Chanting for the spiritual-but-not-religious

This morning’s Washington Post has an interesting article on the growing popularity of kirtan, a form of Hindu chanting, among the spiritual-but-not-religious set.

A couple of things struck me. First, you have to read pretty far into the article before you find the connection of kirtan and Hinduism. This might well reflect the attitude of the practitioners of kirtan. After all, Hinduism is one of the most “religious” of religions, with an extensive canon of scriptures, elaborate rituals (including sacrifices), a cult of holy figures, ascetic practices, a well developed scholastic theological tradition, and so forth. If one is inclined to be spiritual-but-not-religious then one might well want to create some distance between kirtan and Hinduism. Though I’ve got to say that the pictures in the photo gallery make the kirtan gatherings look pretty darn religious.

Second, the article compares kirtan to both Gregorian chant and to evangelical/pentecostal praise songs. Curious, I found a kirtan sampler on YouTube. From the examples there, it is much more in the praise song genre than the chant genre (maybe the WaPo is now following the example of the new translation of the GIRM and calling any religious song “chant”). I wonder how much it has been adapted to American sensibilities? Is this Hindu inculturation?

In any case, I though the article was an interesting testimony to the power of ritual music and made me think about the importance of music in liturgy.


  1. >>From the examples there, it is much more in the praise song genre than the chant genre

    Yes. I’ve spent time with Hare Krsna’s, and that was my observation of their chant as well. And I don’t think it is just Western enculturation. My amateur sense of things is that Middle-Eastern (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) chant is text-centric: the chant illuminates the text; Eastern (Hindu, Budhist) chant is experience-focused, taking the form of mantras, etc. I had never thought much about the connection to “praise songs” as such, but I think you’re right.

    Interestingly, Taize singing has more in common with Eastern, mantra-style singing than with Gregorian plainsong- and it is called “chant” by those who champion it, and counted along with “praise choruses” by those who find it trite and distasteful.

    Also, interestingly- what we call “chant,” at least in reference to Psalm tones and Proper antiphons (as opposed to hymns) might not be considered as singing/music in an Eastern religious context, but merely “reciting.” (This is an amateur, off-the-cuff observation. I’d love to know if anyone has enough expertise in these fields to correct or confirm it.)

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