From Academic Kids

A bhajan or kirtan is a Hindu devotional song, often but not necessarily of ancient origin. Great importance is attributed to the singing of bhajans within the Bhakti movement. It is also one of the pillars of Sikhism and in that context refers to the singing of the Sacred Hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib to music. The Sikh place huge value on this type of singing and a Sikh is duty bound to listen and/or sing Guru-Kirtan as frequently as possible.

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An open-air bhajan in session at a local temple in Chennai, India.


Bhajans are deeply rooted in the Indian tradition. Bhajans are simple songs in soulful language expressing the many-splendored emotions of love for God, a complete submission or self-surrender to him through singing.

The music traditionally has been Indian classical music, which is based on ragas and tala (rhythmic beat patterns). Traditionally the Indian musical instruments the harmonium and tabla were used for this type of music. The Sikh Scripture contain 31 ragas and 17 talas which form the basis for Kirtan music compositions.


History and Origin

The groundwork for bhajans was laid in the hymns found in Sama Veda, the third Veda in the Hindu scriptures. They are distinguished from the Sanskrit shlokas by virtue of their easy lilting flow, the colloquial renderings and the profound appeal to the mass. These are sung in a group comprising devotees, with a lead singer. The simple tunes, repetition of words (particularly the various Names with which God is addressed) and phrases lend a kind of tonal mesmerism. Anecdotes, episodes from the lives of Gods, preaching of saints, description of God's glories have been the subject of bhajans. Another form of the bhajan is the keertan or songs in the Haridas tradition.

Types of Bhajans

A plunge into the past reveals, that bhajans, as a genre, have come a long way weaving a home for itself into the core of human hearts. Traditions of bhajan — singing have been formed over the ages — Nirguni, Gorakhanathi, Vallabhapanthi, Ashtachhap, Madhura-bhakti are some of them. Each sect has their own sets of bhajans and ways of singing them.

Kirtan in Sikhism

The Holy Sikh Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (“SGGS”) is the main spiritual authority for the Sikhs. The Sikhs hold unique high regards for their Granth (Literally “scripture”), which is treated as a living Guru (“religious master”). When Kirtan is sung, the lyrics are normally lines from the SGGS. The Shabads (“Hymns”) of the Sikh Scriptures are primarily arranged in Chapters, which are names of musical Ragas (“ musical theme”). So the main Sikh Holy Scripture is arranged in chapters that bear names of musical ragas. Each of these Ragas is unique and all the Shabads in that Chapter have 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.

Below is the English Translation from page 14 of SGGS:

  • raag sireeraag mehlaa pahilaa 1 ghar 1. (Raag Siree Raag, First Section, First House:)
    • If I had a palace made of pearls, inlaid with jewels,
    • Scented with musk, saffron and sandalwood, a sheer delight to behold
    • Seeing this, I might go astray and forget You, and Your Name would not enter into my mind. ||1||

You will notice that the Shabad begins with “Raag Sireeraag” – Siree Raga is an important raga in Indian Classical Music. Further you will notice that the first line ends with ‘ghar 1’ – this conveys to musicians, the Tala or musical beat or rhythms that needs to be used for that Shabad.

Ragas in Sikh Kirtan

Ragas have a direct relationship to human moods and the following are the connections between Ragas and feelings/emotions:

  • 1. Soohi – mixed emotions of joy and separation
  • 2. Bilaaval - happiness and joy
  • 3. Gaund - strangeness, surprise, beauty
  • 4. Sri - satisfaction and balance
  • 5. Maajh - loss, beautification
  • 6. Gauri - seriousness
  • 7. Aasa - making effort, enlightening
  • 8. Gujri - satisfaction, softness of heart, sadness
  • 9. Devgandhari - no specific feeling but the Raga has tranquillity
  • 10. Bihaagra - beautification
  • 11. Sorath – motivation, positive spirit
  • 12. Dhanasari - inspiration, motivation
  • 13. Jaitsree - softness, satisfaction, sadness
  • 14. Todi - this being a flexible Raga it is apt for communicating many feelings
  • 15. Bhairaagi - sadness, (Gurus have, however, used it for the message of Bhakti.)
  • 16. Tilang - this is a favourite Raga of Muslims. It denotes feeling of beautification and yearning.)
  • 17. Raamkali - calmness, tranquillity
  • 18. Nat Narayan - happiness and joy
  • 19. Maali Gaura - happiness and positive spirit
  • 20. Maaru - giving up of cowardice
  • 21. Tukhari - beautification
  • 22. Kedara - love and beautification
  • 23. Bhairav - seriousness, brings stability of mind
  • 24. Basant - happiness
  • 25. Sarang - sadness
  • 26. Malaar - separation
  • 27. Jaijawanti – sadness (vairaag)
  • 28. Kalyaan - Bhakti Ras
  • 29. Vadhans - sadness (vairaag), loss (that is why Alahniya is sung in this Raag when someone passes away.)
  • 30. Parbhati - Bhakti and seriousness
  • 31. Kaanra - Bhakti and seriousness

Tala in Sikh Kirtan

In connection with Tala or musical beats/rhythms and the ‘Ghar’ in the SGGS, the following can be concluded.

  • GHAR 1 - DADRA TAAL (There are 1 Taalis and the Beat has 6 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 2 - RUPAK TAAL (There are 2 Taalis and the Beat has 7 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 3 - TEEN TAAL (There 3 Taalis and the Beat has 16 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 4 - CHAAR TAAL (There are 4 Taalis and the Beat has 12 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 5 - PUNJ TAAL (There are 5 Taalis and the Beat has 15 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 6 - KHUT TAAL (There are 6 Taalis and the Beat has 18 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 7 - MUT TAAL (There are 7 Taalis and the Beat has 21 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 8 - ASHT MANGAL TAAL (There are 8 Taalis and the Beat has 22 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 9 - MOHINI TAAL (There are 9 Taalis and the Beat has 23 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 10 - BRAHAM TAAL (There are 10 Taalis and the Beat has 28 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 11 - RUDRA TAAL (There are 11 Taalis and the Beat has 32 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 12 - VISHNU TAAL (There are 12 Taalis and the Beat has 36 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 13 - MUCHKUND TAAL (There are 13 Taalis and the Beat has 34 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 14 - MAHASHANI TAAL (There are 14 Taalis and the Beat has 42 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 15 - MISHR BARAN TAAL (There are 15 Taalis and the Beat has 47 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 16 - KUL TAAL (There are 16 Taalis and the Beat has 42 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 17 - CHRCHARI TAAL (There are 17 Taalis and the Beat has 40 Maatraas)

What the SGGS says

The Sikh Guru gave huge importance to Kirtan and this can be concluded from the following Shabads.

On 107-8 Guruji says that illnesses of countless lives are eroded by singing Kirtan, thus:

  • Your humble servant, who obtains the Medicine of the Naam, is rid of the illnesses of countless lifetimes and incarnations.
  • So sing the Kirtan of the Lord’s Praises, day and night. This is the most fruitful occupation. ||3||

On page 178, Guruji says that mind becomes peaceful when Kirtan is sang:

  • Singing the Kirtan of His Praises, my mind has become peaceful;
  • the sins of countless incarnations have been washed away.
  • I have seen all the treasures within my own mind;
  • why should I now go out searching for them? ||2||

On Page 196, Guruji says, Kirtan can only be sung by good fortune, thus:

  • By great good fortune, the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises are sung.
  • O Supreme Lord God, as You give, so do I receive. ||1||Pause||

On Page 199, the SGGS advices that Kirtan keeps the mind awake and alert:

  • Do only that, by which no filth or pollution shall stick to you.
  • Let your mind remain awake and aware, singing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises. ||1||Pause||

On page 208, Guruji tells us those whose hearts are alight with God, sing Kirtan:

  • Between the Lord and His Saint, there is no difference at all. Among hundreds of thousands and millions, there is scarcely one humble being.
  • Those whose hearts are illuminated by God, sing the Kirtan of His Praises night and day with their tongues. ||3||

Also on the same page, Guruji says that ‘Kirtan is my treasure’:

  • To sing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises is my treasure. ||1||Pause||
  • You are my delight, You are my praise. You are my beauty, You are my love.
  • O God, You are my hope and support. ||1||

On page 214 Guruji tell us that by singing Kirtan we will be saved, thus:

  • As the Guru has taught me, so have I spoken.
  • Says Nanak, listen, people: sing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises, and you shall be saved. ||4||1||158||

On page 297, Guruji tells us that even death is overcome by singing Kirtan:

  • One is saved from hell, suffering is destroyed, countless pains depart, death is overcome, and one escapes the Messenger of Death, by absorption in the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises.
  • Fear departs, and one savors the Ambrosial Nectar, imbued with the Love of the Formless Lord.

'On page 322, Guruji says ‘lives of those who sing Kirtan are approved’, thus:

  • Those who are attached to the hem of the Lord`s robe, do not suffer birth and death.
  • Those who remain awake to the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises - their lives are approved.

Guruji on page 363 tell us by singing Kirtan, Naam (God’s remembrance) is instilled in the mind thus:

  • Without the Shabad, no one is approved.
  • Singing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises, the Naam abides within the mind.
  • He Himself gives His gifts, without hesitation. ||2||

Guruji on page 454 tell us that all sins and sorrows depart when Kirtan is sang:

  • Sing the Kirtan, the Praises of the Lord of the Universe, and all sins and sorrows shall depart.
  • Says Nanak, chant the Hymns of the Lord, the Lord of the Universe, O mind, and enshrine love for the Lord; love the Lord this way in your mind. ||1||

On Page 642, Guruji tells us that singing Kirtan is the ‘highest of all actions’ that we can perform:

  • Singing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises in the Saadh Sangat, the Company of the Holy, is the highest of all actions.
  • Says Nanak, he alone obtains it, who is pre-destined to receive it. ||8||

Guruji on Page 683 tell us clearly that ‘All desires, power, pleasure, joy and lasting bliss’ are found by singing Kirtan:

  • All desires, power, pleasure, joy and lasting bliss, are found by chanting the Naam, the Name of the Lord, and singing the Kirtan of His Praises.
  • That humble servant of the Lord, who has such karma pre-ordained by the Creator Lord, O Nanak - his efforts are brought to perfect fruition. ||2||20||51||

On page 1300, Guruji say by singing Kirtan, all Evil-mindedness is removed:

  • Whoever speaks and listens to the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises is rid of evil-mindedness.
  • All hopes and desires, O Nanak, are fulfilled. ||2||1||12||

On Page 1337, Guruji advises us that singing Kirtan is equal to bathing at 68 sacred holy places, thus:

  • Listen, O mind: the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises is equal to bathing at the sixty-eight sacred shrines of pilgrimage.
  • Listen, O mind: as Gurmukh, you shall be blessed with honor. ||1||

On page 1356, Guruji tell us how by singing Kirtan, the entire world and Pride, Attachment, Greed, Anger and Lust (PAGAL, the five thieves) are conquered, thus:

  • They walk fearlessly through the armies of their enemies; they attack them with the Kirtan of God`s Praises.
  • They conquer the entire world, O Nanak, and overpower the five thieves. ||29||

And finally, on page 1075-6 Guruji tell us that in this era of the ‘Kal Juug’ Kirtan is supreme, thus:

  • In this Dark Age of Kali Yuga, the singing of Kirtan (Lord’s Praises) is the most dominating force.
  • Become Gurmukh, chant and focus your meditation.
  • You shall save yourself, and save all your generations as well. You shall go to the Court of the Lord with honor. ||6||

Great Exponents

The medieval age saw devotees like Tulsidas, Surdas, Meera, Kabir and others composing Bhajans. In the modern times, composers like Pt. V. D. Paluskar and Pt. V. N. Bhatkhande have tried to mingle Raga Sangeet or Indian classical music - which had been an exclusive domain of the elite - with bhajans, thereby democratizing the Raga tradition. Towards the latter half of 20th century, Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi has revived/popularized the Bhajan tradition in India and across the Sai Centers in other parts of world. Sai devotees all over the world perform Bhajans on every Thursday (and Saturday or Sunday) referring to God with various names like: Rama, Krishna, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, Mahavir, Zoroaster, Jehovah etc. without any religious distinction and in a way proclaiming the unity of all faiths and oneness of God.

Popularity with the Masses

The common mass indulges in bhajan-singing without realizing that such traditional methods of invoking the divine can have a tremendous stress-removing impact. Bhajan mandalis that have been in existence in the Indian villages since the beginning of the Bhakti era, have proved to be great social leveller where individuals unhesitatingly participate in the singing, relegating their petty differences to the background. This participatory action elicits recreation and consequently a kind of mental relaxation. They close their eyes to ensure that they concentrate and thereby meditate on this near ecstasy.

Modern forms

While most Hindus and Sikhs devoutly sing Kirtan in its more traditional form, there are smaller groups that experiment with incorporation of non-Indian instruments like the guitar and interspersing Western themes like jazz.

External links

Hindu tradition

Sikh tradition

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