Music, spirituality, and the Ganges
Music, religion and spirituality have long been inexplicably connected with one another: from Christian choirs in the church to sacred chants performed in Buddhist temples by monks, it’s natural to express faith through song and rhythm. Perhaps even more than other religions, Hinduism is deeply rooted in musical traditions. Devotional songs and mantras are sung in households and temples alike, intertwined with daily chores.
“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” – Ludwig van Beethoven
Much of my deeper understanding of spirituality comes from studying ancient Indian scriptures and learning Indian classical music. Yet, I must admit that the most consistent and dependable way I’ve found to connect to my inner voice, lift my sagging spirit and turn despair to hope has been music. Music has turned the most mundane moments of my life into magical, sometimes even divine, experiences.
Musicians, the world over, are sometimes faced with questions that are so deep that even a lifetime of search and learning may not result in answers. In fact, a lot of these are questions that we ask ourselves, and music happens to be the path to the ultimate answer! People often ask me what kind of music is more spiritual: Vedic mantras, Gregorian chants, devotional songs/bhajans, classical music composed by greats like Mozart and Beethoven, traditional Gospel hymns, indigenous percussions or even rock & roll? My usual response is that any music that helps connect us with both what’s inside and outside of us is spiritual.
And, this piece of music is going to differ person to person. A Texan cowboy will obviously not have the same taste in music as a young homemaker in Chennai. Music producer Karsh Kale once said, “For someone, the sound of the bansuri is the sound of Krishna, while for somebody else, the sound of sub bass frequencies is a connection to spirituality.”
As one of the country’s holy cities, Rishikesh is home to many yoga ashrams and spaces for worship, including the famous Maharishi ashram, where The Beatles stayed in 1968 and composed music for both The Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. Augmented by the turquoise beauty of the Ganges, Rishikesh nurtures the relationship between nature, music, and divinity. Many people from around the world come to this sacred place in search of spirituality -- to get back in touch with themselves and delve into a deeper connection with life.
American composer Frank Fitzpatrick shares a lovely anecdote about Rishikesh. “A couple of years ago, I shared some time on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh with a group of young Tibetan girls who had ventured down from their orphanage high atop the Himalayas. Having arranged the gathering the day before with the monk who ran the orphanage, I took the opportunity to share a couple of popular songs with the girls. We all relished with joy in the hot Indian sun as I played the guitar and they all sang along to the popular refrains of Paul McCartney’s “Let it Be,” Ziggy Marley’s “Love is My Religion,” and Snatam Kaur’s “Ananda.” Was this experience of singing these modern day mantras any less spiritual for them than learning the Tibetan chants taught to them at the orphanage? From the smiles on their faces and light radiating from their eyes as they sang their hearts out, I’m not so sure.”
William P. Merrill said, “There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is.”
This time last week I was snuggled in bed in a cottage about 30 kilometres upward of Rishikesh, lulled to peaceful sleep by the constant gurgling of the gorgeous Ganges. For me, no sound is more peaceful than that of running water. Waves crashing into giant rocks, rivers tirelessly gurgling their way through the mighty mountains- if you want to feel alive, listen to water. It’s music to my ears! In fact, what is it if not a musical expression of life? As is breathing, is it not? Rhythm, tension, and release- music and breathing aren’t very different, you see. In whatever way one might choose to define spirituality, I believe there are correlations to each in the nature of music. Music is essential to human life and an integral part of our development as individuals and as a species.
The beginning of the universe, according to modern science, was created by sound -- the Big Bang. Few things in life have the ability to directly shape or shift our emotional state like music does.
Music helped me heal when I was at the nadir of my life, music helped me say things I couldn’t have found the right words for. Music made my roots stronger, and gave me wings.
Like Maya Angelou wrote in Gather Together in My Name, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
That is the power of music. “Without music life would be a mistake,” said Friedrich Nietzsche. Truer words haven’t been spoken. The day the music stops, your spirit will breathe its last.
The author is a snotty single child, mountain junkie, playback singer, Austen addict and dreams of singing alongside Buddy Guy