Classical music can uplift your mind, body and spirit—Indians believe it constitutes the ascent to divinity itself.
In the beginning, there was sound—scientists and sages alike would agree. This simple two-letter primordial word, which may be mono or poly-syllabic depending on how it is rendered, epitomises the entire universe. As the first verse of the Mandukya Upanishad—one of the many sacred Hindu texts that shed light on the significance of Om—it encompasses what Hindu wisdom refers to it as Shabda Brahman, or transcendent sound.
Om is so deeply venerated in Vedic teachings that no mantra is complete without it. Believed to embody the consciousness of the entire universe, it is now recognised as being the sound of healing. And the science explaining it is catching up.
Sound in Vedic traditions
In Hinduism, music is essentially considered a path to spirituality. It follows that our gods and goddesses have always been depicted with musical instruments—whether it’s the mighty Shiva with his damaru, Krishna with his bansuri, Goddess Saraswati with her veena or even Nandi—Shiva's divine worshipperwith his mridangam.
Music has also been a means of expression for ours gods themselves. Krishna's Rasleela is considered the most profound expression of love, while Shiva's Rudra Tandava is the celestial dance symbolising the destruction and eventual regeneration of the cosmos. For mere mortals too, it’s music—through bhajans, kirtans and aarti—that brings one closer to God.
Even our ancient temples have had bells of different shapes and sizes to signal the arrival of devotees along with gongs and conches—all with the purpose of creating sounds at different frequencies. That frequency is important, and can have a host of different influences. Vedic literature venerates classical music or Shastriya Sangeet, which, when played in its purest form, has the power to influence nature itself. Literature is rife with accounts of Raag Malhar being the harbinger of rain or Raag Deepak having the power to light up diyas. Other raags, such as Darbari and Malkauns, can even induce fear, with anecdotal accounts of the sky darkening when it is played or the listener feeling like there is someone lurking in the shadows.
If music can so deeply impact the environment, imagine the effect on our body. Our ancient ancestors already understood this—which explains why sound or music has been such an integral part of all Hindu traditions, since time immemorial. In the book The Healing Power of Indian Ragas, Indian classical music therapist and author Rajam Shanker explains how indigenous music has been used as a tool for education, entertainment, healing and mood management since Vedic times:
"Vedic chants, Beeja mantras and music were rendered with utmost care as each intonation, inflection of voice and rhythm were a source of healing and spiritual upliftment. Music was a means of attaining spiritual or devotional bliss followed by emotional and physical wellness."
Sounds that heal
And the process behind this is demystified through understanding chakras. Sanskrit for wheel, chakras are seven energy points envisioned as rotating disks, connected to specific nerves and organs and facilitate their optimal functioning.
Starting at the base of the spine and going right up to the crown of the head, each chakra (such as the root chakra, sacral chakra, solar plexus chakra, heart chakra, throat chakra, third eye chakra and crown chakra) is associated with a specific colour and also has specific qualities.
An imbalance in a chakra reflects physically and emotionally in the aspects of life associated with it. For instance, an imbalance in the solar plexus chakra that is associated with emotions may result in you feeling low, as R. Sridhar, personal energy coach shares: "Emotions are stored in the solar plexus and an imbalance will make the chakra off centre."
Imbalances occur for many reasons, but are most commonly the result of disrupted energy flow. Just like food and water, any form of energy that we consume needs to leave the body with the same regularity. This energy could be in the form of knowledge, emotions and something as basic as breath. In fact, faulty breathing is often associated with chakras moving off centre.
So what exactly is the relation between chakras and music? According to R. Sridhar, a lot.
"Each chakra is associated with a particular sur—or a particular frequency. Just like chakras are associated with colours, they also correspond to the seven surs."
For instance, the Muladhar chakra which is at the base of the spine has a low frequency which would translate to a base sound. As we go upwards, the frequencies rise and the sound is sharper. These frequencies are also recorded in literature."
Depending on its frequency, a bass instrument like a tabla is more likely to affect your base chakras while a more high-pitched instrument such as a flute will affect the higher chakras. Extremely loud and shrill sounds can also negatively impact chakras. For instance, you may often have experienced a reverberation close to your heart if you're listening to very loud drums.
However, researchers on the subject agree that frequency may supersede the impact of the instrument itself, meaning a softer sound from a tabla, for example, can have a positive impact on the chakras. According to Shanker, notes from deep within are used to pulsate and vibrate a targeted chakra.
"Because each chakra has rhythmic pulsation, music therapy treats the disability at the root cause. With multiple renderings and compositions in so many ragas, each has a different bhava or emotion."
It's for this very reason Shastriya Sangeet prescribes different types of music and mantras for different times, seasons and phases of life. For instance, Garbha Sanskar, which literally translates to 'education in the womb' is an ancient Ayurvedic learning system of mantras and music that is known to aid foetal development. It's now proven that a foetus responds to sound and can even distinguish voices in the later months. And from a metaphysical point of view, the practice of riyaz essentially creates sounds in all surs or frequencies to clean up the chakras and balance them out.
This explains why in ancient times, riyaz was done for hours at a stretch before even starting to sing to get the purest possible results.
Emerging scientific evidence
Truly we're made of sound—sound can make or break anything.
R Sridhar brings our attention to umpteen experiments done with iron filings—with the sound of music, these filings begin to coagulate and take shape. A quick search online will show you many similarly compelling experiments.
"The deeper you meditate, the deeper you'll hear the sound inside of you, and eventually the sound of the universe—a hum".
A 2018 study—one of many—published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry concluded that regular Om chanting produced favourable effects in the nervous system and regulated heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and other bodily functions.
But while there may soon be reams of research on the therapeutic power of music, its beauty lies in the feeling it invokes.
For Ojas Adhiya, tabla player, music is a means to connect with the almighty.
"While I cannot comment on the scientific reasoning, I can share my experience. When I do riyaz, I forget what's happening in the outside world and go inwards."
Perhaps the divinity of music is best understood with an anecdote Adhiya shares about a coma-ridden patient who loved Raag Darbari Kanada. The medical practitioners probably didn’t understand the science behind it, but when the notes and vibrations of Raag Darbari Kanada were played to him, he was out of his stupor the very next day.
And that's the magic of Indian classical music.
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