Bach to Godhead: Music and the Krishna Yoga Tradition. ~ Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa)

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on Jul 18, 2011
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“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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17 Responses to “Bach to Godhead: Music and the Krishna Yoga Tradition. ~ Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa)”

  1. I like this, Steven, even though your conclusions are way too fundamentalist for my taste. I find God in rock and country music, and all other kinds of music as well.

    Recently I listened to Bach's English suites and Brad Paisley's latest album back to back, and found them to be equally profound in both musical and spiritual interest.

    Why restrict your enjoyment to only the explicitly religious manifestations of music and God. The Gita itself says everything is God. Why all the extreme judgments about what kind of music is worthy and what kind is not?

    My own music stems from a gypsy tradition that celebrates wild individuality. I find God in that, too, in contrast to your conclusion that ego and individual emotion by nature remove music from the spiritual realm:

    But as an editor, I love diversity of thought, and I like bringing your point of view to Elephant.


    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  2. Steven Rosen says:

    Hi Bob – -Actually, I agree with you, and I see God in multifarious places, too, including, rock, blues, and jazz. But I am presenting the conservative Vaishnava view that, although God is everywhere, neophytes would do well to look for Him/Her in specifically spiritual places, i.e., the form of a Deity, kirtan, prasadam. This helps one gain spiritual vision. THEN, one is more apt to see (or hear) the Divine more clearly wherever one might look (or listen). 😉

  3. I don't buy that either, Steve, that you are going to enhance even a newcomer's spirituality by restricting rather than expanding their consciousness of the infinitely wondrous world, in music or anything else.

    I say, open up all the floodgates and let it all flow in at once. It's all right there for the experiencing. All one has to do is relax and pay attention.

  4. From Facebook:

    Catherine Ghosh: I think what Satyarajaji may be doing here is dividing music according to which types of universal sonic frequencies they resonate with: sattvic frequencies, rajasic frequencies, or tamasic ones. The more "pure", or sattvic the quality of the musical vibrations (or energy), the more potential it will have to inspire one's consciousness towards the divine. However, like Bob, I also hesitate to categorize music as such because it does not take the listener into consideration, who may very well be spiritually moved by a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, although (from a conservative perspective) the guitar solo would not fall into the "sattvic" music box. So, as I see it, the way music affects us is not just about the music, but about the very unique, individual ways in which we each relate to, and thus experience a particular kind of music. Those ways will often be influenced by our unique conditionings. For example, an altar boy who was abused by a catholic priest may associate latin hymn choirs with trauma, and not feel spiritually inspired by them, although the music and lyrics were designed to link one's consciousness with divinity. Likewise, adults who were abused as children by people who led kirtans, may now have a similar distaste for kirtans, They may feel more spiritually uplifted listening to Bob's gypsy guitar playing! Just a thought.
    2 minutes ago · Like

  5. Very interesting thoughts, indeed, Catherine. I don't want to get too deep too fast here, but I was thinking to myself as I contemplated this discussion as I walked though my wife's garden this morning:

    When I was growing up as a very holy little altar boy, my guru was the Pope. When I tried to read Steven's guru, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, I just couldn't stomach it, because I said to myself, this guy comes across just like the Pope–"This is what you must believe and do to be holy".

    All of which just goes to illustrate your main point, that our current spirituality is deeply shaped by our previous experiences, especially those in our childhood.

    Thanks for being here.


  6. Thaddeus1 says:

    From what I gather Bob you are quite the guitar player. If I were to come to you to learn to play guitar, how would you construct my first lesson? Would you introduce me to the strings, the notes, perhaps how to play a couple of them in a way that is pleasing to the ear and in accordance with the structures of music, or would you expect me to play a "Jimi Hendrixesque" solo? Having just begun to learn tabla, I can honestly say I appreciate having a teacher to guide me step by step. Don't we always learn to walk before we run and read before we write?

    And so, why should our spiritual education/pursuits be any different? If we were simply able to figure it out by proceeding as we desire, then I imagine the vast majority of us would have done so a long time ago. And yet, here we still all sit? In a somewhat recent contribution to Huffington Post, ( Susan Pivers points out that "Do what feels right" is actually a super-advanced instruction that requires tremendous self-awareness." Her points are mainly centered on asana, but I would maintain the same applies here.

    I would love to be able to sit down and play a gypsy guitar solo, or lay down a mean jazz rift, or run a marathon, or see God in everything, but it seems to me to be able to accomplish any of those goals I might be better served to start small, i.e., with the basics.

  7. I think spirituality is more like listening to music than playing it. So, yes, if I were taking someone to listen to the Bach B-minor Mass for the first time, I would urge them to forget about everything except relaxing and paying attention to everything.

    Experience the music, don't try to analyse or hold back your reactions in any way. If you have reactions, watch your reactions, then gently focus back on experiencing the whole of the music. Pay attention to whatever details strike you–the trumpet, the timpani, the crescendo. But experience the whole.

    No rules, no regulations, no guru, no path. Just the pure direct unfiltered glory of the music itself. We'll have plenty of time later to break it down and analyse it, and that might help you experience the whole better some day.

    But right now you simply need to let yourself love the overwhelming reality of it, and let the music love you back. And that should always be the starting point for any of your spiritual seeking, not restrictions and rules and a whole other long list of do's and dont's. You've had enough of that already in your life.


  8. I couldn't have said it better myself Carol. Thank you! And I second your motion that we emphasize interfaith, intercultural and interpersonal dialogues to learn and share how music inspires each of us spiritually in all different kinds of ways. We may just learn that "kirtan" is not so narrowly construed, and may indeed take many unexpected forms.

  9. tanya lee markul says:

    Hi Steven – thank you for this! Very interesting perspectives, although I have to say that I believe there is a lot of depth, poetry and truth in rock and yes, also rap (not all, but it does exist). Good discussion!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
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  10. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  11. Hi, Hanuman. Thanks for your very interesting comment.

    Normally I would love to write a detailed answer to each of you points, but I'm very tied up today and unfortunately don't have the time.

    I embrace diversity in Yoga, so I understand and accept your "Yoga is just another thing we have to work really, really hard at and if we're good enough then maybe we won't make any mistakes and we can avoid becoming slaves to our senses" point of view.

    But mine is a very different point of view, rooted in the ecstatic and readily available realization of the Upanishads and the first twelve chapters of the Bhagavad Gita (just the first twelve because they are are largely contradicted by the last six) rather than in the more Buddhist oriented Yoga Sutra.

    It doesn't take very long with a book like Feuerstein's The Yoga Tradition to realize that these very different points of view that you and I have were being hotly debated back then, too.

    For myself, I'll stand by everything I already wrote above. For me the Yoga Sutra, much as I love it, is a beautiful elaboration of just one aspect of the Gita, the Yoga of Meditation. I'm more attracted personally to the other aspects of the Gita.

    Since you ask for my point of view above, and I'm short on time, my views are expressed in some detail in Gita in a Nutshell and and First It Was Yobo, Now There is Ratra (Radical Traditional) Yoga.

    Sorry again for not having the time for a detailed response today.

    Thanks again for you comment.


  12. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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  13. Hi, Hanuman.

    I know the Yoga Sutra's Buddhist connections are very controversial, even among scholars.

    Personally, I'm convinced by Chip Hartranft, even though some critics say he has a Buddhist bias.

    But Chip's book was strongly endorsed by Georg Feuerstein, author, who makes similar points in his venerable The Yoga Tradition, although he did think Hartranft was a little extreme in his Buddhist connection. But of course, Feuerstein has strong Buddhist roots, too.

    For my own spiritual purposes, though, I do much prefer interpretations like Shearer's, which, as you said, puts the Yoga Sutra squarely in the tradition of the Gita, rather than separating it out.

    But historically, I'm more convinced by Hartranft and Feuerstein.

    Thanks for this very interesting exchange of views.

  14. hanuman das says:

    Yes thank you also.

    Would it be possible to write something about the Yoga Philosophy course offered online by oxford? I feel its a great platform for this type of study with scholars from academia.
    Having completed all of the courses, I cannot reccomend them enough.

    Discussing that which cannot be discussed is always a difficult task!

    That which speech does not illumine, but which illumines speech: know that alone to be the Brahman (the Supreme Being), not this which people worship here.
    Kena 1.4

    Best wishes,

    Jai Sri Ram

    Hanuman Das

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