We absorb sound at every moment of the day. The physical forms which surround us and even our own bodies are all made of vibrating matter. It is no wonder, then, that sound vibration has such a profound power to affect us.
Whilst today Indian classical music is most commonly heard on the concert stage, its existence and evolution is rooted in the ancient metaphysical system known as nada yoga - the art of connecting with divinity and the entire cosmos through sound. In this context, sound and music are much more than something that gives sensory pleasure, but are a medium by which one can find unity and deep fulfilment on every level. Sound vibrations and resonances are used in a judicious way to heal psychological and spiritual conditions.
Dedicated practice and exploration of music has long been considered a path to liberation. Many great saints like Thyagaraja, Meerabai, Kabir, and Purandaradasa, were simultaneously known for their spiritual depth as well as accomplished musicianship. Their music was a channel through which their passionate desire to reach God flowed, yet the musical compositions are brilliant in their own right and are still sung fervently today, often by die-hard non-believers.
The nada yoga system divides sound into two types – anahata, meaning 'internal or unstruck sound’ and ahata, meaning ‘external or struck sound’. Anahata is sometimes described as ‘the sound of silence’, ‘the sound of the universe’ or in the yoga sutras (scriptures) of Patanjali as the sound syllable Om, the sound form of God that is said to pervade all creation.
Anahata is also the name for a chakra (energy centre) in the heart region that acts like a highly sensitive and subtle ear, receiving sound, internally and externally. It is believed that the sound of anahata is continuously present, and that deep peace and self-awakening can be felt by learning to tune into it - sometimes through silent meditation, breathing or singing exercises.
Some even feel that the anahata sound can be easily perceived in the silence following the performance of a great musician - the absence of music is not an emptiness, but an energy charged, pulsing fullness. The concept fascinates santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma:
"It was my dream to play such a kind of music which will make listeners forget to clap; which will make them silent. My dream came true, once, I played one raga while the listeners immersed deep into meditation and I experienced a state of thoughtlessness. This silence was so nourishing, so fulfilling, there was no need to play anything else".
Ahata, or struck sound deals with the vibrations that can be perceived outside of the body - music and all vibration that comes from the world around us. With a goal of ultimate self-awakening, nada yoga prescribes specific raags intended to cleanse and connect with the seven chakras of the body.
One of the 84 great Buddhist saints, Mahasiddha Vinapa, was a prince and a passionate veena player. When he met a great yogi, the Vinapa confided that the only thing that mattered to him was the sound of his veena and the tanpura drone, therefore the only spiritual discipline he could take up would be one which did not require him to abandon music.
The teacher taught the prince to meditate continuously upon the pure sound of the instrument, freeing himself from making distinction between the struck and unstruck sound, and between critical and judgemental thought. Later in life, Vinapa wrote the following words:
With perseverance and devotion, I mastered the vina's errant chords;
But then practicing the unborn, unstruck sound, I, Vinapa, lost my self.
(from Masters of Mahamudra: Songs and Histories of the Eighty-four Buddhist Siddhas by Keith Dowman)
Listen to the music | Some of the ragas with their associated chakras are listed below. In meditation practise, a person might listen to the raga being played, whilst concentrating on the area of the body. Each chakra is also associated with a specific colour, and sometimes they will envision this at the same time.
Mooladhara (root) - Shyam Kalyan - helps find gravity within, and ground our sense of smell and direction - Earth element
Swadisthan (sacral) - Gujiri Todi (close to Subhapantuvarali in Carnatic Music) and Yaman - Both ragas help focus wandering or wavering attention, which is crucial for effective meditation - Fire Element
Nabhi (solar plexus) - Abhogi - Stimulates the digestion process and helps one give up vices and impulsive or compulsive habits - Water element
Anahata (heart) - Bhairav and Durga - activate spirituality and boost self-confidence - Air element
Vishuddhi (throat) - Jaijaiwanti - helps activate the sensory organs and the expression of voice - Ether element
Agnya (third eye) - Bhoop (Mohanam in Carnatic) - helps relieve tensions, anger and mental fatigue and aid forgiveness – all elements combined (Light Element)
Sahasrara (crown) - Darbari and Bhairavi - helpful in prolonging the state of meditation, bringing joy, energy, peace and relief from tension and depression - (no element - Thought)
"Indian music is a subjective, spiritual and individualistic art, aiming not at symphonic brilliance but at personal harmony with the Oversoul. The Sanskrit word for musician is bhagavathar, meaning 'he who sings the praises of God'.
The sankirtans or musical gatherings are an effective form of yoga or spiritual discipline, necessitating deep concentration, intense absorption in the seed thought and sound. Because man himself is an expression of the Creative Word, sound has the most potent and immediate effect on him, offering a way to remembrance of his divine origin.” (Paramahamsa Yogananda) (many thanks to Carnatic vocalist Shankar Ramani for contributing his raag and chakra explanations)
Jahnavi Harrison is a multi-disciplinary artist, specialising in vocal music, Kirtan meditation, and Indian devotional dance.
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