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“I think we’ve heard this one already,” I joked to my friend this weekend when “Om Namah Shivaya” started up again. We were at a kirtan festival, and in case you don’t get the lame joke, that particular Sanskrit mantra is used a lot in kirtan, devotional call-and-response chanting with roots in Indian spiritual traditions. It’s pretty much the “hallelujah” of Sanskrit  (in addition to “hare krishna). It means roughly, “I bow to Shiva.”

Depending who you ask, kirtan is a 500-year-old Indian tradition that expresses devotional love, or bhakti, to God by repeatedly singing the holy name. The idea is that this purifies our hearts.

This weekend at the 700 Voices festival in Kent, Connecticut, a Hindu renunciate (a Jew from Brooklyn with an accent that reminds me of my late uncle Moishe) told us the effects are the same whether you’re chanting to Shiva, Allah, or Jesus–though many say that Sanskrit chanting is particularly transformative because of the spiritual oomph built into its very syllables. Not only does chanting let the Gods/God know we’re thinking of them/him/her, but it can transform us in the process. As one ancient Hindu, Rupa Goswami, put it, “Simply by touching the Holy Name with one’s tongue, immediate effects are produced.” The main voice of Western kirtan, Krishna Das (or KD, a Jew from Long Island, of course), describes this effect beautifully: “Chanting is a way of getting in touch with yourself. It’s an opening of the heart and letting go of the mind and thoughts. It deepens the channel of grace, and it’s a way of being present in the moment.”

I find it’s a way to rinse everything, clear negative thoughts, lighten heaviness in my heart, ease chatter in my mind. While I’m in the midst of sacred song it’s very hard to be stuck in misery. I actually do some of my best writing during kirtans (I think this is not exactly kosher from a traditional perspective, but oh well). It opens something in me and out it flows–sorrow, joy, gratitude, sweet longing. On Saturday my notebook was catching big drops of tears. I’m not sure where they came from, or what they were about, exactly, but after I felt like I had been through a rainstorm, the good kind, where you splash barefoot in puddles and don’t care that your hair is dripping and your clothes are drenched.

The singer who calls herself Wah! (exclamation point hers), who sings with her gorgeous voice and electric guitar, told us she chants when she’s doing her chores–chopping vegetables, driving in her car. It dispels negativity, she says. Anyone cuts you off, won’t let you change lanes, “hare krishna! Hare krishna!” It brings holiness to the mundane.

Here’s a beautiful version of “Om Namah Shivaya” by Krishna Das:

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More on Kirtan

How Chants Can Heal the Heart

Krishna Das in The New York Times 

Kirtan Events All Over

Kirtan.org

[Image via: http://www.kirtan.org/

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