Harinam Keertan – The Stuff Of Original Indic Soft Power

Sumati Mehrishi

Jul 12, 2018, 07:33 PM | Updated 07:33 PM IST

The Rath Yatra
The Rath Yatra
  • Chanting of mahamantra for Shri Jagannath is a cultural catalyst. From Puri, it has evolved and drawn millions from across the world to him, Krishna and Ram.
  • The musical offering made to Shri Jagannath has been a tenacious tradition. For many bhakts (devotees) of Jagannath, who are not born Odia, the chant of “Jai Jagannath”, its singing and spontaneous rupture in dance at the Rath Yatra, shrinks distance. The pull is enormous. So powerful, you want to claim Shri Jagannath from the Odias (who lovingly call him ‘deity of Odias’). Steal him from them, like Krishna stole butter. “Hare Krishna”. “Jai Jagannath”. If the rath is a vehicle for Jagannath, chants soaked in music and percussion are the vehicle for bhakts to connect with their lord. In the collective chanting done by Jagganath’s devotees, Jagannath is where Krishna is, Krishna, where Jagannath is.

    Seeing the bhakts, Sri Jagannath sways in joy, back and forth. The ocean of devotees dwells at his doorstep, swells more with each passing movement. They arrive in gentle lashes to Puri, for a glimpse of Jagannath. “Jai Jagannath” – the chants erupt – from the dwar (entrance) of the Jagannath Temple in Puri, into the sound of brass cymbals, percussion, and ‘Harinam’ – the name of god.

    Kashinath Das, a priest from Odisha living in Delhi, says, “that swaying of Jagannath is the seed of celebration”. Jagannath rocks, gently, in the cradle of arms that hold him. For devotees of Krishna, this sight is seemingly sufficient to know Jagannath. “Bhajo Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam, Japo Hare Krishna... devotees at the Rath Yatra sing,” Kashinath Das adds.

    The sound of chants moves like a current, from one end to another, before Jagannath and his siblings and millions of devotees. The heady and soaring blend of voices, singing and music, spools over with his moving chariot. Some settles in the gut. His devotees pull the rath towards Gundicha Temple from his abode, and back. Jagannath sways, safely in the hands of devotees, who carry him, from the temple to the crowds outside, where he is meant to meet, mingle and melt into the milieu.

    This swaying movement of Jagannath finds itself in the different elements at the yatra. In Shri Jagannath’s travel between the two destinations. In the journey of his devotees between the two destinations. In their footsteps, in the swaying between the names ‘Ram’ and ‘Krishna’, in the swaying between ‘Ram-Krishna’ and ‘Jagannath’. In the swaying between ‘three’ and ‘one’.

    His name fuses into other chants – “Krishna”. “Hare Krishna”. “Ram”. “Hare Ram”. “Nitai Gauranga”. In Puri for Jagannath, arrives Krishna. In Puri, for Jagannath, follows Ram. “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Ram Ram, Hare Hare.” In Puri, for Jagannath, Krishna lends his melody to a celebration. In Puri, for Jagannath, a tradition brought by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, dances and sings. It brings the mahamantra, the great mantra carrying the name of god, once again to the Rath Yatra. “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Ram Ram, Hare Hare” – the 16 words that travelled the world, as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had wished, envelope Puri.

    The mesmerising clutter of Kartal, Manjeera, the sporadic calling of Jagannath’ conceal the secret to why he cannot and does not remain within Puri and with the people of Odisha alone. 
    The mesmerising clutter of Kartal, Manjeera, the sporadic calling of Jagannath’ conceal the secret to why he cannot and does not remain within Puri and with the people of Odisha alone. 

    When Jagannath himself joins his devotees in the eternal rhythm of the Rath Yatra, music finds its purest purpose and meaning. From the Jagannath Temple in Puri, flows out a trail of Harinam sankeertan, the singing of the name of ‘bhagwan’. It flows out, like an intangible Yamuna of the name of Krishna, of Ram, from Jagannath’s Puri. It travels from the different corners of the world back to Puri, and from Puri to the world after the Rath Yatra concludes.

    Jagbandhu Das, an Odia preist, says, “the word sankeertan is made of two words – sang (together) and keertan – meaning, remembering the name of bhagwan along with other devotees. It is the repetition of the name of bhagwan.”

    Anant Das, an Odia devotee of Jagannath, who consolidates troupes of performing artistes for ‘Harinam sankeertan’ and devotional songs dedicated to Jagannath in different towns and cities in North India, is currently in Odisha. He says, “the Harinam sankeertan came as a gift from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. It is the mahamantra. It wraps the devotees at the Rath Yatra after the initial cries of “Jai Jagannath”. There isn’t room left for other chants amidst the millions present at the Rath Yatra to see Jagannath.”

    For many devotees, the 16 words prepare the ground for exploring bigger meanings surrounding Krishna, Jagannath and the Bhagawad Gita. Jagbandhu Das, an Odia priest, says, “a listener and singer of the 16 words gradually understands that these songs and mantras came to greats like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Shankaracharya and Jaidev as per Bhagwan Jagannath’s own wish. What has gone into these lyrical expressions is what he wanted written, said and communicated, about him. Any saint as a bhakt, no matter how great, initially hesitates to write about the lord, to comment on him. He helps them write.”

    Last year, on the first day of the Rath Yatra, I wrote a customary “Jai Jagannath” on Twitter. Some responded with “Jai Jagannath” in return, reciprocating the emotion. Later in the day, I got a phone call. “What’s with Jai Jagannath?” the caller asked. There was curiosity and irritation in his voice. “Jai Jagannath,” I answered.

    “What’s with Jagannath?” Let me expand the question. “What does a person born far, far away from Odisha, physically distanced from cultural sensibilities that celebrate Jagannath and his siblings, find in the Rath Yatra?” The answer is short. ‘Krishna’.

    Harinam sankeertan, itself, comes across as a true musical depiction of Shatbhuj, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s form with six arms, where he is shown holding the bow and arrow of Ram in the upper two arms, Krishna’s flute in the middle two and the lower two holding the danda (stick) and kalash (water pot), his own. Chaitanya had said that Harinam, the name of the lord, would spread worldwide. It did. It has. Today, devotees chant, raising their hands, in a way similar to the local depictions of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu painted by artists of Puri over the centuries.

    Devotees singing Harinam from across the world converge on Puri. The locus of their creative activity is Shri Jagannath. The mesmerising clutter of kartal, manjeera, the sporadic and spontaneous calling of ‘Jagannath’, conceal the secret to why Jagannath cannot and does not remain within Puri and with the people of Odisha, alone.

    For anyone to think or believe in the twenty-first century that ‘Jagannath’ is a regional privilege, would be to say that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did not travel, sing, dance in devotion to Jagannath, Krishna and Ram. It would be to refuse the world one of the greatest stories of assimilation that has over race, region and recycled rootlessness, with the singing and cyclical repetition, and the singing together of 16 words – in sankeertan. It would be disregarding the purpose of a tradition evolved by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who travelled through different parts of India, taking the name of Krishna, from village to village – five centuries before Dr Stillson Judah delved into the Hare Krishna movement as a “counter culture”.

    Harinam sankeertan became the medium for millions around the world to connect with Jagannath, in the 1960s. Since the times of Krishna, the first proponent of Krishna consciousness, himself, ‘Harinam’, his own name, has bent every boundary trying to limiting it under appropriation or cultural duress. “The singing of Harinam was the most powerful shield people had even in the times of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, against any cultural duress,” Jagbandhu Das adds.

    How do Ram and Krishna surround the singing at Jagannath Yatra? Shri Jitamitra Prabhu, a senior disciple at International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), says, “Jagannath is Krishna. Koi antar nahin hai (there is no difference). Jagannathji is everywhere. He is in Puri. He is in my room, right now (points at a depiction of Bhagwan Jagannath).” One cannot deny ISKCON its contribution in planting a tradition. Globally, its followers have made Shri Jagannath’s depiction lead their rath yatras, minuscule representations of the original Rath Yatra of Puri, around the globe. In portions, the singing of Harinam has became synonymous with the sight of Jagannath’s depictions.

    According to Jagbandhu Das, the singing of Harinam at Puri’s Rath Yatra is a tradition since the times of Chaitanaya Mahaprabhu. He adds, “there are devotional songs and drama dedicated to Jagannath, but they are sung in keertans meant for special sittings and closed sessions.” He adds, “the set of 16 words evokes curiosities. The lord’s name makes way to the ear, to hearing and listening. When you are alone, you do the vyaktigat jaap (saying the name in repetition to self), when you are with other devotees, you share the name of the lord in loud singing.”

    In the words of His Divine Grace A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who took “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Ram Ram, Hare Hare” to the West, in the 1960s, “chanting means to keep association with god, always”. He adds in one of the interviews, “if you chant then you keep connection with god directly”. How did the contemporising of Rath Yatra in the West grow? “Prabhupada took out the first rath yatra in San Fransisco in 1966,” Shri Jitamitra Prabhu adds. According to Prabhu, it all began when one of Prabhupada’s disciples brought a miniature depiction of Bhagwan Jagannath to him. “He became very happy to see the depiction of Jagannath. He immediately requested his disciples to begin work on making depictions of Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra. The depictions embraced devotees.”

    In came the accordion, brass cymbals, characteristically-Indian, flutes – in metal and wood, djembe, saxophone, clarinet, violin, harmonium and its various avatars, guitar – its avatars, attracting millions to Harinam and its musicality. In came amplifier boxes, washboards, microphones attached to accordions. This musical homogenisation of a concept and its cultural evolution is preserved and passed on in recordings.

    In Puri, “those who come once are never really able to leave. Bhav (feelings and expression) is the core of sankeertan. The singing should be evocative,” says priest Kashinath Das. Musical instruments like jhaanjh and ghant (percussion in metal) help in keeping the mind on the melody and mantra. They cut you off from the noise outside. “They lend bhav and musicality to the keertan,” he adds. Kashinath Das, a purist, believes that in spite of the difference in approach to the process of sankeertan, the contemporising of the singing of Harinam is done evocatively at the rath yatras taken out by devotees of ISKCON. “They have the bhav. It is all you need to sing Harinam. They do not follow the time-based approach to its singing. But the purpose is one. Harinam.”

    This article is part of the Swarajya Utsav series.
    This article is part of the Swarajya Utsav series.

    Balrishabh Das, a devotee from Odisha, is a perfect representative of the connection and culture that thrives between the mandir (Jagannath’s abode in Puri) and the temple (ISKCON). He writes up a new emotional story on the mridang (a traditional percussion instrument). It is his solitary song to Krishna and Radha, meant to be heard by around 100 devotees present at the afternoon session of the keertan at the temple in Delhi. Each cycle of the singing of the 16 words – crystal clear in voice and singing – is evocative. Balrishabh’s is not an ecstatic outpouring that spins the mind in keertan processions. It has the gentleness and lilt of Krishna’s cradle. In life, he oscillates between Shri Jagannath and Krishna, between Krishna and Jagannath. In the process of the practice, he stays comfortably at the centre. At a point where “Krishna and Jagannath are one and the same”. He says, “Harinam sankeertan makes you ask several questions about self, the inner self, about the purpose of life.”

    After his singing session, Balrishabh Das would pack prasad, which includes nuts and dry sweets, for devotees attending the Rath Yatra. “This year, I am packing prasad for nearly 6,000 devotees. I will distribute it to devotees who come for the Rath Yatra in Balasore district. In Puri, Jagannath steps out for his devotees. Their singing of Harinam sankeertan becomes Jagannath’s own strength.”

    Mridang is the soul of percussion in keertan dedicated to Lord Jagannath and Krishna. It gives Harinam sankeertan the eternal rhythm. Much as the pakhawaj gives to the singing of dhrupad and dhamar, where it is mounted on the pedestal of classicism. Mridang’s sound brings the masses to life. It is the percussive sound most suited to define the cyclical continuity in the rhythmic churns of the keertan, (some of the purest expressions of which live in the North East). Nowhere in the musical expression and musicality in this sacred offering, does the mridang supersede or overstep tonal territory. It remains soft, quaint and in control. Dazzle is not its character. Devotion is.


    Keertan is no field for rhythm challenges and math puzzles. It is a journey through the shoonya – the beginning and end point of a surrender. Mridang soaks in this surrender.

    Mridang – the sound of pace. The benevolent Bhagwan Jagannath, smiles wide in the beautiful eyes even as his devotees turn their back towards him, pull his chariot, move ahead, step after step. One leads some, some lead thousands. One of them is Radhanath Swami, a devotee seen dancing in front of the rath in Puri, leading Harinam keertan in Santiago de Compostela. Radhanath Swami’s presence seems to transform the keertan, its progression and experience.

    To be fair to a movement that inspired many across the world to delve deeper into Krishna and Ram, after giving them musical initiation, the devotees representing ISKCON would not have an exclusive claim on either the Harinam sankeertan, or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Harinam. Its devotees, too, who have walked into the face of cultural appropriation with their harmless weapons – the mridang, kartal and the manjira, have risked being called ‘religious fanatics’ and sometimes, have even been considered as people in need for ‘deprogramming’ by a section of their audience.

    “What Ram is, Krishna is, what Krishna is Jagannath is, what Jagannath is Krishna is. The mahamantra came out of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in 16 words, in repetitions, its cycle and his travels.” Balrishabh Das adds. Harinam sankeertan attracts and spreads. Boundaries break. Maps shrink. It flows back to Puri. Harinam sankeertan dedicated to Jagannath is a cultural leveller. It dissolves. It gives the devotees centrality.

    When Harinam sankeertan and singles by Mayapuris, a travelling band comprising artistes from different parts of the world, went viral some years ago, many listeners were able to find the core of their musicality, creative activity and ‘performance’. The core is ‘Jagannath’, hidden below layers of imagination in music that approaches keertan as a natural expression and keertan as a performing art. Their musical repertoire has evolved with the constant in and out of members, in their travels, all in a short period of five years.

    Members of Mayapuris leave the pop pedestal of the performance dais very often, for soulful marathon keertans. Here, devotion and musicality meet at a different level altogether. “Hari bol”, they come home. “Nityananda Gauranga” “Jai Jagannath”. They spread Harinam – the original and the most powerful medium and material of Indic soft power.

    When is the passage from musicality in the keertan and its singing, to Harinam covered? It begins to happen when the feet refuse to stop dancing in chorus. Or, when the soul begins to crave for the Jagannath Astaka at street keertans. Or when it longs for Puri. Or, sometimes, when it becomes thirsty for being born in Puri. And when the keertan makes you pick a new musical instrument to sing Harinam. When the keertan makes you crave for the first glimpse Rath Yatra in Puri. When it makes you travel for singing “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna , Hare Hare, Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Ram Ram, Hare Hare.” It’s time to go back to the uniform musical code that has made countless devotees across the globe find Krishna in Jagannath, Jagannath in Krishna, and Ram in Jagannath.

    Hare Krishna.

    Jai Jagannath.

    Read all articles of the Swarajya Utsav series here.

    Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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