What happens when American popular music and yoga’s heart-opening chants collide? We invite you to find out as we highlight some of the hottest moments in the kirtan-and-pop crossover of the past five decades. These moments illustrate how chanting has evolved from a Hindu devotional practice in the temples and villages of India to an inseparable part of American yoga culture—drenched in rock, pop, hip-hop, and blues and sung at studios, festivals, and concert halls. Our greatest hits include superstars like the Grateful Dead, Sting, and Madonna, along with kirtan artists such as Donna De Lory, Jai Uttal, and Krishna Das. Enjoy the ride!
1967: In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin headline the Mantra-Rock Dance, a benefit for the first Krishna Consciousness temple on the West Coast, along with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the Hare Krishna movement.
1968: The rock musical Hair opens on Broadway, and in “Be-In,” the final number of Act 1, the cast sings the Hare Krishna mantra.
1969: Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga, leads a crowd of 500,000 in a Hari Om chant at Woodstock and calls music a celestial sound that controls the universe.
1969: After studying meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India, George Harrison records the single “Hare Krishna Mantra” with devotees from the Radha Krishna Temple in London. The song is a hit around the world and is performed on the TV show Top of the Pops.
1971: After studying with Swami Satchidananda and traveling to India, jazz musician Alice Coltrane records Universal Consciousness, a call-and-response-inspired album with devotional tracks like “Sita Ram” and “Hare Krishna.”
Work of Wonder
1976: The West Angeles Church of God’s Gospel Choir and a group of Hare Krishnas sing together in “Pastime Paradise” on Stevie Wonder’s album Songs in the Key of Life. The Maha mantra is barely audible before a rousing chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”
1980: Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha premieres in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Sung in Sanskrit and based on text from the Bhagavad Gita, the work celebrates Ghandi’s life and his peaceful-resistance movement.
1991: Pop superstar Boy George releases the single “Bow Down Mister,” a Krishna-inspired mash-up of Indian mantras and American house music that reaches the top 30 in the UK.
1998: Madonna discovers Ashtanga Yoga and records the song “Shanti/Ashtangi” for her Ray of Light album, which wins a Grammy. The lyrics include the mantra Om shanti and other Sanskrit from the 8th-century work Yoga Taravali.
2001: Seal, the British R&B star, lends his smooth vocals to kirtan singer Guru Singh’s Game of Chants album, including on the soulful track “I Am.”
2001: Mondo Rama, a collaboration between kirtan master Jai Uttal and composer-producer Ben Leinbach, is the first mantra music album to be nominated for a Grammy.
2006: The Chicago Children’s Choir performs Sita Ram, a rock opera with lyrics by Jai Uttal that is based on stories from the Ramayana, a Hindu spiritual epic that’s part adventure, part love story.
2009: Kirtan duo Lokah releases the groundbreaking “kirtranica” (kirtan and electronica) album The Ivy Ceiling. Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons raps about yoga, art, and activism on the intro track, and Sting sings on “Ma Durga.”
2010: Madonna’s backup singer and dancer Donna De Lory leads crowds in chanting at Lilith, the revival of Sarah McLachlan’s women-centric music festival.
2010: Terry McBride, CEO of Nettwerk Music Group (which propelled Avril Lavigne and Coldplay into the stratosphere), arranges a Chant Super Tour with Krishna Das and Deva Premal & Miten, who play to sold-out crowds in concert theaters across the US.
All That Jazz
2010: Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band become the first kirtan group to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where artists from Elvis Costello to Pearl Jam delight tens of thousands of fans.