Category Archives: Sacred Music

Hindustani Classical Music and Spirituality

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.



Beck, Guy L (2007) “Hindu music, now and into the future.” Hinduism Today, vol. 29, no. 4: 28-31. Hinduism Today: Himalayan Academy.

Gafoor, S (2012) “Sufi Sama/ Music/ Qawwali.” Indian Streams Research, vol. 2, no. 9: 1-5.

Jagdish, Chavda (2010) An Iconology of Shiva and Vishnu Images at Kailasanatha Mandir, Ellora, Maharastra, India. Scarborough: National Association of African American Studies & Affiliates.

Johnson, Kurt A (2011) “‘Lisping Tongues’ and ‘Sanscrit Songs’: William Jones’ Hymns to Hindu Deities.” Translation and Literature, vol. 20, no. 1: 48-60.

Leante, Laura (2009) The Lotus and the King: Imagery, gesture and Meaning in Hindustani Rag, p. 285-206. Ethnomusicology Forum: Taylor & Francis.

Quadros, A., & Dorstewitz, P (2011) “Community, communication, social change: Music in dispossessed Indian communities.” International Journal of Community Music vol. 4, no. 1: 59-70.

Ramakrishna, Lalita (2003) Musical heritage of India. New Delhi: Shubhi Publication.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar (2003) Spirituality and the Music of India. New Delhi: The CrossRoad Publishing Company.

Sharma, Manorma (2006) Tradition of Hindustani Music. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation.


Related Readings

Jauhari, Shruti (2011) Elements of Hindustani classical music. New Delhi: DK Printworld.

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.


Related Topics

Hymns of the Sama Veda

Khyal and Qawwali


South India’s Carnatic music


Related Websites


Article written by Scott Pewar who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Spirituality in Music

“Music in India is as old as the country’s ancient religious tradition, dating back to the times of the Vedas- the scriptures from which the religious principles of the majority of the Indians are drawn….chronologically placed sometime between 4000 B.C.E. and 2000 B.C.E.” (Venugopal 450). Not only does music’s importance date back to the time of the Vedas, it was also an integral part of the Vedas contents. The Samhita, the first section of the Vedas, consists of four smaller sections, the first of which is called the Rg Veda. It is generally accepted as the oldest and most important text within the Samhita section and contains over one thousand hymns. The chronology of these masterpieces is difficult to determine. Some are believed to have been composed by the Aryans before they entered India, while others are written hundreds of years afterwards. The contents of the Rg Veda were echoed in the Sama Veda, another section of the Samhita, but in an altered manner that allowed the text to be chanted. The Sama Veda originally employed only two notes, however, that eventually increased to three, five and then seven individual svaras or notes (Embree 5).

Music’s involvement in Hinduism’s spiritual affairs does not stop there. According to author R. Venugopal, “All rituals in pursuit of spiritual ideals contained music as an essential part” (Venugopal 450). Venugopal also outlined instruments that could provide appropriate accompaniment for sacred music. These included both the drum and a stringed instrument called the vina (Venugopal 450). The hymns contained in the Rg Veda were often composed for the primary purpose of fulfilling specific needs within these sacred ritual services (Embree 5).

The important and revered position that music played in the country’s ancient religious tradition is also portrayed in its mythology. Here, many important gods, goddesses and celestial beings are associated with a particular dance, instrument or with some other form of music. The God Krsna is portrayed as a great flutist, Siva and Parvati are said to be master of rhythm and dance. Sarasvati, Goddess of Learning and the Sage Narada are associated with the vina and Rama is considered to be one, “well versed in music” (Venugopal 451). The fact that the very gods are endowed with musical gifts displays music’s capacity to enlarge and affect one’s spirituality. It increases one’s awareness of heaven and inspires devotion and worship.

According to Venugopal, “Music was considered to be not only entertainment but also a source for one’s spiritual growth and a means for raising one’s consciousness from a merely mundane level to higher levels of contemplation.” Venugopal goes on to quote the ancient sage Yajñavalka as saying, “a person well versed in playing the instrument Vina, having deep knowledge of the microtones and the rhythm, reaches the heavens without any effort!” (451). It is of no wonder that music would be worthy of representation in the sacred scriptures of the Vedas and why sacred beings, such as gods and goddesses, would be associated with musical gifts.

The question of how music is able to put us in line with exalted levels of spirituality becomes evident in the fact that music, made up of melody and rhythm, is believed to be a manifestation of the cosmic order, rta. According to R. Sathyanarayana, “Rhythm is rta in the sense of a) orderly movement b) cyclic or spiral recurrence c) the principle of organization and design, which regulates the duration of tones, body movements, colours, shade, motifs, balance…and symmetrical proportions in the various arts. It is inhered in the principle of creation and creativity and is, therefore, a cosmic law” (Sathyanarayana 303-4). Order, organization, design and recurrence are the principles of rhythm that direct and mould the endless variety of rhythmic possibilities into music that is in line with the order of the cosmic law.

There is not only great room for variety within rhythm, but in all the individual elements that make up beautiful musical phrases. Melody, tempo, texture, dynamics and instrumentation are just a few examples of elements that are a necessary part of music. In order for music to be a part of rta, these essential elements must embody the characteristics of rta. According to Ainslie T. Embree, “This cosmic law was not made by the gods, although they are the guardians of it. It is reflected not only in the physical regularity of the night and day and of the seasons but also in the moral order that binds men to each other and to the gods” (Embree 9). Regularity and order are principle components of rta, and thus must also be reflected in music, despite its limitless capacity for diversity, surprise, and variation.

As stated above, rhythm is rta in its sense of cyclic or spiral recurrence, meaning a repetition of key melodic phrases and rhythms. This element of repetition is a key factor in creating regularity, unity and order within music as a whole. According to Sathyanarayana, “All form is governed by an important princple of design, viz., unity in variety. Too much rigidity in unity leads to monotony and too much variety, to Chaos” (305). Musical variation is contained and placed in line with the cosmic order through the principles of design, unity, regularity and order; however, its beauty is maintained through the principle of variety. Only within these parameters can music be in line with rta and raise, “one’s consciousness from a merely mundane level to higher levels of contemplation” (Venugopal 451).

The ancient sage Yajñavalka was quoted earlier as saying, “a person well versed in playing the instrument vina, having deep knowledge of the microtones and the rhythm, reaches the heavens without any effort!” (Venugopal 451). Attaining this level of spirituality through the vehicle of musicality is not a passive process of simply hearing beautiful sounds; it takes concentration, reverence, and meditation. This can be seen in

the approach that talented vocalists take in performing sacred music. Sushil Kumar Saxena offered insight into this approach when he wrote of the sacred nature of each individual svara, or note, and how each svara must reign in its own right, much as Brahman or Reality, reigns in his own right. He states, “Every single note must seem effective in itself; configuration, though important, is by no means enough. The best of our singers may find it difficult to meet this requirement, but if they are only a little aware of our philosophical-religious language, the vocalists may feel, in the very course of singing, a measure of the same reverence for some individual notes…as is elicited by the thought of ultimate Reality. The concept of reigning-in-its-own-right is similar in meaning to svaprakasam (self-luminous), an attribute that is commonly ascribed to God or Brahman” (Saxena 441).

As Saxena mentioned, this standard of allowing each individual note to shine in its own right is a challenging undertaking, even for the best of vocalists. Contemplation allows the singer time to understand the meaning and context of each svara, thus allowing the singer to become in tune with its relationship to Brahman. Saxena explains that a talented Indian vocalist is often found to be “lost” or absorbed when projecting certain notes, as the sound originates from within. This absorption is similar to the time spent in contemplation as it causes the vocalist to attain a “deeper attunement with the thought of the Ultimate” (Saxena 441).

The pursuit of Brahman has lead many individuals to the sweet sounds of music. Many of these beautiful sounds are found in the Vedas and were composed by ancient priests. Rituals are often performed with music as an essential ingredient in its completion. The great gods and goddesses of Indian mythology understood the spiritual nature of music and became masters of it. Within music is found the essence of Brahman, rta and Hindu spirituality.


Embree, Ainslie T. editor (1996) The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought.

New York: Random House, Inc.

Sathyanarayana (2004) “Rta – Samgita.” In Rta: The Cosmic Order. Edited by Madhu Khanna. New Delhi: D.K. Print World (P) Ltd. 297-312.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar (1997) “Spirituality and the Music of India.” In Hindu Spirituality

Vol. II: Post Classical and Modern. Edited by K.R. Sundararajan and Bithika

Mukerji. New Delhi: The CrossRoad Publishing Company. 437-449.

Venugopal, R. (1997) “Spirituality and the Music of India.” In Hindu Spirituality

Vol. II: Post Classical and Modern. Edited by K.R. Sundararajan and Bithika

Mukerji. New Delhi: The CrossRoad Publishing Company. 437-449.

Related Readings

Gautam, M.R. (1989) Evolution of Raga and Tala in Indian Music. New Delhi:Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Ltd.

Ramakrishna, Lalita (2003) Musical Heritage of India. New Delhi: Shubhi Publication.

Ranade, Ashok D. (1990) Keywords and concepts: Hindustani Classical Music. New Delhi: Promilla.

Related Websites

Related Topics for Further Investigation

1) The renown of composers in the late 18th century and early 19th century of Carnatic Music: Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyamasastri.

2) The content of the hymns found in the Rg Veda and Sama Veda.

3) Music used in sacred rituals, such as mantras.

4) Rta, the cosmic order.

5) Brahman.

6) The Hindustani style of the North

7) The Carnatic style of the South

Article written by Nicole Harding (March 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.