By Satyaraja Das

“I am the sound in ether.”—Lord Krsna, Bhagavad-Gita 7.8

My elder brother had tickets to a “Bach Retrospective” and invited me along. I had just read a book on the famed composer’s life, and I looked at this as an opportunity to get together with a dear sibling I see far too seldom.

Bach was born in Germany in the winter of 1685 and grew up to be an evangelical Lutheran Christian. He took great pleasure in composing songs based on the Bible. Since his work stands at the pinnacle of Western civilization, I was heartened to read that much of it is based on religion and spirituality.

The program guide contained quotes from other musical geniuses, showing that they too were engulfed in spiritual consciousness.

Beethoven wrote, “Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life . . . the one spiritual entrance into the higher world.”

“Music praises God,” said Stravinsky. “Music is well or better able to praise Him than the building of a church with all its decoration; music is the church’s greatest ornament.”

Many of the world’s best musicians during the classical period of Western music were devoted to God. Perhaps it was the religious emphasis of the time. One can sense that the more prominent musicians saw music, like everything else, as a gift, an asset to be used in the Lord’s service.

As we entered the concert hall, I just had to share an idea with my brother. I suggested that the joyous feelings awakened through music, hymns, and melodious glorification of God are a kind of sonic theology, in which both performer and audience can understand the Divine in ways difficult to apprehend through other means. Like most others at the venue, however, my brother was naturally more interested in listening to music than in philosophizing about it.

I said a few words about using music as a device for spiritual advancement. He gave me a big “shhh!” and we proceeded to search out our seats.

I started thinking about my own adopted tradition, Vaishnavism, or Krishna consciousness. I remembered reading that many of the verses of the Sama Veda are merely those of the Rig Veda but with more melodious meters. I also thought about the writings of the Vedic sages and how Sanskrit texts, as well as Bengali texts from the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, employ various meters and melodies. All divine words are like songs, our Vaishnava tradition tells us.

Higher beings mentioned in the Vedic literature are often musicians. The goddess Sarasvati and the celestial sage Narada both play the vina (lute). Lord Shiva elegantly performs his cosmic dance at the end of time while playing on his dindin drum. And Krishna charms His purest devotees with the mellifluous notes of His magical flute and the sweetness of His voice. As Srila Prabhupada writes in Krishna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead (Chapter 33), “Actually, the whole world is full of Krishna’s singing, but it is appreciated in different ways by different kinds of living entities.”

From the Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.12.47) we learn that Lord Brahma produced the original seven notes of music, which he used to create the universe. Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport:

The musical notes are sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, and ni. All these vibrations are originally called shabda-brahma, or spiritual sound. . . . In the ultimate issue there is nothing material because everything has its origin in the spiritual world. The material manifestation is . . . sometimes called illusion in the proper sense of the term. For those who are realized souls, there is nothing but spirit.

These last two sentences are particularly significant: While all sound is ultimately spiritual—and an evolved student of spiritual sciences can readily perceive this—gradations exist for those of us not so advanced. Some sounds can drag us further into illusion.

As I thought about this, I temporarily lost my train of thought, letting in the external awareness of the Bach songs being performed before me. I wondered how these sounds would fare with Srila Prabhupada, a pure devotee, who could feel their true spiritual vibrations—would he say that these sounds are purifying, bringing me closer to Krishna, or not?

Bach generated the sounds in pursuit of God, as he deeply wanted to know his creator, to see Him, to feel Him. So I was sure these sounds were more uplifting than, say, screeching rock or rap, which usually focus on mundane concerns, with reverberations that come from passion and, often, torment. Still, even if Bach’s music is comparatively spiritual, or at least reflecting some sort of goodness, how much could it be counted upon to bring one to the ultimate destination? Just how pure is it?

Vaishnava Music

My mind returned to Vaishnava music. The principle in Vaishnavism is to use music to please the Lord and to help one advance in spiritual perfection. It is not art for art’s sake—or music for music’s sake. It is music for God’s sake. Therefore, true spiritual music, from the Vaishnava point of view, must be grounded in devotional principles. It must arise from purity, transport its listeners to purity, and end up increasing one’s purity. Ideally, it should be free from ego or ostentatious displays of virtuosity. It focuses instead on enhancing one’s mood of service to God, on generating love for the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

This thought brought Krishna’s rasa-lila to mind. According to the Bhakti-ratnakara, a seventeenth-century Bengali scripture, the origin of Vaishnava music is indeed this beloved Round Dance of the Lord, where Krishna and His cowherd girlfriends, the gopis, use numerous musical instruments to accompany their many songs of love.

The Bhakti-ratnakara’s Fifth Wave (chapter) begins with a lengthy section focusing on Vaishnava music. It explains the intricacies of how to glorify God with various melodies and instruments, ultimately telling us that kirtana, the congregational chanting devotees engage in to this day, is the height of musical experience, employing tonal and polytonal rhythms (tala), established melodic formats (raga), gestures of emotional expression (abhinaya), and even dancing (natyam). These were all used in the rasa-lila.

For devotees, music necessarily becomes embodied in kirtana, the most important form of music because it is a hundred percent focused on glorifying God. The Gaudiya Vaishnava musical styles, such as Narottama Dasa’s garan-hati, Srinivasa’s manohar-shahi, and Syamananda’s reneti, have distinguishing techniques, even if many of the nuances are lost to us today. Garan-hati, for example, starts slowly and melodically, with a simple beat, gradually building up to greater complexity and finally a crescendo, with exuberant singing and dancing. As opposed to other forms of kirtana, this unique form of Vaishnava music always includes lyrics glorifying Sri Chaitanya (gaura-candrika) before praising Krishna. The core of these techniques has been handed down from master to disciple, and the essential spirit of these kirtana performances can be found at any Hare Krishna temple.

While all forms of music should glorify God, the music of kirtana is intended solely for that purpose. And we can take part in it according to our heart’s desire or spontaneous feeling. The scriptures and the Vaishnava teachers of the past explain music as a detailed science, it is true. But what they really hope to convey is the bhava, the emotion, of kirtana. It is this that transports one to the kingdom of God. Chanting God’s names is the essence of music, and Vaishnavas focus on this aspect of transcendental sound.

Music as Devotional Expression

“Did you enjoy the show?” my brother asked me as the concert ended.

Snapping out of my meditation on Vaishnava music, I told him I did. Bach’s essential purpose, I thought, focuses on using music in devotional ways. And that’s just what the Vaishnava tradition says music is for.

“I think Bach would have liked the Krishna conscious view of the spiritual world,” I said. “The ancient text known as the Brahma-samhita (5.56) says, ‘In the spiritual world, every step is a dance, and every word is a song.’ Music pervades the spiritual world. And God’s devotees in the here and now fill their lives with devotional song and dance to prepare to enter the music-filled realm of Krishna’s pastimes.”

Leaving behind the echoes of Bach’s devotionally inspired music, my brother and I walked out of the concert hall and into the cacophonous sounds of New York City streets.