Kirtan: A personal reflection on its meaning and history

I love facilitating kirtan. I love seeing people come together to share an experience of the sacred through song. I love the genuinely warm vibe that I feel among the group afterwards. The kirtan space is authentic. It’s about connecting without distraction, without chatter, through the medium of voice, rhythm and sacred text. This marriage sets me on fire. By singing together in sacred space we create a connection that is beyond words. Although we strongly follow the Indian model, I think of kirtan as an ancient and universal path that winds back to the origins of human existence. It resonates deeply with us.

Ecstatic singing is a vital part of so many religious traditions in India, from Hindu to Moslem to Sikh. It is common thread that runs through various ideologies and castes, from temple to street and nourishes society right down to the grass roots. This ubiquitous phenomenon is largely a legacy of a period known as the Bhakti movement, which began in the South around the 8thC and exploded in the North by the 15thC. It was a time of fluidity between the different religious paths. Across the subcontinent seekers and teachers roamed and congregated, exchanging and expressing ideas through musical verse. Many of these songs entered into the collective consciousness, morphed and grew, and became the sacred liturgy of many sects. The Bhakti heritage is a living tradition and the voices of its great proponents still sing to us across the centuries.

Before the Bhakti era in India, things looked a bit different. Religious experience was often guarded by middle-men, whether monks or pandits, who knew the sacred languages and the correct rituals, and who could, for a fee, ensure the links between heaven and Earth. There were also the philosophical paths that espoused right knowledge as the way to liberation, but these too were beyond reach of the common and uneducated people.

Bhakti shifted the accent to strong inner experience. Each individual has a direct connection to source which manifests in each body as a subtle vibration or ‘Name’. All bodies are equally connected: that of the untouchable as much as that of the Brahmin.  Through ecstatic devotional song and dance, usually in the spoken language, Bhakti radically democratised religious experience. The great teachers, called sant or bhagat, were often social activists and reformers as well, and many are still the inspiration for the underclasses.

The word ‘Bhakti‘ comes from the Sanskrit root bhaj which means ‘to share, be engaged, participate’. Bhakti poetry tends to bring together polarities that are traditionally considered to be in opposition. Immanent is married to transcendent, esoteric to exoteric, worldly to other-worldly, mundane to spiritual and human to divine. They meet at the heart. Empty form and ritual are discarded for full personal experience. Knowing is eclipsed by Being. Each seeker is called to navigate her own path to her maker, with the guidance of her true inner Guru. She sings her way home and is united with her Purush, her perfect Being.


Selected Bibliography (some stuff I read which informs my opinions on this subject):

Mircea Eliade, Encyclopedia of Religion, 16 volumes, ‘Bhakti movement’.

Nirmal Dass, Songs of Kabir from the Adi Granth.

Linda Hess, The Bijak of Kabir.

John Stratton Hawley, Songs of the Saints of India.

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