Music in the Tantric Tradition

Dr. Swami Karmananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd)

In the ancient times tantras for the expansion of consciousness were written and taught, concerning every aspect of nature. Ancient texts describe 14,000 different tantras. Unfortunately most are no longer available to us. Their subjects included the whole range of spiritual, psychic and material knowledge including the science of departed souls, palmistry, mathematics, music and healing.

The spiritual aspect of music is mentioned continuously in the tantras. Tantra states that the sound spectrum is capable of expansion in two ways. One is anahata (unstruck sound) and the other is ahata (struck sound). Anahata nada are those particular kind of sounds which are connected with the subtle planes of being. This anahata nada can be heard in the meditation practice known as nadanusandhana.

Anahata nada is transformed into ahata nada as it passes through the vocal cords in the voice box in the larynx. This is the origin of sound which can be perceived by our sense of hearing. Only sounds caused by vibrations between the frequencies of 30 and 30,000 Hertz (cycles per second) can be heard by human ears, although the ears of some other species, including dogs, remain sensitive to slightly higher frequencies. Sounds of less than 30Hz and more than 30,000Hz are inaudible to humans, though they are not necessarily without effect.

In tantra, the science of using gross and subtle sounds to acquire control over worldly and spiritual advancement is termed mantra shastra. Mantra is the production and awareness of sounds, both gross and subtle, in particular combinations. Mantra is the vehicle of tantric power. Without mantra, tantra does not exist.

According to the tantras, one end of the sound spectrum can be traced to its source as the first fundamental outpouring or expression of God's creativity. Out of this sound (parashakti) the whole of creation is forever unfolding and returning. In the Upanishads it is recognised as Om while in the Bible it is considered to be the word underlying the creation as the first verse of Genesis states: "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God." In nadanusandhana, sound is traced to this original blissful source.

At the other end of the sound spectrum, is the form of ahata nada which has been perfectly structured in Indian classical music. Alteration of consciousness through music was one of the major practices in the tantric rituals of bygone days. Indian classical music is considered to have originated from Shiva. According to the Puranas, Shiva made five ragas from his five mouths, and Parvati (Shakti) made the sixth raga from her mouth. Later on, Parvati made 36 raginis. Yamalashtaka Tantra, Shakya Tantra and Uddishbodyam all mention the yoga of music and the power of music in influencing the state of consciousness of both musicians and listeners alike. The development of Indian classical music has occurred directly as a majestic outgrowth or unfoldment of the principles and experiences of nada yoga based on the fundamental, transcendental sound.

Influence of music

At various stages of conscious awareness, the mind is easily attracted by different waves of nada. Some waves readily induce hypnotic states, others induce mental clarity, others induce heightened awareness of various emotional states and so on. Certain vibrations of nada seem to be disagreeable at particular times of the day. Other combinations are agreeable to individuals of one nature and disagreeable to others.

These nada vibrations in Indian music are known as raga or musical notes. For example, the morning music, the Bhairavi and Bhairava ragas, appeal to a few, but not to all temperaments, likewise the midnight music of Malkos and the Durga or Jogia ragas. The evening ragas, like Bhimpalasi, are more popularly appreciated. Most boys and girls of tender age prefer Bhairavi. This shows that the human mind reacts differently to different sound waves according to many factors, including our individual psychic personality, mental and emotional characteristics, and also the time of day, the seasonal conditions, etc. For example, the monsoon season is undoubtedly the time when ragas of high and tender emotional pitch are appreciated.

According to Shiva Samhita: "There is nothing as effective as nada to merge the mind." Just reflect upon how quickly one's whole mood and outlook change in response to favourable (or unfavourable) music. Scientific experiments have revealed that plants exposed to musical notes grow more quickly, animals are more calm and yield more milk, while patients in hospital require fewer drugs and medications and their surgical wounds heal more quickly when exposed to pleasing music.

Definitely music has active elements which stabilise the consciousness and reduce mental imbalance, bringing about a cohesiveness in the individuals concerned. Musical notes have been found to influence the digestive processes. Eye power, memory and mental performance have been improved by the influence of music.

Amongst tribal cultures the calling of deities through drums and dances is a common ritual. These ceremonies utilise the beat of drums to induce a state of deep trance in which the individual expresses himself freely, unhampered by the usual neurotic inhibitions and personality blockages. In the process, great relief is gained and many psychosomatic symptoms magically disappear overnight.

All these effects were recorded in tantra shastras in a most systematic and practical way. The influences, both beneficial and detrimental, of various notes, sounds and combinations upon the physical, mental and emotional structures of man, have been recorded and utilised by the gurus and spiritual teachers to guide the evolution of their disciples, and mankind in general, even up to the present day.

Physiological rhythms

To understand the relationship of rhythm and music to the more primitive ego structure, it is necessary to consider the relationship between physiology and music. Rhythm may be viewed as the language of physiology. Body functions such as heartbeat, brainwaves, peristaltic rhythms, hormonal secretion cycles, etc. are characterised by various rhythms. The entire nervous system communicates at a preconscious level by means of a series of neural impulses interpreted according to their rhythm. Neurophysiological experiments have shown clearly that the fundamental neuronal processes are occurring in the brain and vegetative nervous system as the underlying pattern of our consciousness. Upon these fundamental physiological rhythms the more complex communications of language and the psychological ego are built up, much as a complex piece of music is based upon recurring and underlying beats and melodies.

Each neuron has an inherent conduction velocity, amplitude and reaction time which are constant for that neuron - like a fundamental. They combine to make nerve bundles, which combine to form ganglia on the way to the brain. As the relationship becomes more complex, we begin to appreciate that consciousness exists in our nervous system in the form of a constant, ongoing, electrical activity, which is essentially rhythmic and musical in nature.

Because the central nervous system is bilaterally symmetrical, the impulses of a nerve group can be readily translated into a mathematical matrix, which can be translated directly into a complex of musical sounds simply by equating frequencies. Thus the rhythms of our life become a raga or symphony, playing eternally within our own nervous system. The basic measure or phenomenon of our continuing consciousness is thus musical. This continuous dance of consciousness is explained in the tantras as Lord Shiva's dance- Tandava Nritya. This is a peculiar sort of dancing pose in which Shiva has a damaru (small drum) in his hand. The faster he dances, the rhythm of the drum speeds up accordingly just as the level of activity in the autonomic nervous system constantly mirrors our state of consciousness and our level of psychological activity.

Bharatakalpalata Maitjari has expressed this concept of rhythm very nicely. It states: "Rhythm should be taken into consideration as time, and that time is known as Shiva. Nada (sound) has come from Shiva. Nada is the creation of the mind and mind makes time. Thus rhythm is itself a form of time."

In another tantric text, Uddisha Mahamantrodaya, some unknown types of drums are mentioned. These include talnilayam, patan, thuthuka, angulisphota, bhrammaka, mithkkatha, madadhala, etc. It is possible that these refer not to forgotten musical instruments, but to the physiological rhythms and internal melodies which accompany the various states of consciousness experienced in different chakras and centres of consciousness in the awakened nervous system during the psychological and emotional catharsis which occurs in the full experience of kirtan.

Restructuring the personality

The more primitive the psychic level, the more it is in tune with the bodily events that rule over it. Thus music becomes a means of communication with the physiologic processes which dominate the primitive ego. This is also why music and mantra are perhaps the easiest and simplest means of arousing the kundalini shakti, the divine, unconscious, spiritual power in man.

Destructuring of the psychological ego, and surrender to the deeper, more fundamental physiological rhythms of life or the 'primitive ego' is the first step in bringing to birth a greater man and a greater personality, just as an old and decrepit ruin must first be demolished before a new building can be created on the same site.

Music is thus a more fundamental language, enabling communication at a more primitive physiological level of rhythm which puts the neurotic personality back into contact with his own roots, the source of his lost energy. At the same time, music enables a rapport to be established with psychotic patients which is not attainable with conventional language, and can help to develop more external, socially and interpersonally oriented patterns of behaviour. Thus the healing potential of kirtan and music therapy is profound. It balances the lopsided developments of the human personality which correspond to the two extremes of neurosis and psychosis, and is the most direct means of awakening kundalini in the sushumna nadi.

The healing journey of the schizophrenic or autistic child will involve a trend towards more complex music, aimed at precipitating a reintegration of the lost or dormant ego and socially oriented personality. However, for the neurotic person, cut off from his or her own roots and source of power, regression and dissolution of psychological complexes and anxieties by wholehearted participation in kirtan is one of the best ways to attain physical, mental and spiritual balance.

Music therapy is one of the newly emerging forms of psychological treatment. As yet it remains in its infancy, for modern psychology has been concerned solely with the gross, vibrational (ahata) dimension of sound. Psychologists as a whole remain unaware of the range of experience and effects of the subtle dimension of sound, and its manipulation by mantra.

The best understanding of mantra and music will emerge from physiological experiments to determine the effects of various sounds and music forms upon the bodily systems of untrained subjects, under controlled conditions. Mantra science and its external expression as music, is the means by which science can bridge the gap between the language of physiology and the phenomenon of consciousness.