Project Conversion

Project Conversion

Kirtan: The Songs of the Sikhs

Hands down, my favorite part of Marine Corps. Basic Training was drill. Performing rifle movements, marching patterns, singing cadences…and of all those things, the evening jog cadence with our Senior Drill Instructor is what I miss most.

I still remember the Marine Corps. Hymn–a short composition which speaks about the history and mentality of the United States Marine. We chanted this in our squad bay (where everyone slept and kept their gear) every night before bed:

From the hall of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli
We will fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine


Man, that still gives me chills.

You could say then, that hymns and chants are ingrained in me. One of my favorite parts of each faith this year are the hymns, chants, and mantras associated with worship, and the Sikhs really go over the top. Called kirtan, a practice shared by the Hindu spiritual neighbors, the Sikhs perform rhythmic recitations of scripture from the Guru Granth Sahib on a daily basis. Indeed, one of the three “pillars” of Sikhi is Naam Japo, meditation on God’s name, and this is often done via kirtan.

Here is a recitation of the Mool Mantar, which is the opening of the Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh ideal of God (it also includes the beginning lines of the Jabji Sahib):


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Gorgeous, huh? Man I could put this stuff on “repeat” all day, and often do.

The Mool Mantar is the first composition made by Guru Nanak upon enlightenment at age 30. Like the Marine Corps. Hymn for the Marines, the Mool Mantar is the root and foundation of the Sikhs because of its universal description of Sikhi concepts. I listen to this every day and it’s my goal to memorize the prayer in the original language of Gurbani.


One could say that the Sikh faith was founded on kirtan, hymns that sing the praises of Waheguru and the spiritual life. When Guru Nanak began his teaching, he traveled thousands of miles accompanied by his long time friend, Mardana, and together with Mardana’s rabab (a stringed instrument) they sang the hymns that would latter become the foundation of the Guru Granth Sahib. Later Guru’s continued the tradition of kirtan as a method of teaching the faith and helping the sangat (Sikh congregation/community) remember the history of their faith. Sikhi then, and the Guru Granth Sahib, is one continuous melody.

“Singing the Kirtan of His Praises, my mind has become peaceful;
the sins of countless incarnations have been washed away.
I have seen all the treasures within my own mind;
why should I now go out searching for them?” –Guru Granth Sahib


Today kirtan is performed in gurdwaras all over the world and have become a beautiful art form. I had the opportunity to watch and listen to kirtan last Sunday at my Mentor’s gurdwara in Charlotte, NC and the experience was wonderful. For the first hour, children of the sangat (community/congregation) sang Shabads (Hymns) from the Guru Granth Sahib using an assortment of classical Indian instruments:

Tabla: a small set of drums usually played using the palm and/or finger tips. I want a set, dear wife, in case you're reading...





 These instruments are accompanied by cymbals as well. The shabads are arranged in chapter form called ragas (musical themes). Each raga (31 in all) is associated with an emotion or disposition such as “balance,” “motivation,” or “sadness.” From the ragas are 17 talas (musical beats) which create the atmosphere for each raga. In this way, the shabads (and therefore, the Guru Granth Sahib) touch the individual in a very personal way because it confirms one’s feelings and uplifts/challenges them–helping them grow and connect–toward higher meditation on and connection with the Name (Waheguru, the awesome light that dispels all darkness).


Children often perform kirtan as a way to better learn the Gurbani language and, because the shabads of kirtan speak about the principals of the faith, it serves as a great way to learn about their religion. After the children finish, the adults take their turn and show them how it’s done. I sat among the sangat and listened with my eyes closed. It was like my heart and mind were being wooed. It was that glorious listening to kirtan.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes and listen to kirtan. Youtube is full of examples. If you are a Sikh and listen to kirtan (or even sing!), how does it affect your spiritual life? And what about those of other faiths (or perhaps no faith), how important is music for your personal meditations/thoughts during the day?

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posted September 20, 2011 at 9:07 am


You’ve communicated this experience so very well.

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posted September 19, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Kirtan is one of the most beuatiful things about being a Sikh. Having grown up in the US and learning to do kirtan at my mother’s side since I was 7 – it is firmly associated with devotion, love and the joy of rejoicing in the glory of God. The melodies (raagas) and sounds move you on so many levels that I feel kiratn speaks to the souls of everyone regardless of whether you can really understand the words or not. That will come later but first the music, the sound of the poetic wording – they all pull you into a place deep within yourself where you can just be happy and commune with the essence of God.

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posted September 17, 2011 at 6:55 pm


Thank you for your kind encouragment. I’ve come under a great deal of fire these past two days. These notes give me strength.

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Amrik Singh Matharu

posted September 17, 2011 at 6:37 pm

One of my friends just posted the “Sikh Identity” article and I’ve been reading through all of his stuff now. This is just so relieving, I guess, that some non-sikh has come out and test drove our religion so to speak. I hope everyone reads your blog, and I’m glad you appreciate these Shabads as much as we do. Keep doing your thing, for your boldness speaks volumes about your character.


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posted September 17, 2011 at 4:04 pm


It truly is that beautiful. Few things are as soothing or comforting as listing to these holy hymns!

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Harpreet Singh

posted September 17, 2011 at 2:50 am

While I am more of a listener of kirtan because of my horrible voice, I can personally say there is nothing better then performing/listening/ or singing along to kirtan.
I live in Toronto, Canada, which has a very large sikh population. At the gurdwaras (temples) there are translation screens that people can follow along too, which makes the experience that much better.
For many years I listened to kirtan, but never actually listened. Then it all of a sudden hit me, and it was amazing.

I know of older sikhs who have spent years of meditating that fall into deep meditative states while listening to keertan.

Awesome blog, keep it up.

– Harpreet Singh

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posted September 16, 2011 at 10:18 pm


Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Project Conversion is a deeply personal jouney, and so was my time with the Marine Corps. In this way, I draw from my personal history in order to relate how I feel in situations I cross this year. I actually do understand kirtan in the same way I understand other holy hymns from various faiths because I’ve had deep experiences with all of them. In the same way, the Marine Corps hymn was indeed a mantra, and while it did not touch the vibrations of a universal Self/Soul/God, it did bind my brothers and me to a higher call, a higher sense of purpose and duty. In this way the power and resonance of sound and song are universal whether we are talking about religion or otherwise. This is the same principle behind kirtan or any holy chant: to connect us with the divine and teach us of our faith. Semper fi, carry on, my friend.

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Sai Das

posted September 16, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Of all the comparisons you could have made, this was the best you could come up with?

You go right from describing your stint in the Corps to That you consider both hymns in the same sense suggests to me you know nothing of kirtan. Semper fi!

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posted September 15, 2011 at 2:03 am


That sounds amazing! I’ll have to attend one someday as I really enjoyed kirtan with the sangat.

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jasleen kaur

posted September 14, 2011 at 7:56 pm

If you ever get a chance, try to attend a raensabaee… it’s an all night keertan program. usually starts around 6 pm and finishes 12 hours later at 6 am. it’s soul stirring, and right around 2-3 AM it can get really intense (the beginning of amrit vela). they usually involve many different participants, pretty much any amritdhari sikh can offer to do the seva of singing keertan. i really recommend that anyone who enjoys keertan attend one of these events.

there’s one in Durhum, NC on Saturday, the 29th of October.
Sikh Gurdwara Sahib of NC
3214 E. Banner Street
Durham, NC 27714

more info here:

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posted September 14, 2011 at 10:56 am


Nothing to apologize for. Like I said, I strive for the honor of my readers’ company, so anything I can do to improve just let me know.

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posted September 14, 2011 at 10:55 am


That’s incredible that music actually got you back in touch with your faith!

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posted September 14, 2011 at 4:47 am

No. I would take a few of my words back (Snip the first para).

(Expectations just keep increasing. Sorry)

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posted September 13, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Keertan brings me Bairaag (crying cos you long to be with peace/god) and it takes the stress away It makes you feel loved…guru ji talk to you when no one wants to talk to you.. listening to keertan is sometimes as if you are talking to god. whenever i have questions vaheguroojee answer them in keertan.

I got more into sikhi because of keertan I never used to pay attention in the gurudwara but then going to reinsabaii made me want to get to know more about my faith..

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posted September 13, 2011 at 8:22 pm


I’m sorry, did I disappoint you? I thought I included a great deal of personal experience in this post with the Marine Hymn and my time at the gurdwara. I’ll try and do better next time.

Sat sri akaal

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posted September 13, 2011 at 2:58 pm

That was short post as I really like to read what you feel inside when you experience and learn new things (well, that’s just me anyways). It helps me appreciate everything even more, and see how you see it.

Guru Nanak emphasized on the sound “listening” for spiritual attainment and Guru Granth Sahib is neatly categorized in ragas and all of the hymns consists of music verses, melodic motifs, rhymes (and/or has alliteration), with an associated rhythm and time (and written using several languages like Persian, Mediaeval Prakrit, Hindi, Marathi, Old Punjabi, Multani, Sanskrit, Arabic and local dialects making it difficult for any one translator to interpret it in totality without proper context – Max Arthur MacAuliffe).

Indian music is based more on “Melodic sequencing”, while western music uses a lot of “harmony”. One can listen to Gurbani/Kirtan in either form, based on what your grew listening to and what your ears prefer. While several learned Raagis prefer strict classical singing styles, others are more liberal, contemporary and alternative in their approach. While one school of thought is to follow all ragas strictly (specially Naad yoga), other ascribe to an easy-listening for real-understanding of the matter, less music. Both are correct, and there is an enormous variety to choose from and then one can grow on it for complex musical arrangements. (Guru Granth Sahib, was not written in some priestly language, like Sanskrit, so everyone could understand it instead of limiting it to a Brahmin class/caste).

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