The Bhakti Movement: Understanding Kirtan & Bhajan

The Bhakti Movement: Understanding Kirtan and Bhajan

The Bhakti movement originated in the 6th century in India. The period is characterized by devotional poetry woven around the themes of love, devotion and surrender to Hindu deities. Mystics from different regions of India expressed their devotion through hymns and poems in vernacular form. The movement arose from a need to create a direct and personal relationship with God without rituals or esoterica of priesthood. The simple songs praised God in different names such as Ram, Krishna, Shiva, Devi and thus it became easy for people to sing along, leading it to be a popular form of devotional worship. Terms such as Kirtan and Bhajan emerged as part of the Bhakti music tradition. Over time these musical forms have evolved in their role and influence in Indian devotional worship.

Kirtan (Sanskrit – ‘praise’) and Bhajan (Sanskrit from root word bhaj meaning ‘to share’) form part of the Bhakti sangeet or devotional music. When defined as nouns, Kirtan refers to a song praising a deity while bhajan is a personal communication with the divine. Kirtan in verb form in northern India refers to group singing of songs which may include bhajans. In southern India, the word for such a kirtan performance is referred to as bhajan. In the context of an Indian classical music concert, bhajans are songs that are often heard at the end of the concert and are centered around the praise of a deity or a religious movement such as Sai bhajans and Raghavendra bhajans. These bhajans are the Nam-Bhajan (calling out divine names) as opposed to Pada-Bhajans.

Similarly, Kirtans are of two kinds – the Pada Kirtan (referred to as kirtana or kriti in Carnatic music, the classical music of southern India) and Nam-Kirtan. The former is part of the concert repertoire in classical music and performers are trained to present these type of songs. The Nam-Kirtan is presented by performers (often standing) before a congregation at a temple or religious and cultural event. The songs of Nam-Kirtan are sing-along with people from the audience joining in the refrain and the tunes and beat are simple and catchy.

History of Kirtan and Bhajan

One of the earliest references of Kirtan and Bhajan and the Bhakti tradition is the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse poem composed in the 2nd century BCE and the Bhagavata Purana, both deemed as important scriptures (in Sanskrit) by Hindus. The Bhagavad Gita gives the scriptural authority of the songs being in vernacular form in addition to Sanskrit stotras and hymns used in praise of God. It refers to the Bhakti marga (path) as one of the ways to achieve moksha (liberation) with other ways being that of karma (action) and jnana (knowledge). Kirtan and Bhajan are intrinsically tied into the Bhakti form of worship. Thus kirtans and bhajans came to be composed in a gamut of languages from Hindi (and its various dialects), Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. The Bhagavad Gita also indicates that the repetitive nature of these songs where the names of God were continuously invoked as evident in Sankirtan was the simplest way to understand and reaffirm the divine.

The Bhagavata Purana also known as Srimad Bhagavadam refers to nine ways of devotional worship called Navavidha Bhakti. They are Shravanam (hearing) Keerthanam (chanting) Smaranam (remembering) Pada Sevanam (serving the God’s feet), Archanam (worshipping), Vandanam (offering obeisance), Daasyam (serving as God’s servant), Sakhyam (becoming friends with God) and Aatma Nivedanam (total surrender). Of all these, Keertanam refers to the musical form of devotional worship.

Evolution in Hindu Traditions

Vaishnavism refers to the worship of Vishnu or some of his other forms such as Rama and Krishna. Songs were composed with either the nirgun (without attributes) or sagun (with attributes) attributes. In his book “A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement”, John Stratton Hawley writes “In regards to Bhakti poetry, the contrast comes to have a related meaning: a contrast between the poetry of ordinary life (“attributeless” in this sense: lacking the plot of a divine narrative) and poetry that situates itself in the charmed (attributeful) realm of divine play or lila” (2015). Surdas (15th c.) was a blind poet and musician who composed thousands of songs collectively called Sur Sagar. Written in Braj Bhasha, a dialect of Hindi, his work speaks of the individual soul’s hankering for the God, through tales of Radha’s love for Krishna. Tulsidas (16th c.) a prolific poet in Hindi, most famous for rendering the great Indian epic Ramayan in Awadhi, believed that the love of a devotee was what transformed the formless Absolute Nirguna into a personal God, Saguna. In his work Shikshashtakam, eight devotional verses in Sanskrit, the mystic from eastern India, Chaitanya (15th c.) a proponent of Bhakti yoga, espouses his belief that the aim of life is to attain the feet of the Lord. In southern India, the Naalayiru Divya Prabandham, a collection of 4000 Tamil verses composed by the twelve Alvars in praise of Narayana (Vishnu) are part of the daily worship sung at temples such as Srirangam, the bastion of Vaishnavism even today. In hisHymns for the Drowning:Poems for Visnu by Nammalvar (translated from Tamil)” the scholar A.K.Ramanujam says “Bhakti poems are often written in folk meters, modelled on folk genres: good examples are Periyalvar’s lullabies with ta le lo refrains, poems on Krsna’s pot-dances..” (1981).

Bhakti music played a critical role in how one visualized the deity on which the songs were composed. Along with the lyrics, the ragas (melodies) of the music created strong feelings such as karuna (compassion), pyaar (love), saranagathi (surrender) towards God. The image of the deity is retained by singing or listening to such music that describes the various attributes of God. As neuroscientist Malini Mohana put it “Music crosses all borders of nationality, race, and culture. A tool for arousing emotions and feelings, music is far more powerful than language.”

Northern and Southern India

In northern India, Bhakthi lyrics gained momentum with the Dhrupad format, the oldest style of Hindustani classical music. Dhrupad is somber and spiritual music presented in a slow tempo, four section vocal renditions of poems in certain ragas (melodies). Like in most musical forms, dhrupad originated in temples and royal courts and by continued patronage by the wealthy, persevered through the years. It retains its original form even today. The Dagar family and Gundecha brothers are well known exponents of the Dhrupad genre.

In southern India, the Pada-Kirtan came to be known as kriti which evolved from the keerthanas of Purandaradasa, one of the Haridasas, (devotees of Hari) from Karnataka. Purandaradasa is also credited to have laid the foundation for the structure of Carnatic music, the classical music of southern India. Annamacharya, a precursor to Purandaradasa is the earliest known composer of sankeertanas in praise of the deity Venkateshwara (Vishnu) in Telugu. The kriti format evolved into three sections – pallavi (refrain), anupallavi (middle verse elaborating on the refrain) and charanam (stanzas). Though the kriti and bhajan are similar as they are centered around religious and spiritual themes, a key distinction between the two is that the former is more structured and presented by trained musicians as part of the classical concert repertoire while the latter is free form and normally sung as a “light piece” at the end of classical concerts. While kirtan has a chant, a hymn that serves as a refrain for the audience to repeat, a bhajan (which means ‘to share’) is often a song where the audience is more participative by singing along or clapping throughout the performance.

Prevalence in Other Traditions

The prevalence of kirtans extended to other traditions other than Hinduism. Shabad kirtans, was initiated by the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak in the early 1500s. The kirtans are songs that raise ‘Akal Purakh’ (the Timeless One) and is a musical recitation of the important Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib. The shabads which are sung in the Dhrupad style at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and other Gurdwaras have been set to different ragas as mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib. Even though the original shabad kirtans were written in Brij Bhasha or other dialects, they have been transcribed into Gurmukhi (“of the guru’s mouth”), the script used in the prayer book of the Sikhs. The instruments used to accompany singers in a shabad kirtan performance include the harmonium, tabla (drum), kartals (cymbals) and dilruba (ancient stringed instrument).

Kirtans are part of the Haveli sangeet predominantly heard in the Nathdwara temple in Rajasthan. The presiding deity at Nathdwara is Shrinathji, a form of Krishna. With its roots in Dhrupad, Haveli sangeet eventually lost its place in the classical genre and came under the banner of devotional and folk music. The Vallabha tradition of Pushti Marg, founded by the mystic Vallabhacharya around 1500 AD developed its own unique form of Bhakti music called Samaj Gayan. The word “Samaj” refers to group and “Gayan” means singing. The kirtans are sometimes referred to as Pushtimarg Kirtans. Samaj Gayan requires performers to be trained in classical music as the songs are set to raga and tala. The songs praise Radha and Krishna and are mostly in Brij Bhasha, a dialect of Hindi and ancient Prakrit. The Radhavallabh temple at Vrindaban is an important center for Samaj Gayan especially on festival days such as Krishna Janmashtami.

The congregational worship that includes devotional music of nam-kirtans, nam-bhajans and/or samkirtan is popular across India. The songs are set to simple melodies and the music is augmented with percussive instruments such as cymbals – the “manjeera” (small hand held cymbal) being the most common. Sankirtan which means glorification in the company of people (congregational worship) was popularized by the mystic from Bengal, Chaitanya circa 1506. Singing and dancing by a large group of people became a form of worship in a Sankirtan. Chaitanya introduced the kirtan concept in different parts of the country during his travels. He emphasized the importance of the Maha Mantra (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare), a 16 word mantra mentioned in the Kali-Sanatana Upanishad. The mantra was spread worldwide by the followers of ISKCON or the Hare Krishna movement.

Some other examples of Nam-kirtans are “Om Namah Shivaya”, a salutation to the God Siva, Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram (popularized by Samarth Ramdas from western India) and Ram Naam Satya Hai (the name of Ram is truth) heard while carrying the dead to the cremation ground.

Current Scenario 

During the freedom struggle of India, several anthems such as ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Jana Gana Mana’ were composed in the patriotic fervour that swept the country. These anthems depicted pride in ‘Mother India’. At the same time musicians such as P.V. Paluskar composed songs such as “Raghupati Raghava” that highlighted the diversity of the country and included them in the concert stage.

Other musicians came up with their own signature bhajans or kirtans whether it was Kumar Gandharva’s renditions of the mystic Kabir’s nirguni bhajans (dohas), or Girija Devi’s Kajri Bhajans. The Pada-Kirtans as seen in Haveli Sangit and Samaj Gayan are not as commonly heard today. However the practice of Shabad Kirtans and Kritis (as in Carnatic music) remain strong in the Sikh community and southern India respectively.

The bhajan tradition traces its origins in south India in the 17th century to the Marathas who ruled at Thanjavur. This region became a center of the sampradaya bhajan tradition due to the pioneering efforts of Sadguru Swamin, Bhodendral and Sridhara Venkatesa Ayyaval.

Bhajans, nam-kirtans and sankirtans continue to be popular in different regions. One of the reasons for their popularity is the informal nature of gatherings as the audience gets to participate, sing, dance and pray along with the musicians regardless of caste, class and gender. Kirtans and bhajans which originated in the Bhakti movement continue to be a daily practice in homes, temples and concert halls across India and the world even today.

Here are two short explainer videos on the Bhakti movement.



Beck, G. L. (2014). Sonic liturgy: Ritual and music in Hindu tradition. New Delphi: Dev & Distributors.

Hawley, J. S. (2015). A storm of songs: India and the idea of the bhakti movement.

Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Ramanajun, A. K., & Alvar, N. (1981). Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Visnu by Nammalvar – Translated from Tamil by A.K.Ramanujan.

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