Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Some Aspects of Religious Music

Dr. Arnold A. Bake

Religion is the realisation by the human mind of dependence on a power higher than itself, whichever aspect this realisation may take and whichever name may be attached to that power. Or, one might say, religion is the realisation of man’s dependence on and relationship to God, taken in the widest sense of the word.

It is religion which has formed the basis of most civilisations, because, in the beginning, man found a great many objects in his immediate surroundings charged with such a superior power of a benign or malignant character towards which he had to define his attitude. Curiously enough, man’s way of approach to the great unknown outside (sometimes with the consciousness of a related power inside himself), has been through music. It was discovered at a very early date that the intoned word, ‘mantram,’ for short, created an easier way of contact than the spoken word. This knowledge or belief survives strongly in our days. I witnessed a striking instance of it in Nepal, when out of special gratitude towards the late French scholar, Sylvain Levi, a Buddhist priest consented to chant a few Tantric ‘mantras’ for me, on my special promise that they were to be played only for him. The words, he said, could be found in a printed edition of Tantric texts, but they in themselves had little value; it was only when the true way of chanting was known that their power became apparent, hence his reluctance to divulge that secret. If played for Sylvain Levi only, he was sure that they would not be used to create mischief.

Many languages have preserved that aspect: the Latin ‘cantare’ and ‘incantare’ has its counterpart in the English ‘chant’ and ‘enchant’, to enchant being definitely to bring under the power of the superhuman agency. In Dutch we have ‘lezen’–to read, and ‘belezen’–to read over–which means to heal by chanting sacred texts over the patient. This chanting is the beginning of music, especially of vocal music. Instrumental music has also had its connection with the supernatural from the beginning, but the development is particularly clear with the music of the human voice. It is but natural that India, that immense storehouse of manifestations of the human mind, has kept alive every stage of this development; Sometimes independently and sometimes curiously intermingled. Side by side they are where different: groups of human beings live in the same area, each keeping to their own cultural goods, as for instance in S. W. Bengal where Bengali villages and hamlets of the aboriginal Santals lie side by side, the Santal very often finding work in the Bengali area, but keeping to his own religious ceremonies with his own chants and music of a totally different character from that which the Bengalis practise. Intermingled We find them in orthodox Hindu religion, where the chanting of the Vedas preserves some of the oldest forms of music known to have survived, and where, in the Sama-Veda, it is the correct way of uttering the melody, rather than the meaning of the words which constitutes their efficacy. The Vedic ritual in its highest aspect claims nothing less than the maintenance of the cosmic order, but on the other hand the Atharva-Veda contains some very homely spells to reach wordly aims and annihilation of enemies. Throughout the Vedic liturgy, whether Rig, Yajur, Sama, or Atharva, the real comes out not by Just reading the words or pronouncing them in the everyday voice, but only when they are chanted, that is to say intoned, in the correct fashion. As they stand, the Vedas are a gigantic monument of religious history, human psychology and musical development, unique in the world. Even at the first glance the musical development is clear. Remember the three accents of the Rig-Veda, the udaatta, anudaatta and svarita, with their musical value, the counterpart of which we find in the classical languages, in the accents of ancient Greece and Rome, where they had disappeared even at the close of the era of antiquity. In India they have survived undisturbed, and teach us a lesson what the Greek and Latin accents may have meant. The Sama-Veda then shows the full musical development with the supremacy of the tune over the words and the growing compass of the former, until in many hymns of the Sama-Veda in some of its shakhas the compass of an octave is reached. It is unfortunately the Sama-Veda which is least known even to Indians themselves. I have heard it said by quite prominent Indologists born in this country, that the Sama-Veda has died out in India, whereas I know for certain that it is practised in its full form in different temples in Southern India and in the Andhra country at certain of the at certain of the greater offerings. There is no reason to surmise that the tradition of that important part has suffered more than that of the Rig-Veda, because the efficacy of the sacrifices depended on the correct way of chanting of the samans just as much as on that of the other Vedas. It is only the almost unsurmountable difficulties that are put in the way of the investigator which has given birth to the rumour that Sama-Veda is dead.

Naturally the whole structure of Vedic liturgy is connected with religion proper, but that is not to say that the rest of Indian music has no connection with religion. I leave the words aside which, as everyone knows, very often, in classical as well as in folk music, have a religious character, being either addressed to some deity or describing some activity of one of the favourite deities of semi-divine heroes. What I mean is the establishing of the link with the superhuman power through music. The innumerable legends about the miracles worked by the correct execution of ragas and raginis all through their stage of development from the jatis, as Bharata still calls them, are there to testify that, also outside liturgy, music enables man to outstep his limitations and to be invested with divine power. It is probably more than legend that in Asoka’s times even, music was used to cure illnesses in the hospitals. Again the Greek theory affords parallels to the spiritual effect of different modes practised in the right fashion, but again the practice of ancient Greece has died, whereas India cherishes the living tradition. If the Veda claims to maintain cosmic order, the ragas that can change day into night, bring about a shower of rain in the driest of the dry season, or create fire out of the air, do not aim much lower. I know that in the latter case it is a question of legends, but these legends only show in which direction the musical power is felt by the people who make it.

Leaving the field of legend and turning to history, we see that the great sages of the middle ages, the leaders who inaugurated a renascence of spiritual life all over India, chose music as the vehicle to spread their teachings. If Kabir had been only a poet and not a powerful singer as well, it is doubtful whether any of his poems would have survived to create the deepest joy and spiritual ecstasy in the hearts of his millions of followers. The same is true of all the mediaeval saints, Tukaram, Tulsidas, Chaitanya and the other Bengali mystical singers, Mira Bai in Rajputana and the saints of South India, down to comparatively recent times when we find Tyagaraja enrapturing his own generation and posterity by his deep devotion, carried across by his melodies. So well was the power of music for the spread of a creed recognised, that even foreign missionaries adopted this method and St. Francis Xavier sang his teachings in the language of the country of his work. The tradition upheld by Kabir and the other saints is carried on in our days by the religious singers in many Provinces of India. I may mention only the Bauls of Bengal, who sing of their ecstasy in beautiful melodies and so impress the souls of their hearers.

In Tagore’s works the music is inseparably connected with his poems with his poems. It is not only that he expresses himself that his poems without their melodies are like butterflies without wings, but he goes further and in his autobiography describes how he heard a wandering Baul sing about a divine bird that comes in and flies out of the cage, "The heart would fain keep it close to itself but it cannot." The Poet says that only the melody of a song can tell us about the coming and going of that unknown bird that brings us tidings of the boundless unknown beyond. I will quote a few lines of one of his poems in translation–the poem begins "I wander in search of him who lives in my heart," and then goes on to say, "His message suddenly rises in its fullness in the rhythm of an unheeded strain of music." Instances like that could be quoted by the dozen, and the remarkable thing is that Tagore does not give an individual experience, but expresses in a very beautiful way what thousands of singers before him must have felt unconsciously and are feeling today, especially in India, where melody has kept its supremacy and the spiritual influence of a single melodic strain is realised more strongly than in the West, where melody has surrendered much of its power to harmony, i.e., the structure of different voices moving simultaneously on a different pitch and gradually crystallising into chords. Harmony very often means a succession of chords melting one into the other, where the enjoyment is created by the sound of the different notes one over the other, or, in other words, vertically, in contrast with melody where the enjoyment comes through the hearing of the notes one after the other or, in other words, horizontally. This development has changed the aspect of music in the West. On a former occasion I nave defined the Western ideal as Unity in Diversity, in contrast to the Indian ideal of Diversity in Unity. Naturally the religious music of the later centuries of the West finds a different expression also from that which we find in the East. The summits of religious compositions, the works of a Palestrina or a Bach ask a great number of workers, each fulfilling his own part in the huge structure. The means are different, the aim perhaps more the praise of God than the being part of God, which one perceives so strongly for instance in Chaitanya’s teachings. Much closer to the Vedic ideal is the Gregorian chant, which dates to a time when the modern development had not started, The purely melodic structure of the Gregorian or Byzantine liturgy culminates in the. transubstantiation which is no less a cosmic event than what the Vedic offerings are believed to reach in the highest instance, be it another aspect of the Cosmic powers. In European fairy tales, though to a much lesser extent than in Indian legends of ragas and raginis, we find instances of bewitching by means of music, people being overpowered by an influence stronger than human influence, and Tagore’s saying that his poems without music are like butterflies without wings have their counterpart in the early mediaeval troubadour exclaiming, "the verses without their music are like a mill without water." So we see that in origin the West and the East have had the same outlook. But only recently, after the wide divergence caused by the later developments of the West, an understanding for each others’ ideals is beginning to grow. If their expressions are different, it is always to be remembered that in East and West the real composers are so by the Grace of God only, and it is of Him that they sing in their own way. A mutual understanding will give enlargement of experience and greater happiness.

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: