Music is an integral part of Hinduism as it reflects the sruti of the gods while acting as a conduit for worshipers to engage with for spiritual growth. Hymns performed in this style have strong roots in the Vedas and Hindu mythology. The core components of raga, tala and swar strive for a balance of the song in a similar manner to the concept of dharma. Northern India’s Hindustani genre has evolved over time since its origins in the Vedas, it has remained a fundamental part of Hindu society throughout Perisan, Arabic and British influences. This music has capitalized on the new technology of film and audio recording to spread not only more thoroughly in India, but globally.
Classical Hindustani music represents traditional Vedic texts where songs and verses have been passed down in written and oral form for centuries and are still used today for worship. The four Vedas consisting of the Rg Veda, Artharva Veda, Sama Veda and Yajur Veda are all used as sources for songs and hymns. The Rg Veda contains the hymns to the deities, the Artharva Veda has the incantations, the Sama Veda includes the words spoken in the hymns and the Yujur Veda includes a guide to sacrifices. The Sama Veda is among the most central texts for converting the divine words of the gods to human beings as it contains many songs of worship. The hymns are a vessel for revealing the origins of all creation as shown through sruti (Johnson 55-6). The concept of sruti reflects the idea that works of the Vedas originate from divine sources, this opposes smrti which is a term for religious texts that originate from mortals. There are two genres of music that are spread throughout India, Hindustani Classical in the North and Carnatic in the South. Hindustani Classical music is an oral portrayal of the Vedas which was most likely brought into India with the Aryan people. This hymn-based style evolved into a new form of music which has been influenced by Persian and Arabic cultures; it was embodied in the sub-genre called Qawwali which is a popular form of worship music for the Sufi tradition (Gafoor 2). Many other forms of music have branched off from this including Khyal which includes similar ragas to Hindustani Music. North Indian music has roots in the Vedas but has since been influenced by other cultures, however the essence of spirituality through the Vedas remains.
There are many elements to North Indian music including tala, raga, thaat, swar and gharana. A raga is a mode in music which Hindustani music incorporates not only a melodic scale but also as a colour and emotional state. While there are many ragas there are six main modes which can be split into 126 raginis or wives and putras or sons. Each raga is correlated to a certain time of day, season or to a specific deity and should be played when its requirements are met (Saxena 442). These six main ragas are the hindole, deepaka, bhairava, sri, malkounsa and megha. The hindole raga is meant to be played in spring or dawn and represents love of all things. The deepaka raga is meant to be played during the summer or the evening and represents compassion. The bhairava raga is for autumn or the morning and represents courage. The sri raga is for autumn or twilight and represents love between two people and deep emotions (Leante 189). The malkounsa raga is for winter or midnight and represents valour. The megha raga is meant for the afternoon or a rainy day and represents courage (Ramakrishna 114). The tala is a succession of beats which remains consistent throughout the song, it allows the musicians to improvise while still remaining within the bounds of the raga. The individual components of Hindustani music follow within the margins of dharma showing a balance of karma. One of the most notable parts of a hymn is the swar or voice that is a human’s natural instrument which can be used with great effect to convey tone, inflection and mood. Hindustani Classical music employs the vocals of a singer much like that of Western music in that there are seven notes in an octave and seven swars in an octave. Western notes are known as do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti and do while Hindustani swars are shadaj, rishabh, gandhar, madhyama, pancham, dhaivat and nishad or written as sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha and ni (Sharma 7). It is important to be mindful of these swar when composing a raga because as Lalita Ramakrishna states “swara is that which is revealed after the penultimate sruti, that which is smoothly pleasant, that which has resonance, that which by itself delights the listeners” (Ramakrishna 32).
In Hindu belief, the first musicians were divine in nature consisting of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Visnu and Siva who were known as the creator, the preserver and the destroyer respectively (Jagdish 832). Brahma used cymbals, Vishnu played a drum and Siva was the dancer. Krsna is the human form of Visnu and is often depicted playing a flute and Saraswati who is the companion of Brahma is shown playing a vina instrument (Ramakrishna 211). As music is represented in not only the Hindu Trinity but also lesser gods and goddesses it is sensible that Hindustani music has flourished as a form of spirituality. To worship the gods using their instruments and singing hymns of their words can be seen as a pinnacle form of devotion. Johnson describes Vedic hymns as revered to the extent that the word Om (or Aum) is a gayatri or mantra itself. He argues that Om is the “holiest hymn in the Veda” (Johnson 57). This mantra can be seen as the essence of all words and therefore all songs and hymns which reflects the absolute reality and are depicted through it. The medium of song is a useful tool for worship; written words are static and non changing, oral works can be dynamic and reflective of new and changing ideas (Ramakrishna 17). This allows an individual to stay within their belief system and yet display their own uniqueness. Laura Leante gives evidence to this idea when she writes “different meanings are attributed by individual listeners while at the same time, at a deeper level, all of these meanings are grounded in the embodiment of the music” (Leante 188). A comparison can be drawn to the phrasing of music under a raga with the musician improvising yet remaining within the bounds of the tala. This ability to add a distinct inimitability to a song makes Hindustani music a spiritual action as the musician or listener are participating in a dynamic sense.
Hindustani music has gone through a few changes since its conception centering around the hymns of the Vedas to the merging of Persian and Arabic cultures. It was transmitted throughout the population within a gharana, which is a term applied to a family or lineage of musicians. A long-established gharana family would pass down their musical traditions from the elderly to the young and by doing so create a reputation of rich music that could garnish royal patronage (Sharma 24-25). A Gharana would focus on one form of raga or tala, perfecting them to the extent that the listener could identify the family just by the music played. This system was not to last as the British laid claim to India in the 18th century and many ways of life were altered including the gharana system (Beck 28). In its place evolved a one on one guru-shishya system. Modern Hindustani music has once again changed with the Western interest of the hippie movement in the 1960’s. This is best exemplified by the integration of the popular Rock group The Beatles and traditional Hindustani musician Ravi Shankar. Quandros and Dorstewitz summarize this merging of two cultures into a new genre for mass audience consumption in this quote: “Music can thus act as a symbol for the spontaneous creation of a community through participation in a shared practice” (Quandros 65). This modern form of music has capitalized on new technology allowing Indian music not only to reach Indian royalty but the common Indian as well; it has also expanded its influence globally reaching Europe and North America. While Bollywood is in Southern India it has still been influenced by Northern Hindustani music; this vast film production hub has far reaching influences in the East which has spread Indian music across many countries.
Hindustani music draws on the inspiration of the Vedas and the Hindu Trinity’s musical representation to engage and entertain the worshiper. It continues to develop from its inception to modern times altering with the advancement of new technologies and cultural influences but at its root it still remains a balance of raga, tala and swar for spiritual growth and personal immersion in Hinduism.
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Leante, Laura (2009) The Lotus and the King: Imagery, gesture and Meaning in Hindustani Rag, p. 285-206. Ethnomusicology Forum: Taylor & Francis.
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Ramakrishna, Lalita (2003) Musical heritage of India. New Delhi: Shubhi Publication.
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Sharma, Manorma (2006) Tradition of Hindustani Music. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation.
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Saxena, Sushil Kumar (2009) Hindustani music and aesthetics today: a selective study. New Delhi: Hope India Publications.
Swarup, Rai Bahadur Bishan (2008) Theory of Indian music. Varanasi: Pilgrims Publishing.
Hymns of the Sama Veda
Khyal and Qawwali
South India’s Carnatic music
Article written by Scott Pewar who is solely responsible for its content.