“I am the sound in ether.” – Lord Krishna (Bhagavad-gita 7.8)
My elder brother had tickets to a “Bach Retrospective,” and he invited me along. I was interested because I had just read a book on the famed composer’s life, and, besides, I looked at this as an opportunity to get together with a sibling that I see far too infrequently.
Bach was born in the cold winter of 1685, in Germany, and he grew up to be an evangelical Lutheran Christian. He took great pleasure in composing songs based on the Bible. Apparently, he reveled in it. Moreover, his work stands at the pinnacle of Western civilization – and it is all based on religion. I was impressed.
Sure enough, the booklet accompanying the show contained quotes from other musical geniuses. Beethoven writes, “Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life . . . the one spiritual entrance into the higher world.”
“Music praises God,” says Stravinsky. “Music is well or better able to praise Him than the building of a church with all its decoration; music is the church’s greatest ornament.”
And then it hit me: The best musicians from around the world were devoted to God. They saw music, like everything else, as a gift, as an asset meant to be used in His service.
The joyous feelings awakened through music, hymns, and melodious glorification of God are a kind of sonic theology, in which both performer and audience can understand the Divine in ways difficult to apprehend through other means.
As we entered the concert hall, I just had to share this idea with my brother, but, like most others at the venue, he was naturally more interested in listening to music than in philosophizing about it.
I said a few words about using music as a device for spiritual advancement. He gave me a big “shhh,” and we proceeded to search out our seats.
As he settled back and became absorbed in the concert before us, my mind traveled to other areas. I began to think about the fact that Bach was as musician, and this naturally directed my thoughts to the many popular musicians who have turned to religion in modern times. I thought of the Beatles’ George Harrison, naturally. Cat Stevens’ conversion to Islam and Madonna’s flirtation with Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, were not far from my mind, either. That pop music and religion overlap, of course, proves nothing — it certainly doesn’t prove that religion and music are somehow inextricably related. But the connection popped into my mind anyway.
And then I started thinking about my own adopted tradition, Vaishnavism, or Krishna Consciousness. The primordial sounds of the universe, or music, as we know it today, are initially expressed in the
Sama Veda, one of the world’s earliest religious scriptures. Here, the essential notes of creation are filtered through the realizations of the sages. We are told how Brahma, the first created being, recited the Vedas, the sounds that allowed him the potency to combine inchoate elements, which later emerged as the fully created material world.
The higher beings mentioned in the Vedic literature are often musicians, too, thus underlining the importance of sound: The Goddess Sarasvati plays her vina (the Indian lute), and the celestial sage Narada plays his — both celebrating their way through the material cosmos. Lord Shiva, the demigod of destruction, elegantly performs his cosmic dance at the end of time while playing on his dindin drum. And even Krishna – God himself — charms His purest devotees with the mellifluous notes of his magical flute, and the sweetness of his voice. As Srila Prabhupada says in his Krsna Book (Chapter 33): “Actually, the whole world is full of Krishna’s singing, but it is appreciated in different ways by different kinds of living entities.”
I began to think about the words of the Shrimad Bhagavatam (3.12.47), the ripened fruit of the Vedic tree of knowledge. This is arguably India’s most sacred scripture, containing the essence of all other religious texts, and surpassing them. Here we learn that Lord Brahma, the first created being, mentioned above, manifested the original seven notes of music, augmenting what we learn from the Sama Veda. He used these sounds to create the universe. Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport:
The musical notes are sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, and ni. All these vibrations are originally called sabda-brahma, or spiritual sound. . . . In the ultimate issue there is nothing material because everything has its origin in the spiritual world. The material manifestation is . . . sometimes called illusion in the proper sense of the term. For those who are realized souls, there is nothing but spirit.
These last two sentences are particularly significant: While all sound is ultimately spiritual – and an evolved student of spiritual sciences can readily perceive this – there is clearly a gradation for those of us who are not so advanced. Some sounds can drag us further into illusion. As I thought about this, I temporarily lost my train of thought, letting in the external awareness of the Bach songs being performed before me. I wondered how these sounds would fair with Srila Prabhupada, a pure devotee, who could feel their true spiritual vibrations – would he say that these sounds are purifying, bringing me closer to Krishna, or not?
The sounds were originally generated in pursuit of God, as Bach deeply wanted to know his creator, to see Him, to feel Him. So I was sure that these sounds were more uplifting than, say, screeching rock or rap, which are usually focusing on mundane concerns, with reverberations that come from passion and, often, torment. Still, even if Bach’s music is comparatively spiritual, or at least reflecting some sort of goodness, to some degree — how much could it be counted upon to bring one to the ultimate destination? Just how pure is it?
My mind returned to Vaishnava music. The principle in Vaishnavism is to use music to please the Lord, and to help one advance in spiritual perfection. It is not “art for art’s sake,” or, rather, “music for music’s sake.” It is music for God’s sake. Therefore, true spiritual music, from the Vaishnava point of view, must be grounded in devotional principles. It must arise from purity, transport its listeners to purity, and end up increasing one’s purity. Ideally, it should be free from ego or ostentatious displays of virtuosity. Its focus, instead, is on enhancing one’s mood of service to God, on generating love for the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
This brought Krishna’s Rasa-lila to mind. According to the Bhakti-ratnakara, a famous seventeenth-century scripture, the origin of Vaishnava music is indeed this beloved Round Dance of Lord, where Krishna and His cowherd girlfriends, the gopis, used numerous musical instruments to accompany their many songs of love. The Bhakti-ratnakara’s Fifth Wave (chapter) begins with a lengthy section focusing on this music; it explains the intricacies of how to glorify God with various melodies and instruments, ultimately telling us that kirtan, the congregational chanting that devotees engage in to this day, is the height of musical experience, employing tonal and polytonal rhythms (tala), established melodic formats (raga), gestures of emotional expression (abhinaya), and even dancing (natyam). These were all utilized in the Rasa-lila.
For devotees, music necessarily becomes embodied in kirtan – this is the most important form of music for devotees because it is 100% focused on glorifying God. The Gaudiya Vaishnava musical styles, such as Narottam das’s Garan-hati, Shrinivas’s Manohar Shahi, and Shyamananda’s Reneti — all have distinguishing techniques, even if many of the specific nuances are lost to us today. Garan-hati, for example, starts slowly and melodically, with a simple beat, gradually building up to greater complexity and finally a crescendo, with exuberant singing and dancing. As opposed to other forms of kirtan, this unique form of Vaishnava music always includes Gaura-chandrika lyrics (i.e., prayers to Sri Chaitanya that reveal His identity as Krishna) before praising Krishna directly. The central core of these techniques has been handed down from master to disciple, and the essential spirit of these kirtan performances can be found at any Hare Krishna temple.
This is true because, in principle, kirtan has a bottom line: Just like any other form of music, kirtan is meant to glorify God, and one doesn’t need hard and fast rules for that – they can just engage in it according to their heart’s desire, according to their spontaneous feeling. The scriptures and the Vaishnava teachers of the past explain music as a detailed science, it is true. But what they really hope to convey is the bhava, the emotion, of kirtan. It is this that transports one to the kingdom of God. Chanting God’s names is the essence of music, and Vaishnavas focus on this aspect of transcendental sound.
As the concert ended, my brother asked me, “Did you enjoy the show?” I told him that I did, as I snapped out of my inner meditation on Vaishnava music. After all, Bach’s essential purpose focuses on using music in devotional ways. And that’s just what the Vaishnava tradition says that music is for. “I think that Bach would have liked the Krishna-Conscious view of the spiritual world,” I said to my brother. “The ancient text known as the Brahma-samhita (5.56),” I told him, “says, ‘In the spiritual world, every step is a dance, and every word is a song.’ Thus, music pervades the spiritual world. And practitioners, God’s devotees in the here and now, must also engulf their life in song and dance – in music — for this is how they prepare themselves for entering the sonic realm of Krishna’s pastimes.” With these few concluding words, my brother and I walked out of the concert hall and into the cacophonous sounds of New York City streets.
Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He has published twenty-one books in numerous languages, including the recent Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008).
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