Music and It's Religion

'Music is my Religion and my God'
- Jimi Hendrix (legendary guitarist)

December is the Indian Classical Music Festival season here in Chennai. One gets to hear many introductory and congratulatory speeches before and after the music concerts. Through all these speeches, runs a singularly insistent opinion. Music is divine and a gift from the heavens. Good music pleases god and the soul. It is a boon granted to man by god..... and so on. ‘Nadhabrahmam’, ‘Sangeethayogam’, etc. are the clichés without which no discussion on music can take place here.

All over the world, music, especially classical music, has been a form of worship and religion-based, since centuries. In many places, music has been defined and measured by religious scales and remains strictly controlled by religion. Music forms evolved to suit the ethos of the religion practiced by the society. Jewish and Christian religions which traditionally practiced group prayer in public places like churches or synagogues, music is an inalienable part of the worship and prayer.

In the African tribal societies, it was believed that during group worship and singing, the participants were held in thrall by divine forces. There was no separate identity for any one singer. Music there was not separated from the tribal dance. Sex and dance were all part of the worship. This could well have been the music traditions of most ancient societies. Then as separate persons evolved as solo singers, they also became the representatives of the religion. It was believed that music bestowed on their songs the capacity to directly communicate with God.

In India, most of the chants of the ‘Rig Veda’ address directly entities representing divine forces. A Rik, or the chanter of Rig Veda, calls himself, a singer. The science of ‘Chandas’ evolved to delineate on a permanent basis the mode of chanting of the ‘sutras’ of the Rig Veda. Music became ‘mantra’ or the ritual chant. Thus the idea of ‘mantra’, the musical chanting, as being superior to all other sounds with infinite potencies beyond man’s thoughts. Sama Veda evolved as a Veda consisting exclusively of sutras meant to be sung. That Indian music evolved from Sama Veda is a belief that is part of the tradition here. Saiva traditions that is separate from Vedic traditions believes that music emerged from the beats of Lord Shiva’s hand drum ‘Udukku’. Naturally, in India, music was considered a part of the religion. Musicians are thought to be prophets blessed by divinity.

Music is just an arrangement of notes or sounds, to give pleasure to the human mind through his ears is a concept alien to people here. Music is thought to belong to the soul. The seven notes of music are thought of as born of Pranava Mantra ‘Om’. The Pioneers of Carnatic Music were mostly propagators of religion, monks or spiritualists. Therefore, pure music is considered to be spiritual. The height of music is experiencing the presence of God. And the best musician is a spiritualist in the strain of the Azhwars, Nayanmars, Jayadeva, Purandaradasa or the Musical Trinity. The Pioneers of music, here, were all described in the same vein as characters from mythologies, with mythical dimensions. Authorised text books of our Music Colleges describe how Rama in the company of Sita came walking to see Thyagaraja Swamigal!

But the ancient days Music of the Tamil land was not religion-based. It was a form of celebration and a form of art practiced in the courts of kings. We can see music forms that are secular from narrations in Chilappadikaram. Sangam Period had fostered musicians like Panars and Viralis. Music was more often used as a form of entertainment rather than as a medium of devotion. But even then, music was a proximate means of worship. The Jainism did not encourage music. But when Jainism waned in Tamilnadu and Saivism and Vaishnavism sprouted and spread through Bhakthi Movement of Nayanmars and Azhwars, music was its medium. Music easily spread Bhakthi among common people. To this day, we see in Carnatic music the forms and substances spread by Bhakthi Movement of 10th century.

In prophetic religions, The Book and the words therein are paramount. Therefore, they give more importance to chanting the words of The Book in rituals. Religions like Jainism and Buddhism have very little rituals and no Book; hence the scope for music is little. But chanting from the Book, praising the Prophets and prayers had specifically delineated musical formats. These are seen as the music particular to that religion.

Even in Islamic religion which is not particularly clear on music, we can see the relationship between the religion and the music. ‘The Call’ to the faithful for the prayer five times a day, has a specific music format. The Koran reading has to follow the strict and specifically laid down combination of notes. This music is regarded as holy. In countries like Oman, the religious celebrations like Malid, Mouled, Taumina and Ahmad al Kabir follow specified music formats.

Comparing Indian Music with Western Music, Pt. Ravishankar said that since Indian Music is religious in nature, the music of most of the Indian artists will have an underlying spirituality. But the Dhun or Thumri played at the end of any Hindustani concert gives free reign to imagination and provocative of senses. At times, it can be sensuous, according to him. Non-religious music was regarded as sensuous and despicable even in Tamil tradition. It was sung by waifs and their attendant musicians.

Once, the famous violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, had remarked that Harmony which is the essence of Western Music is one thing Indian Music does not have. He said an Indian Musician would singularly seek union with God through his music rather than with a fellow being. According to Menuhin, the harmonium was an instrument created by Christian Religious propagandists who misunderstood the ethos of Indian Music. Tamil poet Subramania Bharatiar too had written lampooning harmonium.

Once while I was listening to a Carnatic Music Concert in Chennai, an elderly gentleman with trimmings of wealth asked me whether I enjoyed it. On my affirmative, he remarked, “You cannot comprehend it, if you do not believe the lyrics in it.” It is true that most of the pieces rendered in Carnatic Music are sung addressing the Hindu deities and it is just as true that they are in the best traditions of South Indian Bhakti Movement. But I do not agree with the observation of the elderly gentleman.

A primal upheaval excites any listener listening to the singer, as musical rendering bubbles up, accompanying violinist instrumentally raising similar emotions and rhythmic instruments marshalling them into an experience for the senses. It is not easy for common listeners to get attuned to Carnatic Music with its exceedingly precise mathematical practices and renderings. But the same potency and power of music that makes us follow the beat with our hands, makes our fingers count, makes our head nod in accompaniment and dance in joy to the rhythm while listening to folk music, jazz or Rock & Roll moves us while listening to Carnatic music.

Music affects us at a level beyond our thoughts or words. The lows and crescendos of the song rendered, the discipline of the beat, the jingles...music makes us cry, dance in joy and forget the constrictions of our surroundings. It is man’s natural desire to escape from daily drudgery into a happy world of our imagination. Good music is timeless, common to everything and to be found in the entire history of humankind. Man has an innate urge to enjoy music.

Astro-physicist and writer Carl Sagan once remarked,” Music is a physical happening. It flows into our ears, provokes our nerves, creates electro-chemical waves in our brain, affects the flow of blood, makes the muscles and tendons vibrate and makes its impact. The wonder of this art is that it takes this physical impact to non-physical levels. It attracts us, consoles us and takes us to unplumbed depths. Definitely, it is something that transcends cultural borders.”

In reality, the perception of the height of religious art is as prophetic and breaking traditions rather than as obscurantist. It grants its connoisseur boundless self-confidence and consolation leading to worry-free mindset. Such great music, whether it is the religious Bach or Thyagaraja or Hank Williams its attraction is irresistible. An atheist with a sense of beauty too will easily succumb to it.

One does not have to be a Christian to appreciate Gospel music. One does not have to be a Muslim to appreciate Sufi or Arab music or quawwali. Christian church music of composers like Johannes Ockeghem is a feast for any music lover. An atheist with right sensitivities will find the music of deep believers like William Blake, Kabir, Meera, Curtis Mayfield and Thyagaraja Swamigal, touching his heart.

Whatever happens to religion in future, music will still be there. There are many songs of the great Tamil poet, Bharatiar with secular content. When one hears his patriotic songs, songs about children or his lover with its lyrics clearly understood, the experience is more of the lyrical content. But the Carnatic compositions of the musical Trinity are appreciated more for their form and musicality rather than the lyrical content. How many concert vidhwans rendering Thyagaraja’s krithi’s without knowing Telugu could appreciate the meaning of its contents?

For centuries, the religion has been the patron of music, the world over. It has used music as a medium to promote religion and faith. Naturally, secular music was scarce. But many great musicians of classical period have been either atheists, secularists or agnostics. That most of them created great religious music does not mean that they were great believers. Schubert created ‘Ave Maria’ a great piece of Christian music of undying fame. Many Catholic historians have recorded that even though Schubert maintained no relations with the church, he must have been a deep believer. On this, Madelyn Murray O’Hare, American atheist philosopher retorted,” In that case, all famous artists who drew and sculpted Venus must have worshipped her. That in those days society accepted and appreciated only religious music was the reason why musicians created religious music.”

There were many geniuses among Musicians, who created immortal Music but were atheists or non-believers. Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827), the German Composer, was brought up as a Catholic. He composed Missa Solemnis, a regular holy fixture in Catholic Church music repertoire and the great Church Symphony called Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. People wondered at the genius of his music as something beyond human capability and believed he was blessed by the Lord. In reality, he was a non-believer who created great body of secular music symphonies in the same breadth as the Church music. He renounced Catholic religion and embraced Pantheism founded by German Poet and Philosopher Goethe advocating the cause of Nature. It is noteworthy that Church had condemned Pantheism as worldly and satanic and persecuted its believers.

Franz Joseph Haydn, famous composer had said that like him, Beethoven, too, was an atheist. George Marek, who wrote Beethoven’s biography, noted that though born a Catholic, Beethoven never practiced it. There is no record of his having gone to the Church or worshipping there. Once, when violinist Felix Moscheles wrote on his Music Score, ‘With God's help’, Beethoven supposedly altered it to read "Man, help thyself”. In 1827, when on his deathbed, some of his friends who worried about ‘the redemption’ of his soul arranged for priests to conduct a prayer. When the prayer got over, an amused Beethoven said, “Clap my friends; the comedy is over”. In his Compendium of History of Biographies, G Macferren, calls Beethoven an independent thinker. Even though some Catholics claim him as a Catholic, The Catholic Encyclopedia maintained by church, does not list him in it!

Wolfang Amadeus Mozart, a contemporary of Beethoven and considered by many to be the best composer of Western Music was also a non-believer. Born in 1756, Mozart started composing music from the age of five. He conducted a grand musical event of his own compositions at the age of twelve. Next year, he was decorated with the title of Knight of Golden Spur by the Pope. He served as Music conductor with Archibishop of Salzburg for ten years. During this period he lost faith in the Catholic religion and became a member of Freemasons banned by Catholic Church. This period when he arranged a number of operas and musical compositions was known as Mozart’s Masonry Days.

Mozart, who lost his positions and fame by this conversion, became bedridden affected by vicious competition and poverty. When he died of kidney failure caused by mal nutrition at the age of 35, he owed money to everyone, including his milkman. In spite of his wife’s entreaties, he refused to make the final confession to his priest. And the priest refused to come as he was a Freemason. He was buried in a paupers’ grave without any final rites. Most of his compositions were Church music. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists him as a Catholic. But both his biographers have clearly denominated him as a non-Christian.

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), a great German composer, composed the famous German Requiem for the Protestant Church. Therefore, most people firmly believe him to be a Christian. But he was even more of an atheist than Beethoven. In his letters to Hersogenberg (Letter of J. Brahms: The Hersogenberg Correspondence, English translation 1909) he describes himself to be an Agnostic.

The famous French Musician, Claude Achille Debussy (1862 – 1918) joined the Paris Conservatory at the age of eleven and soon became world famous. His creations like La’presmidi d’un faune are considered creations of eternal fame. He lived his life as a believer in Neo Paganism. He was buried without any religious rites.

Franz Peter Schubert (1797 – 1828), the Austrian composer, as already mentioned, composed two Church Symphonies and countless Christian chorale Melodies. He lived as an atheist. Sir George Grove, in his Anthology of Music, says his life was bereft of religious beliefs and while commenting on religious books, he quotes Schubert as saying,” There is not one word of truth in them.”

In his letters, Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) says he renounced Christianity in his younger days and followed Goethe’s naturalism. Another young German Music Genius, Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) was a strong believer in the atheistic philosophy of Nietzsche. He composed a symphony on Nietsche’s thoughts.

The Great Russian genius in Music, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), the German genius in music, Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883), the French composer, Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869) and many like them were all non-believers. They were deeply involved in philosophy and were all great thinkers. We can go on listing the names of geniuses in Western Music like Alexandre Cesar Leopold “Georges” Bizet (1838 – 1875), Niccolo Paganini (1782 -1840), Guiseppe Verdi who were all non-believers. They were driven by independent thought processes and quests rather than religious spirituality.

We must note that all these great artistes were the creations of European Renaissance. European Renaissance is a great intellectual movement that rose up against the brute control and singular beliefs of the Christian Church. The artists and thinkers of this period of Renaissance renounced religion and made the effort to independently move forward at many different levels. But the circumstances of those years made many to function from within the Christian church.

In the modern era, we see Western music totally free of religion. We see great secular musicians continuously emerge. Mark Knopfler, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Dave Mathews, Björk, Michael Stipe, Barry Manilov, Frank Zappa, Cary Newman, Billy Bragg and countless other musicians and musical bands have renounced god and religion in their music and life.

Beatles star, John Lennon (1940 – 1980) has written and sung renouncing religion. He sings in his famous song ‘Imagine’:

…Imagine there's no heaven

It's easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today

Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

No religion too…

In another song named ‘I Found Out’ he written in a sad refrain,

…There ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky

Now that I found out I know I can cry, I found out!

I turned to speak to God, About the world's despair;

But to make bad matters worse, I found God wasn't there…

That the world is today filled with secular musicians and secular music is the truth. Religion’s unchanging rites and baseless assurances sap the morale of people with imagination and creativity. Music, today, desires to freely fly. It seeks to sing life directly. It sings freely of sex and dance, of separation and loneliness, without the suffocating overlay of religion.

Bob Marley, a Rastafarian who hated Christianity to the core written in his International hit ‘Get Up, Stand Up’:

….We're sick and tired of your ism skism games

Die and go to heaven in Jesus' name,

We know when we understand

Almighty God is a living man

You can fool some people sometimes

But you can't fool all the people all the time…

Ziggy Marley, son of Bob Marley in his song, ‘In the name of God’ sings:

…In the name of your god you kill

In the name of your god you conquer

In the name of your god you hate

All religions should be wiped out

So that people may just live…

In India, even today, the traditional music has not come out of the stifling grip of religion. Here listening to Carnatic music is an extension of your religious feelings! Traditional music events are often a part of religious rituals. Therefore, there is a need for the Carnatic musicians to look like full-grown devotees. It is difficult to know as to how many of them are really devoted.

The disenchantment of India’s younger generation with traditional music arises chiefly from its overwhelming submission to religion. This is an age when Indian society seeks to be free of this submissive devotion and turn to scientific temper and worldly happiness and victories. Today religion is only a part of the life of a few. But Carnatic music remains essentially nothing but devotional music. The reason why film music is occupying 90% of the space in Indian music is that, by default, it is the only music secular that seeks to reflect the life of our times and its various emotions.

Classical music is becoming alien to our youngsters. But we also need to note that film songs made in classical ragas have drawn the popular attention of the young. A sensitive young person remarked to me: “What has India achieved from centuries of continuing and excessive devotion and spirituality? Music is, for them, devotion. Since devotion is its only emotion, it is frustrating.”

“Devotion is not indispensable for music. Raga, Thala, Thana and other finer features created Carnatic music. Music by itself leads us on a journey of elation and that by itself is a spiritual experience for us. In reality, Carnatic Music is an art form that provides us intellectual and emotional satisfaction. It is essential to see Carnatic music as an art form to spread it in the new century. We must respect the depth, the breadth and the intensity of the art and its link with religion. Its literature may reflect the emotional leanings of its authors, but it cannot become the scale to measure the music by. Like any other classical form of music, Carnatic music too deserves to be taken to levels of universal appreciation. This can be done only when it is not left entirely to religion and a proper appreciation of Carnatic music as a medium”. This is the submission of Carnatic Singer, T.M. Krishna, in an article in The Hindu daily.

Music is an art form with potency to raise our minds from the daily drudgery and make them communion at high levels of intellect. We are moved to tears by Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for strings’. When William Orbit creatively alters it to his style, we raise spontaneously to dance. Music has countless faces. It touches our very being. It portrays within us pictures that only our inner eyes can see. Music fills us with deep, intense and very personal emotions. And these emotions make all the good music sacred.

Listen John Lennon's 'Imagine'