5 Questions for Shantala, Part 2

In the second installment of my interview with Shantala, Benjy and Heather share their perspective on how kirtan has developed in the context of Western yoga culture and some of the important questions and challenges facing the evolution of the Western Bhakti movement. We're looking forward to welcoming them back to Shri Yoga this Monday, October 19.

BARRIE: Just as asana practice has evolved to meet the needs of Western students, how has kirtan developed? What are some of the up sides and down sides of this evolution from your perspective?

BENJY & HEATHER: Over the last fifty years or so, there has been a wave of yoga practices – centering especially around asana in North America, Europe, and increasingly around the world – that has now become strongly integrated into western culture. Following the wave of the rapidly increasing popularity of asana, kirtan (as well as some other spiritual practices) has also become an important part of many peoples’ yoga practice as well. 

One of the ways in which the migration of kirtan to the West has changed the practice is that we find the chanting of mantras being juxtaposed with a wide range of musical genres. Interestingly, one of the instruments now considered central to Kirtan, the harmonium, was introduced to India within the last 150 years by missionaries who needed portable organs to support the Christian hymns and songs they were singing as part of their efforts to convert Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists living in India to Christianity. Before that, the essential melodic instrument that supported chanting was the ektar (literally “one string”) , a simple instrument made from a stick of bamboo, a gourd, and one or two strings that the chanter would pluck rhythmically to support the chant. Various drums, especially the mridanga, would often accompany the chanting as well. Now we have everything from full bands to techno loops in a huge range of musical styles that support the chants, which definitely has had the benefit of making the practice much more accessible to those of us raised in Western culture.

That said, we do have myriad concerns about what is often referred to nowadays as “cultural appropriation” – where practices, paradigms, cosmological perspectives and similar deeply embedded elements of cultures other than our own are adopted without a deep understanding of or respect for the tradition from which we are borrowing.  With respect to Sanskrit chanting, some examples of the downside of such cultural appropriation would be:

-       chant leaders mispronouncing mantras or introducing grammatical errors by “riffing” on the Sanskrit; to be clear, we have no problem with people who come to attend chanting events not pronouncing words precisely or knowing Sanskrit grammar, but if the leader/teacher does so, it would be analogous to an asana teacher not understanding the proper alignment principles to teach poses. Both the pronunciation and grammar of Sanskrit are seen as sacred practices in Hindu culture, and we think it’s disrespectful not to honor that.

-       Setting mantras to melodies or grooves that are completely misaligned with the meaning or mood of the mantra; one example we heard recently was hearing a well-known mantra with intense gravitas being sung to a happy-go-lucky bouncy pop melody. An analogy here would be setting the mourning Kaddish of Judaism to something like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” … it feels somewhat disrespectful and doesn’t really make artistic sense.

-       Mixing and matching mantras associated with widely disparate deities; most mantras used in kirtan are oriented towards building a particular energy and focus, and this can be diluted if the essential element represented by the mantra deity shifts randomly. This is not to say that such movement can’t be artfully done – and often it is, even in more traditional practice – but that it needs to be done with a deep awareness of the overall landscape. All too often, with the importance of “instant gratification” in much of Western culture, this kind of attention to detail isn’t given its due.

In “What is Kirtan?”, Heather’s upcoming article for Brenda Patoine’s “Bhakti Beat” blog, she articulates some of the central questions about the direction of the Western Bhakti movement, she writes:

Since kirtan is now occurring within the new context of Western yoga, it no longer has the cultural boundaries or traditions that surrounded it in other places and times.  The heart of kirtan practice is in danger of being lost or diluted in our culture, and it’s a huge loss for all of us if this happens.  It’s similar to the process of yoga becoming only a form of exercise and meditation becoming only a tool for stress management.  The very precious nature of these practices is being sacrificed to the Gods of our culture . . . the God of money, the God of popularity, the God of attracting a bigger audience.

 The true essence of kirtan is a deepening journey into the heart and the transformation of ourselves into beings of love.  If we’re not doing that, then it isn’t a spiritual practice.  It might be fun, entertaining, artistic, and uplifting, but it’s something else.  Music itself can be healing.  Entertainment feels wonderful, but it isn’t the same as sadhana, or spiritual practice.