“Kirtanam actually means "describing." We can describe with music, words, pictures, etc. Shravanam goes hand in hand with kirtanam, for unless we hear, we cannot describe. We don’t need any material qualifications in order to attain the Supreme. All we have to do is hear from authoritative sources and repeat accurately what we hear.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Raja-vidya, Ch 4)
Kirtana is an age old method of worship made very popular through the Vedic tradition. The Shrimad Bhagavatam, the crown jewel of Vedic literature which expounds on the set of law codes and instructions passed down since the beginning of time from the Supreme Person Himself, has a section where bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is described succinctly by one Prahlada Maharaja, who was a great king in his own right. At the time Prahlada was only five years of age, and when asked by his father what the most important thing he learned in school was, Prahlada responded by listing the nine principle processes of devotional service, of which shravanam and kirtanam were the first two. Though kirtana is commonly associated with chanting and singing about God, at its root the word means “describing”. Not surprisingly we see that the singing that goes on in kirtana parties is all about describing the glories of the Supreme Lord. Thankfully for the devotee and the listeners of the melodious singing, the glories of the person being described are endless. Therefore kirtana in bhakti automatically becomes an eternal occupation, one that can never fully attain its stated goal.
Isn’t this a bad thing? If our objective is to describe a particular entity and we know from the outset that we will never fully succeed in our venture, isn’t frustration thereby guaranteed? “If I’m trying to describe this person and I know I can’t do it properly, what is the point to even trying?” Unlike with any other attempt at glorification, kirtana in bhakti is beneficial at every step. The justification for taking the plunge into attempting to glorify the Supreme Person – who is described as neti neti in the Vedic literature, which means “not this, not that” – is that the process corresponds directly with the inherent properties of the soul, which is the source of identity within all individuals, including those not part of the human species.
Glorification of worldly figures, friends and family already takes place on a daily basis. It is the natural yearning of the human spirit to be free and to use that freedom to serve. To this end praising is a great way to serve the object of interest. Therefore it shouldn’t surprise us that in spiritual pursuits this serving through glorification would play an integral role. Just having respect for the Supreme Being represents one level of ascendency from the undeveloped consciousness present at the time of birth, but dedication to glorification extracts the full potential for the outpouring of loving emotion found within the worshiper. As an example of the influence the different levels of consciousness have on behavior, when we visit a temple and don’t necessarily know who or what we are looking at, our inhibitions in offering service may not be removed. We may be seeing others worshiping, kneeling down and singing, but we have no idea why any of this is going on. “Who is this person that everyone is so happily engaged in discussing about?”
Therefore uninhibited kirtanam must have a source, an initial spark and fuel to subsequently feed its continuation. This is where shravanam, or hearing comes into play. We know that the Supreme Person being glorified can be addressed as Krishna because the Vedas say so and also because of His all-attractiveness. He is described as Bhagavan because He is the most fortunate. He possesses the fortunes of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, knowledge, renunciation and wisdom to the fullest degree. Besides these distinguishable qualities, He is always adorned by His closest associates, those who never leave Him in terms of consciousness. Narada Muni, Kapila Deva, Yamaraja, Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma, Janaka Maharaja, Vyasadeva, Prahlada, Bhishma, Manu, and so many other exalted figures worship the Supreme Lord at all times. Since they are all mahajanas, or authorities on spirituality, their level of dedication only further solidifies Krishna’s status as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Bhagavan is considered the most fortunate because of the attributes He regularly exhibits and His reputation established by the words of great devotees. Yet His stature is further enhanced by the divine qualities of His dearmost friends. Shrimati Radharani is the emblem of chastity and virtue, as are the other gopis of Vrindavana. The six Gosvamis of Vrindavana and their followers represent the most intelligent collection of transcendentalists known the world over, and they all worship Krishna with their life and soul. In this way we can go on and on praising Shri Krishna, as the glories of His spiritual descendants know no end.
But where did we get all of this information from? How do we know so much about Krishna and the people who love Him? The hearing process, the fuel for the continuous drumbeat of hari-kirtana, provides a steady supply of information to the individual looking to rekindle their constitutional engagement of loving service. Irrespective of the body type, the natural penchant of the living being is to serve. When proper information is supplied through the hearing process, the glorification and service can be aimed in the proper direction, with the engine of kirtana revved up to full speed as a result.
Where do we go to hear information about Krishna? The Vedas, Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata and any literature that follows the same conclusion as the original Vedas are all considered Vedic literature. The tie that binds all of these wonderful works together is the subject matter of the information they present. In one sense, Vedic literature is itself kirtana, as it passes on detailed information about that person who is otherwise only known in the abstract: God. The commonality in all religions is the desire to serve the Supreme Person, but only in the Vedic tradition is detailed information provided about the glorious nature of God and why He is ever worthy of our time, effort and love. The Vedas don’t have just one Bible or Koran, but rather hundreds of works which are each complete in their own right.
The neti neti statements describing the Absolute Truth can be taken in a negative light by those who don’t understand its purpose. But to the devotees, neti neti is accepted as the most wonderful gift. Knowing that Krishna’s glories can never fully be enumerated, those anxious to serve God realize that they can spend the rest of their lifetime engaged in kirtana and never reach an end, never exhausting in effort or enthusiasm. What continually fuels their fire is hearing from the sacred texts, especially the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita, which safely house descriptions of God’s pastimes and His direct instructions.
“Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.14)
Krishna Himself states in the Bhagavad-gita that the devotees, the great souls who fall under the protection of the divine energy through their devotion, always chant His glories and thus become dear to Him. Therefore we know from the person it addresses that kirtana is a wonderful process that should be engaged in by everyone. But what if we haven’t read Vedic literature? What if we don’t know the different songs and what they mean? Kirtana, aside from being open to practice in any age, is also universally accessible, especially thanks to the efforts of one saint, who was, not surprisingly, a direct manifestation of the same Shri Krishna. Lord Chaitanya, the preacher incarnation of Godhead appearing on earth some five hundred years ago, authorized one specific sequence of words to serve as the life of any kirtana party, irrespective of the group’s religious affiliation, level of familiarity with Vedic tenets, age or geographic location. The maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, can be chanted over and over again and provide perfection in results in every respect. Kirtana need not require any other mantra or sound vibration, for “Hare Krishna” can be chanted in any melody or rhythm. Indeed, the most benevolent saints are those who write songs glorifying Krishna and His different incarnations by putting words into a simple format that can be understood by the most number of people.
The original Vedas and the classic Vedic texts are composed in the Sanskrit language, which is known as the language of the gods. Needless to say, Sanskrit is one of the most difficult language to understand, for the words are very complex, with terms crunched together to ensure that the most information can be packed into each verse. In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, where there isn’t the time available for fully understanding Sanskrit, kirtana is there to provide the same benefit, to act as a sturdy boat that can carry an unlimited number of passengers across the ocean of nescience. The songs composed by the saints of the bhakti school are aimed at making the names of Krishna accessible to everyone. Ironically enough, there is no degradation of the knowledgebase, as these songs are complete in the information they present. Goswami Tulsidas, who was especially devoted to Krishna’s form of Lord Rama, wrote a lengthy poem called the Ramacharitamanasa, which describes Rama’s activities and pastimes very wonderfully. Despite the poem’s length, it can still be sung and understood by a wide audience.
Similarly, the Bhagavad-gita, though in Sanskrit, can also be sung; thus allowing the hearing process to take over and provide further motivation to perform kirtana. In this way we see that Prahlada Maharaja did not just list the different processes of devotional service in any order or without thinking. Though surrendering unto God and worshiping Him at all times can provide the same benefits as any other processes of bhakti, hearing and chanting serve as the cornerstones because of their unique effectiveness. Just hearing about Prahlada’s pastimes and level of dedication to Vishnu, which is another name for Krishna, further endears the listener to the Supreme Person. Hearing about God and His devotees keeps the fire of devotion well lit within the belly, allowing kirtana to continue on and on with full vim and vigor.
“Prahlada Maharaja said: Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [shravanam kirtanam], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.23)
If we visit a Vaishnava temple and see that the person standing on the altar is holding a flute in His hands and has a smile on His face, we may be interested to know more about Him and why everyone is so given to glorifying Him. But when we hear that this person is known as Krishna because of His all-attractiveness, we become further interested in chanting. When we hear that Krishna, as a young child living in Vrindavana, would playfully go to the neighbors’ homes and steal from their stocks of butter, our interest further increases. When we next find out that the cowherd women who would complain to Mother Yashoda, Krishna’s foster mother, about the Lord’s stealing would then beg her not to punish Him, for even Krishna’s taking of their property was bringing them supreme joy, our attachment to performing kirtana further increases.
When we hear that Krishna, as a young child, lifted up a gigantic hill over His head to provide protection to the residents of Vrindavana from the torrential downpour vengefully instigated by Lord Indra, the king of heaven, the sweetness of our chanting “Hare Krishna” only increases. When we hear from the Bhagavad-gita that Krishna guarantees immunity from all sinful reaction for anyone who surrenders unto Him and abandons all other forms of dharma, or religiosity, our allegiance and firm faith in kirtana increase. When we learn that the same person standing on the altar holding the flute can accept a simple flower, fruit or some water as a gift, we will make sure that we offer Him something prepared with love and devotion every single day, with each offering accompanied by more and more glorification.
In this way we see that the more we hear about Krishna, the more attached we become to His lotus feet, which are the shelter for the saints and those who have abandoned the search for happiness in a material world full of dualities. Kirtana in bhakti knows no end, as the devotees who love Krishna never run out of affectionate feelings for Him. The most valuable boon offered by the most fortunate entity the world has ever known is the ability to continue kirtana. No other entity grants us the benediction of allowing our service to continue uninterrupted and without motivation. Only in bhakti-yoga, the ancient art of divine love, can the full potential for the outpouring of service found within the heart be met. Only with glorification of Krishna nourished by constant hearing does the human being make full advancement in consciousness, embarking on a progressive march which carries the soul towards the spiritual sky, the realm where the air is permeated with the sounds of Krishna’s flute and songs glorifying Him.