The Yoga of Kirtan:  Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting

By Steven J. Rosen

Book Review

By Charles S. J. White, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion

American University, Washington, D.C. 20016


                                                                                         i.


My study of Hinduism has included an emphasis on Vaishnavism, and in particular on the Bhakti movement in the Hindi-speaking areas of North India. I have also been interested in the variety of sacred persons in the Hindu tradition in both  historical and contemporary times,  as well as,  in Hinduism  per se in its wider aspects—and, beyond all that, in the religious totality that  I have called, “The Forms of the Sacred,”  often taught in introductory university courses on world  religions and in more specialized topics-seminars. Having invoked this background, before I go on to comment on Steven J. Rosen’s interesting and, I think, important book on the devotees of Kirtan, I would like to make some further personal and general remarks about human understanding and identity that are relevant to what I will try to say in the book review.


In the midst of the worldwide furor over clashing cultural identities: East versus West; Muslim versus non-Muslim; African-American, Jewish-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American identities in self-proclaimed precarious states vis-à-vis the OTHERS;  developed and under-developed economies; English-speaking and non-English-speaking societies; Caucasian versus non-Caucasian communities: not to mention, the unbearable prominence of sport, entertainment, criminal and religious CELEBRITIES,  what have become increasingly invisible are the myriad identities that abide in the shadowy pockets of “Dutch,”  “Polish,” “Portuguese,” “Latvian,” “Bengali,” “Iranian” human beings, to name only a sample,  who themselves are but a steppingstone above the absolute mass of human  virtual invisibilities, each bearing its possibly recordable  history of success, failure, youth, maturity, fame , genius, death, etc., but who are usually consigned to oblivion for lack of attention on the part of the greater world, whose obsessions, I believe, correspond in part with what I have listed above. 


                                                                                        ii.


One more side-comment of mine has to do with what it takes to understand someone else’s cultural reality, even to the extent of accepting it for one’s own.  Again, in my own case, beside four years as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, whose culture must be lived to be understood, I spent about eight years studying Spanish language, literature and history and finally went to Mexico to earn an advanced degree in Hispano-American Studies, as it was called, but then returned to enroll shortly afterward in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. There I received a fellowship to study Hindi language, which also allowed for Sanskrit study -- that together with other courses and research enabled me to go forth to pursue the investigations, mentioned at the beginning, that have taken me back and forth through decades, for greater or shorter periods of residence and research in India. Thus, I personally have experienced the gain and loss of deep immersion in someone else’s (other than one’s own) cultural and linguistic world --not once but twice: Mexico’s and India’s. 


Illegal immigrants as well as born-and-bred New-York converts to Bengali Vaishnavism, if they have to give any thought to it, may appreciate the sometimes alternating tones of psychological pain and pleasure that accompany the aftermath of such cultural-immersion experiments. My conclusion is that for those of us who follow these paths to personal self-fulfillment (as well as for human society as a whole) there is something more available than a simple identification with the labels: America, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Russia, etc. Each of us is entitled to a personal history that should be researched and recorded as our individual interests demand and as we are able to do so. Methodologies for this revolution are partially available but the totality of how the enterprise would work needs to be better described and, yes, understood.  I have only been able to scratch the surface here.


                                                                             iii


I regret if some readers may have found the introductory paragraphs too long-winded  or alien to what they are interested in.  As I heard the Indian spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamuti say at an outdoors’ lecture in Madras, where crows were gathering for the night and squawking in the trees above the platform, where he was seated before the microphone.  (The crows were admittedly a bit irritating,)   Looking over the crowd, sitting on the ground, and pointing to the trees, Krishnamurti said,  “Well, it’s their world, too!” In other words, pardon my squawks!


As one will perhaps have guessed,  what I relished most about Steven Rosen’s book on Kirtan is the way it opens up through the dialogue format a discussion, in sometimes considerable detail, of the personal histories of some devotees – real people -- who also are able to play a role, as Kirtaniyas, in leading or even composing sacred chant. Following the analysis above, I would say that all of the informants -- especially those who are non-Indian by birth, but also the Indians who have made some sort of cultural transition -- provide insights into individually unique identities and histories. I realize that the overall ethos of the book is meant to reflect the experience of devotion to sacred chant as such, particularly to the Bengali Vaishnava tradition of Mahaprabhu Sri Chaitanya,  the sixteenth-century saint/avatara, and his famous modern follower, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society  for Krishna Consciousness. The book succeeds very well in capturing that ethos.  But the other details are themselves of great interest, and not least, of course, would be the beautiful CD that accompanies the book, making Kirtan come alive in the world of music. Here are some examples of interesting tidbits:


(a) In the first dialogue, Rosen describes the beginning of Krishna Das’s development into a well-known Kirtaniya:


In the winter of 1968, a young Jewish seeker named Jeffrey Kagel—soon to become Krishna Das—met Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), who had just returned from his first trip to India.  After living and traveling with Ram Dass in the States—all the while hearing from him stories about his extraordinary teacher, Neem Karoli Baba—Krishna Das journeyed to India, eventually finding and spending time with Baba himself  ( p.13).


The dialogue explores Krishna Das’s experience in India, where he developed further his interest in chanting that he had begun to acquire while living in upstate New York, where he first met Richard Alpert. While enthralled with Neem Karoli Baba, his guru, he searched for some time in India and eventually came into contact with Mahaprabhu’s Kirtan devotees and other events that finally brought him back to the U.S.A. and a career in professional Kirtan music. Toward the end of the dialogue, he reports his meeting with Rick Rubin and how his professional career continued, including this remarkable closing statement:


Also, I’ve been singing the “Hanuman Chalisa” for over thirty years, and that’s the newest CD, “Flow of Grace,” which was released in March 2007.  This was released as a CD and also separately with an accompanying book.  It goes deep into the glory of Hanuman, [The Hindu Monkey God who is also the supreme devotee of  the incarnation of Vishnu as Rama] the embodiment of devotion, service, strength, and compassion.  We did other CDs and DVDs, too. But that’s the gist of it.  Hopefully, we’ll go on and on (p.38).


That a Jewish boy, born in New York City and raised on Long Island, could end up committing his life to singing the praises of Hanuman and other Hindu deities is truly striking evidence for the seeking capacity of the human spirit.


(b) Another example is that of Bhakti Charu Swami, an initiating guru in the ISKCON movement. Rosen describes the resolution of his spiritual quest:


His Holiness Bhakti Charu Swami, a native Bengali, was born in 1945 and spent most of his early life in urban Calcutta.  In 1970, he left India to pursue higher education in Germany.  While there, he became aware of the profound wisdom of the Vedic literature and developed a renewed interest in India’s spiritual heritage.  By 1975 he returned to India in search of a spiritual master.  After an intense and disappointing search, he found what he was looking for:  In 1976 he found his eternal spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada  (p. 97).


The dialogue discusses his period of residence in Germany where he attempted for a time to study chemistry at the University of Hamburg. There, too, he met American students who had opted to study in Germany, partly he thought to evade the draft of the Vietnam war. In fact, like many “hippies” of the time the travel to another country—including his boat trip from Bombay to Basra in Iraq and from there by land to his destination—was a kind of spiritual or psychological quest. One can conclude that he experienced, while living abroad, an international milieu that for a time bracketed him from his Indian identity although he lived with Indian relatives in Germany.


His family in India he describes as influenced very much by the western values of their former colonial status. Although Vaishnavas by birth, they were not much attracted to what he describes as the corrupted version of that Hindu expression in the Bengal of his early youth. Thus, his encounter with the founder of ISKCON and discovery of what he believed was the authentic spiritual tradition of Sri Chaitanya Vaishnavism of  his native Bengal led to a remarkable destiny. Shortly after this meeting,  Bhaktivedanta, realizing the young man’s intellectual gifts, asked him to translate the entire corpus of his English writings into Bengali. He was initiated as Bhaktivedanta’s disciple and also admitted into the order of Sannyasa, ascetic celibacy.


Since that time, he has been a leader in Mahaprabhu’s Kirtan movement, with numerous projects spreading the glory of Kirtan.  One of his projects was called “Abhay Charan—a 104-episode television mega-series on the life of Srila Prabhupada” Though exposed directly to western culture, values and people for a time in Europe and back in India,  Bhakti Charu Swami has found his destiny as a Kirtaniya and scholar and as a very productive leader of ISKCON in  his motherland. Near the end of the dialogue in response to a comment of Steven Rosen’s -- “Well, it’s easy to see how movies could be an extension of kirtan. Like books”  -- he says,


Exactly.  It’s the medium for communication.  Whichever medium presents itself, according to time and place, that’s what we’ll use. That’s real kirtaniya. We are using tape recorders, cassettes, CDs, cameras, computers—they’re all an extension of kirtan (p. 116).


This is a revelation, to be sure.


(c) Regrettably, it is not possible to refer to all of the interesting stories presented  in The Yoga of Kirtan, but I will conclude these references with one that seems to confirm my thesis in the opening paragraphs of this review. It is the story of Sean Johnson. From what one gathers in his dialogue, he has never been to India—or at least it has not been directly formative of his experience of  Kirtan, although he has studied yoga, chanting, and religion with representatives of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. The focus of his spiritual life, remarkably, is New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was born and raised in a somewhat disaffected Roman Catholic family: both of his parents had formerly been members of Roman Catholic religious orders which they had left before finding and marrying each other. To sum up his incredible life achievement, I can do no better than to quote at length from  a  passage near the end of his dialogue. I urge readers to follow his complete story in the published text:


So many of my teachers were cultural bridge builders, passionately integrating East and West, and I’ve picked up on that myself. My vision as a kirtan singer living happily in the deep South, has been to bring the practice to many people who have never experienced it before; and to find a voice for kirtan that springs out of the musical and cultural influences that move my heart and soul.  I have always felt most passionate about a non-sectarian approach to kirtan—I like to present this art as a spiritual practice that celebrates the universal.  Everything I’ve ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched impacts on my approach to kirtan.  These golden mantras have been marinating in the street rhythms of my New Orleans childhood; the haunting songs I sang in Ireland [which he had learned from an Irish folk-singer with whom he studied in America]; the Indian vocal practices that I continue on a daily basis; the middle-eastern rhythms that other teachers and friends have brought to the mix; the urban jazz sensibilities so vital to the ambience of New Orleans; the mystic poetry of Rumi and Kabir; the rhythmic and melodic flow of a Vinyasa-yoga practice; and of course my own life joys and struggles and those of our home and community (p. 384).


                                                                                         iv.


Although I have never formally embraced the yoga of devotional Vaishnavism, or chanting, as a regular, personal practice, I have been privileged to enjoy the association of  ISKCON members almost throughout my academic life: from my first visit to a store-front temple in Philadelphia in the 1960s to  my contact with members when I changed jobs and moved to Washington, D.C., including enjoying the dancing devotees in Dupont Circle, near my apartment and having some devotees as students in my classes from which have developed some lifelong friendships. I also had the honor to be the principal investigator of the “Vaishnava Literature Conservation Project,” conceived of by ISKCON members of the Institute for Vaishnava Studies and largely funded by the Smithsonian Institution that led to years of microphotography of rare books and manuscripts in India, cataloguing and writing, and other scholarly results. The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, founded and developed under ISKCON sponsorship, invited me as a visiting professor at Oxford University for a term after I retired from The American University.


As I mentioned at the beginning, I particularly welcome Steven Rosen’s new book because it contributes to what I believe is a necessary evolution, if not revolution, away from the constricting categories of national, religious, social, cultural and other identities that tend to obliterate our status as individuals. I am not talking about “multiculturalism,” which is yet another confining category of identification. The individual stories in this collection, although united thematically through a love for chanting and spirituality, stand on their own as presentations of unique individual experience that we, however unknown or unrecorded we also may be, might aspire to emulate to release ourselves from the stultification of imposed categories.