For decades, Swick had thought that she wasn’t religious unless she identified with “some man-God off in some alternate universe in the sky somewhere.” Yet in that room, enveloped by the rich music and the group repetition of a single sacred phrase (although at the time indecipherable to her), Swick felt powerfully connected to something divine.
She was soaring.
She was praying.
“It was an expression of a feeling there wasn’t room for in my life at the time, some of those feelings of praise. Where does the word ‘praise’ fit into an atheist’s life?” said Swick, a project manager for architecture and design firms in Montgomery County who no longer considers herself an atheist.
After a few years of seeing kirtans only sporadically in the Washington area, Swick launched a monthly one in 2009. Today, there are about 15 such groups meeting regularly in the region; one can find several kirtans most weekend nights, held in homes or yoga studios. Last February, Sirius XM Radio launched a channel largely devoted to kirtan-style chant, which has morphed to include hip-hopper MC Yogi (whose popular chant-songs include “Ganesh Is Fresh”). Some 4,000 people come each January to the California desert for a four-year-old Zen-out called BhaktiFest that’s heavily centered on kirtan.
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 in Northwest, 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.”