The Birthplace of Kirtan


From the rural roads of Mayapur to the busy streets of New York City, today we are witnessing a kirtan explosion. Kirtan is a call-and-response style of meditative singing of ancient, sacred mantras. Though of Indian origin, artists around the world are using many languages, hymns and chants from a variety of traditions, to express heart-felt devotion for the Divine.

Kirtan calls upon energies of the divine which serve to quiet the mind, remove obstacles, open the heart, bring us back to the center of our being, and acquaint us with our Self.

According to Pure Music’s Frank Goodman, “Kirtan, like the unpredictable rise and rejuvenation of the many forms of yoga in recent years, is everywhere now and there is a growing number of people flocking to the kirtan scene”. From packed sat- sanga nights in yoga studios, to bhakti festivals, to chanting workshops and retreats, yogis are embracing kirtan.

It is a language that we all understand—the language of love—for something greater than ourselves. Kirtan unites people and gives them a single heartbeat of divinity. And in a world that is too often rooted in the mundane and disintegration of spirit. Kirtan is a healing balm for the soul, and has been for centuries in India.

Four hundred and twenty years before Gandhi’s great civil disobedience movement, Sri Chaitanya[1486-1534] inaugurated a massive nonviolent movement. Walking the length and breadth of India for four years, he sang kirtan introducing millions of people to the practice as a means of purification, devotion, and ultimately spiritual liberation. Ignoring senseless rituals and formulas, he swept aside the stifling restrictions of the hereditary caste system and prohibition against women, and gave full access to kirtan and Bhakti, the Yoga of the Heart to people from any background. Untouchables, rogues, illiterates, politicians, royal families, powerful opponents, even atheists were touched and often transformed by the magic of kirtan.

Sri Chaitanyadev, the 16th-century Bhakti saint and social reformer, was born here in Mayapur, which has long been kirtan’s home. Here the devotional singing centers on Hare Krishna mantra.

Women in kirtan

Located in West Bengal, 80 miles north of Kolkata, papaya , frangipani, and banana trees grow abundantly amidst a rich and impressive tropical terrain. The sacred Ganges River, known to the locals as Ganga Ma, flows gracefully along her banks providing water to rice paddy and jute fields that drape the landscape. Devoted farmers tend to their crops and animals. Humans and animals live cooperatively in this historic village whose roots of sacred sound go back more than 500 years.

A non-commercialized and sacred town, Mayapur offers the best in authentic kirtan. Everywhere I walk on the ancient dirt footpaths I hear kirtan groups who have gathered together in homes and temples chanting sacred mantras for peace, love and unity. The joyous sound spreads and expands into the distance as if crossing the Ganga plains to extend its reach outside of India and across the globe. Ancient temples line the road that follows Ganga Ma.

Much like in the days of Sri Chaitanya, traditional drums, gongs, cymbals and voices of bhakti can be heard, calling out in love to the divine in us all. According to this age old art form, each part of the day has a particular mood and a corresponding kirtan melody. Lullaby pre- dawn kirtans, meditative sunset kirtans, and exhuberant evening kirtans resound in this holy village, where humble devotees dedicate their lives to the art and heart of kirtan.

From here Chaitanyadev left to walk the continent to share the transformational power of kirtan with the world. His dream is coming true.

Bhakti is Love

Bhakti means to please without any motive, to serve without wanting something back. Thus pure motivation is a fundamental quality of bhakti.

Our nature is that we are perfect loving beings. Perfect also means original, uncontaminated, and unchanging. For example, perfect water is natural and uncontaminated. When we are in our original position, our original consciousness, we find a loving spirit in our heart.

To understand reality means to understand the interrelationship of three things: the body, the soul, and the Divine. What is the relationship between the soul and body? If we think, “I am the body,” then we will think (to some degree) that we are the controller and enjoyer, and this thinking is antithetical to bhakti. If you think your soul is God, then there is no question of an exchange of bhakti (bhakti is an exchange between the Divine and individual soul). If we think,“God is matter,” there is no question of devoting yourself to Him.

In bhakti, our object of meditation is something with which we have a natural loving relationship. In ordinary meditation we are motivated more by, “I should do this because it will help me,” but in bhakti we have a natural loving relationship with the object of our meditation. Therefore, it is not a meditational prop; we reciprocate with the object of our meditation and He reciprocates with us. This is spiritual love, something reserved only for soul-to-soul exchanges.

In bhakti, the path of grace, we receive (and achieve) much more than we give. That is the difference between the path of bhakti and other yoga processes. It is not by our own effort that we achieve success in bhakti. It is by grace, in reciprocation of our efforts, that we are successful. We do not climb the yoga ladder by our own strength; we are pulled to the top by grace.

Bhakti is parama prema rupa, the supreme form of love. In bhakti, our only desire is to please our beloved. Bhakti is based on the understanding and realization that the objects of this world are not ours. They belong to something greater and are meant to be used for something greater than we are. In Bhakti, we become an object of His pleasure. In material consciousness, impure consciousness, we see the world according to our desire, and thus everything becomes a potential object of our pleasure. In our pure state, we realize we are particles of divine consciousness, receptacles of love, and that the energy of love is meant to flow through our hearts to the Divine.

Love’s nature is eternal. It is part of reality, not just the means to achieve it. In bhakti, there is no other objective than bhakti. The practice is the goal. However, in other spiritual disciplines, we do austerities and other practices of self-discipline to achieve liberation. However, austerities are not the goal. Certainly we do not want to do austerities forever.

Bhakti is the means and the goal because bhakti is both the innermost hankering of the heart and the fulfillment of that hankering.

What is Bhakti Yoga

By Radhanath Swami

The term Bhakti is used in a variety of ways.

  1. Most simply, bhakti refers to the common religious devotion that is held in the heart of a devoted person of any spiritual faith.
  2. Bhakti can also refer to a practice of yoga (Bhakti-yoga), a spiritual discipline meant to bring one to a state of pure love of God.
  3. More specifically, the term Bhakti can refer to the devotional interpretation of Vedanta. Vedanta is the most popular of India’s six classical schools of philosophy and the primary influence in Hinduism.
  4. Bhakti also is used to refer to a trend within the history of Indian spirituality – the Bhakti Movement.
  5. Finally, the word Bhakti refers to the perfected state of consciousness – exclusive and continuous love of God, the natural condition of the soul; eternal, enlightened bliss.

So, when we speak of Bhakti, we could be referring to an emotion, a practice, a school of philosophical thought, a popular movement, or a state of consciousness. The common thread that connects all of these uses of the term is its relation to the soul’s dormant love for God that is seen as the very essence of our being. The idea that the very purpose of human life is uncovering that essence is found throughout the world’s spiritual traditions.

In India, the second and first millennia BCE are known as the Vedic Period, named so due to the influence of the Vedas, a vast body of Sanskrit scripture. Large segments of the Vedas stress a gradual process of elevation trough a complex system of rites and rituals, the performance of which were reserved for an exclusive priesthood. Great emphasis was placed upon social ordering according to caste. It was widely believed that spiritual progress was to be achieved through the meticulous performance of ritual. The scripture that taught the rituals were in the Sanskrit language, which was only known to the priestly caste.

Beginning in the 6th century CE a new movement developed around the writings of mystics who extracted the devotional essence from the Vedas, de-emphasizing the particular formalities of ritual or caste. Prominent among these are the Alvars, twelve South Indian mystics who expressed their intimate love and longing for God through song and poetry. These devotional sentiments were gradually expanded upon, supported philosophically and organized into a method of devotional yoga by saintly philosophers such as Ramanuja and Madva. They were followed centuries later by prominent saints and teachers such as Nimbarka, Sri Cahitanya, Sri Vallabha, Meera Bai, Tukarama and many others. The widespread effect of the teachings of these saints eventually became known as the Bhakti Movement. By focusing on sincere devotion, rather than mere ritual, barriers of language and class distinctions were broken down. Over the centuries, the Bhakti Movement has gone on to promote devotion through philosophy and art, by ever expanding lineages, many of which still flourish today, each with their own unique contribution.

Bhakti Yoga - In Search of A Lost Love

By Radhanath Swami

Mother Nature is always speaking. She speaks in a language understood within the peaceful mind of the sincere observer. Leopards, cobras, monkeys, rivers and trees; they all served as my teachers when I lived as a wanderer in the Himalayan foothills. They shared the kind of lessons that elevate the spirit. One particularly illuminating lesson from the forest comes in the form of the Himalayan musk deer.

The musk deer is referenced in Sanskrit poetry and philosophy owing to its peculiar behavior. Prized by the perfume industry for its exceptional aroma, musk is one of the world's most expensive natural products, fetching more than three times its weight in gold. The aroma of musk is so alluring that when the stag's sensitive nose catches wind of it, he roams the forest day and night in pursuit of its source. He exhausts himself in a fruitless quest, never realizing the bitter irony: the sweet fragrance he was chasing resided nowhere but within himself. Musk, you see, is produced by a gland in the stag's very own navel. It was searching outside for what was all along lying within.

The sages of India found in the musk deer an apt description of the human condition. We are all pleasure-seeking creatures wandering in a forest – replete with pleasures and perils alike. Moreover, we are prone to the same type of folly as the deer: we seek our happiness externally. Misconceiving our true needs, we wrongly equate our fulfillment and self-worth with possessions, positions, and mental and sensual thrills. We are often drawn into superficial relationships which hold the promise of lasting satisfaction. The true treasure lies within. It is the underlying theme of the songs we sing, the shows we watch and the books we read. It is woven into the Psalms of the Bible, the ballads of the Beatles and practically every Bollywood film ever made.

What is that treasure? Love. Love is the nature of the Divine. Beneath the covering of the false ego it lies hidden. The purpose of human life is to uncover that divine love. The fulfillment that we're all seeking is found in the sharing of this love.