Baraka Kirtan – The Art of Spirituality (revised)
by Antonya Wallace (Anth-E200) 12/7/2010
Introduction: Baraka: a blessing, the essence of life, soul power. It’s a Thursday night, and while most people are headed out to the bars, I’m making my way across town to Sakshi’s house to sit in during a Baraka Kirtan performance. Kirtan is an ancient Indian tradition based on Bhakti Yoga, which uses music and chanting as an avenue to spiritual enlightenment. As I enter the house the smell of roasting vegetables, marijuana, and halava fills my nose. I later learned that food is almost always present and sanctified so that it can be offered to God. They believe that when one eats sanctified food, that the food purifies the soul. Since Kirtan has roots in India there isn’t any beef (or any meat for that matter) being served, due to their animals sacred role in India. Yet, not all Kirtankars (one who practices/performs Kirtan) are vegetarian. It just happened that everyone in attendance tonight was. Another thing that everyone shares is the use of marijuana, which is smiled upon, as it is believed to promote enlightenment, drive the music, and as an added benefit, make the food taste even more divine. Smoking was also used socially to bring everyone together to prepare for the beginning of the ceremony. I was only there to observe so I did not enhance my chances of enlightenment.
I thought it was important to note that as I entered the room; warm faces, hugs, and a plate of food greeted me. That hospitality was due in part because Sakshi used to be my neighbor and he was the first person I met when I moved to Bloomington. But the royal treatment wasn’t reserved just for ex-neighbors. As I sat watching I noticed that the Kirtan community is open and loving to everyone. As each person entered Sakshi’s house they were greeted by first name, a hug, food, and an offer to play music. I decided that I would not participate in the event so that I could have an etic point of view. I pulled up a chair slightly to the side of the group and began my observations. The heavy smell of incense being burned drowned out the colorful smells of food and ganja.
I really enjoyed the scent of the incense so after the event I asked what it was. To my astonishment it was part of another practice that I was completely oblivious to. “Agnihotra is a Vedic yajna and involves the burning of cow dung and ghee butter in an inverted copper pyramid at dusk and dawn precisely, while chanting Vedic mantras. Properly performed, this ritual according to the Vedic tradition brings about enormous healing and purification of the environment. The Agnihotra is a powerful yajna that in my experience brings about a deep sense of peace. This 5-minute process feels like coming out of an hour of meditation. It’s a grounding practices and assists in uncovering the real Self, hidden underneath all of the mental chatter. The fact that the dung of the cow is such an important part of this process is really significant given the way this culture brutalizes and tortures these sacred creatures” (ecovillage.wordpress.com). It seems that this practice speaks to the Kirtan community’s “love-all” mentality.
I learned that it was a good practice to do the Agnihotra before the real ceremony began, so that everything is cleansed. I learned, “The rites of the Morning-Agnihotra are almost the same as the rites of the Evening-Agnithotra; but, in many instances, the formulas uttered by the Adhvaryu or the Sacrificer are different” (Paul-Emile Dumont). I was only there for the evening Agnihotra so I cannot compare the differences with the morning ritual.
As the musicians began to take their seats, they ditched their shoes and sat in a semi-circle. The audience comprised the other half of the circle, therefore creating an atmosphere for the call and response style of the music. The simple act of sitting on the ground in a circle is an example of universal primitive behavior. Speaking generally, almost all ancient human groups have sat communally in circles during gatherings. Circular shaped atmospheres bring the listeners directly into the experience. They stop being just listeners, and become participants. The circle encourages each person to look into another’s eyes as they are beckoned to respond to the singer’s calls.
Each “Baba” grabbed their respective instrument; Sakshi Gopal Das on the harmonium, Arun Baba on the bansuri (a type of wooden flute), Zen-G on the guitar, and Ras D Hanubaba on percussion instruments, including the tabla, mridanga, djembe, and kartals. Kirtan events can be played in any musical style with any instrumentation. Baraka Kirtan chooses to stick with more traditional instrumentation on most nights. They also perform many different styles on their CD. Some of those styles include non-traditional instruments such as, electric guitars, bass, drums sets, and digital voice alterations. The style that they choose for each performance is generally based off of their mood that day.
The music begins and the first song (always) is Hare Krishna. Hare is the feminine energy of God, and Krishna means “all attractive one”. During the opening song, “a simple melody is repeated many times at continuously faster tempos and greater volumes until a climax is reached, at which point the whole process may begin again with either the same or a new melody…commonly a line of melody was first sung responsorily four times – leader, chorus, leader, chorus – before proceeding to the next line of the melody… [then] the whole procedure would start over…but at an increased tempo” (Slawek 80). Tonight’s leader, Sakshi sang,
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
The, the audience, some with eyes closed, some staring, some praying, would all participate on during the response. Everyone was completely indulged in their own self-awareness and spiritual being. The sound of all the voices in unison had a surprisingly rich tone. It was nice to be at a ceremony where everyone felt the freedom of creativity and experimented with harmonies, and adding their own flares to each response. The allowance of creativity offers everyone a unique personal experience for his or her spirituality. In some instances if the audience is really enjoying the performance, “The chorus of talkaris (kirtan) often interrupts the kirtankar’s sermon with the singing of a topically relevant abhanga and may take over the performance of a song that a kirtankar has begun. In fact, a warkari kirtankar can easily deliver an entire kirtan and only sing a few solo lines of the song” (Shultz 309). Since Indiana doesn’t have a very large Hare Krishna movement going on underground…Sakshi was more than welcome to solo until the cows (who weren’t eaten J) came home.
Main Argument: While I sat there watching everyone divulge all their energy into devotion through song, I found myself wondering why a genre of music that provides so much peace to people is not more mainstream. In fact, I can’t recall a time that I’ve ever heard Kirtan music on the radio, except when Sakshi would call me and tell me to tune it to Bloomington’s public radio station when Baraka Kirtan was playing.
Sakshi said that Kirtan is actually becoming a new genre in popular music, whereas before it was seated in the world music category. It seems that Kirtan’s growing popularity is due to its message of love, peace, and self-awareness; which can be contrasted by the mind numbingly idiotic music blaring on B97.7 day and day out.
I don’t want to come across as a racist person but I did notice that everyone in attendance (with the exception of me) was Caucasian, and none of us were from India. So my research question would have to be, How did an Indian tradition that’s not very well known, become a subculture in the United States? What makes this music more popular than other forms of world music?
Theory: Those who practice Kirtan disregard arbitrary attributes such as gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. Kirtan is a catalyst to deeper spiritual awakening. People are instantly drawn to the ideology of togetherness that Kirtan offers. While most religions in our society offer a “Get Saved or Burn for Eternity” methodology, Kirtan’s job is to improve each person’s relationship with their own spiritual power.
Unlike most organized religions in the world, which ask you to abandon any other religious beliefs that may conflict with their doctrines, Kirtan lets you keep any, and all your beliefs. The point of Kirtan is to deepen your own spiritual awareness, in order to facilitate a deeper understanding of the spirit, self, and even other religions. It seems that since Kirtan offers such a contrast to more popular well-known religions like Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, etc…that people are also attracted just to get a taste of something new. Kirtan differs from other world religions in that they have never gone on some “convert or die” crusade. Instead of seeking out new members, they let the members seek them out, and then welcome them into their community with open arms. This method of gaining followers actually appears to have gained more devoted participants because each person is expected to find their own path into the Kirtan realm. If you want to become a part of the Kirtan community you have to make an effort to do so, unlike getting saved at a Baptist church which could be likened to going through a “McSalvation” drive through. Literally, anyone could walk into a church at any time and get saved, as many times as they want…without any real impact on their spiritual receptiveness.
Kirtan offers a tailored experience to each person. The natural feel of Kirtan takes away the hierarchal feel of organized religion. For example, the musicians take off their shoes before they play, everyone sits on the floor together, and shares food. It seems that those actions level the playing field between audience and performer, devotee and sit in, old and young, etc. Other factors that attract people to Kirtan are their love of the environment and preservation of ancient practices.
In the days when going to church has become “the thing to do” and if you don’t then you’re damned, people miss out on a real and physical connection with their spirit. From what I’ve seen many people just go to church to maintain their reputation, or they go but don’t practice what is preached. Churches have become kind of like fast food chains, in that they cater to the masses instead of the individual. The strength of major world religions seems to lie solely in the number of followers as opposed to the devotional strength of said followers. To see devoted followers, head over to a Kirtan event. Before going to the event I had no clue why it was growing, but now I understand that the personalized feel and unique musical styles is driving it to become a more prevalent part of our society (and most likely, many others).
Methodology: Being in such a laid back atmosphere, I thought it most appropriate to just jot down a few notes here and there, and casually start conversations. I began by asking Sakshi what Kirtan means to him. I used the genealogical method in a very loose sense so that I could get a grasp on which he learned from, since he was not born into the community. He actually mentioned that he thought it was a bit funny that here are four Caucasian men observing an Indian tradition, and really using it as a way of life. They have at times been misunderstood, but they simply just want to respect and enjoy the aspects of another culture.
I only observed during the event so as to remain neutral to my experience. We also met at Laughing Planet one day so that he could clarify the words of the songs for me. After talking to an insider, I thought I would interview someone who had no previous knowledge of Kirtan. I talked to Samy Estrada, who gave me her brief thoughts on the atmosphere and preaching of Kirtan. Since she was unable to actually attend the event with me, I asked her to watch one of Baraka Kirtan’s online performances. Since she is also a dancer I asked her to describe the music. She said, “the instrumentation was really unique, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought that it might be kind of lame because it was just acoustic instruments; but toward the end when they picked up the tempo it really got funky! They have a really cool message too” (Estrada)!
The rest of my research was done on www.BarakaVision.com, the band’s official website. I used this page to access the band member’s bios, mission statement, and preferred instruments. I also read a few articles on www.jstor.org so that I could read about Kirtan from an Ethnomusicologist’s and Ethnographer’s point of view. These pages gave me insight into more of the cultural implications and history than I could have gained in personal interviews. I couldn’t find much information about Agnihotra so I used www.google.com which led me to a brief review on ecovillage.wordpress.com about the book “How to Save the World”, by Peter Proctor, a biodynamic farmer.
Data Analysis: First, I needed to satisfy my curiosity about how Sakshi even got involved with the Hare Krishna movement. He said, “I was attracted to it years ago due to its instrumentation; especially the sound of the harmonium (which looks like a Dr. Seuss instrument), the message, and the ancient prayers which made me feel in tune with my ancestors” (Sakshi). I accessed his biography on his webpage for more insight on his background. “he lived and studied with many Elders and Mystics (including Ras Pidow, Dr. James E Mumford, Srila Turiya Das Mahasaya and more). Lived and studied at several Ashrams, Temples, and Binghi Camps across North America, Jamaica, Hawaii, and India. In the summers of 2002 and 2003 he traveled across N. America with a traveling cultural festival called “The Festival of India” in which he was a main contributor of set-up and break-down, cultural plays, food distribution, chariot-parading, and sacred chanting. He has been in several musical projects, including: Baraka Kirtan, Santos and the Saints, The Nyahbinghi Livity Choir, Indiana University African American Choral Ensemble, Kuru Dynasty, La Onda, Roots Groundation Family, Parrhesia and more” (BarakaVision.com). I thought that his eclectic musical diversity alone spoke to his openness to new cultures and creativity. If we use Sakshi as an example of the average practitioner of Kirtan, we can see how interesting and appealing the community is. As a side note, he also told me that he does not adhere to any organized religion. But he also does not judge or discriminate anyone based on his or her personal religious choices. His opinion is that people have their own path to embark on to find spiritual peace.
What Sakshi and the Kirtan movement do not do is tell people that they need to submit to their code or way of life. Their message is one of understanding and compassion. In Kirtan, God appears in many forms and usually his/her appearance is different to each person, because God can have an infinite amount of forms. In Kirtan, God can manifest as any deity such as, Krishna, Ram, Shiva, Ganesha, Kali, and many more. These deities share similarities with, and are usually connected to Catholic Saints. To communicate with the deities, they use music, which can be in any genre, just like God can appear in any shape. The musical style creates an openness, connectedness, and receptiveness, among each person’s spirit as they sit in the circle. Just like the participants, each song as a different flavor and mood. To connect with the gods they try to achieve spiritual awakening. Though the Kirtan spiritual awakening may be called different things, spirit of devotion, divine connection, right brained experience, or spiritual openness, these things seem to be held as a common intention to the band members.
Another common intention among the band members is to maintain old practices, like call and response. Samy’s reaction to the call and response aspect of the event was that it was reminiscent of tribal chanting (the band’s desired affect). She also thought the music was calming and soft, until the tempo picked up and it got intense. But this particular event that she saw was calmer than others because it did not use any electric instruments, which are more stimulating to the listener than acoustic ones. She also noticed that each person seemed to be in their own world, yet at the same time connected to everyone in the room. It was almost like Sakshi’s calls put everyone in to a trance, and they could only come out of it by singing the response.
I found that their website was extremely useful for bios and band info. I chose to focus primarily on Sakshi because he is my closest friend out of all the band members. But I did make sure to look at everyone else’s bio and they proved to each have completely different yet extraordinarily interesting backgrounds. It’s compelling to see that people from such different roads can all meet in the middle and work toward a common goal of harmony. Some of the ways that the band members spread peace when they’re not performing is Story Time Yoga, a group started by Sakshi, which incorporates yoga into fairy tales. Ras D likes to change the environment by teaching sustainable farming to Bloomington’s Community. With Kirtan the sky is the limit on creatively spreading the word of peace, harmony, and love.
Conclusion: Unlike other world religions Kirtan offers more than just a guide for living which can be summed up by the golden rule. The Hare Krishna movement brings entire communities of varied people together to function as one spritual entity. Kirtan allows each person to find their own path and use Kirtan as a means to help them spread love and harmony in whatever way they choose. For example, Sakshi’s yoga, and Ras D’s farming; they are each doing what they love to do, while weaving in Kirtan to spread a message.
The beauty of Kirtan is that while it is a deeply personal experience it is also very communal. The participation of the person sitting next to you, chanting, and playing music will directly affect your experience, and vice versa. The “primitiveness” of it makes the participants feel as though they have just relived something that their ancestors probably did long ago. As the tempo speeds up, so does the heart beato f all those involved. The music literally seems to pull your body toward the instruments. Everyone in the room seems to into a spiritual trance, as they slowly forget all the hardships in life outside the Kirtan room. When I was there, I wasn’t even participating but I found that instead of thinking about my bills, homework, exams, or life drama, I was just focused on the rhythm of the drums pulsating through my body. It was as if my brain turned off, and I didn’t have a choice, it was time to meditate.
Kirtan offers an authentic feeling of togethness that people usually do not get from day to day living. After the event eveyone kind of looks around smiling, like “now what?”. In such a short time they ate, smoked, chanted, blessed, meditated, and laughed together. I can truly say that I understand now why Kirtan is becoming so popular. It is a message that can virtually be played with any instruments, in and setting, and any time. Most importantly I found out that it can be played by anyone of any color or creed, etc…as long as they embody the message of love.
Since Kirtan is so musically amorphous it appeals to a broad audience of musical tastes and can easily become a tool for social change. “[It] is an especially effective meduim for the propegation of nationalist ideas because of its devotionalized context and Kirtan music’s potential for group participation, experiences of emboiment, and multiple interpretive possibilites” (Shultz 307).
After doing this Project I think that I have learned that Kirtan has the potential to create strong and loving leaders, who don’t adhere to social convictions of discrimination. In Kirtan you can come from any background because the importance rests in the spiritual world instead of the physical. Hopefully the Hare Kirshna movement will continue to spread, and add much needed harmony to the crazy world we’re all living in.
Works Cited :
Hindu Nationalism, Music, and Embodiment in Marathi Rāshṭrīya Kīrtan
Vol. 46, No. 2 (Spring – Summer, 2002), pp. 307-322
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of Society for Ethnomusicology
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/852784
Moi. “Cow Dung and It’s Many Wonderful Properties « EARTHKEEPIN.” EARTHKEEPIN. 27 Sept. 2007. Web. 02 Dec. 2010. <http://ecovillagelife.wordpress.com/2007/09/27/cow-dung-and-its-many-wonderful-properties/>.
The Agnihotra (Or Fire-God Oblation) in the Taittirīya-Brāhmaṇa: The First Prapāṭhaka of the Second Kāṇḍa of the Taittirīya-Brāhmaṇa with Translation
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society
Vol. 108, No. 4 (Aug. 27, 1964), pp. 337-353
Published by: American Philosophical Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/985912
Popular Kīrtan in Benares: Some ‘Great’ Aspects of a Little Tradition
Stephen M. Slawek
Vol. 32, No. 2 (Spring – Summer, 1988), pp. 77-92
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of Society for Ethnomusicology
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/852037
Wind, Arun B., Sakshi G. Das, Ras D. Hanubaba, and Zen G. “Divine Music”. Baraka Kirtan – Divine Music. DigitalNature, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 04 Nov. 2010.