Hinduism and Music
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses the theoretical and practical dimensions of music in Hinduism, including the philosophy of sacred sound (Nāda-Brahman), the aesthetics of rasa (“taste”), the rise of Saṅgīta (music) as a component of pūjā (worship) and early drama, the Sanskrit musical treatises of Bharata and Dattila, the development of rāga (melodic pattern) and tāla (rhythmic cycle) from early scales and Sāma-Gāna (Sama-Veda chant), musical instruments, bhakti (devotion), and various classical and devotional genres of Bhakti-Saṅgīta, including Kriti, Dhrupad, Khyāl, Haveli-Saṅgīta, Samāj-Gāyan, Bhajan, and Nām-Kīrtan, within southern (Carnatic) and northern (Hindustani) traditions. Music is essential to Hindu mythology, where divine beings perform and instruct humans in the gentle art that facilitates both enjoyment (bhukti) and liberation (mukti). Prevalent in sacrifices, temple rites, domestic worship, sectarian movements and films, music is invariably part of Hindu worship in India or the Diaspora.
From the ancient culture of the Indo-Aryans to the present, Hindu religious traditions have exhibited a persistent preoccupation with musical features of tone, rhythm, and dance, along with textual support and interpretation in both Sanskrit and vernacular sources. Although there are abundant theological and philosophical schools in India promoting textual study and written commentary, the average ritual life of the practicing Hindu is invariably permeated with the sounds of mantras, prayers, recitations, songs, and musical instruments. But while music forms a central part of Hindu experience, in some religious traditions it is non-existent or ambiguous, for example in Theravada Buddhism, early Rabbinic Judaism, Sunni Islam, some forms of Calvinist Christianity, Quakers, and religious orders that observe vows of silence.
Considered divine in origin, music is an important part of Hindu mythology. The goddess Sarasvatī holds the vīṇā and is honored as the divine patroness of music. The creator god Brahmā fashioned Indian music as the “Fifth” Veda. Vishnu the preserver sounds the conch and plays the flute in the form of Krishna. Śiva as Naṭarāja (lord of the dance) plays the ḍamaru drum during the cosmic dissolution. Manifestations of these deities in India have spawned the cultivation of music and serve as paradigms for musicians. While sages in ancient India were chanters of the Vedas, founders of religious lineages were patrons of music or skilled in music, and nearly all great musicians and music teachers are associated with religious lineages.
Despite the above, textbooks and reference works in religious studies have generally fallen short in describing the Indian musical arts.1 And while many books and articles in ethnomusicology cover Indian music, it is often analyzed as a secular skill apart from its context of the daily and seasonal worship of specific communities. A rising interest among musicologists in devotional genres and temple music, however, may be attributed to their recent gains in Indian popular support and appreciation.
Hindu religious music is essentially vocal music that highlights the song-text and its clear pronunciation. Ancient authors have stressed that words, melody, and (p. 359) rhythm should be balanced in order to create a unique synthesis of emotional and aesthetic experience. Modern religious congregations carry forth this equal emphasis in fostering the mutual sharing of Bhakti devotional experiences through chant and music. Religious leaders in India and the Diaspora also consider music indispensable for propagation of their faiths. While wide variations exist among religious groups in terms of lyrical content and doctrine, there is less disparity with regard to styles of singing or performance, leading to the conclusion that music provides a common root for a pan-Indian religious expression. Whether venerating Nirguṇa-Brahman (Brahman without qualities), Saguṇa-Brahman (Brahman with qualities), Vaishnava, Śaiva, or Śākta deities, Hindu musicians draw upon the same evolving genres, clarity of word enunciation, rāga and tāla structures, and assortments of instruments.
The Vedas and Upanishads (4000–1000 BCE), as the earliest sources for study of the Indo-Aryan religion arriving from the northwest, convey information on sound and music. The oral texts are said to be the eternal embodiment of the primeval sound Om (Śabda-Brahman) that generated the universe. Brahman, the cosmic Absolute, is also defined as aesthetic delight (rasa) in the Taittirīya Upanishad (2.7.1). Metaphysical speculations on Brahman were advanced in the Ᾱgama, Pañcarātra, Tantra, and Yoga texts, forming the concept of Nāda-Brahman, sacred sound in the universe as well as within human consciousness. In theistic traditions—Vaishnavism (Vishnu or Krishna worship), Śaivism (Śiva worship), or Śaktism (goddess worship)—concepts of Nāda-Śakti (“female potencies of sacred sound”) prevailed as coterminous with the male divinity. In musical treatises, Nāda-Brahman is described as unmanifest (anāhata, “unstruck”) and manifest (āhata, “struck”), and Yoga traditions use the term to refer to musical sounds heard during meditation (nāda-yoga or nadopāsana). The theoretical dimensions of sacred sound have been discussed in terms of ‘sonic theology’ in Guy L. Beck (1993), followed by the practical ritual dimensions as ‘sonic liturgy’ in Beck (2012). Annette Wilke and Oliver Morebus have provided analysis of Sanskrit phonetics and aesthetical issues related to sound in Hinduism.
The primary religious event of the Vedic tradition was the fire sacrifice (yajña), including the chanting of mantras meant to petition the natural forces and secure immortality. Sound and speech as Vāc (precursor to Nāda-Śakti) was believed to inhere in the syllables and metrical structure of the mantras. Verses from the older Rig-Veda were chanted in roughly three notes, expanded up to four of five in the Yajur-Veda and seven in the Sāma-Veda, the musical Veda. Sāma-Gāna, the unaccompanied singing of hymns (sāmans) from the Sāma-Veda, including the added syllables (stobha) with elongated vowels, was essential to the success of the sacrifice. While fire sacrifices along with the three-note chanting of Sanskrit verses still occur, Sāma-Gāna is rarely performed. Nonetheless, these traditions reveal to us that musical sound has been closely linked to the sacred from the beginning. And while Vedic studies have tended to focus on literary issues and social context, the singular work in the field of Vedic music by G. U. Thite contains copious references to gods, mantras, scales, notes, meters, and music in heaven. In addition, Wayne Howard and G. H. Tarlekar (1995) have provided definitive works on Sāma-Veda chant.
(p. 360) The non-sacrificial, musical counterpart to Sāma-Gāna in ancient times was Gandharva-Saṅgīta, later Saṅgīta, which has three divisions; vocal, instrumental, and dance. Performed by “Gandharva” musicians in Indra’s heavenly court, earthly Gandharva-Saṅgīta was a replica of this celestial music. According to mythology, the sage Nārada Rishi, son of Brahmā, brought music from heaven to earth for the benefit of suffering humanity, as both a means of enjoyment (bhukti) and a vehicle for attaining liberation (mukti). Primarily vocal, it includes musical instruments like the vīṇā, flutes, drums, and especially cymbals. Gandharva-Saṅgīta was also associated with pūjā, a form of worship with non-Aryan or indigenous roots that eventually replaced the yajña as the cornerstone of Hindu religious life. Instead of oblations into a fire, pūjā involves offerings of flowers, incense, food, water, lamps, and conches directly to deities or symbols on an altar. In pūjā, singing and playing instruments are conceived as offerings that are integrated with the other elements.
The oldest surviving Sanskrit texts of Gandharva-Saṅgīta are the Nāṭya-Śāstra of Bharata Muni and the Dattilam of Dattila (ca. 400–200 BCE), which describe (and prescribe) the music performed in dramas, festivals, courtly ceremonies, and rituals in honor of Śiva, Vishnu, Brahmā, Ganesha, and Devī, among others. Tarlekar (1975) and Natalie Lidova have explained the multiple connections between ancient rituals, music, and drama. As part of the ancient dramas, special songs called Dhruva were rendered in Prakrit, the vernacular counterpart to Sanskrit, and may be viewed as prototypes of the later classical and devotional songs in vernacular in both the North and the South. E. Wiersma-te Nijenhuis (1970) and Mukund Lath provide commentary on the texts and traditions of Gandharva music, and Solveig McIntosh analyzes ancient music with reference to linguistics and acoustics. The most complete documentation of Indian music history using all available sources is by Shahab Sarmadee. The important texts and musicians, as well as many other aspects of Indian music, are discussed by Nijenhuis (1974), Lewis Rowell, Richard Widdess, Thakur Jaideva Singh, and Prem Lata Sharma.
Indian music employs seven basic notes, Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni (cf. Do Re Mi), first organized into jāti scales in Bharata Muni, and later formed into rāgas (melodic patterns, from rañj, “color or mood”) by the eighth or ninth century in the Brihaddeśī by Mataṅga. Besides Sa and Pa (tonic and dominant notes), which remain fixed, the other notes may be flattened (komal) or sharpened (tīvra, in the case of Ma) to create varieties of rāgas that arouse aesthetic and emotional states (rasas) meant to please the gods. Rasas are the artistic or aesthetic expressions of particular emotional experiences that are otherwise found to be universal traits of humanity, like love, sorrow, and heroism. Bharata Muni had originally listed eight rasas: śriṅgāra (love), hasya (humor), karuṇā (sorrow), raudra (anger), vīra (heroism), bhayānaka (fear), bibhatsa (distaste), and adbhuta (surprise). After music severed its connection with drama, only four rasas— śriṅgāra, karuṇā, vīra, and adbhuta—sustained their associations with rāga performance, along with the addition of Bhakti-rasa (devotional love). Individual rāgas have also found expression in poems (dhyāna-mantras) and (p. 361) paintings (rāgamālā) that link them with a season, time of day, and gender (i.e., male rāga and female rāginī).
Indian music is essentially monophonic (single voice), without harmony, key signatures, or chords as in the West. Indian melodies follow modal patterns, are performed in unison when in groups, and follow metrical time units called mātrās. Rhythm (tāla) is fundamental to all Indian music, and is performed in slow, medium, and fast tempos. Rhythmic cycles, called tālas, are composed of fixed numbers of mātrās that are either stressed, indicated by a clap (tāli), unstressed, indicated by an open hand (khāli) or wave, or neutral. The very first mātrā of any tāla is called sam, meaning “coming together” of note, beat, and word. Tālas also reflect the notion of merit accumulation originally tied to Vedic ritual and mantra chant. In Gandharva music, mātrās were marked by the playing of hand cymbals and drums that generated merit to the musicians and audiences. Though unacknowledged, the consistent emphasis on cymbal playing in most Hindu religious music supports the contention that the theory of merit accumulation has continued into the present time, as explained in Beck (2012).
The new Bhakti movements of the sixth century favored a devotion-centered Hinduism, including devotional music (Bhakti-Saṅgīta) that was composed for worship in regional vernacular languages. Gradually, the brahmanical temple traditions made provisions for the inclusion of vernacular songs, as also endorsed in the Bhāgavata-Purāṇa. The earliest anthologies of vernacular hymns to hold equal status with the Veda are in Tamil: the Tēvāram of the Nāyaṉārs (Śaiva saints) and the Divya Prabandham of the Ᾱḻvars (Vaishnava saints), compiled during the fifth to ninth centuries CE. Indira Viswanathan Peterson and Vasudha Narayanan have discussed these hymns in their original contexts. Gradually, large collections of hymns emerged in Kannada, Telugu, Hindi (Braj Bhasha), Bengali, Gujarati, Rajasthani, and Marathi languages.
During the Delhi Sultanate in the thirteenth century, Indian classical music separated into southern Carnatic and northern Hindustani, which was influenced by Persian culture. The most important Sanskrit treatise on Indian music was written during this period, the Saṅgīta-Ratnākara of Śārṇgadeva, which summarize all theoretical and practical knowledge up to this point. Carnatic music employs up to seventy-two melas (scale permutations), along with many varieties of rhythms played on the mridangam (drum) and other percussive instruments. Though forming its basis in the Tamil region, Carnatic music owes much to Purandaradāsa, a sixteenth-century Vaishnava from Karnataka whose numerous Kīrtanas in Kannada influenced Tyāgarāja (d. 1847), whose Kritis (“compositions,” evolved from Kīrtanas) in Telugu form the core of the current repertoire of South Indian music. Tyāgarāja is part of a trinity of great poet-musicians including Śyāma Śāstri and Muṭṭuswami Dīkshitār. The most thorough study of Carnatic music is by Ludwig Pesch. While the best general introduction to Indian classical music is by Bonnie C. Wade, William Jackson has focused on religious music in the South.
(p. 362) Hindustani music is initially associated with the tradition of Dhrupad, formalized vocal and instrumental music performed in the courts of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh, ca. 1400–1700. The four-fold structure (sthāyi, antarā, sañcāri, and ābhog ) of Dhrupad, adopting the pure form of a rāga and set to the rhythm of Cautal (twelve beats) and Dhamar (fourteen beats), proved to be an ideal vehicle for vernacular lyrics, especially those in the Hindi dialect of Braj Bhasha. Alain Danielou’s work on northern music provides a solid historical survey of texts and styles, and Induram Srivastava and Ritwik Sanyal, a leading exponent, each discuss the history and style of Dhrupad in much depth.
In the temples, forms of Dhrupad-influenced Bhakti-Saṅgīta accompanied deity worship, especially of the youthful Krishna, who became a favored topic of musical composition in the Braj region. The aesthetic categories of Bhakti-rasa (devotional love) and Śānti-rasa (peaceful) were also added by theoreticians to the original eight rasas of Bharata. In Braj, Vaishnava groups such as the Vallabha, Rādhāvallabha, Nimbārka, and Haridāsī sects fostered music known as Haveli-Saṅgīta and Samāj-Gāyan in Braj Bhasha. Beck (2000) provides a general introduction to these and other forms of religious music in the North. A more comprehensive study of Braj music traditions and their influences occurs in the work of Selina Thielemann. While Anne-Marie Gaston has described music in the Vallabha tradition, the Samāj-Gāyan music of the Rādhāvallabha tradition is presented, with audio recordings, in Beck (2011). The Gauḍīya tradition (founded by Caitanya, sixteenth century) generated devotional music in the Bengali language known as Padāvali-Kīrtan, as outlined by Ramakanta Chakrabarty. Vernacular songs of Hindu poet-saints like Sūr Dās, Tulsidās, Mirabai, Raidās, Nāmdev, and Jñānadev have become standards in the Hindu, Sikh, and classical music catalogs. The repertoires of Dhrupad and Khyāl in honor of goddesses and other deities have attracted less scholarly attention. Many relevant scholarly articles on devotional music in various regions of India have been collected by Alison Arnold.
By the eighteenth century, Khyāl, with its two-fold structure (sthāyi, antarā ), became prevalent in the Hindu and Mughal courts. Sung by both Hindus and Muslims, yet retaining much of the Krishna theme, Khyāl allowed more freedom in improvisation, more complex ornamentation and tāla patterns, and stylistic diversification into separate gharāṇās (“houses”) such as Gwalior, Agra, and Kirana. This trend also included the development of instrumental music played on the vīṇā, sitar, sarod, and tabla drums. After the gradual dissolution of the courts by the twentieth century, classical music reached a wider audience through public music education, national music conferences, and the sponsorship of All India Radio. Light-classical genres that drew upon folk music, such as Thumri, Dadra, Ghazal, Kajri, and Bhajan also became popular. In addition, new songs originating in the twentieth century combined religious with secular emotional experiences. The Bengali songs of poet-laureate Rabindranath Tagore (Rabindra-Saṅgīta) are widely sung in West Bengal and Bangladesh, as analyzed by Reba Som.
Hindu religious music is usually a group endeavor, with participants seated near a lead singer, standing in temples, or walking in procession. Reading from a hymnal, (p. 363) lead singers often accompany themselves on the harmonium, a floor version of the portable reed organ brought by nineteenth-century missionaries. The metal reed of the harmonium is of South Asian origin, found in the Indian snake-charmer’s instrument; it is also the basis for the Western harmonica and accordion. Group singers, who may play other instruments, repeat after the leader in unison in call and response format. With full concentration on the lyrics, the art of singing musical compositions in rāgas (rāga also means “attachment”) and tālas enables performers and listeners to most effectively meditate on the chosen deity in devotional situations of worship.
The ancient instrument classification scheme of Bharata Muni influenced the modern four-fold “Sachs-Hornbostel system” used by ethnomusicologists since 1914: strings or chordophones (tata), wind or aerophones (suṣira ), drums or membranophones (vitata), and other percussion instruments or idiophones (ghana). Percussion instruments used in religious music include hand cymbals called kartal or jhāñjh, drums such as the tabla, pakhāvaj, dholak, or khole, and occasionally bells, clappers, or tambourines. Bowed chordophones such as the sāraṅgī or esrāj accompany singing, but these have largely been replaced by the harmonium. Solo playing of instruments like the vīṇā (plucked chordophone) and the shehnai or nāgasvaram (double-reed aerophones) have been associated with temple worship. A background drone is provided for musicians by a tānpura (four-stringed lute) in Hindustani and the śruti box in Carnatic music.
In many current religious congregations, earlier styles of devotional music have been replaced by less formal types of Bhajan that promote greater class and gender egalitarianism, are not tied to liturgical action, are more flexible regarding attendance and time, and that allow for eclectic religious views. Beginning with the chanting of Om, a typical session proceeds with invocations to a guru or deity followed by selections of devotional songs. In closing, a simplified pūjā service is conducted, followed by distribution of food, flowers, lamp, and consecrated water. The songs range in form from simple melodies to refrains of divine names. The most common rhythm is Keherva of eight beats, roughly corresponding to a lilting 4/4 beat. Other rhythms include the sixteen-beat Tintal, and Dadra, sixbeats corresponding to 3/4 or 6/8.
The singing of divine names, as in Sītā-Rām, Hare Krishna, Hare Rāma, Rādhe Śyām, Om Namaḥ Śivāya, and Jai Mātā Dī, is called Nām-Kīrtan or Nām-Bhajan. Set to simple melodies accompanied by drums and cymbals, Nām-Kīrtan is very popular in India. It was first brought to the West in 1965 by ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in the form of the Hare Krishna Mahā Kīrtan, “Great Mantra for Deliverance.” In its wake, various forms of Nām-Kīrtan have permeated Yoga and Vedanta societies worldwide. Indian-style Nām-Kīrtan is also performed by non-Hindus, including Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians (Hindi: “Yesu” for Jesus), Jews, and Sufi Muslims. Moreover, American and European singers have succeeded in popular styles that employ Celtic, Middle-eastern, Blues, New Age, Jazz, and African features, as discussed by Linda Johnson and Maggie Jacobus.
(p. 364) Since the 1980s, a revival in commercial popularity of devotional music and culture in India, first through cassettes and then CDs, has witnessed classical singers enlarging their repertoires of devotional music and cinema vocalists showcasing devotional songs as featured in films. Film Bhajans are now widely used by Hindus in home and temple worship. In addition, the careers of musicians in the devotional genres have reached unprecedented heights. Peter Manuel has studied this phenomenon over several decades.
The association of religion with the production of the arts, while present in Western history, is paramount in India. Currently, the content of artistic production is largely taken from Hindu religious texts, with many performance genres derived from religious rituals. Countering the traditional emphasis on textual studies, Susan L. Schwartz confirms the importance of performance as vital to understanding the Hindu religion, and scholars like Terry Muck have made strides in comparative research into religion and music that includes Hindu songs. For scholars and students, E. Gardner Rust has compiled a useful annotated bibliography of music and dance in world religions, including Hinduism and South Asia.
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(1) . Exceptions are the entries, “Music,” in Encyclopedia of Hinduism (London: Routledge, 2008), “Music” and “Kirtan and Bhajan,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2010).