A little over 500 years ago in India, the great spiritual teacher Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (also known as Gauranga because of his beautiful golden complexion), appeared in the small town of Navadwip. Both the time and place of his appearance were foretold in ancient scriptures, as were the specific reasons for it. He appeared to teach by his personal example, how a person could very quickly and easily experience the highest platform of yoga ~ love for the Supreme Person, by the sublime method of congregational mantra chanting ~ the hearing and repeating of Hari Nama, sacred sound.
Just as aspiring yogis had been doing since time immemorial, Chaitanya and his followers would sometimes chant their mantras quietly in some solitary place, but he also introduced a new element in the practice of meditation. It was called kirtan, where two or more people would get together and chant the Holy Names loudly. Oftentimes their chanting was accompanied by musical instruments and dancing, and not only did Chaitanya introduce this practice, but he also infused it with the spiritual potency of his own wonderful and unique example, and by doing this he induced an ecstatic uproar in the general population.
People flocked to him in droves, and it seemed like everyone wanted to taste the sweet spiritual nectar of Hari Nama that came from the mouth of Chaitanya. Some of the more staid members of community however, were not impressed ~ to the point where many of them considered Chaitanya’s behavior to be nothing less than scandalous. Some municipal authorities even tried to stop his chanting movement, but it was not long before they too came under the sway of Chaitanya’s incomparable spiritual love, and many of those who had once tried to obstruct him, were now dancing with him.
Everyone that learned to dance and chant with Chaitanya was told to pass on the very same teaching to whoever they met, and soon, countless thousands of people were chanting the Holy Names all over India. Five hundred years later, his influence is still current through the compassionate efforts his disciplic descendants, and his teaching and chanting is gradually spreading all over the world.
It is said that among all the great spiritual teachers who have appeared throughout history, Chaitanya is the most munificent, because he has freely delivered what no one has given before ~ pure love for the Supreme by the most easy and wonderful method of congregational chanting of Hari Nama.
Unfortunately, the original understanding that accompanied the kirtan of Chaitanya has been perverted in some instances. Under this influence, people sometimes imagine that they are chanting their own names, or they may maintain some other misunderstanding about kirtan. For the purposes of this brief introduction to Chaitanya however, we don’t need to get into all the details of these misunderstandings here. Rather, we can simply try to appreciate what kirtan is truly all about, by contemplating some wonderfully informative verses that were written by Chaitanya himself:
All glories to the congregational singing and chanting of Hari Nama, which cleanses the heart of all the dust accumulated for years together and extinguishes the fire of conditional life, of repeated birth and death. This congregational chanting of Hari Nama 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.
O my Lord, Your Holy Name alone can render all benediction to living beings, and thus You have hundreds and millions of names like Gopala, Rama and Govinda etc. In these transcendental names You have invested all Your transcendental energies. There are not even hard and fast rules for chanting these Names. O my Lord, out of kindness You enable us to easily approach You by chanting Your holy names, but I am so unfortunate that I have no attraction for Them.
One should chant the Holy Name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself to be lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the Holy Name of the Lord constantly.