I went along to my local Kirtan the other night. Just in case you don't know what Kirtan is, it's kind of like an uber-relaxed Hindu version of church: Everyone sits around on the floor while a guy with a guitar leads us in a series of chants sung in a call-and-response style. I've been to a couple of different Kirtans before, associated with the various different cults I've been involved in; but this was my first time at this particular group.
Now before my family read this and conclude that I'm going to hell for becoming a Hindu, I should point out that the reason I go to Kirtan is because chanting in a group makes me feel good. That's pretty much the idea behind the whole thing.
Most of the chants are sung in Sanskrit, which means I have absolutely no idea what I am singing about. The leader explains the meaning of one of them, which is basically singing praise to Krishna. And in case you don't know who Krishna is, it's kind of like the Hindu name for God, Yahweh, Jehova, Allah, Darwin, Dawkins... or whatever you choose to call your chosen supreme being.
It turns out that Krishna has so many different names and incantations that even the chants that didn't initially appear to be singing praises to him, were simply doing so under a different name. Every second word in any Kirtan chant is essentially either the word “Krishna”, or some other reference to the big dude.
I turn up slightly late after misjudging how long it takes to walk up the hill to the venue, and am pleasantly surprised to find a backjack available for me to sit in; which is a Krishna-send given that I'm hopeless at sitting unassisted in the lotus position for an hour and a half. Even though I meditate a lot, I reckon 15 minutes is my limit before my legs start screaming “move, you idiot!” at me.
I sit down to get straight into the chanting, and immediately notice that the two guys to my right are chanting extremely loudly and completely out of tune. I crack up every time the response part of call-and-response starts. Don't they realise? Don't they care? Apparently not. Initially, I find the out of tune supplications to a deity I don't believe in, in a language I don't understand, extremely distracting. But hey, if they have no inhibitions about this, why should I? By the end of the evening, I'm finding it quite liberating, and hilarious.
As usual, I can't help but let my eyes gaze around at random intervals in order to identify the prettiest girl in the room, and find several viable contenders. I notice a pretty girl with long hair who once declined to give me a hug at 5 Rhythms; it still hurts, but I decide not to be discouraged. Plenty of other fish in the sea. If there's one thing to be said for the yoga lifestyle, it does tend to be great for the figure. Fortunately I planned ahead enough to eat before coming, so I'm not sitting here craving a decent steak the whole time I'm chanting in a room full of vegans.
While I might not understand what most of the chants were about, there was one I sort of recognised: Amazing Grace. The old classic I was familiar with from back when I was a Christian. Only this version was a little different: the leader had modified it somewhat to “take out all the Christian stuff”. Given that it is possibly the most famous rousing Christian hymn, that didn't leave a whole lot. The expurgated version had only 3 verses instead of the original 13, and given that verse 3 was basically the Hare Krishna mantra sung to the tune of Amazing Grace, I think it's safe to say that only 2 of the original verses survived. Even those were a composite version using snippets of the original hymn.
The new version of the now-only-slightly-familiar song began:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a soul like me!
That's the great thing about Krishna: you can sing his praises without having to consider yourself a wretch. It's a refreshing change from the Christian tradition of making me feel bad about myself so I will accept a saviour who can fix me back up again.
By the end of the evening, I'm getting right into it and am even feeling grateful to the two guys chanting unselfconsciously out of tune. The evening ends with Namastes all round, and an announcement about the local yoga festival celebrating World Yoga Day this weekend, with a sunrise yoga session that there's no chance in Nakara I'll be getting out of bed for that early on a Sunday morning.
I walk home feeling lighter than when I arrived, craving a slice of meat lovers pizza and lamenting the lack of late-night by-the-slice pizza outlets in the area. Nevertheless, I feel good. Chanting will do that for you. No wonder the Hare Krishnas are always so krishnadamn happy.