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Would we do it in front of Srila Prabhupada?

Monday, 18 May 2009 / Published in Announcements / 3,088 views

By Janananda Gosvami

Kirtan Standards Committee – We want to come up with something that is practical, enthusing, long lasting, effective, uniting, and all the other positive adjectives you can think of. Especially however, we would like to have standards that would please Srila Prabhupada. After all at the end of the day what matters is: “Would we do it in front of Srila Prabhupada?”

As the representative of the KSC – Kirtan Standards Committee I am writing this brief letter We (KSC) don’t just want to be seen as “a group of men who keep minutes and waste hours”. We hope not! We are making serious attempts, in spite of the busy schedules of the members, to produce some published guidelines over the next year.

Our policy is to stick as closely as possible to Srila Prabhupada’s standards or his will and at the same time bear in mind the development of Kirtan in ISKCON over the years. There are certainly sensitive, and some say grey areas, where implementation of rules, or even suggestive guidelines are not applicable or representative of the overall mood and mission of Srila Prabhupada. We want to come up with something that is practical, enthusing, long lasting, effective, uniting, and all the other positive adjectives you can think of. Especially however, we would like to have standards that would please Srila Prabhupada. After all at the end of the day what matters is: “Would we do it in front of Srila Prabhupada?”

At this stage we would like to bring to the open forum certain aspects of concern which we are dealing with at present and request your input to come to a balanced and most satisfactory conclusion. Here are a few points to begin with. Any personal experiences with Srila Prabhupada on these points would be most appreciated. Not just sentiments.

1. 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.

2. There seems very little restriction or guidance in ISKCON today to the forms of dancing, particularly in front of the Deities. There is some scriptural evidence to indicate we should not turn our backs to the Deity at all during kirtan. Srila Prabhupada gave indicators on many occasions regarding dancing. An example might be dancing in circles or spinning etc. Is it okay and were these types of dancing allowed by Srila Prabhupada? Bear in mind that just because he allowed it, does not mean he therefore liked it or wanted it.

3. We sometimes hear that the Mrdanga has descended from Goloka Vrndavana to assist in the sankirtan (any references). What about the karatals? (any sastric references?) What about the other instruments we have become attached to playing? Yukta Vairagya?

Kirtan is the single most important item of devotional service, so it seems that some guidelines need to be in place. Guidelines or rules are there in most other areas of service. Japa, Deity worship, Temple programmes, cooking, book distribution, class giving, management, farming, schooling etc…..

More follows:

Thank you

Your servant

Janananda Gosvami

“The Krsna consciousness movement is chiefly engaged in chanting the maha-mantra all over the world: Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu introduced the congregational chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra to give everyone a chance to hear Krsna’s holy name, for simply by hearing Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, one becomes purified (ceto-darpana-marjanam [Cc. Antya 20.12 – Purport).

3 Responses to “Would we do it in front of Srila Prabhupada?”

  1. Interesting issue. I have no personal Prabhupada stories to tell or quotations from authorities to cite, but I will say this:

    On the one hand there are “no hard and fast rules” and the impression I have is that Srila Prabhupada was pleased with any sincere chanting for the pleasure and glorification of Krishna.

    On the other hand, to be truly sincere means we should try to make the chanting pleasing to Krishna and not to do it whimsically or for calling attention to ourself or any other ulterior motive.

    I feel that with these ideas in mind there is room for both the more “traditional” kirtans with only mrdangas and karatals (and conchshells), and also other kinds of kirtans that are attractive and pure-hearted, even if nontraditional instruments are used.

    The point about observing proper behavior before the Deities is very well-taken.

    I do not know the musicology and history. When did harmoniums get introduced in kirtan (wasn’t it after Lord Caitanya?) Bhaktivinod Thakur described Lord Caitanya as wearing ankle bells that jingled as He trembled in ecstasy. I have heard sarods and other Indian instruments used very pleasingly. If we can do something tasteful and pure-hearted, the public will be attracted to the music and will get also a sense of the transcendental feeling.

    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.

    So I guess what I am saying is that the key element is sincere devotional feeling, but that sincere devotional feeling is usually accompanied by a sense of care about taste and stlye and artistic proficiency.

    I do recall one incident regarding Bahudaka being instructed about use (or nonuse) of harmonium in kirtan, but because I am not sure I have gotten the story exactly right I will not try to repeat it. I think there is at least one letter from Srila Prabhupada to Bahudaka in this connection which ought to be easy to find

  2. Akinchan Krishnadas says :

    A few humble thoughts:

    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.

    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. One point for your committee would be to recognize this truth, and encourage devotees to take up a more traditional approach to kirtan — whether that encouragement be by rules and restrictions, or more positive means of encouragement.

    I don`t mean to offend or discourage anyone, but these are points I feel very strongly about.

  3. Locanananda dasa says :

    Nice comments from two wonderful devotees, Akruranath prabhu and Akincana Krishna prabhu. As we know, purity is the force, and we never want to sacrifice purity just to make a point of being all-inclusive when it comes to instrumentation in kirtana.

    Once, at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, a temple kirtana was roaring with Srila Prabhupada seated on the vyasasana. His Divine Grace was not playing any instrument, so I approached him to hand over the great set of karatals I was playing. In retrospect, I could not imagine myself handing him an accordion, a djembe, a saxophone or any other musical instrument besides the karatals. I also sat in his room in Paris one afternoon and played karatals while he recorded his singing and harmonium playing. Other devotees present played the mrdanga and tamboura in accompaniment. The sound of the instruments was so sweet, but Srila Prabhupada’s chanting was even sweeter.

    Srila Prabhupada did not rule out the use of stringed instruments. In fact, he was very satisfied to have the recording of the Govindam prayers played daily to greet the Deities in all of our temples featuring a brief solo on the Middle Eastern Oud, a stringed instrument played expertly by Harivilas prabhu.

    There is the consideration of time, place and circumstance to be taken into account.
    If someone is an expert trumpet player like Ekalavya prabhu, for example, he can use that ability in kirtana since it was done in front of Srila Prabhupada to his liking. His Divine Grace called it “whistling the bugle.” But my own experience with such instruments is that you have to practice, practice, practice to maintain a level of peak performance, so who has time for that when there is so much other service to be done?

    A stage performance meant to attract the public may be judged somewhat differently.
    I have heard an electric violin and an acoustic guitar played expertly blend quite nicely
    into stage performances of kirtana. But the djembe drum does not blend, nor does it have a sweet sound like the mrdanga. It is not part of Vedic culture nor is it required to inspire devotees to dance in kirtana.

    If devotees were trained to play the mrdanga expertly and to play the same beat together,
    and if they were to perform daily Harinam Sankirtana in all of the major cities of the world, that sound would be so transcendentally sweet that the whole world would be struck with wonder.

    Your servant,
    Locanananda dasa

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