A month ago, as the sun set over the Catskills and yielded to the moonless night of a new moon, I sat (not very comfortably) on a hardwood floor in a small capsule of Hinduism. The Ashram was hot, having just gotten its first relief from the beating sun since early the previous morning, and the flies threw themselves against the glass walls in desperate but futile attempts to escape the same baking capsule that I had traveled two hours to enter.
As we stepped into the room, the Swami — sitting in Lotus position at the front, behind him an elaborate shrine of gold and candles in honor of the blue-skinned Krishna, the monkey-faced Hanumanta, and the long-nosed Ganesha — began to chant. At first it was a stereotype: “Om…” He and the other Yogis in the room held the mantra for what could have been a full minute. “Om…” again, and this time the cynicism that had arisen at first hearing the oft-misused mantra melted away and I found myself eagerly, naturally letting my voice out to join in the third repetition. “Om…” as I let the Manhattan air out of my lungs and breathed in slowly, deliberately, the warmth and welcoming scents of the Ashram. I closed my eyes to the flashing neon and whizzing subways, and opened them again to a dimly lit temple, filled with lotus sitting seekers, like myself, secluded on a ranch in upstate New York. Once the chanting started, even smells and sights fell by the wayside.
Indian mantras both fascinate and intimidate me. As a drummer, the odd cycles of ancient Eastern music are completely unknown. Several years ago I attended a performance by Anoushka Shankar, and she attempted to explain cycles of fifteen and eleven, which were held perfectly by her tabla player. The tablas have always been a looming interest of mine — something I’d love to learn but that seems inaccessible and beyond my musical grasp nevertheless. My drum professor in college told me that indigenous Indian tribes often do not allow young musicians to play even a single note until they can clap and vocalize a year’s worth of exercises. The logic, which is just as true for Western drumming, is that once you can vocalize a rhythm it can be easily played with the hands.
It is with this knowledge that I remain an admirer from afar of tablas, though someday I will undoubtedly muster the courage to give it a shot.
Mantras have been chanted for thousands of years, and when the harmonium ushered in the beginning of Kirtan in the glass walled temple, I felt transported. Not to any one particular time, but rather to no time at all. The “healing power” of Kirtan is often speculated on, often hypothesized about. And from a Western perspective it’s hard to believe that the simple speak-singing of words would have any sort of power at all, be it supernatural or personally spiritual. The notion might seem silly, but the act of singing words — words that I have a gist of, but did not and do not understand the true meaning of — brought me a warmth and peace that I haven’t felt for almost a decade. I may only be twenty-three, but I’ve had my share of spiritual triumphs and disappointments. I have not had a triumph like this one since I was just a kid, when most of my friends and I grew scientific minds and rejected our parents’ representations of One God in an organized religion.
I know I tend to use hyperbole as the norm in my writing, but I could not possibly overstate my first experience with Kirtan. Music moves me often — lyrics give me chills, minor chords can affect me, and upbeat tempos can make me feel just that — but rarely does music give me warmth. The droning hum of the harmonium was hypnotizing and had the group of us swaying from side to side, clapping, and slapping tambourines and shakers with the rhythmic cycle. Over the following two days we would repeat this performance three more times after meditation, and each time, as I got more comfortable with singing in Hindi chanted melodies, I also felt more able to connect to what we were saying. This is not to say that my first experience with Hinduism “converted” me to the world of polytheistic mysticism as a belief system, but the power that radiates from the chants is real, and I’ve felt it in every experience since my first.
Western religious chanting, or “praying,” has developed the distinct air of obligation. Words without meaning, memorized to appease a vengeful and fearsome and awesome God who will otherwise damn you to an eternity in the pits of Hell or leave you out of the Book of Life in the year to come. Going to a synagogue or church does not inspire me, nor does it inspire many of the people that I know. Of the millions and billions of religious denizens on this planet, I would like to know how many truly love their God(s), how many fear Them (many may feel both), and how many simply believe for the sake of believing, out of nothing more than guilt or obligation.
I would like to challenge everyone who reads this to try chanting, though I know that it is not something that will enlighten the masses, especially given the heavy skepticism with which Eastern ideas are often met in our society. I can only say that in a city that often overwhelms me with negativity and noise, I found a small refuge in Woodbourne, New York — and then another at the Sivananda Yoga Center in that city itself — where I can go to block it all out and get in touch with something a bit more enlightening.