The good news: Kirtan, it seems, has finally hit the American mainstream. In the lead story of Wednesday’s New York Times Fashion & Style section, “Yoga Enthusiasts Hear the Call of Kirtan,” Times reporter Sara Eckel gives an overwhelmingly positive – albeit cheeky – glimpse into the practice of meditative call-and-response chanting. Festive, enjoyable, soothing, even relatively inexpensive – kirtan sounds like a pretty good deal in our troubled, stress-filled times.
The bad news: the story largely ignores the role played by devotees of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) – a role so significant that these devotees are popularly known as Hare Krishnas, after the mantra they helped make famous. In fact, the only explicit mention of ISKCON is a brief paragraph in which Eckel recounts kirtaniya Krishna Das (who is unaffiliated with ISKCON or Gaudiya Vaishnavism) being “dismayed that many associate the chant ‘Hare Krishna’ with people who begged on the streets and danced in airports in the 1970s.” Hardly the endorsement ISKCON devotees might hope for. Sadly, in an article all about chanting, the Hare Krishna movement has been relegated to an obscure and unflattering footnote.
Of course, anyone slightly familiar with the history of kirtan in America could hardly blame an ISKCON devotee for feeling slighted. ISKCON’s founder, Srila Prabhupada braved heart attacks and crossed an ocean to bring the practice of chanting Hare Krishna somewhere it had never been before—to Western shores. Long before trendy Soho yoga studios hosted their first kirtan nights, Prabhupada unassumingly sat beneath an elm tree in New York City’s infamous Tompkins Square Park and – armed with little more than strong faith in the Holy Names of God and a donated bongo drum – launched a chanting revolution. (A piece of history, by the way, recorded in a 1966 New York Times article, and confirmed by no less than the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which designated the tree a historical landmark for that reason.)
Following in his footsteps, countless sincere devotees dedicated their lives to bringing the sixteen-word mantra to the streets (literally). In doing so, they risked personal hardship, and – as the attitude reflected in the article seems to indicate – being misunderstood or even persecuted for it.
On the other hand, those early kirtan missionaries, well intentioned as they may have been, could also sometimes be over-zealous, immature, or fanatical in their unbridled enthusiasm to share their faith with others. If there is indeed a Hare Krishna stigma, then – at least in some instances – the devotees earned it.
So when I read the Times piece on Wednesday (forwarded to my inbox by friends repeatedly throughout the day) I celebrated and cringed, gloated and whined, oscillated between forwarding the article to co-workers and firing off an angry letter to the editor. In short: I felt about as mixed up as the story was.
But as time and reflection replaced impulse and defensiveness, it began to dawn on me that – if we ISKCON devotees could see it in the right spirit – the kirtan story could be more of a blessing than a curse, and could provide some important lessons for us to take away. Here are three that come to mind:
1. Responsibility – Whether we like it or not, the unflattering stereotype of Hare Krishna devotees as beggars or bothersome airport solicitors is a hard one to shake off. Instead of blaming others, perhaps we can take this opportunity to examine why that is. How has the spiritual immaturity and improper dealings of devotees helped to shape this negative perception? How can we remain faithful to the spirit of sankirtan (the practice of public chanting) while learning from the mistakes of the past to re-focus our outreach efforts today? These are difficult questions to be sure, but we should ask them.
2. Appreciation – One definition of a devotee of Krishna is that he or she is saragrahi, eager to focus on the good in others, seeking the essence beyond sectarian or institutional designations. This is, of course, easier said than done. Can we genuinely give credit where credit is due? Can we appreciate the talents and successes of Krishna Das – who has spent decades sharing the chanting of Hare Krishna with others – despite the fact that we have theological or philosophical differences with him? Can we be happy to see the popularity of kirtan in the yoga community, even while admitting that up until recently ISKCON has had little to directly do with it? These are difficult questions to be sure, but we must ask them.
3. Humility – Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the 16th Century incarnation who pioneered kirtan as we know it, instructed His followers that the key to chanting is developing humility. And yet, as important as it is to battle the inflated ego on the personal level, institutional pride and envy can be just as deadly. Might we not be humbled by the Times piece, brought face to face with our limitations and shortcomings? Can we see it as a reminder – a message from Krishna Himself, perhaps – that the Holy Name is supremely independent and free to reach people however it chooses? Can we face the fact that we don’t have a monopoly over kirtan, and can we pray – not to be recognized as God’s elite chosen – but rather to be used as simple instruments in His able hands? These are very difficult questions to be sure, but we cheat others and ourselves if we fail to ask them.
It is perhaps fitting that the Times article – and the mixed emotions it raises – should come a few days before devotees of Krishna mark Gaura Purnima, the birth anniversary of Lord Chaitanya. Kirtan – whether on the streets or in the yoga studios – was His gift to the world. How we choose to apply his instructions could be our gift to Him.
The author serves as both the North American Director of Communications for ISKCON, and the Coordinator for Hindu Life at Princeton University. The views expressed in this article, however, are his own.
May 15, 2022
Sunanda Das, Temple of the Vedic Planetarium