A crowd of thousands gathers around the man singing on the improvised stage. The singer chants a word or a phrase which is picked up and returned by the participating audience, both seemingly echoing the phrases with devotional intensity. The audience rocks backward and forward chanting and clapping in unison. The mood and intensity of the scene is set by the men behind the drums, the continual drone of the harmonium, the repetitious clanging of the small brass cymbals in almost perfect accord. Suddenly a man cries out and goes into trance. His body is transformed while he dances, animated by some inner force. Others are crying, singing, dancing with beatific smiles on their faces, eyes closed but seeing some inner vision, for their viewing only. Such is the intensity of the experience felt and shared by all.
The scene is that of a bhajan and kirtan session in India. Few people outside of the Indian culture have experienced the power and intensity of such kirtans, where people chant mantras, names of God, or simple inspirational and devotional phrases. The attractive force can be compared to a whirlpool of energy sucking one into his own centre where the divine, higher experiences await. In India, groups of people, numbering from a few to thousands, gather together seeking the transcendental experience in kirtan.
Music, as a tool to uplift and inspire, has been known and used in many religious settings, but it has rarely become as integrated into the environment as in the Indian cultural milieu. Perhaps the advent of technology in the west has displaced the desire for that music one sings with family and friends with outer sources of entertainment and escape such as cinema, rock and roll records, and so on. An interesting social phenomenon, however, has occurred, in that groups of people have been transplanting kirtan into the western environment. The seeds are growing, though of course, there has been resistance to change. More and more people, however, are finding that they are enjoying kirtan as much, if not more, than modern or classical music.
Though the use of kirtan and devotional music is waning even in India, ancient sages and yogis have recognised that there is great power and potential in sound and music and have developed sciences, such as tantra, which incorporate sound as the basis of changing consciousness and for healing. Music becomes meditation and lifts the spirit to sublime heights of experience or soothes the tormented soul.
In the thirteenth century book, the Samgitaratnakara, or 'The Ocean of Music', philosophy and music are linked. The right kind of music is said to break the cycle of birth and death and bestow liberation. All music is based on nada and has three aspects: the physical, the metaphysical and the musical. Musical again has three aspects: voice, instrument and dance. From this a whole philosophy of music was built up.
Sound is said to manifest in five stages. As prana, the vital energy of consciousness, it is stirred by the fires of the body. Prana generated in the navel, stirs the sound to manifest in the navel and heart as subtle sound. It rises to the throat as strong sound, into the head as weak sound, and finally it emerges from the mouth as art. Sound also passes through the chakras or psychic centres in the body. Each note of the octave has a corresponding chakra. By singing the scale we travel up the chakras. This helps to rebalance the pranic system. Vibrating and revitalising the main centres improves health by increasing energy.
Indian classical music designed the raga and instruments such as tabla, sitar, veena and tampura. They were designed to produce complex, steady, swiftly flowing sounds which take the mind on journeys through magical fields of sound and visual imagery. To develop such skill took years of discipline and formed a part of the yogic sciences.
The enlightening appeal of music is world-wide. In Africa, a science of music was developed amongst the !Kund people of the Kalahari desert which is on a par with Indian music. These people would dance for many hours to heat up the n/um so that the !kia state is attained. The n/um is kundalini shakti, and !kia is the state of bhawa samadhi or ecstasy.
Apart from its enlightening effects, music has also been used as therapy, American Indians, such as the Ojibwa, have the jessakid practitioners who sit near patients and sing with gourd rattles. In the Winnebago tribe, those who have obtained their power from the bear spirits can heal wounds by singing. The Kalevala, an epic Finnish poem, tells of a sage who, by means of his music, appeased an angry mob and sent them to sleep. Even the Bible mentions music therapy. Saul would call David when he was tormented by an evil spirit and "Whenever the evil spirit...was upon Saul... David took a harp and played with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him."
We also hear of Arab shepherds who made their flocks thrive by singing. Homer states that Autolycus staunched the flow of blood from the wound of Ulysses by melodious song. Porphyry writes that Pythagoras based his musical education on certain melodies and rhythms which "exercised a healing, purifying influence on human actions and passions, restoring the pristine harmony of the soul's faculties. He applied the same means to curing diseases of both body and mind... In the evening when his disciples were about to retire, he would set them free from all the disturbances and agitations of the day, steadying their somewhat wavering minds and inducing peaceful sleep which brought with it propitious and even prophetic dreams. And when they arose in the morning, he freed them from lingering sleepiness by means of special songs and melodies."
Plato accorded just as much import to music as a powerful means of psychotherapy and education, as is shown by this statement: "Rhythm and harmony sing deep into the recesses of the soul and take the strongest of hold there, bringing that grace of body and mind which is only to be found in one who is brought up the right way."
Aristotle mentions that music has the power to induce emotional catharsis, and inner cleansing. Music can leave us feeling pure and fresh, energised and healthy. It is like incense on the emotional or astral plane, clearing away the 'bad smell' of disharmony.
In Europe during the nineteenth century, the prevailing materialistic trend tended to neglect the use of music in psychotherapy though in countries such as India this has remained an integral part of the lives of the people. Perhaps the only remnant of music as part of the western psychotropic tradition (as a means to change the mind) remained in military marching music. Occasional reports did filter through, however, such as the claim of Hector Chomet that music prevented epilepsy in one woman. Every time this woman felt an attack coming on she would arrange for a certain piece of music to be played and the attack would subside. In this way she entirely overcame her attacks.
We would greatly benefit by looking into our past and recognising the positive experiences of our ancestors. In this manner we can pave the way for a more melodious and harmonious future.