Updated: Apr 7, 2020
I have recently become aware of a theme of articles around whether yoga is religion and it started me thinking about Kirtan. Kirtan is slightly more trepidatious than physical yoga in this area, as its roots undoubtedly lie in the Hindu or Sikh religions, whereas, you can argue, that yoga does not.
However, for me, Kirtan is not religion at all and I have always had a slightly challenging relationship with it for that reason. I was, however, hooked on Kirtan from the moment I discovered it. At the same time I found myself shying away from many of the qualities that seem to come with religion, such as blind faith and dogmatic beliefs. Before I discovered yoga, I even considered myself agnostic, as you can imagine it has been an interesting journey for me to become a Kirtan singer!
When I sing, it takes me to a place in myself that is beyond dogma, with no need to sign up to any set belief, nor a specific group mentality. My experience of Kirtan has been life changing and deeply transformative. It has played a big part in bringing me to a place of far more contentment and joy and with this, more openness and understanding of the beauty of the essence of all religion, with no need to align with any. Most importantly, what I have discovered is a deepening of my relationship with myself and this incredible world we live in. That, for me, is far more significant than anything else. I sing because it brings me into a place of peace, it allows me to express myself in a way that is so hard through normal spoken word. I sing because something deep inside me understands that it opens a doorway to something beyond the busyness of my mind. Something beyond the judgements, the fear, the separateness and allows me to feel more fully what it is to be human.
So what do I do with the fact that I am mostly singing the names of Hindu deities? I began my journey trying to align to the pictures of deities and their stories, but it was always a struggle, a forced thing from my mind. Yet on a deeper level I found myself connecting to the energies that I was invoking when I sang. Then I realised that all ancient and pagan traditions have similar gods and goddesses: maybe names and qualities vary, but in essence, very similar. So there was something greater in this wisdom, something beyond the Hindu religion.
The power of the Sanskrit word (the root language of most Kirtans) and its vibrational quality has attracted me since I first heard chanting. I do not make intellectual decisions about what I do or do not sing. For me the sacred words in Kirtan are not ‘gods’ belonging to another culture or faith. They are beautiful sound structures that allow me to connect to and invoke the energies I see all around me and within me. For instance, one of the meanings of Shiva is the energy of ending for new growth. I love to grow vegetables, so for me Shiva has a powerful meaning. This is so apparent in a garden, when in winter everything goes still and silent and I cover it all with compost and leaves from the trees nearby. Then suddenly in spring things come alive again and the leaves and compost serve to nourish the soil as new growth begins. It is such a natural part of the cycle of life, yet so many of us fear death and endings. By connecting to Shiva it can really support our acceptance and joy of this process.
When I am in need of creative inspiration, I might sing to Saraswati. It helps me tune into the part of myself that allows my creativity to flow into all areas of my life. This helps bring a feeling of ease and peace. Or Durga (a powerful goddess depicted on a tiger)) when I need to find some inner strength. Kali, for me, is a hugely transformation power, she is the stormy weather (or emotions), the thunder and rain that helps me feel alive. That powerful force that can rip through me clearing out anything that is stuck along the way!
Recently when Mat and I were recording our first album together, ‘Remembrance’, we were really struggling with a Ganesha chant. I had never really understood or felt a connection to Ganesha. He was just a funny elephant god that I had little relationship with. Ganesha is said to be the remover of obstacles and is invoked at the beginning of almost everything in India, so, I was singing Ganesha chants at the beginning of Kirtans to feel like I was being a “good” kirtan singer. The chant was taking days and days to record and edit as we just could not get it right. Then on one of the last days of recording, as we left home, I was going to put my boot on and my foot hit something soft. I pulled my foot out and checked inside my boot. I could not find anything. I put it on again and again hit something soft. This time I squealed and bounced around asking Mat to check my boot. He still could not find anything. Then I realised I had something crawling up the inside of my leg. I screamed and took my trousers off and out jumped a mouse! I tell this story because Ganesha is depicted as having a mouse as his vehicle for travel.
This experience really touched something in me and I realised that by not relating to Ganesha fully, I was not accepting and loving an important part of myself. Ganesha is said to not only remove obstacles, but also to be the one who places them there in the first place. It struck me that my mind the person who creates most of my obstacles and, usually, it is me who can move them out of my way. So this episode was not about bringing me to believe in an external god but to really acknowledge that there is a wisdom inside me, outside of me and beyond me that, as I connect more deeply, I meet my inner wisdom. I now love singing chants to Ganesha!
So in response to the question ‘Is Kirtan religion?’. You could answer yes if you want to, but I ask you to go deeper, go beyond the limitations of religion and dive into the sound and the qualities and build a different relationship with this practice. A relationship that is wild and free, a relationship that does not have rules of right and wrong. A relationship that is authentic and true to your deepest self. A relationship that touches something that ignites passion and love for the present moment that we live in. A relationship that supports you to find peace.