Well. That was a long and unintended absence from blogging. I don’t really even know where the past three months have gone – it’s all been a blur. I mean, it’s July, for pete’s sake.
So. Let’s just dive in and talk about kirtan, shall we?
Several years ago I started having serious anxiety issues, mostly related to work, and my doctor oh-so-gently suggested I needed to find ways of calming myself down that didn’t involve my dear pals Ben and Jerry. So I took up yoga and meditation, both of which truthfully made me feel pretty silly – even though they helped. I was mostly practicing at home (with the curtains shut), and started buying yoga and meditation CD’s. Somehow I managed to stumble onto a Krishna Das album, and it was like the world exploded – in a wondrous, “it’s full of stars” sort of way. I didn’t even know that his music was kirtan; in fact I don’t think at that point I’d even heard the word kirtan. Listening to it just seemed to fill some void I didn’t know I had.
Also, it made me want to dance around my living room.
Kirtan is basically call-and-response prayer, sung in Sanskrit and set to Indian (or Indian-influenced) music. It often starts out slow and mellow, building to a crescendo of voices that makes your heart swell. I know to a lot of Western ears kirtan may sound weird, and the idea of chanting ancient Sanskrit words that you don’t know the meaning of seems odd. Plus, I’m sure the idea of chanting the “Hare Krishna” in particular brings up notions of those guys in robes wandering around Times Square, their heads shaved perfectly bald. And let me just say, for a Christian-baptized white girl from rural Maine, this is exactly the sort of thing that would raise a few eyebrows amongst the family.
But. There’s something incredibly joyful about kirtan. Joyful in a way that the church music I grew up never really was (to me, anyway), and certainly not in the manner of popular music (although I read that Krishna Das once referred to Bruce Springsteen as the Boddhisattva -enlightened one- of New Jersey, which seems a pretty apt description). And, y’know, shouldn’t religion be joyful? If you are singing the names of God, shouldn’t you be happy about it? And really, as religions go, is chanting ancient Sanskrit texts any weirder than believing in the virgin birth, or that Joseph Smith unearthed gold plates in upstate New York?
At any rate, I’d sort of forgotten all about kirtan these past few years. Truthfully, I’m not feeling all that religious these days. Personally, at this juncture of my life (what with the whole “war on women” and all) I find it difficult to embrace any male-dominated institutions, and that pretty much rules out all formal religion at the moment. When I lived in NYC I dabbled a bit, figuring that if my great-grandmother could exchange the Episcopals for the Jehovah Witnesses I could certainly explore eastern religions. I took meditation classes at the Shambala Center, and then went to an ashram on the Upper West Side one evening. It was rumored to be the one that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about in Eat, Pray, Love. I have no idea whether or not it really was; all I know is that I managed to show up on a night they were chanting “the Geet”, the longest chant of them all –pages and pages of dense Sanskrit. Plus I was horrified that men and women had to sit on different sides of the room. I never went back, and it was the end of my religious experimentation.
But lately my anxiety has been creeping up again, forcing me back to yoga class, and what do you know–my yoga teacher plays kirtan. And in the second class there were songs by Krishna Das and it was like the sun started shining again.
(One twenty-something guy was not particularly thrilled with the music. He asked the teacher, “You got any Peter Frampton?” I’m still cracking up over it.)
I don’t know the words. Or, to be exact, I don’t know what the words mean, although it’s easy enough to Google the chants and get English translations. This bothered me until I read on the Krishna Das website that he thinks it doesn’t matter if we don’t understand Sanskrit – the music speaks to us in different ways, and that’s what is important. I also worried that as a white Westerner I had no business appropriating another culture’s spiritual music for my own more-or-less secular uses, but it turns out Krishna Das was born in Jersey. And since I know plenty of people who claim “Amazing Grace” is their favorite song but they haven’t stepped foot in a church in decades…well, I’m pretty sure an agnostic finding joy in kirtan isn’t the end of the world. And while kirtan has its roots in a deeply patriarchal culture (don’t even get me started….), modern kirtan has several women practitioners.
Here’s one of my favorites — it starts out slow and a little…gravelly, perhaps, but builds into something lovely. Unfortunately this YouTube recording cuts off at the end, but nonetheless: it makes me ridiculously happy. The lyrics and translation can be found here. I particlularly like “victory over the darkness of suffering” bit, and in particular the notes that read:
It’s OK to forget, to be forgotten,
to be left behind,
It’s OK to be betrayed, strung out on everything
that everyone has ever done to us and we can’t ever forgive…
The breath of the One breathes in us.
Even when we don’t know.
Amen, amen, amen.