The following is an interview with Sripada Aindra dasa conducted last year for the forthcoming book Kirtana Meditations: The Mood and Technique of Bhakti Kirtana, compiled by Dhanurdhara Swami and Akincana Krishna dasa.
Doing kirtana for Srila Prabhupada
When Srila Prabhupada came to Washington in 1976, we would all briefly stop at his quarters before going to the temple to greet the Deities. One morning, somehow or other, the mrdanga was pushed into my hands and I was told to lead the kirtana. I guess there was nobody else to do it, so I was trying to play as best as I could in a very simple way. I was walking right by Srila Prabhupada’s side when he suddenly turns to me, lifts his head in his typical, regal way, and says with a very positive glance of approval, “Jaya!” And that’s the only word he said to me in my whole Krishna conscious life.But that one word carried so much inspiration and potency. How did I get a “Jaya!” out of Srila Prabhupada? It was simple: I was performing hari-nama-sankirtana. So I thought, “Why not continue to perform hari-nama-sankirtana, as at least that simple service got a ‘jaya!’ out of Srila Prabhupada.” And that’s been my whole idea ever since. Chanting with purity
Hari-nama-sankirtana means to loudly chant the holy name for the benefit of others. We should seriously consider to what extent we are benefiting others, and also to what extent we are benefiting ourselves. There is apparent kirtana and real kirtana. Only sankirtana where the pure name is chanted is real sankirtana. If someone is making offenses to the name, simply articulating the syllables “Hare Krishna,” that is not real sankirtana. One must thus carefully consider the offenses to be avoided in the matter of chanting.
Can you talk about the different types of chanting?
There is bhukti-nama, offensive chanting, which results in material gain; there is mukti-nama, shadow chanting, which results in liberation; and there is prema-nama, pure chanting, which results in prema-bhakti, pure love of Godhead.
Bhukti-nama means offensive chanting. By chanting offensively, you can benefit others only by increasing their material piety. Bhaktivinoda Thakura therefore states that a pure devotee should not participate in kirtana led by offenders to the holy name. Who are those offenders? Those who do kirtana for ulterior motives–who chant for money, or to augment their sex appeal, or for name and fame. Such chanting can at best result in material gratification.
Then there is mukti-nama, or namabhasa. By such chanting one not only gradually becomes freed from all material contamination but also liberates others from material existence. In other words, by hearing someone’s loud chanting of namabhasa, one can attain liberation from material existence. Sounds good, right? It’s certainly better than staying bound in the material world. But by such kirtana alone you cannot inculcate bhakti into the hearts of those who hear that kirtana, because namabhasa kirtana is only a resemblance of the holy name and not the pure name.
Lord Caitanya’s movement is the prema-nama-sankirtana movement. Its purpose is to give the highest benefit: pure love of Godhead. Therefore if one actually wants to give oneself and others the highest benefit, one must awaken pure devotion to Radha and Krishna and for Sri Caitanya. To achieve that purpose we have to chant purely.
Jagadananda Pandit in Prema Vivarta thus recommends that if one wants to elevate their chanting to the platform of the pure name, one should perform sankirtana (as well as japa) in the association of those who are chanting the pure name. Only then can sankirtana can give the highest benefit.
Purity is the main thing – musical style is secondary
The most important ingredient in kirtana is the mood in which it is done. If one is either chanting the name with offenses or chanting for liberation, one will not get bhakti, nor will one be able to offer it to anyone else.
It doesn’t matter whether one is accompanying the kirtana with karatalas, mrdangas, and harmonium; using a drum set, electric keyboard, and bass guitar; decorating the kirtana with flute and violin; or even just clapping one’s hands. One can chant with very melodious classical ragas, or one can sing raucous, hellacious, heavy metal chanting, to attract certain people. One can sing ten tunes an hour or one tune every ten hours, sing in complex rhythmic patterns or a simple rhythmic one. One can have jumping, dancing kirtana or very slow, contemplative kirtana. No matter what you do, no matter how you decorate the kirtana, if such chanting is not done with pure devotion, it will never ever inculcate bhakti into the heart of anyone.
The real question is: Are you chanting suddha-nama?
On the other hand, if you are chanting suddha-nama, you will get prema, the greatest need of the soul. Such chanting is real kirtana and it gives authentic, eternal benefit by elevating one’s soul as well the souls of others. It is real welfare work, not simply material altruism or liberation from repeated birth and death. It is thus the work meant to help others reconstitute their original dormant love of Godhead and uplift their soul to the platform of real satisfaction based on unalloyed pure devotion.
If one has the power, by the grace of suddha-nama, to do that kind of good to others, then it doesn’t matter how you decorate the kirtana with accompaniment and skill.
The real question is then, Are you doing real good for others by chanting suddha-nama?
If we are only chanting a lower stage, we shouldn’t perform sankirtana?
No, I’m not saying that. But we should know that we are not actually manifesting the real form of kirtana unless we are chanting without motive where suddha-nama, manifests.
It is also important to know the meaning of raga-kirtana. In a musical sense raga refers to appropriate melodies. The classical Indian system of ragas is thus certainly useful in kirtana, but real raga-kirtana goes beyond just musical consideration. It is kirtana on the platform of bhava, devotion with spontaneous feeling.
Raga literally means “attraction,” or “affectionate attachment.” In kirtana it refers to melodies that create an attractive atmosphere to affect the heart and increase affection. This doesn’t mean that raga is just meant for making the music attractive for us and for others. It means to perform kirtana in such a way that Krishna becomes attracted to our kirtana. It is kirtana where Krishna is attracted to the expression of our love expressed by the atmosphere we have generated for His pleasure.
And that principle of attraction is expansive. When you satisfy Krishna you satisfy the whole creation. Thus everyone is automatically pleased and attracted by performing sankirtana solely for the pleasure of Krishna.
Instrumentation in kirtana can thus be likened to so many zeros. Zeros, even many zeros, have value only if the number one is added before them. You then get ten, 100, 1,000, or even a million. Similarly, musical talent in kirtana has no value within itself, but expands exponentially in value when one, when suddha-nama, is added before it. And without the one of suddha-nama, the mood of offering the kirtana for the pleasure of Krishna, all the best music and instrumentation is simply zero.
We should note, however, that we don’t see in Govinda-lilamrta the gopis concerned about Krishna not accepting their hundreds and millions of zeros, their unlimited musical talent in the performance of kirtana. That is because their kirtana is solely for His pleasure. They never thought, “Oh, we better not make the musical instrumentation too nice, because we may get trapped by our own desires to enjoy the musical vibration and then Krishna won’t accept our kirtana.” Rather, the gopis used whatever complex musical and rhythmical arrangements are found in the music of Lord Brahma and the residents of the higher planetary systems, and beyond that the even more difficult musical arrangements performed by Laksmi-Narayana and the residents of Vaikuntha. But whatever musical embellishments they used were all simply done without any tinge of ulterior motive.
It is said in sastra that when Krishna plays His flute it is so complex and astounding that demigods like Lord Brahma become bewildered and Lord Siva falls off Nandi the bull, unconscious. So we can’t insist that only simple tunes and melodies satisfy Krishna. Krishna enjoys a variety of flavors, many of which are intricate. If Krishna only enjoys simple presentations then why do we change the Deities’ dress twice a day? It is the same Krishna, but the new dress allows us to appreciate Him in a fresh way. Similarly, when we see Krishna decorated in different ragas, or tunes, the attractive atmosphere created enhances our appreciation of the beauty of Krishna in the form of His name. Instead of decorating Him in only one dress, a red dress, all the time, we decorate Him sometimes in a blue dress, or a yellow dress, that contrasts so stunningly against Krishna’s black body. But then sometimes we dress Him in a pink dress, which brings out Krishna’s beauty in a slightly different way. Sometimes He is dressed with simple ornamentation and sometimes with very complex ornamentation. The simple ornamentation makes Krishna’s bodily form look a little more complex, whereas the complex ornamentation brings out the simple beauty and sweetness of Krishna in another way. In the exact same way, we can bring out the unique beauty of the holy name with various decorations of ragas.
Why is it that we offer Krishna a feast and not just kichari? Of course, Krishna was satisfied to eat Sanatana Gosvami’s wheat balls without any salt because they were offered with devotion, but that is all He had. Do you think the gopis offer only kichari to Krishna every day? Why is it that Radharani never cooks the same milk preparation twice? To entice Krishna, to add to His appetite, to enchant Him, to make Him think that She really loves Him. So in the same way, when we make a nice feast for Krishna, we offer Him so many different varieties.
So there is scope in Krishna consciousness for making everything first-class—better than first-class—and offering all these hundreds and thousands of zeros of first-class arrangements for the pleasure of Krishna. Therefore, if the kirtana arrangements are all first-class and done simply for Krishna’s pleasure, without any other consideration, that is raga kirtana.
Does Krishna like Indian classical music the most?
Yes, why not? But the overriding principle is Krishna’s pleasure. The Govinda-lilamrta describes that the gopis were using hundreds of ragas and that they weren’t even performing the ragas according to the strict rules of time consideration. They were performing all varieties of ragas—daytime ragas, seasonal ragas, any type of ragas—within the course of one night’s rasa-lila. Not only did they relish varieties of previously established ragas, but they mixed ragas and they created new ragas, combined with extremely complex mrdanga playing and extremely complex dancing. It describes how one gopi came out into the middle of the arena and tapped her feet once, then twice, then thrice, to prove to the audience that her ankle bells were working, and then began to dance in such an unprecedented way that in spite of all of her intricate footwork, her ankle bells did not make a sound. Krishna and Radharani and all the sakhis exclaimed, “Bravo, bravo! Well done!” She had such so much talent, but it was for the pleasure of Krishna and all the devotees.
At the same time, however, when Srila Prabhupada asked a pujari to identify a carob–peanut-butter sweet on the Deity plate that he was not familiar with, he disapproved. “Do not offer it to the Deities. I have given you so many varieties of sweets that Krishna likes to eat.” So there are things that Krishna prefers. The Indian classical raga system is something like that—a musical system that Krishna appreciates—but that doesn’t mean that Krishna cannot appreciate new ragas beyond the old established ragas that are created for His pleasure.
In both my japa meditation and my performance of sankirtana, I begin by meditating on and worshiping Sri Sri Gauranga and Nityandana in Navadvipa. Then I gradually enter through the mood and bhava of Sri Caitanya into the chanting of the madhurya nama hare krishna maha-mantra and meditation on Radha and Krishna. Gaura-nama is audharya-nama, the name of compassion, and Radha-Krishna nama is madhurya-nama, sweetness personified. The audharya-nama-sankirtana can very quickly elevate the devotees to the platform of suddha-nama-sankirtana. And suddha-nama-sankirtana, as we have discussed before, has the power to inculcate bhakti-sakti into the heart of the people associated with the kirtana.
Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita, “First surrender, then bhakti, or prema, comes later.” Gaura is so merciful, however, that he says without considering who is fit and who is not fit, “Just take love of Godhead.” Surrender comes later. But how can one just take love of Godhead if one doesn’t take gaura-nama first?
What is the difference between japa and kirtana?
There are two prominent ways that the gopis are absorbed in the services of Radha and Krishna. One is in nikunja-seva, where one serves Radha-Krishna alone. The other is rasa-lila—dancing and singing and serving Krishna with all the gopis.
Similarly, as all the gopis have their individual kunjas for individual personal service, we chant nama-japa in the mood of nama-seva, to assist in personal intimate service. Nama-japa is thus like facilitating the meeting of Radha and Krishna alone.
So nama-japa is a more secluded, personal affair. You may even pull your chaddar over your face so that no one can see your emotions. Japa is your own relationship to Radha and Krishna without the consideration that your feelings are shared with others. One is thus free to allow the heart to flow and express one’s desperation for eternal loving service to the holy name in a way that one can’t do in public assembly.
However, nama-japa is not simply a matter of only one’s personal relationship with Radha and Krishna. We also perform nama-japa to become inspired to share our devotion to Radha and Krishna with others in the form of nama-sankirtana. In that way japa is never a selfish affair. So japa can either be chanted for the satisfaction of Radha and Krishna or chanted to attain the spiritual experience necessary to have real compassion for others. In either case, the aim is never selfish or self-aggrandizing.
As practicing devotees, it’s powerful for us to chant nama-japa in the mood of separation–especially a type of separation called purva-raga, which means the intense, desperate anticipation to meet Radha and Krishna. The idea is that you meditate on the types of services that you would like to do for Radha and Krishna and pray, “When, oh, when will that day be mine?” That is purva-raga.
Sankirtana, on the other hand, can be performed in the spirit of Krishna’s rasa-lila. The rasa-lila acts as an appetizer to whet Krishna’s appetite for more intimate reciprocation with his gopis. In Ujjvala-nilamani, however, there is a description that says that the rasa-lila generates in Krishna a happiness that far surpasses even the experience of His complete intimate union with Srimati Radharani and the gopis. One may ask, “How is it possible for rasa-lila to be the highest, when the culmination of all pastimes is Radha-Krishna enjoying alone in the forests of Vrindavana?” The answer is vipralambha; it is the mood of separation. In the rasa-lila, Krishna, although so close, is so far away as well. He is dancing with the gopis but not yet in His most intimate association with them. The rasa-lila is thus like the hors d’oeuvres that are served before the meal. The meal is the real objective, but hors d’oeuvres can often be more tantalizing, more piquant and full of rasa, than the feast itself. In the same way, the most exuberant expression of nama-bhajana is not being alone with Krishna in japa but in the performance of nama-sankirtana with others.
By nama-kirtana Krishna also sees that you are serious about sacrificing your egocentricity for the purpose of helping others to gain access to the holy name. An attraction thus naturally awakens within Krishna to the soul who is performing that yajna. It induces Him to relish deeper with that devotee even more intimate, loving reciprocation in the form of nama-japa. In that way, nama-sankirtana and nama-japa are always inter-supportive
Nowhere, however, it is said that nama-japa is the yuga-dharma, the specific spiritual practice for this age. The yuga-dharma is nama-sankirtana, loud chanting for the benefit of others. And that’s what brings nama-seva to the highest level.
The yuga-dharma facilitates the proper result from the performance of all other practices of devotional service. Therefore, without performing sankirtana one cannot gain the highest benefit and deepest realization of the purpose of hearing the Bhagavata, chanting nama-japa, taking first-class sadhu-sanga, worshiping the Deity, or residing in the holy dhama. In other words, one cannot gain the highest result from engaging in any other practice of devotional service without spending sufficient time in the direct performance of nama-sankirtana.
How does one achieve the highest benefit in all devotional practices by nama-sankirtana? When Krishna sees that someone is helping others by giving them the opportunity to hear the holy name, then Krishna from within and from without lifts the curtain of yogamaya from that person. He thus allows them to see the actual nature of the Deity and to penetrate and realize the deepest imports of the Bhagavata, the path of spontaneous devotion. And by serving guru and Krishna on the path of raga, or at least by practicing serving them on that path, one’s understanding of Bhagavata and one’s relish of the Deity becomes even further enhanced. Then all one’s practices enter the raga dimension and help one evolve to the plane of raganuga bhava, vraja bhava. That is real sankirtana. That is the sankirtana of Lord Caitanya and His associates—the relish of vraja-bhava in the course of performing sankirtana-yajna.
It is essential that devotees who are actually very serious about advancing in Krishna consciousness, advancing to the perfectional stage, come to this position of performing raga-mayi-sankirtana, kirtana laden with spiritual emotion. Only then can one help others awaken their deepest appreciation of the Bhagavata and their deepest appreciation of all the gifts that Srila Prabhupada and all the acaryas have left.
I have more or less coined the name for my style of kirtana as “progressive kirtana.” Just like there is progressive rock, I have more or less named my way of doing kirtana as progressive kirtana. The kind of kirtana that I have been influenced by is a northern Indian classical style called kayal. Kayal, as far as I understand, means “fantasy.” I haven’t gotten deeply into that style, but I have incorporated elements of that style in my humble attempt.
What I see about the kayal style is that it leaves room for improvisation more so than the dhrupad style. Dhrupad style is more rigid. Dhrupad style is more concerned with the letter of the law of musical ragas, whereas the kayal style more or less accentuates the spirit of the law of musical ragas. In the kayal style you may add a note to a raga, for example, for the purpose of inspiration or generating a bhava. That kind of reflects the gopis’ mixing of ragas or creating new ragas. The basic principles of the raga remain intact, but some extra note may be added just to enhance the flavor. In that way it tends to enhance the beauty of a raga.
Getting devotees to chant
When leading kirtana we not only benefit people by giving them a chance to hear but benefit them a hundred times over by giving them a chance to chant. In the Hari-bhakti-vilasa it said that one who is hearing is benefitted but that one who chants is benefitted a hundred times more.
Some devotees complain about the complexity in my style, but I think that if you actually listen to the vast majority of my kirtanas, they are quite simple if one just pays attention. One thing I try to do is keep people on their toes, forcing devotees who participate with me in kirtana to tune in and listen more attentively instead of just putting their mind on automatic.
In the kind of kirtana that I prefer, there are many varieties of tastes being generated, along with progressive rhythmic patters. We’ll use the mrdanga and karatalas to change up, change over, shift gears, and bring the kirtana into new dimensions. I try to use a variety of technical musical embellishments that I feel enhance the attractiveness of the kirtana. My practical experience is that putting the kirtana through changes helps to keep the devotees who are participating in the kirtana alert. It gets them out of the automatic mode and gets them into the thinking mode. From the thinking mode you can come to the conscious mode—conscious of what you are doing, conscious of how the kirtana is developing, conscious of the mood that the kirtana leader is trying to inspire in the hearts of the other participants, whether direct inner-circle participants or the outer-circle public. From what I gather, many devotees take inspiration from the style of kirtana that I have developed.
No one said that leading a kirtana is meant to be a cakewalk. It is a sacrifice, an austerity. It is not easy. It is difficult to have the necessary clout, purity of purpose, and intention in chanting to inspire people from within to come forward to help. Personally, I don’t claim to be so powerful or expert, so I have to struggle sometimes just to wake people up to get them to chant. It’s not that the tune is too complicated; it is that people are not attentive. So sometimes you have to remind those people again and again, “Prabhu, haribol! Chant!” because they are going to get much more benefit by participating in the responsive chanting.
Breaking down false ego
When Lord Caitanya was present, He divided the devotees into various kirtana groups. There were four kirtana groups, each having two mrdanga players and eight karatala players. That’s sixteen karatala players and six lead singers simultaneously singing the lead with six lead responders simultaneously responding.
I have incorporated that standard to a large extent in my own endeavors to perform kirtana, mainly because my voice has been destroyed due to so many years of very intense kirtana. My voice has its limitations, but I see that as Krishna’s mercy in a few different ways.
I can’t be falsely proud about how beautiful my voice is, because it’s not anymore. I ask for others to help me sing the lead when I perform kirtana, which helps to generate enthusiasm and bring more devotees on board. Devotees are naturally eager to help when they see that someone needs help, and they become enthusiastic when they are part of the leadership. I may still give the impetus to the progressive direction of the kirtana, but for the most part it is other people who are singing more than me. So when we go up to the high parts that “kill my voice,” as Jayadvaita Swami would say, then other devotees come and kill their voices too. I reason that the louder the voice, the more Lord Caitanya will acknowledge our attempt to selflessly cooperate for His pleasure, and bestow His mercy on us.
So when I do kirtana, it’s not a one-man show. That checks the tendency for one person to exploit the kirtana for personal self-aggrandizement. Then even if it is not the pure name, it helps us come a lot closer to the offenseless platform. And others become inspired that the kirtana is selfless.
When Lord Caitanya organized the bheda kirtanas, not only did He have six kirtana leaders singing, but He had six lead kirtana responders. There is a very good reason for that. The mass of people are not going to be so expert at picking up what tune was just sung, but if there are expert kirtana responders singing the correct tune, the rest of devotees will more likely be able to follow. This is very useful.
“We’re all in it together”
If the kirtana leader is singing without playing an instrument, or if he’s playing the harmonium, which is not a rhythmic instrument, then the mrdanga player must tune in and pick up on where the kirtana leader wants to go with the kirtana. The idea for the mrdanga player is to serve and enhance the mood of the kirtana leader. Then karatalas should follow the mrdanga. The mrdanga player should not be so self-centered that his mrdanga playing becomes more important to him than the kirtana, forcing the kirtana leader to surrender to whatever he is doing.
I have experienced that with a few different mrdanga players. They are neither interested in, nor capable of, understanding my mood or musical preferences. They just can’t pick on what I am doing to effectively inspire and engage others. When the mrdanga or karatala player is insensitive to what the kirtana leader needs, then the kirtana loses direction and the leader becomes very frustrated.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no room for self-expression, for innovativeness, or for artistic finesse on the part of the different instrument players, because after all, even though the kirtana leader is the person in charge, it is not his performance alone. Sankirtana is a congregational effort. Everyone is in it together.
Love is always a two-way street. In real kirtana there is thus a give-and-take among the performers. Sometimes the mrdanga player has a good idea, or the karatala player has a good idea. And if it is a good idea, the kirtana leader benefits by surrendering to what the mrdanga player has to offer. There is natural reciprocation between good kirtana performers. That’s called jamming. It’s sharing inspiration with each other. That sharing brings kirtana to another dimension of spontaneous dynamism, which increases the inspiration, enthusiasm, and appreciation of each other as cooperative constituents in Lord Caitanya’s lila.
Playing with expertise and playing in tune
There is a place for expertise. Prabhupada expressed great pleasure with Acyutananda’s mrdanga playing. At that time Acyutananda was pretty expert compared to most of the rest of us. Prabhupada complemented him, telling him “You are playing just like a professional.” That wasn’t a criticism: “What the hell are you doing trying to play like a professional!” He was complimenting him that “you’re playing just like a professional.” Acyutananda was exhibiting a certain level of competence, and Prabhupada appreciated it. Not that professionalism supersedes the principle of purity, but there is need to understand the instrument you are playing.
There is also a need to tune the instrument you are playing. I personally demand that devotees who are playing the mrdangas understand that the first lesson in playing any instrument is how to tune it. Just like if you are going to play a guitar or a sitar, the first thing you have to do before you start playing it is tune the instrument. Similarly, a mrdanga must be tuned properly to have the proper vibration.
In any musical performance you’ll have soprano instruments, mid-range instruments, and bass instruments. The mrdanga is supposed to be a bass instrument. That is madhura mrdanga bhaje, very low and sweet—very moving to the heart. The professional kirtana players, sahajiya as they may be, know how to tune their instruments. You’ll hear them playing very low, very sweet, deep-resounding mrdangas. Mrdangas constitute the bottom of the kirtana.
Similarly, it is important to understand what it is to have a tuned pair of karatalas. If one karatala is lower in pitch than the other karatala, if they are not the same pitch, then it can create an awfully discordant vibration that breaks the ear. And rather than attracting people to the kirtana, it drives them away. Karatalas constitute the high end.
So, you have bottom and high end complementing the mid-range, which is the voice. If the mrdanga is not tuned low, then the mrdanga intrudes upon the mid-range, where the voices are singing. Rather than enhancing the kirtana of the holy name, an un-tuned mrdanga intrudes on the chanting and spoils the kirtana.
Just like when you are coming down the street and hear a hari-nama party, what is the first thing you hear? Karatalas, because they have the highest range and are automatically louder. The last thing you hear is the mrdanga. You hear karatalas, then the voice, and finally the mrdanga.
According to Prabhupada, the mrdanga should be half the volume of the voice and the karatalas should be half the volume of the mrdanga. So if you are going to have four mrdanga players, you should have six men leading the kirtana. It is not that there should be four mrdangas playing competing on the mid-range frequencies with a single voice, making it difficult for the leader to sing. So mrdanga must be tuned very low. It then not only creates the bass frequencies on the bottom of the kirtana and allows the mid-range vocals to shine through, but it is madhurya, very sweet, and moves the heart. Most important, it allows the holy name to shine through, which is the whole purpose of the kirtana.
Playing and singing
Prabhupada said that the instruments should not be played in a way that one cannot sing along with them at the same time. That’s another problem. Sometimes devotees become so absorbed in trying to play their instruments in complicated ways, that they can’t chant while they play. That means they haven’t learned to play them properly. If one is not competent, or if one did not learn properly, he may know how to play intricate beats on the mrdanga but not how to sing at the same time—which is a hundred times the benefit of only hearing.
So if one is playing the mrdanga properly by following the kirtana leader and serving the holy name and at the same time hearing, that’s great. But higher than that, better than that, is being able to play the mrdanga and sing at the same time, at least as much as possible.
Sometimes when the kirtana gets very heavy and is really taking off, the mrdanga player may have to back out of chanting to execute the changes the kirtana leader is putting the kirtana through. But that should be the exception, not the rule. As a general rule, as much as possible, the mrdanga players should also respond with chanting.
As far as the karatala players are concerned, I have seen people playing the karatala, or playing the gong, or playing the whompers, or playing the shakers, or banging on instruments, just for their own high, completely oblivious to the fact that they should be chanting. And honestly speaking, that boils my blood!
Play it the Vedic way
If devotees can learn how to play instruments in the Indian classical style, it goes a long way to enhance the transcultural experience of sankirtana. If you learn how to play the mrdanga nicely, according to a traditional mantra system, that generates the type of vibration that takes the kirtana to another cultural dimension. Similarly with the violin—someone may play the violin in a Western classical style, but I think for kirtana it is much better to play with an Indian classical style. Have you ever heard Indian classical guitar playing? It’s outrageously good, tremendous. Have you ever heard Indian classical clarinet? It’s tremendous. Have you ever heard classical Indian flute? Compared to the occidental style of flute or violin playing, the Indian classical style is much more appropriate for kirtana. When you play those instruments in kirtana in a Western style, I think it’s not as harmonious. The same can be said for harmonium playing. Srila Prabhupada played harmonium in an Indian classical style. He didn’t use chords. It’s not that the Vedic culture doesn’t lend itself to higher cultural expression than other so-called cultures of the world. The highest cultural expressions in the world are Vedic cultural expressions. It’s not like you are going to lose something by learning how to play the instruments in accordance with the Vedic way.
I go by Srila Prabhupada’s instruction on the matter. First Srila Prabhupada said that the harmonium should not be played in the temple. Why did he say that? I think it was because he didn’t like harmoniums being played with Western chords.
That becomes evident by the time he wrote the third letter on this point. First Prabhupada said that harmoniums couldn’t be played in temples, only for festival programs. Then he said that harmonium could be played in the temple but not during the arati. And then in the third and last letter that came out, Prabhupada said that harmonium can be played during an arati, but “melodiously.” Melodiously means following the melody line, not hanging on chords. Melodiously means following the way Srila Prabhupada taught us to play harmonium. He recorded the harmonium not just so that we can enjoy hearing but so that we can learn how to play the harmonium.
One time Srila Prabhupada was asked, “What kind of instruments are there in the spiritual world?” and Prabhupada answered, “Well, there is mrdanga, there are karatalas,” and then he said, “and there is a little harmonium.” Prabhupada appreciated the harmonium enough to import it to the spiritual world. Prabhupada himself played harmonium. And even members of the Gaudiya Matha appreciated that Prabhupada’s playing of the harmonium was very expert. Prabhupada said that the harmonium creates a nice atmosphere.
Therefore I learned how to play harmonium, and I use the harmonium in temple kirtanas because Prabhupada said it was okay. He gave his permission. I don’t feel that it is altogether wrong to play the harmonium. But I do feel that it is at least somewhat wrong to allow the harmonium to play you. In other words, if you are going to play the harmonium you should be expert enough to play the harmonium like Srila Prabhupada, or at least according to his instructions. Not just that you can get around on the keyboard, which forces your tune to conform to whatever chord you find on the harmonium. Chords destroy the raga system, or imprison it, as Vaiyasaki would say.
Advice to junior kirtana leaders
If someone is not expert in following in a kirtana, he is not actually an expert leader. An expert leader is expert at both leading and following. It is not that one puts on a big show of being the kirtana leader but then when someone else is leading he is either uninterested in or incapable of following. It is not that someone is expert in harmonium only by reading music; the real expert is one who can play just by hearing. He is one who also can follow the tune that the other leader is singing. That is actual expertise.
Why is it that Lord Caitanya organized so that there were six kirtana leaders? First of all there were no microphones, so you needed six kirtana leaders to be heard. After all, you have four mrdangas and sixteen pairs of karatalas to compete with. And don’t think that the mrdangas and karatalas weren’t played loudly. They were played very loudly. It is described in the sastra how they were played resounding like thunder. It is not that in Lord Caitanya’s time the kirtana was only very mellow and contemplative and soft. And they didn’t have microphones, so if there had been any singers who were not so expert, they wouldn’t have been able to kill the kirtana with tone-deaf singing. Not that Lord Caitanya had to resort to that in organizing His kirtanas. Rather, He had six expert kirtana leaders who were able to understand themselves enough to go in the next phase of the kirtana, cooperating together to sing louder enough so that the thousands of people who participated in the kirtanas could hear.
Instruments are important, but we already have all the instruments we need—we have a tongue and we have ears. So we have to remember that our performance of nama sankirtana is based primarily on those instruments. Everything else should be seen as supplementary, or supportive—a decoration, to enhance. Any other instruments should actually enhance and not detract from the chanting with the tongue and ear.
That’s why I don’t allow djembes when I perform sankirtana. At one time I allowed it, but after gaining experience with what happens when I allow it, I decided that definitely I shall not allow djembe to accompany my kirtana. The djembe has its appeal, perhaps because it is easier to play than a mrdanga nicely. But the djembe is a tamasic instrument, which totally overpowers and obliterates the beauty of the madhurya mrdanga vibration. Of course, someone could argue that Lord Caitanya didn’t have a harmonium, but certainly Lord Caitanya didn’t have a djembe in his sankirtana parties. If the djembe must be used at all, it should be used outside. But even then the tendency is for it to overpower the mrdanga and to impede the beauty and sweetness of the mrdanga’s vibration to move the heart, which in and of itself is a transcendental sound that moves the heart toward Krishna.
Personally, I don’t prefer to have a bass guitar cranked up so loud that it obliterates everything else; it doesn’t have to be cranked up so loud. I know that when an expert plays the bass guitar it can be a little tasteful if it is not cranked up very loud. But I’m not into enhancing the kirtana with bass guitars. In my opinion, it doesn’t do much for the kirtana.
I hate accordions. The sound is weird, and it brings back memories of Russian bar music. That’s why I have developed this other style of small harmoniums, to offer an alternative to the accordion.
The main mantra
One thing is, I always emphasize the importance of chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Although Prabhupada said that the Gosvamis’ songs are extensions of the maha-mantra, still more important than all of them is the mukhya-mantra, the chief mantra. So many times devotees become sidetracked because of lack of taste for chanting the maha-mantra due to not chanting enough. They are thinking that the kirtana is boring if you don’t switch to “Govinda Jaya Jaya” or “Radhe Radhe” or whatever jaya, jaya, jaya. Undoubtedly, Srila Prabhupada’s instruction is that the main focus of the kirtana should be the maha-mantra. Here in Vrindavana for the 24-hour kirtana we exclusively chant the maha-mantra. That is the main and best sankirtana mantra for this age. So even though there is Hari Haraye Namah Krsna, another way of chanting the maha-mantra given by Lord Caitanya, still, the 16-syllable maha-mantra mentioned in the sastra is the main mantra.
The 24-hour kirtana
Why akhanda-nama, 24-hour kirtana? Why? People are forced to become pious by even entering into an atmosphere where a kirtana has been performed, as the ethereal atmosphere still remains purifying. So how much more is one forced to become pious when one walks into a place where the kirtana performance has been going on and then one hears the holy name. And how much even more purifying is the place where the holy name is being heard 24-hours a day, nonstop. When you chant nonstop in a place the power of that place simply increases, increases, and increases, but when the kirtana breaks, it loses power.
The akhanda-kirtana also forces people to surrender more, because they can’t just start talking about something or even stop to eat. One has to sacrifice. There is also a greater degree of responsibility toward the other members of the team, as they are working very hard to keep hari-nama continuously manifest in the atmosphere.
If you are doing akhanda-nama-kirtana for years and years, the atmosphere that has been generated by the continuous manifestation of nama becomes so powerful that it not only purifies one from material contamination, but purifies the egoism of the soul, bringing the soul to its original egoism, the mood of a resident of Vrndavana.