa Cruz (speaking of “catching waves”), a yoga-hippie girl bought a large Krishna book set I presented to her, but what really caught her eye was a CD set entitled “The Yoga of Sound” (which of course I had to give her too).

    There seems to be a strong interest these days in the yoga of kirtan, and it is encouraging that the devotees seem to be intelligent enough to give those interested the right idea about it.

    Predictably, there will be no shortage of Mayavadis who want to give people the wrong ideas about it, so we have to be very clever in explaining it in the right way without turning off those who may actually become devotees.

    (Of course, you can’t please everyone, and there are always going to be *some* people who get turned off by the very idea of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but for a lot of innocent people it might just be a matter of presenting kirtan in a way they can relate to that doesn’t seem so militant or fanatical or confrontational or evangelically anti-intellectual.)

    I am glad someone as clever as Satyaraja has come out with this title at this time, and I am sure that when I read the book it will meet and exceed expectations. :-)

  2. Akruranatha says :

    I still have not gotten the book, but I am here at L.A. Ratha Yatra and I will get it today or tomorrow. I spoke to Satyaraja briefly this morning in front of the temple, but I did not have my wallet with me.

    One thing Satyaraja Prabhu might want to respond to here is a question along the following lines:

    Prabhupada famously taught that as far as possible we should hear the chanting from the lips of pure devotees, and chanting by nondevotees should be avoided, inasmuch as milk touched by lips of a serpent has a poisonous effect.

    For example, Prabhupada said that the chanting of professional actors in the popular rock musical “Hair” would not benefit anyone, because it was simply a professional performance by nondevotees.

    [I have since met a senior devotee who told me that, believe it or not, he first became interested after hearing the mantra chanted on the soundtrack to “Hair”]

    And we have all heard Prabhupada talk about the uselessness of attending professional Bhagavatam recitals by famous reciters who can sing and pronounce the mantras very beautifully, but who do not really follow the principles of devotional service.

    So the question arises, what of the popular kiratniyas who are not committed to the regulative principles and who may not even accept the notion that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead? Will anyone benefit from their chanting?

    Won’t some people at least get some benefit by developing a favorable attitude toward the idea of chanting the holy name, so that when they get invited to visit and ISKCON temple or buy a book by Prabhupada they may think, “I like kirtan. Let me get this book from a prominent kirtan guru”?

    Prabhupada himself protected us from mayavadis by very sternly warning against them, speaking against their doctrines, and prohibiting us from associating with them. Lord Caitanya also punished (was it Mukunda?) for associating with them, and even beat Advaita Acarya for preaching some nondevotional interpretation of the Gita.

    But are we missing preaching opportunities and giving ISKCON a bad name among potentially favorable (and even famous) people by “imitating” Prabhupada’s lion-like preaching and actually just succeeding in insulting people and making them think we are rude, fanatical, fundamentalists?

    I am particularly interested to hear if Satyaraja has anything to say about this because in our discussion this morning I thought he might have some valuable thoughts about it.

  3. Padmapani dasa says :

    Hare Krishna, Dear Akruranath Prabhu. In response to your inquiry, I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, but will share my tiny experience with you about first coming in contact with the Holy Names of Krishna. When I was much younger (in school), I read a lot of books in search of the Absolute Truth, and consequently chanced upon the work of the Beat poets and writers. Although I found some of their moral behavior quite questionable and even cringe-inducing, I did appreciate some of their loftier writings. So I took what I found valuable (to me anyway) and left the rest. As a youngster, I was very attracted to all things Indian, so when I read Allen Ginsberg’s Indian journals from his trip to India in ’62 and ’63, it dramatically increased my desire to visit India ASAP in search of a genuine spiritual tradition and bona fide guru. In the meantime, I was fascinated and moved by the following entry/tribute on his dedication page to “the unknown Nepalese lady-saint at the Magh Mela in Allahabad 1962 who sang Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare so sweetly I remembered it thereafter…” Somehow or other, I took that entry very seriously and began chanting the Hare Krishna mantra almost daily for a year on a nearby riverbank during lunch breaks. Later I received some early BTG’s, the Radha-Krishna Temple Album, and some of Prabhupada’s books, which then inspired me to leave town in search of an ISKCON Temple (as there was none at the time in Winnipeg, Manitoba). So in my own humble way, I always give credit to Ginsberg for introducing me to the chanting. I’ve related this story to others, and some have admonished me for feeling somewhat indebted to him since his behavior never rose to the level that perhaps Prabhupada expected or wanted of him. But still, in my heart, I will always be grateful to him for that humble introduction, since that’s all that I really took from that book and it benefitted me at a time when there was nothing but nihilism, nausea, and existentialism popular amongst the youth of the day. Later Ginsberg helped Prabhupada with his visa, gave him a harmonium, and introduced Hare Krishna in San Francisco and to many others over the years. So in my humble view, it seems that Krishna can use anyone or anything in His service, as He so desires. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend this roundabout way nowadays, but back then, it was whatever worked!

  4. Akruranatha says :

    Hare Krishna Dear Padmapani!! What a delight to hear from you! I am always thinking of you and so many other nice devotees from the Canada Yatra. (I recently got in touch with Makhana Cora after seeing something he posted here on Dandavats). Please send Praghosa your picture so we can see your blissful smiling face.

    I can relate to what you are saying about Allen Ginsberg. I too read all kinds of Yoga books and New Age/”Occult” books before I joined ISKCON (didn’t everybody?) Ramdas’ “Be Here Now” was very popular and catchy (today it seems very much a product of the 1970s), and Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” made a big impression on me.

    I remember my initial teenage hippie impressions of Hare Krishnas were a little unfavorable (I was such a demon). I could see myself possibly joining some yoga ashram where people were “friendly” and “open minded” and did not have any doctrines or rules and regulations.

    It is funny how we conditioned souls find that we like and dislike other people or groups or causes and movements based on these different conceptions of who we are, influenced by the modes of nature. I remember how the Hare Krishnas, with their dogmatic belief in specific scriptures and their judgmental attitudes against drugs and illicit sex, rubbed me the wrong way. I just could not see myself becoming one of those “followers,” who reminded me of Eastern-style “Jesus Freaks”.

    I was, after all (in my foolish estimation) a “free spirit”, an imaginitive, open minded person. To become a Hare Krishna would be closing myself off, I thought — giving up my own reason, individuality, independence. Little did I know that I was just playing out a rather precarious role my material body had assigned for me. Thank God Prabhupada saved me from whatever hellish fate was awaiting me.

    Hey, I have started reading the Yoga of Kirtan and I love it. Even though I am busy and do not have time I was unable to put it down. Satyaraja has done a great job.

    I do not know much about the current popular kirtan movement in the west. I have been curious about Krishna Das and never heard of some of these others. It turns out Shyamdas, who started out with Krishna Das in NYC in the 90s, is really a serious Vaisnava in the Vallabhacarya, Pushti Marg tradition! It is fascinating to read these biographies.

    I cannot wait to listen to the CD, either. I am sure Prabhupada won’t mind me listening and reading. It won’t “divert” or “pollute” me.

  5. Padmapani dasa says :

    Thank you, Akruranath Prabhu. Nice to hear from you and thanks for your many intelligent, sincere, and humble comments on this board. I’m certainly not promoting other philosophies or isms, but I’ve always found it interesting that many countercultural heroes of the 60’s and 70’s like George Harrison, John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia, Donovan, Eric Clapton, Timothy Leary, Augustus Owsley Stanley III and quite a few others (check out the San Francisco Mantra Rock Dance of 1967 during the Summer of Love), all chanted Hare Krishna or came into contact with Srila Prabhupada and his movement in some way, shape or form. It seems that all those who had something (relatively) important to say at the time had made a Prabhupada connection. In fact, that era was so hopeful and pleasing with a modern renaissance of art, music, poetry and an overwhelming sense of love and peace in the air, that I humbly believe it was due in large part to Srila Prabhupada’s personal presence on the planet at the time. Even Allen Ginsberg said of the Mantra Rock Dance attended by Srila Prabhupada: “We sang Hare Krishna all evening. It was absolutely great — an open thing. It was the height of the Haight-Ashbury spiritual enthusiasm.” Prabhupada was right there in the East Village in New York in ’65/’66 and in the Haight-Ashbury in ’67. Back then, those places were the center of the universe where hope sprung eternal and the planet was on the verge of a worldwide revolution never before seen by human eyes — “The Hare Krishna Revolution.” And Krishna seemed to arrange that all the big names of the day — the Beatles, etc. — had their part to play in assisting Srila Prabhupada to spread Hare Krishna around the globe at lightning speed. What a miracle indeed. All glories to Srila Prabhupada!