Kirtan and Bhajans (sung chanting)
These are Indian traditions of melodic spiritual singing that is done in community, sometimes in a call-and-response format. The content can focus on appreciation for specific deities that symbolize aspirations or aspects of being. Or it can be broad expressions of Love, Oneness, Peace, Inspiration, or recognition that “I am that” (for example “I am Eternal” “I am light”, etc. Kirtan and Bhajan can also be prayers of intercession.
Typically a community who shares common beliefs and aspirations use this kind of singing to resonate together and encourage each other’s path by feeling, listening and gaining insight through non-conceptual means. Sometimes in the West it is engaged in with large crowds who don’t even know each other and don’t share a common faith. This is quite a different approach which on the one hand reduces the understanding of the meanings to a simplistic level, but on the other hand the default common ground becomes general feeling, general spiritual aspiration, and enjoyment of the music and the togetherness.
Some practice communities set out guidelines for doing sung chanting in groups. Here is an interesting peek at the bhajan/chanting rules for the Sathya Sai Baba Community, a huge international membership based in India. Sathya Sai Baba, whose teachings were conveyed through silent Darshan, talks, programs of helping community and a very frequent practice of song: http://www.saibaba.ws/bhajans/guidelines.htm.
Cultural differences aside, Sathya Sai Baba seems interested in preventing singers getting too egotistic , which can be a major impediment to spiritual chanting. At Sai Centres the mic is passed around to many song leaders who take turns -only one song per leader. Each leader must have taken some training first which is provided at the meditation centres. Smaller Indian communities may have less rules, but the community will share a common understanding of the context and purpose of their chanting sessions, which often function as the key source of prayer and learning.
Some Kirtan leaders, especially in the West, rely on going faster and faster mistaking frenetic energy for ecstasy, but Sai Baba’s insight helps protect the situation in their specific community. He sets the rule at only speeding up once and only two or three repeats, remaining physically composed but feeling deeply inside. The lesson is – there is more to this practice than just singing, and it is different than a pop music concert. It requires cultivation and exploration to find your personal approach to doing the internal work while singing.
I have a particular method for leading Kirtan which relies on pulling spontaneous melodies and phrases out of the moment, unprepared – i.e. “receiving” them instead of having rehearsed songs. This helps keep it raw, real and distinguishes the practice from the usual “music performance” that is more concerned with the artist showing their work and seeing how you might like it. We attempt to bypass this distraction and put our energy into surrender and increased awareness of something greater.
Vedic Japa and Buddhist Chanting (Spoken Chanting)
We take a mantra and we repeat it over and over – attempting to be fresh on each repetition. This is unlike thinking which compounds, tangents and remains pretty serious. With mantra Japa we go far deep and wide, breaking barriers as we go – courage, strength, stay-ability, limitless power, multiple opportunities for “meaning it”, multiple opportunities to “get it”. Boredom, then going beyond boredom to ecstasy, developing outrageous strategies, rebelling against taking a mechanical approach and really feeling things, rebelling against thinking and listening only to the energy. So many things are possible
This kind of voice work is usually not melodic, more like rhythmic speaking than singing. A few tones may be used or in some cases a simple melody that never changes. Or it can be straight talking in rhythm. The purpose and theme and indeed the atmosphere of doing this tends to be less social, less about celebration, more contemplative and may have a goal of deep transcendence.
The content can be from the vast canon of Sanatana Dharma (Indian Spirituality) which includes Vedic scripture and stand alone mantras each of which will have volumes of interpretation and stories about where they come from. These stories and interpretations can range from narrow simplistic and fanatical to deeply insightful and relevant. IT is amazing what c n come from three of four words in the hands of masters.
Buddhist chanting is also greatly variant in style. It can have a flavour of contemplation, more aware of the suffering in life, fierce remedies and the compassion aspect of being, or passionate reverence to a Guru or symbolic deity. Themes often have to do with the “Three Jewels” and other famous Buddhist lists – Eightfold Path, Four Noble Truths, etc. Tibetan chanting often involves quickly spoken long prayers or teachings. Zen chanting can be concept-less using wordless sounds or one repeated name or it can involve speaking monotone in rhythm with a metronomic clack of a wooden Moktak, everyone in the room speaking as one voice.
This is sometimes the method of chanting the Heart Sutra which is an esoteric explanation about how consciousness is more real than physical things and how we need to “go beyond going beyond” our “inverted view” which favours materialism, in order to find truth and relief. It is about a page of text and is usually repeated three times or more, either in English or in Sanskrit, Japanese, Korean or other ancient languages with English translation written below. Sometimes it is first read in English then chanted repeatedly in the ancient language to “go beyond” and find/feel something deeper about the meaning. This is an example of using both conceptual mind and energetic experience to navigate the deep magic that awaits in mantra.