A Handful of Beauty: Music as a Vehicle of Spirit

by J. T. Coker
For beauty they have sought in every age
He who perceives it is from himself free. -- Goethe

Music has been a cultivated art in India for at least three thousand years. It flows from the essential element of chant in ancient Vedic religious expression. More than any other musical form, the Indian raga tradition structurally and acoustically corresponds to and embodies the spiritual/religious experience. It offers a direct experience of the consciousness of the ancient world, with a range of expression rarely accessible today. All Indian instruments are played as extensions of the ultimate, because most natural, instrument -- the human voice -- that chants the sacred poems, mantras, and invocations of the gods.

In India music is practiced by members of hereditary guilds, often families, whose traditions remain unbroken for hundreds of years. It is the chamber music of an aristocratic society where the livelihood of the artist does not depend upon his ability and will to amuse the crowd. The musician's education begins in infancy and he must absorb, thoroughly understand, and reproduce all that preceded him before adding his unique perspective to the living tradition. The listener is expected to respond with an art of his own: he must be technically critical, schooled in appreciation of the spirit of musical experience, contribute an attitude of reverence for the tradition, have a desire to "commune with the gods," a preference for conviction over prettiness, authenticity over legitimacy, and an appreciation of the song apart from the singer/player.

The European musical scale has been reduced to twelve fixed notes by merging close intervals such as D sharp and E flat -- a compromise of necessity in the development of the mathematical harmony that made possible the triumphs of Western orchestration, causing the Western keyboard, unlike instruments from other musical cultures, to be inherently "out of tune." The Indian scale, on the other hand, covers the same tonal range using a twenty-two note scale to develop a purely melodic art which retains the advantages of pure intonation and modal coloring. What is fixed in Indian music is a group of intervals. The precise vibration value of a note depends on its position in a progression, not on its relation to a tonic. Following the Eastern idea that the emptiness enclosed by the form of a vessel is the actual purpose, essence, or soul of that vessel, the interval more than the note is heard as producing the continuity of sound that is the essence of music. In the Indian tradition the interval is what is sung or played as distinct from the vertical harmonic division of European song and the nature of the sound of keyed and fixed-key instruments. The quarter-tone or sruti is the microtonal interval between two successive scale notes, but as raga themes rarely employ two and never three of the seven primary scale notes in succession, microtones are heard only in ornamentation of the theme. They reveal that which lies unmanifest in the emptiness that is the heart of the vessel of melody composed of the primary scale notes. Sruti also designates the word of the guru, impossible to write but revealed by teacher to student in hushed tones or, more often, as an expression of the essence of understanding from one heart or consciousness to another.

The Indian song form, or raga (literally, coloring or passion), may be best defined as a melody-mold or ground plan of a song. Origins of the ragas are varied but all flow directly from human experience of the spiritual or religious and the responsive feeling (rasa) of love, joy, longing, or devotion. The ragas evoke feelings both human and spiritual. A myth tells of the bird Musikar or Dipaka-Lotus whose beak has seven apertures. Through each of these openings it blows a different note, and at different seasons of the year it combines them to produce ragas specific to the hour of the day and season. An egg was created from the ashes of a fire ignited by the magic sound of a raga; from this egg another Musikar was born, followed by many others. Like all myths, this conveys a truth, that of the ideal of raga -- a form growing naturally, like ripples on water, a flower toward the sun, or ice crystals on a leaf of grass, whose beauty and meaning are enhanced by a sympathetic human response to the movement of spirit in the world of matter. The myth suggests the numinous, sacred qualities embodied in the raga form.

We can hear in Indian music the richest correlation of sound with the origins and manifestations of spiritual consciousness. The idea of nonmanifest sound -- the essence in the interval between notes -- is akin to the New Testament conception of the Word, and underlies and pervades the music. It lies beneath all that is manifest in nature, cosmic and microcosmic, and realizes itself as the multiplicities and differentiations of existence.

Philosophically, this cosmic nonmanifest sound continually creates, destroys, and recreates manifold universes. Its capacities are infinite, therefore measureless. For those who can "hear" it, it brings news of vast starry firmaments and interstellar spaces, of all universes past and all possible worlds of the future, whether those firmaments are galactic, atomic, physical, or spiritual. It is a potency, presence, possibility, and performance all at the same time. In India, music is heard not as a thing that humans make but as an aspect of the divine revealing itself (revelation/sruti) to which the musician and listeners contribute by their skill, understanding, acceptance, and appreciation.

The Dipaka-Lotus bird with its seven natural tones which make up the octave is an analogy of the seven principles or souls of sound, the seven veils of Isis or Prakriti, the seven spheres of resonance which constitute a grama (village or brotherhood), and the seven aspects not only of human but of universal nature.

The ancient Indians and their modern musical descendants believe that to one who understands fully the complex nature of a tone, the innermost secrets of our universe are revealed. Each tone in the raga is considered to have a specific spiritual and emotional charge in relation to the whole. The word svara (tone) is often defined as that which shines by itself. Tones are said by Indian musicians, as well as their ancient Chinese and Sufi brethren, to originate in the heart that responds with a spontaneous sensitivity to the movement of purusha (spirit) through prakriti (matter). The purpose of Indian song is not to dwell on and confirm the confusions of life, but to express and arouse ideal feelings and passions of body and soul in man and nature in response to the impulse of divine spirit. There is a magical aspect to sound, growing from the Vedic chants invoking the divine, though music is heard as essentially impersonal:

it reflects emotions and experiences which are deeper, wider and older than the emotion or wisdom of any single individual. Its sorrow is without tears, its joy without exultation and it is passionate without any loss of serenity. It is in the deepest sense of the words all-human. (Ananda K Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva, p. 94.)

In appreciating Indian music we experience and appreciate the consciousness of the ancient world embodied in it. It focuses and expresses the individual's organic oneness with cosmic and natural forces that are the world we know. The materialistic focus of modern consciousness sees itself as separate from and threatened by nature. Indian music reflects a social order based in the awareness of unity and cooperation rather than on division and competition which leads to economic, social, and cultural insecurity and alienation. Goods produced and services rendered were not based on a perceived economic need for constant expansion leading to exploitation but were generated to serve needs of the organic whole. Ancient Indian consciousness focused, as does its music, on serving the needs of spirit rather than the demands of matter. Though Indian music is ancient it is not primitive: sophistication, subtlety, and assumption of the experience of spirit as the root and goal of all existence can best be described as primal. To appreciate it modern listeners must expand their ability to perceive and express human and cosmic spiritual nature, in much the same way that a child matures the primitive sing-song approach and simplistic rhythmic insistence of nursery school to include the subtlety of expression of which adults are capable.

The objective of the raga is the rasa -- the aesthetic emotion -- the motif embodied in the melody. As souls inhabit bodies, so every rasa is embodied in the rupa (form) of a particular raga or ragini (feminine form of raga). To invoke rasa, one meditates on the rupa that is appropriate to that raga's essence, the distillation of mood, mode, time, and season. This meditation is shared by musician and listeners. The experience invoked by a master musician's meditation on a fine instrument with a knowledgeable, appreciative audience is the disappearance of player, instrument, and listener -- pure song, spirit singing itself into being.

Rather than confining melody to the necessities of an intellectualized harmonic concept, Indian musicians and listeners do not attempt to "chain with the mind the feet of the mysterious bird that goes to and away from the cage" (Indian folk song). The bird is pure melody, song of spirit supported by and interacting with the essential, complex rhythms of life. It is the spontaneous response of the heart, that which shines by itself, the spiritual fire of a soul lit by the radiance of nonmanifest sound, the Word, Brahman, Atman, God -- divinity containing all worlds within it and evolving all worlds forth into being. The song of Brahman is AUM. Indian musical art is an imitation of the perfect spontaneity with which gods and enlightened beings understand and acknowledge that which is beyond inner and outer, rises above good and evil, is beyond conflict, is the perfection of compassion love and wisdom -- the very heart of All.

The omnipresent keynote (Aum) of the universe coming into being swells from the tambura (drone) making a pedal point rich in overtones. Like all that is profound it rewards those who with patient humility seek the divine hidden in the heart of the musical experience. The drone corresponds to Brahman, the Unmanifest Logos, source and ultimate goal of Being. From and against this infinite potentiality the musician draws forth the raga whose rhythm is initially free, with the direction of what is to come subtly implied until the essential elements and graceful implications of this universe/song have been as fully explored as the musician's inspiration and training allow. At a nod the power of the drums begins slowly to unfold, as Daivi-prakriti (Divine nature; divine will; the vital force of the universe; the "electricity" of cosmic consciousness; the Greek Eros; the Tibetan Fohat. "Fohat is the steed and the thought is the rider" [H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 1:31].) carries the divine thought to become that which it truly is: a song of wonder at the manifold surprises hidden within and evolving from its Self, a reverential awe at the unmovable serenity from the heart of which dance and flow in waves the myriad, ever-changing aspects of THAT which is one and unchangeable. It is spirit discovering itself. The drone is Brahman, the raga is the world, as artistic microcosmic realization of the macrocosmic experience of spirit.

European rhythms are based on repeated stress, as in marching. Rather than using the bar as the fixed unit and marking its beginning with a stress or accent the Indian musician's fixed unit is a section, or group of bars which are not necessarily alike. The rhythmic cycle of Ata Tala, for example, is counted as 5 plus 5 plus 2 plus 2. Indian rhythmic complexes count into the fifties, and cycles involving half beats (i.e., 5, 9) are now developing in this living musical tradition. But even during the most ecstatic moments of the second stage (gat) of the raga, during which the explicate rhythmic pattern unfolds, the drone remains as the omniscient, omnipotent cause from which proceed the origin, subsistence, and dissolution (Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva) of the raga -- of the world. The activity and ecstasy of the musical universe build to a glorious climax then fade away into the drone from which they sprang like myriad bubbles of sunflecked foam that danced briefly on the swells of eternity.

As "one can never step into the same river twice" one can never play a raga exactly the same way twice. The musician seeks to express the uniqueness of the moment: time, season, audience, instrument, planets, musician, and stars will never again occur in the same relationship. Though the river is never the same it is always a river, an aspect of the ocean of divinity made manifest. With the assumption that each dewdrop and river flows from and seeks return to its divine source the musician improvises a spontaneous expression of that journey. The raga form conveys all the joy and grief of being human, yet the final absorption of that experience in Brahman transports all to a state in which the universe is perceived as neither good nor bad but simply as TAT (THAT). The raga manifests this understanding and acceptance in a personal, spontaneous, improvisatory, and fully realized expression of artistic beauty and power. It is the inner reality of things rather than any transient or partial experience that the singer/musician voices.

The heart that sings knows.
That which knows is
One with All.



(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, February/March 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Theosophical University Press)

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