Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #32 – Yamunā Devi on Kīrtana

August 7th, 2017

After completing Japa Meditations, a book where I interviewed serious japa meditation practitioners on how they enter into the holy name, I decided to make a similar book on kīrtana. I began spearheading the effort to interview devotees who I surmised had entered deeply into kīrtana. For various reasons, the book was never finished and the few interviews I had commissioned mostly got buried in my computer. Last week, while reading the biography of Yamunā devi, and being inspired by the charming simplicity and depth of her devotion, I developed a desire to find that interview. I finally did. What a treasure of kīrtana realization! Her letter to Akiñcana Kṛṣṇa dāsa, who conducted the interviews, is found below.

“Yes, Śrīla Prabhupāda did give instructions about kīrtana at various times, in various circumstances. Here are a few I recall.”

Learn to listen. You cannot follow nicely unless you hear nicely and you cannot lead nicely unless you have learned to follow nicely.

Mumbai, 1970: One morning soon after arriving at Kailash Seksaria’s home, Śrīla Prabhupāda called on a male devotee to lead kīrtana. After two lines of Gurv-aṣṭaka, he asked him to stop and asked another devotee to lead. This same thing happened twice again. Then he asked me to lead and did not stop me. When I asked him later about why he did that, he said: Learn to listen. You cannot follow nicely unless you hear nicely and you cannot lead nicely unless you have learned to follow nicely.

Learn how to pronounce Sanskrit or Bengali words to the best of your ability. Listen, then repeat.

In August 1968 in Montreal, Śrīla Prabhupāda had our London group meet with him in the temple room after breakfast. One occasion when he requested me to lead the Maṅgalācaraṇaṁ prayers he interrupted my singing to correct my pronunciation as I chanted. Another time in Mumbai in 1971 on nagar saṅkīrtana, an Indian man criticized my pronunciation and Śrīla Prabhupāda said, “She is doing to the best of her ability. She is doing it in her own way.”

Learn how to play instruments “softly”, quietly, if the kīrtana leader is doing so.

In London in November of 1969 this was evident especially in store-front temples where our neighbors complained of excessive ‘noise’.

Right from the vyāsāsana, he would quietly instruct: Play them softly, quietly. This proved to be difficult for the mostly passionate 20-something devotees at that time—most who generally felt the louder the better.

Learn how to follow the mood and rhythm of the kīrtana leader.

Saṅkīrtana, India 1971: I commented on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s chanting of Jaya Rādhā-Mādhava, and made the statement that it was difficult for devotees to follow how he chanted—rhythm changes and his mood—even when chanting this simple prayer. He said Jaya Rādhā-Mādhava was one of his favorite prayers.

Even forty years later, how many old timers can follow the subtly of a kīrtana leader, what to speak of the often complexity of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s kīrtana mood and rhythm?

When Śrīla Prabhupāda led kīrtana, he opened sound windows to the spiritual world. It was obvious that his senses and mind were fully focused on transcendental sound. He often closed his eyes at the beginning of a prayer or kīrtana, later, when the beat increased or after some time, he often times opened them to observe his surroundings or the assembled chanters. This was especially true during long kīrtanas.

In temple kīrtanas, he favored playing karatālas or a gong. When alone or with one or two others, when chanting Narottama or Bhaktivinoda’s prayers, he enjoyed playing mṛdaṅga or harmonium. Śrīla Prabhupāda played instruments with expertise, and in a very individual distinct way, whether it was karatālas, gong, bongo drum, mṛdaṅga, or harmonium. His harmonium playing was like no one else’s I have ever heard. He said he asked his father for a harmonium when young, and he obtained one for him. At that time, harmonium was considered a European instrument, not a temple kīrtana instrument.

No matter what he played, instruments were there to support kīrtana. They always took second place to the role of his voice. In other words, his voice was the main dominant kīrtana instrument.

I recall an Albert Road kīrtana, in the fall of 1972 in Calcutta, where the leading devotee placed too much focus on his harmonium playing. Śrīla Prabhupāda stopped the kīrtana entirely and said, “Too much harmonium,” and indicated that the devotee should lead kīrtana. He said, “No harmonium,” and the kīrtana resumed.

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s kīrtana had no tinge of being a performance. It was purely for the pleasure of Kṛṣṇa. It allowed the chanters access to the fact that the Lord’s holy name and the Lord are non-different. He said that the key to anartha-free kīrtana rests in hearing and studying our literature, and gradually rising to the platform of pure devotional service.

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s kīrtanas and prayers were fully ego free and extremely potent.

One morning at John Lennon’s estate in 1969, Śrīla Prabhupāda asked me what my favorite prayer was and I responded Lord Chaitanya’s Śikṣāṣṭaka prayers. In turn, I asked him what his favorite prayer was and he immediately replied Hari Hari Bifale by Narottama dāsa Ṭhākura. I had the good fortune of witnessing Śrīla Prabhupāda chant his favorite prayer on four occasions. Once was at Akash Ganga. I was sitting right next to him holding a microphone in front of his face. Gurudas took photos of him chanting. His meditation that day was so deep and profound, that the skin on his face even became slack—as close as I ever saw him to the point of bodily transformation.

Purity is the force. Great kīrtana is experienced by the mercy of the holy name itself.

No matter what the style of kīrtana, a great kīrtanīyā at the least knows that there is no difference between the Lord’s holy name and the Lord Himself. This is a kīrtanīyā who closes the distance between a gross and subtle sound experience and the manifest presence of the pure Holy name. Old or young, a great kīrtanīyā has tasted the mercy of service to the Holy name, and therefore overflows with the desire to share that with others.

A few traits of great kīrtanīyās that come to mind are depth, focus, uncomplicated, long, smooth, soulful, steady, spontaneous, and meditative. I prefer kīrtanas supported by a few well played instruments, not the big band kīrtanas popular today that can be more performance kīrtanas than Gauḍīya tradition supplication and service to the Holy name.

My favorite kīrtanas and kīrtanīyās:

In San Francisco in ’67 and ’68: Śrīla Prabhupāda’s are classic favorites. Those early kīrtanas were non-responsive. In the temple, his congregation of chanters played instruments softly, while Śrīla Prabhupāda mostly played his karatālas and chanted alone. When the rhythm was established, he chanted through an entire prayer – most commonly Maṅgalācaraṇaṁ prayer or Gurv-aṣṭaka prayer—and after finishing, chanted Hare Kṛṣṇa and then the congregation chanted along with him. Nothing quite matches up to the power, purity, or potency of those kīrtanas, where often the entire congregation was tearfully appreciative.

During this period, he introduced responsive kīrtanas. New San Francisco disciple kīrtana leaders in this period: Viṣṇujana for depth; Harṣarāṇī for sweetness; Mukunda for steadiness; and Jayānanda for humility.

In London in late ’68: anyone in our party of six.

In London ’69: George Harrison for connection and expansiveness; new devotee Jaya Hari for enthusiasm; Dhanañjaya for warmth; Yogeśvara for his focus.

In India, late ’70 through ’72, on saṅkīrtana with Śrīla Prabhupāda: Dīnānātha for soul; Nanda-kumāra and Ṛṣi-kumāra for keeping the beat without force; Bharadvāja for smoothness.

From 2004 to 2009: Kartamasha dāsa, lover and servant of the holy name and Bhaktivinoda prayer kīrtana leader for his pure intent, rich bhakti and subtlety. Akiñcana Kṛṣṇa dāsa and Amala for love of kīrtana and expertise.

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