Kirtan — its pronunciation varies — may be the prayer of the spiritual-but-not-religious, America's fastest-growing faith group — a way back to God through ecstatic experience rather than the passive intellectualism that institutional faith has become for many.
No doubt, sitting on the floor chanting Sanskrit phrases under soft lights isn't for everyone, but it's for a lot more people than it was a few decades ago, when Sanskrit chanting was reserved for the Hare Krishna. Demand is suddenly so great that kirtans are being offered at many local studios for yoga, which, like meditation, has become a gateway to the transcendent for millions of secular Americans who still, in some quiet corner, believe in God.
Some spiritual leaders see kirtan's rise as a wake-up call to much of denominational religion. It fills a need to experience the divine. In with the intense, personal God, out with the aloof, remote one.
Gil Steinlauf, rabbi of Washington's largest synagogue, Adas Israel, said he is revamping its daily prayer meeting to include a chant on one psalm. He is also highlighting medieval call-and-response poetry during the high holidays.
"We are in the process of a paradigm shift, and kirtan represents that. The role it plays is very much in sync with the elements of Judaism we need to return to," he said. "There is something extraordinary that happens when you have prayer or chanting that is a deep, implied relationship between leaders and people who are singing back and forth to one another. In that relationship, there is a profound sense of connection and interconnection that is transformational. That's the experiential thing with kirtan."
Devotional chant, of course, is not exclusive to Indian culture or Hinduism, of which kirtan is a part. Gregorian chant, typically associated with the Catholic Church, is centuries old and experienced a popular surge in the 1980s and '90s, thanks to a rightward tilt in the church and New Age enthusiasts, as well. Buddhism, Islam and Judaism have their own chants, but the boom in fascination with Eastern culture has produced such people as Rabbi Andrew Hahn, a.k.a. "The Kirtan Rabbi," who leads dozens of transfixed Jews with Indian music and holy Hebrew phases.