Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding New Forms of Spirituality, Community, and Worship through the Musical Practice of Kirtan

By Andrew Pettit.

Published by The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: January 9, 2014 $US5.00

The ancient Hindu spiritual-musical practice of kirtan, a type of group devotional chant, has been a minor feature of American “New Age” movements since the 1960s. Recently, a growing number of individuals not typically associated with the counterculture movement have been attracted to kirtan as a form of spiritual and musical expression. Kirtan events are held regularly across the country in private homes, yoga studios, churches, theatres, and convention centers. In this paper I argue that, rather than representing a set of unified religious beliefs or an institutionalized hierarchy, contemporary American kirtan provides practitioners the space to worship, develop their own spirituality, and experience individual conceptions of the divine in a communal, ecstatic setting. While kirtan practice has been enabled by pluralistic Hindu doctrines, its contemporary American incarnation facilitates an even wider diversity of spiritual practice. Understanding how kirtan performance simultaneously creates community and enables personalized spirituality further illuminates part of the fastest expanding “spiritual but not religious” denomination in the US.

Keywords: Postmodern Orientations to Religion, Globalized Spiritual Practices, Music and Ecstatic Experience, Multi-religious Community

The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, Volume 3, Issue 3, March 2014, pp.13-18. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: January 9, 2014 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 312.318KB)).

Andrew Pettit

Ph.D. Student, Department of Ethnomusicology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, USA

Andrew Pettit is a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently writing his dissertation titled “Passing Traditions: Child-Directed Songs as an Index of Cultural Change in Metropolitan India.” The fieldwork for this dissertation was funded, in part, by a Fulbright-Nehru student research fellowship. Andrew’s research interests include Hindustani classical music, technology and the mind, lullabies and other ritualized, child-directed songs from India, and devotional music genres in the United States. Andrew performs Hindustani classical music on the sitar, which he has studied for the past 14 years, and is a former editor and assistant editor of the journals "Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology" and "Ethnomusicology Review."