The worldwide takeover of kirtan, the ancient spiritual practice of chanting God’s names in a call and response style, continues with no sign of slowing up—and June is one of the busiest months yet.
First off this weekend, New York City’s Bhakti Center, managed by ISKCON, will hold its monthly 12 Hour Kirtan from 10am to 10pm on Saturday June 5th. Special guest Radhanatha Swami will join regulars Gaura Vani, Ananta and Acyuta from popular kirtan group As Kindred Spirits for an especially memorable sixth monthly event.
“We’ve been really trying to build New York as a kirtan mecca, and the 12 hour kirtan is a big part of that, attracting devotees and non-devotees alike to fill the day with chanting,” says Gaura Vani. “It’s wonderful—they see the beautiful deities, eat prasadam, and meanwhile friendships are building and an amazing community is growing.”
The New York monthly kirtan is inspired by a story Giriraja Swami, a disciple of ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada, once told Gaura Vani. As president of ISKCON’s Juhu Beach temple in Bombay in the 1970s, he upheld Prabhupada’s instruction for every devotee in the temple to participate in a 12 hour kirtan every Sunday.
“He joked with us that he would try his best to manage the temple on Monday and Tuesday, but come Wednesday, he would just start stalling and telling people, ‘let me get back to you,’” recalls Gaura Vani. “Because he knew that all problems would be absolved come Sunday by the magic of kirtan. Sure enough, when he approached devotees on Monday asking, ‘So you wanted to talk to me about that problem you were having with so and so?’ they would reply, ‘No, it’s okay—don’t worry about it.’”
Making absolutely sure to eradicate interpersonal problems is ISKCON of Birmingham, England, which will be holding its 11th annual 24 Hour Kirtan Festival from June 5th to 6th.
Possibly the longest running annual 24 hour kirtan outside of India, Birmingham’s event was launched by local youth inspired by the 24 Hour Kirtan headed by Aindra Dasa in Vrindavana, India, which has run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year since 1986.
The festival was also inspired by Tribhuvanatha Dasa, a Prabhupada disciple and enthusiastic traveling preacher who passed away from cancer in 2001. “He is a legend amongst the devotees—he was a true example of humility, love and someone who loved to serve,” says organizer Mayapur Madhava Dasa. “Because of him myself and many others are here today. He was determined, compassionate, fearless and gentle. He took kirtan to another level, and took to heart Srila Prabhupada’s instructions to him to hold harinama sankirtan (public chanting) and festivals. Therefore, whatever service we can do, we offer it to Tribhuvanatha Prabhu.”
Instantly popular, the festival’s attendance has increased every year, until in 2009, organizers moved it out of the ISKCON Birmingham temple and into a local temple of Lord Balaji. “The President of the Balaji temple was so impressed with ISKCON and with its youth in particular,” says Mayapur, “That he booked us again for this year and the many years ahead.”
Last year, 1,000 people attended the event, and over 3,000 plates of prasadam were distributed. The kirtan was hosted live at Mayapur.tv, where it was viewed 6,500 times over the weekend.
This year, even more devotees are expected from countries as diverse as the U.K., Ireland, Switzerland, Belguim, Brazil, America, India, Australia and more.
“We encourage devotees from all ISKCON Centers around the world to attend, whether your group is large or small,” says Mayapur. “What matters is that we try and humbly approach the names of God and chant them loudly and with feeling.”
Many well-known kirtaniyas will also attend the event, including Sacinandana Swami, who has written books on chanting and held many kirtan and japa workshops around the world, and who will open the festival with meditations on the Holy Name.
Madhava Dasa, formerly of Vrindavana’s 24 Hour Kirtan and now of Switzerland’s Gaura Prema Bhajan Band, will also chant. “He has attended every one of our 24 hour kirtans since 2001,” says Mayapur. “He’s a true original, so down-to-earth, and his kirtans are world-renowned. He sings kirtan and inspires everyone wherever he goes.”
US second-generation kirtan group The Mayapuris will also attend the festival for their second year in a row with their unique brand of lively kirtan. “As well as the Festival, we will do one week of kirtan programs with them,” says Mayapur. “And we hope to build on that—next year, we may do one month’s worth of programs with a 48 hour kirtan event.”
Prasadam for this year’s event, which is dedicated to the recovery of ISKCON guru Jayapataka Swami who suffered two brain hemorrhages back in October 2008, will be first class. Devotees from ISKCON Coventry, ISKCON Manchester, ISKCON Leicester, London Pandava Sena and London Food for All will do the honors, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner on both days.
“This is not just about Birmingham—it’s about seeing ways in which different branches of ISKCON UK can work together in serving the Lord,” says Mayapur. “Personally it’s very inspiring for me to see this mood and behavior, and I offer my most sincere grattitude to all the devotees.”
Devotees will also work together to organize another of the biggest annual Kirtan events in the world—this month’s New Vrindaban’s 24 Hour Kirtan Festival.
Now in its fourth year, the Festival will be held from 12pm on Saturday June 19thth to 12pm on Sunday June 20th and will be coordinated by a team including chairman Ananda Tirtha Dasa, Gopal of Vrindavana’s 24 Hour Kirtan, Ananta Govinda of As Kindred Spirits, Burning Man Krishna Camp organizer Nitai Dasa, and Rasa Acharya and Gaura Vani of the spiritual music record label Mantrology, which will be producing the event.
“We see this festival as an opportunity to create a strong chant culture in America,” explains Gaura Vani.
“It’s a great opportunity to bridge a lot of gaps between various communities and perspectives by bringing everyone together around kirtan. So we see the 24 Hour Kirtan as the seedling of a whole new wave of festivals that are simultaneously very true to our roots as a tradition, while at the same time very accessible and easy for newcomers to wrap their head around.”
Attendance for the festival has been growing by nearly a third each year, with 400 people attending in 2007, 600 in 2008, and 800 last year. Another increase, possibly to 1,000 people, is expected this year. “And the wonderful thing about it is that these people are coming from long distances away just to chant for 24 hours,” says Gaura Vani. “At other festivals, visitors may come for a short time, and there are different activities to choose from. But there is nothing other than chanting at this festival. So its attendees will be a very focused and dedicated group, who will all walk away with a highly intensified enthusiasm for chanting.”
Singers will include ISKCON guru Sivarama Swami, original Vrindavana 24 Hour Kirtan alumni Madhava Dasa, recording artist Badahari Dasa, Ananta-Govinda and Achyuta of As Kindred Spirits, and Prabhupada disciple Ajamila Dasa, whose traditional Bengali kirtan and fun, enthusiastic style is sure to inspire.
However at future festivals Ananta and Gaura Vani plan to feature no well-known kirtaniyas at all, but rather only young chanters who are completely unknown apart from within their own communities. “That way you avoid the cult of personality, and have an experience that’s based entirely on chanting the Holy Name rather than on any sort of reputation or fan enthusiasm,” Gaura Vani says. “And of course, it also welcomes and encourages the new generation of kirtaniyas.”
Although this plan still lies in the future, Gaura says it’s indicative of the direction they’re trying to go in. “We’re trying to create the mood of a fresh festival based on the strength of chanting and community. And we’re hoping to use events like this to encourage the younger generation more and more.”
He concludes: “As far as I can see, the only solution for the current problems of the world—be it terrorism, the environment, the economy, or decreasing personal relationships—is chanting God’s names in congregation. The desperation, anger or hate that causes these problems can only be healed by a deeper understanding of oneself and one’s connection with God.”
The New Vrindaban 24 Hour Kirtan will be broadcast live at www.mantralogy.com. Audio recordings will also be available for download on the site after the festival.
The Birmingam 24 Hour Kirtan will be broadcast live at www.mayapur.tv. More information can be found at www.soundsforthesoul.org, where audio recordings will also be made available after the event.