Just as fire has the natural property of burning things, so also the Name of God has
the power of burning sins and desires. Practice of Japa and Kirtan removes
impurities of mind, destroys sins and brings the devotee
face to face with God. – Swami Sivananda
When I was growing up my mother was always singing love songs and gospel songs, and now I find myself humming and mouthing snatches of those same songs. They seem to arise out of my unconscious and just are, like so many things we learn as children. First the tunes, then the words arise, bringing comfort and inspiration.
As an adult I have sought out spiritual practices like asana and meditation, which integrate body, mind and spirit in a satisfying way. Some of these practices replaced the role that Mother’s love songs and church hymn-songs used to provide, but I still missed the music and the emotional tuning that occurs between people singing together.
Imagine my pleasure, then, to belatedly discover the practice of Kirtan within the yogic community, and to have it explained as “the gospel music of India,” by Shubalananda. What began as a conversation about the benefits of chanting with Ashok Nalamalapu led to an exploration with Shubal of the role of the chanting leader in the development of spiritual community. Both Shubal and Ashok agree that the principle product of chanting is happiness for the individual and spiritual community within a group.
Ashok Nalamalapu is the founder of Sadhana, a new center for meditation in South Portland, Maine. A native of Andhra Pradesh in India, Mr. Nalamalapu is heir to a great tradition. He was born to Hindu parents, and believes in unity among religions. Ashok has brought his passion for meditation and chanting to the Southern Maine community in 2010, and is forging connections with chant leaders all over New England and beyond.
CM: Ashok, why are you so passionate about sponsoring chanting sessions in Maine?
AN: Chanting sacred words and mantras is an ancient practice. Chanting creates mysterious power within. It improves our concentration. Words such as “Om” create vibrations inside and out. As we resonate with the universal sound we are united with the whole universe. Chanting makes us happy.
CM: Does it matter whether a chanting practitioner understands the words being sung?
AN: One does not have to understand the words. They are simple words. Some leaders call these words while the participants respond by repeating. Other leaders prefer to sing along with the participants. One does not have to be a trained singer to say these words.
CM: What then are the benefits of chanting Sanskrit words?
AN: It has been said that chanting is one of the paths to realize God through Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. Calling the names of the incarnations awakens the divinity within us.
CM: How do the benefits of chanting compare to the benefits of meditation?
AN: Chanting is a form of meditation. When we chant with concentration and love we feel blissful. When we finish a chant, we sit in silence and the energy of common intention is palpable. There is a beautiful interplay between the sound and the silence.
CM: What effect does chanting have beyond the individual’s enjoyment of it?
AN: At Sadhana we chant as a group. This experience creates peace and unity among people of different faiths. As we happily chant we feel the divineness. It has been said that some peace in the world is created by the vibrations of these chants.
CM: Shubal, I have sat with you and Ashley Flagg in kirtan, and it seems to be a performance art. Both of you are accomplished musicians, plus you are a story-teller.
SA: Thank you, but leading kirtan is not a performance, and not an art, leading kirtan is a sadhana. There are some standards required for leading kirtan, but for the chorus participants, all that is needed is the heart! But, in order to lead kirtan, the first requirement is consistent sadhana.
CM: What do you mean by sadhana?
SA: Sadhana is spiritual practice, and it includes all forms of yoga and tantric, meditation, Hatha Yoga (the yoga of poses or asanas), Japa (reciting God’s names), Kirtan, Puja (ceremonial offerings), reading holy books and the words of holy persons as well as other more secret practices. The first goal of sadhana is to develop concentration.
CM: What is an example of a mundane practice becoming a sadhana?
SA: Ram Dass tells the story of a lecture he was presenting. While he was speaking of the most far out planes of consciousness, this old woman was sitting in the front row, following his every word, seeming to understand exactly what he was saying. After the lecture, he went over to her and said, “I noticed you understood when I talked of the higher planes, what type of sadhana do you do? The old woman replied “I knit.”
CM: What does it take to be an effective leader of a chanting community?
SA: In order to truly express the fullest possibilities in the kirtan experience, the leader must be a person to whom all that matters is love. The leader must be doing regular sadhana. The leader must have had an initiation with a guru and be practicing bhakti yoga (the yoga of love). The leader must have a lovely, pleasing voice, and she must be a master of a musical instrument.
CM: So are you saying that leading kirtan is very different from being a performance musician?
SA: Oh yes. The kirtan leader performs a vital role for society. It is a great sacrifice in kirtan to keep track of the rag and tal (melody and rhythm), to keep the words straight, to balance the energy of the room, so many thoughts must a kirtan wallah keep in his head. Meanwhile, the chanters are free to rise above these concerns, to fly… nothing holds them back.
CM: How did you learn to be a kirtan wallah?
SA: I began making music when I was 7 years old. My parents bought me a ukulele and I would wander through the streets of my suburban village singing Steven Foster songs with great abandon. Then I heard Muddy Waters and Little Walter, and I spent the next 20 years becoming the second best blues guitarist in Boston.
CM: When did you “cross over” from blues into kirtan?
SA: When I first met Ram Dass and Neem Karoli Baba in 1984. I began to study bhajan and kirtan, buying the tapes, learning to play them on the guitar. I figured out a special tuning which offers the “Indian” scales and sounds. A few years later began my intensive training. I joined the Boston community of Sathya Sai Baba, 300 Indians and me just about the only western face. Kirtan and Bhajan was the mainstay of their practice, and they needed a guitar player, so they trained me for 6 years.
CM: So now it’s been 25 years since you started down the kirtan path. What have you been doing all these years?
SA: I studied with some great Bhajan singers from India, I learned the rags, I learned to follow those who’s leading left some musical needs unmet, I learned that humility and power are not mutually exclusive, I learned my role was to support others’ bhava (spiritual emotion), and I learned how to pronounce sanskrit, and how to sit straight on the cushion (sort of).
CM: All this happened in the Boston area?
SA: In Boston in those days we would gather 3 or 4 nights a week and sing and sing and sing. I learned hundreds of Bhajans, and I played with many great musicians from India who all had their suggestions, recommendations and commandments. They accused me of singing “hard rock” kirtan, they put their fingers in their children’s’ ears when I sang, but we loved each other completely, and they relentlessly carved the tradition of Sanatana dharma and kirtan into my head.
CM: So you have studied with many teachers, practiced kirtan in so many venues, traveled across the planet, done a bit of sadhana, have you found happiness?
SA: Yes, I studied with many teachers: Sathya Sai Baba, Karunamayi who told me my job was to sing to the Divine Mother. And then Shree Maa who told me that if I could be like I was when I sing all the time, I would be happy. And now my life has become a prayer, with dedication to all the great teachers I have known, Sadguru Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass, Sai Baba, Karunamayi, Shree Maa, Shiva Rudra Bala Yogi, Baba Harihar Ram-ji, Shivabalananda, Ammachee, and my kirtan guru, the great Ma Chetan Jyoti. So now all I do is sing God’s names with Ashley and our community, love myself and those around me, and…what a surprise… I AM happy!
Shubalananda Saraswati (Larry Kopp) has been leading kirtan and singing bhajan for the past 25 years. He is a sadhu, living on the dakshina (contributions) of the New England kirtan community. Hear Shubal and Ashley Flagg at Sadhana in South Portland on August 13th at 7:00 pm. For more information and schedule see www.shubalananda.com.
Ashok Nalamalapu is the founder of Sadhana, a meditation center in South Portland, Maine. For more information on Sadhana’s mission and upcoming programs call (207) 772-6898 or visit www.sadhaname.com
Collen Myers is the Executive Director of Sadhana Meditation Center is South Portland, Maine. She can be reached at (207) 772-6898 or visit www.sadhaname.com.