Kirtan is an ancient form of devotional chanting that helps us slip effortlessly into meditative stillness. Using ancient Sanskrit mantras and devotional hymns, traditional kirtan helps to prepare one for meditation by quieting the mind and awakening the heart center. It’s one of the oldest sacred music traditions in the world. But the development of modern kirtan is very much an East-West tale and Yogananda figures prominently in it. He said, “Sound or vibration is the most powerful force in the universe. Music is a divine art, to be used not only for pleasure but as a path to God-realization.” It’s a universal language.
European missionaries took advantage of this by inventing the harmonium, a mini-organ powered by pumping a bellows to blow air across reeds. Harmoniums were highly portable and could be carried easily to the European colonies. French and German clergymen brought them to India in the late nineteenth century. In India, people soon fell in love with the practical instruments, which could be played easily with little training and while sitting on the ground.
When Yogananda moved to America in 1920, he brought with him a harmonium, and, in 1926, at a capacity-filled Carnegie Hall, he publicly introduced Westerners to kirtan for the first time. More than 3000 people at New York’s famed concert hall joined him in chanting Hay Hari Sundara ("O God Beautiful") for nearly an hour and a half. Yogananda went on to compose dozens of songs with English lyrics that he eventually published in a volume entitled Cosmic Chants, many of which are available in audio recordings as well.
Devotional chanting has since become a major phenomenon in the West, with Kirtan superstars like Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, whose music is featured in the AWAKE soundtrack. Krishna Das, who is also interviewed in the film, credits Yogananda’s chanting as a major influence for him.
“He wasn’t trying to sing prettily, he wasn’t trying to entertain people,” says Krishna Das. “He was singing to God. It was so powerful!”