A guide to the meaning and pronunciation of kirtan mantras
Seeking MeaningHey Chanters, Daniel here. Requested by many of you, this mantra glossary is an effort to deepen our understanding of the kirtan mantras we love to sing. On the pages within, you'll find definitions, explanations, and transliterations, oh my! It should be interesting to explore! But also, let us not lose track: these mantras are keys that unlock the heart, and they reveal their true meaning by repeating and singing them.
When I interviewed Krishna Das about the background to some of his kirtan songs, I asked how important it is for people to know the meanings of the words. Here are some of my favorite snippets from that conversation:
"It won't hurt them! But the most important thing is that they should know that they're singing to this loving presence that is always present, within and without, called by all these names. These are all names of God, these are all names of that place.
These names, to me, are – they are, they carry – the soul of God. They carry the essence of love. These mantras come from a deeper place than the mind. They're not conceptual. They have a meaning that's revealed from within. As you repeat them, over and over.
Maharajji said, through the repetition of the name, everything is brought to completion. These mantras ripen us. They bring us to completion... They unravel and reveal your own essence. They show you who you are. The music is just the syrup that the medicine is hidden in, that's all. And this (the mantras, the names) is the medicine!
People ask me 'why do you sing, how do you sing,' I say Listen, I'm a drowning man and this is my rope. I'm not thinking about nothing except holding onto this rope." ~ Krishna Das
AcknowledgementsThank you to all you Bhakti Breakfast Club members for asking again and again for more depth of information about the mantras themselves! I hope this glossary satisfies that thirst. If you don't see your favorite mantras listed here, find a related one and its definitions and quotes may shed the light you need. Also, we will be adding many more mantras here as time goes on, so stay tuned.
Any typos or errors in this glossary are my own; please alert me so I can correct them for others. The great value of the gathered information is entirely thanks to the saints and scriptures quoted here, and to the kirtan wallahs who are quoted here and who introduced me to these names, and to my Sanskrit teacher Ramana who demystified as much Sanskrit as my feeble brain could handle.
The delightful audio snippets you'll hear on each mantra's glossary page were recorded by Karnamrita Dasi and Ramana Erickson. Karnamrita is a stellar kirtan singer with deep Classical Indian background – find her album "Dasi: Prayers by Women" for a sublime treat. Ramana is my Sanskrit teacher, he is also a top-notch tabla player and founding member of the kirtan band "Mukti," and an all-around resource in things yogic and bhakti.
The SanskritOn each page in the mantra glossary, you'll find one mantra explained. First it is written in a casual phonetic style that makes it easy to read, though not entirely correct as far as the Sanskrit goes. Next comes the Devanagari Script version, which is the actual Sanskrit for the mantra, if you can read it! Third, and perhaps most useful, is the transliteration of the Sanskrit into english lettering with diacritical marks, making it readable while specifying distinctions like "a" versus "ā" that are often lost in English. This may look scholarly, but if we just learn a few vowel sounds, the transliteration can improve our pronunciation greatly. I recommend listening to the two audio clips while looking at the transliteration of the mantra to get it into your ear.
There is nuance to the Sanskrit such as aspirated consonants ("dh" versus "d") and retroflex consonants ("ṇ" versus "n"), and we may later film Sanskrit lessons for the Bhakti Breakfast Club to go in depth. But improving our Sanskrit vowel sounds is a big first step. Ramana points out that the vowel sounds are often closer to the European "a e i o u" than the American "a e i o u," and they include:
a ("short a") as in cut
ā ("long a") as in father
i ("short i") as in bit
ī ("long i") as in beet
u ("short u") as in put or foot
ū ("long u") as in brute
e as in bay
o as in hope
ai as in sigh
au as in sound
Send-offAs I was digging through piles of sacred books for flavor quotes to illustrate the mantras, I stumbled upon this one from Ramakrishna. It pretty much sums it all up, so I'll leave you with his words:
"I beg you, dear friends, to sing the beautiful Names of God. Love and live in the sweet companionship of the lovers of God. What else is there? The whole universe is simply the hide-and-seek of lover and Beloved, who are already one. What else can you want or need? Why attempt to improve upon perfection? One does not whitewash a wall which is already inlaid with mother-of-pearl." ~ Ramakrishna