Twenty-three-year-old Gaithersburg, Md. athletic trainer Sha Golanski was among those who took the microphone for a turn of "He Ma Durga," a Sanskrit chant to maternal love. Having grown up in a charismatic Assemblies of God church, the kirtan's call-and-response style felt familiar, he said.
"It fulfills a very basic need — to come together, to share something as a group," he said. The fact that he didn't know the mantra's meaning wasn't important, he said.
Golanski is like many kirtan attendees, people who fell away from their childhood faith but still seek ways to experience the divine. The swath of America that has no particular religious affiliation — but that rejects "atheist" or "agnostic" labels — has stretched from 8 percent in 1990 to nearly 20 percent today. This is kirtan's market.
"Human beings need ecstasy. And this is like taking holy communion. It has the quality of evoking joy," said Grace Ogden, a former conference director at Washington National Cathedral who produces events independently now and calls herself a "Buddhapalian."
Ogden, 51, has participated in kirtans for years and says she doesn't know the translation of every chant. The power, she says, is in knowing that the words are ancient and holy.
"Kirtan is where yoga and religion come together," said Hari-kirtana Das, a yoga and kirtan teacher who lives in Northwest. He calls kirtan "the most accessible way to get into the spiritual aspect of yoga." While many yoga teachers try to weave a few minutes of yogic philosophy in with the tush-tightening poses, kirtan is more accessible because it's experiential.
"What makes the sound powerful is when it's transcendental. And what is it about the name of the Lord that makes it holy? The sound itself is spiritual," he said. "When we sing kirtan, we're not singing about ourselves, we're singing about a supreme being who we have a relationship with."