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On being a voice in the global kirtan choir: Jahnavi Harrison

Kirtan — the process of connecting to the Divine through the congregational singing of sacred mantras — has, for the most part, been a relatively niche practice in the Western world. But as the yoga scene has boomed into a multi-billion dollar industry, kirtan too has seen an immense rise in popularity in recent years, elevating a number of people to celebrity-like status.

Among them is Jahnavi Harrison, whose passion, love, and talent for kirtan has transcended her beyond the boundaries of alternative listening. Since releasing her debut album “Like a River to the Sea” in 2015, she has made regular appearances on BBC Radio 2’s “Pause for Thought,” contributed to the Grammy-nominated album “Bhakti without Borders,” and most recently, collaborated with Willow Smith on their EP “Rise.”

HAF: How did you start down the path that you’re on now? How did it all begin?

Jahnavi Harrison: I was born to parents who had found the path of bhakti yoga through their own individual spiritual quests, long before they married each other. My father came from a Christian background in England, and my mother from a Jewish background in Canada. They each went on their own search for deeper meaning and in different ways came in contact with members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKCON]. They both lived in temple ashrams for over 10 years before marrying and starting a family, so by that time my siblings and I were being born to parents who had well-established training and culture in this spiritual path. I grew up about a 10 minute drive from Bhaktivedanta Manor, the beautiful estate that George Harrison [Jahnavi is not related to George Harrison] had gifted to the Krishna devotees in the early 1970s. My parents both worked and served there every day, and my siblings and I attended school there daily.

HAF: Most Westerners who come to Hinduism usually do so as an adult. You, however, were born into it. What was it like growing up as a Westerner in a Hindu tradition?

Jahnavi Harrison: I don’t think I thought of myself as a “Westerner” ‘til I got older. I grew up in an environment where we studied the Bhagavad Gita — where we were taught that our true identity is the eternal soul, and not the outer covering of the body. I had kids from different ethnic backgrounds in my classroom, and the adults around me were a mix too. There were many people around from Hindu families, mostly Gujarati, but I didn’t see myself as different from them. I think as I got older, and the number of ethnically Indian congregation members and pilgrims to the temple grew and grew (along with people asking me questions like this one!), I became more aware that someone with my skin color practicing a form of Hinduism looked strange or curious to some. I have had a mix of reactions over the years and of course endless questions which, as a teenager, I was extremely shy and embarrassed about, but later on I grew to appreciate.

HAF: There are numerous spiritual disciplines within the bhakti tradition. What is it about kirtan specifically that resonates so strongly with young devotees in particular?

Jahnavi Harrison: I think kirtan resonates with young people because it is fun; easy; soothing to the mind and heart; facilitates connection and bonding with others in a deep way; and of course, is expressed through music, which I think unites every one of every age. It’s not demanding — you can just show up and take part and be yourself. It’s an experience.

HAF: Once upon a time, kirtan was a relatively niche practice in the Western world. As the yoga scene has boomed into a multi-billion dollar global industry, however, kirtan too has seen an immense rise in popularity, elevating a number of individuals to celebrity-like status. Such notoriety can be like a double-edged sword. Though it can enable one to introduce a rich spiritual practice to much larger audiences, it can also become a motivating factor that dilutes the integrity of the practice. As someone who’s gained a level of notoriety through kirtan, how do you stay grounded and true to its spiritual purpose?

Jahnavi Harrison: “Fame” for me has come extremely gradually. My life is basically quite normal, with normal people in it, and I think because fame was never something that I was seeking or chasing, it’s been an interesting journey to just experience what it all means and how I can use it in service, trying to be honest and authentic. What grounds me is staying connected to the sacred teachings that underpin the bhakti tradition, and to the practitioners — my teachers, friends, family, community, who I see as exemplars. The purpose of kirtan is to glorify the Supreme and I know that unless that is at the top of my mind in all endeavors, I have lost track of why I’m doing it. I try to be prayerful about what I’m doing, and offer whatever I have sincerely, even though it may be full of pride or other unwanted things.


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