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MD Van Wedeen, Mass Gen.Harvard.connectome imageScientists have definitively identified, for the first time ever, a rare but rapidly increasing brain disorder affecting the frontal lobes, amygdala and hippocampus of people who regularly chant kirtan.

Publishing in the Journal of Neuroscience and Non-Duality, lead author Baba Bhavakirtanananda, a former saddhu who spent 20 years chanting the Maha Mantra nonstop in a cave near Braj, India, before accepting a research position at the University of Vrindavan, even coined a term for the condition: bhav brain.  Symptoms of bhav brain include markedly decreased attachment to one’s self-identity, blurring of the demarcation between “self” and others, disillusionment with materialistic gain, and reduced anxiety about what the future may bring.  In extreme cases, Bhavakirtanananda said, bhav brain can produce symptoms that can mimic intoxication or drug use, including inexplicable elation, stumbling or aimless wandering, or general “spaciness.”

These symptoms, he said, explain why people who have been chanting for many hours — as is common at kirtan festivals — are sometimes described as “stoned on the bhav.”

The scientists reported that they had also identified a potent neurotransmitter that seems to be expressed in excessive quantities after prolonged chanting, which they have accordingly named bhavatonin.  They found bhavatonin-specific receptors in the hippocampus, where the biochemical seemed to trigger a remembrance of one’s own divine nature, and in the amygdala, where it apparently tamped down fearful reactions and anxiety.

Long History in India, But New to the West

Historical documents suggest that bhav brain has been around since at least the 15th century; there are oblique references to the symptoms in sacred texts in the vedic traditions and in the works of so-called bhakti poets like Hafiz and Mirabai.  But the syndrome of symptoms has only recently been observed in the West — first in an area of New York’s Hudson Valley known as the Bhajan Belt, and then in Southern California, especially around the town of Joshua Tree.  More recent evidence suggests the condition is spreading — last summer there was a flurry of reports from Madison, Wisc. of chanters driving in circles, heading in the wrong direction on the highway, and unable to use simple machines like gas pumps.  The geographic and temporal distribution of these reports is closely associated with large-scale chant festivals.

That’s no coincidence, says Bhavakirtanananda.  He said he had long suspected there was a signature biological “fingerprint” associated with the syndrome, and was frustrated that no serious scientist had attempted to investigate it.  So he took it upon himself, first investigating it in a pilot study at India’s legendary Kumbh Mela festival before traveling all the way to Southern California to study attendees at a 4-day festival where the chanting was virtually nonstop.  His team recruited 100 men and women ranging in age from 16 to 97 (median age 39), and conducted functional MRI scans before, during and after the festival.

Prevalence is Rapidly Increasing

In the article, the authors noted that the prevalence of the condition — virtually unknown in the West until recent years — has been rapidly increasing in step with the growing popularity and “mainstreaming” of bhakti yoga, an obscure form of yoga from 15th century India that eschews the Western yoga world’s fixation on having a really great butt in favor of an emphasis on loving devotion and seva, or selfless service.

Reactions from the bhakti community have been mixed.  Kirtan musician Dave Stringananda said he was not surprised.  “I’ve been fascinated for years by how chanting might be affecting neurotransmitters like anandamine and serotonin, so the idea that there is a brain chemical called bhavatonin that is specifically ramped up by kirtan makes so much sense.  I am elated.” Stringananda immmediately set to work incorporating the findings into a new workshop series.

Skepticism in the Bhajan Belt

In Woodstock, N.Y. in the heart of the Bhajan Belt, long-time kirtan wallah Sruti Ramananda dismissed the findings as overhyped hogwash.  “Symptoms of a disorder?  Pshaw! Here in Woodstock, these kinds of behaviors are as common as peacocks in Vrindavan,” he said.  “If ‘bhav brain’ is a disease, then I’m a monkey-god’s uncle.”

The Bhakti Beat asked the members of the popular ensemble band The Hanumen, fresh off a regional tour that included stops at a prison and a psychiatric treatment facility, to comment on the research, but a spokesperson said the band was covered in mud on a beach somewhere and couldn’t be reached.

The Chant and Chill Foundation issued a statement praising the research as an important step forward in understanding what’s going on in the brain of a bhakta:  “This continues to be one of the deepest mysteries of the universe — just look at those Hanumen.  We are delighted to see that someone is finally putting some real effort into it.” The foundation plans to start a campaign encouraging hard-core bhaktas to donate their brains to research in hopes of advancing scientific knowledge about bhav brain.

Stay tuned to TheBhaktiBeat.com for more on this developing story.  Because no one knows bhav brain like we do…

If you like this, you might also like “10 Signs You Might Be a Kirtan Addict”

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Dear Lord, kindly engage me in your service.

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In the Bhav at Bhakti Fest Finale

“After the ecstasy, the laundry.”  In those few words author Jack Kornfield captured the essence of the seeker’s search for that “something else” and the back-to-reality recognition that, having tasted it even fleetingly, one cannot escape the laundry of life that awaits us in this 3-D world. 

Go ahead and taste the ecstasy.  Savor it.  Relish every moment of it.  But don’t forget to wash your underwear.

Kornfield’s popular title rings in my ears as I return home after an 18-day sojourn chasing the bhav from one end of the country to the other.  The Bhakti Beat’s Big Bhavalicious Adventure took us from Omega’s Ecstatic Chant in the heart of the “Bhajan Belt” in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to the high desert of Joshua Tree, Cali. for the 4th Annual Bhakti Fest West, and then back East to the cornfields of Pennsylvania for Sat Nam Fest, the kundalini yoga and chant retreat organized by Spirit Voyage Music.  Sandwiched in between was the  NYC premeire of Jeremy Frindel’s new documentary, “One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das.” 

That’s a lot of kirtan, even for a confessed junkie.  

Me & my cameras, chasing the bhav. (Photo courtesy of Maie P Jyoti)

I savored it.  Relished every moment.  And in the end, couldn’t wait to come home, with a resolute determination to bring the bhav right back with me.  Surely this immersion in the ocean of devotion, this tidal wave of spiritual energy generated from the ultimate Kirtan Trifecta — or Tri-Festa, as GuruGanesha Singh labeled my journey — would keep me high on life for days, weeks, maybe even months, right?  Right?

Ha.  Tell that to the dirty underwear.  And the stack of bills screaming for my attention.  And the deadlines looming for the day job that pays the stack of bills.  Videos to edit, pictures to post, blogs to write.  A boyfriend who has forgotten what I look like and secretly wants to heave my laptop out the window.  And so on. 

The crash came hard and fast.  Leaving me wondering:  Where’s the bhav now?

Easier said than done...

This, I gather, is where that “great magic trick of existence” comes in…how to “snatch the eternal from the desperately fleeting,” as Tennessee Williams wrote.  How to sustain the “blissful love or loving bliss,” as the religious studies scholar David Haberman defined “the bhav” in a workshop at Bhakti Fest, even when the fest is over and we’re faced with the unpleasant minutiae of daily life.  

Krishna Das has said it in so many workshops: “When you leave here, you’ve still got to pay the bills.”  His advice?  “Practice.”  He doesn’t care if you chant, meditate, do asanas…whatever;  just do something. “There’s a reason they call it practice,” he always says.  You’ve got to do it.  As in, every day, chant fest or no.

Note to self:  a crowd of 5,000 isn’t required.  A festival of One works too.

Shyamdas, the respected author, Sanskrit scholar, and master of Hare Katha (sacred teachings interwoven with bhav-inducing kirtan)  was asked what it means to “be in the bhav” during the Bhakti Panel workshop on Day 4 of Bhakti Fest.  Among other gems you can hear in the video below, he said this: 

“The bhav makes us understand that there is eternity within the present moment, and that makes the individual unconcerned with what is going to happen next, because everything is already a perfect manifestation as it is.”


In the bhav, Shyamdas told us, “everything is directed for the pleasure of the Beloved.”  By which he means the Supreme.  The Divine.  It matters not if you call it God, Krishna, Christ, Grace, Universal Oneness, Higher Self — label it as you will, or not at all.  The point is that when everything we do is offered up to the greater good, then — and only then — can we get anywhere near the bhav.  

Need a pay-off?  Shyamdas says: “When a person can have that attitude, I think they receive a response from the Source Bhav.” 

“A response from the Source Bhav.”  I like the sound of that.  I want that.


Tulasi & Purusartha Dasa

A remarkable woman I met on my journey, Tulasi Devi Dasi (whose husband, Purusartha Dasa, plays bass for The Hanumen), made this exact point to me a week before I heard Shyamdas say it, in a casual breakfast conversation at Omega the morning after four days of Ecstatic Chant.  She told an innocuous story of a large gathering at their home in the community of Krishna devotees in Alachua, Fla.  She said all the preparation and labors were seen not as effort, but as joy, because all was done in service to Krishna.  Every act, no matter how small, was offered up as a prayer to the Beloved. 

Her words had that goosebump effect on me.  You know, that tingly “hit” you get when something resonates deeply in your soul.  I nearly wept right there in the cafeteria. (Chanting for four days will do that to you.) 

Gong bath at Sat Nam Fest

Tulasi’s words stayed with me. 

“I offer my service to Krishna” became my mantra (I would interchange Krishna with Christ, God, Universal Oneness, The Divine, because to me they are all one).  I did this as I posted pictures.  I did it as I wrote emails and returned phone calls.  I did it as I sweated my way through NY rush-hour traffic to make my flight at JFK after Google Maps sent me on a ridiculously convoluted route.  And so on. 

Well, call me crazy, but you know what?  Doors started opening.  Interviews came through.  Connections were made.  Relationships were healed with a hug.  Helpful people were showing up precisely at the right time.  Oh yeah, and I made the plane.  With perfect timing.

I ran into Tulasi again on Day 3 of Bhakti Fest, five days later and 3,000 miles from our breakfast chat.  I told her how she had inspired me with her words, how it had made all the difference.  We hugged.  I wept.  She wept.  (Chanting for eight days will do that to you.) 

So here’s what I’ve learned…

You can chase the bhav all you want — and you might even snatch it for a fleeting moment.  But until you can find that sweet spot of devotion and gratitude, that attitude that life is a gift — that “ever-expansive loving feeling that we’re all thirsting for,” as Haberman put it — right in your own home, your own heart, even with the stack of bills screaming and the deadlines looming and the boyfriend glowering, you’re just running on empty. 

Make your life a prayer.  Then stand back and watch what unfolds. 

Sridhar Silberfein: Grace in Action

Or, as Bhakti Fest founder and executive producer Sridhar Silberfein so says:

“Do what you can.  Then get out of the way and let Grace take over.”


Additional Coverage from The Bhakti Beat’s Big Bhavalicious Adventure to Omega Chant, Bhakti Fest West and Sat Nam Fest East:
Bringing Home The Bhav: Bhakti-Fried Bliss-Chaser Faces ‘The Laundry’ of Life (Video)
Wallah to Watch: Jai-Jagdeesh, Songstress & Classical Dance Artist, Dazzles at Sat Nam Fest (Videos)
With Deva’s Miten, Krishna Das Does Dylan & Shyamdas Does the Blues (Videos)
‘It Is Not Dying:’ Geoffrey Gordon (1952-2012) Remembered in Bhakti Fest Tributes and Haunting Video
Photo Journals from all 3 festivals on our facebook page.
Check our YouTube channel for the latest video uploads.
Stay tuned to this site for more coverage coming soon!  Subscribe here.









You never know what’s coming next with The Hanumen, the ensemble band created by Gaura Vani, Benjy Wertheimer and John de Kadt.  That came through in their live Webcast concert at Goddard College July 24 (part of an East Coast summer tour with Purusartha Dasa on bass), as well as the unpredictably amusing interview we had afterward with all four Hanumen.

As we’ve written, the evening’s musical agenda sauntered between Hafiz on the hang from drum poet John de Kadt (“Come Dance with Me”) to slave songs from 1800’s America (“Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”) to original love poems to the world (“I Love You, I Do”) to 11th century Gregorian Chant (“Alleluia,” video below). Traditional Sanskrit chants to the Divine were weaved in throughout.  Often, each of these seemingly diverse genres was wrapped up into one seamless medley of musical artistry.

Each of the trio traded off instruments throughout the night: Benjy Wertheimer variously played the tabla drums, the esraj (a traditional Indian stringed instrument), or acoustic guitar; Gaura Vani switched between harmonium, flute, and guitar, and John de Kadt selected from the mountain of drums that surrounded him.

‘A Living Dialog of Faith’

This was not a “kirtan concert” so much as an exploration of musical mantras in every form, from vastly different spiritual traditions.  “A living dialog of faith,” Gaura Vani called it.

It’s this “ecumenical sensibility,” Wertheimer says, that is at the core of The Hanumen.  “We want to feel like anybody who really wants to give themselves completely to the divine has a way to sing with us and participate in what we are offering.  We are inviting people into the deepest expression of their own love for the divine, whatever path that they’re taking,” he said, adding wryly:  “You don’t usually go to kirtans and hear Gregorian Chants or Sufi poetry.”

Not usually, no.  But we say Alleluia to more of that.

See if you agree after hearing this Alleluia solo by Wertheimer, which he described as “a chant from a somewhat different tradition where men would gather to sing together.”  The Latin words in this 1,000-year-old Gregorian Chant are from Psalm 91 in the Volgate bible of the time, which speaks of justice.  It translates to: “May those who are loving and just flourish like the palm tree/And just like the famed cedars of Lebanon, may they multiply, may they grow. Alleluia.”

A studio version of Alleluia sung by Benjy Wertheimer and long-time collaborator Sean Frenette is on “Jaya,” the latest CD from Shantala, the Music of Benjy and Heather Wertheimer (www.shantalamusic.com), and forms the soundtrack for a beautiful video montage of images from the Wertheimer’s Northwest ‘hood and their bhakti travels.   View that video here: http://youtu.be/9Eqr9QqGRk4.

 Also see:
The Hanumen Prove that a (Mantra) Revolution Can Be a Hoot (Interview, Video, Photos)
Photo Journal of The Hanumen on facebook

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In "the pit"

The return of The Hanumen — the testosterone-driven ensemble band created by John de Kadt, Benjy Wertheimer and Gaura Vani — has been one of the most anticipated events in this kirtan addict’s year.  Who could resist this combination of three exquisite musicians, each with a heart as big as Hanuman’s (and humors to match)?

We caught up with the multi-instrumentalist mantra revolutionaries at a true hotbed of revolution, Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., near the end of their short, sweet tour up the East Coast (don’t worry, West Coasters: The Hanumen are coming your way in September).  Afterward, we got to sit down with all four of the current incarnation of this band of bhakti brothers — bassist Purusartha Dasa being the fourth  — for an interview that turned into more of sit-down comedy routine at times:

from thehanumen.com

The Hanumen played in “the pit” at Goddard — fitting, perhaps for revolutionaries whose publicity photos show them covered in mud? — an acoustically correct sound stage from which the college’s community FM station, WGDR, audiocast the concert live to the world.  (A recording of it may be forthcoming, we’re told.)

Their concert covered a lot of sacred ground in mantra music…

delicious drum poetry from John de Kadt, beginning with the dreamily invitational, “Come Dance With Me”…




an Alleluia solo in the 12th century Gregorian Chant tradition from Benjy Wertheimer that took our breath away…




Gaura Vani’s inimitable playfulfulness, sacred story-telling, and powerful call-and-response leadership…




and even a little dance lesson in the “Swami Shuffle” from quiet, dimunitive Purusartha Dasa.


The evening was packed with pleasant surprises, beautifully showcasing the master musicianship of each individually and melding them seamlessly into a smooth flow of original compositions, ancient chants, reincarnated gospel songs, and instrumental interludes.  Luscious.

This is one perfect example:


Check our YouTube page for the latest uploads from The Hanumen @ Goddard!

See also: