By Chandrashekhara Acharya das BCS
“For we [the inhabitants of the spiritual world] consider loud call-and-response chanting to be the most excellent form of bhakti, better than smaranam, which appears only in one’s turbulent heart. This is so because chanting harnesses not only the faculty of speech, which it engages directly, but also the mind and the sense of hearing. And chanting helps not only the person practicing it but others as well.”
- Brihad Bhagavatamrita, 2.3.148
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to your Holiness. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
If you don’t mind, I will take a few minutes of your precious time to address the issue of double- voice amplification kirtans in the Mayapur temple room. Mayapur is, after all, the “home base” temple for all members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness; it is our world-heardquarters. We should all feel concerned and connected to the Mayapur project, especially now that the new temple is under construction.
What I mean by double-voice amplification kirtan is a kirtan in which the leader sings into the microphone, after which a second devotee also sings into the microphone. It is a style of kirtan in which amplification takes place on both the call and on the response throughout the kirtan; in other words, there is constant amplification.
By now, this style of kirtan has graduated to the status of “tradition” in Iskcon Mayapur, especially among the local brahmacaris. It has definitely become the common standard during every Gaura Aroti1. It has also become the standard during the evening Nrsimha prayers. It has become the standard during the bhajans during the day. It regularly occurs during the “yani-kani ca papani” part of the Tulasi aroti kirtan. It is slowly making its’ way into the early morning Nrsimha prayers. Fortunately, it does not yet happen during the Mangala aroti kirtan. But at this rate, it is simply a question of time before it also becomes the standard during Mangala aroti. Do we want this? Prabhus, imagine, in your home temple, a Mangala aroti kirtan in which two devotees sing into the microphone on both the call and on the response. Would you allow it? If your answer is “no,” why is it okay, I ask, to allow it during the other kirtans of the day? Does Mangala aroti belong to a different category than the rest of the daily kirtans? If so, in what way? 2
This double-voice amplification kirtan standard exists only in Mayapur and in other temples in India. It should be noted that the Chowpatti temple and Bhakti Vikasa Swami’s temples do not allow it. And in the rest of the entire world, to the best of my knowledge, temple kirtans always have only one amplified voice. From Perth to Sydney, Tokyo to Los Angeles, Denver to Dallas, down to Chile, New York to Alachua, to all of Western Europe, across Russia to Japan, down to Australia and New Zealand: the global standard, everywhere, is one amplified voice. Shouldn’t Iskcon Mayapur represent the global standard? 3
Most (if not all) of the senior Iskcon kirtaneers lead temple kirtans with only one amplified voice. And Srila Prabhupada always chanted in one microphone, never “sharing” it with another devotee. Indeed, there is no evidence anywhere that Srila Prabhupada performed double-voice amplification kirtans. On the contrary, we only see and hear Srila Prabhupada singing alone into the microphone, with no one singing into it after him- always. And we also have the extreme example of the incident that occurred in Iskcon Vrindavan. A devotee was all alone in the temple room for the noon aroti. He therefore sang both the call and the response into the microphone. Hearing this from his nearby house, Srila Prabhupada instructed his servant to go to the temple and tell this devotee to stop singing the response into the microphone. 4
As I alluded to by referring to the verse from the Brihad-Bhagavatamrita at the beginning of this letter, proper kirtan is a matter of sravanam/kirtanam. However, the double-voice amplification kirtans make it practically impossible for this proper hearing and chanting to occur. In a one-voice amplified kirtan, the leader sings the mantra (kirtanam) while everyone hears him (sravanam). Then, on the response, the roles are reversed: everyone sings (kirtanam), listening to their own respective voices, and the lead-singer listens to everyone else’s singing (sravanam). This is correct. In double-voice amplification kirtans, however, the dynamic really is that of sravanam/sravanam. Indeed, devotees are not only discouraged to participate on the response due to the loud amplified voice, but even if they try to do so, they simply cannot hear themselves singing due to their voice being drowned out by the amplification of the 2nd singer. They are forced to become passive hearers of a “duet concert,” so to speak, of two local devotees (who often are, truthfully speaking, considerably “microphone-hungry”). In this style of kirtan, the only devotees who end up doing proper sravanam/kirtanam are the two devotees sharing the microphone.
These double-voice amplification kirtans alienate most devotees, especially those who know better, who have experience of single-voice amplification kirtans. These mature devotees come from all over the world to Navadvipa Dhama, at great cost, expecting to absorb themselves in quality hearing and chanting. Instead, they are forced to participate in double-voice amplification kirtans almost throughout the entire day. The double-voice amplification kirtans dampen these devotees’ spirit of participation. Instead of participating, they are forced to take the role of passive hearers of two kirtan-leaders singing into the microphone at all times. As a result, many do not participate. 5
The well-meaning local devotees who are in the habit of performing double-voice amplification kirtans often cannot even comprehend that this style of kirtan is not the common global standard. The double-voice amplification kirtan style is all they know- it is what they grew up with; it is what their authorities sanction. They have never been to Chowpatti or to other temples that do not allow double-voice amplification kirtans. Many have never been outside of Bengal or India. Thus they have no frame of reference other than what takes place in the Mayapur temple. They do not know that the rest of the Iskcon world performs kirtan with only one amplified voice. And they may not have access to audio or video footage of Srila Prabhupada leading kirtans to see and hear his example. A growing legion of these local devotees have established a tradition of double-voice amplification kirtans in Mayapur. As time progresses, managers will find it increasingly difficult to change it. Therefore it is urgent that we check this trend now, before it becomes irrevocably entrenched. Discussion about an important issue is a precursor to change. It is in this vein that I write this letter.
If you agree that the double-microphone amplification kirtans in the Mayapur temple should stop, you could humbly make a note of it next time you visit Mayapur, or next time you speak to the GBC of your zone.
Managers in Mayapur are working on this issue. But it takes time to change tradition. The more input on this topic comes from the world-wide community of devotees, the quicker we may see change in the near future.
Chandrashekhara acharya dasa
1 We may ask if there is a correlation between the fact that the Gaura aroti kirtans are exclusively performed in double-voice amplification style and the fact that these Gaura Aroti kirtans attract participation from almost only local devotees, even during the Gaura Purnima festival. Shouldn’t the Gaura aroti kirtans, especially during the festival, attract all devotees from all over the world to participate? Is there a connection between double-voice amplification kirtan style and the complete lack of global participation when they occur? I would humbly say “yes.”
2 The argument can be made that the kirtans during the rest of the day have many visitors in the temple room, and that the double-voice amplification is meant for their benefit. However, the Mangala-aroti kirtan witnesses many visiting pilgrims also. Therefore this is not a good argument. I cannot come up with a good reason why the double-voice amplification kirtan style is inappropriate for Mangala aroti but suitable for the other kirtans during the day. Shouldn’t our policy be the same across the board?
3 Even if we argue that it should rather be the entire world that must conform to the Mayapur standard, we should be ready to judge a tree by its fruit. The standard of kirtan in Mayapur should attract participation from the global community of devotees. But as I have pointed out with the example of the Gaura aroti kirtans (in which the double-voice amplification kirtan style is most prominent), only local devotees participate, even during the festival. Double-voice amplification kirtans do not attract global devotee participation. Is it not the duty of Mayapur, however, to foster maximum kirtan participation from the global Iskcon community?
4 Told by Hari Sauri prabhu in his diary.
5 Again, it is striking to note that when a temple kirtan goes one in single-voice amplification style, we witness large global participation. When the temple kirtan goes on in double-voice amplification style, we witness a largely local-devotee participation only. This dynamic is graphic.