What is Kirtan? What is this love affair? Kirtan is devotion. Kirtan is singing to the divine. As we open our hearts to sing in devotion, we experience the sweetness of the divine in us. “It”' becomes real—our beloved is present, right inside and around us, plain as day, listening, dancing, and celebrating!
In Kirtan we are vibrated to the core of our being. The mantras and sounds of Kirtan chants stir and awaken spiritual qualities in us. The energy lifts us above the mind, where thoughts can’t seem to reach us. Worry and stress slide off. We touch the divine within us and sit with it. The divine takes us. We feel her hold us in her arms for a while.
You can feel different qualities of the divine invoked by different mantras and chants. How is that possible? Singing to the deities by name – Shiva, Krishna, Ram, Hanuman, Sita, Radha, Parvati, Kali, Durga, Lashmi, Saraswati, on and on—we call out and awaken their spirit in us. Powerfully! Facets of our divinity come alive. The beauty of our being—the entire jewel—sparkles. And what about this beauty is so spell-binding? We are so attracted to beauty because it reminds us who we are. It shows us the nature of our true self – the awe of endless beauty. Kirtan awakens in us the beauty of remembering of who we are. We experience ourselves as resplendent beauty. We remember and experience the causeless joy of being.
Who is listening? The divine within us and around us hears us chanting. My spiritual master, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, said that the secret to chanting is to know who is listening. If no one is listening, then how can you be chanting? Find out who is listening! Who is your beloved? Find your beloved. Open your heart in song and sing to your beloved.
Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion, is the journey to find love – first finding the beloved within our own hearts and then finding the beloved in all things and people. Kirtan and other devotional practices are the core of Bhakti Yoga. In Kirtan a flood of love arises and melts the distinction between me and you, inner and outer. This is the perfection of Bhakti Yoga. It is written and many current spiritual masters assert that at the darkest time of the Kali Yuga (Age of Darkness) Kirtan will become the most potent means for accessing and bringing forth the divine in us.
My lifelong journey singing Kirtan
Singing Kirtan has been a lifelong journey. I first chanted Kirtan at an ashram on Long Island, New York, in 1972. Sixteen years old, I followed along with no written words, picking up the chants by ear. It was completely weird. Yet, after a while, merging with the flow of the songs and the one flow of the group, I suddenly felt home—doing the right thing, something familiar and completely satisfying. I began to sink into a peace I had never felt before.
Govinda Jaya Jaya Gopala Jaya Jaya Radha Ramana Hari Govinda Jaya Jaya was the first chant I ever sang. I have no idea what I was actually singing or thinking, but I loved it – week after week it just got better and better.
At my first weekend retreat in Connecticut a couple of months later, we gathered for yoga, meditation, and a spiritual talk in the morning. In the afternoon, leaders told us we would chant for six hours and then sit for meditation. Six hours of Kirtan! How would this be possible? In disbelief, I also felt excited. People from all over New England were doing the same thing! Here was some kind of spiritual movement, a spiritual family, I had joined.
The spirit of oneness in that Kirtan was profound, celestial, as though we had entered another dimension. It was the coolest thing I’d ever experienced. At one point when the chanting got incredibly vibrant, the chandelier fell from the ceiling, crashing down into the group but hitting no one. I was amazed.
After six hours of Kirtan, we sat to meditate. I closed my eyes and repeated my mantra. I heard my mantra echo across the empty expanse of space. I had found what I had been longing for—I was home. Satisfaction bubbled up within me.
I was hooked and in a few weeks joined hundreds of followers at the 1972 national retreat in Hutchinson, Kansas. There were Indian monks, orange everywhere, the works: Talks about karma, samskara, meditation, and the spiritual master. Four hours of meditation each day, knees falling off, everyone getting sick. Spontaneous chanting circles on the lawn. Karma burning, people freaking out, food running out. We were new at this. But all along, the peace was profound. I was wide-eyed, looking at all this with such amazement.
The retreat ended, and on the car ride home it finally hit me how transcended we all became over the two weeks. Something in me had shifted. The world was a different place now. Nothing really mattered, except this blissful connection I was experiencing.
I fell in love with Kirtan more and more, taking my guitar to retreats and learning new chants. One day, I took a courageous leap and took out my guitar during Kirtan and started playing along, jazz chords and all. It felt great. Then the Kirtan police came over and stopped me. I guess it was too radical at that time. But I got home and started playing guitar to my own chanting and the little bhakti group we had at college. I dropped out of college, but stayed around and would play Kirtan in the hallways at the dorm.
In 1975 I was off to India to see my Guru Anandamurtiji and stay at his ashram in Benares. After a few months there, returning to the US, I traveled across the country chanting in the Ananda Marga ashrams and retreats.
Settling in Colorado, I took on the challenges of marriage, raising children, and career. Responsibilities took priority over the wandering bhakta that I was. The 1980's seemed like a spiritual lull for everyone I knew. So many spiritual masters were leaving the body. The 1990's seemed to bring a spiritual springtime. In 1992, at a meditation retreat with Oceana, I heard a woman, Maniko singing a beautiful devotional song. Something welled up in me, and I realized how long it had been since I had that deep feeling of love of God in my heart. I had been dry, and I could feel the sadness of years of not chanting. I got home, took out my guitar, and sang. It felt great to return to the heart of devotion.
Later in the 1990's my friend Pamela Wilson had me listen to a CD of a Kirtan singer named Krishna Das. The transmission of Neem Karoli Baba came through that recording of Krishna Das, and the love Kirtan began to flow once again in me.
I was chanting at Nirmala's retreat in Ojo Caliente when a group of my friends heard me and decided we should start a regular Kirtan group in Boulder. Thanks to them, that was the beginning of the Sunday night Boulder Kirtan that continues still.
In 2003 I met my guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati Ma Jaya, a beautiful teacher and devotee of Neem Karoli Baba, and by her grace and guidance, Kirtan took on a more real and deeper meaning for me. My path takes me now to Florida to be with Ma Jaya. I'll miss the nights of sheer bliss, joy and awe at the Sunday Kirtan in Boulder.
I am in awe of the incredible gift to be able to sing Kirtan. I offer these chanting CDs, songbooks and chord books in hopes that others will find them useful, kindle that spark of bliss in chanting to God and Goddess, and help spread the joys of Kirtan everywhere.
– Jai Ma!
Sia Vara Ramachandra, Ki Jai!
Pawanasuta Hanuman, Ki Jai!
Shrii Uma Pati Mahadev, Ki Jai!
Shrii Shrii Shrii Baba Neem Karoli Santa Maharaj, Ki Jai!
Shrii Mata Jaya Sati Bhagavati, Ki Jai
Jai Kali Ma Ki Jai! Jai Kali Ma Ki Jai! Jai Kali Ma Ki Jai!