Eleven select international students immersed themselves full-time in ISKCON’s first systematic kirtan course for nearly two months this summer, from June 30th to August 21st, at Bhaktivedanta College in Radhadesh, Belgium.
During this time they studied the theology behind kirtan, the proper mood and way to perform it, and its history and tradition, and took practical lessons in how to skillfully sing and play instruments to glorify the Lord.
The course was born out of Bhaktivedanta College’s desire to offer something beyond its usual academically accredited courses.
“We all know that ultimately systematic philosophy must give way to a personal experience,” says the course’s spiritual director Sacinandana Swami, who is renowned for his international Japa and Kirtan retreats. “The essence of Bhakti cannot be had by theoretical teaching; only by practical experience. Kirtan is that experience.”
Another key reason for offering the course was that kirtan is prescribed in Vedic scriptures as the yuga dharma, or the path to spiritual perfection in this age.
“ISKCON has many courses where good systematic training is offered,” says Sacinandana Swami. “But a course that taught the yuga dharma was yet to be designed and given.”
With this in mind, Bhaktivedanta College Director Dinadayal Das and college graduate Manu Das devised a curriculum and brought Sacinandana Swami on board.
Although a larger audience attended select sections of the course, just eleven full-time students were chosen to participate in the entire program, so that each could have personal tutoring from teachers, particularly during practical music lessons.
Although the group was small, it was highly diverse. Hailing from the USA, Spain, Germany, Denmark, the UK and Russia, students ranged in age from 17 to 36 and in background from temple devotees to working professionals. Most importantly, all were eager to learn.
They were in luck, with an extremely busy schedule packed with learning and practical kirtan experience from morning till night.
Every day at 10:30am, after the traditional temple morning program and breakfast, students would learn the theology and history of kirtan from five highly experienced visiting teachers. Each visiting teacher’s seminar ran for three hours per day and lasted one week.
Sacinandana Swami set the mood of the course with his seminar on the Theology of the Holy Name, based on the book Harinama Chintamani by Vaishnava saint Bhaktivinode Thakur. In it, he covered the secrets of attentive chanting, how to move past offensive chanting, how to enter into a relationship with the Holy Name, and the lessons we can learn from Srila Prabhupada’s amazing relationship with the Holy Name.
Sacinandana Swami’s seminar also included “discovery lectures” in the mornings, as well as experience-oriented workshops, lila kathas and kirtans.
Next Kadamba Kanana Swami, a regular teacher at Bhaktivedanta College, discussed the historical mileu kirtan rose from and delved into the biographies of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to look at how he organized his kirtan parties and what melodies and mantras he used. He also covered the kirtan of Chaitanya’s followers, such as Narottam Das Thakur and Srinivas Acharya.
After him, travelling kirtaniya Jahnavi Harrison connected her audience with Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur through prayer, studying his life, and learning and singing his songs, which she says provide guidance and nourishment to every spiritual seeker.
Next Bhaktivedanta College Dean of Studies Krishna Ksetra Swami explored the Chaitanya Vaishnava musical tradition against the wider backdrop of India, teaching students how to explain this rich tradition to others, and playing and discussing relevant samples of music.
Finally former Bhaktivedanta College theology course director Mahendra Das enriched students’ personal appreciation of and commitment to chanting the Holy Name by discussing how the core Vaishnava scriptures describe it as the basic practice in achieving the goal of life.
Kirtan authorities Lokanath Swami, Bhakti Charu Swami and others also surprised students by showing up to spend time speaking Krishna Katha and doing kirtan with them.
In the afternoons, students would take practical lessons in kirtan with resident teachers, most of whom were College graduates and second generation devotees. From Krishangi-lila, they learned vocals and harmonium, from Surabhi Kunja, kartals, and from Balarama Nityananda, mridanga.
“It was very personalized, with students getting personal tutoring in addition to their lessons according to their individual level of knowledge and advancement,” says course manager Dinadayal Das.
After the music and vocal lessons, students also spent two hours every evening doing kirtan before Sri Sri Radha-Gopinath, the presiding Deities of Radhadesh.
“In that way, they could engage themselves from 4:30am until the last darshan in front of Radha-Gopinath at 9:00pm – pretty intense!” Dinadayal says.
As a result, the participants began to bond together after just a few days. “Chanting the Holy Name for a long amount of time binds devotees together, because everyone is there for a spiritual experience,” comments Sacinandana Swami.
By the end of the course, students had not only bonded but had had deeply life-changing, transformative experiences. Some began organizing regular evening kirtans in their home communities. Some travelled straight from the course to Varshana, India, for another retreat with Sacinandana Swami. Others who had been new to Krishna consciousness switched to a spiritual lifestyle. And still others took a break from their jobs to travel and spread the Holy Name.
“You don’t often see such a positive change in people in such a short amount of time,” Dinadayal enthuses. “Their hearts were so much changed they wanted to really do something spiritually profound.”
Next year’s Kirtan Course at Radhadesh has already been scheduled for June 29th to August 28th 2015 – ten days longer than this year’s — and kirtan singer Madhava has been added to the roster of illustrious visiting teachers. Many have already registered.
Sacinandana Swami is excited about the effects the course could have.
“In the old times, in Europe at least, the central object in every cultured house was a piano,” he says. “People would gather in the evenings and sing together. But the modern entertainment industry has stolen the music from the lips and the hearts of the people. Kirtan gives them back the music of the soul. And everyone enjoys it! That’s how our movement can spread in leaps and bounds – through the yuga dharma. We want to empower people to do that.”
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