Tuesday, November 19, 2013



Sound are introduced to us before we are born, and are more powerful than visions, and closer to our heart, bringing secure feelings when we are in a passive/helpless mode. Being exposed to true devotees enhances our ability to experience faith (Satsang). Being able to share an experience with another person brings us closer to the other person. Singing in chorus, specially loud helps you materially participate in connecting to the person you are singing to, and the person you are singing with. Feeling connected to others, or God through a sense of expanded awareness coming through music becomes spiritually uplifting. Unfortunately, there is too much noise and much little music introduced in our early lives to build calm and contemplative mind.

Bhajans and Keertans are songs of open expressions of love towards one’s chosen deity or pleading to the deity in one’s helpless situation as means of worship. It is a personal communication with open heart.  A Hindu worshipper uses flowers, water, light, a hand fan and a piece of cloth as symbol of five elements which according to Hinduism constitute this entire universe.  Worship starts with purification. Holy words associated with God, called mantras from Vedas are chanted by the priests guiding the devotees on thoughts of purification and concentration on the deity of worship.   Devotees who are not trained in Vedas use Bhajans and Keertans instead in this act of self-purification and concentrate on the deity.   A devotee influenced by Puraanas often feels that God is in heaven which is quite far and God needs to be cajoled with his sweet high pitch voice and sincerity when he is not yet mature enough to realize that God is within him only in the cavity of his sacred heart as Antaryamin (inner Self).   When a devotee repeats peace invocation thrice the first “Shanti” calling for peace is always pronounced in a high pitch directed towards terrestrial disturbances.  The second Shanti in medium voice is to silence the disturbances around.  Repeated open   expressions of devotion silencing all other disturbing sounds around help people purify their thoughts, focus on the deity of worship and turn inwards for Self-realization in due course. The lost word Shanti is therefore is in a very low pitch turning inwards.  Bhajan and Keertan are powerful techniques of devotional school of thought to appeal to God through Bhaktimaarga (path of devotion) to reach Jnaanamaarga (path of Knowledge of the Supreme). This approach has a mass appeal. To start alone with spiritual school of thought needs intellectual approach and silent meditation in isolation for long suited to few and needs a guru in the beginning.
Love is a universal emotion and plays a dominant role in all human activities. It is also the base of all other emotions like hatred, fear, etc. For example one’s fear of death is due to one’s love of one’s body. Love is the basis of Bahakti. In fact Bhakti comes from the root bhaj to mean worship, adore, or honor. Bhaktiyoga is the easiest and best for mankind for spiritual uplift as it harmonizes well with worldly life. It trains the mind to see God in everything and also provides a means for temporal benefits like relief from want or pain or misery or prosperity. Bhaktiyoga starts with the Dwaita concept of man and God being distinct and separate, connected by Bhakti on the part of the former reciprocated by grace on the part of the latter though in the final stage it may merge as the relationship goes closer and closer.
 This is also the basis of many modern religions. Keertan and Bhajan are the tools of Bhaktimarga like meditation and sacrifice (tapas and yajna) are the tools of Jnaanamarga.  We are more often tempted to go with our demand list (as highlighted in Phalasrutis) to God because of Dwaita concept. In Advaita   concept we do not ask for anything but still want his care. We leave the choice to Him as he knows what is best for us to join his company sooner than distained as the mantra “Viswaani deva savitar duritaani paraasuva yad bhadram tanma aasuva” which I have often quoted and explained.  Visishtaadvaitya is a compromise formula between the two divergent thoughts. For more details refer to my discourse Philosophy schools of India.

The Keertan group singing like Hare Rama Hare Krishna are in fact doing Japa. Naama-japa is perhaps one invariable element in the religious life of devoted Hindu.  Among Vedic hymns, recited daily with intonations by a religiously devoted, Sata Rudriya occupies the prime place. Perhaps this hymn is the  fore-runner and source of inspiration for all  Naamaavalis and Naamasankeertanams  consisting of one thousand and eight names of Rudra  revealing and praising the Lord invoked in a   high, medium and low pitch voice. In the epic Mahaabhaarata  Bheeshma  gives the thousand  and odd names of Lord Vishnu which is today attuned to musical notes of Carnatic music.  This mode of repeating the different names of the Lord in different pitch musical tones has even crossed the geographical and cultural borders.  A devout Muslim repeats the ninety nine names of Allah with a high pitch voice. This repetition is Keertan and Japa.  Choir singing and gospel music is quite common with Christians. These are   Bhajan Japa and popular mode of worship.
 Music is the vehicle of Bhakti (devotion to God), the easiest path to salvation. Adi Sankara said, “Moksha kaarana saamgryaam bhaktireva gareeyase” –For attainment of salvation Bhakti alone is the best. The bhakti age that followed Vedic sacrifices age and Puraanic age   produced great composers like Azhwars and Naayanmars, Jayadeva, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Tulsidas, Sankaradeva, Soordas, Mira Bhai, Kabir, Purandaradasa, Thyagaraja and a host of others.  Some of these famous devotees say that they have seen their favorite God personally and shared his company momentarily, may be an illusion or hallucination in their extreme state of devotion!  Inspired by their elevated souls, the religiously inclined, resorted to pray to God through the medium of bhajans (easy lyrical compositions of prayer music) composed by those great souls. Bhajan comes from the root Bhaj means to worship. Keertan is the glorification of the names of God. Vishnu Sahasranaama opened the gate for Keertans.
Music has the power to rouse the heart.  It has the potential to express the moral and spiritual sentiments to the highest degree. It is not only the medicine that can cure an aching heart but also help a spiritual heart aspirant to raise his soul to God. That is why the Hindu sages have sometimes christened it as Naadayoga and God as Naadabrahma, who is symbolically identified by the sound Om. This is the sound that comes out while blowing conch or ringing a temple bell. We have also heard of 14 sounds emerging out of Lord Siva’s Damaru (Drum).  Indian classical music has more often than not allied with religion and spiritual values. The three basic notes of Vedic chanting—Udatta, Anudatta and Svarita are the fundamental notes of Indian music.  These three notes are employed in Saamaveda chanting which later developed into the octave of music.  While Rigveda is the source of all mantras its effectiveness is felt only when mantras are chanted as per Saamaveda. Every mantra has a Guru, a Chhandas (prosody) and a deity.  Singing a Rigvedic mantra with the tune of Saamaveda is called coupling a combination of male and female. This bonding is very powerful. Rik (Rigveda) in Sanskrit is masculine and Saama (Saamaveda) is feminine.  Creation proceeds when these couple together. When mantras are chanted with intonations, a divine atmosphere is created with holy vibrations all round. One who recites mantras with intonations attains highest merit purifying his body and mind.  Dr. Howard Steingeril, an American scientist says the Gaayatree Mantras of Hindus produced 110,000 sound waves per second. This is the highest and is found most powerful of all the Mantras (hymns) and invocations on which he conducted research in his physiology laboratory from leading   religions of the world. Modern science has demonstrated how music helps plant growth.  Everything is made apparent due to certain vibrations which our modern science has lately discovered and accepted.  Even the basic seven colors are seen by the human eyes due to different vibrations coming within the range of capacity of human vision. Every sound, in fact every thought, offsets innumerable vibrations in the cosmic field.
Stories of Puraana provide the lyrics and the musical compositions easier to sing which are rendered as offerings to the Lord. Music is also looked upon as a form of worship known as Naada –Brahma-Upaasana. Vaalmeeki composed Ramayana in sloka meter which is synonym with Anushtup Chhandas of Rigveda.  Sloka has eight syllables of lyrics in four quarters or 4 lines.  This musical note was spontaneous   and very emotional arising out of the grief stricken sage watching the hunter killing the male crane which was in amours with its partner.  His grief, Soeka in Sanskrit turned into Sloka (a musical composition)—slokatvamaapadyata yasya soekah. This was the first ever known musical tune in Sanskrit literary work Ramayana being the Adikaavya (first literary composition in the world). Earlier all the music was in the form of Vedic mantras in Saamaveda, having high, normal and low pitch.
The earlier form of worship based on Vedic sacrifices was replaced by devotional school of Hindu Religion, the Bhaagavata tradition. This monotheistic school was founded by Krishna Vasudeva, belonging to the Saatvata sect of Yadu dynasty long before Krishna and he was reverently referred to as Bhagawaan. This brought forth Bhagavadgeetaa, the Song of the Celestial later.  Swami Bhoedendra Saraswati of Kanchi Kaamakoti Peetham, Sreedhara Ayyyaval and Marudanallur Sdguru Swamigal organized Bhajana  Sampradaaya tradition basing it on the musical expression of the Saama Veda to raise the soul to the Lord.   They  made the language simple making Kritis (compositions) in easily understood spoken Sanskrit. Vedic language was mystic and not easily comprehensible whereas Bhajan compositions were easily understood by all. The tradition gave rise to many saints later.   Bhajan singing   started in the North during the Moghul period around 12th century.  Jayadeva composed his Geeta Govinda around this period. It was an esoteric composition appealing to the human mind with love and passion arising out of devotion leading to salvation. After many centuries   this was brought into Bhajanasampradaaya traditions by Bhaktimarga devoted Bhajan singers.  Tiruippaavai is also one such composition in Tamil coming from Saint Aandaal. Mananam (meditation) was the main focus during Vedic Period. During Tretaayuga  Pathanam and Sravanam (reading and listening to holy scriptures) became more prominent. Ramayana Ayodhya Kaanda ends with glorification of Sravanam (of Ramayana) for salvation.  With temple traditions and Bhaktimarga   gaining grounds Naama Sankeertanam (Chanting names of the Lord with devotion) became popular and was employed successfully in temple worship like Sahasra naamaavali and ashtottara naamaavali drawing inspiration from Vishnu Shasranama originally employed by Bheeshama before leaving this mortal world and joining his team of Vasus. Sankaracharya was the trend setter for Bhaktimarga who wrote many slokas in praise of deities of his Shanmata (six schools of worship) promoting essence of his Advaita philosophy here and there for general understanding by common folks. His famous instructional text Bhajagovindam  inspired Bhaktimaarga.   This in turn gave rise to elaborate Keertan singing during worship promoted forcefully by various Vaishnava saints belonging to Bhakti Maarga schools. Nanak who started Sikhism strongly promoted Keertan concept in the North.
Motivated   by Puranas many Hindu saints who are music oriented have strongly promoted singing of Bhajans in praise of the Lord. In Ramacharitmanas Sant Tulsidas has said that a devotee wins over the confidence of God through devotional songs. In response, God ensures success and happiness for devotees. In the Padma Puraana` it is said: Naaham vasaami Vaikunthe yoginaam hridaaye na cha | madbhaktaa yatra gaayanti tatra tishthaami naarada|| [O Naarada! I reside neither in Vaikuntha, nor in the hearts of devotees. I reside where my devotees form a loving companionship to sing devotional songs and hymns. I reside within their ultimate motive. In the Bhagavadgeetaa, it is said:
Api chetsuraachaaroe bhajate maamanyabhaak |
Saadhureva sa mantavyahm samyag vyavasitoe hi sah ||
Even if a wicked sinner worships me with pure devotion, he should be considered a saint because he has correctly resolved that there is nothing better than devoted worship of God.
Group prayers and singing of devotional songs and hymns is important to most Hindus. This brings people with a common aim of remembering God together. It helps people concentrate better.  They find it inspiring and experiencing inner peace that is superior to the pleasures of worldly possessions. Together the group achieves more than what each could independently do.  Gospel music and choir singing is also very popular with Western culture as a medium of Prayer.  Probably they have copied this from Hindu tradition. Most Hindu prayers are not directed to self alone but towards society as a whole with universal appeal—Sarvejanaah sukhinoe bhavantu (may all live in peace!)
To those who were not Sanskrit scholars Bhajan was easier to chant than difficult Vedic mantras. Further women gave up Upanayana Ceremony and Vedic studies along with other castes due to historical   circumstances and political disturbances.  Gradually orthodoxy prevented women and other castes from studying Vedas and so they could not chant even Om in religious assemblies leave alone Vedic Mantras. But there was no inhibition on singing Bhajans. So Bhajan singing during temple worship became popular and suitable to all as easy and popular mode of worship.   Worship of God through prayers, meditation, devotional songs and hymns brings immediate results. They have psychological effect on human mind. They protect one from disease, sickness, sorrow and grief, and help divert mind from sinful acts. One gains emotional and spiritual strength. Prayer is truly a tonic for emotional and spiritual well-being.
Many devotees are seen clapping their hands in morning and evening prayers.  Clapping while  singing devotional songs is popular in temples, with special gatherings and even at homes. It is even recommended by Saints like Ramkrishna Paramahamsa. It is symbolic of driving away our sins and cleansing our hearts. Ignorance vanishes when one sings devotional songs clapping to maintain the beat and rhythm.  One feels pure and invigorated.
Clapping of hands besides spiritual benefits, helps physically too when palms hit each other in the act of clapping. The mounts in the palms are pressed. The pressure created during clapping stimulates the organs improving blood circulation and breathing. Thereby, the whole body is benefited. It also helps in keeping the vigil  or to overcome droesiness.
 Regular clapping is used as one of the techniques in physical exercise. The quick movement of arms stimulates the whole body. The heart, lungs and kidneys function better. With improved circulation of blood, waste products are washed out better. Special musical instruments used during Bhajan have also similar effect.
Clapping contributes to emotional well-being of a person.  It improves concentration by making the mind steady, which in turn improves efficiency.  The mind and senses are controlled better, which guides the devotee to the path of salvation. While you worship God clapping gives you happiness and improves health.
We often come across some relevant questions as to this mode of worship which does not appeal to intellectuals and spiritually inclined. These are answered below:
Although spiritual growth is personal, everyone is not aware of the need of spiritual growth from within. Very often group praying helps in kindling the flame within a person to introspect, think more deeply about God, and grow spiritually. Join the flow of devotion, it will lead you spiritually is the outlook!
 Yes. A very important point of group praying is the presence of positive vibrations that everyone radiates on such occasion. With vibrations coming from a group, they become strong and influence all participants. Positive vibrations help neutralize the negative vibrations of some people and the spark   kindles the desire to grow spiritually.
No. One among thousands of human beings strive to realize God. Even among these, there are few who really understand the reality of God. Self-realization is a gradual process beginning with self-purification, becoming virtuous, and using prayer, Bhajan, Keertan and meditation to seek God.
In Tamil Nadu ladies resorted to chant Thiruvoymozhi, Tirunool etc. as they were free to learn them unlike Vedas in Sanskrit. Hindu orthodoxy is vehement that Vedas should be read under the direction of a Guru after undergoing Upanayana Samskaara. Over a long period only those who claim by their birth   as Brahmins undergo Upanayana Samskara (Sacred Thread Ceremony).  But no follow up is done as prescribed.  It is just a formality Samskara for getting ready for marriage. Tiruppavai in Tamil Nadu is as popular as Geetagovinda in Orissa both of which render easily to musical tones for Bhajan singing; so also Grantha Sahib. Usually slokas (religious Hymns) are rendered easy to bhajans by popular tunes by music exponents.  It looks as though Bhajans are more popular with ladies than men because of their natural talents for music and art or saastric inhibitions! May be I am wrong.   
Kathak dance tradition had its origin in the devotional dances current in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Devotees of Krishna used to dance, to the accompaniment of bhajans (devotional songs), trying to express the sentiments and spiritual values contained therein. The theme was also connected with Krishna. Geetagovinda of Jayadeva of Orissa is also Bhajan music and is devoted to Lord Krishna. In South India Kathakalakshepam combines bhajans with story-telling with explanations as a continuous process which is very popular with devotee crowds (bhaktas).
Nashville Carnatic music and dance school of Tennessee called Kala Nivedanam celebrates its Annual Day every year and does not fail to include Bhajanasampradyam as its concluding program in which all local musicians participate.   A note circulated to the audience during this annual music day is enclosed as an Annexure to this discourse which elaborates on South Indian Carnatic Tradition of Bhajana Sapradaayam.


(Dr. Sankaran Mahadevan)
Bhajana Sampradaaya, or traditional devotional singing, traces its origins to the Bhakti movement in Hindu religious history. Sri Chaitanya traveled far and wide and spread the gospel of Naama Sankeertana (singing the glory of God’s name). Many great souls such as Kabir, Meera, Tukaram, Ramadas and Purandaradas enriched the devotional singing tradition all over India with their compositions.
During the 17th and 18th century, the vast repertoire of songs thus created in many languages were collected and organized into a systematic Bhajana paddhati (sequence) in South India by three teachers – Bodhendhra Swamigal, Sreedhara Venkatesa Ayyaavaal, and Marudaanallur Sadguru Swamigal. The Bhajana paddhati included slokas (verses) from scriptures and devotional literature, keertanas (songs) set to classical tunes, and namavalis (names).
The Bhajana Sampradaaya served as an important vehicle for carrying Carnatic music forward from generation to generation. The songs were set in simple, repetitive tunes, and were also sometimes accompanied by dancing by the Bhaagavatas (singers). Although the focus was more on words and devotion than musical sophistication, the basic tunes and phrases of many ragas became easily settled among singers and listeners due to these songs. Thus the Bhajana Sampradaaya set the foundation for great classical compositions later by Sri Tyagaraja and many other composers, who were enthusiastic participants in this tradition and contributed greatly to its repertoire. Sri Tyagaraja’s Divyanaama and Utsava Sampradaaya Keertanas are an important part of Bhajana Sampradaaya.
A short Bhajana session (3 to 4 hours during an evening) typically consists of the following sequence:
1.            Thodaya mangalam
2.            Guru keertanas
3.            Ashtapadi
4.            Krishna Leela Tarangini
5.            Compositions of Sadashiva Brahmendra, Bhadrachala Ramadas, Purandaradas, Tyagaraja  and  many other saints
6.            Pooja Upachaara keertanas, slokas
7.            Dhyaana keertanas and Naamaavalis (on different deities)
8.            Aarati
An all-night session includes additional items such as Deepa Pradakshinam (circumambulation of lamp venerated as Jyorti), Divya Naamam ( singing His sacred Names), Dolotsavam (swinging the deity in his joyful mood), Shayanotsavam (bidding good night to Lord) and Suprabhatam ( devotional wake-up call to the Lord), each with its own sequence of keertanas and slokas.     The number of songs sung under each category is flexible, depending on time constraints and the singers’ repertoire. Also, some songs may be sung by everyone together, and some may be sung in a leader-follower style. During special festivals, after having completed an all-night session, the Bhaagavatas, after breakfast, would again continue with  Seeta Kalyaanam or   Radha Kalyaanam, singing songs relevant to Kalyaana utsavam (wedding ceremony).

1. Sunita Ramaswamy, Vedic Heritage Teachings, Sri Gangadhareswar  Trust, Rishikesh, India
2. Govind Rao T.K., Thyagaraja, Ganamndir Publications, Chennai, India
3. Swami Harshananda, Hindu Culture, Ramakrishna Math, Bengaluru, India
4. Prem P. Bhalla, Hindu Rites, Rituals, Customs and Traditions, Pustak Mahal, Delhi
5. Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Sri Rudram,  Gangadhareswar Trust, Rishikesh, India.
6. Swami Chinmayanamnda, Visshnu-sahasranamam, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust,   Mumbai,    India.
7. Balakrishnan S, Sankara on Bhakti, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.

8. Dr. Sankaran Mahadevan, Bhajan Sampradaaya Keertanas, Kala Nivedanam, Nashville.