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What a Sound
by wah!

People often ask me what kind of music I play. Generally these are people who participate in yoga practices and attend the performances. They are confused by the terminology: mantra, japa, kirtan, bhajan. Let me clarify in this way: Japa is the core practice, kirtan the group process and bhajan a poetic experience.

All Indian music is sacred in origin. Vedic hymns, the earliest recorded recitation of mantra or sacred syllables, were sung with the understanding that God was actually the sound, the Nadabrahma.

In the 16th century, poets began writing in their native languages: Hindi, Persian and Urdu. Abandoning Sanskrit, they longed for the divine in colloquial words using elements of everyday life and stories of deities to illustrate their points. These were later put to music in songs called bhajans. Songs of Lord Krishna and Radha, of Shiva, of Hanuman, of the Spirit itself, became avenues to teach complex spiritual truths to farmers, merchants and other common people in a language they could understand.

This period became known as the Bhakti Movement because of its focus on devotion (bhakti). At its core was the belief that spiritual salvation was attainable to anyone who had a pure and selfless love of God. Priests were unnecessary in order to create a connection to God, as was knowledge of Sanskrit, complicated fire rituals or puja ceremonies. A spiritual aspirant could connect directly using simple techniques and with limited training.

A poor man with no education could not be expected to remember long verses or memorize passages of sacred text. Instead, teachings were imparted in the form of song (bhajans) or simple mantras were given for recitation. If a shloka (a 2-line summary of the text) was too much, then a mantra (sacred syllables) was given. Many of the chants we hear in yoga centers today are mantras or mahamantras. Shri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram, and Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare are examples of mahamantras.

Japa, the repetition of these mantras, was recommended. While writing a mantra was one way to practice, most uneducated people learned through spoken or sung repetition. The teacher sang a line and the student sang it back. Tantric philosophies recommended a specific number of repetitions; Hindu devotional styles recommended a constant remembrance throughout the day, using whatever number of repetitions the aspirant could manage.
Kirtan evolved from a Bengali style of song, and was Adopted in Northern India by both Sikhs and Hindus, kirtan evolved from a Begali style of song. Combining elements of classical and folk music, Gurmat Sangeet and Shabad Kirtan were adopted by the Sikhs. Sankirtan or Nam Kirtan (singing call-and-response in a group setting) was adopted by the Hindus. These styles of kirtan encouraged group practice of the recitation of mantras. Modern bhajans were written to expound teachings or express poetic images and stories of devotion. They were not performed call-and-response style; the audience listened and enjoyed its teachings.

Devotional music continues to evolve through the work of contemporary musicians. The music you hear in yoga centers in the West is a combination of many different elements of Indian music with Western instruments and production styles. My own chanting programs include japa and bhajans in English that reflect stories and spiritual teachings from my own experiences.

Wah! is a musician and spiritual seeker who travels the world singing and expanding sacred intention. www.wahmusic.com