What is Kirtan?

Kirtan refers to devotional songs and music from the various Indian religious traditions.

I grew up in one of these traditions. I grew up in a Sikh household and there was always kirtan music playing in the background in our home.

When I was a child, the stereo cabinet in our living room was filled with collections of kirtan vinyl records and as I got older the vinyl records were replaced with kirtan audio cassettes. By the time I was a teenager, our stereo cabinet was full of kirtan CDs.  We upgraded our kirtan music formats the way my friend’s families upgraded their rock music formats.

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So what is kirtan?

I decided to go to Wikipedia and see what they say because I’m quite familiar with kirtan and they have a pretty good description. So I’m just going to refer to the article Wikipedia at first.

Kirtan (Sanskrit: कीर्तन; IAST: Kīrtana) is a Sanskrit word that means “narrating, reciting, telling, describing” of an idea or story,specifically in Indian religions. With roots in the Vedic traditions, a kirtan is a call-and-response style song or chant, set to music, where multiple singers recite or describe a legend, or express loving devotion to a deity, or discuss spiritual ideas. It may include dancing or direct expression of emotional states by the singer. Many kirtan performances are structured to engage the audience where they either repeat the chant, or reply to the call of the singer.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirtan

This is a very common music form in many ancient original music traditions, the call and the response style of song. It’s also the form kirtan often takes.

Now there’s another term related to kirtan called bhajan.

Kirtan vs Bhajan

Let’s look at what Wikipedia and see what they have to say about bhajan.

Bhajan refers to any devotional song with a religious theme or spiritual ideas, specifically among Indian religions. The term bhajanam (Sanskrit: भजनम्) means reverence and originates from the root word bhaj (Sanskrit: भज्), which means to revere. The term ‘bhajan‘ is also commonly used to refer a group event, with one or more lead singers, accompanied with music, and sometimes dancing. A bhajan may be sung in a temple, in a home, under a tree in the open, near a river bank or a place of historic significance. Ideas from scriptures, legendary epics, the teachings of saints and loving devotion to a deity are the typical subjects of bhajans. As a bhajan has no prescribed form, or set rules, it is in free form, normally lyrical and based on melodic ragas.[4] It belongs to a genre of music and arts that developed with the Bhakti movement.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhajan

So kirtan and bhajan are related terms and they’re both Indian music meditation traditions. They both came into their full development during the bhakti movement which was a spiritual movement that started in India about six or seven hundred years ago. The bhakti movement was a response to the privileged Vedic caste traditions.

Bhakti makes music meditation easy

In the Vedic traditions of the time, you had to be part of a high status caste and you had to be able to read and recite complex long Sanskrit scriptures in order to get access to God, to get access to divine blessings.

The bhakti movement, the bhakti saints, they upturned the controlling highs status of the Vedic tradition.

They said, oh, you can’t read and recite Sanskrit? No problem. Just use the common language you already know to seek connection to God.

You don’t have ancient mantras and scriptures memorized? No problem. Just sing these easy to learn and understand bhajans, these beautiful devotional songs.

You’re not a high status brahmin who claims to be the only caste with direct access to the divine? Forget about caste, anyone who performs kirtan with a pure heart has direct access to the divine, no matter their caste status. God can hear you when you sing with love.

The point of kirtan and bhajans is to sing these divine songs filled with eternal truths and sacred mantras in order to enter arrive at a transcendent meditative state.

The idea is that while we’re performing kirtan, our thinking, analyzing, judging mind turns off and we enter into a bliss state where we don’t exist. We surrender ourselves to the kirtan, to the bhajans, we’re singing.

If we’re in a group setting with a lead singer we become one with the lead kirtan singer and we become one with the group of people were singing with. We become something bigger than our individual self.

The point of kirtan meditation is to connect yourself with the divine, to speak to the divine through song, to diminish yourself and immerse yourself in the divine.

Achieving transcendence with kirtan

If the point of kirtan is transcendence, what are we transcending?

We’re transcending our personal body and mind.

And why exactly are we trying to connect with something transcendent?

The reason is to seek help in overcoming life’s afflictions, to request a release from our karma and the wheel of life and death and birth and life and death and rebirth and so on.

Okay, so let’s back it up for a minute here. The tagline for this podcast is meditation without gods, reincarnation, afterlife or the supernatural but everything I just talked about for the last ten minutes involves all of these things. So what’s up?

Well, here’s what’s up.

The physiological emotional and mental benefits of kirtan music meditation happen whether we believe in a transcendent divine being or not.

Benefits of kirtan music meditation

When we’re singing these ancient mantras, these beautiful songs, this incredibly profound poetry of the bhakti movement, we can’t help but be carried away into a meditative bliss date. We don’t need to believe in the divine or have faith for our mind and body and heart to experience the benefits of kirtan.

Okay, so if that’s true, then shouldn’t singing any song give those physiological emotional and mental benefits?

The answer is yes, any song will do.

Studies of singing, both individually and in groups like choirs, have shown the following benefits:

  • Increased brain development
  • Improved breathing, posture and muscle tension
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased pain reduction
  • Improved immune system

Singing also fosters a connection to community, especially if you’re singing in a group like a choir. Even if you’re just out with your friends singing in a karaoke bar, you still get the benefits.

All of these benefits of singing might sound familiar if you are a long time listener of the meditation questions podcast because these are the same benefits we saw when we were looking at what the benefits of meditation generally.

Now, you might ask, are you telling me to give up meditation and revive my high school rock band dream? Well you can and if you do it will make you feel amazing.

I guess what I’m really saying is that music meditation has a long respected history in the various Indian religious traditions of kirtan and bhajans.

Additionally, modern science has shown that generally music and singing do work to improve our overall well-being.

Your personalised music meditation

My personal morning playlist has songs from the Indian bhakti traditions, upbeat Bollywood songs which are songs from Indian movies, cheerful English pop songs, songs from when I was young and fun, and lively kids songs (because well my wife is a kid’s yoga teacher and I have kids in my life that like songs).

I treat all of these songs on my morning playlist with the same reverence. I’ll sing along to all of them just the same. I know when I do that, I am doing a music meditation catered specifically for me by me.

So if you’re wondering how you can meditate to music, create a playlist that touches your heart and encourages you to open up and sing a beautiful song.