The Bhajan/Kirtan or simply congregational devotional singing is popular in different parts of India, in different forms. To some, these are tools to relax and stay calm. Some feel that the lyrics, Ragas and the rhythms take them into a meditative mood. Some feel that this is the best way to connect with the Divine within and without.
In this article, I will trace the origin of Bhajan in India, the evolution of Bhajan in different parts of India, and the spread of this culture across countries, not just among the Indian diaspora, but also amongst people from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds, as experienced by me, in my interactions over the years.
What is Bhajan?
Bhajan is derived from the Sanskrit root , ‘Bhaj’ which refers to “share”, “participate” or “belong to”. The word also connotes “attachment, devotion to, fondness for, homage, faith or love, worship, piety” to something as a spiritual, religious principle or means of salvation – (Source Wikipedia). Though Bhajan and Kirtan may refer to the same practice, they defer in some ways, as the former may relate to a solo exposition, while the latter is largely congregational singing. Singing Bhajan and Kirtan in praise of a Lord is an age-old and sacred tradition. For the participants, it is essentially a way of expressing love for the Divine. When Indians were shipped as cheap labor by the British colonialists for plantations in Trinidad, Fiji and South Africa, in the 19th and 20th Century, Bhajans played a significant role in binding the community together and giving them succour.
Where did it start?
We can trace the roots of Bhajan to the Vedas, especially Saama Veda, where the sound ‘Naada Brahman’ was referred to as the primordial sound which could kindle in us various emotions.
Hundreds of years ago, sacred verses and songs were taught in temples to a select audience. It is only after that the Bhajan/Kirtan in its modern form, originated in India. Around the 15th Century, as the Bhakti movement – which was a powerful social reform movement – spread throughout India, devotional singing came out into the streets and to the masses. It is said that the Bhajan Sampradaya was established about 500 years ago by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
Bhajan Paddhatis in India
Among the various forms of congregational singing in India, the Stavan is a popular and historically pervasive genre of devotional music in Jainism. The subject of a Stavan varies, ranging from the praise of Jina, Jain religious ideas and its philosophy.
Stavan may include dancing and worship rituals. A Stavan is typically sung as folk melodies by groups of Jain women, and are a formal part of many ceremonies and celebrations within Jainism.
Shabad Kirtan is a common form of community singing in the Sikh tradition where there is a major emphasis on devotional worship to the one formless God. A Shabad Kirtan is performed by professional religious musicians, wherein bani (words, hymns) from the Sikh scriptures are sung to a certain Raga and Tala.
The Nirguni tradition, as opposed to the Saguni Tradition, believed in the ‘Formless’, through proponents of the tradition like the Sufi saint Kabir. The Nirgunis talk about the ‘invisible, indescribable, ungraspable, beyond form, inconceivable, and unnameable’. Nirgun poetry evokes a deeper level of experience by going beyond conventional ways of thinking.
Gorakhnathi Bhajan tradition is the Paddhati followed by the followers of Gorakhnathji, a well known 11th and 12th Century ascetic and creator of the Nath tradition.
‘Ashtachap’ refers to the eight sacred singer poets and followers of the Vaishnava tradition of Vallabhacharya, of which Surdas was the pioneer. The other Astachaps were Govindaswami, Chitaswami, Chaturbhujadas, Nandadas, Kumbhandas, Krishnadas and Paramanandadas.
Madhura Bhakti Bhajan Sampradaya is one where the poets composed Bhajans on the union of the Devotee and the Lord. The Nirguna proponents like Kabir also composed songs in Madhura Bhakti and so did the Saguna proponents’ like Meera, Surdas, Tukaram, Jayadeva and Narsi Mehta. ‘Shringaara Rasa’ was predominant in the these Bhajans.
The other notable traditions and lineages are the Varakaris of Maharashtra (who sang Abhangs), the Vallabhapanthis in Gujarat, the Virashaivas and Haridasas in Karnataka, and the Chaitanyas in Bengal, to name a few.
The Dakshina Bharata Bhajana Paddhati
In South India, about 350 years ago, in Govindapuram near Thiruvidaimarudur, Sri Bhagavan Nama Bodhendral and his contemporary Sridhara Venkatesa Ayyaval, who lived close to Tiruvisainallur, wrote several Granthas and established the Nama Siddhanta. In Marudanallur, Sadguru Swamigal established the Hari-Hara Bhajan system, still prevalent in South India even today. These three are considered the ‘Trinity of Sampradaya Bhajan of South India’.
This Bhajan Sampradaya is characterised by a collection of Kirtanas and Namavalis in a specific order evolved by Sri Marudhanallur Sadguru Swamigal. It is believed that he has travelled all over India, listened to various saint composers and Bhajan
traditions, and has incorporated songs from Maharashtra (Abhangs), North India (Bhajans), East India (Ashtapadhis), Karnataka (Dasar Padhaas), Andhra Pradesh (Tharangas and Padas), thereby lending inclusiveness to this tradition.
This tradition was further strengthened by Pudukkottai Gopalakrishna Bhagavathar (1892-1971) who again travelled across the country, leading several congregations and further added to its repertoire. Nott Annaji Rao, a noted Bhagavatha and an ardent disciple of Swamy Gnanananda Giri of Thapovanam, initiated Margazhi Bhajans in the middle of the last century. Later, his eminent son Swamy Haridoss Giri took over and carried the tradition forward. If Namasankeerthanam is the transcontinental movement it is today, the credit goes to Swamy Haridoss Giri.
My initiation into the tradition
I was born into the Pudukottai Sampradayam, the tradition mentioned above. I have been told that as a three year old child, I used to sit in front of my family’s deities, clothed in a yellow ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ drape with my little drum, cymbals and Rudraksha, and sing all the Bhajans I had hear my parents sing, out of memory! Along the years, I have understood that the Bhajan sessions integrated families, gave my parents new meanings and purpose of life, taught us children to value our culture and tradition, and most importantly they were a major force in bringing me into the world of Music and sustaining me professionally and personally with a deep, strong grounding. Families bonded closely, stereotypes and differences were dissolved, and there was an overall purpose of life and a smile on the face at the end of the day.
Sathya Sai movement
One day, after many years into professional singing and teaching, I landed in Los Angeles, USA, where after a long break from my Bhajan practice, I was brought in touch with some Sathya Sai devotees. I used to accompany them every Thursday to the Bhajan congregations that took place in Tustin Centre, where over 300 devotees used to gather for a single purpose. I can describe my first experience witnessing 300 people singing in unison, with devotion and discipline as nothing short of “awe- inspiring”. This had a great impact on my mind and being. I quickly became a regular participant at these Bhajans and also began composing songs on Baba. What struck me the most was that a Swami residing far off in Puttaparthi, India could instill so much of love, discipline, compassion and character in millions of devotees around the world, who are in turn helping thousands of others in their respective local communities. It was then that I realised the power of Bhajans. People across nationalities, whether Chinese, Africans, Europeans, South Americans or Japanese resonated in perfect harmony to the Bhajan sessions and connected to Baba on a deeper, personal level. The Bhajan had the power to transcend religion, language and culture and unite people for a greater good.
Other noteworthy movements propagating Bhajans and Satsangs such as Art of Living, Chinmaya Mission, Ramakrishna Mission, Mata Amritanandamayi, Isha Yoga and Ganapati Sachidananda to name a few, are taking this tradition and Sampradaya to a global audience.
Dr. Nagendra, the Chancellor of the S – Vyasa Yoga University says “Even simple Namavalis (simple melodies, with one line of lyrics) serve the purpose of invoking various emotions. Bhajan sessions in the Prayer Hall are structured to invoke specific emotions, and amplify or diffuse them. As the tempo builds up with speed and drum beats, emotions increase in intensity and the vibrations begin to be felt in different parts of the body. Each drum beat can crack innate blocks and obsessions, to make one more open on the inside. The vibrations are also subtle and create resonances in the whole body. The Dhuns and Japa repeated in the mind, create the same resonant waves throughout the body. Understanding that silence and tranquility is bliss, it often brings an ecstasy of serene silence. Remembering these as a gift of God and seeking his blessings to become a fitter instrument in His service, and to see Him or Her in every human being, in every part of the creation, helps us to serve man as God. Each act of service is for our own growth and purifies us to grow in Sadhana”
Thus, we can infer that the joy and contentment derived from practicing and listening to Bhajan are profoundly transformative. The listening and singing of Bhajan impart peace of mind, are able to purify our thoughts. Listening and singing of Bhajan helps to promote immunity and increases Prana (energy) level. It’s positive vibrations relieve anxiety and act as an antidepressant. Researchers have concluded that Bhajans and Chants, increases the activity in the cells which releases “Dopamine”, the happiness hormone. It is also proven by various studies that listening to Bhajans activates specific parts of our brain which make us more analytical and attentive. Bhajans also help in building a more positive outlook towards life. Bhajans have the ability to increase social awareness and empathy, and in turn create meaningful and lasting Human relationships.
Congregational singing has the power to open our hearts, make us more sensitive and reconnect to our natural state of love and innocence. Many of the saint composers highlighted the significance of cleansing oneself and using our purified self in the service of Humanity. The saying “Lokaa Samasthaa Sukhino Bhavantu” has truly been epitomised by the Bhajana Sampradaya and it’s practitioners in the past and present. As for the future, the flame of ‘One world, One humanity’ must be kept burning, and here India is showing the way.