Kirtan: Are there rules?

BY: RASANANDA DAS - 26.6 2016

Excerpted from the section "Notes on The Conduct of Rathayatra" of the (contemplated) second edition of the author's The Rath Construction Book. The references are all from Vedabase 2015.

"How any spiritual activity should be done is understood from three sources: saintly persons, standard scriptures and the spiritual master". (Srimad Bhagavatam 3.28.4, purport)

Proper sankirtan means certain tunes, certain instruments, a certain musical style, certain dress and certain kinds of dancing by the members of the chanting party. In Caitanya Mahaprabhu's sankirtan movement, rathayatra and the kirtan that is its soul are for distributing the benediction of the Lord's own process for spiritual emancipation to onlookers and participants alike. When, understanding this, sincere organizers of a rathayatra or sankirtan party see that the rath and the kirtan are proper, what to speak of people, even birds and animals that hear and witness it can immediately experience spiritual happiness, only some impersonalists and hardened atheists might fail to experience the Lord's benediction. Kirtan not according to the rules may succeed as entertainment for bystanders or seated audiences not being conducted according to the principles given by acharyas and the practices of the most experienced devotees, the greatest result: transformation of hearers and from the state of spiritual somnolescence to the spiritual awakened state of actual Krishna consciousness, will not result. Such improper, impure kirtans don't have the potency to enact such transformation.

There are standards for kirtan… standards for what is to be sung and how to sing it, what instruments are to be used and how the participants should appear, how they should move, how they should dance and failure to accept and implement those standards renders kirtan or rathayatra just a show.

Some object that Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, in Siksastaka, says that there are "no hard and fast rules for chanting". To attract members of the public with musical artistry may have its usefulness, but somewhere in the movement there must be some who understand and practice the real thing. Siksastaka's "no hard and fast rules" refers to the individual jiva's appeal, in helplessness, to the Lord for His protection. When calling for help in situations like fire or accident, there are no rules on how to call: one's call for help may be in a language unknown to the local people… while in a library, if one is attacked by thieves, calling out for help will violate the "Silence" rule, and in disease, the sufferer's call may be incoherent, but the doctors approach is controlled and professional and the benefit to the sufferer is maximum. The point is that the knowledge and sincerity of at least the leaders of an organized group activity such as sankirtan or a rathayatra to a large extent determines the outcome of those programs. If the chanting is materially contaminated, its purifying benefit for the onlookers will be less: "If one chants the holy name of the Lord just to make a show, not knowing the secret of success, he may increase his bile secretion, but he will never attain perfection in chanting the holy name." (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila, 7.95-96 purport)

But even if the chanters are not properly trained, if they are sincerely trying to please the acharya and the Lord, then that sincerity will make their chanting spiritually efficacious. (See "San Francisco wild kirtans" later in this article.) The more their sincerity, knowledge and experience, the more will be the spiritual purificatory power of their chanting. Training refers to their knowing which tunes are better to chant, the musical or rhythmic quality of the chanting, the loudness and rhythmicity of the accompanying karatals and mrdanga and the members' gestures, dancing, dress and appearance while performing the kirtan.

By proper sankirtan the Lord is simultaneously pleased with the chanters for uttering His name and for their efforts to remind the ignorant of His identity and glories: that He is their best friend, that matter, due to its temporary nature is not true while the spiritual realm is true and invite them to give up their struggle for unattainable happiness in matter and go back to Him. As far as musical ornamentation, it is acceptable for attracting the people's attention… But devotees should not be attached to it. Chanting in front of 'devotee only' audiences should be in the old tunes. Besides introductory chanting of the pancatattva maha mantra three times, only the mahamantra, in tunes sung by Srila Prabhupada or other simple tunes that can easily be followed and responded to by the public, is to be chanted. Anyone not familiar with Prabhupada's kirtans can find them on the internet.

In street sankirtan and rathayatra, no other mantras but the mahamantra are to be chanted. Even the Nrsimha mantra is not for public kirtan… and "Jai Jagannath, Jai Baladev, Jai Subhadra" is nowhere to found in sastras or the writings of acharyas and so is not properly a mantra capable of bringing liberation to the hearers.

"In Bhagavad-gita the Lord says that people's sufferings are due to their sinful activities, and sinful activities are caused by ignorance. Suppose a foreigner like me comes to America and does not know that cars are driven on the right side of the road. In India the car is driven on the left side. So suppose a person does not know and he drives the car on the left and gets involved in an accident. If he is taken into police custody and says, "Sir, I did not know that here the car is driven on the right side,'' that does not excuse him. The law will punish him.

"So ignorance is the cause of sinful activities or breaking the law. And when you commit some sinful activity, you have to suffer the result. The whole world is in ignorance. And due to ignorance everyone is implicated in so many actions and reactions, either good or bad.

"Ultimately, there is nothing good within this material world; everything is bad. We have manufactured something good and something bad. But in the Bhagavad-gita we learn that this place is duhkhalayam asasvatam, a place for misery. So in this miserable condition how can you say, "This is good'' or "This is bad''? Everything is bad.

"One should be very much pessimistic about the material world. Then one can make advancement in spiritual life. Duhkhalayam asasvatam. This place is full of miseries. If you study analytically, you'll find simply miserable conditions.

"Therefore we should give up our material conditional life, and in Krsna consciousness we should try to elevate ourselves to the spiritual platform and thereby be promoted to the kingdom of Godhead." (Lecture, Los Angeles, Dec. 9, 1969; Disappearance Day of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami)

Chanting must be heard from pure devotees in disciplic succession

Holy names uttered by the Mayavadis are not holy names but simply a perverted reflection of the holy names. Therefore in spite of chanting such names, the Mayavadis are affected by the faults of namaparadha. (Sajjana Toshani 5.12) sampradaya-vihina ye mantras te nisphala matah - If your mantra does not come through the disciplic succession, it will not be effective. (Padma Purana)

Kirtan leaders should chant in the manner of the acarya… all should be pure devotees

"Regarding Kirtana Party: My idea is that at least one dozen persons should form a Kirtana Party. Two persons play mrdangas, eight persons play karatalas, one person playing tamboura, and one person playing melodious harmonium. The person who will play on tamboura will be leader singer. You have just calculated what I want, when you suggest that the leader should sing as I do, and the others will respond. That will be very nice. But all the members of the party will be pure devotees. None of them should be outsiders. We do not want any outsiders as far as possible. Mrdanga playing as you are doing at present will make you more and more expert as you go on playing. Here also I see Gaurasundara simply by playing is improving. If all the members keep their faith in Krishna and tries to please Him, certainly everyone will be pleased by hearing our Kirtana. It is sure and certain. When such Kirtana will be demonstrated, only the harmonium player may sit, and all the others may stand up and join the Kirtana and dancing properly dressed." (Prabhupada letter to Hansadutta, February 4, 1968)

Tune, manner of chanting:

While Prabhupada did on a few occasions say that other tunes and musical styles could be used, looking into the matter more extensively, seeing how many times he asked or emphatically instructed that the simple tunes he used be chanted, we understand that he wanted those tunes to be used. As far as the occasional permissions he gave for other tunes and musical styles to be used, there were always stipulations.

First we will present the evidence that the old, simple tunes accompanied by karatals and mrdanga played in simple rhythms should be used.

Authorized songs means the songs which were sung or composed by self-realized Acaryas.

"Regarding authorized songs, you may inform George that authorized songs means the songs which were sung or composed by self-realized Acaryas. It is an injunction in the Vaisnava regulations that unauthorized songs or statements should never be heard. The comparison is given that milk, although very nutritious food, if it is touched by the tongue of a serpent, it acts like poison. So I am giving herewith a few lines of authorized songs which you may deliver to George. They are as follows:

1. hare krsna hare krsna krsna krsna hare hare 
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare
2. hari haraye namah krsna yadavaya namah
yadavaya madhavaya kesavaya namah
3. krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna hay
krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna hay
krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna raksa mam
krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna krsna pahi mam
krsna kesava krsna kesava krsna kesava raksa mam
rama raghava rama raghava rama raghava pahi mam

So these songs were sung by Lord Caitanya Himself, therefore they are the most authorized songs.

I am very glad to learn that he has given up composing nonsense songs, it is a great advancement of his spiritual life. But as he has got the aptitude for writing songs, I shall be very glad to give him many such themes of songs on which he can write in his own language and expression. I am giving below one theme:

"My Dear Lord, I have simply wasted my privileges of human form of life. This life was meant for understanding Krsna Consciousness and the pastimes of Lord Krsna with Radharani, but I did not take care of this important business of life. Therefore I have not only wasted my valuable time, but also I have willingly drunk poison for committing suicide. My heart is always in blazing fire because of my association with material sense enjoyment, and I did not fix up my mind in the Krsna Consciousness movement which is imported directly from the Kingdom of God. This Krsna Consciousness movement is inaugurated by Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda Who are Krsna and Balarama respectively. They have descended very kindly to reclaim all fallen souls of this age of whom the typical examples are the two brothers Jagai and Madhai. Now, forgetting all mistakes that I have committee. in my past life, I humbly surrender unto You, my Lord Krsna the Son of Nanda Maharaja, and also to Srimati Radharani the daughter of King Vrsabhanu. So both of You are present together, and I fully surrender unto You. Please do not reject me as I have no other shelter except Yourselves.''

"Perhaps you have heard, and George has also heard, my song on this theme, "Hari Hari bifale janama gonainu . . .'' So if George can compose a nice song in his own words, and sings, I am sure it will be an epoch making incident. There are many hundreds of thousands of such themes, and if he wants to introduce such songs propitious for pushing Krsna Consciousness movement, that will be very nice.

"The transcendental vibration OM is also authorized, but is specifically sung by the impersonalists. Although there is no incongruity, still because we are preaching the personal feature of God, we shall not chant Hari Om. … …this specific sound of Kirtana as I sing is also another introduction of art that can be intermingled with Western art, and such combination will certainly be appreciated. But so far I know that the Kirtana tune is a specific representation of Gaudiya Vaisnavas and this tune is appreciated all over India as unique. They say that the Kirtana tune is the specific gift of Bengal, and that is a fact. So why not utilize this tune in the Western countries under the able guidance of such expert musician as George?" (Prabhupada letter to Syamasundara, 25 February, 1970) [1]

Prabhupada's kirtanas are special

"Religious teachers may talk about God or meditation, but Prabhupada chants, he actually sings – a guru who sings the Lord's holy names. Within the first moments of my meeting him, I saw and heard him chant. He walked into the storefront where we were waiting, sat down on the same level as us, and spoke a few words. He handed out the karatals and told us the rhythm, "One, two, three; one, two, three." Then he began to sing, "Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna … "

So, as soon as you came into his presence, you were hearing a singing Swami. Of course, Srila Prabhupada also talked of Krsna, but he gave equal attention to singing the Lord's holy names. It is not that he was mainly a philosopher who sang on a rare occasion. He was a minstrel on behalf of Krsna, always singing Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare …

You would ask him, "Swamiji, is there some system of meditation you teach?" He would reply, "Chanting. We chant the holy names."

"But aside from the chanting?"

"Just the chanting," he said, "that's all. You cannot do any other meditation. You are not capable of yoga or anything like Vedanta. Just chant."

He even said that studying philosophy was not necessary. One could make full advancement in love of God simply by chanting the transcendental vibration.

Prabhupada said that our kirtanas with him were special, even in comparison to others' kirtanas. One time he invited us to accompany him to a yogi's asrama in upstate New York. He told us that they also chanted Hare Krsna sometimes, "But ours is heart and soul."

Prabhupada gave his disciples credit for chanting kirtanas with heart and soul as he did. One evening we had a small, informal kirtana in Prabhupada's hotel room in Hawaii. Since there was no official program at the temple, Prabhupada was spending a quiet evening working, and his servants were also busy with their tasks. However, Prabhupada called us together and asked us to chant. I came from my editorial desk, Pradyumna came from his Sanskrit work, and Bali Mardana and Sudama also came. Prabhupada asked Sudama to lead the singing. As Sudama began to sing a particular tune, he became self-conscious and stopped. He said, "That's not the right tune." He meant that it was not the tune that Prabhupada usually sang. Prabhupada encouraged him, "That is all right. That is your ecstasy." It enlivened us to think that Prabhupada said we had ecstasy within us, and that even a neophyte devotee's choosing of a particular tune could be called "his ecstasy."

Prabhupada's followers always liked to perform kirtana, especially in his presence. Prabhupada was in weak health when he met with guests during his visit to Hrsikesa in 1977. He spoke for almost an hour and then said, "So now we can have kirtana." There were a few Indian men present and they began to discuss Prabhupada's invitation to hold kirtana.

One of the men said, "Prabhupada, tomorrow if you will be willing to come just a hundred feet away from here, there is big hall nearby that can hold many more people who want to hear you."

"Yes," Prabhupada said. "I can do that tomorrow night. And now we can have kirtana. If you like, you can go to that hall and do kirtana."

Two of the Indian men began speaking to each other about Prabhupada's proposal. One said, "Prabhupada is saying that tomorrow night we can have kirtana in the hall."

The other man said, "No, right now we should have it."

Tamala Krishna Maharaja began to laugh at this conversation, because the men were like little children trying to work up their courage to go on harinama. One of them wanted to put off the kirtana until tomorrow night, but the other was trying to be brave and convince his friend that "Prabhupada says we should do it right now."

The talk went on about whether to do kirtana or not. Suddenly, Trivikrama Swami began clapping his hands in a loud rhythm and singing, "nama om visnu-padaya … " Trivikrama Swami's voice cut through the speculation and he seemed to say, "I may not be the world's best singer, but here goes, right now."

One time, during the annual Gaura-Purnima festival in Mayapura, Prabhupada called his GBC men to his room to tell them that he was hearing and take pleasure in the kirtana. With his leaders gathered before him in the room, Prabhupada stated that all the devotees in the world should come to Mayapura and constantly have kirtana. He was very blissful as he told them of Bhaktivinoda Thakura's statement that he had searched the fourteen worlds but found nothing of value except the chanting of the holy names. Prabhupada said that this was Mayapura's purpose, to come and chant. We may have problems in different parts of the world, but they will go away if we simply come together and chant. Lord Caitanya always chanted and we could do it also. We now had a big building in Mayapura, so everyone could come and live there and simply chant.

On one level, we all enjoyed this blissful talk by Prabhupada, but since the GBC men had so much managerial responsibility, they were also bewildered as to how this could be carried out. Finally Ramesvara spoke, "Prabhupada, if we were actually to do what you said, it would very much reduce the … I mean, how could the programs go on in the different temples around the world?"

"Oh yes," Prabhupada agreed. Then the talk became managerial. Suggestions were made how we could increase the practice of kirtana in the various ISKCON temples. Prabhupada agreed that some temples were too small to hold constant kirtana, but a few of the bigger temples could attempt to hold twenty-four-hour kirtana, as long as it was not done to the detriment of other work. Prabhupada (he) didn't mean it literally, he said. All the devotees could not come and live always in Mayapura. So it became a relative discussion about the possibilities of increasing the chanting, although Prabhupada had originally called us together to share his own bliss and to ask that we should all stay in Mayapura to chant." (Prabhupada Meditations, Volume III, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami)

The old, traditional tune: "I like that tune very much"

"Everyone was excited: Prabhupada was about to arrive in Delhi. Many devotees awaited his arrival, including many ISKCON leaders, so rather than bicker over what aspect of the arrival I would help with, I let the others bargain. "I want to give a garland," said one person. "You get his luggage," said another. "I want to wash his feet," someone else informed us. Eventually, all the devotional duties were assigned, until only I was left. "No one had volunteered to lead kirtan," I thought to myself."

Prabhupada's arrival was very formal on this occasion, and he hardly looked at anyone as he walked into the airport waiting lounge. He offered pranams, but kept a stern look. While he passed through the devotees, I began to bellow out the Hare Krishna mantra to the old, traditional tune we used to sing in New York and San Francisco. Prabhupada, still aloof, heard the chanting and saw me with the kartalas. Then his reticence became a bright, wide-open smile, and he gave me a big wave. As he got in the car, he invited me to join him. "I like that tune very much," he said, smiling contentedly.

I answered, "Like we sang in San Francisco." (By His Example, Gurudas das)

Prabhupada sang one tune throughout

Gaura Gopala: "I was right next to Prabhupada through the whole ceremony, playing the drum. He particularly liked to sing one tune through the whole time. He put his hands up in the air. He was dancing." (Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, Vol. 5, 44. Let There be a Temple)

Prabhupada "kept the same tune"

"Several people gathered around us as we chanted. Then Srila Prabhupada arrived with a few devotees. He walked the blocks from the temple to the park, which was about a ten-minute walk. Then he sat down and joined us. He played drum himself, and he chanted Hare Krsna for at least an hour. The rhythms would rise and fall like the waves in the ocean, and we would rise and fall with them. He would lead, we would respond, and then he would lead again. Sometimes I would look up to him, sometimes at the crowd, which grew to many people, and the chanting never stopped. Srila Prabhupada's voice was strong. He kept the same tune, and we kept chanting as if we would never stop: Hare Krsna Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare." (Prabhupada Lila, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, Ch,1: Meeting Srila Prabhupada)

Prabhupada rejects showy kirtan

"At one of the festivals in Vrndavana, Prabhupada rejected the singing of one of his disciples. The devotee had previously been a singer in a band and his kirtanas were much appreciated by some devotees, especially those from his home temple. But when, with showy professionalism, he began leading the guru-puja in Prabhupada's presence making the tune sound like a rock'n'roll ballad, Prabhupada didn't like it. He shook his head and indicated that someone else lead." (Srila Prabhupada Nectar, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, Ch. 1, Little Drops of Nectar)

The essence is not ornamentation but ecstasy… awakened by sravanam kirtanam

" …with our kirtana we are only using drums and karatalas, but people come to the point of ecstasy. It is not the ornamentation, it is the ecstasy. This ecstasy is awakened by sravanam kirtanam by devotees. I hope this makes everything clear." (Prabhupada letter to Dr. Wolf, Jan. 29,1976)

A great secret about the essence of Krsna consciousness: chanting the way we used to when Prabhupada was present

"At Gita-nagari we held an old time kirtana. First we listened to a 1966 kirtana led by Prabhupada. I pointed out that Prabhupada sang only one tune and kept a steady beat for half an hour. Then we tried it. It produced a wonderful feeling and so we repeated it again the next night. Here are some of the letters I received from devotees who were in those kirtanas:

Muktavandya: "I feel like we discovered a great secret about the essence of Krsna consciousness tonight. I suggest you do this wherever you go because it will remind and enlighten everyone about what it was like with Prabhupada. The chanting tonight was very, very nice. Very powerful medicine. Not at all mechanical."

Caitanya-rupa dasi: "The kirtana last night was wonderful! One devotee told me her opinion that if we were to do this more often we would all come to love each other. I hope we're going to have this type of kirtana again."

"Our experiment took place in front of Prabhupada murti in the Gita-nagari temple room. The Deity doors were open and Radha-Damodara gave us Their darsana. We began sitting and we were careful not to speed up. After fifteen minutes one or two devotees stood up to dance. Soon everyone was up. The dancing was that style which some persons have called "The Swami Step." The nice thing about it was that the dancing energy was not concentrated in one place. There were no superstar dancers. The women were also dancing, as the kirtana energy spread democratically throughout the room."

"I thought I would become bored, and I braced myself for that, but it did not occur. The only reason I looked at the clock was to make sure we did not go too long. Something nice was happening for everyone. It was a combination of the timeless potency of harinama, and the special effect of chanting the way we used to when Prabhupada was present." (Prabhupada Meditations, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, Vol. 3, Ch. 3: Old Time Kirtans)

The tunes sung by Prabhupada are Vaikuntha melodies

"Srila Prabhupada, who is a paramahamsa, who descended from the spiritual sky, who brought his melodies…he said these are Vaikuntha melodies. If we want to know how do they chant in Krishna Loka, it's not a Marathi melody, it's not a Gujarati melody, it's not a Punjabi melody or a Bengali melody or a South Indian melody or a Tamil melody. These are Vaikuntha melodies. So if you want to know what is it like in Krishna Loka, listen to Prabhupada chanting because that's where he's situated, he's situated in Krishna Loka. (Naranarayan das, ISKCON Mumbai 25th Anniversary, at Chowpatty Temple)

Up to his last days, Prabhupada encouraged chanting in a simple, meditative way… as he had done

Laksmi Nrsimhadev: "… I was sitting in the corner, Srila Prabhupada was lying on his bed and Bhavananda was doing various things. Since it was midnight it was very, very quiet. There was hardly any light at all and I could barely see Srila Prabhupada because I was in the back doorway. Bhavananda gave me small kartals and he said, "Play very, very softly because Prabhupada should get his rest." I thought that Srila Prabhupada was asleep because he was lying very still and Bhavananda was tiptoeing around. I figured, "Okay, let me chant something very simple." So I started chanting the standard melody "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare." (sings softly) I was chanting that for a while and I don't know what possessed me to change that tune but at this particular time someone had introduced "brahma bole chaturmukhe, krishna krishna hare hare." As soon as I got through the first line "krishna krishna, hare hare", Prabhupada's hand went up like a traffic cop. I thought Prabhupada was asleep. But his hand just came from the side of the bed and went up… I immediately went right back to the standard melody… Prabhupada encouraged us to chant the Panchatattva mantra and of course obeisances to guru, and to chant Hare Krishna in a simple, meditative way just like he did. He didn't use very many melodies and every time you listen to Prabhupada chant, it was a total meditation. That's what he wanted to hear and that's what I got from that experience; just keep it simple. (Srila Prabhupada Remembrances [Siddhanta das ITV], Chapter 51)

Melodic instruments divert attention from the mantra; rhythm instruments make one inclined to dance and dancing unlocks devotion; melodies are to be filled with the mantra; no extended notes

Revatinandana: "Srila Prabhupada gave a Sunday feast lecture about kirtan, and he said things that I never heard him say at other times, particularly not during a lecture. He remarked that melodic instruments, including the harmonium, are not meant for kirtan, and he explained why. He said that the ear will automatically follow musical strains, and then our attention will be diverted from the mantra. He said that rhythm instruments are good for kirtan because they make one more inclined to dance, and dancing, in turn, unlocks devotion. He liked graceful dancing. He used to mention that Jayatirtha was a graceful dancer. He said, "See how he dances. This is very good. This will help one feel more devotion." Another time he told Vishnujana that he did not like melodies that had long, extended notes in them. He liked the melody to be filled with the mantra.

During the lecture he gave that day he also said, "Don't harmonize during the response." The leader may sing little variations, but the group should sing a steady response. One person shouldn't be singing one melody and another doing another melody during the response. "These things," he said, "will help one pay more attention to the mantra as one is chanting and dancing. That way one will get the maximum benefit, and the kirtan will also become more ecstatic." He also said that the dancing should be graceful and gentlemanly. Then, during the second kirtan, he got off the vyasasana and danced in the middle of the kirtan party. He danced back and forth very gracefully in what we called the "swami step." After a while he put his hands up and started leaping up in the air straight up and down. He wasn't shaking his body around. His hands were up, and he was leaping in the air. He kept leaping and leaping and leaping for a long time, and we were doing it with him. I got tired. I stopped and started to dance back and forth at one point. I was twenty-two years old at the time, and he was over seventy. Yet Prabhupada went right on leaping. He seemed to have no physical exhaustion at all. I was impressed because I thought, "I play basketball and here this guy can jump more than I can." I shouldn't say "guy," but those are the kind of thoughts that were going through my mind. It was the first time I had ever seen him dance, and I was amazed." (Srila Prabhupada Remembrances [Siddhanta das ITV], Chapter 8)

Melody should not supersede the Holy Name

Bhavananda: "During the festival the devotees were having a kirtan in the temple in Mayapur. They sang a tune that lent itself to saying Ga'dadhar (accent on first syllable). But it was one of those newer melodies. Prabhupada called me in and said, "They are singing Ga'dadhar but it is Gada'dhar (accent on second syllable)." I told everyone, but no one listened to me. They all continued to chant Ga'dadhar because it was more syncopated for the melody. The melody shouldn't take precedence over the name." (Srila Prabhupada Remembrances [Siddhanta das, ITV]) Chapter 18

Prabhupada wanted the devotees to learn how to do kirtan properly

Prabhupada wanted to teach his London-bound disciples to sing and play instruments in a specific way. Someone should learn to play the harmonium properly-following the melody, not simply pumping it, as the devotees had been doing for years. And the Sanskrit mantras and bhajanas should be pronounced properly and the melodies sung correctly. Some melodies were to be sung in the morning, others in the evening. Each word was to be pronounced correctly and with the right intonation.

Prabhupada liked Yamuna's singing, and Mukunda was an expert musician for organizing the party. The spacious Montreal temple was a suitable place for them to practice. Ideally, Prabhupada said, the party should have two mridanga players, one harmonium player, one tamboura player, and at least six karatala players. He talked about sending the group not only to London but to the European continent and then to Asia also. So he wanted them to become expert at kirtana. (Prabhupada Lila 7– 4, Satsvarupa Swami: A Summer in Montreal 1968)

In his last days Prabhupada was pleased by kirtan in the old tunes

Rupa-Vilasa: During Prabhupada's last days, 24-hour kirtan was going on in his room and devotees would chant for him in shifts. I went with a group of gurukula students. Prabhupada couldn't take too much sound so we used tiny kartals and made as little noise as possible. Tamal Krishna Maharaj asked me to lead the chanting and I thought, "I'd really like to please Prabhupada with this chanting." I tried to remember every tune that Prabhupada had chanted the Hare Krishna mantra to and I chanted those. I really concentrated, then our shift ended and we left. The next day when we went to chant, Tamal Krishna Maharaj grabbed me by the arm and said, "You have to chant for Prabhupada." I said, "Sure, but why?" He said, "The other day after you left Prabhupada called me over and said, 'Who was that chanting?'" Tamal, always the guardian, said, "Was there anything wrong, Prabhupada?" Prabhupada said, "No. It was very nice." (Srila Prabhupada Remembrances [Siddhanta das ITV], Chapter 43)

Popular Bengali melodies are a form of entertainment

Dinadayadri: "At the first Mayapur festival in 1972, when the cornerstone was laid, devotees were learning so-called Bengali-style chanting, which was quite different from the chanting Srila Prabhupada had taught us. The Bengali melodies, rather than being completely transcendental, were a form of traditional folk entertainment. When, instead of simply absorbing Srila Prabhupada's example and trying to emulate that, the devotees imbibed these Indian styles, techniques and drumbeats. Prabhupada expressed some displeasure especially in the beginning when they weren't good at it.

Achyutananda Maharaj had been in India for some time, learned these styles from some of Prabhupada's God-brothers in the Gaudiya Math and had started teaching others. Maharaj was a bit arrogant about it, "You don't know how to chant. I'll teach you how you should be chanting. In India you have to do it this way." Some devotees fell for it because the drumbeats and tunes were catchy. But the devotees weren't good at it, so the result was a cacophony of unpleasant sounds—a mess—rather than the beautiful, angelic chanting that we did under Prabhupada's tutelage. When Prabhupada heard those kirtans from his thatched hut he'd make a face and say, "It is a pinching sound," and he would close his windows to reduce the volume. When the kirtan ended he'd say, "Thank goodness it's over."" (Srila Prabhupada Remembrances [Siddhanta das ITV], Chapter 37)

Musical ornamentation attracts people but devotees should not be attached to it

"Aniruddha: Vishnujana Swami was a wonderful devotee who sang beautifully. Prabhupada said, "By his singing alone, he can go back to the spiritual world." And Vishnujana Swami was expert in playing the tambora, the mridanga, the harmonium, and in making up his own melodies. He was a little embarrassed to play his own melodies for Prabhupada, but he wanted to be recognized. Once, in the La Cienega temple, where Prabhupada had a small private room adjoining the main temple room, Vishnujana was elaborately playing his melodies on the harmonium in the temple room when Prabhupada came out of his room and said, "What is wrong with the melodies I have given you?" Today the movement has grown and we have many different melodies, but I'm fond of Prabhupada's original ones.

Prabhupada knew that we were attracting all varieties of people and he was broad-minded. When Vishnujana Maharaj started the road shows using guitars and a lot of music, Prabhupada said, "This is very good to attract people, but the devotees shouldn't get attached to it." Today, however, in some places it's common for devotees to play all these songs. Whatever brings a person to Krishna consciousness is all right – Prabhupada taught us to be broad-minded – but we have to be careful not to compromise." (Srila Prabhupada Remembrances [Siddhanta das ITV], Chapter 32)

"Those who possess love and devotion in their hearts love to hear Kirtana in the old and ancient tune."

We were extremely pained to hear kirtana performed by Nyadas, Bahuls and other unauthorized people in the tune of cinemas songs. But our pain was somewhat diminished by hearing the eternal names of Hari, Krsna and Rama uttered by them in the course of their singing. Those who possess love and devotion in their hearts love to hear Kirtana in the old and ancient tune. They do not like to hear or sing useless topics. They sing and hear the pure holy names of Hari in the old tune. Due to lack of good association, the residents of this metropolitan city do not easily realize the characteristics of pure devotional service. Therefore they follow their own concocted process. Anyhow our Sri Gauranga is most merciful. Since He has mercifully allowed the residents of Calcutta to perform Kirtana, we hope that gradually He will reveal pure devotional service in their hearts. (Bhaktivinoda Vani Vaibhav, 55.Chanting the holy names of the Lord)

That old kirtana tune is "the specific gift of Bengal"

Regarding the presentation of "Govindam'' as well as other mantras, the vibration is always pure. I will give the theme and if the sound is Westernized that does not matter. But another point is that this specific sound of Kirtana as I sing is also another introduction of art that can be intermingled with Western art, and such combination will certainly be appreciated. But so far I know that the Kirtana tune is a specific representation of Gaudiya Vaisnavas and this tune is appreciated all over India as unique. They say that the Kirtana tune is the specific gift of Bengal, and that is a fact. So why not utilize this tune in the Western countries under the able guidance of such expert musician as George? (Prabhupada letter to Shyamsundar, Feb. 25, 1970)

So called 'rasa kirtan'

"Professional singers of rasa kirtana are called rasika in the namesake only; In fact they are devoid of any knowledge regarding rasa and are averse to Vaisnava conclusions. Their songs are full of different musical modes and tunes, but their kirtana is not fit to be heard by the Vaisnavas. They add so much to the original mahajana songs in order to please the assembled women and foolish people. Such people are full of pride because they get money and praise from foolish audience." (Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Prabhupada, Sajjana Tosani 6/2)

Other tunes and styles of music – when they are acceptable

We already have explained the fallacy of the idea that the Siksastaka's statement about there being "no hard and fat rules for chanting" refers to the individual souls' call on the Lord… that organized chanting has to be done according to certain rules and regulations.

But what of the occasional statements by Prabhupada allowing or encouraging chanting in various other tunes and styles?

Change of tune not harmful

"If there is no mistake in the set up of the wording, the change of musical tune, that is not harmful." (Srila Prabhupada referring to an album promoted by Rameswar set in modern tunes;

Room Conversation, November 25, 1976, Vrndavana)

San Francisco wild kirtans:

One day while living with Srila Prabhupada at the New Jersey seashore, a tape arrived from the San Francisco temple; some devotees from New York brought it and Srila Prabhupada sat listening to the taped 'San Francisco kirtan'. Now, a bit of background: Gaurasundara and I had met Srila Prabhupada in San Francisco when he first arrived and had been initiated at the San Francisco temple, the Haight Ashbury Frederick Street storefront, and then had followed him to New York when he returned in March of 1967. The San Francisco Haight Ashbury district was quite wild, there was a hippie environment; Gaurasundara and I were students just prior to meeting Srila Prabhupada, were both in our senior year in the University of Texas; we found the more studious and sedate New York temple more to our liking. In New York, devotees were reading Srila Prabhupada's books, chanting regularly, and following pretty strictly. In San Francisco, things were generally wilder, with lots of flamboyant kirtans and hardly anyone reading or following strictly. Because of this vast difference between New York mood and San Francisco mood, the natural tendency was for the New York devotees to look down upon the San Francisco temple, and to criticize and roll their eyes when talking about the San Francisco devotees. Yes, the politics had already begun. New York temple really did not take the San Francisco devotees seriously, and San Francisco did indeed have a mood of its own. Knowing all this, I was eager to see Srila Prabhupada's reaction to the San Francisco kirtan tape. As the old reel-to-reel tape player began blaring the new Hare Krsna chant, Srila Prabhupada began to wag his head in time to the music: Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare. It was a new singsong chant, nothing at all like the morning and evening ragas that Srila Prabhupada had introduced. This was an American version for sure: horns blared, drums boomed, and cymbals clanged; it was a festive party sound. Some of the New York devotees were aghast; after hearing the tape through, Srila Prabhupada smiled broadly and expressed his appreciation: "Oh, they have done nicely. Very nice. They are chanting so enthusiastically". One of the tape bearers protested the modern unauthentic sound. Srila Prabhupada drowned him out. It was, in his opinion, wonderful. He sent a message to San Francisco to let them know he loved their kirtan tape and to go on chanting. Srila Prabhupada then said: "They are chanting Hare Krsna, that is the main thing. It may be this tune or that tune, doesn't matter – this way or that, but they are sincerely chanting. That is what Krsna wants". (Prabhupada Stories, Govinda dasi, Story # 6 - Wild kirtans)

The Haight Ashbury devotees, though still hippy-like in many ways, were simple and pure in their surrender and following of Krishna consciousness. They had given up drugs and sex. But even other ISKCON temples in the west - what to speak of the situation in India, particularly urban India, are very different. In India there are temples everywhere and many people still go to them although mostly they are demigod temples and a significant number are temples to man-made gods. And of those claiming to be vaisnavas, mainly they are so only by birth, their practice of bhakti often consisting only of visiting some temple once in a year. And what Vedic practices still exist are being eroded away as materialism advances. In modern India, though the maha mantra has spread quite widely, it is usually 'filmy' tunes or directly clips from cinema sound tracks. Cinema singing is not anywhere near as good as the sincere efforts at kirtan by those ex-hippy devotees Govinda dasi writes about… Krishna likes the service of new devotee's. Of course, as the Bible says, "For every thing there is a season"… an appropriate time for everything. The sixties chanting in San Francisco is not for all time and all places while the tunes sung by Prabhupada are.

Prabhupada says " … we chant Hare Krsna. So we are not training our students any way about musical science, that "We have to chant in this way or that way, we have to dance in this way or that way." Without any musical knowledge, without any poetic understanding, even a child can take part in it, and he becomes immediately absorbed in ecstasy. Why? This is because we are chanting the glories of the Lord… it does not require any artificial musical knowledge or dancing knowledge. Out of your own ecstasy, you will dance, you'll chant. You don't require to study. Just like our playing of mrdanga. Nobody has gone to an expert mrdanga player to learn it. Whatever I play, I sing, I never studied under some expert teacher.

But by practice, chanting… It may be melodious, it may be very nice or not. That doesn't matter. We are not concerned about that, whether it is appealing to the people or not. It will appeal; there is no doubt about it. But we don't require to divert our attention on these things. Simply because there is glorification of the Lord, it will be palatable. … Krsna is not within the material qualities of goodness, passion, or ignorance. All His qualities are transcendental, nondifferent from Him. Therefore His glorification of the transcendental qualities can be chanted who are already in the transcendental platform. Others cannot. … nivrtta-tarsaih. Nivrtta means already finished, completely finished. … One who has finished his material hankering, they can chant this transcendental glorification of the Lord. Others cannot. Just like in our sankirtana movement, you are taking so much ecstasy, pleasure. So others will say, "What these people are doing? Crazy fellow, they're trancing, dancing and beating some drum." They'll feel like that because their hankering for material enjoyment is not finished. Therefore nivrtta. … Actually, this transcendental name of Krsna, or God, can be chanted in liberated stage. Therefore we prescribe, while chanting, there are three stages. The offensive stage, liberated stage, and actually on the platform of love of Godhead stage. That is the perfectional stage by chanting. In the beginning we chant in offensive stage—the ten kinds of offenses. But that does not mean that we shall not chant. Even there are offenses, we shall go on chanting. That chanting will help me to get out of all offenses. Of course, we must take care that we may not commit offenses. Therefore this list of ten kinds of offenses are given. We should try to avoid. And as soon as it is offenseless chanting, then it is liberated stage. That is liberated stage. And after liberated stage, the chanting will be so pleasing because that is on the transcendental platform that actual love of Krsna and God will be relished. But the same thing... The chanting... In the offensive stage, the chanting, and the liberated stage is chanting... But in the mature stage... Just like Rupa Gosvami, he used to say that "What shall I chant with one tongue and what shall I hear with two ears? If millions of ears I had, if millions of tongue I had, then I could chant and hear." Because they are in liberated stage.

The question of offensive chanting

If one uses the vibration of the holy name for the benefit of the material body, for material wealth and followers, or under the influence of greed or atheism – in other words, if one utters the holy name with offenses – such chanting will not produce the desired result very soon. Therefore one should diligently avoid offenses in chanting the holy name of the Lord. (Sri-Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya-lila, 3.60)

If only offensive chanting is going on, the movement will dissolve into uselessness

"So chanting, even if it is in the offensive stage is not to be avoided for that reason. At the same time, if there is no offenseless chanting going on, only offensive, what kind of people will be attracted? Those who are advanced from previous births or by dint of previous devotional credits in this life will intuitively be able to recognize that "this chanting these people are doing is not pure. There is no use in my joining them… in my associating with them." On the other hand, too, if people see the members dressed expensively, carrying expensive mobile phones, etc., they will think "Hey, these people have lots of money. Let me join them and also cash in". In that way any movement can become diluted to uselessness. Prabhupada said "boil the milk": "I want that we shall concentrate on making our devotees Krishna conscious and ourselves becoming Krishna conscious, and not be so much concerned with expanding ourselves widely but without any spiritual content. Just like boiling the milk, it becomes thicker and sweeter. Now do like that, boil the milk." (Prabhupada letter to Rupanuga, Honolulu, 9 May, 1972) … "we have got so many students and so many temples but I am fearful that if we expand too much in this way that we shall become weakened and gradually the whole thing will become lost." (Prabhupada letter to Hamsaduta, Los Angeles, 22 June, 1972)

Those that have already joined, get them refined by constantly encouraging them, instructing them. If that is not attended to, if there is concentration only on grand programs, grand projects, then it will all become useless… If many new people are induced to join and their numbers are counted and reported without concern for the effect on the existing membership and what will happen to them, it is like diluting milk… After diluting it to such an extent, it is no longer milk. You can't make yogurt out of it, you won't get nourishment by drinking it… It will just cause dysentery. The movement becomes a sick movement. It may be said that "it is spiritual" but a sick movement cannot do any good for the world. It cannot be said to be spiritual in fact. Only out of sentiment you may say that it is still spiritual. Spiritual means pure, free from disease. Disease is a one of the material contaminations.

So things are to be done according to standards, not in different ways that some may claim – without offering authentic references to guru, sadhu and sastras - that "it is very effective". Effective in increasing the number of members without consideration of their quality? That is contrary to the acharyas' desire and we should avoid it. We don't care if some say we are "fanatical", or "insisting on following so many rules… Prabhupada didn't say 'follow so many rules'". Whoever argues like that is on the mental plane… understanding simply theoretical. Such persons may appear to follow Prabhupada but they have not internalized his teachings. They cannot in fact effectively chant or preach. Mouthing words is not chanting or preaching. Such members don't last. They may be called "devotee" and they may be great in number but why listen to them? We have to follow the acharyas. Acaryavan vijnanaya… One who has acharya, he knows the Vedic conclusions. Not others.



[1] (Upon joining the movement in 1969, among other services, I (the author) was assigned to look after the temple's "library" consisting only the Collier Bhagavad Gita, Teachings of Lord Caitanya, a set of Prabhupada's Indian printed first canto Srimad Bhagavatam and maybe one or two other books, photocopies of letters from Prabhupada on his instruction or approval circulated to all the then four or five temple, a few reel-to-reel tapes, the 'Happening' album and maybe one or two 45 records. Among the letters was one in which Prabhupada says, regarding authorized chants, that they include "gopala, gopala, sacidanandana gopala" . As this letter does not appear in Folio, it has not been included with the "authorized mantras" mentioned.)