The Sonic Mysticism of Hindu Mythology

It is so truly an honor and pleasure to have Jayanta Choudhury, Ph.D. as a friend and student. He is a mathematician and physicist…please check out this such splendid article that he recently wrote: 
The source of Indian classical music is traced to Hindu temples. For a brief period the north Indian classical music, also called Hindustani classical music, went underground and survived among the dancing girls who entertained the wealthy visitors with indulgence in alcohol and other carnal activities, forbidden outside the marriage. During most of the Islamic rule before Akbar and after Shahjahan, temples were destroyed and music was banned. Only the court dancers and women providing sensual pleasures as paid service were allowed to practice music. As a result, music was ignominious among the majority of middleclass Hindu households. The classical music surfaced again in the open towards the late British rule. After the end of British rule, the court musicians of many princely states lost their patrons in the nawabs (local Muslim rulers), kings and landlords. They started to perform for the public and for All India Radio. 
Indian classical music is different than Bollywood music. Inexperienced listeners do not understand the intricacies of Indian classical music. Mostly people get bored by the slow paced introduction part, and people mostly like the speedy finishing part of a traditional piece in Indian classical music called, “raga” (‘a’ in the word raga is pronounced as ‘a’ in the word mass). The raga-based Indian classical music is an embellishment of one melody by many related sub-melodies. There are some rules like; e.g., a raga must have at least five notes; each raga should have the note “Sa” (C# in western classical system) present in them, and each raga must have at least one of the notes “Ma” (“Fa” in western system) or “Pa” (“So” in western system) etc. There are few more such rules. Within those rules an individual performer can do innovations in the performance of a raga. Also, there are rules on the time and season when certain ragas can be played. The raga “megh-malhar” is played only in rainy season. The raga “bhairav” is played during early morning etc. To get an idea of how a performer can innovate, consider this example: Preparation of a delicious dish requires a recipe. The recipe may call for two spoons of cumin powder but the person who is experienced about cumin powder may decide to use one and half spoon of cumin powder instead. If the recipe includes lemon juice, then one, with experience about the effect of lemon with the rest of the ingredients, may decide to use orange juice mixed with lemon juice instead. Almost any experienced person in the kitchen will innovate when she prepares a dish. There will be differences in the taste of the same recipe prepared on different days, or at times by the same person and by different persons. Similarly a performer has the knowledge of the raga he is going to play, by listening to his teacher or other people. The performer also has knowledge about the emotional effects of the musical notes. He then changes some notes according to his understanding of the mood of the audience and his own state of mind. The slow introduction part of a raga performance is like preparing the ingredients of a recipe and shows the similarities and nuances between various ingredients, which in a given case are the notes that are going to be used in the specific raga. Once the notes are shown with their emotional effects, individually and in combinations of other notes, the stage is ready for mixing the notes while adhering to the rules of raga. This is the nature of the progress in performance of raga.
Search for an understanding of the rules of raga revealed aspects of Hinduism that I did not think before. The facts were always open in the plain view, but I never looked into them with enough curiosity. I am sure when I mention those facts almost any one born in a Hindu family will agree with me. The search for origin of the Indian classical music will lead to the ancient scriptures of Hinduism called Vedas. The seven “swaras” or musical notes evolved from original three notes in “Sam Veda” (‘a’ in Sam Veda is pronounced as ‘a’ in mass, ‘e’ in Veda is pronounced as ‘e’ in egg). In Wikipedia, it states that learning and teaching of knowledge or “siksha” deals with phonetics and pronunciation. The style of learning and teaching of the enlightened saint Narada or “Naradiya siksha” elaborately discusses the swara, both Vedic chants and the octave. 
Let’s consider the very common and most used symbol of Hinduism, the “Om” pronounced as “Oh-ooh-m”. There are three notes, “Oh,” “ooh,” and “m”. That is an indication of why there are originally three notes in Sam Veda. To understand the implication of this connection, some description of the “Om” is needed. In Hinduism, creation then maturity, and then destruction are stages of the eternal theme of physical world. The lips open for making the sound “Oh,” symbolizing the beginning of creation. Lips are almost closed when making the sound “ooh,” symbolizing the near end of creation. The lips are closed but a vibration inside the mouth exists when making the sound “m,” symbolizing the dormant creation from the end of a cycle until the beginning of another creation. The dormant sound “m” is considered the eternal unmanifest existence. This can also be identified with the state of mind between the disappearance of a thought to the rise of next thought in the mind. The state of silence of the mind between the thoughts is what a meditating yogi tries to hold onto. The visual structure of “Om” includes a horizontal crescent moon and a dot above the crescent of the moon. Below the crescent moon is an opened lip and a circle coming out from inside. As if the quiet mind is reflecting the image of the supreme Devine (symbolized by the crescent moon reflecting the sun rays that was not possible during the crowded activity of the day) is separating the true supreme Devine (symbolized by star or the sun as the source of life in the form of the dot above the crescent moon symbol) from the material existence (symbolized by the Earth in the form of the circle or the sphere coming out of the mouth). When the Devine mouth is open, the earth or the physical universe exists due to vibrations. The string theory of physics states that the elementary particles are vibrations in the strings that make the fabric of universe. The brain is also using electromagnetic pulses in the nerve cells. Those pulses are intertwined with thoughts. The active mind, full of thoughts, is like a universe with a lot of vibrations. When the mind is quiet and no thoughts arise, then the reflection of the Devine power can be perceived as if the absence of electromagnetic vibrations of sun rays in the night reveals the tiny stars and the moon, transpiring the larger picture of the creation. This analogy of sun, moon, stars and earth is my personal interpretation. This idea formed in my mind after reading various explanations and looking at the symbol very carefully. A surprising fact is that God created everything in the physical world by saying it in the holy Bible. The similarity of earth forming out of the opened lips of God, verbalizing earth into existence, shockingly surprised me. Such profound meaning of the “Om” is very inspiring (to create sounds by combining various permutations of the basic three notes in a manner to have the effect as if the complete musical piece is an extended “Om” sound). The main melody line is being played faster and faster in the end section of a raga performance. This means that initially when a beginner tries to still the mind and focus it on the Devine source, the mind drifts into other thoughts. That is the innovation part of the Raga as notes that seem to be connected to some notes in the main melody are introduced (or some notes in the main melody are skipped as one thought drifts to another). In the end when finally the mind is calm, the true focus is achieved and the true nature of the universe is revealed. It is said that in this state there is no beginning, no end and no distance. Similarly the repeated playing of the single melody faster and faster in the end part of Raga performance blurs the separation between notes as if all the notes are existing together, implying no distance. The notes cannot be distinguished separately, only the melody can be perceived. Also, repeated playing of same melody line blurs the sense of beginning and end.
Narada is the only one with a stringed musical instrument called Veena, and he has a clapper which is used as a rhythmic instrument among the saints, seers, ascetics, yogis and enlightened scholars of Hindu mythology. The articles in the Wikipedia state that each note or “swara” is associated with an energy center or nerve center in the spine, which is called “chakra” in Sanskrit. Also, each nerve center is associated with several basic emotions, like fear, joy, anger etc. In our ordinary state of wake we do not perceive infrared rays or ultraviolet rays. We do not hear ultrasonic sound and infrasonic sounds. Similarly do not smell as much as a dog can. A little insightful thinking will show that our world, when we are awake, is an interpretation of certain bands of the electromagnetic vibrations. It has been found that some people or savants can see sound. Also over 90% of an atom is empty, but we see walls with no holes. The paradox is that our body is nothing but a collection of vibrations of the fabric of the universe, within certain lower bound and upper bound. Recently, researchers have made a thought, of raising index finger, of one person being manifested in another person’s body while demonstrating noninvasive human-to-human brain interface (at the University of Washington). In this experiment, the thought signals are sent over the internet. It shows that the thought produces electromagnetic waves in the brain which is undetected at the conscious level of awakened state. This might sound science fiction, but what if playing the seven basic notes in a certain pattern can activate the centers in the brain, such that the listener becomes aware of both the conscious and subconscious simultaneously. What if one becomes aware of other frequency range of electromagnetic vibrations in that state? Is heaven or the spiritual realm just a vibrational existence beyond an ordinary state (awake), which is restricted to brain’s interpretation (through a filter that is tuned to a certain frequency band)? Notice that many saints, yogis and scholars in Hindu mythology were visited by divine deities, but only saint Narada, skilled in music, can go to any realm and visit any deity in their realm. Narada is considered the greatest devotee of Vishnu because of his knowledge of music. Is heaven the realm of higher frequency vibration, earth the vibration that we are tuned in our ordinary state (awake) and underworld the realm of lower frequency vibrations? Does it mean that saint Narada knows how to activate the chakras, to tune the brain to receive and process vibrations at any level? Could our lucid dreams be the processing of signals by the brain, after being tuned to other frequencies that the brain filters out when we are awake?
The deity of knowledge and skill, Saraswati, too has a string instrument called Veena. Shiva is a dancer and also plays a stringed musical instrument called rudra Veena. Lord Vishnu in his incarnation as Krishna is attached to bamboo flute called “bansuri”. The sound of “Om” is supposed to have come out of Brahma’s (the creator father) mouth. The name of the most revered Hindu scripture, “Bhagavat Geeta”, means divine song. “Bhagavat” means divine, and “Geeta” means song. Notice that mediaeval saints like Sur Das, Kabir, Meerabai, aadi Shankaracharya, Chaitanya, Jaidev, Tulsi Das, and many others were accomplished musicians. Legendary Tansen’s teacher was saint swami Haridas. Legend has it that Tansen could start a fire or bring rain by performing certain ragas. Similar legends can be heard about Tansen’s contemporary Vaiju Bawra. Does it seem impossible considering the possibilities already mentioned before? Swami Vivekananda would sing such intense devotional songs that his master Ramakrishna would be in tears. Any Hindu ritual includes a ritual of playing several sound producing instruments like bells, metal clappers, percussion instrument called “Mridangam” (to maintain a rhythmic sound pattern during chorus devotional singing). There is another aspect in all of these: various deities are connected by their affinity with sound, congruent with the underlying monotheism in the polytheistic rituals of Hinduism. Through music one can understand that various instruments produce various sounds, but they are all creating combinations of the basic seven notes. All notes are sounds that are results of vibrations. It can be interpreted that the multitude of rituals for various deities in Hindu mythology has an underlying monotheism, i.e., through the musical chanting of hymns, in the same way as the single phenomena of vibration can be perceived differently when the notes are in various permutations and played in different instruments. In my view, it implies that true enlightenment is not possible in Hinduism without pursuing the monotheistic path of music embodied in it.
The meaning of the word raga is color. Probably the word raga comes from the Sanskrit word “rang” meaning color. Raga is supposed to color the mind in various shades of emotion. In Sanskrit, heaven is called “Swargam”. The word “Swar” means musical note, and “Gam” means take to or go to. The seven notes together are called “Sargam,” slightly changed from “Swargam”. This implies, in my view, that the path to heaven is through musical notes, and it starts with bringing the mind under right balance of emotions.
A more mundane aspect of the raga is that the Vedic Scriptures are supposed to be chanted in specific pitch and tone. Supposedly, the Vedas were transmitted orally for thousands of years. Don’t we all know the simple ‘ABCD’ song taught to the kindergarten level? Is it surprising that the people, who composed and compiled such deep philosophical and esoteric knowledge as the Vedas, were wise enough to know the mechanism to memorize the knowledge easily? Many Vedic hymns are chanted, as part of various rituals during certain times of day, or days of the year. Hence, it is quite obvious that certain ragas will be created and attached to the hymns that are chanted during specific rituals (which are performed at certain times of day or season of the year). The hymns will be easily recollected once the raga is started. As a result, the restriction of time or season is still found in the ragas.

All the above paragraphs point that there is a major underlying aspect of Hinduism, which is found in its use of sound. The current developments in Indian classical music may not be done with the spiritual and philosophical aspects of Hinduism in mind. There are enough indications and hints in both the lyrics of vocal performance of raga, and in the Hindu mythology that it is obvious that there is a deep connection and unavoidable complementing of mysticism of Hinduism, found in the development of classical music. The rules of the raga ensure that the spiritual benefits of classical music are always present, even if the innovations of the performer are not inspired by spiritual mysticism.

I especially thank Dr. Glen Hepker (owner of Mason City Tai Chi) for his generous and helpful comments and correction. — Jayanta Choudhury

Jayanta Choudhury


2 thoughts on “The Sonic Mysticism of Hindu Mythology

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