Indian Instrumental Music: A Connection to God
by Mukul Shri Goel
The string instrument veena, the primordial percussion instrument damaru, and the wind instrument flute form a special trinity among Indian musical instruments. These instruments can be categorized as divinity’s choice as far as Hindu culture is concerned, for they are played to create the three components of music – melody, rhythm, and expression – by an ensemble of divine instrumentalists. The veena of Goddess Sarasvati creates musical notes, the damaru of Lord Shiva ties everything in the universe together with rhythm, and the flute of Lord Krishna is the source of expression and mesmerization.
Influenced by this symbology, followers believe that God adores musical sounds and they should offer vibrations from musical instruments in temples as a part of their devotion. Offering music is comparable to offering food or voluntary services to the Personal God, all of which develop the same spiritual feel of surrender in the minds of devotees. In the presence of musical notes in the environment, followers try to remain in the perfected remembrance of the Divine. Eventually, they learn to forget themselves while playing and listening to their favorite instrument.
In contrast to devotees, who play for their Personal God, the non-dualist worshippers of music trigger their spiritual evolution by considering musical sound as God, a notion often described through the ancient phrase “Nada-Brahman.” By experiencing the oneness of sound (Nada) and the Divine (Brahman), they too obtain the highest levels of ecstasy that are independent of musical factors like the mood of the composition, the complexity of note sequences, and the pace of rhythm.
When the musician recognizes this oneness, which occurs after all early levels of perfection in technique and expression have been transcended, music becomes joy, not the means for joy. At this point, the sound of a melody from a string instrument no longer appears sweeter than the stroke of a percussion instrument, for both are musical sounds and accordingly forms of the Divine. Preferences are present only until a duality in musical notes and God is present. When musical notes become Brahman and represent his sound, there is no other God to connect to.
At this stage in music, which appears plainly theoretical to most of us, one can say that perfection in music has been achieved. Just like the devotee musician who forgets oneself in the memory of the Lord while performing, the non-dualist worshipper of music forgets oneself in music to remember nothing but music. While one at this spiritual or musical plane may no longer be fit for entertaining fellow beings on a big podium, it fulfills what the Indian tradition anticipates from a “seeker of music” as opposed to a “learner” or “creator” of music: finding God while finding music.