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How mythology marks Indian music

The links between music and divinity are well documented and commonly experienced. Dionysus’ maenads fell into devotional trances of ritual madness to the beat of wine and sounds crafted to simulate ecstasy. Rumi created the Whirling Dervishes, the Roman Catholic Church has the sacred song of the Gregorian chants while Milan offers benediction in the form of the Ambrosian chant.

Unsurprisingly, India’s mythological framework is heavily entwined with musical association and symbology. Innumerable figures of legend have themselves defined by their musical prowess, and have wielded it to orchestrate events of cosmic importance.

Sangeet or sangita is spoken of not as a consequence of human imagination, but a gift from the gods. Outlined most poetically in Bharata Muni’s Natya-Shashtra, an ancient, comprehensive treatise on art, the tale recalls a time when humans took to evil, uncivilised ways and the earth was plagued by the cavortings of demons, yakshas and other devilry. The gods requested Brahma to offer humans a distraction (Kridaniyaka) to arrest their attention and turn them from their fallen ways. In response, mankind was given the secrets of sangeet.

Since music had always been the prerogative of the gandharvas, it required a man of great skill and spiritual ability to receive such knowledge and disseminate it. It fell to the sage Narada, and to him is existence indebted to for Indian classical music.

Alain Daneliou, possibly the first European to proclaim himself a Hindu and instrumental in introducing Indian classical music to the West wrote “The hymns of the Rig Veda contain the earliest examples of words set to music, and by the time of the Sama Veda a complicated system of chanting had been developed. By the time of the Yajur Veda, a variety of professional musicians had appeared, such as lute players, drummers, flute players, and conch blowers”. Worship is often accompanied by the sounds of auspicious bells (ghanta) and conch shells (sankha).

At the heart of the universe vibrates the sacred syllable “Om”- conveying the hum of the spheres and the rhythm of the primal energy that binds existence. Nataraja, the avatar of Shiva that performs the ecstatic dance of Tandavam is said to have created sangita as he danced to maintain the cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. Supposedly, it was Tandu, attendant to Bhairava who, on his Lord’s command, instructed Bharat in his composition of the Natya-Shashtra.

From each of Shiva’s five mouths, it is said, emerged the first five ragas with the sixth having created his consort (and one of many manifestations of the divine feminine), Parvati. Ragas and raginis are often imbued with divine purpose and origin. For instance, the raag Malkaush emerged from the skills of Parvati in an attempt to calm her husband’s unending Tandava.

Many instruments also claim godly merit. Brahma is credited with inventing the first drum (mrydanga) from the bloody earth marking his triumph over the demon Tripura. Vishnu, the Preserver, wields a sankha or conch-shell; from its coils can radiate the fundamental key-note ‘Om’. The sankha also carries within it the murmur of the ocean – the womb of all life. Saraswati, deity of knowledge is depicted with the veena. To her is ascribed the creation of the seven-toned scale ( Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni ).

The court of Indra, king of the gods is populated with gandharvas (celestial musicians) and apsaras (celestial dancers), from whom numerous classical musical gharanas and practitioners trace their holy lineage.

When W.B. Yeats called Indian music “not art, but life itself” he possibly signalled the insistence within classical traditions of music on treating the art as an instrument of obtaining liberation or moksha. Nadopasana (the worship of sound) is revered as a means to the atman’s enlightenment.

“Even if he be an expert in the Revealed and the traditional scriptures, in literature and all sacred books, the man ignorant of music is but an animal on two feet.”

“He who knows the inner meaning of the sound of the lute, who is expert in intervals and in modal scales and knows the rhythms, travels without effort upon the way of liberation.

– (Yajnavalkya Smriti III, 115).

Most vividly, music becomes a godly tool in the worldview and world-play of Krishna. In a poem composed by Chandidas Radha describes the enchantment of her lover thus “How can I describe His relentless flute/It pulls virtuous women from their homes and drag them by their hair to Shyam/ As thirst and hunger pull the doe to the snare?/Chaste ladies forget their wisdom, and clinging vines shakes loose from their trees, hearing that music./ Then how shall a simple dairymaid like me withstand its call…”. Before he led the Pandavas to victory in Kurukshetra, the lord with blue skin was termed Murlimanohara (The Lord who enchants with flute play). The sound he breathed into his flute made him the pivot of the Rasa lila, a dance of devotion and spiritual union accomplished one night when the Gopis of Vrindavan were drawn out of their houses to participate in the act of worship and love. Stretching the night to one ‘Night of Brahma’ (4.32 billion years as per Hindu belief), Krishna’s rasa lila is considered the supreme metaphor of the most elevated form of love – that which emerges from the soul’s ecstasy on encountering God.

Innumerable such examples abound in the devotional and metaphysical cultures of Indian life.

Yehudi Menuhin, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century said in Indian and Western Music – Yehudi Menuhin / Hemisphere : “We would find all, or most, strands beginning in India; for only in India have all possible modes been investigated, tabulated, and each assigned a particular place and purpose.” He adds in Unfinished Journey that the purpose of such music is “is to unite one’s soul and discipline one’s body, to make one sensitive to the infinite within one, to unite one’s breath of space, one’s vibrations with the vibrations of the cosmos” Perhaps such an occurrence was made possible by the easeful and natural penetration of melody and rhythm into the spiritual life of every individual in a country where a 500 year old myth can still persist in every turn of every road in the middle of every small town, lost hamlet or too-busy-to-breathe big city.

This article was featured in the September 2017 issue:



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