Sankirtana–What Makes it So Effective

Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa)


When we talk about sankirtana, we are, of course, talking about the congregational chanting of the Lord’s holy names, specifically in the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. For many people, this is the first way they come in contact with the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra, and with Lord Chaitanya’s sankirtana movement, by hearing the devotees chanting the holy names. But what is it about this process that makes it so effective, and so important in the way people are first exposed to it?

To answer this, we find specific evidence in the works of Jiva Goswami who explains it a most insightful way.


First of all, we find information about the importance of sankirtana for this age of Kali-yuga. In his Sri Krishna-sandarbha, Anuccheda 82, Jiva Goswami explains: "Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and His holy names, qualities, and pastimes are sublime and unequaled. That no other holy name of the Lord is equal to the name of Krishna is confirmed in the following verse from the Sri Krsnastottara-shata-nama-stotra, found in the Brahmanda Purana: ‘By chanting the holy name of Lord Krishna only once, one achieves the same purifying effect obtained by chanting other names of the Supreme Lord three thousand times.’"

Then, continuing in his Sri Bhakti-sandarbha, we find important additional information which clarifies things even further. Starting at Anuccheda 270, he explains how and why kirtana is the recommended process for Kali-yuga:

"This devotion to the Lord in the form of kirtana is unlimitedly merciful to devotees who are humble and devoid of the pride associated with wealth, prestigious birth, admirable qualifications and praiseworthy accomplishments. This is understood from the Vedas and the Puranas. As stated in the Brahma-vaivarta Purana:

"‘Therefore in Kali-yuga, activities such as penance, yoga, study of the Vedas and sacrifices, cannot be properly performed, even by those who are highly competent.’

"Therefore sankirtana, appearing amidst the people of Kali-yuga, who are naturally meek, easily confers upon them all the results derived from the practices prominent in other yugas and thus makes them perfect. For this reason, the Lord is especially pleased in Kali-yuga only by sankirtana, as stated in the Caturmasya-mahatmya of the Skanda Purana: ‘In this world, singing about Lord Hari is the best penance. In Kali-yuga especially, one should perform kirtana for the pleasure of Lord Vishnu.’

"The same point is made by sage Sukadeva: ‘What is attained in Satya-yuga by meditating on Lord Vishnu, and in Treta-yuga by propitiating Him with elaborate sacrifices, and in Dvapara-yuga by worship of the deity, is attained in Kali-yuga by singing about Lord Hari’ (Bhagavatam 12.3.52)

"Also, ‘Whatever one achieves in Satya-yuga by meditation, in Treta-yuga by the performance of sacrifices [rituals], and in Dvapara-yuga by worship of the deity, is attained in Kali-yuga by singing about Lord Keshava.’" (Vishnu Purana 6.2.17)

Furthermore, the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.5.36-37) says: "Those who are actually advanced in knowledge are able to appreciate the essential value of this age of Kali. Such enlightened persons worship Kali-yuga because in this fallen age, all perfection of life can easily be achieved by the performance of sankirtana. Indeed, there is no higher possible gain for embodied souls forced to wander throughout the material world than the Supreme Lord’s sankirtana movement, by which one can attain the supreme peace and free oneself from the cycle of repeated birth and death."

So, in many ways, the Lord is so merciful that since this is the worst age, the Lord has given us the easiest way to be delivered from this situation of the repeated cycles of birth and death. In whatever other method of spiritual development that is possible, in Kali-yuga a person can attain whatever is necessary by the process of sankirtana. It cannot get much easier than that.

Jiva Goswami continues to elaborate on the above verse, "... supreme peace means that one attains the pinnacle of fixity in the Lord, which is unattainable even by meditation and other methods, and as a concomitant result, one’s material bondage is also destroyed. Thus, even the people of Satya-yuga, who were established in meditation, could not attain such fixity in the Lord.

"In the Skanda Purana it is said: ‘In Kali-yuga great devotees always perform kirtana.’ In other yugas, the Lord, who bestows special grace only upon the meek, did not reveal the process, or the glory, of kirtana, which is the cause of such fixity in Him. According to the above statement from the Skanda Purana, the reason why the Lord did not promulgate kirtana in other yugas is because the people of those times had the ability to follow the processes recommended for their respective ages. Consequently, the people of those ages, who were fit for meditation and other practices, would not have considered the mere movement of the tongue and lips as much of a spiritual practice, and thus they would not have faith in kirtana."

This is the benefit of Kali-yuga. The processes that take years to develop in other ages can be quickly accomplished in a short life in Kali-yuga. For this reason, as related in the Bhagavatam (11.5.38), "The inhabitants of Satya-yuga and other ages eagerly desire to take birth in this age of Kali, since in this age there will be many devotees of the Supreme Lord." This also indicates that there will be the process of sankirtana that will be popular amongst those devotees, which is all that makes the age of Kali-yuga attractive.

Therefore, as it is said in the Skanda Purana, the Vaisakha-mahatmya of the Padma Purana, and the Vishnu-dharma, "At all times and in every place one should sing the names of the Lord, the wielder of the disc." And in the Skanda Purana again, "the chanting of the holy names is not dependent upon any particular place, time, condition or purity of the heart. Rather, it is fully independent and awards the result desired by the aspirant." And again in the Vishnu-dharma, "For one in whose heart Lord Govinda is situated, the age of Kali is Satya-yuga, and for one in whose heart Lord Achyuta is not present, the age of Satya is Kali-yuga."


Going back to Jiva Goswami’s Sri Bhakti-sandarbha, Anuccheda 273, he explains how kirtana is the superior process for all. "In the Vishnu Purana it is said: ‘By fixing the mind on Krishna, one does not go to hell. Those who have fixed their hearts and minds on Krishna consider even the pleasure of heaven as an obstacle to meditation on Him. Then, even Satya-loka, the planet of Brahma, appears insignificant. It is no wonder then that the sins of those who sing the names of Lord Achyuta are destroyed, because the imperishable Lord, becoming situated in the hearts of those who are pure in mind, grants them liberation.’ (Vishnu Purana 6.8.55)

"This verse of the Vishnu Purana shows by the kaimutya principle the superiority of kirtana over remembrance of Krishna, which continues even in the state of trance.

"Therefore, it was said earlier: ‘O King, constant chanting of the holy name of the Lord after the ways of the great authorities is the doubtless and fearless way of success for all, including those who are free from all material desires, and also those who are desirous of all material enjoyment, as well as those who are self-satisfied by dint of transcendental knowledge.’ (Bhagavatam 2.1.11)

"And in the Vaishnava chintamani, ‘The remembrance of Lord Vishnu, which destroys sin, is attained through tremendous effort. Therefore, singing is superior to remembrance because it is accomplished merely by moving the lips.’

"The superiority of kirtana is shown elsewhere also: ‘O descendant of Bharata, the names of Lord Hari are always present on the tongue of one who has properly worshiped Lord Vasudeva for hundreds of previous lives.’

"The preeminence of kirtana is also understood from the Namaparadha-bhanjana-stotra, already cited in Anuccheda 265, which states that the holy name delivers one even from offences to Lord Hari.

"Thus, in all yugas, singing the Lord’s name has the same power. Nonetheless, in Kali-yuga, the Lord personally advocates the method of kirtana out of His grace, and for this reason kirtana has been specifically praised in scripture for the age of Kali. So, if one performs any other type of bhakti in Kali-yuga, it should be accompanied by kirtana, for it is said (Bhagavatam 11.5.32): ‘In the age of Kali-yuga, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the names of Krishna. Although His complexion is not blackish, He is Krishna Himself. He is accompanied by His associates, servants, weapons and confidential companions."

In Anuccheda 265, Jiva Goswami explains that "After the glorification of the Bhagavata Purana, Sri Suka begins the narration. From the very outset, although there are many limbs of devotion, he instructs the king that singing the Lord’s names is the chief of all methods for attaining perfection. Furthermore, he informs the king that such singing of the Lord’s names is also the supreme goal for all.

"O King, constant chanting of the holy name of the Lord after the ways of the great authorities is the doubtless and fearless way of success for all, including those who are free from all material desires, and also those who are desirous of all material enjoyment, as well as those who are self-satisfied by dint of transcendental knowledge." (Bhagavatam 2.1.11)

[The great commentator on the Bhagavatam] "Sridhara Swami comments: ‘There is no method more beneficial than singing the Lord’s names, both for practitioners and for those who have already attained perfection. Sri Suka speaks this verse just to make this clear. For those desiring material enjoyment, singing the Lord’s names is the very means by which their desires can be fulfilled. For those who seek liberation, this alone is the means of salvation. And for those who seek knowledge of the Absolute, this also has been determined as the goal. By saying that this has already been concluded, it indicates that there is no need for further evidence in this regard.’

Then Narada Muni describes his own experience after being instructed by the Lord, and just before leaving his material body to be transferred to a spiritual body, "Thus I began chanting the holy name and fame of the Lord by repeated recitation, ignoring all the formalities of the material world. Such chanting and remembering of the transcendental pastimes of the Lord are benedictory. So doing, I traveled all over the earth, fully satisfied, humble and unenvious." (Bhagavatam 1.6.26)

This is the power of the process of chanting and singing about the glories of the Lord, which is attained only after many lifetimes of spiritual pursuits, or by the rare blessing of a pure devotee. Nonetheless, it is also recommended to avoid the ten offenses to the holy name if a person wants to make rapid progress.


Also, simply remembering Krishna is itself the epitome of yoga, as Lord Krishna says in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.13.14). Therefore, anything that helps us remember Krishna, whether singing, chanting, or reciting and reading about Him, puts us in touch with Him as the Supreme Reality.

In this connection, in Anuccheda 269 of Sri Bhakti-sandarbha, Srila Jiva Goswami explains how speaking about the Lord is real, by quoting the verses from the Srimad-Bhagavatam (12.12.49-50): "Words that do not describe the transcendental Personality of Godhead but instead deal with temporary matters are simply false and useless. Only those words that manifest the transcendental qualities of the Supreme Lord are actually truthful, auspicious and pious. Those words describing the glories of the all-famous Personality of Godhead are attractive, relishable and ever fresh. Indeed, such words are a perpetual festival for the mind, and they dry up the ocean of misery."

"The word asatih here means false, and asatam, extracted from the compound asat-katha, refers to speech about people other than the Lord and His devotees. These adjectives describe speech that is unrelated to the Lord. On the other hand, that speech in which the fame of the glorious Lord is sung is alone real and endowed with the other virtues mentioned in these two verses. This refers specifically to recitations of the Lord’s pastimes. And why is this speech true and auspicious? In answer to this, Suta says that this speech causes the Lord’s qualities to be revealed in the heart of the speaker. This means that such discussions generate love for the Lord."



Now we are starting to approach the unique view that I want to highlight in Jiva Goswami’s explanation of how and why sankirtana is so potent. It is because it invokes and inspires the love that all conditioned souls are continually looking for. No matter what a person does, it is done for expressing or seeking love. But that love outside the connection with the Supreme Person is only a reflection of the real love for which the soul is always seeking. And that real love, which is spiritual, is often first experienced to some degree by someone who hears the transcendental sound of the chanting of the holy names of the Lord.

The sound of the holy names enters the ears, and then passes through the mind, which may interpret it as being attractive. But the vibration goes deeper through the intelligence until it reaches the soul, which then reverberates the sound because of the love that is invoked in the soul. It is that love, or even the reflection of it, that captures the soul. The soul wants to dive more deeply into this feeling and then focuses on the chanting and singing of the holy names. This is more than merely playing the mridunga drums in a traditional or attractive way, which may indeed attract some people. It is more than singing the traditional melodies. But it is the love for Lord Krishna which the kirtan leaders inject into the vibration of the holy names which inspires the listeners to want to become part of the kirtana. Even Srila Prabhupada once explained in a lecture (Bg. 7.1, in LA, Dec. 2, 1968) that in leading a kirtana, our first business is to please Krishna. Then we give the crowd Krishna, which will then please the participants.

This reflects on the fact that if there is a universal language, it is music. Music can capture moods, attitudes, longings, and inspirations even when the language of the words are not fully understood. And when the language is the transcendental, spiritual vibrations of the Lord’s holy names, qualities and characteristics, a person can feel like they are coming home, or have even arrived at what they have been searching for over many lifetimes, which is the divine love in connection with Lord Krishna.

This is also why it is important that the kirtana leaders use a melody which is easy to follow, in which people can easily join in and participate. That is the key–they become participants in this form of devotional service. For many, it may be the first act of devotional service to the Lord that they have ever performed. And if they can join in, then they get the added benefit of not merely listening, but in participating in the sankirtana. Otherwise, if the melody is complicated or difficult to follow, then the audience may simply stand or sit there and become mere observers, and cannot easily participate in singing along. Listening is also greatly beneficial, but participating in the kirtana is even better. Plus, the more people who join in the singing, the more powerful it becomes.

It is like the explanation of the difference between the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana. The Vishnu Purana often contains the same stories, even elaborations of details not found in the Bhagavatam. But it is said that the Vishnu Purana is described from the point of view as a reporter telling the stories. But the Bhagavata Purana is sweeter because it tells the stories from the view of a participant, someone who is actively involved in the events that are being described. So, it is much more intimate and endearing.

As described by Jiva Goswami in Anuccheda 266, "When the beauty of Lord Krishna’s form is glorified, it creates an attraction for the speech of the poets who sing the glories of the Lord’s form.

"Therefore, the four Kumaras also prayed: ‘O Lord, we pray that You let us be born in any hellish condition of life, just as long as our hearts and minds are always engaged in the service of Your lotus feet, our words are made beautiful [by speaking of Your activities] just as tulasi leaves are beautified when offered unto Your lotus feet, and as long as our ears are always filled with the chanting of Your transcendental qualities.’" (Bhagavatam 3.15.49)

In this way, the more love there is in the descriptions of the glories of the Lord, the more it attracts the listeners who then can feel that love. The extent of the feeling of love for the Lord is expressed in the verse from the Bhagavatam (11.2.40), "By chanting the holy name of the Supreme Lord, one comes to the stage of love of Godhead. Then the devotee is fixed in his vow as an eternal servant of the Lord, and he gradually becomes very much attached to a particular name and form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As his heart melts with ecstatic love, he laughs very loudly or cries or shouts. Sometimes he sings and dances like a madman, for he is indifferent to public opinion."

Furthermore, in Anuccheda 264, Jiva Goswami says that the effect of chanting or singing the Lord’s names also grants one direct experience of the Lord’s attributes. Through this process, it opens the channels for direct experience and realization.


The other aspect of how sankirtana invokes love, is that singing and chanting about the Lord attracts the Lord Himself. As Jiva Goswami continues to explain in Anuccheda 269: "In the Skanda Purana it is said ’O King, Lord Hari goes wherever stories about Him and His devotees are sung, just as a cow follows her calf out of great affection.’

"In the Vishnu-dharma and in the Skanda Purana the Lord says: ‘I never abandon a person who always narrates my stories, one who is intent on hearing them, or one whose mind is captivated by My stories.’

"The verb anugiyate, meaning ‘is repeatedly sung,’ in the above verse from the Bhagavatam (12.12.50) implies that if one has a melodious voice, he or she should sing the pastimes of the Lord. This implies that singing the pastimes of the Lord is superior to simple hearing and recitation. The same is true about singing about the holy names, forms and qualities of the Lord."

In Anuccheda 262, we find "The chanting of the holy name of Lord Vishnu is the best process of atonement for a thief of gold or other valuables, for a drunkard, for one who betrays a friend or relative, for one who kills a brahmana, etc... Simply by chanting the holy name of Lord Vishnu, such sinful persons may attract the attention of the Supreme Lord, who therefore considers, ‘Because this person has chanted My holy name, My duty is to give him protection.’ (Bhagavatam 6.2.10)

"Sridhara Swami comments: ‘This alone is the best form of atonement. The reason for this is that when a person chants God’s names, it attracts the attention of Lord Vishnu, who thinks, ‘This person belongs to Me, and as such, I should protect him.’

"Therefore, because the Lord’s name is part of His constitutional nature, it naturally impels Him to become absorbed in love for His devotees, who chant His names. As such, hearing even a part of the Lord’s names induces love in the great devotees of the Lord."

In Anuccheda 268, Jiva Goswami uses the verse from the Bhagavatam (2.8.4) to explain that the Lord becomes so attracted to the devotee that He enters their heart. "Persons who hear [and recite the activities of the Lord as in] Srimad-Bhagavatam regularly and are always taking the matter very seriously will have the Personality of Godhead Sri Krishna manifested in their hearts within a short time."

"The adverbial phrase nati-dirghena kalena, qualifying the verb ‘enters,’ means that the Lord enters the devotee’s heart without delay. The verb vishate, meaning ‘He enters,’ means that the Lord directly appears in the devotee’s heart."

In this way, as the devotee becomes qualified for the Lord to enter his or her heart, so does the recitation or the singing of the holy names as in sankirtana become all the more potent and attractive. It is the love within the heart of the devotee that makes the sankirtana such a beautiful experience for those who hear it. The more love that is there, the more the Lord directly manifests within, and the more the listeners become enlivened by that spiritual vibration.


In Jiva Goswami’s Sri Bhakti-sandarbha, Anuccheda 267 we find the verse from the Bhagavatam (1.5.22) that explains how all spiritual pursuits reach their zenith in bringing us to engage in reading, chanting and singing the holy names and characteristics of the Supreme Being: "Learned circles have positively concluded that the infallible purpose of the advancement of knowledge, namely austerities, study of the Vedas, sacrifice, chanting of hymns and charity, culminates in the transcendental descriptions of the Lord, who is defined in choice poetry."

"The word srutam means study of the Vedas; svishtam, sacrifices; suktam, recitation of mantras; buddham, scriptural knowledge; and dattam means gifts given in charity. When all of such acts are offered exclusively to the Lord, they bear eternal fruit. And what is that eternal fruit? Being able to engage in regular recitation of the virtues of the glorious Lord.

"Even after attaining the supreme goal in the form of recitation of the Lord’s qualities out of love, one experiences ever-fresh delight in continuing to describe those qualities. It is for this reason that the adjective avichyuta has been used, which means that this result does not come to an end. Thus, the adjective avichyuta, ‘eternal [fruit]’ indicates that love for the Lord is the actual fruit of the recitation of His virtues."

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare

Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare



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