Yogis have known of kirtan’s transformative power for centuries, and now the West is recognising it as a tool of healing, too.
By Catherine McCormack
In the 1990s, internationally acclaimed kirtan artist Carmella Baynie was riding the early success of a pop music career. The Sydney-based singer had landed a record deal, her first single was charting well and life had become a blur of television appearances, long days in the recording studio and late-night gigs.
Yet, as Baynie’s celebrity grew, so too did her realisation that her management team was corrupt and the strict early morning asana practice that was helping open her voice was also pushing her body beyond its physical limits.
Then, somewhere in the middle of all of this, “somebody gave me a mala and taught me how to chant japa,” recalls Baynie, who grew up singing sacred music with her Lebanese grandfather and performing solos in her local Latin choir. “It’s not song, it’s spoken and you do the whole Hare Krishna maha-mantra 108 times.” After just one round, Baynie could feel divine love breaking open her heart and filling up all the cracks.
“When I started chanting, my whole professional life fell apart and it was magic,” she says. “I was then introduced to kirtan and it was like all the lights switched on—everything about my life fell into place.”
While Baynie’s experience is certainly unique, it is by no means unusual. Stories of kirtan’s ability to heal and transform are many and widespread. All over the globe, this ancient Bhakti yoga practice, where participants join together to sing sacred mantras in a call-and-response format, is connecting people with the Divine and allowing peace and purity of spirit to pour into their lives.
Kirtan (pronounced “keer-tahn”) is set to music and there’s also growing scientific evidence of the power of rhythm, melody and sound vibration to reduce stress and disease, and positively influence our brain patterns and physiology. It’s not so much what the music and mantra does for us, “but what it ‘un-does’,” says Christine Stevens, author of the upcoming book Music Medicine (Sounds True) and founder of Los Angeles-based UpBeat Drum Circles. “Scientific studies confirm that music deactivates brain centres that function in self-doubt and monitoring—it literally frees us to express our authentic spirit.”
The history of kirtan is generally traced back 500 years to Mayapur on the banks of the Ganges in eastern India. Here, the saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who was thought to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna, “created a spiritual revolution,” says renowned kirtan artist Sri Prahlada.
“Chaitanya believed spirituality had been monopolised by the Brahmins, that most people were being excluded or exploited, and that spirituality was being presented as too ritualistic without the heart of what it is supposed to be,” he says.
In response, Chaitanya began to sing—rather than chant—the sacred mantras, encouraging people from all walks of life to join together and revel in the name of the Divine. He then dedicated much of his later life to travelling throughout India and spreading this joyous practice.
Here in the West, kirtan first widely infiltrated consciousness in the late 1960s thanks largely to The Beatles’ George Harrison, who famously recorded a number of Hare Krishna kirtans. Often labelled a folk music form, the practice is also believed to have influenced other styles of music including gospel, jazz and bluegrass.
Today, kirtan is enjoying something of a renaissance, with chanting circles popping up in local venues across the country and kirtan artists such as Baynie, Sri Prahlada, German-born Deva Premal and America’s Dave Stringer and Krishna Das headlining festivals and yoga events that draw thousands.
“Chaitanya prophesised a day when kirtan would be sung and heard all over the world, and we see that happening today,” says Sri Prahlada. “It’s really exciting.”
For many, the influence of kirtan can be felt—if not fully understood—from the very first experience. Byron Bay-based musician and kirtan artist Kevin James discovered the practice 20 years ago while travelling in India’s colourfully crowded trains.
“I was chanting mantras and all the Indians would gather around and chant with me,” he remembers. “I felt kirtan’s power back then, but
I didn’t quite realise what was going on—it’s the same when someone comes to a chanting circle for the first time; they feel elevated but don’t really know what’s happening.”
Several years later at a festival, James was instinctively drawn to a kirtan circle chanting the ancient Vedic Gyatri mantra. “My whole heart just dropped,” he says. “It sounded like nectar. I just had to learn this, to be a part of this.”
Since then, kirtan has not only deepened James’ spirituality, it has guided his career. “I didn’t realise back then that the chanting would be something that wove its way through my life,” he says. “Now I’m at this point where it’s really taken over my musical life, just through its potency. I’m always unfolding more and more of the mystery; how such a simple thing can have such a profound transformation.”
It’s been a similar experience for Sri Prahlada, who was first exposed to kirtan as a five-year-old boy in Wellington, New Zealand. “At five, I could sense there was something very powerful and wonderful, but I didn’t know what it was,” he says. “Now it affects me in a different way; it makes me feel very clean on the inside and in that moment, in that period of the kirtan, I get absorbed. I lose thoughts of other things—distractions, anxieties, issues, pressure—they all disappear in that moment.”
When kirtan touched Baynie’s life, it was, “just a beautiful experience to sing beautiful sacred music for the sake of it,” she says. “I really made a decision then to let go of ambition. We often lose touch with the Divine within our hearts; but when we sing in kirtan, when we sing the mantras, it purifies and cleans the heart of the dust accumulating.”
Certainly, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, kirtan’s power to purify is tangible. Among myriad stories of it curing the body of disease and addiction is James’, who believes it lifted his mild depression and has since kept illness at bay. “It was incredibly healing for that,” he says. “And, I’ve noticed that when my health isn’t so good, usually by the first or second chant, I will actually smell the disease come out of my breath. I rarely, if ever, get sick anymore and I think a lot of that has to do with the chanting.”
Yoga teacher and kirtan artist Lulu Hogg, who runs a regular chanting circle in Sydney’s Bondi with her partner Mischka Prem, has also experienced at first hand the healing touch of kirtan. As a teenager, she developed chronic back pain and sciatica and was using pharmaceutical drugs to ease the discomfort. Then, dancing along to a CD one day at home, she had a profound realisation: “There was something really freeing in the music,” says Hogg. “I was pain-free and I actually realised, I don’t need any drugs. I can do it on my own.”
The revelation led to asana, which then led to kirtan. “I went to one of Kevin James’ chant nights in Byron feeling like it would be useful, and it was just one of the most liberating experiences,” she says. “I was just so freed; my whole body was tingling from head to toe, my heart was expanded, my voice was free—all I could do was sit in this state of oneness and freedom. It was the moment I knew this was one of the paths I wanted to take.”
SCIENCE & SPIRITUALITY
So how can such a simple practice be so profound? Western researchers point to the universality of music, the sound and energy vibrations created when we sing, and the feeling of being part of a community that kirtan brings.
In 2008, a British study found that chanting can reduce blood pressure and stress levels. The researchers determined that breath control, feelings of wellbeing associated with singing in a group and the simplicity of the melodies all contributed to more positive emotional and physical states. In similar findings, Cleveland University researchers discovered that when a mantra is chanted rhythmically it helps produce and spread curative chemicals in the brain, even when the meaning of the mantra is not known.
Music therapists agree. “Music bypasses all religious and cultural boundaries, and the complexity of the architecture of music affects many parts of the brain at the same time,” says Silvia Nakkach, author of soon to be released Free Your Voice (Sounds True) and founder of the US-based Vox Mundi Project. “It changes neural connections and we change with it.”
Ron Ragel, a Sydney-based musician, music therapist and one half of kirtan group IndiaJiva, has experienced these changes himself. A skilled sitar player, he used music and mantra to help cure paralysis of his right side. “Music goes into places in the brain that only music can go,” he says. “I found there was a change in the physiology of my brain. I went from being quite organised and left-brain logical thinking to a very right-brained person, which is your creative side and the key to your connectedness to the world.”
Ragel also believes the fact that, traditionally, kirtans are performed in Sanskrit rather than English, is an important aspect of its ability to heal. “When you listen to a foreign language, it goes into the right brain,” he says. “That is part of the difference; it’s not being analysed, the person is just feeling it.”
The inherent divinity of the mantras themselves—their spiritual origins and the potentiality within each syllable for absolute purity—is another key ingredient. “There is undeniable power in singing with others these mantras that have been sung for eons,” says Irene Soléa, a Boston-based music therapist and kirtan and chant artist. “We owe those who have come before us great thanks because it’s like they’ve left a sacred map inside each syllable—a way to peace, acceptance, love and contentment.”
Like most forms of yoga that have infiltrated the West, modern-day kirtan is taking on a character all its own. In today’s chanting circles, it’s not unusual to experience mantras sung in languages other than Sanskrit, and those leading the session bring their own creativity and musical composition to the table.
Instruments such as the guitar and electric organ now play alongside traditional Indian instruments, and other religions have adopted kirtan as a spiritual practice, chanting mantras that praise the Divine as it is expressed in their own scriptures.
“Personally, I just do chants that I know are from the traditional source, either the Vedic texts or chants that were recognised by great saints in the tradition,” says Sri Prahlada. “That’s a personal decision. I feel the tradition itself—the arrangement of the syllables and mantra—is endowed with its own potency.”
Kevin James takes a different view. “Chanting has been practised all over the world by all cultures and the intention and outcome are no different,” he says. “I think that kirtan has been embraced by the Western culture as part of a kneejerk rebellion against our own religion—it’s OK to sing Hare Krishna, but it’s not OK to say God. You’re really saying the same thing. I feel like it’s time we embrace that and look at chanting from a broader perspective.”
No matter what kirtan path you take, like any spiritual endeavour, the practice can bring up unpleasant feelings or seem overwhelming at first. “Sometimes people can get a little bit scared or weirded out,” says Sri Prahlada. “They say that when someone is in the conditioned state, the sacred sound of kirtan may taste bitter—but if you keep chanting, you will be able to taste the fruit.”
Catherine McCormack is a freelance writer and Ashtanga yoga practitioner based in Sydney.
•Carmella Baynie is a regular guest singer at kirtans around Australia. Find her at www.carmellavoice.com.
•To find kirtans with Sri Praladha and to read his inspiring blog, visit www.sriprahlada.com.
•Kevin James regularly holds chanting circles around Australia. Find him at www.kevinjamesheartsongs.com.
• Sydney-based IndiaJiva—a partnership between Ron Ragel and his wife Vicki—holds kirtan events around NSW. For more information, see www.medicinemusic.com.au.
• On Wednesday nights, Lulu Hogg and Mischka Prem hold their chanting circle at Under the Fig Tree Bondi in Sydney. For more events, see www.luluandmischka.com.
• To stay in touch with upcoming kirtan events, festivals and album launches, visit My Heart Space at www.myheartspace.com.au.