Saturday, February 28, 2009

Music and the Heart

But who has ever heard of a happy end?

         Once a neighbor came to visit me in the university hostel when I happened to be watching a violin concerto. Interestingly, he asked me if playing the violin would make one a better person, to which I promptly replied that rather than improving the formation of one’s character and values, it often spoils both. With due respect to the exceptions, in years of conservatory and after that, most of the musicians I have met, seen or heard of fit into one or more of these categories: arrogant, puffed-up, over-temperamental, mentally unbalanced, drunkard, debauchee, or as a matter of fact, stupid. Many even fit into all these simultaneously, in spite of admirable expertise. Anywhere in the world, musicians as a class are looked upon with airs of suspicion and disdain. This makes me wonder if from music any good quality accrues at all…  In defiance of my view, I have met a certain number of musicians who seem to be quite convinced about the innumerable attributes that are magnified or generated by music, up to the point of projecting even a religious dimension to it or looking at it in a deified way. This view, however, is usually subjective, sentimental and based on a romantic view of reality rather than facts and tangible evidence. Indeed, it seems to be a perception induced by the quick and intense response that music can produce in some individuals who are particularly receptive to it. Now, if someone says that ice cream tastes great, I might agree, but if from its heavenly flavor one starts advocating that its consumption leads to the development of lofty qualities and divinity, I would say, “Hold on!” As it is said in logic: ‘phalena pariciyate,’ we can judge by the result.


            Do I mean to say that music and ice cream are similar? In a certain way, since each of our senses is bound to a particular sense object. There is no means to prove that a gourmet is feeling less pleasure through palatable dishes than a musician through music, for in that case food represents the same for the tongue as music does for the ears. Similarly, a painter is inclined to appreciate form and color in a very refined way and thus gratify the mind through the eyes. How could the mere contact of the senses and their objects degrade or elevate someone? That is dependent on the individual’s mentality and interaction with the modes of nature. Usually, most people are just pushed by their own karma to act or find pleasure in a specific way, either in goodness, passion or ignorance. In the case of these last two, without much critical and deliberate attitude towards their own living principles, supposing they have any at all.


            As this is a world of relativity, the interactions of the modes create an unlimited gradation of nuances between unlimited ways of thinking and acting. Thus, art is also conditioned by nature and it is moulded according to time, place, circumstance and individual. From the time of creation, art is present in all human societies, either so-called civilized or so-called uncivilized, from the most barbarian groups up to the highly intellectual ones.  Much more than the technical ability required, the development of musical complexities in the form of harmony, counterpoint, etc., evinces the refinement of thought and expression reached at a certain stage. It is quite obvious to me that some people don’t respond to music at all, just as some don’t respond to poetry, philosophy, etc., while others will respond according to their idiosyncrasy, cultural background, sensibility, taste, etc.  In this way, we can comparatively classify music according to distinct parameters in terms of the modes of nature, the level of structural development, and the class of people who appreciate it.


            One of the interesting features of the extremely opposite interaction of the modes of nature is the way they clash. For example, for a person fond of Baroque music, with its very refined harmonic principles, instrumental technique and ornamentation, most contemporary pop music might sound revolting. This may sound snobby, but compared to the musicality of an accomplished musician expert in the European music of the 18th and 19th centuries, the most renowned pop stars display the musicality of an ass. On the other hand, for those fond of pop music, classical music may sound boring. The same as everything else, just like a vegetarian could vomit simply by thinking of what a meat-eater eats, while the latter thinks vegetarian food is tasteless. Ironically, each of the modes leads one to think that whatever one does or thinks is the right thing… The point I am making here is how relative values might be and how our tendencies are conditioned in a particular way by nature via social, cultural, environmental, familiar, and religious factors to the point that all our habits and tastes are more or less a reflection of them, and if we speak of a scale of values existent for everything in life, we will be situated either up or down depending on the referential point we accept. Even this referential point is also usually dependent on those factors, though. In this way, both autonomy and heteronomy play important roles in the formation of one’s cultural and intellectual assets, but ultimately what determines one’s steady progress is a deliberate and selective absorption of the elements acquired through both, provided one has a clear conception of the aims to be attained and their means.


Music in Ancient Greece and India


            Notwithstanding so many weird ideas, the philosophical concepts taught by Socrates and later elaborated by Plato and others resemble so much those based on the Vedas that it would be possible to draw several parallels between both. Therefore, it is no surprise that factually the view Plato and Aristotle hold about music matches considerably that presented by the śāstras. Socrates and Plato conceived perfection as belonging to a perfect, ideal world, from which everything in this world is but a shadow or reflection. The different artistic representations are merely an attempt to express the original, ideal beauty that characterizes the ideal world. Thus, music for them was a means to approach sublime beauty and perfection through divine inspiration. However, they were aware of the powerful effects music exerts on man’s consciousness and therefore were very cautious regarding its application. For Socrates, ethics was an essential principle to be observed by those aspiring for moral and intellectual advancement, while any lenience towards hedonism meant corruption. Bearing this view, Plato and Aristotle clearly defined how restricted music should be in an ideal society. They particularly condemned purely instrumental music as an unnecessary act of self-amusement and egotism, while the chanting of instructive songs, dramatic performances, prayers and hymns was encouraged as being conducive to divinity. On this basis, they supported musical education from the very childhood as an important element in the formation of one’s character. Plato believed musical training to be a very potent tool for building one’s mind. Therefore, he instigated the search for a particular combination of melody, harmony and rhythm that would produce brave men. He holds love for beauty to be the supreme purpose of music, but made it clear that merely by music it is not possible to attain superior knowledge or the ultimate good.


            The Greeks were convinced that the various musical modes exert different effects on the mind, and hence they were selective regarding their specific usages. In his Politics, Aristotle describes that the Mixolydian mode makes men sad and grave; the Dorian mode produces a moderate temperament; the Phrygian mode inspires enthusiasm, etc. Plato, in his Republic, hints that the Ionian mode generates indolence and torpor, and the Lydian mode is to be given up by ladies who want to preserve their honor and by men who value their manliness. Aristotle further affirms that by indulging in mundane music one may develop a pervert mentality. Upon having a teleological reflection on music, Aristotle was more concerned with its pragmatic dimension than with the metaphysical one, since he viewed music as a means of education and intellectual entertainment required to refresh the mind in leisure hours, for he believed that being a pleasure of superior order, it would satisfy a man’s needs and prevent him from taking recourse to vulgar forms of pleasure. Quite noble.


            Similarly, in India, the Vedic tradition conferred to music a distinct but restricted scope. Arts are referred to in texts supplementary to the Vedas, usually called Upavedas, such as the Gāndharva Veda, and in the artha-śāstras, which deal with several activities required in human society.  The chanting of the Sāma Veda mantras was a preeminent activity exclusively done by the priestly order, while instrumental music played an important role in entertaining the deities in the temples as well as the royalty, being performed mostly by śūdras.  Apart from these, the dharma-śāstras clearly prohibit brāhmaṇas and brahmacārīs to indulge in music. Describing the duties of a snātaka, or one who completed his studies, the Viṣṇu-smṛti (71.70) states that he must not dance or sing mundane songs. Manu (2.178) is very specific when stating the duties of a brahmacārī:


abhyaṅga-mañjanaṁ cākṣṇor-upānac-chatradhāraṇam |

kāmaṁ krodhaṁ ca lobhaṁ ca nartanaṁ gītavādanam ||

“A celibate student should refrain from anointing his body with oil, applying collyrium to his eyes, from the use of shoes and of an umbrella, from lust, anger, covetousness, dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments.”


And about a snātaka, Manu (4.64) says:


na nṛtyed atha vā gāyen na vāditrāṇi vādayeta

“Let him not dance, nor sing, nor play musical instruments.”


Although the kṣatriyas are allowed some concessions, they are warned:


mṛgayā akṣo divāsvapnaḥ parivādaḥ striyo madaḥ |

tauryatrikaṁ vṛthāṭyā ca kāmajo daśako gaṇaḥ || Manu 7.47


“Hunting, gambling, sleeping during the day, slandering,  women, intoxication, dancing, singing, playing music, and useless travel are the tenfold  vices springing from lust.”


Within the context, it was particularly advised to the kings that these vices lead to loss of wealth and virtue, since they had more facilities to engage in the above activities than the other classes, but the tone clearly hints that anyone should be aware of any of these items. I cannot testify to the other nine, but I can promptly relate music to the concept of vice, as it produces psychological dependency, emotional upheaval, obsession, hankering, etc. Its proportion can extend to limits known only to those who have gone through it. Practically, one may become thoroughly haunted by music, breathe music, eat music, drink music, feel it running in the blood, hear it inside the mind twenty-four hours a day, awaken or asleep, see music in the ten directions, make music one’s religion, hardly think of anything else, be ready to live or die for it. This condition can indeed last for a lifetime or more, and I wouldn’t blame those who can’t help but call it love. I believe this to be the common state shared by any true musician, in contrast to those who simply developed a superficial skill or appreciation, but I doubt it can be learnt or imitated.


            If the stricture is so regarding students and kṣatriyas, naturally much more rigour is expected from those in the vānaprastha and sannyāsa āśramas:


grāmya-gītaṁ na śṛṇuyād

yatir vana-caraḥ kvacit

śikṣeta hariṇād baddhān

mṛgayor gīta-mohitāt

“A saintly person dwelling in the forest in the renounced order of life should never listen to mundane songs or music. Rather, a saintly person should carefully study the example of the deer, who is bewildered by the sweet music of the hunter's horn and is thus captured and killed.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 11.8.17


Thus, we can conclude that the only āśrama in which the enjoyment of secular music was allowed was the gṛhastha-āśrama, and that only in the case of the kṣatriyas, vaiśyas and śūdras. The reasons for such restrictions are more or less self-evident for those with a minimum comprehension of what the whole śruti and smṛti are about. After all, the Greeks were quite to the point, as we shall see below.



How can music degrade?


            To properly understand scriptural statements, it is required to apply accurate exegetical principles in given contextual instances, but the general way to look through Vedic culture and all the rules and regulations comprised in it is to have in mind that literally everything must be aimed at reaching the ultimate goal of life, love of God. Therefore, any means to promote this cause are emphasized, while even the most accomplished deeds not directly related to it are discarded as useless:


dharmaḥ svanuṣṭhitaḥ puṁsāṁ

viṣvaksena-kathāsu yaḥ

notpādayed yadi ratiṁ

śrama eva hi kevalam


“The occupational activities a man performs according to his own position are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Personality of Godhead.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 1.2.8


On this basis, we can classify music in two categories: that which leads to God realization, and that which does not. By the influence of the modes of nature, we understand that music can also be divided according to goodness, passion and ignorance. Only the mode of goodness is conducive to spiritual advancement, for passion and ignorance are opposite to it and are direct means of degradation. The distinctions between them can be clearly defined in terms of the results produced:


karmaṇaḥ sukṛtasyāhuḥ

sāttvikaṁ nirmalaṁ phalam

rajasas tu phalaṁ duḥkham

ajñānaṁ tamasaḥ phalam


“The result of pious action is pure and is said to be in the mode of goodness. But action done in the mode of passion results in misery, and action performed in the mode of ignorance results in foolishness.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 14.16


As expected in the age of Kali, most of what common people call music is totally under the lower modes, and the result is visible. Factually, it is notorious how certain musical genders are directly connected with intoxication and promiscuity, or are their very propellers.  Being so, it is somewhat clear that one must abide by the scriptural injunctions if he desires to prevent the Phoenix of previous samskāras from taking off, as well as the formation of undesirable new ones.


            So, we are left with the music in goodness, but still, that would lead to two implications: Is this really in goodness? If so, can one take it to one’s heart’s content without any risk? The first consideration in this regard is that another feature of Kali-yuga is the inexistence of uncontaminated goodness in nearly everything, just like even the air and the water are contaminated in most places, and despite their original properties in a pure state, they can be thoroughly harmful. As far as I have seen, only Baroque music and Indian classical ragas offer instances that could eventually fit in the mode of goodness to some extent. But even in those cases, I would take into consideration several factors, such as the mental disposition of the composer and the performer. I would totally disregard the case of any piece that leads to any kind of emotional excitement, as this obviously characterizes passion. Ironically, emotional response is usually intended by the composer, the performer and the audience. Indeed, in the classical and romantic periods, the composers displayed eminence in conducting the public through intense emotional trips, from laughter to flowing tears.  If we could isolate some genuine pieces in the mode of goodness, then what harm there could be? In spite of its superiority over the lower modes, goodness is still a material mode, and especially in the case of those who perform or compose music, the great danger it offers is increasing the bodily identification through pride and self-conceit, which are factually demoniac qualities, while the soul has nothing to do with the activities performed by the body:    


prakṛteḥ kriyamāṇāni

guṇaiḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ


kartāham iti manyate


“The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 3.27


For the general public, sense enjoyment in goodness is still sense enjoyment, and the senses are by nature ever demanding and never satiated. Looking for happiness through sensual repletion is one of the most utopian hopes, and history has seen many an Epicurean system rise and succumb.  When King Bali offered to Lord Vāmanadeva anything He might desire within the universe, the Lord replied:


śrī-bhagavān uvāca

yāvanto viṣayāḥ preṣṭhās

tri-lokyām ajitendriyam

na śaknuvanti te sarve

pratipūrayituṁ nṛpa


“The Personality of Godhead said: O my dear King, even the entirety of whatever there may be within the three worlds to satisfy one's senses cannot satisfy a person whose senses are uncontrolled.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 8.19.21



            To make it short, even a pinch of attraction for anything in this world will make us accept another material body. A grown-up man’s play with a musical instrument is not necessarily less childish or more meaningful than a kid’s play with toys, and to think otherwise is a superimposition. If one thinks it is worth to go again through the pains of birth, disease, old age and death just to try to enjoy music, then good luck, but just remark that no amount of musical talent can assure one the chance to get another human body in the next life.


How can music elevate?


            So, should one conclude that music is very bad and we should give it up altogether? Wrong conclusion, for simply rejecting everything is an immature renouncement, which resembles more voidism than what is positively taught in the śāstras, as defined by Rūpa Gosvāmī:


anāsaktasya viṣayān yathārham upayuñjataḥ

nirbandhaḥ kṛṣṇa-sambandhe yuktaṁ vairāgyam ucyate

prāpañcikatayā buddhyā hari-sambandhi-vastunaḥ

mumukṣubhiḥ parityāgo vairāgyaṁ phalgu kathyate


"When one is not attached to anything, but at the same time accepts everything in relation to Kṛṣṇa for His service, his renouncement is called complete. On the other hand, one who, desiring liberation, rejects everything without knowledge of its relationship to Kṛṣṇa is not complete in his renunciation." (Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.2.255-256)


Sharing the qualities of God in a minute proportion, the soul is constitutionally eternally blissful, and this implies eternal and unlimited varieties of rāsa. It is clear that the desire for art is inherent in the soul and that the supreme purpose of all artistic manifestations is to increment the rasas between Lord Kṛṣṇa and the soul. We understand from the scriptures that the material vibration propagated in the ether is but an imitation of the original, spiritual vibration emanating from the spiritual world. Therefore, even in this material world, which is the abode of all miseries and the stage for all abominations, we can hear music that transports the mind to a dimension diametrically opposed to anything else perceived in external life. I fully agree with all those who express how music transpires the divine. I think of the Common Practice Period music as the acme of the expression of beauty possible in this world as conceived by the Greeks. A thousand times while listening to the music of Bach or Mozart, I thought how Fausto went a long way in the search for the fugacious moment simply because he did not hear this, and I wished that time stop.  The loftiness of their music can compare to that of the ocean or the stars, and I can’t help but see God’s hand behind it. In the case of those who don’t, I can just say that they have a huge deficit of pious activities:


yad yad vibhūtimat sattvaṁ

śrīmad ūrjitam eva vā

tat tad evāvagaccha tvaṁ

mama tejo-'ṁśa-sambhavam


“Know that all opulent, beautiful and glorious creations spring from but a spark of My splendor.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 10.41


This made me realize that if we got this kind of musical sublimity here, how much more God must have reserved for Himself and those in the spiritual world! Nevertheless, I would not magnify this process, for it is still quite an indirect, impersonal, diluted way to look at God, and one may very easily miss the path. The attempt to fly with music may well be another Icarus dream.  It is better to go for the real thing than to run after the shadow. When music is used to glorify the Supreme Lord along with selected verses from the śruti and smṛti and choice poetry composed by the ācāryas, that is much beyond the mode of goodness and is called transcendental. I would say that the musical gender here is secondary, being subordinate to the Lord’s Holy Names and therefore purified by Them. Still, I feel compelled to think that classical bhajan is the standard and the ideal. This is the very apotheosis of music, which can factually clean one’s heart from all unwanted things, give one all desired objects and propitiate Lord Kṛṣṇa, Who is the supreme artist, the original musician and the source of all artistic inspiration, and therefore, the ultimate beneficiary of all artistic offerings. 


             But what about those who are still attached to mundane music? One of the advantages of the process of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is engaging one from whatever position one might be situated in. Although secular music is not encouraged in the scriptures, it is also not directly condemned as an abominable activity, and therefore nothing prevents one from performing music as an offering to Kṛṣṇa, as He states:


yat karoṣi yad aśnāsi

yaj juhoṣi dadāsi yat

yat tapasyasi kaunteya

tat kuruṣva mad-arpaṇam


“Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform— do that, O son of Kuntī, as an offering to Me.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 9.27


The main criterion in bhakti is the sincerity of purpose, for the Lord is seated in everyone’s heart and there is no way to deceive Him. Even if a performance is motivated by the desire for prestige, money and personal gratification, it can be offered to Kṛṣṇa, but better to be honest in admitting these shortcomings and earnestly pray to get rid of them so that we can become purified from all material contamination and thus progress towards Him. Whatever benefit or pleasure one obtains from music, whether real or apparent, is directly or indirectly emanating from God, and since He is the One seated in everyone’s heart, only He can positively transform and purify one’s heart based on one’s activities and purposes. Music can only be indeed purifying and permanently rewarding when part of the process of surrendering unto God, but we have to bear in mind that full surrender means to do whatever He wants from us, rather than what we want. If we become receptive to His wish, we will eventually realize that He might have reserved for us things much better than those desired by us through selfish musical enterprises.

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