By sound one becomes liberated.
Brahma Sutras (4.4.22)
Since the beginning of time, song and chant have been used as forms of prayer. They help us express the inexpressible when words don’t suffice. Singing or listening, we forget ourselves and unleash a call from the depths. Music reminds us of this call, as it stirs the soul's yearning.
In truth, what do we hunger for but our own song, our own light? Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan said, “Our whole being is music.” If this is so, it seems fitting that we should use music to remember who we are.
In almost every spiritual tradition, chanting plays an important role. Like alchemy, the repetitive sounds help us let go of painful emotions that sometimes stay lodged in the heart like splinters. By providing a powerful point of concentration and helping us feel, chanting offers an effective technology on our journey to self-knowledge.
While a select few may find it easy to sit on a cushion and commune with the cosmic forces, most of us struggle to concentrate for even 30 seconds. Hindu philosophy offers a potential reason for this: We are in the midst of the Kali Yuga, the Dark Age of Materialism. It is said that the vibrations during this time make silent meditation a bit challenging. What we need, say the sages, are practices that help us drop inside more easily. Kirtan, which utilizes the inborn instrument of our voice, is one such practice.
Kirtan is a form of call-and-response chanting with roots in the bhakti yoga tradition. Bhakti is the yoga of love and devotion, the path of the heart. Those who originally followed this ecstatic way rejected convention and spent their lives in praise of the divine through singing, dancing, storytelling, and poetry. These lovers weren’t interested in studying the scriptures or performing yogic acrobatics; they simply wanted to imbibe the wine of love. How did they do this? By chanting mantras, longing for truth, and seeing the grace in all things.
The word mantra is derived from two Sanskrit syllables: manas or “mind” and trai, to "protect" or to “free from.” Essentially, the word mantra means, “to free from the mind.” While the subtle meaning of mantras can’t be understood with the intellect alone, ultimately that isn’t what matters. What matters is that the sounds can help to remove the veils of perception that cause us to forget who we are. Through chanting, we remember.
The Sages developed music from time immemorial to take shelter in one's pure being, which stands apart as one's True Self. Real music is not for wealth, not for honors, not for name and fame, and not even for the joys of the mind. It is a form of Yoga (union), it is a path for realization and awakening.
Ali Akbar Khan