Here we are speaking of kirtan as a performance of mantra meditation in a group, singing the mantras with appropriate melodies accompanied by musical instruments.

There has recently been a surprising uprise of live kirtan events in Northern America, Europe and Australia. Sometimes this new phenomena is called “kirtan yoga”.

How it works

Kirtan is usually performed sitting, or at least it starts sitting and later when emotions are building up, people may get up and start dancing. However, it could also be done standing, which is common in some temple ceremonies in India, or walking (during processions). 

There is one kirtan leader (sometimes several) who starts singing the mantra, or one line of the mantra, in a certain melody and the kirtan group responds by repeating the mantra in the same fashion as the lead singer did. The leader keeps singing the mantra, changing to different versions of the melody from time to time and probably also changing the speed.

The kirtan leader and the people who accompany him or her usually play different musical instruments. Typically the harmonium is used for embellishing the melodies and then there are rhythm instruments like the mridanga, tabla and cymbals, which are all typical instruments from the Indian bhakti tradition. Western instruments like guitar, violin and flute are also not uncommon. In some kirtans cymbals and other rhythm instruments are also given to other participants. Whoever feels capable of following the groove is invited to play along.

The spirit of a kirtan is mainly set by the mantra itself but also by the chosen melodies, by the mood of the kirtan leader and by the power of the whole group.

Such kirtans, sung together in a group with rhythm and melody, probably have the strongest transformational potency of all bhakti practices. It is the quickest and surest way to leave the bodily and mental platforms far behind and come in touch with spiritual emotions.

For many people (including myself) kirtans have provided the background for unforgettable experiences, experiences that have changed our lives forever. Of course, it depends a lot on the group you are singing with, and also the kirtan leader. But even if a kirtan is not “life changing”, it almost surely is an enjoyable experience which brings you closer to your spiritual nature.

Participation in live kirtans

Whenever you find the chance to join a live kirtan you should certainly do it. There is no better way to deeply dive into bhakti.

However, not all mantras sung in a kirtan event are from the bhakti tradition. Usually the kirtans organized by yoga centers use mantras from different traditions, which cater for a variety of experiences. But most of the time they incorporate at least a few bhakti mantras (maybe except for Kundalini Yoga studios, I’m not sure).

Find a nice place in the room and sit down comfortably and close your eyes for a while to prepare yourself for they kirtan. Try to understand well how to pronounce and sing each mantra of the kirtan event and sing along with the group, joining the sound of your voice with all other sounds. It doesn’t matter if you consider your voice beautiful or not, just be yourself and sing from your heart. When you sing, listen not only to your own voice but to sound vibration produced by the group conjointly. Feel yourself being carried by the sound vibration.

After the end of each kirtan sit for some time with eyes closed and feel the reflection of the mantra on your heart. Feel its essential being and your emotions that surround it.

Appart from going to live kirtans

You may not have the chance to participate in live kirtans regularly. But you can always listen to your favorite kirtans at home or while traveling, and thus relish their transcending nature. It’s not exactly the same experience as being in a live kirtan, but it still a super-potent bhakti practice (we would group that into the category of sravanam).

Another option would be to learn how to play some basic melodies on a harmonium (which is not that difficult) and either sing alone or invite some friends round. You can learn harmonium with us in one of our upcoming courses.

Or, if you play guitar, you can use that perfectly for doing kirtans. The mood of a guitar kirtan may be slightly different from a kirtan with harmonium, but it’s still a good option.