Music and Enlightenment

Discourses on Music -8

Prateeksha Sharma



O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

-W.B.Yeats   (Among School Children)

W.B.Yeats- Collected Poems, New Delhi: Rupa and Co. (1993)


In India saints and ascetics have forever used the medium of sound and chanting to alter consciousness. Mantra or japa meditation is an entire pathway to that end. An entire Upanishad- the Nada Bindu Upanishad deals with the process of reaching a state of divine consciousness through making use of music and meditation on the ‘nada’- the primal cosmic sound. Music is frequently adopted as a means of reaching a state of samadhi- union with the divine consciousness, both by saints and musicians.


Music has a property to transport, from one to another realm. And this ability is shared by all creative accomplishments notes Dr.Stanislav Grof. According to him the most frequent triggers of unitive or ‘peak experiences’ (first defined by the late American psychologist Abraham Maslow)  are natural and human-made creations of extraordinary aesthetic beauty...Exposure to exquisite artistic creations can have a very similar effect. Composers deeply engaged in creative work, performing musicians, as well as people in musical audiences, can occasionally lose their boundaries and literally merge with the music. They can have a sense of actually becomig music, rather than just listening to it”[i]


            What pleases us in any of our arts, whether drawing, painting, carving, architecture, sculpture, or poetry is the harmony behind them, the music. What poetry suggests to us is music, the rhythm in the poetry or the harmony of ideas and phrases. Besides this, in painting and drawing it is our sense of proportion and our sense of harmony which give us all the pleasure we gain in admiring art.and what appeals to us in being near to nature is nature’s music, and nature’s music is more perfect than that of art. In the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan, “ It gives us a sense of exaltation to be moving about in the woods, and to be looking at the green; to be standing near the running water, which has its rhythm, its tone and its harmony. The swinging of the branches in the forest, the rising and falling of the waves, all has its music. And once we contemplate and become one with nature our hearts open to its music.”


Frequently it has been seen, that musical instruments used by folk and tribal artists- who are the true preservers of humanity’s culture, living as they do in their primordial jungle environments, are extremely simple. And yet these instruments are   capable of producing a state of rapture in the listener and the performer alike. From the ektara used in the folk traditions of the Punjab in India, the dotara used by the Krishna-bhakta Bauls of Bengal to the trance like state attained among the shamans of Siberia by dancing to the magical melody of a stringed instrument called the kobuz[ii]. The folk simply resonate with the original song of nature as closely as possible.


        In Persia and Arabic region from Turkey to Afghanistan it was primarily in the mystic secret schools of the Sufis that music was regarded as a means and path to enlightenment. True, many Islamic sects had forbidden not only representational art but also all music, as a result of an over-zealous interpretation of the Koran. But Muhammad’s interdict really applied only to worldly, sensual music, with which the chanting of the Sufis was not concerned, says Peter Hamel, an eminent musician and composer. Likewise, in every spiritual tradition we find music playing a major role, one way or another. 


In making the music, the musicians themselves enter a common stream of consciousness, and what they create is an invitation to the listeners to be entered into that consciousness- which his also the consciousness of their people. The feel of the music is the feel of their common history, the burden of their history; their suffering and their woe; their endurance and their strenght; their poverty and their pain”.

-Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jamaican Musician


This is how in every aspect of human life, music is woven intrinsically, from birth to death- as ritual, education, training, health, expression and even a method to transform consciousness. In knowing and appreciating this simple idea about the potential of music we can help ourselves to live more healthy, balanced and harmonious lives. But first we would have to begin by discovering our unique music. In tapping that music within we would automatically lend ears to the music among our fellow human beings and in matching our voices to sing the same melody as another we shed our limited selves and become the giants that we were made to be when we were born. It is now in our hands whether we choose to live our solitary lives, cut off from the sounds of the world- drowned in the sounds of our television sets or hi-fi sets or step aside to find our unique sounds and learn to harness the music within.




[i] Grof, Stanislav (1998) The Cosmic Game: Explorations of the Frontiers of Human Consciousness. New York: State University of New York Press.


[ii] Hamel, Peter Michael (Fifth Impression 1986) Through Music to the Self. Longmead Shaftesbury Dorset: Element Books Ltd

In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.
    - Lido Anthony Iacocca

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