(The following is a repost from my now-defunct blog, “Pagan Mysticism”.)
Devotional song is a common technique throughout religious history to express devotional love for God.
Some of the Psalms are thought to go back over 3000 years. They are still sung daily in Christian monasteries. There are probably devotional songs or poems that go back even further than that from other religions. The Rig Veda is even older and it contains pieces that could be seen as devotional songs.
I’d like to talk to you a bit about devotional music in world religion giving examples and then you can see how it can be applied to Pagan worship.
(For those reading my work for the first time, a recurring theme in my writing is to explore how devotion is expressed in other religions. Then, a polytheist can retool these methods or approaches to be used for polytheism. No, this is not ancient polytheism. Instead, I choose to focus on modern expressions of devotion in religions throughout the world. There are plenty of others who painstakingly reconstruct ancient polytheistic religions. I think that’s wonderful but obviously choose a different approach.)
To start off, let’s look at Christianity.
Because Christianity is the dominant religion of our culture, it has reaped the benefits of cultural development throughout the past 2000 years.
If Gregorian chant is your kind of thing (and sometimes it’s very soothing for me), there’s plenty of examples online in whatever music service you’re subscribed to or on YouTube. It’s generally in Latin. Not so long ago, all Catholic Masses were in chant.
If this is an interest of yours, I highly recommend finding a local abbey of monks or nuns who perform the offices by chant. Some of the most moving spiritual experiences I’ve had have been at monastic retreats. Being in an old stone building with unaccompanied voices singing in Latin with devotion just does it for me. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a monk because of this. In particular, I’m a fan of the chants written by St. Hildegard of Bingen
In a more modern take, the brothers of the ecumenical Taize Christian Community in France have become known for their quiet prayerful devotional singing that involves a song of only a few lines repeated over and over again with a feeling of devotion. Often in a candle-lit room. Some Anglican and Catholic parishes might even hold Taize-like services on some nights. I highly recommend checking it out. Even if you’re not Christian, you can get a real feel of devotion by experiencing this.
Here is a YouTube video of Taize’s version of Ubi Caritas. Imagine that in an intimate evening prayer service full of candlelight surrounding a San Damiano cross. Beautiful.
To continue with Christianity, I’ve noticed that a similar style of music has been showing up in evangelical-style Christianity. Especially in megachurches, emergent-style churches, and churches trying to attract younger crowds. It’s often called “Worship Music” and can involve prayerful repeating of choruses often with the audience raising their hands in an attitude that combines both prayer and rock concert. The music is modern but, in a way, uses techniques that have survived and thrived in religion since ancient times.
Sometimes, these songs straddle the line between a rockin’ love ballad and prayer. I love it.
For an example, here’s Jesus Culture with “Set A Fire”. It doesn’t even actually mention Jesus. I’ve listened to this song and prayed in my heart to the deities I worship.
The ghazal is a type of song or poem used by Sufis to express both love and devotion to God. Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a world famous performer of ghazals in recent times. Here is a link to some of these.
Next, let’s move to Sikhism.
Much like Hinduism (which we’ll get to next), there is a practice within Sikhism called kirtan which devotional singing.
Snatam Kaur is an excellent Sikh kirtan singer. I highly recommend her album “The Essential Snatam Kaur” found here on YouTube or on most music services like iTunes or Google Play Music. Much of it uses Sikh terminology and is in Punjabi, but I still feel a remarkable since of peace and devotion while listening to her chants..
Kirtan, though, is perhaps more closely associated with Hinduism. In particular, the bhakti yoga tradition (especially among Krishna-worshippers). Go to any Hare Krishna (ISKCON) temple and you’ll hear plenty of kirtan. In particular, the world famous “maha mantra” of the Hare Krishnas.
One popular kirtan singer is Krishna Das. He’s a Krishna worshipper but here he is singing a Shaivite kirtan “Om Namah Shivaya”.
George Harrison was a Krishna worshipper as well. One of his biggest hits as a solo artist, My Sweet Lord, fit comfortably into the spirit of kirtan yet was a modern rock song.
Here’s a group called Namaste doing a song to Shiva called “Jaya Shiva Shankara”
Here’s Kirtan Soul Revival doing a kirtan to Ganesh called “Ganesha Sharanam”. Here you can tell it sounds a little like the evangelical Christian music heard earlier.
So now that you’ve heard how devotion can be expressed in modern music throughout other religions, how will you sing to your God or Goddess? How can you incorporate devotional song into your polytheistic practice?