Bhakti in Carnatic Music

Yuva Sangeetha Lahari

Traditional painting of Carnatic Trinity

Bhakti in Carnatic Music

Bhakti (devotion) is an important approach that involves unconditional surrender to the Supreme Lord. Given our limitations, how do we visualize this Supreme Lord? In contrast to the path of Jnana (knowledge) or karma (work as worship), the path of bhakti takes the view of “I as an individual, am not capable of that, and I therefore I surrender to Thee.”

In Bhagavad Gita (Ch 11, v54), after showing his Vishwa Roopa (Universal Form) to Arjuna, Bhagavan (the Lord) declares:

Bhaktya Tvananyayaa shakya aham evam vidhorjuna
Jnatum drashtum cha tatvena praveshtum cha paranthapa ||

Other than Bhakti there is no other way to understand, see and enter me, oh Arjuna. What is Bhakti? Why has this become an essential part of Carnatic music? This article explores some of the reasons and visions of great composers and singers on the important aspect of devotion, and it’s relationship with Carnatic music.

Bhakti – what does it mean?

The earliest literature that developed the concept of Bhakti with musical and lyrical quality is found in Saama Veda. Saaman = music, Veda = knowledge, using specially indicated melodies called Saama-gaana sung by Udgatri priests. A variety of subsequent compositions (8th to 13th century) include poetry from composers of Champu Kavya, the Nayanmars, the Alwars, the ShivasharaNas, the Haridasas, and poets such as Jayadeva, Vidyapathi, Namdev, and Jnyaneshwar. In addition, the philosopher saints such as Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhwa, and others have composed poetry in Sanskrit that are sung even to this day.

Although translated as “Devotion”, Bhakti has deeper roots. Bhakti can be classified as Samaanya (ordinary) bhakti like pooje, punaskaara etc (worship, rituals), Ananya-bhakti (dedicated devotion felt as Lord is the only one who can help), Vishesha-bhakti (extraordinary devotion) and Para-bhakti, the total unconditional surrender (through immeasurable spiritual love) to Omnipresent and Omniscient Supreme Being.

Para-bhakti manifests as Naada, resulting in vibrations of all frequencies. Starting as Shabda, the universal sound which is expansive becomes Naada in the heart center (called the Anaahata chakra) of bhakta. Na represents PraNa Shakthi (life force) and “da” represents Anala (heat element). The union of Prana and Anala produces Naada. Hridaya Jyothi (illumination in the heart) becomes an expression of jeevatma in the form of naada bindu representing the origin of sound in the body. Naada kalaa is a spiritual expression of bhakta, which then manifests through sound as Vaak (speech) in the form of gaana (music).

Bhakta expresses the naama roopa i.e. God (or Supreme Being) experienced through names and forms. Bhakta captures God through love in the vigraha form (vishaeshena grahathi ithi “vigraha”), as an entity that can be visualized through the inner eye. Taadaatmya (Oneness with Him) occurs in the mind of the bhakta leading to oneness with the Supreme Being; the divine music is heard in the heart within which lies the naadanusandhana (amalgamation of sound and self). The expression of internal sound is known as geetha or music. Shabda, naada, vaak and geetha in that order represent manifestation of experiences through sound.

Shree Lalitha sahasranama (thousand names of the divine Shakthi (power) in the form of Lalitha) says that she is bhakti priya (loves bhakti), bhaktigamya (is the path to bhakti), bhakti vashya (can be grasped through bhakti), bhayapaha (resulting in becoming fearless) and Bhaktamaanasa hamsika (the very breath residing within the mind of devotee). That divine Shakti is present in everyone in the form of breath, seen as inhalation and exhalation, which are the expressions of PraaNa Shakti (life force).

Bharateeya sangeetha Shastra (rules of Indian classical music) very clearly specifies that “without nada (sound) there is no geetha (music), without nada there is no swara (musical note), without nada there is no nritya (dance).” Therefore jagat (Universe) is nadaatmaka (world is full of nada). Nada is omni-present and is spread everywhere. Jagat is naadamaya or full of nada. The Lord Nataraja is the Naada-tanu Shankara or the one who is embodied as Nada, manifesting in human form. The Lord (Supreme Being) appears to bhaktas in their favorite or preferred form (ishta-devatha). As an example, Bhagavan Krishna mesmerizes gopikas (devotees as lovers) through playing the flute, indicating an epitome of naada. Another example is the form of Brahma who is immersed in saamagana.

Naada becomes vaadya-dhvani (instrumental sound) through divine musical instruments. Universal sound is nothing other than antharnaada (internal inherent sound of music) and is expressed through Indian divine instruments. Some of the examples are Veena (plucked stringed instrument), Venu (flute), Mridangam (drum), Taala (small hand cymbal), Ghanta (bell), Shanka (conch), Jaagate (single large cymbal beaten with wooden stick) and Lord Nataraja’s damaruga (small two headed drum). Goddess Saraswathi plays veena, the stringed instrument, with its frets representing the cartilages of a human vertebral column. Music is considered the vidya (knowledge) of yaksha and gandharva (godly forms who provide us the gift of music). Just as a lullaby pacifies a baby, music is an immense gift that mesmerizes animals and plants, brings peace, and even cures diseases.

Manifestation of Bhakti

In the Bharateeya sangeetha paddhathi (Indian musical tradition), Bhakti-yoga (union through devotion) plays a major role. It is love of the divine with immense sincerity that provides the joy of surrender. When the individual soul through its mind experiences Him through the five senses of shabdha (sound), sparsha (touch), roopa (sight), rasa (taste) and gandha (smell), it reverberates with the universal spandana (vibration) through body; that spandana manifests as a ripple effect in the form of geetha. Geetha becomes samGeetha (samyak+ geetha = well-tuned vibration). Sangeetha lahari (waves) bring out the anubhava (experience) in the form of naada. When combined with bhakti and paravashathe (surrender to Lord) this becomes nadaroopa of bhagavan (Lord in the form of music). When the gaayaka (singer), gaana (music) and geyavasthu (medium) unite, it results in poorNa eikyata naadaatmaka (union of individual with Supreme Being through music).

Naada vidya (musical knowledge) is practiced in two forms. Anaahata (sound is produced without external excitation) and Ahata (sound produced by excitation of two or more objects). This Anaahata naada is heard in the heart through higher stages of meditation through yoga. Anaahata chakra, a yogic representation of energy is located at the heart. From one’s birth there is a yearning for everyone to know his or her atmaguNa (attributes that represent oneself). In our heart chakra or energy center, the feeling that is bhaava (emotion, mood) raises up like the waves of the ocean. It can take the form of navarasas (the nine expressions – love, humor, fury, compassion, disgust, horror, heroic mood, wonder and peace).

In Sangeetha yoga, sadhakas (practitioners) begin their journey in the path of naada yoga with the duality and then through sincerity, dedication and purity reach the state of higher unison with Lord (Supreme Being) in the parandhama (eternal blissful state). Knowledge and bhakti are united in this state of sarvayoga dhyana Samadhi (universal awakened meditative state). The unison of naadarasa becomes the kalaatmika gaana (music with complete involvement of self). Such a Gaana Taranga (musical waves) becomes keerthana (praise of the Supreme Being in many forms) and enters the listener’s heart to create a beautiful emotional kampana (vibration).

Expressions of Bhakti by composers

Bhakti rasa in great vaggeyakaras (music composers) manifests as Nadaanusandhaana Samadhi (state of bliss involving naada) which is the unison of raaga, bhoga, thyaaga, yoga, anuraaga, viraaga (musical notations, enjoyment, charity, learning, love, detachment). Sangeetha kale or art is a very dear art for all the jeevakoti (millions of living beings). “I am just a medium” – declare many of the composers. It is suggestive of the inspiration that they sought and received from higher echelons (astral level of the body), and thus have brought us such great compositions. Vedas are called Shruthi (mantras that are heard) during their transcendental state of meditation. When Rishis hear this divya (divine) inner nada, which is the Truth in the form of divine light of realization, it manifests as smaraNe (memory). This smaraNe from the manodharma (righteous mind) becomes the eternal smrithi (memory retained in the depth of self). These smrithis are the embodiment of inner nada, darshana (inner vision), sthitis (state or condition). This jnana or knowledge of bhakti and nada is evident in every one of these composers. This atmaananda (joy of the inner self) can not be explained but has to be experienced.

Shree Thyagaraja is well known as naadopasaka; in every kriti (composition) he brings out the antar-nada smaraNe (internal music from his smrithi). Mokshamu galada and Naadatanumanisham are great examples of his deep inner memory. The song Naadatanumanisham is an example of how the seven or saptha swaras were born in Carnatic music. He says that ri, ga, ma da, ni are the five vikruti swaras that came from five faces of Shiva which are Sadyojatha, Yamadeva, Aghora, Tatpurusha and Ishaana. The other two swaras sa and pa were born from his consort Parvathi. Sangeetha jnanamu bhaktivina (knowledge of music without Bhakti is not the path to the Lord) says saint Thygaraja, so do other composers. Dikshitar, who as a great jnani of tantra shashtra has outlined the path of bhakti and moksha through music. Basaveshvara who is famous for his vachana sahitya (collection of sayings based on life experience) emphasized bhakti in his compositions. We see such total surrender to Lord and reach out to Him in different situations of life, with such compositions.

Purandaradasaru has composed kritis in navarasa with bhakti as the central theme – the foundation of musical pedagogy. For all these reasons and the enormous influence he had on Carnatic music, musicologists call him the “Sangeeta Pitamaha” (grandfather) of Carnatic music. “Dasa santhati” (lineage of servants of the Lord) saw the emergence of music and Hari katha as an expression of Bhakti involving the performing artist with the audience. Several saints / philosophers such as Annammacharya, Ramanuja, Madhwa, Vallabhacharya, Chaitanya and others brought forth the path of Bhakti as the main approach to reach the Lord during the current era of Kaliyuga. The concept of Jivatma (soul within the individual) yearning for union with paramatma (the supreme Lord and universal soul) is the basis of expositions by several of these philosophers. With this lineage, worship and the practice of offering music and dance as seva (humble offering) to the Lord in temples began, gradually becoming a tradition that continues to this day. This is the quintessential root of Carnatic music, which believes that there is nothing else to sing other than of Him, for Him since it is given by Him. “kereya neeranu kerege chelli varava padedavarante kaaNiro, Hariya karuNadol aada bhaagyava Hari samarpaNe maaDi badukiro” sings Purandara daasa. It is a song every student of Carnatic music learns very early during his or her training. The song translates as “Offer the water that comes from the lake back to the lake to get the blessings of God. Likewise, what came to you by His compassion (music), you should praise Him through that and experience His blessings”).

According to modern research, music is very powerful and activates large areas of brain. Studies have found that auditory, motor and limbic (emotional) regions are involved. The motor areas process the rhythm and auditory areas process the sound, while the limbic regions associate with the emotions. Recent studies have shown that music transmitted from generation to generation shapes autobiographical memories, preferences and emotional responses, a phenomenon called “reminiscence bumps”; impact of music in childhood very likely reflects the prevalence of music in homes from vamsha parampare (family lineage).

Music is a service. Our vaggeyakaras’ great contribution is the immersion in this bhakti saadhana (practice of bhakti) and spirituality. Whoever goes deep into music has spiritual experiences. Music is a signpost, which directs us in that path. One can achieve money, fame, titles, acquaintances, reward, awards, but then after all that, what is next? Everyone has this question in his or her mind. When youngsters open their mind to spirituality through Carnatic music (either as a singer or a listener) as bhakti saadhana (practice), then the Supreme Being blesses and directs them to self-discovery in the course of their spiritual journey.

Reference: Sri Ranga Maha Sadguru, PsyBlog by Dr Jeremy Dean, Saamagana The First Melody, Tyagaraja Kriti Manjari

Samidheni Raghunandan