Kirtan is not Yoga
by Koenraad Elst on 31 Aug 2008 0 Comment

Steven J. Rosen was a New York hippy until he became Krishna devotee Satyaraja Dasa, founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, and one of the leading Western scholars of Vaishnavism, the worship of Vishnu mainly through His incarnations Rama and Krishna.


Rosen’s latest book, the 500-page volume The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (Folk Books, Nyack NY 2008,, with 70-minute audio CD, is a thorough presentation of the practice of kirtan (“praise”), devotional singing, mainly through 21 interview testimonies by well-known performers. Some are Indian, but most are North American converts.


Rosen’s main focus is predictably on the Hindu and Sikh kirtan traditions calling themselves by that name. Yet he starts out with a nod to similar practices in all the world’s religions, from Gregorian plainchant in the Catholic Church to qawali in South-Asian Islam, and with an acknowledgment of the utter naturalness of singing. It exists in all and especially the most primitive cultures, and is done spontaneously by children. They can take any bit of song they’ve picked up, or just a few words of their own set to a melody they’ve heard, and start singing repetitively. It doesn’t require much effort; anyone can intone a melody and get carried away in the pleasure of both making and hearing the sound vibrations.


The interviews inform on the personal spiritual and artistic itineraries of the kirtan performers, but also on general cultural and religious trends in India and the US, and in the distance (but only in the distance) even on political backgrounds. Thus, a Sikh lady explains how vegetarianism, of which Rosen is a persuasive advocate, really is part of Sikh tradition, but how this is denied by prominent Sikh scholars. Of course, Sikhism is a part of the Vaishnava family, its main temple is the Hari-Mandir in Amritsar, Rama and Krishna are named hundreds of times in the Guru Granth Sahib and Hari-nam kirtan is a central practice started by Guru Nanak himself. In a gurudwara kitchen (langar), non-vegetarian food is totally out of place, just as in any other Vaishnava community centre. But Sikh separatists try to create contrasts between Sikhism and Hinduism, and as part of this effort their literati dismiss non-violence and vegetarianism as idiosyncrasies of weak Hindus, unworthy of their own martial community.


As a presentation of the subject of kirtan and what it means to its practitioners, this book is bound to remain the definitive introduction for years to come. There is no quarrel with the data and heartfelt testimonials; nor is there any doubt that devotional music, along with devotional painting, sculpture and dancing, has created a quality of artistic achievement and experience that corresponding secular endeavours can never match.


However, I do want to take issue with the ultimate presupposition of his whole exercise: that chanting the name of God is a form of “yoga”. What follows is a quarrel about words, a huge exercise in pedantry. All the same, I think it’s instructive, especially for Hindus (including Western converts) who often have a simplistic view of their tradition as eternal and hence unchanging. Without second thought, they label all their own beliefs and practices “Vedic”, as if their tradition hadn’t undergone dramatic changes since the Vedic age. They tend to resent Orientalists like me for spoiling the fun by pointing out contradictions and historic reversals within the Sanatana (“eternal”) Dharma. That’s nonetheless what we propose to do here.




Let us start at a point familiar to Rosen, viz. the spectacular influx of certain forms of Hindu religion into America in the late 1960s. When the International Society for Krishna Consciousness made headlines in the West, along with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation, scientists wanted to find out whether the novel practices propagated by them had any measurable effect on the human brain. To the curious Western eye, the common element to both schools was the endless repetition of a sound, but there also had to be differences between TM’s secret mantras and ISKCON’s demonstrative kirtan.


It was found that mantra-japa, repetition of a mantra, did have a calming and deepening effect on brain waves, and that it made no difference whether you intoned “aum” or a purely secular sound such as “one”. At most, certain less mellifluous sounds could have a slightly unnerving effect, say “hrik”, but the meaning would make no difference. This finding was in tune with the Maharishi’s claim that what he taught was only a mental technique, a science rather than a religion. No God business for transcendental meditators. Any sound will do for the technique to work, it doesn’t have to be God’s name at all. (For the clever ones who retort that “one” could be understood as a name for the One God, let it be added that “two” or “ninety-eight” will also serve the purpose of stilling the brain waves.)


Be that as it may for a mantra silently repeated in the mind, it is hard to maintain this for kirtan, singing aloud, especially the kind of street chanting then commonly practised by the first generation of Western Hare Krishna enthusiasts. You can try to erupt into chanting something meaningless, but for how long? All Hindu bhakti (devotion) schools that ever made devotional singing their central practice insisted on singing the name of God, Ram-nam, rather than just anything. One of these was the Nanak-panth, now better known as Sikhism, centred on the notion of sat-nam, “the true name”. For all of them, singing the sound is the connector with the One who really is important, God. Yogically manipulating brain waves may be an interesting game, but isn’t it silly child’s play when you realize that there’s God out there? Isn’t opening up to God far more important than performing mind tricks?


So there was a radical difference between the Maharishi’s “Vedic science of creative intelligence”, which advertises itself as modern, secular and impersonal, and Srila Prabhupada’s “Krishna Consciousness”, which is unapologetically religious and centred on a personal God. These two trendy schools, TM and ISKCON, usually rejected the label “Hindu” but were all too recognizable as continuous with existing branches of the ancient Hindu tree. My point now is that they are representative of two distinct and conflicting phases of Hindu evolution.


The first Hindu guru I ever encountered, Puri-based Swami Hariharananda Giri, teacher of the Kriya Yoga made famous by Paramhans Yogananda, had a charisma I’d never seen before, exuding such goodness and power that forever cleared all my doubts about whether yoga really works. But his practice had nothing to do with kirtan, of which he didn’t think too highly. Alright, it keeps people off the streets, so to speak, but it can’t get you very far compared with silent meditation.


Swami Hariharananda Giri in fact deplored the way it distracted genuine seekers from the more fruitful practice of silent sitting. As a born Bengali, he was entirely familiar with street-singers in the tradition of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He once imitated their Hare Krishna chanting: “Hare-hore-hori-horrible!” He taught a direct way to experience that funny feeling which some call God, directing the attention inward and becoming aware of what is lurking there.


Illusion of synthesis


Most modern English-speaking Hindus are enamoured with “synthesis”; you can sell them anything if you advertise it under that label. This makes them all the more attracted to feats of synthesis already vaguely present in the older tradition, such as the notions of “karma yoga” and “bhakti yoga”, popularised by Swami Vivekananda but based on the Bhagavad-Gita. If you are attached to those and have no stomach for criticism and deconstruction of cherished beliefs, don’t read on.


Nearly twenty years ago, at Benares Hindu University, I struck up a friendship with the late philosopher Prof. Kedar Nath Mishra. He was a stalwart Hindu, so it surprised me to find that he was rather dismissive about this most popular Hindu classic, the Gita. But that scepticism was necessary because he was also a stalwart philosopher. It you care about conceptual distinctions, you soon notice that the Gita is, in his words, a “hodge-podge” of all the then-thriving schools of Hindu philosophy, given a veneer of “synthesis” by having them all gathered under a single umbrella of Krishna devotion.


Thus, the Gita’s second chapter is titled Sankhya Yoga, after the atheistic Sankhya philosophy (“enumeration”, viz. of the universe’s 2 poles, nature/consciousness, its 3 qualities and its 24 + 1 elements), which is usually coupled with yoga (meditation) as theory is with practice. The chapter gives a pretty correct summary of this philosophy, about withdrawing consciousness from its sense objects, about delighting in the Self, all aptly technical, non-religious and, to put it more crudely, godless. Then it culminates in the totally un-Sankhya line: “Controlling all these, the self-controlled one should sit meditating on Me” (i.e. on Krishna; 2:61) As if Krishna were not a sense object too, something you can think of as well as not think of, something the yogi can exclude from his consciousness. The Gita’s role in Hindu tradition is to incorporate diverse schools of thought, including Sankhya atheism, into an overarching theistic and devotional worldview.


Now, consider the notion of karma yoga. As any modern Hindu will tell you, it means that just like a yogi on his tiger mat in his Himalayan cave, anyone can achieve enlightenment, not by putting a tiger mat with himself on it in his downtown office, but simply by doing his worldly duty. No convoluted sitting postures, no intense breathing, no eyes focused on your third eye, all you need for becoming enlightened is just doing your job, bringing up your children, paying your taxes, and maybe some service at the local temple. If that were true, the question is, why does the yogi go through all his extra trouble? Clearly, this notion of “karma yoga” is just a children’s tale to keep everybody happy by boosting the non-yogi’s spiritual self-esteem. What it describes is something you could call “ethical living”, and everyone agrees this is important, but it is not yoga. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, it is given a place under the heading “yama”, rules of ethical conduct, a first stage followed by seven more, a precondition for yoga practice, but not identical with it nor a substitute for it.


Likewise, bhakti yoga, of which kirtan is a part, is a confused notion. Bhakti presupposes two parties, God and devotee. Does yoga need those two parties? According to Rosen and millions of Hindus, “Yoga means ‘linking with God’.” Does it? Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra never defines it in those words or to that effect. Even later interpolated sections of this yoga classic which admit the existence of God and acknowledge the use of devotion to Him, never define yoga in terms of “linking with God”.


Patanjali’s definition is well-known: “Yoga is the stilling of the mind’s fluctuations. Then consciousness rests in its own form. Otherwise it identifies with the fluctuations.”  It is formulated purely in terms of consciousness. There is no yoga when consciousness is filled with its objects, whether perceptions, memories, ratiocinations, dreams, desires, attention to duty (“karma yoga”) or indeed devotion to a Supreme Being (“bhakti yoga”). But when consciousness rests in itself, or is only conscious of itself, that is yoga.


Like bhakti, yoga has been called dualistic. In bhakti, the two players are God and the soul, and they have to be united. In yoga, the two are the conscious subject (purusha) and nature (prakriti, which includes even subtle mental objects), and they have to be separated, disentangled. Indeed, the final stage of yoga is not “union” but kaivalya, “isolation”, viz. of consciousness from its outer objects. Etymologically, yoga in this case doesn’t have the meaning of “joining” or “uniting” (a legitimate reading in some contexts, only not here), but of “yoking”, i.e. “forcing to converge”, “disciplining”, i.e. forcing the mind into one-pointedness, concentrating.


The disciplines known as yoga were also practised by the Jains and Buddhists, non-theistic and non-devotional schools. They teach that the soul (the principle of individual consciousness) is entangled in an inherent mechanism of the universe called karma. This is impersonal, no God is responsible for it nor can any God relieve us from it, we are on our own and have to realize our own liberation. Yoga doesn’t require God at all. In the same tradition, the simplified yoga school that is TM also does without God and without devotion to Him.


But historically, the yoga viewpoint (darshana) has largely been captured by the theistic revolution that took place in the centuries around Christ, to the point that it was later called seshwara sankhya, “Sankhya-with-God”. As part of the same process, many non-theistic strands in the earlier Hindu tradition were reinterpreted in theistic terms. Thus, millions of Hindus and even many Buddhists believe that devotion to some God or Bodhisattva can diminish their load of karma. This is nonsense to Jains and other orthodox karma theorists, for whom karma is strictly mechanical, tied to the individual and outside the reach of devotional bribery. Rama and Krishna, who were still purely human agents in the core narrative of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, got deified as incarnations of Vishnu in later editions and in the many more recent literary elaborations of their stories. Some Hindus like to flaunt their liberalism by affirming that “even an atheist can be a Hindu”; but in practice, most self-described Hindus are deeply theistic.


This is why few Hindus will object to Steve Rosen’s assertion: “Kirtan is the essence of yoga because it links the performer intimately with God.” Alright, it fills your mind with God (rather with the image you have made of God, and which may have a Krishna feel, a Shiva feel). And that is why it is not yoga, or at least not the endpoint of yoga, where the mind is not filled with anything howsoever lofty, but is emptied of anything except consciousness itself.


In a moment of weakness, Rosen admits that singing is somewhat less than the real thing: “As Arjuna noted, yoga and meditation are very difficult for most people. That’s where kirtan comes in.” No need here for any yogic or other effort. Just by blending into the sound, you are lifted out of your ordinary self, and there you go. Everybody can do it, it’s fun, nay, it’s joy. But by scholarly standards, calling it yoga is a bit imprecise.


The writer lives in Belgium; he is a renowned scholar on India 

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