We often speak about the importance of carefully hearing the maha-mantra while we chant our japa (meditation with beads). We don’t often speak about being as careful when we sing the maha-mantra together in kirtan.
Perhaps it’s because it’s easier to tune in the mind when there are instruments, and a variety of tunes and rhythms, and lots of voices in the chorus. Music is so powerful. But one can also easily tune out. Hearing sacred sound with intention allows us to take advantage of what kirtan offers - a journey deep within to the very heart of our soul and our search for Krishna.
Many years ago I was in a public kirtan program in Shanghai. Because of the location, the mantra could only be explained as an ancient sacred sound without any reference to Krishna as a person and our relationship with Him. “Just concentrate on hearing the sound” we were told. For me, it turned out to be one of the most powerful kirtans I ever attended because of the focus on the sound of the mantra.
We can add to that attention on sound the awareness of Krishna’s presence in our heart and everyone’s heart. As we sing together in kirtan it’s not just about me, it’s about us. We are all connected, all made of the same stuff, and all loved by the same Lord. Take time to hear that, to sense that, in the chorus of voices that surround us. The spirit of Krishna Bhakti is unity and diversity, simultaneous oneness and difference. We can feel that sweet balance when we lean in and listen to each other in kirtan.
Perhaps the deepest meditation of all is when we can remember that Krishna is non-different than his name and when it’s chanted He is personally present. The kirtan then becomes a way to experience our very personal and very real relationship with Him. The mantra is a call for love, for service. It’s a prayer, a glorification, a joy, a longing. When we chant with the meaning of the mantra in our mind, ‘O Lord, O energy of the Lord, please engage me in Your service’ our original identity and spiritual nature begin to emerge.
Prabhupada says it well, “The best course is to adopt the ways and means of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Sri-Krishna-sankirtanam. Thus one can gloriously become freed from all material contamination by the simple process of chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Just as life in this material world has its beginning in material sound, similarly a spiritual life has its beginning in this spiritual sound vibration”
‘In time,’ Prabhupada promised, ‘if we stick with the practice of Krishna Bhakti, this chanting of Hare Krishna, we will meet Krishna face to face.’ He wants it more than we do, fools that we are, and the beautiful practice of kirtan can take us there.
‘Just try to hear yourself chant sincerely,’ Prabhupada also said. So lean in and listen. It’s all there in sound.