You’ve Heard of Kirtan, but Have you Heard of Bhajan?

These devotional gatherings—tied to Bhakti Yoga—bring family and friends together. Learn their history, significance (and how not to appropriate them).
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For us—two Indian-American yoga teachers—The word kirtan used to conjure images of simple and regular community gatherings, or even Hare Krishnas parading down the street. In contrast, for most Westerners, kirtans seem to be associated with big-name acts, ticket sales, and white folks sporting sarees, bindis, mala beads, henna, and other South Asian attire and ornaments.

Indian women participate in kirtan, or bhajan.

But every weekend, in nearly every city across the US and well beyond, South Asian communities gather together for kirtans and bhajans. A bhajan is a less structured variation of kirtan. These events, which are ordinary staples of Indian immigrant weekend-life, inevitably feature at least one Tone Deaf Auntie who thinks she can sing and hogs the mic. They are a testament to the work immigrant families do to keep their traditions alive in a world that pressures them to assimilate into the dominant culture. But these unglamorous, potluck gatherings aren’t mentioned in yoga media or marketing. They can’t compete alongside Wanderlust or Bhakti Fest for popularity with the yoga in-crowd. And, from our perspective, all the folks “appreciating” South Asian culture and practices don’t seem to care about these communities and whether or not they are represented or included in the mainstream kirtan scene. In fact, it feels like BhaktiLand is a case of all things Indian becoming cool... unless Indian people are doing them. For South Asian communities who continue to practice kirtan and bhajan in the face of covert and not-so-covert racism, seeing white folks commodify our practices and keep us from having any say in the matter can feel like another form of colonization.

Bhaktiland

What is Bhaktiland? Like the imaginary city of Agrabah from Disney’s Aladdin, it is the fabricated colorful and exotic experience Westerners often associate with yoga. But while Agrabah is an orientalist amalgam of Arab, Perisian, and Indian cultures, Bhaktiland is an even more confused mish-mash of non-white indigenous cultural signifiers that often doesn’t include the people these practices are indigenous to. In both cases, these Indian-ish backdrops are fantasy lands that don’t actually exist. And trying to live in a fantasy can be a problem for everyone.

The problem isn’t just that South Asians are left out, it’s that we feel actively excluded. BhaktiLand has become a place where it’s okay for the white man leading the kirtan to mimic an Indian accent and head bobble as a joke, where the “Rockstar” band gets applauded and makes a handsome living for mispronouncing our sacred sounds, and where South Asian immigrants may be priced out of participating. It’s become a place where South Asian-ish clothing and accessories are acceptably worn as costumes without regard for the stigma, racism, and real physical dangers South Asian folks often face for wearing their own traditional clothing. And what’s more disturbing, is that with all this exclusion and exotification, our histories, our struggles, our vast diversity, and even our flaws are erased from the context of BhaktiLand because it doesn’t fit the tone of the fantasy.

But cultural and historical context matters. White women, who may identify as feminists chanting jai jai ram might have no clue that feminists in India have long critiqued the Ramayana—an ancient epic along the lines of the Odyssey but with greater cultural and religious significance to people from South Asia and Southeast Asia—because of Ram’s treatment of Sita. It might be lost on peace-loving, anti-Islamophobes that Hindu fundamentalists who call themselves “bhakts” chanted jai jai ram as they broke down a centuries old historical mosque in the 1990s, sparking massive communal riots all over the country. Ahimsa-touting vegans may be shocked to learn that these bhakts chant jai jai ram in today’s India as they literally lynch Muslims for eating beef in the name of cow protection. Folks who think they are “appreciating” South Asian culture remain ignorant of the fact that in the name of honoring, they might actually be upholding a dominant narrative that is oppressive to many of our people—a dominant narrative that homogenizes our immense diversity and erases the history of the struggle and resistance of women, Dalits (a term for those who are excluded from and oppressed by the caste system), religious minorities, people with disabilities, and all those who are left out by India’s elite.

The Bhakti Movement

The Bhakti movement originated in eighth-century in southern India (now Tamil Nadu and Kerala) and swept over the rest of India from the 15th century onwards. Prior to the Bhakti movement, elite Brahmin men were the custodians of the Sanskrit language and scripture and served as mediators between God and humans. Bhakti encouraged individuals to take back their spiritual agency by worshipping in their own languages and in their own ways. It was a social movement that championed the diversity of the Indian subcontinent and the diversity of the human experience and made God accessible to all. It made prophets for the first time out of women—like Mirabai and Akka Mahadevi—and the disabled, like the blind Surdas. And it led to movements of spiritual sycretism between Islam and Hinduism, led by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, and movements that rejected both, like the one led by Kabir.

It was a vibrant example of yoga as social justice. And those brave bhakti saints of our history and others who asserted our right to have direct access to God and to address God in our own mother tongues often left behind the comforts of home and society and their possessions to immerse themselves in nothing but the love of God. While their fame has withstood centuries, fame was never their goal, only God. But today, the word bhakti has been appropriated by both Western yoga enthusiasts and Hindu fundamentalists. In the West, bhakti often means a love-fest rave party with expensive ashwagandha-infused chai products made by non-South Asians. And in India, bhakti now means allegiance to an oppressive, patriarchal, Islamophobic, caste-ist political agenda. While Bhakti originally started as a social reform movement to unite people and to bring everyone closer to God, the powers that be eventually co-opted it and rewrote the narrative to serve a purpose that divides Hindus from Muslims and reinforces patriarchy. And though most yoga practitioners would be appalled by what goes on in the name of Hindu fundamentalism and would never want to associate with it, cultural appropriation sometimes unwittingly feeds these oppressive elements of Indian society in a dangerous feedback loop.

Cultural Context

Not understanding, or caring to understand, cultural context not only harms South Asian peoples, but it also causes real harm to Westerners who walk into modern India, as complex and diverse a place as any other, with rose-colored glasses and see only the colorful, exotic, uber-spiritual BhaktiLand of their fantasies. It harms them because the BhaktiLand fantasy actually prevents folks from looking out for the charlatans and opportunists who are just waiting to take advantage of their ignorance. The blinding fantasy robs them of the opportunity to make informed decisions on what they support and promote—spiritually, politically, or otherwise. It doesn’t allow them to understanding bhakti on a deeper level in a way that is removed from product placement, profit, and stardom.

And BhaktiLand separates Westerners from the very people who created these beloved practices and who fought to keep them alive. In the end, while the followers of BhaktiLand may derive some joy or benefit from their profitable kirtan concerts, they may never know the joy of a consistent group of family friends gathering together, eating homemade delicacies from across the South Asian subcontinent, a pile of shoes at the front door, kids running around unsupervised but being reminded by by a Tone Deaf Auntie who thinks she can sing and hogs the mic that “If you sing from the heart, God will hear you.”

About the Authors

Lakshmi Nair is a yoga teacher and the founder of Satya Yoga Co-op in Denver—the nation’s first yoga cooperative owned by people of color. Read more at satyayogacooperative.com. Jesal Parikh is the co-founder of the Yoga is Dead podcast and a yoga teacher in New York City. Learn more at yogawallanyc.com

Join Jesal and Lakshmi as they discuss equity, cultural appropriation and more: 

Monday, February 24, 2020
7 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
SHYFT at Mile High in Denver

Register here