In the ancient Sanskrit text the Bhagavad-gita (9.13) Krishna states that great souls are always engaged in glorifying him with kirtan. The practice was popularized in the Hindu devotional revival of the fifteenth CCE, exemplified by the Bengali Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and others.
Kirtan practice involves the chanting of hymns or mantras to the accompaniment of instruments such as the harmonium, the two-headed mrdanga or pakawaj drum and karatal hand cymbals. It is a major tenet of Vaisnava devotionalism, Sikhism, the Sant traditions, some forms of Buddhism, and other sects.
Kirtan of Krishna's holy names harinama sankirtan was popularized in 16th century Bengal, India by the Gaudiya Vaishnava saint and reformer Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who is also held to be a combined incarnation of Radha and Krishna.
Previous to the time of Chaitanya, mantras were chanted but not sung with melodies and instruments to which later dancing was also added. Chaitanya preached that God is within the heart of every living being, and the heart is thus the abode of divine love. Kirtan opens up the heart to revive the divine love that is already present but now covered by material desires. Chaitanya devoted his life to spreading Kirtan, and in the early sixteenth century CCE he traveled throughout India bringing it to all communities. He attracted thousands of followers and was received with great affection by people of every caste and creed. Largely due to his influence millions of people in India chant kirtan in one form or another.
"Glory to the Shri Krishna sankirtana (congregational chanting of the Lord's holy names), which cleanses the heart of all the dust accumulated for years and extinguishes the fire of conditional life, of repeated birth and death. This sankirtana is the prime benediction for humanity at large because it spreads the rays of the benediction moon. It is the life of all transcendental knowledge. It increases the ocean of transcendental bliss, and it enables us to fully taste the nectar for which we are always anxious."
The Sikh tradition of Kirtan or Gurmat Sangeet was started by Guru Nanak at Kartarpur in the early 1500s and was strengthened by his successors and particularly by Guru Arjan at Amritsar. In spite of several interruptions, kirtan continued to be performed at the Golden Temple and other historical Gurdwaras with due attention to raga, taal and dhuni.
Shabad is the term by Sikhs to refer to a hymn or paragraph or sections of the Holy Text that appears in their several Holy Books. The main holy scripture of the Sikhs is the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS.) The first Shabad in the Guru Granth Sahib is the Mool Mantar. The script used for the Shabad in the holy book is Gurmukhi.
Sikh kirtan uses the Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The Shabads (“Hymns”) of the Sikh scriptures are primarily arranged in chapters, which named after musical Ragas: all the Shabads in that chapter are to be sung in that particular Raga. The title of the Shabad also has a numeric notation, which many believe gives the singers a clear idea of the Tala or musical rhythm or beat that needs to be used for that hymn.
The following Shabads show the huge importance the Sikh Gurus gave to Kirtan.
Kirtan has recently become popularized in the West. A plaque in New York's Tompkins Square Park signed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani honors the first public kirtan in the Western world held under a tree in that park on October 9, 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Since then kirtan has gone all over the world from London to Moscow to Sydney, due to the efforts of ISKCON and practitioners amongst the yoga community. Popular singers in the Western kirtan tradition include Krishna Das, Karnamrita Dasi, Ragani, Aindra Das, Vaiyasaki Das, Jai Uttal, Vamadeva, and lastly Deva Premal & Mitten. Today many kirtan performers experiment with reincorporating non-Indian instruments like the guitar, synthesizers, and accordions and interspersing Western styles like jazz.