I don’t think I’m ready to be delivered from the material world. Among other reasons, there is chocolate babka. Another one is carving long, delicious, joyous turns on a snowboard.
So, it makes perfect sense that I was uncomfortable chanting the Maha Mantra (which included variations on “Hari Krishna”), at an otherwise lovely 90 minutes or so of kirtan, at Rivergarden Yoga, last Friday.
I still have much to learn, starting with a direct (and overdue) reading of some yogic texts, so for now I’ll post my observations.
One of the yoga studios I frequent has a monthly kirtan event. Several musicians gather, and the public is invited to join in an hour or so enjoying the music, and participating in the singing component. Kirtan is a call-and-response type of singing, with fairly simple, though usually in Sanskrit, lyrics. The words (or syllables, more precisely, for people who aren’t so familiar with the words) are often provided on a printed sheet. Sometimes the sheet offers translations.
This was my second longer experience with kirtan; the first lasted about 30 minutes, at the start of a Janet Stone workshop that had about 50 enthusiastic yogis, many of them teacher-training classmates, in a very warm room, last winter. Then, I remember being surprised that 30 minutes had passed. I remember enjoying the volume, the physical and mental hum of so many people verbalizing the same sounds, many layers of “aum.” Most of us were there for a similar, though broad reason: learn more about yoga, and open our minds. Have a new experience, and see if we liked it. Since then, I’ve been to a few special yoga classes that opened and closed with a few minutes of kirtan.
I went to this event because I was very thirsty for live music, I wanted to try a little more kirtan, and I wanted to support the yoga studio by attending. It was advertised that a harp and a harmonium would be involved. A harmonium! I’d never heard nor seen one of those.
Well, experiencing that harmonium is one of my two takeaways from the event. It was about the size of an accordion, but it sat on the floor, in front of the musician, Melissa Fossum. Watching it was mesmerizing, though perhaps part of the feeling was due many things going on in the room (beautiful sounds (music is like a drug!), chants that appeared to spiritually uplift a few people in the room, friendly faces, hearing my singing voice for the first time in a long time). I sat in front of the instrument, facing the bellows, which had about ten little circular holes through which air entered. As the musician continually pumped the bellows, light either did or did not show through the holes, so the color behind the holes alternated between black and white. I don’t mean to discredit the musician, as she was clearly very talented, but just the visuals had me nearly in a trance.
Twelve of us sat in a semi-circle around four musicians: in addition to the harpist and harmonium player (who was also leading the singing), a guitarist was there, and later, a percussionist arrived with a drum (a doumbek, perhaps) and tambourine. Thy were all friendly-looking people who did not wear long flowing robes, though the kirtan musician had a very beautiful head scarf on. Stapled packets of lyrics were passed out, with special instruction to be careful to keep the sheets from touching the floor. Lyrics were on the first three sheets, with another three containing some translation. Throughout the evening, the harmonium player selected the various mantras that we sang. There were about five or six, selected from the 20 or so on the sheets.
We started with an evocation of Ganesha, with which I’m familiar, and enjoy. I have no problem calling out to a deity with the head of an elephant, who is known as the remover of obstacles, who can perhaps help out with a new venture or even just to help a single particular event go well. Perhaps I borrow too easily, though I do believe that one should not turn away help.
The mantra selections moved on into less familiar territory. The sounds were beautiful, and for most of them, I didn’t mind not knowing what I was singing. The translation sheet left many things vague.
Here, we arrive at my other takeaway from Friday evening. The mantra I stumbled on was the Maha Mantra. I sang it, just fine: the syllables were not difficult, nor was the tune. It was a lovely melody, really. However, the eccentric connotation that mainstream American culture has given it, is what unsettled my mind, and drove me to seek translation. There are too many movies and experiences in airports, with groups of people wearing flowing single-color robes, oblivious to others, singing this mantra. I dug into the translation page, and found nothing to clarify things for me, sufficiently, that night.
In the days since then, I’ve found that the words appear to all be different ways to invoke or greet the Hindu god Krishna, who is an incarnation of Vishnu, the all-powerful. God himself. So, one could extrapolate that Krishna is like Jesus. As a Christian-raised American, I was raised invoking Jesus in quite a few songs. While I have my own reservations on that, as well, in general I am comfortable with it. So, the Maha Mantra is just different vocabulary. We’ll all get to where we want to be. Maybe with help from a higher power, if we think we need or want it. This is likely way too much religion for a yoga-related post, but at some point, you can’t get away from what you believe.
There’s another angle to the Maha Mantra, however. One website relates that chanting it “… can deliver one to the realm beyond material existence.” Whether that’s a literal end to this life, or a temporary ecstasy, or something else, it’s huge, and thus a little awkward for me to be trying to do, en masse.
I recognize the risk in jumping to conclusions, but that about sums up why I was uncomfortable with the Maha Mantra. I’m not ready to move on. I’m still a work in progress, and I fully admit that there are things in this life –meaning both this mortal existence as well as the way I’m choosing to live it– that I like spending time doing.