If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
The Only Proof He Needed for the Existence of God Was Music.
— Kurt Vonnegut
Virtually all styles of music offer us the opportunity to visit deeper places within ourselves, whether it’s traditionally spiritual or not. To be completely honest, most traditionally “spiritual” music has typically done very little for me. I found my spiritual hymns in the ambient songs of bands like Sigur Rós, Múm, My Bloody Valentine, and Explosions In The Sky, or even heavier drone bands like Neurosis, Earth, and Isis. In retrospect, I now understand these bands and songs would often produce the same transcendent experiences I’d occasionally hear others talk about having while listening to traditionally spiritual music.
Often times while listening to the aforementioned bands, and many others, I found I could easily let go of the strict identification I placed on this material body that I’d typically consider the be-all, end-all reality of my experience. As I lost my self in their songs, they guided me to a place that transcended thought, a place where all that was left was the song of life and death until even that disappeared and nothing but the music remained.
Those were my musically spiritual experiences for much of my younger life, and certainly still continue to be to this day. I did however eventually come across a form of traditional spiritual music that I fell in love with instantaneously, which is called Kirtan.
My introduction to Kirtan came when I listened to a CD that I’d taken out of my local library by renowned Kirtan musician Krishna Das, former lead singer of the legendary band, Blue Öyster Cult (pre Don’t Fear The Reaper era unfortunately.) I don’t recall exactly how I first heard of Krishna Das, though it was probably through one of Ram Dass’s talks or books, but I do remember honestly not being very optimistic about what I was going to hear once I pressed play. However, the moment I heard his harmonium (an air driven instrument similar to that of an organ) begin, I literally felt a sense of warmth begin to stir in my heart center — a warmth which still arises to this day whenever I listen to his, or many other Kirtan musician’s music.
I didn’t know much about the words Krishna Das was singing because they were in Sanskrit (ancient language of India), but I could feel they were coming from a sincerely devotional heart, and that was good enough for me. The interesting thing is that the experience actually reminded me quite a bit of my earlier introduction to punk/hardcore and how I remember being moved when I heard the raw passion of singers from bands like Drive Like Jehu, Quicksand and Hot Water Music. The same could also be said regarding my experience when I began getting into Hip Hop and hearing the authentic soul behind emcees such as Nas, Posdnuos from De La Soul, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega from Cannibal Ox, and KRS-One. And so I’ve come to realize that regardless of the style of music all of these artists were performing, weather Punk/Hardcore, Hip Hop or Kirtan, they were all speaking their truth, and they were all truths that resonated with me.
In Kirtan, there is a call and response element, which invites the listener to participate with the musicians while they’re performing it. The artist will sing a chant, which is the “call”, and the audience will sing the chant back to them, which is the “response.” This is not entirely unlike Hip Hop artists, or Punk/Hardcore bands that encourage their audiences to do the same. Kirtan differs however in that it’s specifically a devotional type of music, aiming to guide listeners or audience participants to a deeper experience of the Divine within themselves.
And while I also definitely appreciate the deeper connection I feel when singing along at a Punk/Hardcore, Hip Hop or Metal show, I’m not going to kid myself and pretend that I’m singing praises to the Divine while shouting lyrics like “Angel of Death” but that’s totally cool too. There’s a time and place for all the things that resonate within us. Personally, I can rock out to Slayer, while smiling at the entertainment aspect of it, and still being mindful that for me, that’s all it is, entertainment. And it’s with continued spiritual practice that I’ve literally found myself at a Slayer concert having a blast while periodically just looking around at the audience and sending them all love because I knew that underneath the appearances, and the music, we were still all One and it was still all love. Yes, even at a Slayer concert this type of awareness is possible.
Kirtan is obviously an entirely different scene though. No sweaty dudes moshing into one another or women in super revealing clothing. In Kirtan, we come together to share a sacred space with others for a few hours in chant, often leading us to a place where there is no more us, or them, and all that’s left is the Divine itself.
As I’ve hopefully already made clear, Kirtan is not the only form of spiritual music capable of producing these experiences for people and as I’ve also tried to exemplify, it’s as possible for it to happen with non-traditionally spiritual music as it is with traditionally spiritual music. So here’s to Krishna Das and Isis, Nas, Jai Uttal, Rakim Sigur Rós, Neurosis, MC Yogi, Big L, Mogwai, Guru and the countless other artists, bands, musicians and emcees of the world who have provided me with the spiritual soundtrack to my life.
– Excerpt from Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality by Chris Grosso (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster 2013)