Swami Haridas – Saint Musician

From “An Introduction to Indian Music” by B. Chaitanya Deva
Reproduced here for educational purposes only

Swami Haridas has a highly significant place in the music of North India, for the era in which he lived was an extremely active and productive one. Therefore, Haridas found a fecund environment to give of his best to society. He, perhaps, may not be considered a pioneer in creating new forms of music, but was certainly a strong force in the spread of dhrupad, particularly.
Near the brija land of Mathura and Brindavan, at Gwalior, Rajan Man Singh Tomar, one of the most respected and generous patrons of dhrupad, reigned for nearly three decades from 1486 A.D. Under his enlightened support, dhrupad found a creative atmosphere for growth and his efforts were the cause of the production of many songs in the brij dialect, modelled on those of Vidyapati. In his court were a galaxy of musicians such as Bakshu, Bhanu and Baiju and he was eulogised by Tansen as one of his patrons.

The details of Haridas’s life are not well known. There are two schools of thought. According to one, he was born in 1480 A.D. in Rajpur, near Brindavan. His father’s name was Gangadhar and his mother’s Chitra Devi. At the age of twenty-five the youth was initiated into sanyasa by one Asudhir, belonging to the Nimbarka tradition. Haridas is said to have died in 1575 A.D. The second school holds that Haridas’ father was a Saraswat Brahmin from Multan. Ganga Devi was his mother. The family migrated to a village called Khairwali Sarak, near Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh. Haridas was born there in 1512 A.D. and in his memory the place is now called Haridaspur. At the age of twentyfive the young man became a sanyasi and left his mortal coil in 1607 A.D.

In any case, the significant fact was that from a very young age Haridas was drawn to a life of a recluse and became a sanyasi. He shifted his residence to Brindavan, the playground of the Immortal Cowherd and his love Radha. There he built his asram (hermitage) in Nidhuvan and sang his songs of the love of Radha-Krishna.

Swami Haridas’ compositions may strictly be classed as Vishnupadas, that is, songs in praise of Lord Vishnu (Lord Krishna). But even his prabhandas which do not refer to Krishna have come to be known as Vishnupadas, perhaps because of the mystic source of his music; but they are musically constructed like dhrupads. He is also said to have comstructed tirvats, ragamalas and such other forms. There are about 128 songs attributed to him, of which eighteen are philosophical and a hundred and ten devotional. The former are known as Siddhanta pada and the latter as Keli mala.
Haridas was deeply learned and widely acquainted with the music of his days. He describes how Radha and Krishna are sporting, “Two beams of light are playing. Unique are their dance and music. Ragas and raginis of heavenly beauty are born.

The two have sunk themselves in the ocean of raga”. Besides such descriptions, mention is found in his works of stringed instruments like kinnari, aghouti, of drums such as mridanga, daff. He also talks of ragas like Kedara, Gouri, Malhar and Vasant.

The swami was not only a great musician but also a great teacher. The best known of his pupils was Tansen, one of the ‘nine gems` of Akbar’s court. Tansen’s tutelage with Swami Haridas is still a matter of tradition and popular belief; there is no incontrovertible proof that this was a fact. Also, neither Tansen’s life nor his style of language show the religious depth of his master, if he did learn with Haridas at all. There is also a popular account that the renowned dhrupad singer and composer, Baiju, was a contemporary of Tansen and a student of the swami. This, however, is doubtful.

The respect that Swami Haridas has received is not merely because of his musical genius, but also due to the literary beauty and simplicity of his dhrupads. More than anything else his music and language were inspired by the mystic experience of bhakti and he is considered as one of the leading figures in the bhakti movement and music.

Swami Haridas belonged to the tradition of madhura bhakti – Adoration expressed in erotic terms. It is said that he was deeply affected by the teachings of the Andhra philosopher and bhakta, Nimbarka (13th Cen.), who sojourned in the North, spreading the gospel of Radha-Krishna love. He propounded the pphilosophy of bheda-abheda: “the simultaneous difference and non-difference”. But Haridas’ theology goes further and embraces not merely the Love of Krishna and Radha but also the witnessing of the Love, a state of mind called rasa. This aspect of rasa, is the theme of all his songs and teachings. In such an ecstatic condition of trance he sings of the play of Krishna among the bowers of Brindavan; that is why his Lord is known as Kunj bihari (kunj = bower, bihari = one who wanders). More than Krishna, Radha was the central personality of all his poems. He says, “Who knows of the quality of things more than Radha; if anyone has any knowledge at all, it is by her grace. None knows the beauty of raga, tala and dance, as Radha does”.

Swami Haridas began the Haridasi school of mysticism and had many spiritual disciples. The better known ones were Vitthal, Vipul, Viharin Deva, Krishna Das who fostered his tradition of devotional music. The main feature of this was that it was congregational. Groups of devotees came together and sang of the Lord of Brindavan. In the brij district this congregation is called samaj and is like the sankeertan of Bengal and the bhajani gosti of South India.

Though one of the greatest musicians of his times, the saint was completely indifferent to laurels and turned his face from all fame.

Swami Haridas

Born in 1486, Haridas took Sanyas at the age of 25 and settled in Brindavan. His compositions known as Vishnupadas were inspired by the platonic love between Krishna and Radha and are famous for the element of rasa – witnessing of love. Swami Haridas belonged to the tradition of madhura bhakti – adoration expressed in erotic terms. He was deeply influenced by the teachings of the Andhra philosopher and bhakta, Nimbarka, who sojourned in the North, spreading the gospel of Radha-Krishna love. There are about 128 songs attributed to him, of which 18 are philosophical and a 110 devotional. The former are known as Siddhanta pada and the latter as Keli mala.

Swami Haridas had some great pupils. It is believed that he was the guru of the great musician Tansen. He was a man of great simplicity and spurned all laurels and fame. Swami Haridas died in 1575.

There is a story about the famous musician Tansen, who lived in the court of Emperor Akbar. One day, the Emperor asked Tansen whether he had a teacher who had developed this art in him. Tansen replied that he had a Guru called Swami Haridas. The Emperor said, “If you can sing so well, I am sure your teacher can sing even better. Please call him.” Tansen replied that his teacher would never agree to come to the Emperor’s court. If he wanted to hear the teacher, they would have to go to him. So Emperor Akbar, disguised as Tansen’s friend and Tansen went to the forest where the teacher lived. Swami Haridas greeted them warmly and requested them to stay with him. Tansen explained that his friend had come especially to hear the great teacher. Swami Haridas simply smiled. For the next few days nothing happened and Emperor Akbar began to get restless. Suddenly, one night, the teacher started singing. The Emperor was stunned. He had never heard anything quite like that before and he listened spellbound. Unfortunately, when he went to meet the teacher in the morning to tell him about how wonderful the music was, Swami Haridas was nowhere to be found. Tansen was sad. He told the Emperor that since Tansen had brought a stranger here, his teacher had left the house for good. Tansen and the Emperor returned. The Emperor continued to be pensive. Finally, he asked Tansen whether the teacher had taught him what he sang. Tansen said he had and sang the same tune. At the end of it , the Emperor said, you are one of the greatest singers I know . Yet between you and your teacher there is a gap. The magic I heard when he sang is not there in what you sing. “Tansen smiled and said, “Its true. I sing for you. But he sang for the divine being within him.”