Worship of Nada Brahman

The real aim of Indian music has always been to attain self-realization and through music practiced as Nadopasana, this is achieved much sooner.

Music ranks as the highest of the fine arts; as the one which, more than any other ministers to human welfare. Even Westerners feel that “music is more intimately connected, than any other art, with the hidden soul in us; the incognisable part of our minds which it stirs into activity that at once fills us with delight and passes understanding.” A Hindu philosopher would have applied this description for what is known as Brahmanubhava.

Although, in the West, music was not considered as an Upasana to attain the Supreme, music and devotion to God went hand in hand. Composers like Bach were intensely religious men and the bulk of their work was church music. Bach’s music has a serenity which comes from confidence in God and eternal salvation. This common feature between the master composers of Western and Indian music is remarkable.

Music was never looked upon in India as a form of entertainment to the people; not even as a fine art, but as a means for attaining eternal beatitude (moksha, apavarga, svarga, etc.). This accounts for the large number of saints, evolved souls and devotees among its best exponents and composers.

Origin Traced to “Vedas”

The origin of Indian music is traced to the Sama Veda and music itself is styled as the Gandharva Veda, one of the Upa Vedas. From time immemorial, God has been conceived as Nada Brahman (embodiment of sound) and the practice of music as spiritual sadhana, as Nada Vidya or Nada Upasana (Worship of God through sound). In one of his kritis Tyagaraja calls it Sangita Upasana (worship through music). The Yajnavalkya Smriti is perhaps the oldest treatise which mentions that a mere votary of absolute music viz. music without words, attains salvation.

Another verse equally oft-quoted in this context is attributed to Lord Narayana Himself:

“Naaham vasaami Vaikunthe na yogi hridaye ravau Madbhaktaah yatra gaayanti tatra tishthami Naarada”. (Meaning – “I dwell not in Vaikuntha nor in the hearts of yogins, nor in the Sun (but) where my devotees sing, there I be.”)

Even before Sarangadeva wrote his ‘Sangita Ratnakara’ (13th Century) devotees like the Alwars and Nayanmars of the Tamil country, several of whom were qualified vocalists and instrumentalists, conceived of God as the embodiment as well as the fruit of music (Isaiyay, Isaippayanay).

Voice of God

In the very first sloka of his monumental work, Sarangadeva pays homage to Lord Sankara as ‘Nada Tanu,’ i.e. ‘one whose body is sound’. This led to music itself being described as ‘Brahmanaada’ or the voice of God. Sarangadeva later proceeds to give a long list of gods and goddesses who were votaries of music and adds “Saama Vedaadidam gitam samjagraaha Pitaamahah” (Brahma created this music from the Sama Veda).

Nada Vidya or Nadopasana is the worship of Nada which is not mere sound but musical sound. The whole subject of music relates to Nada. Nada gives rise to srutis which give rise to svaras and they in turn become the source of ragas. Nada admits of the division of Ahata and Anahata, the former being the sound produced by the conscious effort of man and the latter, the nada that is heard without conscious effort like the music of the spheres.

Anahata Nada includes the Nada emanating from the Muladhara part of the human body. Tyagaraja, the greatest Nada Yogi of recent times, refers to the Muladhara Nada in his kriti “Svara raga sudha”. The Anahata Nada, being devoid of aesthetic beauty, does not afford pleasure to the mind. Hence Ahata Nada alone is studied and meditated upon by humans.

Emanation of Nada

An interesting description of how Nada is caused in the human body is furnished by Sarangadeva and other writers. The Atma or soul, desiring to speak or sing, stirs the mind; the mind strikes the fire abiding in the body; the fire strikes the wind; the wind abiding in Brahmagranthi, rising along the upward path, manifests sound in the navel, the heart, the throat, the head and the mouth.

Nada is thus produced by the combination of Prana and Anala. This description may appear somewhat fanciful to moderns but Tyagaraja, who must have experienced the emanation of Nada in this form, describes the process graphically in his kritis ‘Mokshamu galada’ and ‘Sobhillu saptasvara.’
The supreme aim of music is to realize the essence that shines behind music. So, the ragas have been conceived as the media for the realization of that essence which is the source of all knowledge, all intelligence and all bliss. Tyagaraja describes it as “Sangita jnnanamanu brahmananda sagaramu” (the ocean of supreme bliss called musical knowledge).

Tonal Forms Deified

The seers of music felt within themselves the necessity for animating the material structures of the ragas. They conceived the idea of the tonal forms possessed of flesh and blood like human beings and thus deified the ragas. Then the invisible ragas became visible in material forms. This idea is developed in a poetic manner by Tyagaraja in his kriti “Naada sudha rasambilanu”.

“The ambrosia of sound has assumed a human form”, he exclaims: “It is the basis of Vedas, Puranas, Agamas and Sastras. The seven notes are the bells of His bow, the Kodanda, which is none other than raga. Ghana, naya and desya are the strings, talagatis the arrows and bhajana the supreme reward.” All true musicians desire permanent peace of mind through the practice (sadhana) of music and through concentration and meditation upon the ideal of music.

Sarangadeva’s Thesis

Highly abstruse descriptions of the source and the nature of sound are found in Matanga’s Brihaddesi (5th – 6th Century), in Yoga treatises and Tantra works. Sarangadeva, who synthesizes all these doctrines in his Sangita Ratnakara, has elaborately discussed the divine nature of the causal sound. He says that when the causal sound manifests at the level of the heart, it is known as Mandra; at the level of the throat as Madhya and at the base of the tongue as Taara. The three levels are known as Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesvara. Such descriptions have a deep meaning and spiritual significance. The philosophical foundation of music rests upon the solid rock of the realization of the immortal soul of music, namely Nada.

According to the philosophy of music, the divine psyche or Atman is the foundation (Adishthana) of music. The psyche sings eternally the immortal song of absolute music, which is formless and colorless in essence and yet represents the infinite. The feeling distilled in sound becomes itself an independent object. It assumes a tune form which is definite but a meaning which is indefinite.

Spiritual “Sadhana”

Thus music is looked upon as a spiritual sadhana which elevates and animates the level of man’s consciousness and kindles in the cave of his heart the perpetual light of divine knowledge. The intuitive authors of the music of India were fully conscious of this secret and have made music the best and purest means for attaining God-realization.

Among the composers of Karnataka sangita, Tyagaraja alone has composed a group of 15 kritis exclusively dealing with the art and science of music and prescribing it as a sadhana to attain the Supreme. Other composers like Purandara Dasa and Dikshitar have, no doubt, made passing references to music like ten gamakas, 22 srutis, etc., but have not devoted an entire group of kritis to music as Tyagaraja has done.

A scrutiny of these songs shows that Tyagaraja was a confirmed votary of absolute music and his object of composing these kritis was to impress upon mankind that Nadopasana was spiritual sadhana. He presents his ideas in beautiful musical garb. He first pays homage to the divine sage Narada whom he describes as the “bee that hovers round the lotus called Nada” (Nada sarasiruha bhringa). He calls the seven notes as ‘beautiful deities’ who shine in the Vedas like Rik and Sama, in the Gayatri Mantra and in the hearts of gods and Brahmins. He asks his mind to drink the deep nectar of raga and get edified. To him, ragas are not mere groups of notes but have an ethos and to those who do sangita upasana, ‘they assume the most pleasing forms and dance before them with their anklets jingling’ (“Sripapriya”).

Role of Bhakti

The question might be asked why if sound (Nada) alone can constitute music and ensure salvation, have we thousands of musical compositions with sahitya in almost every Indian Language. Why has Bhajana or Sankirtana or Hari Kirtana, as it is called in different parts of India, been prescribed as an unfailing sadhana for spiritual elevation? The answer is that the worship of pure Nada as emanating from the Muladhara etc can only be done by duly initiated Yogins. If music is to serve the aspirations of the uninitiated multitude, it should be combined with devotion (bhakti) and made accessible to every aspirant.


Hindu mythology says: The seven principal notes are associated with the cries of animals and birds, and are classified as follows: Shadja (Sa), the cry of peacock; Rishaba (Ri), the sound made by the cow when calling her calf; Gandhara (Ga), the bleat of the goat; Madhyama (Ma), the cry of the heron and the tonic of nature; Panchama (Pa), the note of the Cuckoo or Kokila, the Indian nightingale; Dhaivata (Dha), the neighing of the horse; Nishada (Ni), the trumpeting of an elephant.