Kirtan in our Gurdwaras - a Reflection

How many times do we ask the Sangat to sing a Shabad when we do a religious ceremony?...

ਕੀਰਤਨੁ ਨਿਰਮੋਲਕ ਹੀਰਾ
The Kirtan of the Lord's Praise is a priceless diamond.
ਆਨੰਦ ਗੁਣੀ ਗਹੀਰਾ
It is the ocean of bliss and virtue.
ਅਨਹਦ ਬਾਣੀ ਪੂੰਜੀ
In the Word of the Guru's Bani is the wealth of the unstruck sound current.
ਸੰਤਨ ਹਥਿ ਰਾਖੀ ਕੂੰਜੀ ॥੨॥
The Saints hold the key to it in their hands. ||2||

For a very long time it has been believed that music plays in God’s Kingdom. Man has always experimented to hear sounds from various objects. Musical instruments may be as simple as hollow tree trunk or a sea shell. Sounds have been heard since man first appeared on earth. Making a small hole and then blowing air through a sea shell produces a very loud sound. Poets have often compared themselves to a hollow bamboo stem and asked the Master (God) to fill it with music. It is said that we hear and feel music even before our birth. We are listening to the drumbeat of the mother’s heartbeat in the womb. Science has discovered that children in the womb are sensitive to light. They change their position to be comfortable. Children are naturally musical. They play music by striking two pieces of stone or banging a spoon. So how do we define music?

The dictionary defines it as follows: “vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.”

Guru Nanak Dev Ji heard music in everything. He said:

ਸੋ ਦਰੁ ਕੇਹਾ ਸੋ ਘਰੁ ਕੇਹਾ ਜਿਤੁ ਬਹਿ ਸਰਬ ਸਮਾਲੇ
In what house, behind what door, who sit and remember the One?
ਵਾਜੇ ਨਾਦ ਅਨੇਕ ਅਸੰਖਾ ਕੇਤੇ ਵਾਵਣਹਾਰੇ
How many musicians play how many tunes? How many enchanting songs are sung?
ਕੇਤੇ ਰਾਗ ਪਰੀ ਸਿਉ ਕਹੀਅਨਿ ਕੇਤੇ ਗਾਵਣਹਾਰੇ
How many singers are singing?
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਤੁਹਨੋ ਪਉਣੁ ਪਾਣੀ ਬੈਸੰਤਰੁ ਗਾਵੈ ਰਾਜਾ ਧਰਮੁ ਦੁਆਰੇ
The winds, waters, and fire, vibrating, sing Thy praises.
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਚਿਤੁ ਗੁਪਤੁ ਲਿਖਿ ਜਾਣਹਿ ਲਿਖਿ ਲਿਖਿ ਧਰਮੁ ਵੀਚਾਰੇ
The king of the Dharma sings at the door.
The angels of the conscious and unconscious minds,
Who write the records of our actions, sing, As the king of Dharma reflects on that record.
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਈਸਰੁ ਬਰਮਾ ਦੇਵੀ ਸੋਹਨਿ ਸਦਾ ਸਵਾਰੇ
Shivas, Brahmas, and Devis sing. Their beauty is beyond compare.
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਇੰਦ ਇਦਾਸਣਿ ਬੈਠੇ ਦੇਵਤਿਆ ਦਰਿ ਨਾਲੇ
Sings Indra seated on his throne, and all the boddhisattvas there.
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਸਿਧ ਸਮਾਧੀ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਗਾਵਨਿ ਸਾਧ ਵਿਚਾਰੇ
The siddhas sing in deep samadhi. The saddhus sing in deep reflection.
ਗਾਵਨਿ ਜਤੀ ਸਤੀ ਸੰਤੋਖੀ ਗਾਵਹਿ ਵੀਰ ਕਰਾਰੇ
The patient, chaste, and true ones sing. The great and fearless warriors sing.
ਗਾਵਨਿ ਪੰਡਿਤ ਪੜਨਿ ਰਖੀਸਰ ਜੁਗੁ ਜੁਗੁ ਵੇਦਾ ਨਾਲੇ
The pundits and the ancient sages sing and sing through all the ages.
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਮੋਹਣੀਆ ਮਨੁ ਮੋਹਨਿ ਸੁਰਗਾ ਮਛ ਪਇਆਲੇ
The mind bewitching beauties sing on earth, in hells and heavens.
ਗਾਵਨਿ ਰਤਨ ਉਪਾਏ ਤੇਰੇ ਅਠਸਠਿ ਤੀਰਥ ਨਾਲੇ
Those of gem-like consciousness sing at all the holy places.
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਜੋਧ ਮਹਾਬਲ ਸੂਰਾ ਗਾਵਹਿ ਖਾਣੀ ਚਾਰੇ
The brave and mighty warriors sing. The soldiers sing along.
The four wellsprings of life constantly sing Thy song.
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਖੰਡ ਮੰਡਲ ਵਰਭੰਡਾ ਕਰਿ ਕਰਿ ਰਖੇ ਧਾਰੇ
The planets, solar systems and galaxies sing as they rotate in their places.
ਸੇਈ ਤੁਧੁਨੋ ਗਾਵਹਿ ਜੋ ਤੁਧੁ ਭਾਵਨਿ ਰਤੇ ਤੇਰੇ ਭਗਤ ਰਸਾਲੇ
They sing of Thee, who please Thee, with shining, loving faces.
ਹੋਰਿ ਕੇਤੇ ਗਾਵਨਿ ਸੇ ਮੈ ਚਿਤਿ ਨ ਆਵਨਿ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਕਿਆ ਵੀਚਾਰੇ
So many others sing Thy song, who never cross my mind.
O Nanak! How can I tell this tale?

Devotional singing in rhythm is called Kirtana or Kirtan meaning "narrating, reciting, telling, describing" of an idea or story. It also refers to a genre of religious performance arts, connoting a musical form of narration or shared recitation, particularly of spiritual or religious ideas.

Kirtan is a very powerful medium. For Sikhs it has been accepted as a gift from God. We have all heard the Sakhi of Satta Ji and Balwand Ji. If you do not know the story, which explains why anyone can play kirtan, then you can read it here.

Even though Guru Arjan Dev Ji explicitly told us that anyone in the Sangat can play kirtan, in may Gurdwaras only paid kirtanees sing and everyone sits quietly as though at a concert.

The harmonium is very versatile and easy to learn. I have seen children beginning to follow through the tunes within a few hours. 

ਢਾਢੀ ਤਿਸ ਨੋ ਆਖੀਐ ਜਿ ਖਸਮੈ ਧਰੇ ਪਿਆਰੁ
He alone is called a minstrel, who enshrines love for his Lord and Master.
ਦਰਿ ਖੜਾ ਸੇਵਾ ਕਰੇ ਗੁਰ ਸਬਦੀ ਵੀਚਾਰੁ
Standing at the Lord's Door, he serves the Lord, and reflects upon the Word of the Guru's Shabad.

Children have a natural affinity for music and spontaneouslyy love it. Check out this video by Harjinder Singh Lallie “The Importance of Teaching Kids Kirtan.” To some extent Kirtan has become commercialized. Kirtan should be done separate. Often I see during Kirtan people are also reading the Guru Granth Sahib ji. Whenever a religious ceremony is held; Pathis and Ragi Jathas are usually brought in. I am sure you must have seen a street singer. He usually puts a hat in front of him to earn some money, while he plays on the guitar and sings a song. Passersby put money in the hat. Aren’t we doing the same? (Oops! We don’t wear a hat.) I am not talking about money. When it comes to donating money; by all means, please be generous. Most Gurudwaras have a reputation of paying very little to the Ragi Jis. They are promoting Guru’s words. They need to feed three families. 

ਘਰਿ ਘਰਿ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਧਰਮਸਾਲ ਹੋਵੈ ਕੀਰਤਨੁ ਸਦਾ ਵਿਸੋਆ
Every home has become a place of dharma with singing.

What is the meaning of Sangat? When a family does path and Kirtan together the home becomes a Gurudwara. Whenever I go to the Gurudwara Sahib I look for couples and families who listen to the Kirtan and then eat together. I often find women gossiping about their husbands or mothers-in-law while husbands are chatting about politics in Punjab and India or fights in the Gurudwara Sahib. I understand we often want to socialize, but our priority at the Gurdwara should be to do Sewa and listen to the Kirtan and eat langar together. Sadly, most of the families even go separately and it makes me wonder if they are living together? 

How many times do we ask the Sangat to sing a Shabad when we do a religious ceremony? It has been ages since I heard anyone from Sangat sing a Shabad. You will save lot of money if you invite the Sangat to sing the Shabad. Our young kids need encouragement. I think Gurudwara Sahib should have some time dedicated to the Sangat for the Kirtan. I talked about it with the local Gurudwara Management and they frowned. Guru Arjan Dev Ji’s gift of Kirtan is not being followed through. Some historians believe that it was Guru Ji’s own interest to allow the Sangat to do the Kirtan. There were 58 poets in Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s darbar. Sadly, everything that the Sikh religion stood for is being lost. Gurudwara Sahib should try to encourage Sangat to sing shabads. I do agree that the Hazoori Ragis (paid Ragis) prefer their own harmonium. Gurudwara Sahib should invest in a separate harmonium and tabla for the Sangat so that the Hazoori Ragis can have their own dedicated harmonium and tabla. 

ਸਾਧਸੰਗਿ ਕੀਰਤਨ ਫਲੁ ਪਾਇਆ
I have obtained the reward of the Kirtan of the Lord's Praises, in the Saadh Sangat, the Company of the Holy.

Kirtan is most beautiful thing. It is not easy. For me Kirtan is a prayer. I have sung Christian hymns and Hindu hymns on harmonium. I usually do Kirtan almost every day. I also read poetry. You are welcome to join me on Thursday. My hymns are available on You can search for “Jyon Jyon Tera Hukam” or “Wonderful Words of Life” or “Allah Tero Naam- Sarab Singh” on If you do Kirtan and will like to join me to do Sangat with me on Thursdays you can email me at: [email protected]

Sarab Singh is the Editor of India-USA Magazine “Connecting Communities” a quarterly Punjabi English Magazine published from Kent, WA USA. The magazine is distributed free in the Greater Seattle area. The yearly subscription is $20 which usually covers postage. The magazine is available through the King County Library System, Washington State Library, Whatcom County Library and others. Please request your local library to subscribe to the magazine so that we can reach more community. Please email me at [email protected] if I could be of any help. Thank you. 

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