by Xahej Bajipura
Vibrating three long “Om”s, 95 people began their immersion into the kirtan, “Awakening the Heart Through the Yoga of Sound: A Journey into Love, Healing, and Mysticism,” which was guided by Russill Paul on Palm, Beach April 18, 2015 at Parasutra.
I was one of the 95 vibrating with the group of strangers, a majority from non-desi backgrounds. The natural heat in the tight-spaced room emanated a familiar energy however and I didn’t feel so alone.
“Life has a vital sonic dimension that colors our moods and sentiments, our joys and fears, our love and pain. Without the energy and emotion that sound and music provide, our lives would feel disembodied — even dead,” said Paul in his book The Yoga of Sound.
What actually motivated me to attend the kirtan was to explore the roots of Hinduism that I generally notice missing in other practices, including yoga classes.
Definitely, the two and half hour long performance was not watered down. It was as authentic as could be. I didn’t expect so much joy to fill my every heartbeat with the power of mantra.
The two artists, including tabla player Rajesh Bhandari, also happened to be of Indian descent which made me more willing to learn from their teachings based in India. Tamil-born Paul has an interesting background; he is the son of a Christian father and a mother of Hindu ancestry. He renounced the material world to enter a Christian ashram where he began writing and reciting Hindu mantras to the delight of his mother, who had to downplay her Hindu faith. However, later, he married and came to America.
After a brief introduction, we went straight into the mantras beginning with Ganpati Express. All the mantras evoked a Hindu God or Goddess in the form of a hymn in a call and response structure. Paul playing the electric sitar, keyboard, and harmonica quite equisitively, sang the verses soully and expected or called for a response. While the mantras are based in Hinduism, more people who have been turned on to them recently have been from Christian and Jewish backgrounds. In general, I felt what was energized in me during the kirtan transcended any particular religious beliefs to which I was exposed.
According to Paul, any faith can benefit from kirtans. The Christians and Jews have recently found an affinity towards them because they “provide a direct experience of the divine and in ways different from the western approach, therefore refreshingly new but also very effective.”
There were a total of three mantras, each original lasting 20-25 minutes, plus a longer ending mantra that the audience did not want to end.
Goddess Salsa had people moving up from their cushions and breaking loose into spontaneous dance movements. Time-to-time I glanced around the room to see others’ facial expressions, including the seven-years-young girl sitting beside me. I only saw smiles and closed eyes signifying a serene and silent joy.
My favorite mantra was Goddess of a 1,000 Faces which recited powerful female figures in history, including Jai Ma, Buffalo Woman, Mother Teresa, and Lady Sophia.
Don’t worry, previous musical talent is unnecessary as one audience member noted.
“I really hate to sing. Everyone can sing here. The mantras give you permission.”
“You don’t need to be musical, but you will find yourself becoming more musical as your practice develops,” wrote Paul in his book .
I have little formal training in choir and instruments, yet I saw myself come alive within the first song until the last one. These mantras uplifted my spirits as well as those of the Americans and eclectic mix of gatherers.
Other audience members said that the kirtan helped them feel lighter and “blissed out.”
“I was blissed out. I felt a sense of connectivity to other people. I was there to shed anxiety. I rather be here on a Saturday instead of a club or bar,” said 19-years-young Kanon.
“He connects with the audience exceptionally well. He makes it feel like he’s part of the audience,” said Vasudevan.
“Great, blissful experience, down-to-earth, powerful experience. A real Indian kirtan,” said Venezuelan Minerva Borjas who drove from Miami.
“I feel uplifted, a sense of calmness, contentedness, an ecstasy, not a drug. It’s orgasmic the way the energy keeps building. Dance was spontaneous movement. Awakens something primal and pure,” said Mahaneep Kaur.
Paul had some inspiring words on Indians returning to their roots through kirtan and mantra:
“Just like how Indians are being inspired to take up Yoga seeing the passion and way in which Westerners are approaching Yoga, I believe that the West’s newfound passion for kirtan and mantra will inspire Indians to revisit and rediscover this aspect of tradition as well. Sometimes, it helps to see aspects of our tradition through a different lens. And while we may not like some parts of the new expression, there are other parts that can inspire us. We have to find a way to maintain an open heart without compromising our sensitivities.”
This has been my experience actually. If it were not for Western-owned yoga studios, it make have taken longer for me to realize this part of my Indian heritage. Despite a bit of cultural appropriation here and there, I agree with Paul that I would not have a passion for this side if it were not for the Westerners’ interest in meditation and kirtan that brought these fundamentals in my life.
I know I felt better and “blissed out” when I went to sleep that night. Why should others be denied the same benefits? If anything, I am happy that there are people outside my culture benefiting from the spirituality of Hinduism and Indian culture because it creates a more open society.
About Xahej: A young, Indian-American reporter, Xahej is powerful involved with numerous projects and purposes that she uses her journalistic (and performance) skills to raise awareness on.