Open Your Heart with Kirtan

When I was asked to write a blog post about music experiences, I was so excited to interview Sashwatadasananda, a brahmachari from the USA. I met him five years ago, and have gotten to watch how he has grown in his devotion to Guruji, especially through the practice of kirtanWe spoke about his journey from the very first introduction to Bhakti Marga and Guruji, his explanation of kirtan, and advice he would give to anyone who would like to start learning.

Interviewed by: Karunavidravaddasi

Can you describe your journey with devotional music?

In 2016, I began my musical journey. I had always been fascinated by music, but I didn’t know where I wanted to go with it. During that time in my life, I was a very quiet person and I generally wasn’t okay with certain qualities of myself. But I wanted to take steps to make myself ‘okay’, and one of those steps was to become more musical. I had always been intrigued with piano, and I had even started to take piano lessons, learning chords and so on. But somehow I was feeling unfulfilled. Through a series of events, I unexpectedly met (unbeknownst) a devotee who invited me to a temple to do OM Chanting. 

I have to say, I really enjoyed it. Not only was it about doing something different with people, but it also required me to use my voice for 45 minutes straight, and as I mentioned before, I wasn’t a talker. So, even using my voice in general, I wasn’t good at it. OM Chanting is 45 minutes of constantly using your voice, and after the first time especially, I remember going home, full of so much energy - you can even ask my mom! I was jumping up and down, and I was telling her everything about OM Chanting. I was like, ‘Mom, you won’t believe what I did tonight!’ She was so happy to listen, and it was such an opening experience for me. I would say that OM chanting was the start of my devotional music journey because I first needed to open up. I can say that over these past few years Guruji has been, little by little, working His magic for opening my heart almost like with a ‘pry bar’

With time, I would do more OM Chanting at the temple. Entranced by it, I would also experience some other practices that were completely life-changing. But when I would sit in the temple, I’d notice musical instruments off to the side. I was becoming very curious. I was like, ‘I wonder what they do? Is it this thing they call kirtan?’ After some time, they invited me to the kirtan night at the temple and - I can’t even express it with words - it was the moment I realized there was something deep inside of myself that was calling. It was exactly what I was looking for, and I can’t even describe how I knew it. 

I also want to quickly mention something interesting. Before I met anyone at the temple, my old friend and I would have really long conversations about what we thought the purpose of life was. He often said his goal was to have a wife, kids, and a nine-to-five job, and then his life would be complete. But for me, I would tell him, I really wanted to do something musical, and somehow I wanted to change the world. And he would be like, ‘Why would you say that?’ And even now I think, why would I say that? But now I realize that with kirtan, at least the way Guruji has asked us to spread His mission by sharing the Name of the Divine - to me, that is about changing the world. I didn’t realize that what I was asking for was something dharmic

So coming back, when I first experienced kirtan I think it resonated in me so deeply that my soul was ecstatic with joy. Because even after that first night, I was running through this field by myself in the dark, like a crazy person. I had my hands up in the air and I just felt so happy. I felt really, really happy. So I knew that I wanted to learn more. During that time, I heard stories about Guruji, but I didn’t understand what a guru was, and I didn’t understand the path as the culture of following a satguru. I didn’t understand the path in that way, all I knew was that I felt connected with OM Chanting, Atma Kriya Yoga, and kirtan especially! 

But then, that first devotee I met told me, ‘if you really like music, you should go to the ashram in Germany, Shree Peetha Nilaya, because they have a festival that’s all about music!’ She asked me if I’d like to meet Guruji. I was a bit shocked because I’d never travelled before, I didn’t know what a guru was, I didn’t know what Hinduism was, I was a bit freaked out. But I gave it some time and finally, I needed to decide if I was going to take this leap of faith. 

What it came down to for me was that I just wanted to change inside and figured that I could start changing myself by going on a big journey. So after a certain time of soaking it in, I was like, ‘okay, I think I’m going to do this, I don't know why I’m going to do this, but I’m going to try!’

So that's exactly what I did!

There’s a whole other story of how I got the plane ticket to Germany, which was quite a miracle itself. Reflecting back, there seemed to be a lot of miracles that were happening, in a subtle way. I got to Shree Peetha Nilaya one week before the Just Love Festival was starting. I was so overwhelmed, mainly because I was in a different country and the people in the centre were so different. I met up with a friend, who I had met before coming to Germany, and stuck with him often. The first evening, he said, ‘Okay, put your prayer clothes on - prayers are starting in the temple!’ So we’re running over, and there’s this kirtan music again, but it’s different this time. It’s the daily prayers that happen twice a day in the temple, and the whole experience was shocking. I didn’t feel connected with it at all! I was like, “oh my God, these people are jumping, screaming, clapping’ and I was feeling so lost!

That week went by, and I was having a difficult time adapting to the new environment, and I spent the week contemplating on who Guruji was because everyone was telling stories about Him. After struggling the whole week, someone came up to me and said, ‘Guruji is here, have you seen Him?’ At that point, I was really curious, who is He? My attention then wasn’t on music - it was on Guruji. When I saw Him for the first time, it was a shock to my system. I don't know why. Later in the night, He called me out in front of a crowd and He asked why I was so nervous when I first came to The Ashram. I didn’t know what to say, so I just shrugged and He walked away. I knelt down to my friend and I asked, ‘how did He know I was nervous? He wasn’t here when I came!’ and my friend said, ‘He knows everything.’ And one of the residents there walked up to me with this big smile and said, ‘This is the first of many encounters with your guru!’ and I thought to myself, ‘I have a guru?’ 

Now, the Just Love Festival had officially started - it was the reason I went there in the first place. For seva, I got to work at the juice bar. It was definitely a change of pace, but it was when I started connecting with other residents and started building relationships. As it's a festival, there's lots of music, food, shops, etc. As time went on, I found myself not being so interested in kirtan music anymore, funnily enough. When I got back from the trip, the thing I really took from it was the people I had met, the devotees I had made connections with, and my first encounters with Guruji. 

As time went by, I kept going back to the temple. When my friend got back from The Ashram after 3 months, he started pushing me to go to the daily prayers. For months, I would sit by myself at the harmonium, listening to recordings and practising the prayers. So I would say that was the essence of how I got into devotional music.

Could you describe what your experience with kirtan is now? How did it feel like to go from not knowing what it was to it becoming a big part of your life?

For me - and it doesn't happen to everyone - I was instantly pulled in, like a tornado. I was so curious. Inside of me, I had so much curiosity to learn about what I was feeling because kirtan gave me this deep feeling of upliftment. I was really looking for a feeling of upliftment, and the essence of kirtan is something that can only uplift you. It was like, finding gold, or diamonds. It was really important to me, but I discovered not everyone resonates with kirtan the way I did. For some people, it’s Atma Kriya Yoga or reading the scriptures or puja.

What would you recommend for someone who would like to start learning kirtan?

Kirtan can range from very simple to very complex, musically. A lot of people, when they come to Bhakti Marga, often only experience a very technical or complex kirtan, like the bhajans Guruji and some of the SPN residents often like to sing. This can be discouraging for a lot of people as they may or may not be musical enough. I just want to say, as a testament, I didn’t have much musical experience other than just learning piano chords when I discovered kirtan. 

If you feel connected to learning devotional music, it’s a matter of listening and discovering. You have to go deep into it and discover for yourself what it’s about for you. There are so many videos and things on the internet, read the translations; you can already begin to learn and practice the bhajans.

And I just want to emphasize that kirtan is for everyone. I don’t think there’s anyone that kirtan is not for. When I encounter people who want to learn, I really push them to sing, even if they can't play an instrument. Because that's what kirtan is: singing and chanting the Divine Name, and anyone can do that, right? 

How would you describe kirtan to someone who’s never heard of it?

I would just describe it as how you express the way you feel about your experience with the Divine. Kirtan singing comes from a very deep joy when it comes to someones’ relationship with God. For example, you can hear bhajans from saints and read the poetry they write, which for them comes from a really deep place. Like Sant Meerabai - she was a princess who was enamoured by Krishna, and at night would sneak away from the palace to sing bhajans to Him; or Sant Tukaram, who was completely enamoured by Lord Vitthala, constantly singing His Name and often forgetting his duty to his family. For sure, that sounds crazy for our modern world! But how could they describe the love they felt for Krishna or Lord Vitthala? No words could describe it, it could never satisfy their longing for their Beloved. And still, they try to express it in their devotion. A different way to look at it is to say that kirtan is what you do when you’re calling upon the Ones you love, your personal relationship with the Divine. And that is what’s most beautiful!