Music this Month

    Introduction to Indian Classical Music -8


    Indian Classical Music and the Divine

    [Mrs Tania Banerjee continues to provide readers with excellent information about the countless dimensions of Indian classical music. Most of this article has been quoted from Guy Beck’s “Sacred Music and Hindu Religious Experience”. Our thanks to the author for this. Mrs Banerjee has given the basics of music in the previous articles and now explains the deep signficance of music.]


    “Our tradition teaches us that sound is God—Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realization of the Self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects, and the Ragas are among the ¯ means by which this essence can be apprehended. Thus, through music, one can reach God.” —Ravi Shankar, Sitar maestro

    While music plays a significant role in many of the world’s religions, it is in the Hindu dharma that one finds one of the closest bonds between music and religious experience extending for millennia. The recitation of the syllable OM and the chanting of Sanskrit Mantras and hymns from the Vedas formed the core of ancient fire sacrifices. The Upanishads articulated OM as Sabda-Brahman, ´ the Sound-Absolute that became the object of meditation in Yoga. First described by Bharata in the Natya Sastra as a sacred art with reference to Rasa (emotional states), ancient music or Sangita was a vehicle of liberation (Moksa) founded in the worship of deities such as Brahma, Vishnu,  Siva, and ´ Goddess Sarasvati. Medieval Tantra and music texts introduced the concept of Nada-Brahman as the source of sacred music that was understood in terms of Ragas, melodic formulas, and Talas, rhythms, forming the basis of Indian music today. Nearly all genres of Indian music, whether the classical Dhrupad and Khayal, or the devotional Bhajan and Kirtan, share a common theoretical and practical understanding, and are bound together in a mystical spirituality based on the experience of sacred sound.

    As a part of this introductory article I would like to discuss the different aspects of Divinity which is expressed by the Indian Classical music from time Immemorial:

    Sacred Sound: OM and Nada-Brahman:

    The Vedas and Upanishads contain information about the practice of chant and vocal utterance in relation to fire sacrifices to the gods. These ancient texts are believed to embody the eternal primeval ¯ sound that generated the universe, symbolized by the syllable OM, the power of which is manifest through oral chant. Recent research on the origins and history of the syllable OM has revealed that OM was closely associated with tonal chant and music from the beginning of its use in ancient India. Various research helps us to understand the function of OM and why the chanting of OM is almost always tonal, unless muttered in near-silence. That is, OM is normally executed in a kind of monotone on the tonic note of a scale. This method is still the foundation of Hindu worship and the basis for opening classical vocal music performances.

     Sacred Music: Sangita:

    Indian music, known as Sangita , is considered divine in origin and very closely identified with the Hindu gods and goddesses. The Goddess Saraswati, depicted with the Vina instrument in hand, is believed to be the divine patroness of music. Brahma, the creator of the universe, fashioned Indian music out of the ingredients of the Sama Veda and plays the hand cymbals. Vishnu the Preserver sounds the conch shell and plays the flute in the form of the incarnation known as Krishna. Siva as Nataraja plays the Damaru drum during the dance of cosmic dissolution. Sangita has three divisions: vocal, instrumental, and dance.

    Aesthetics of Rasa:

    In the Saguna (With Form) approach to the divine, the deity is physically visible to the devotee in the form of an icon or statue. Believed to be more accessible to human devotion, the deities became the objects of aesthetic sentiments as expressed through the musical arts. The Upanishads describe Brahman (Absolute or God) as “raso vai sah” meaning,  full of the essence of aesthetic delight or Rasa (Taittiriya Upanishad 2.7.1). The association between Rasa and music began to appear in the earliest Sanskrit musical treatises and texts on Puja(Worship) and the dramatic arts. Bharata Muni, in Natya- Sastra, was the first to outline the basic features of Indian music as well as the various aesthetic experiences (Rasas) associated with drama and the worship of icons. Rasas are the artistic or aesthetic expressions of emotional experiences that are believed to be universal traits of humanity, such as love, compassion, and heroism.

    Bharata Muni presents the original eight Rasas: Sringara—erotic, Hasya—comic, Karuna—compassion, Raudra—terror, Vira—heroic, Bhayanaka—fear, Bibhatsa—disgust, and Adbhuta—wonder. The Natya-Sastra ties the eight Rasas with the seven individual notes of the musical scale known for the first time as Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni :erotic—Pa (fifth), comic—Ma (fourth), compassion—Ga (third) and Ni (seventh), disgust and fear—Dha (sixth), heroic, terror, and wonder—Sa (tonic) and Re (second).

    A ninth Rasa, Shanta Rasa (peace) was added by the Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta in the tenth century CE. Shanta Rasa was the appropriate musical aesthetic in response to the formless nature of the divine, or Nirguna-Brahman, as endorsed by the non-dualist school of Advaita Vedanta propounded in Kashmiri Saivism. Sringara Rasa, however, was believed to transcend the formless or impersonal conception and was more suitable for the Saguna approach to the divine.

    Bhakti and Music: Kirtan and Bhajan:

    The Bhakti or devotional movements began in southern India in the sixth century CE. At that time, separate Bhakti groups emerged as powerful forces favoring a devotion-centered Hinduism with song-texts composed primarily in vernacular, in this case Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada. Many new styles of regional devotional music were duly formalized to accompany liturgies in the temples of medieval times. These styles followed a simple aesthetic reflecting the perspective of music as an offering as well as a means toward communion with a chosen deity. In the evolving personal theism, Brahman was conceived as the supreme personal deity, whether Vishnu, Siva, or Sakti, and believed to be the fountainhead of all Rasa (aesthetic pleasure or taste). The emotional experience of love and devotion produced by musicians in the minds of the listeners was linked to the divine by virtue of it being a part of the Bhakti tradition.

    In support of the growing Bhakti movements, a tenth Rasa, Bhakti Rasa (devotional love), was introduced by the Vaishnava theologian Rupa Goswami in the sixteenth century. Bhakti Rasa was widely adopted as the superior Rasa among religious groups and practitioners of the Saguna traditions and was believed to encompass and transform all the other Rasas.

    In the Narada-Bhakti-Sutra and the Bhagavata-Purana , five types of devotional love are described, namely, Shanta (meditational), Dasya (servitude), Sakhya (friendship), Vatsalya (parental), Kanta (conjugal), with the highest being the latter as love between man and woman, which came to symbolize the love between the human and the divine.

    The spread of the Bhakti traditions stimulated many new forms of architectural, literary, and artistic expression. In terms of music with the rise of the Bhakti Sangita, followed the classical form of Raga (melodic pattern) and Tala (rhythmic cycle) and contained lyrics expressive of love and devotion toward a chosen deity. Bhakti Sangıt is primarily sung in vernacular dialects such as Hindi and Braj Bhasha in the North, and Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada in the South. Various types of Bhakti Sangit came to be referred to as either Kirtan or Bhajan.

    As musical compositions, Kirtan and Bhajan songs range from complex structures to simple refrains or litanies containing divine names. Most have their own distinctive tune and rhythm that are easily followed by the audience.

    Dhrupad and Temple Music:

    During the thirteenth century, the classical music traditions separated into northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic. What developed as Hindustani music in northern regions stemmed from the devotional temple music that was performed by musicians in Mathura, Vrindavan, Braj, Gwalior, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh. For many years in the North, the musical style of Dhrupad was the principal classical vehicle for vernacular Bhakti lyrics, and was rendered in a slow, four-section format using the pure form of a Raga, along with the strict rhythms of mainly Cautal (twelve beats) or Dhamar (fourteen beats). Important devotional styles that are related to Dhrupad are Haveli Sangit and Samaj Gayan, both originating in Vaishnava temples in the region of Braj.

    Classical Music of Khayal:

    The Dhrupad music of Vaishnavism described above flourished largely in isolation from the general public, catering exclusively to the devotees and pilgrims at holy shrines. Yet Dhrupad also provided the foundation for the Hindustani classical vocal music genre known as Khayal that flourished in the northern Hindu and Muslim courts. Many Muslim musicians became proficient in Khayal and contributed greatly to its repertoire and success. By the nineteenth century, Khayal virtually replaced Dhrupad as the predominant form of Hindustani vocal music, and by the twentieth century, it had shifted from the court to the concert arena. While expanding in new creative directions, Khayal, also sung in the vernacular Braj Bhasha dialect, nonetheless retained an affinity with the substance of the ¯ Dhrupad songs. A Khayal song is known as a ‘bandish,’ a carefully constructed musical composition with a balance of note, beat, and word that creates an image or idea in the mind that is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

    The content depicted in the Khayal song lyrics, such as Dhrupad, continue to refer to spiritual messages, including philosophical ideas found in ancient texts, the description of deities, the praise of God Religions 2019, 10, 85 10 of 15 through emphasis on Nam-Kirtan, or simply the human longing for the Almighty. Many Khayal songs depict situations involving the god Krishna and his favorite goddess Radha, sometimes in the context ¯ of the seasons such as spring and monsoon, while other songs reveal Indian spiritual wisdom such as found in the Upanishads, including the illusory nature of material existence, the misery associated with greed and gluttony, the prospect of repeated births in the cycle of Samsara or rebirth, and the need for assistance in crossing over to the other side, a place of permanent peace and tranquility. The solution to these problems is often presented in the songs themselves: chanting divine names, meditation on the Lord, and engaging in devotional worship.

    To conclude I tried to give an introduction of the different kinds and genres of Indian Classical music which all depended on one goal- To Reach the Supreme. In the up-coming months we will go deep into the different kinds of garners discussed above in details. 



    is a musician and a student of the science of music. She has been introducing the inticracies of classical music to Vedanta Vani readers.

    Abhishek Chakraborti

    is the Contributing Editor of the Music Page

    Abhishek lives in Holland and is an excellent musician. He is also devoted to the ideals of Sri Ramakrishna, Mother and Swamiji.