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How can I enjoy kirtan? August 11, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’m trying. I’m really, really trying—to like kirtan. Because honestly, I find myself lapsing on the whole ahimsa/vegetarian policy far more frequently than I do the “attend kirtan” policy. That is, you’ve got a better chance of seeing me at Gray’s Papaya than you do at Wednesday night chanting at Jivamukti.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama/ Rama Rama Hare Hare

It’s not that I dislike the call-and-respond style of kirtan. To wit, I find the part of a Pearl Jam show at which Ed Vedder cuts the vocals and entreats the crowd to chant the chorus of “Alive” to be the most stirring moment of a concert. I don’t even mind—and actually look forward to—an eighteen-minute version of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane,” which I’ll admit is really not that far removed from a half-hour puja from Krishna Das or Jai Uttal. And on Live At Carnegie Hall (1973), by Bill Withers, I really enjoy that, upon finishing “Use Me,” he asks the audience, One more time?, and then proceeds to do just that, as if the spur-of-the-moment reprise is built right into the song.

So what is it, then, with me and kirtan? Does my extreme agnosticism prevent me from invoking the name of god? The problem with this explanation is that I gladly sing Christian spirituals and gospel tunes along with Mavis Staples (Check out “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Billy Corgan), and I’ll never forget the time I was blown away by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals’ rendition of “Power of the Gospel” at a 2001 show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The explicit religiosity of much of Fiddler on the Roof does more than most to make me proud of having been born a Jew, and when Mick Jagger repeatedly invokes “the good lord” in the chorus of “Shine a Light,” I’m reminded of why it’s my second-favorite Stones song (“Gimme Shelter” is #1). So I have no trouble, it would seem, with invoking the lord’s name to music.

Now, I don’t discount the spiritual weight that fans of kirtan place upon their Sanskrit syllables. If anything, studying the melodic ins and outs of chanting has allowed me to find more divinity in the secular music I’ve enjoyed my entire life. And, really, if one believes the teachings of bhakti yoga—that chanting the name of god brings one closer to it—then the ecstasy engendered by such devotional music should naturally be seen as proof that there is indeed something special about it. Who am I, after all, to impugn the exultation of a puja-enraptured soul simply because I don’t experience it myself? I aim to be aggressively open-minded, and my practice advises me to steadfastly refuse to be skeptical of ecstatic chant — but try as I might, I simply cannot let myself get completely swept up by it.

As yogis, we’re taught to practice non-attachment, yet paradoxically, we’re also taught the primacy of Sanskrit, the language of our practice. But monolingual enlightenment feels alien to my understanding of bliss. And karma doesn’t care about the language used to inflict good — or harm.

But Sanskrit is a tongue, we’re told, that simply is. Halasana, for example, is not regarded as equivalent to the two words and ten letters that make up the English term plough pose. Rather, halasana represents the actual vibratory structure of the pose itself. With legs stretched back behind my head, feet pressed into the floor, each cell in my body is vibrating—singing—“halasana” at the top of its “lungs.” By contrast, in English, the letters in the written term “plough pose” are symbolic abstractions of the phonetic sounds they represent; those sounds are themselves abstractions of the concept of plough pose—that is, what we envision when we hear those sounds—and that concept is, again, an abstract way of aurally categorizing the actual pose itself. So when one says “god” in English, he’s actually discussing an abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction. Conversely, when one chants “Hare Krishna,” the deity himself is actually thought to be pouring out of the singer’s mouth.

As a writer, I find the notion of holding one language as better than any other to be somewhat parochial and immature, and I don’t like the idea that a particular type of music’s choice of idiom defines its relative legitimacy as a spirit-moving instrument. After all, if one is entranced, then do the lingual logistics of the sensations really matter? I’ve come to the conclusion that, whether divinely inspired or not, my affinity for English-language rock ‘n’ roll and soul music is no less holy than another’s for devotional Sanskrit melodies. And no more holy, either. Can’t they both simply rock? And might my “devotional” music be just as mighty, just as inspired, as any other agglomeration of audio vibrations? I hope so, because, like I said, I’m trying. I’m really, really, trying.

I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive

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Comments»

1. Starre Vartan - August 11, 2011

I’m so with you – it’s not dissimilar to the fact that I LOVE singing along to reggae, but don’t like singing about ‘god’ (jah) in any other circumstance, ever. For some reason, reggae is the only time I feel like I understand what god really means to someone, and that their expression feels so genuine that I’m into it. Other times, I actively avoid it….I’ve always wondered why!

2. Emily Smith - August 11, 2011

Simon!
I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading your posts. The notice in my inbox makes me smile every time, and I am always entertained, impressed and inspired by what you have to say. : ) An interesting note about halasana (that I learned from my teacher, the wonderful Giselle Mari)…hala means poison in sanskrti, so the pose is more accurately translated as ‘poison removing pose’. Like a plough that cultivates the soil and makes it ripe for the sowing of seeds, halasana stimulates the vishuddha chakra and removes ‘poisons’ and toxins blocking the flow of prana. Cool stuff.
Gimme Shelter would have to be my #1 favorite Stones tune as well.
Miss you.
xo Emily


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