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Beginner’s Guide to Kirtan and Mantra

 “We can see the fully crystalline structure of muscle fiber, waving like wheat in the wind, pulsing many trillions of times a second… As we move closer to the nucleus, it begins to dissolve. It too is nothing more than an oscillating field [that] upon our approach dissolves into pure rhythm. Of what is the body made? It is made of emptiness and rhythm.”—George Leonard, The Silent Pulse

You may have seen the stunning images of ice crystals that appeared from Maseru Emoto’s research in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, where he demonstrated the effect of sound and mantras on water. When water exposed to the sound of mantras and positive thoughts was frozen, microscopic images of the ice crystals showed beautiful consolidated patterns while water exposed to negative words like ‘you disgust me’ or ‘fool’ created patterns that were more dispersed. While the scientific community is not all ayes on the research, there is a partial consensus: Different sounds affect water and—because our cells are made up of mostly water—humans, plants, and animals.

Even without research, we know from our own experiences that particular sounds can move us into feeling specific emotions. For example, the laugh of a baby or words of praise can produce a pleasant state of mind. Similarly, the sound of a wild animal while hiking in the woods or hateful words thrown at us by a stranger can produce fear and unsettled emotions. 

What are mantras?

In the world of language and sounds, mantras—which have been around for an eternity—are powerful sound vibrations that reverberate in human consciousness.

Sound is energy, which means it is essentially without a beginning or end. When a mantra is chanted, it taps into this eternal nature of our consciousness. Chanting mantras soothes our nervous system, reduces the mental stress, and produces a calm thoughtless state, where the mind is dissolved in the vastness of the present moment.

“Mantras are impulses or rhythms of consciousness,” says Bhanumathi Narasimhan, a meditation pioneer and an international meditation teacher with The Art of Living who has traveled around the world teaching meditation and the power of chanting to millions across the globe. “They (mantras)create vibrations in the spirit. Their effects, influence, method and mode of working are all a mystery.”

Are mantras just syllables from an ancient language? Or is it just a group of words and sounds?

In Sanskrit, it is said, Manana trayate iti mantra.

“Mantra is that which saves you from repetitiveness. A repetitive thought is a worry. Mantras help free you from your worries. Often, we wonder why we chant sounds without understanding their meaning. Can something beyond our understanding help us? The meaning of every mantra is infinity. It is a sound vibration beyond the cognition of the mind. When the mind is unable to cognize, it simply dissolves and moves into a meditative space,” Narasimhan says.

Three Forms of Mantras

Mantras are essentially of three types: Kirtan or bhajan, chanting, and japa.

Global spiritual teacher and Art of Living founder, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar explains, “When we chant mantras loudly and together in a group, it is called kirtana (or bhajan where bhaj means to share—sharing the one consciousness). When we recite in a normal or medium tone of the voice, then it is called chanting. And when you recite quietly or very slowly in the mind, then that is called japa.”

The mantra is comparable to a seed. Just like a seed holds the potential to be a fully grown tree, a mantra is said to contain in itself all the possibilities of this creation. Certain mantras such as the Beej Mantras or seed mantras are practiced in the seed form without being vocalized. The other mantras are fully expressed like the Gayatri Mantra.

Healing Mantras

Each mantra invokes certain energy in our consciousness. There are specific mantras that produce healing for specific parts of the body and manifest desired qualities in our consciousness.

Om Namah Shivaya

Om Namah Shivay is called the maha mantra or the great chant because it includes all the five elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether.  Om encompasses everything. Na is the earth element, Mah is the water element, Shi the fire element, Va the air element and Ya is the sky element. According to Vedic and astrological experts, when Om Namah Shivay is chanted 108 times, it nullifies all the 108 effects that occur as the 9 planets move through 12 important Nakshatras, or lunar constellations.  

Elements of Chanting

Chanting involves repetition of ancient cosmic sounds that awaken those specific qualities in our consciousness. Some interesting elements of chanting include

  • Chanting of Sanskrit Shlokas or verses enliven subtle energy centers. Here, each Sanskrit word and syllable carries a particular energy vibration.
  • When we chant in groups, we experience the oneness of the consciousness. Here, all individual minds merge into oneness.
  • Not just our minds, chanting also merges all our sensory experiences into a higher conscious state, and we end up feeling energized.
  • Chanting can be done at any time and in any place, though there is certain reverence that is demanded of the one who chants.
  • The effect of chanting is that it purifies the vibrations of a place and instills positivity there. 

When can you chant?

Om Namah Shivay can be chanted 108 times any time, preferably before meals, twice a day at the most.

Chanting Om 

Om is believed to be the sound of the universal consciousness. Chanting Om aligns our small individual mind to the bigger mind (the universal consciousness), giving way for more harmony in our life. Chanting Om, creates positive reinvigorating vibrations throughout our body, and elevates prana—life force. More energy translates into better connections with ourselves, more mental clarity, and greater awareness in our dealings with people and the world at large.

“All the saints in the past, when they went deep into meditation, they just heard Om. So, Om means many things. It means love, eternity, purity, peace. Om is made up of several dhatus: ‘Ah’ ‘Oo’ ‘Ma’,” explains Sri Sri.

Om is a complete vibration. ‘Ah’ heals organs in the lower part of the body, ‘Oo’ affects the middle body, and ‘Ma’ soothes and heals the upper body. The total prana is represented by one syllable Om.

But Om is never chanted exclusively. It is followed by another verse to be chanted along with it like Namah Shivay or Namo Narayana or Om Mani Padme Hum

Now, why don’t we take only Om as a mantra?

“Before meditation, you chant Om thrice and create the vibration of peace and attentiveness, but for meditation you need different mantras. Only recluses, those who want to do nothing with the world, or are very old are allowed to do chant Om. Even then, it is not advisable,” Sri Sri says.

Gayatri Mantra

It is believed that we have three bodies: the gross, the subtle, and the causal body. Ga-ya-tri is the mantra to help us tide over the three types of misery that originate on the level of these three bodies. About the Gayatri mantra it is said, the one who sings it sails over the ocean of misery.

Om Bhur Bhuvaḥ Swaḥ

Tat-savitur Vareñyaṃ

Bhargo Devasya Dhīmahi

Dhiyo Yonaḥ Prachodayāt

What does the mantra mean?

Gurudev explains the essence of the Gayatri mantra as, “Let me soak in the Divine, and let the Divine destroy all my sins. The Divine light that burns all sin, let me adore and soak in that Divine light. And let the Divinity inspire my intellect.” 

The significance of the mantra is in the prayer for the right thoughts to come at the right time, so they can be followed by right action. It is believed that when we start living a life in alignment with our intuition, the actions we take turn out to be in our best interest.

How to Chant

  1. Pick a comfortable place. It is important to pick a place that is comfortable and yet full of reverence, so your mind is helped by your external environment to stay alert but not tense.
  2. Body posture. For chanting, sit in sukhasaan or easy pose. It is important to keep your spine straight and shoulders relaxed while sitting for chanting. Here’s why.
  3. Close your eyes. Make sure your eyes remain closed while you chant. This is because when we have our eyes open to the outer world, the energy generated from the chanting quickly dissipates. Closing our eyes initially in the practice helps us stay inward and soak in the vibrations of the chants.
  4. Face your altar. If you have an altar where you pray, you can face in that direction and chant.
    Let the mind wander. Allow your mind to wander off if it wants to, while you chant. This total acceptance of your thoughts and emotions right now combined with gentle loving awareness of your mind will bring it back to the present moment over the course of time.
  5. Focus your breath. To get the most out of your chanting practice, you can also keep bringing your attention back to your breath. The practice of focusing on your breath, brings the mind right back in the now and increases your prana or life force.
  6. Use beads. If you want to do a japa, or chant without making any sound, then you can use a rosary or rudraksh beads, depending on your belief system.
  7. Yoga before chanting. If you could practice a few yoga postures or light stretches before sitting down for chanting, you may have a deeper meditative experience during and after chanting. Yoga prepares you to go within and unite with your own self.
  8. Group chanting. You can also get together to chant in group. Group chanting is powerful and the experience of how our consciousness soaks in the sound vibrations becomes more obvious in a group.

Consistency is Key

Like with any practice, mantra chanting may take a few days or months to bear fruits, or siddhis, but once the consciousness has been cultured to absorb these powerful mantras, their benefits play out in both the subtle and more manifest realm. You begin to feel happier, more peaceful, and energized yet centered. This centeredness starts taking roots in our consciousness and over time we find ourselves less and less bothered by the opposite nature of events in our lives. It is not advisable to keep switching between mantras as a mode of experiment. Stay with a mantra until you have practiced it enough number of times with total honor, before moving to a new one.

Learn from a Master

It is important to receive your mantra from a master or guru through a sacred process of initiation for the personal mantra to work and give you more depth in your practice. Also, the master is well placed to teach you the nuisances of the practice, like how should you place your fingers or palm, how should you sit, how many times should you take the mantra, how should you meditate after mantra chanting, among other things.

If you are a beginner and you are looking to get started on this inner journey, a good starting point is the Art of Meditation program which involves the Sahaj Samadhi meditation technique. Cognized by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, ‘Sahaj’ in Sanskrit means effortless and ‘Samadhi’ is an equanimous mind. The technique uses a sacred sound to move the mind step by step through thoughts, worries and regrets to a deeper more blissful state.

How are kirtan and bhajans different from chanting?

When mantras are sung in a call and answer fashion that then becomes a kirtan or bhajan. Bhaj means to share. So, bhajan symbolizes sharing of all that is divine. It signifies coming together and becoming one big mind, leaving behind our small individual identities for the time being. Dipping into this vastness of consciousness brings immense happiness and positive energy; negative emotions give way to positive ones like love and compassion. Bhajans or kirtans are rarely about what is being sung but about how or from what space we sing. This brave act of letting our intellect sit by and watch as we sing and repeat mantras as ancient as creation itself, brings about a sense of connectedness with everyone and every life form around.  “In satsang (or kirtan), both the left and right hemispheres of the brain get balanced. The wandering mind comes back to the present moment and experiences a deeper dimension to life,” explains Sri Sri.

Benefits of Kirtan

It frees you from worries. Our human nervous system is said to respond positively to specific sounds and vibrations. When we chant or sing kirtans, these sound vibrations tend to have a rejuvenating and calming effect on our body and mind. “If you have any worries, you have to leave it here; that’s the rule of Satsang, you cannot take your worries back. You can go only after you drop them here,” says Sri Sri.

Meditation and sounds. Between each bhajan or kirtan, one experiences vastness and  calmness. All we need to do is pay attention to these deep moments of silence to experience an effortlessly meditative state.

Creates harmony in the environment. Usually we associate sounds or noise with chaos and disturbance. But kirtan and the sound vibrations produced in a satsang produce harmony in the hearts and minds of participants and the atmosphere. “When there is rhythm or harmony in life, the heart blossoms; there is humanism. It is this rhythm that takes us back to our source,” says Sri Sri.

It connects everyone. Satsangs, bhajans, or kirtans are not limited to any culture or geographical region. They belong to the whole world. Sacred sounds, whether it is the gongs in Buddhist meditations or Jewish hymns, since ancient times, music has been a spiritual tool for people from all cultures and traditions to move together on the spiritual journey.

Spiritual comfort. When there is a storm outside, we take shelter inside the house. Similarly when there is chaos, mental worry, stress, and tension in the material world, Satsang is the spiritual shelter we need. 

Many of us aspire to be able to turn inwards, away from all the external distractions. The mind can turn inward only when the mind is calm and centered. When we are focused outwards, the mind is usually all over the place, constantly thinking about the future or the past. Mantra chanting reduces the agitation in our mind, calms it down and opens it up to its own potential. As the saying in Sanskrit goes, Antarmukhi Sada Sukhi—one whose mind is turned inward is ever in bliss. With the help of Mantras the small mind effortlessly dissolves into the higher self.

What does the research say?

The increasing popularity of chanting and kirtan as tools for meditation and stress relief has driven neuroscientists to investigate the psychological and physical ramifications of these practices.

Research shows that the sensations created by OM chanting can potentially activate the vagus nerve—the wellness nerve in our body. Vagus nerve activation is key to depression treatment in traditional psychotherapy.  Chanting is also said to

  • Oxygenize the brain
  • Slows the heart rate
  • Activates the parasympathetic nervous system
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Increases alpha waves in the brain.

There is also a growing body of research that now claims that the benefits of mantras on the human body and mind persist beyond the faith and intent of the one who chants. This came to light when scientists observed growth in plants when exposed to positive sound vibrations. Now faith is an element of human life and does not affect the plants. Similarly, the effect of chanting on unborn babies. These show the universality of the benefits of chanting irrespective of whether you have faith in it or not. So while faith does enhance and reinforce the meditative experience of chanting, its powers really go beyond it.

The 2014 Annual Review of Nursing Research mentioned that “Mantra repetition is a simple, quick, portable, and private complementary practice that may be used as an adjunct to current treatments for post traumatic disorders or PTSD.”

Improved Immunity

Research suggests, mantra vibrations activate the hypothalamus gland which is responsible for immunity and regulates what scientists now call the “happy hormones.”

Improved Cognitive Function

Kirtan kriya is a unique spiritual practice that has gained prominence in the US. It chanting of the five syllables—Sa Ta Na Ma—which stand for infinity, life, death, and rebirth, representing the cycle of life. The chant is a constant reminder of the true nature of our lives. The syllables form a potent truth of eternal life—Sat Nam, that is, truth is my identity. Research conducted by the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation found that mantra chanting improved brain and cognitive functions like

  • Better memory
  • Less stress
  • Better brain chemistry
  • Genetic improvement related to aging
  • Better sleep
  • Clarity of mind
  • Overall well-being.
Allow yourself to settle in for a soul-stirring session of community singing with an emphasis on both ancient chant and modern melodies. Kirtan happens nightly at the Art of Living Retreat Center and is a community gathering for all interested guests, staff and volunteers.

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