Sacred Music

By Santosh Das - 1.4 2019

Sacred Music and Hindu Religious Experience: From Ancient Roots to the Modern Classical Tradition




While music plays a significant role in many of the world’s religions, it is in the Hindu religion that one finds one of the closest bonds between music and religious experience extending for millennia. The recitation of the syllable OM and the chanting of Sanskrit Mantras and hymns from the Vedas formed the core of ancient fire sacrifices. The Upanishads articulated OM as Sabda-Brahman, the Sound-Absolute that became the object of meditation in Yoga. First described by Bharata in the Natya-Sastra as a sacred art with reference to Rasa (emotional states), ancient music or Sangita was a vehicle of liberation (Mok?a) founded in the worship of deities such as Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, and Goddess Sarasvati. Medieval Tantra and music texts introduced the concept of Nada-Brahman as the source of sacred music that was understood in terms of Ragas, melodic formulas, and Talas, rhythms, forming the basis of Indian music today. Nearly all genres of Indian music, whether the classical Dhrupad and Khayal, or the devotional Bhajan and Kirtan, share a common theoretical and practical understanding, and are bound together in a mystical spirituality based on the experience of sacred sound. Drawing upon ancient and medieval texts and Bhakti traditions, this article describes how music enables Hindu religious experience in fundamental ways. By citing several examples from the modern Hindustani classical vocal tradition of Khayal, including text and audio/video weblinks, it is revealed how the classical songs contain the wisdom of Hinduism and provide a deeper appreciation of the many musical styles that currently permeate the Hindu and Yoga landscapes of the West.

Indian music; sacred sound; Hinduism; Kirtan; Bhajan; Nada-Brahman; Dhrupad; Khayal; Bhakti; Rasa; Sangita; Raga; Tala

Our tradition teaches us that sound is God—Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realization of the Self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects, and the Ragas are among the means by which this essence can be apprehended. Thus, through music, one can reach God.
—Ravi Shankar, Sitar maestro (Shankar 1968, p. 17)

The above statement is one of the first public expressions in the West of the spirituality of Indian music by a renowned Indian musician. Beginning in the 1960s, many Westerners were exposed to Hindu religion and culture in the form of Yoga and Indian classical music. Due to the relaxation of American immigration rules in 1965, an infusion of Indian religious teachers and musicians paved the way for the adoption of Hinduism by Americans, as well as the formal instruction in Indian music on instruments such as the Sitar and Tabla. As a result, scholars and practitioners began the careful study of ancient Sanskrit texts that revealed the close links between Hindu religious thought and Indian music. From Vedic chant to the Upanishads, from Yoga philosophy to Tantric rituals, from theistic worship to the Bhakti movements, from classical Dhrupad and Khayal songs in Ragas (melodic patterns) and Talas (rhythms) to lighter forms of Bhajan and Kirtan, many seemingly disparate sectors of Indian tradition are found to be bound together in a mystical spirituality grounded in the experience of sacred sound. This essay first outlines the theoretical roots of sacred sound in India, and then explains the connections between these and sacred music, aesthetics, the traditions of devotion, and finally to the modern Hindustani classical tradition. The presentation demonstrates a continuity between the ancient and modern traditions by means of several examples of classical vocal compositions known as Khayal, including text and audio/video weblinks. The result is a deeper appreciation of the underlying spiritual unity of Indian music as well as a more accurate understanding of the variety of classical and devotional songs that permeate the Hindu and Yoga landscapes of the West.
To many Westerners, Ravi Shankar was their first exposure to Indian music. Yet two predecessors, one in America and one in India, had already set the stage for the acceptance of the spirituality of Indian music by aligning it with Yoga. Considered one of the first Yoga teachers to settle in America, Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), in his bestselling work, Autobiography of a Yogi: The Classic Story of One of India’s Greatest Spiritual Thinkers (Yogananda [1946] 2016, p. 131), suggested an alliance between the syllable OM (AUM) and the music or sound that can be heard through faculties taught in Yoga: “The ancient Rishis discovered these laws of sound alliance between nature and man. Because nature is an objectification of AUM, the Primal Sound or Vibratory Word, man can obtain control over all natural manifestations through the use of certain mantras or chants. The deeper aim of the early Rishi-musicians was to blend the singer with the Cosmic Song which can be heard through awakening of man’s occult spinal centers.”
Swami Sivananda (1887–1963), also a key transmitter of Yoga, did not travel to the West. However, Sivananda’s teachings were a noteworthy influence through disciples who brought his message to America and the Western world, including Swami Vishnudevananda, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Chidananda, and Swami Nadabrahmananda. In his seminal book, Music as Yoga (Sivananda 1956, pp. 6–7), Sivananda explained the relation between Yoga and music by means of OM: “What distinguished Indian music…It was always held to be but an extension and outward symbolization of the Omnipresent Pra?ava Sound—OM—and utilized only for purposes of God attainment—a feature it has retained to the present-day, as will be evident from the fact that, up to the end of the last century, the subject of musical compositions has rarely been anything but God and his glories.” In terms of Yoga terminology, he identifies the physical Yoga with music (ibid., p. 18): “Music is a synthesis of the various Yogas or paths to God-realization. Music itself is Hatha Yoga Sadhana.” These provocative statements beckon us to look further by exploring the ancient Sanskrit sources on Indian music and the spirituality of Hindu religion. Since vocal music is the root of all music, this essay will focus primarily on the vocal classical tradition.

1. Sacred Sound: OM and Nada-Brahman

Traditionally, the Indian experience of music has been bound to the apprehension of the divine in the context of religious activities, first through ancient fire sacrifices and then through Puja or devotional worship of various gods and goddesses. From the singing of the ancient Vedic hymns to the devotional chants and songs of modern-day devotees, Indian music is deeply grounded in the theological principles of sacred sound as contained in Hindu scriptures. The Vedas and Upanishads (ca. 2000–1000 BCE) contain information about the practice of chant and vocal utterance in relation to fire sacrifices to the gods. These ancient Indo-Aryan texts are believed to embody the eternal primeval sound that generated the universe, symbolized by the syllable OM, the power of which is manifest through oral chant. Recent research on the origins and history of the syllable OM has revealed that OM was closely associated with tonal chant and music from the beginning of its ancient India. According to Gerety (2015, p. 461), “The bottom line is that the first thousand years of OM constitute a Samavedic movement within the broader religious culture of Vedism. Amidst concurrent contributions by experts from the other Vedas, it was the singer-theologians of first the Jaiminiya, and then the Kauthuma, branches of Sama-Veda who did the most to foster OM’s emergence. In my view, this is the single most important finding of the present study: that the history of the sacred syllable resounds with music and song.” Additionally, Wilke and Moebus (2011) explores the linguistic aspects of sound as communication in the context of Sanskritic culture. All this research helps us to understand the function of OM and why the chanting of OM is almost always tonal, unless muttered in near-silence. That is, OM is normally executed in a kind of monotone on the tonic note of a scale. This method is still the foundation of Hindu worship and the basis for opening classical vocal music performances.
The Vedic fire sacrifice always included chant and meditation on sound, such that ritual chanting was viewed as an effective means to interact with the cosmos and to obtain unseen spiritual merit toward a heavenly afterlife. Verses from the Rig Veda were chanted in roughly three distinct musical tones or accents, which were expanded to seven notes in the singing of hymns (Samans) from the Sama Veda (ca. 1000 BCE). Utilized during elaborate sacrifices involving the offering of Soma juice, the Sama Veda hymns comprise the earliest hymnal in world religion. They were believed to possess supernatural powers capable of petitioning and supporting the deities that controlled the forces of the universe, indicating to us that music was mysteriously linked to the divine at this early stage of Hindu ritual practice. Thite (1997, p. 68) described the attractive and powerful nature of the Sama Veda hymns: “the poet-singers call, invoke, and invite the gods with the help of musical elements. In so doing they seem to be aware of the magnetic power of music and therefore they seem to be using that power in calling the gods.” The connections between chant, music, and the gods in Vedic culture formed the basis of both the earliest classical music known as Gandharva Sangita, and the later devotional music or Bhakti Sangit which formed part of the Bhakti movements. And while music in India formed part of both public worship and drama, it was viewed not only as entertainment, but as a vehicle toward liberation (Mok?a) and immortality.
As discussed in Beck (1993), musical sound in Hindu tradition is linked to the divine Absolute known as Brahman through the concepts of Sabda-Brahman and especially Nada-Brahman (“Sacred sound as God”), comprising Nada-Sakti (sound energy) and Brahman (divine Absolute). Brahman, first articulated in the Upanishads, is also conceived in two ways: Nirgu?a (without attributes), and Sagu?a (with attributes). The followers of Nirgu?a-Brahman worship the Absolute beyond all material qualities, which can be approached without the use or need of icons or deities. The followers of Sagu?a-Brahman, on the other hand, prefer the use of images and statues as more effective means of meditation on the divine. The developing notion of Nada-Brahman (sacred sound) is described in the Agamas and Tantras as well as in Yoga commentaries and musicological texts such as the Sangita-Ratnakara, encompassing both Nirgu?a and Sagu?a approaches to the Absolute. The term Nada-Brahman refers to sacred sound that may be either unmanifest (Anahata, “unstruck,” existing in the divine realm) or manifest (Ahata, “struck,” existing in the human realm, i.e., music). Although both perspectives of Nirgu?a and Sagu?a are discoverable in the Upanishads, the underlying philosophy is shared, namely, that the material world is temporary and illusory, and one should attempt to transgress the cycle of rebirth known as Samsara by decreasing material attachment to family, friends, and possessions. This philosophy is also conveyed in the lyrics of classical songs known as Khayal.
Most Hindu practitioners follow the Sagu?a tradition. Whether as Vaishnavism (Vishnu or Krishna worship), Saivism (Siva worship), or Saktism (goddess worship), the concept of Nada-Brahman (‘sacred sound’) is employed to affirm that God or the Supreme Being contains the elemental of primal sound and can be approached in its deity form through sound and music. Regarding the Sagu?a aspect, Hopkins(1971, p. 20) has described how the names and epithets of deities were the sonic counterparts to the visual dimensions: “Sanskrit words were not just arbitrary labels assigned to phenomena; they were the sound forms of objects, actions, and attributes, related to the corresponding reality in the same way as visual forms, and different only in being perceived by the ear and not by the eye.” True meditation on an icon thus involves both sound and image, leading us to the important role of music in Hindu religious experience. Moreover, the name of a deity was understood to contain all the spiritual potencies of the deity. Hence the well-known axiom, “Mantra (name) and Devata (deity) are the same,” that is affirmed throughout the Hindu tradition, lending credence to Nam-Kirtan, the chanting of divine names.

2. Sacred Music: Sangita

Indian music, known as Sangita, is considered divine in origin and very closely identified with the Hindu gods and goddesses. The Goddess Sarasvati, depicted with the Vina instrument in hand, is believed to be the divine patroness of music. Brahma, the creator of the universe, fashioned Indian music out of the ingredients of the Sama Veda and plays the hand cymbals. Vishnu the Preserver sounds the conch shell and plays the flute in the form of the incarnation known as Krishna. Siva as Na?araja plays the Damaru drum during the dance of cosmic dissolution. Sangita has three divisions: vocal, instrumental, and dance.
Described in Beck (2012, chp. 2), Gandharva Sangita was the ancient non-sacrificial counterpart to the sacrificial Sama Veda hymns and considered a replica of the music performed and enjoyed in Lord Indra’s heavenly court. Brought down to earth by the sage Narada, this essentially vocal music included instruments such as the Vina, flutes, drums, and cymbals. The oldest surviving texts of Gandharva Sangita, the Na?ya-Sastra by Bharata Muni and the Dattilam by Dattila (ca. 400–200 BCE), provide glimpses of this music as it was performed in sacred dramas, festivals, courtly ceremonies, and temple rituals in honor of the emerging great gods and goddesses such as Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, and Gane?a. Gandharva Sangita was linked to the practice of Puja (worship of images) which gradually replaced the fire sacrifice as the center of Hindu religious activity.
In Sangita, the musical note is wedded to a beat and a word. The inclusion of a lyric in the definition of music also underscores the centrality of vocal music in the ancient world. In the third verse of Dattilam(Nijenhuis 1970, p. 17), Sangita is, “A collection of notes (Svara), which is based on words (Pada), which is well-measured by time-measurement (Tala) and which is executed with attentiveness.” This statement is basically the same as that found in Na?ya-Sastra (28.8). While Vedic chants and Sama Veda hymns were punctuated by metrical divisions that generated distinct units of unseen merit that accrued to the priest or sacrificer, similar metrical units were marked by the playing of hand cymbals and drums in Gandharva music. The ancient theorists held that the musicians and audience earned Mok?a through accumulation of unseen merit through the marking of ritual (musical) time in the form of Tala. The significance of rhythm or Tala can thus be traced to the earliest texts on music. Liberation within the theistic and devotional traditions was also dependent on the emotion feelings of love that the practitioners held in terms of the developing personal relationship with their deity, including the proper Rasa sentiments.

3. Aesthetics of Rasa

In the Sagu?a approach to the divine, the deity is physically visible to the devotee in the form of an icon or statue. Believed to be more accessible to human devotion, the deities became the objects of aesthetic sentiments as expressed through the musical arts. The Upanishads describe Brahman (Absolute or God) as raso vai sah, full of the essence of aesthetic delight or Rasa (Taittiriya Upanishad 2.7.1). The association between Rasa and music began to appear in the earliest Sanskrit musical treatises and texts on Puja and the dramatic arts. Bharata Muni, in Natya-Sastra, was the first to outline the basic features of Indian music as well as the various aesthetic experiences (Rasas) associated with drama and the worship of icons. Rasas are the artistic or aesthetic expressions of emotional experiences that are believed to be universal traits of humanity, such as love, compassion, and heroism. In the Na?ya-Sastra (6.15, 39–45), Bharata Muni presents the original eight Rasas: Sringara—erotic, Hasya—comic, Karu?a—compassion, Raudra—terror, Vira—heroic, Bhayanaka—fear, Bibhatsa—disgust, and Adbhuta—wonder (Rangacharya 2003, pp. 54–56). The Na?ya-Sastra (19.38-40) ties the eight Rasas with the seven individual notes of the musical scale known for the first time as Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni (cf. do re mi fa so la ti): erotic—Pa (fifth), comic—Ma (fourth), compassion—Ga (third) and Ni (seventh), disgust and fear—Dha (sixth), heroic, terror, and wonder—Sa (tonic) and Re (second) (Rangacharya 2003, pp. 142–43).
Covering six chapters (Na?ya-Sastra 28–33), Bharata discussed vocal and instrumental music, musical instruments, and theoretical issues of scale (Grama), mode (Jati), meter (Matra), and rhythm (Tala). The ancient musical scales are known as Gramas, of which there were three. Out of the notes of the Gramas, sixteen Jatis or modes were formed which included some basic defining characteristics, such as notes of emphasis, phrase-like patterns, and so forth. The early notion of Jati developed into the Raga by the eighth century CE, as known from the famous text, Brihaddesi, by Matanga. This text also connected the Raga with sacred sound as Nada-Brahman. The Raga, as a special set of notes, was more distinct as a melodic pattern than the Jati, and had unique structural characteristics, emotional content (Rasa), and methods of performance. All Ragas comprise ascending and descending patterns of from five to seven notes derived from the seven-note scale above, with the additional lowering or raising of specific notes to enlarge the gamut. The Raga quickly became the preferred form of expression for the classical and devotional songs coming out of the medieval Bhakti movements. Nanyadeva, in his twelfth-century Bharata-bhashya, developed the relation between Rasas and Ragas such that these associations were expressed in poetic form known Dhyana-Mantras, and in the paintings (Ragamala) that further linked them with a season, time of day, and gender (male Raga and female Ragini).
As classical music was gradually separated from drama, four of the original eight Rasas—Sringara, Karu?a, Vira, and Adbhuta—retained their association with music, with Sringara Rasa holding its pride of place through the centuries. Sringara Rasa was described as having two types: union (sambhoga) and separation (vipralambha). The first celebrates the joy and exhilaration of lovers meeting, the second endures the pangs of separation, including anxiety, yearning, and some jealousy. The universal human quality (sthayi-bhava) of Sringara is romantic passion (rati). Associated with white, pure, bright, beautiful and elegant attire, and the fullness of youth, Sringara Rasa was also expressly affiliated with the god Vishnu, whose incarnation of Krishna became the nexus of divine love–play in later poetry and music. A ninth Rasa, Santa Rasa (peace) was added by the Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta in the tenth century CE. Santa Rasa was the appropriate musical aesthetic in response to the formless nature of the divine, or Nirgu?a-Brahman, as endorsed by the non-dualist school of Advaita Vedanta propounded in Kashmiri Saivism. Sringara Rasa, however, was believed to transcend the formless or impersonal conception and was more suitable for the Sagu?a approach to the divine.

4. Bhakti and Music: Kirtan and Bhajan

The Bhakti devotional movements began in southern India in the sixth century CE. At that time, separate Bhakti groups emerged as powerful forces favoring a devotion-centered Hinduism with song-texts composed primarily in vernacular, in this case Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada. Many new styles of regional devotional music were duly formalized to accompany liturgies in the temples of medieval times. These styles followed a simple aesthetic reflecting the perspective of music as an offering as well as a means toward communion with a chosen deity. In the evolving personal theism, Brahman was conceived as the supreme personal deity, whether Vishnu, Siva, or Sakti, and believed to be the fountainhead of all Rasa (aesthetic pleasure or taste). The emotional experience of love and devotion produced by musicians in the minds of the listeners was linked to the divine by virtue of it being a part of the Bhakti tradition.
In support of the growing Bhakti movements, a tenth Rasa, Bhakti Rasa (devotional love), was introduced by the Vaishnava theologian Rupa Goswami in the sixteenth century. Bhakti Rasa was widely adopted as the superior Rasa among religious groups and practitioners of the Sagu?a traditions and was believed to encompass and transform all the other Rasas. In the Narada-Bhakti-Sutra (ca. 100 BCE–400 CE) and the Bhagavata-Pura?a (ninth century CE), five types of devotional love are described, namely, Santa (meditational), Dasya (servitude), Sakhya (friendship), Vatsalya (parental), Kanta (conjugal), with the highest being the latter as love between man and woman, which came to symbolize the love between the human and the divine. The Bhagavata-Pura?a outlined the path of devotion or Bhakti Marga as being superior to the path of knowledge (Jñana Marga) and action (Karma Marga). Moreover, the Bhagavad-Gitaand the Bhagavata-Pura?a stressed that Bhakti was the culmination of all religious experiences and included the other paths in the truest sense. Under the influence of these texts and medieval scholars of Rasa such as Bhoja of Rajasthan (eleventh century), Rupa Goswami held that Sringara, within the locus of Bhakti Rasa, was synonymous with the selfless love of the Gopis (handmaidens) for Krishna, an ecstatic affection known as Krishna-rati or Prema (highest love). As part of temple worship, Sringara came to refer to the early morning decoration of the deities of Radha and Krishna as they are ‘dressed for conjugal love.’
The spread of the Bhakti traditions stimulated many new forms of architectural, literary, and artistic expression. In terms of music, the Medieval Period (ca. fourth to seventeenth century CE) is characterized by the rise of Bhakti Sangit (“devotional music”), much of which followed the classical form of Raga (melodic pattern) and Tala (rhythmic cycle) and contained lyrics expressive of love and devotion toward a chosen deity. Unlike Vedic chant and Sama Veda hymns, which are rendered in Sanskrit, Bhakti Sangit is primarily sung in vernacular dialects such as Hindi and Braj Bha?a in the North, and Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada in the South. Various types of Bhakti Sangit came to be referred to as either Kirtan or Bhajan.
Kirtan appears similar in definition to the Western hymn (hymnus, “song of praise”) or psalm (psalmos, “plucked song of praise”) as found in Biblical traditions, and in the Sufi Islamic songs of praise. The term Bhajan suggests a more interactive nature, since it shares with the word Bhakti and Bhagavan (‘Lord’) the common Sanskrit root bhaj, “to share, to partake of” (as in a rite). Bhagavan means the Lord who possesses bhaga, good fortune, opulence. Kirtan and Bhajan, as terms for religious or devotional music apart from Vedic chant and the purely classical traditions, are directly linked to the growing Bhakti movements, and are performed so that God, ‘Bhagavan,’ is praised, worshipped, or appealed to in a mutual exchange of Bhakti. An interesting comparative study of Bhajan, Kirtan, and psalm is found in Muck (2001).
Several important scriptures in Sanskrit have endorsed Kirtan and Bhajan in Hindu practice. These include the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bhagavata-Pura?a. The Bhagavad-Gita 9.13–14 provides two sequential verses that contain all three of the key terms—Kirtan, Bhajan, Bhakti—with a shared objective. The terms Kirtan (kirtayanto) and Bhajan (bhajanty) refer to any act of worship or loving devotion, including music. The Bhagavata-Pura?a (6th to 9th century CE) endorses both Kirtan and Giti (song) as near-statutory practices within Puja. Kirtan and Puja are inextricably linked in Bhagavata-Pura?a 11.19.20. In Bhagavata-Pura?a 11.11.36, song, dance, and instrumental music are mentioned as equal components of the divine service in the temple. Kirtan is also understood to be expressed musically in the form of song, represented here with the Sanskrit term gayan (“singing”) in Bhagavata-Pura?a 11.11.23. Singing in vernacular languages is an equally effective vehicle according to Bhagavata-Pura?a 11.27.45, leading to the widespread composition of vernacular songs in various regions of India.
A session of Kirtan or Bhajan normally begins with chanting OM, and then proceeds with invocations in Sanskrit in honor of a guru, master or deity, followed by sequences of vernacular songs that reflect the group’s distinct or eclectic religious outlook; these are sometimes punctuated by short sermons or meditative recitations of Sanskrit verses from scripture. In closing, a special ceremony called Arati is conducted as part of the Puja (“worship service”) which includes offerings of food, flowers, incense and lamps, and blowing of conches. The distribution of food, flowers, lamp wicks, and holy water concludes the session.
As musical compositions, Kirtan and Bhajan songs range from complex structures to simple refrains or litanies containing divine names. Most have their own distinctive tune and rhythm that are easily followed by the audience. The most common Talas are up-tempo, such as Keherva which has eight beats roughly corresponding to a Western cut time in 4/4. Another common rhythm is Dadra, a six-beat Tala corresponding to Western 3/4 or 6/8 time. An example of a Bhajan by the poet Sur Das in Hindi is found in both textual and audio version in Beck (2006, p. 134). Set in the popular rhythm of Keherva, it nonetheless reflects the ancient philosophical view of the Bhagavad-Gita, whereby attachment to material things can be only relieved by surrender and devotion to God. In the penultimate lyric, Sur Das says (in translation), “Due to over-attachment for wife, children and wealth I have lost all of my clear intelligence. Sur Das implores, “Lord, please relieve me of this great load, for now my ship (this body) has set sail.”
The collective singing of the names of God has always been very popular everywhere in India and is called Nam-Kirtan, Nam-Sankirtan or Nam-Bhajan. Sung to simple melodies and accompanied by drums and cymbals, Nam-Kirtan expresses fervent devotion and serves as a means of spiritual release. Primarily a congregational practice, Nam-Kirtan enables ordinary persons a sense of musical elation. Examples of three chants are:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. This is the famous Hare Krishna chant known as the Mahamantra, Great Mantra for Deliverance as first propounded by Caitanya and other Bhakti saints that has continued in India by pious Hindus and more recently by members of the Hare Krishna Movement (ISKCON). It is a petition to Radha (“Hara”), the energy of Krishna, and to Krishna who is also full of pleasure (“Rama”).
Sita Ram Sita Ram Sita Ram Jaya Sita Ram. This is a chant to Rama and Sita: “All Glories to Lord Rama and his consort Sita.”
OM namah Sivaya. This is a chant to Siva: “I bow to Lord Siva.”

The practice of Nam-Kirtan is advocated in the lyrics of the classical songs of Khayal discussed below under the name of “Hari Nam” or “Ram Nam.”
Bhajan, Kirtan, and Nam-Kirtan are mostly performed as an informal group enterprise of call-and-response, with participants seated on the floor in proximity to a lead singer, standing in temples, or walking in procession. Generally, a separate area in the temple facing or adjacent to a deity or picture is designated for music. Reading from an anthology of verses, lead singers often accompany themselves on a harmonium, a floor version of the upright, portable reed organ used by nineteenth-century Christian missionaries. The metal reed used in the harmonium, however, is Asiatic in origin. Linked to mouth organs used in the subcontinent, it is the basis for the western harmonica and accordion. Group members generally repeat the lines in unison after the leader. However, the leader may also sing solo or with occasional refrains sung by the group. Bhajan and Kirtan musical ensembles, like almost all types of Indian music, include musical instruments. Percussion instruments, membranophones and idiophones, include pairs of hand cymbals called Kartal or Jhanjh, drums such as the Tabla, Pakhavaj, Dholak or Khol, and occasionally bells, clappers or tambourines. A background drone may be provided by a Tanpura, if not by the harmonium or a Sruti Box, a small pumped instrument used in Carnatic music.

5. Dhrupad and Temple Music

During the thirteenth century, the classical music traditions separated into northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic. What developed as Hindustani music in northern regions stemmed from the devotional temple music that was performed by musicians in Mathura, Vrindavan, Braj, Gwalior, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh. For many years in the North, the musical style of Dhrupad was the principal classical vehicle for vernacular Bhakti lyrics, and was rendered in a slow, four-section format using the pure form of a Raga, along with the strict rhythms of mainly Cautal (twelve beats) or Dhamar (fourteen beats). Dhrupad spread as a classical genre wherever it was patronized by the ruling elite, both in temples and ruling Hindu and Mughal courts. Important devotional styles that are related to Dhrupad are Haveli Sangit and Samaj Gayan, both originating in Vaishnava temples in the region of Braj. For specialized studies of Dhrupad, see Srivastava (1980) and Sanyal and Widdess (2004).
As the development of Bhakti included service, adoration and decoration of icons in temples, a central part of the Puja or worship service in temples was the rendering of songs addressed to various deities. As already explained, Hindu religion in the form of Sagu?a worship lends great importance to the image of the deity as an object of devotion and veneration. As such, many songs include lyrics that describe a god or deity as part of the meditation process of the singer and listener in visualizing the divine. The lyrics of these compositions, whether in Sanskrit or vernacular, generate a vivid description of the gods and goddesses in what may be termed a verbal icon. Meditation on this “verbal icon” enables the aspirant to effectively focus his or her mind on the form and activities of the chosen deity. As a primary Bhakti text, the Bhagavad-Gita (8.6) has explained that the image in one’s mind at the time of death affects one’s future birth. Hence the musical experience of devotional love is not abstract but reconciled with the establishment of an image in the mind of the practitioner for purposes of gaining access to a soteriological outcome.
The three examples of traditional Dhrupad compositions below will demonstrate how the lyric creates an image in the mind of the devotee for purposes of liberation (Mok?a) from the cycle of rebirth (Samsara). The evolving classical style known as Khayal also served the same purpose. Expressing veneration for three Hindu deities, Sarasvati, Siva, and Krishna, each poem utilizes key words and phrases which invoke the visual image of the form of the deity to facilitate meditation. The songs, part of oral tradition and thus unpublished, are composed in the Braj Bha?a dialect of Hindi and translated by the author. The first composition is directed toward Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning and Music. The epithets and verbal descriptions of the Goddess serve to create an image in the mind for meditation:
Sarada ko dharata dhyana, Brahma Vishnu karata gana,
vi?a-dhari mayurasana, Sama-veda hasta dharata
Sarasvati, who is Sarada, is praised with song and meditated upon by Brahma and Vishnu, is seen playing the Vina (vi?a-dhari), seated on a peacock throne (mayurasana), and holding the Sama Veda (Sama-veda hasta dharata).
Second, a standard composition in honor of Siva is replete with iconographic detail associated with the image of Siva and his pastimes:
Sankara Siva Mahadeva, nila-ka??ha sulapa?i,
gale naga damaru kara, lepa anga vibhu tana
Siva, who is Sankara and Mahadeva (the Great God), is blue-throated (nila-ka??ha) from drinking the ocean of poison, holds a trident in his hand (sulapa?i), plays the hourglass drum (damaru kara), and sports a cobra snake around his neck (gale naga). His body is smeared with divine ashes (lepa anga vibhu tana).
The third composition is sung during the early morning hours to wake the child Krishna:
Jagiye Gopala Lala, ananda-nidhi Nanda Bala,
Yasomati kahe bara bara, bhora bhayo pyare.
O Darling Cowherd Son (Gopala Lala) Krishna, Child of Nanda (Nanda Bala), storehouse of bliss (ananda-nidhi), morning has come and so please wake up. Your mother Yasoda (Yasomati) is calling you again and again.
By the sixteenth century, Dhrupad was influential in the temple music styles of several Vaishnava traditions of Krishna worship that were established in Braj, Krishna’s home. These primarily include the Vallabha Sampradaya or Pu??i Marg tradition, founded by saint Vallabha in the early sixteenth century, and the Radhavallabha Sampradaya founded in the mid-sixteenth century by saint Hita Harivamsa.
The Dhrupad songs of Pu??i Marg, called Haveli Sangit, are drawn from the Braj Bha?a lyrics of their poets that describe the childhood pastimes of Krishna, including the festivals of Holi in the spring season and the Rasa Dance in autumn. Originally established in Braj, where a group of eight singer-saints (A??achap) including the famous poet Sur Das performed their musical worship of Krishna, Haveli Sangit is now widely practiced in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The Ragas that were sung as early as the sixteenth century by the Vaishnava movements in Vrindavan and are still sung in roughly the same manner today, are known to modern musicians through the manuscripts of hymnals that have come down to us over the centuries. These Ragas reveal to us the range of devotional feelings and aesthetic Rasas that were common during worship services to Krishna. Many Ragas still in use are mentioned in the hymnals of the Pu??i Marg tradition, including Bhairav, Ramkali, Vilaval, Bibhas, Lalit, Malkauns, Todi, Malar, Vasant Purvi, Kalyan, Bihag, and Kafi. Unlike classical Dhrupad, Haveli Sangit uses cymbals. As in Dhrupad, there are many compositions in Cautal of twelve beats and Dhamar of fourteen beats.
In the mid-sixteenth century, the Vaishnava saint, Hita Harivamsa, founded the Radhavallabha Sampradaya in Vrindavan. This tradition established the devotional singing style known as Samaj Gayan, which was also modeled upon Dhrupad. Focusing exclusively on the intimate love-play of Radha and Krishna, this sect gradually built up a unique repertoire of poetry that is saturated with Sringara Rasa, culminating in a massive three-volume hymnal, Sri Sri Radhavallabhaji ka Var?otsava. Set to various Ragas, most of its poems describe the union and separation of Krishna and his beloved Radha and have been sung to musical accompaniment for nearly five-hundred years in the Radhavallabha temples. Within the Radhavallabha Sampradaaya, there are several Ragas that are still prevalent, such as Sarang, Kanhara, Vilaval, Kalyan, Bhupali, Bibhas, Malhar, Kedar, and Todi. One hundred and eight songs from the above hymnal are preserved in text and audio format in Beck (2011). Samaj Gayan is also practiced by members of the Nimbarka and the Haridasi sampradayas, two other Vaishnava traditions in the Braj area that pursue the musical interpretations of the relations between Radha and Krishna. Additional information on the Vaishnava genres is found in Thielemann (1996, 1999, 2000).

6. Classical Music of Khayal

The Dhrupad music of Vaishnavism described above flourished largely in isolation from the general public, catering exclusively to the devotees and pilgrims at holy shrines. Yet Dhrupad also provided the foundation for the Hindustani classical vocal music genre known as Khayal that flourished in the northern Hindu and Muslim courts. Many Muslim musicians became proficient in Khayal and contributed greatly to its repertoire and success. By the nineteenth century, Khayal virtually replaced Dhrupad as the predominant form of Hindustani vocal music, and by the twentieth century, it had shifted from the court to the concert arena. While expanding in new creative directions, Khayal, also sung in the vernacular Braj Bha?a dialect, nonetheless retained an affinity with the substance of the Dhrupad songs. A Khayal song is known as a ‘bandish,’ a carefully constructed musical composition with a balance of note, beat, and word that creates an image or idea in the mind that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. The modern Khayal performance on the concert stage has become an opportunity for musical virtuosity and showmanship with greater emphasis on creativity and free expression. Audiences of today expect to be overwhelmed by a dazzling display of stylistic elements: shimmering cascades of Tanas (note patterns comprising vowels), Murkis (grace notes), Khu?kas (rapid turns of phrases), speedy Sargams (Sa Re Ga Ma, etc.), rhythmic interchanges with the Tabla including Tihais (triplets). While many in the public sphere consider these modern innovations, they are found in the ancient texts. Khayal has been studied extensively by Wade (1984) and Raja (2009).
Despite the emphasis on vocal stylings in Khayal, and its large clientele of Muslim singers, the content depicted in the Khayal song lyrics, such as Dhrupad, continue to refer to spiritual messages, including philosophical ideas found in ancient texts, the description of deities, the praise of God through emphasis on Nam-Kirtan, or simply the human longing for the Almighty. Many Khayal songs depict situations involving the god Krishna and his favorite goddess Radha, sometimes in the context of the seasons such as spring and monsoon, while other songs reveal Indian spiritual wisdom such as found in the Upanishads, including the illusory nature of material existence, the misery associated with greed and gluttony, the prospect of repeated births in the cycle of Samsara or rebirth, and the need for assistance in crossing over to the other side, a place of permanent peace and tranquility. The solution to these problems is often presented in the songs themselves: chanting divine names, meditation on the Lord, and engaging in devotional worship.
We now present a series of nine Khayal songs from the recording Wisdom of the Khayal Song (Beck 2016). Reflecting the Hindu religious experience, they establish continuity between the ancient and medieval traditions of Indian philosophy and devotion and the classical music of today. They are placed in one of four categories: (1) philosophical teachings, (2) praise of God, (3) descriptions of the divine pastimes, and (4) prescriptions of chanting divine names. The compositions are rendered in the rhythm of Tintal (sixteen beats). The lyrics and notations are published in the standard songbooks of Khayal (noted at the end of this subsection). The weblinks are given for the audio of each song, with three links to video performances.
The first two songs reflect the first category. In the first Khayal selection, the lyric expresses the notion of the divine source of music, reminding musicians and listeners that musical experience contributes toward spiritual attainments in this life and the next. This composition in Raga Yaman reinforces the principle that music is directly connected to the notion of Nada-Brahman or sacred sound. The lyrics contain the standard reference to Nada as divided into Anahata (unstruck sound) and Ahata (struck sound) and as being the source or fountainhead of the Svaras or musical notes, which are sung in this composition as part of the lyrics with reference to parts of the body and the 22 microtones.
One: Raga Yaman (KPM 2.31–32). Audio online:—raag-yaman/GDcxRDkGcls Video online:
Ahata anahata bheda nada ke
Prathama bheda srutiyana so hove
Anahata munijana dhyana dharata jaba
Nabhi ka??ha aura murdha sthana son
Mandra madhya aura tara hovata
Sapta surana ke nama bakhane
Sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa ni dha pa ma ga re sa
Translation with annotation:
The fountainhead of sound in Indian music, Nada-Brahman, is divided into two realms: Ahata or ‘struck’ sound (manifest), and Anahata, or ‘unstruck’ sound (unmanifest). The struck sound is then divided into 22 Srutis or microtones. The ancient sages meditated on the Anahata dimensión of Nada-Brahman, being in touch with Divine Truth. The seven notes of music, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni, are described as spread over three octaves, lower (Mandra), middle (Madhya), and higher (Tara), which correspond to the three levels of the body; navel, throat, and head.
The next Khayal song in the first category is in Raga Malkauns, and reflects the philosophy of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. This conveys the view that life is suffering and under the control of illusion or Maya. One needs to recognize the futility of material possessions and family attachments, and earnestly try to cross-over to the other side of existence as the only remedy for permanent relief from countless rebirths in this material world.
Two: Raga Malkauns (KPM 3.708–709). Audio online:—raag-malkauns/FRsJYB9vdFU
Suna re mana murakha ajñani
Bhai bandhu saba ku?ama kabila
Sanga calata kou nahi
Moha jala men bilama raho hai
Kauna kisi ko mani
Eka dina panchi nikasa ja bego
Ye nece kara jani
Translation with annotation:
Listen! Oh foolish and ignorant Mind! Brothers, friends, family, relatives, wife—none of these will accompany you at the time of death. You are mired in the false illusion of affection, when in fact no one is there for you. One day a bird will come to you and say it is time to go–will you be ready? One must concentrate on the Lord to avoid dire results at the time of death.
The next three Khayal compositions reflect the second category, whereby the lyric offers praise affirms the truth of the unity of God, who nonetheless has many names. Some songs portray a non-sectarian or ‘Generic God’ comprising an inclusive range of names or epithets, such as Prabhu (“Lord”), Sattar (“Divine Truth”), Karatar (“Creator”), Data (“Divine Giver”), who is offered prayer and a petition for liberation. The next three compositions express this notion fully. The first two are in Raga Bhairav, an early morning Raga for solemn meditation, and the third one in Raga Kafi is for the daytime hours especially in the afternoon.
Three: Raga Bhairav (RV 3.123–124). Audio online:—raag-bhairav/BlECWiN8YHQ
Prabhu data re, bhaja re mana jivana ghari pala china
Jo tu cahe ana dhana lacchami
Dudha puta bahu tera
Vako nama bhaja guru ko nama
The Supreme Lord is the Giver of everything! Therefore worship Him every moment of your life. One who desires from you the blessings of this life and the next should heed this call and sincerely worship the Lord and take the name of one’s Guru.
Four: Raga Bhairav (KPM 2.181–182).
Prabhu data sabana ke, tu rata le mana ghari pala china
Jo tu cahe dudha puta ana
Dhana lacchami imana vako nama
Le vake raba ko nama le, prabhu data sabana ke
Oh Lord! You are the Giver of everything.
Let my mind recall you at every moment.
Whatever one desires from you, material or spiritual, the highest blessing is the pleasure of chanting your name in good faith.
Five: Raga Kafi (KPM 1.46–47). Audio online:—raag-kafi/OBkeVC0CQHU
Prabhu teri daya hai apar
Tu agama agocara avikala cara acara sakalaka
Tu adhar patitana ko uddhar
Dina anatha patita aru durabala
Mahad aparadhi sara?agata hun
Catura tihar mohe para utar
Oh Lord, Your mercy knows no boundaries.
Though you are inaccesible and unknowable in your fullness, you uplift the fallen and are the foundation of everything moving and non-moving. Poor, helpless, fallen, and weak, I am a sinner, full of offenses, yet I surrender to you. The poet Catur says “Please carry me across to the other side.”
In the third category, the lyric enhances meditation on a specific deity, whether Krishna, Siva, or a Goddess, by describing the characteristics of the deity. The song formulates a “verbal icon” in the mind which assists the devotee to focus attention on a specific deity. Two examples are given. The first example is a song in Raga Bihag that describes Krishna playing his flute by the side of the Yamuna River in his hometown of Vrindavan. The second song in Raga Yaman-Kalyan is a hymn to Siva requesting him to reveal himself to the sincere devotee.
Six: Raga Bihag (AG 38–40). Audio online:—raag-bihag/BwpaAyEAYws
Bansi kaisi baji nanda lala
Tumari jamuna ji ke gha?a
Dhuna mana men more bamsi suna sudha budha bisrani
Jaga nistara?a bhakta nivara?a
Brija ki bhumi para sarasa janama lino
Kalindi men natho tuma naga so pra?i
Oh Lord Krishna (Nanda Lala), the sound of your flute by the side of the Yamuna River has captured my mind and made me lose all sense of comportment. You are the upholder of the universe and the shelter of devotees, yet you took birth in Braj, and pleased the wives of the Nagas while defeating the demon Kaliya.
Seven: Raga Yaman Kalyan (AG 1–2). Audio online:—raag-yaman-kalyan/Rg4kdz9yQUE Video online:
Darasana deho sankara mahadeva
Mahadeva tihare darasa bina mohe
Kala na parata ghari pala china dina
Ana pari hun sara?a tihare
Tuma bina kauna bandhave dhira
Bipata pari mope maha ka?hina
Oh Sankara, Mahadeva (Siva), please give me your darsa?a (visión) without which there is no peace even for a moment. I approach you Lord, and surrender to you. Without you there is no stability in life, only danger and distress.
The next two songs in the fourth category prescribe the chanting of divine names as a remedy for the ills and misfortunes of life. In these cases, the lyric presents an urgent call for the singer or listener to take up the chanting of the divine name of God, most especially Rama, as in ‘Ram Nam,’ or Vishnu or Krishna as in ‘Hari Nam.’
Eight: Raga Vrindabani Sarang (KPM 3.503–504). Audio online:—raag-vrindabani-sarang/BQ0yVzdfeGc Video online:
Ra?akara rasana rama ko nama
Ra?akara rasana rama ko nama
Rama rama raghupati raghu-nayaka
Krishna krishna karu?a kara syama
Gopi pati gopala gadadhara
Radha vara locana abhirama
Recite the name of Rama with joy, Rama who is Lord and leader of the Raghus, by whose mercy also appears as Krishna or Syama. Krishna is Gopala, Lord of the Gopis yet holds a club as Vishnu. More beautiful still is Radha whose eyes enchant.
Nine: Raga Lalit (AG 112). Audio online:—raag-lalit/BBEeVzpRVnw
Hari ka nama sumara le tere
Dukha daladala jaya manuva
Jo hi teri dhyave so hi phala pave
Nama sumrana sukha dai manuva
Always remember the name of Lord Hari (Krishna) who takes away all pains. Whatever you desire from God, you will receive the fruits, but meditation on the Name brings the highest bliss.
Printed sources for the Khayal songs, with notations:
KPM. Bhatkhande, V. N. 1953–1964. Kramika-Pustaka-Malika. Vols. 1–6. Hathras, India.
RV. Patvardhan, V. N. 1962–1970. Raga-Vijñana. Vols. 1–7. Pune, India.
AG. Mehta, R. C. 1969. Agra Gharana: Parampara, Gayaki aur Cijen. Baroda, India.

7. Conclusions

The comprehensive description and analysis of music in the major sectors of Hinduism is yet to be conducted by scholars, due in part to the enormous task it entails. Nonetheless, there have been targeted studies of religious and devotional music in ritual and temple settings over recent decades. Modern scholarship has also noted that despite differences in theology or philosophy among Hindu sects, a common factor in all these is the experience of vocal chant and music. Religious leaders widely consider devotional songs to be essential for the propagation of their faiths in order to make them more attractive, and though there may be differences in the content of the lyrics, there is no distinction in principle in the style of singing or performance. There are thousands of compositions that reflect this ideal among a diversity of sectarian traditions. The same Raga or Tala may be employed in songs that express love and devotion to Vishnu, Krishna, Siva, the Goddess, or any deity. The vernacular classical songs of Khayal are an excellent focal point for the study of sacred music in Hindu religious experience because they encompass the entire range of Hindu philosophical and emotional content, reaching back to the ancient Sanskrit texts, as well as the diverse experiences of worship and reflection in the modern world. The beauty and depth of Indian classical music is also evident in the number of non-Hindu traditions that have absorbed it into their own worship experiences. There are Indian classical songs set to Ragas and Talas in Sikhism, in Sufi Islam, in Buddhism and Jainism, and among Indian Christians. As such, the universal experiences of love, surrender, and compassion are beautifully expressed and experienced through the medium of Indian classical music.