The sounds that define the religio-culture of Hinduism can be divided into two distinct categories: mantras or chanting and prayers songs known as bhajan. Both are vocal expressions employed to achieve similar goals, however, the practice and setting in which each is voiced is vastly different. The type of verbal worship or prayer that one practices largely defines his place in Hindu society. In this way, the various sounds of Hinduism serve as not only a vehicle of praise and divine relation, but also as a form of identification within Indian culture. In order to analyze the relationship between sound, identity and divine knowledge in Hinduism, it is essential to understand the purpose, parts and practice of each category.
Bhajan is part of Bhakti Yoga, a tradition based in the Upanishadic and Dharmic subtraditions of Hinduism that eventually detached and became its own form of worship. Bhakti Yoga is essentially disciplined worship by means of complete devotion and love. Bhakti can be directed to any deity, however Krshna Bhakti is the most popular due to his accessibility and inclusive reputation, especially for women. The bhajans of Krshna Bhakti are a particularly significant due to the nature of Krshna worship festivals. As a playful and loving god, Krshna Bhakti is practiced through elaborate festivals with dances like the ras lila, sports, delicious foods and fun activities. The dances and songs of Krshna Bhakti are meant to be entertaining, erotic and arousing, allowing followers to reach the purest and strongest form of love for Krshna. One main subject of bhajan is the divine union of Krshna and his earthly lover Radha. By listening, singing, and dancing to arousing music, complete devotion to the divine is reached by sharing ultimate and unrestrained love. One famous devotee of Krshna is Mirabai, a 16th century Hindu saint who wrote songs and poems of love to Krshna. Her work exemplifies the devotion necessary to reach the ultimate goal of liberation through Bhakti Yoga.
Hindu mantras and chanting trace back to the origins of the religion. One of the first rituals that remains the epicenter of the Vedic tradition is the fire sacrifice. Noble priests and householders perform this ceremony at different levels, sacrificing food and offerings for protection, prosperity and progeny. During the ritual, different hymns are chanted to call on the various gods and request divine knowledge in return for devotion. Mantras or “sacred sentences” are also chanted in everyday practice to express devotion in order to increase consciousness of liberated truth.
Both forms of worship achieve liberation from the cycle of delusion via devotion to the divine through vocal expression, however the practices, and therefore practitioners, of each are different, making sound a form of identification. Bhajan is easy to access in the general Hindu population and tend to be more pleasurable while mantra is much more serious and takes a higher status and level of attention. By partaking in vocal prayer, whether it be mantra or bhajan, a Hindu is identifying himself as either a part of the majority with worship integrated into daily life or as a part of the minority that lives as a devotee and student of the divine powers at work.
Zide, Norman. “Mirabai and Her Contributions to the Bhakti Movement.” History of Religions. Vol.5, No.1 (Summer,1965), 54-73.
Norman Zide is a Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilization in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Chicago. In this article, Zide examines the life and influences of the well-known Hindu poet Mirabai. Miribai dedicated all of her poems, which were sung as bhajans, to Lord Krshna and focused on his divine relationship with Radha. Miribai’s complete devotion to Lord Krshna contributed to the popular practice of Krshna Bhakti Yoga by making devotion more available via the vehicle of music.
Singer, Milton. “The Radha-Krishna ‘Bhajans’ of Madras City.” History of Religions. Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter, 1963), 183-226.
Milton Singer is one of the nation’s pre-eminent scholars of India focusing specifically on the period of modernization on Indian culture. In this journal article, Singer analyzes the popularity of bhajans in 20th century. He uses the Krshna Bhakti worship dance known as ras lila and the prayer songs that accompany it to illustrate the importance of bhajans in Krshna worship. He also breaks the diverse practice into six distinct categories and examines the social integration of each type of prayer song.
Kinsley, David. “Without Krsna There is No Song.” History of Religions. Vol. 12, No. 2 (November, 1972), 149-180.
David Kinsley was a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University who mostly studied the role of the divine feminine in Hinduism. Fascinated by the popularity of Krshna Bhakti, its practices, and how it contrasts with other Hindu traditions, Kinsley claims that without Krshna worship, sound would play a much different role in Hindu culture. The playful music and songs of India exist only because of Krshna worship and, in a historical context, are very new to Hinduism.
Gonda, Jan. “The Indian Mantra.” Oriens. Vol. 16 (December, 1963), 244-297.
Jan Gonda was a Dutch Orientalist and Indologist recognized as one of the twentieth century’s leading scholars of Asian language, literature and religion. His work with Hindu texts lead him to analyze the importance of the spoken word, especially mantra, in Hindu rituals. Vocal expression is central to the rituals of older Hindu traditions, such as the fire sacrifice in the Vedic Tradition. The power of “sacred sentences” are achieved through repetition and emphasis. This journal article also breaks down and analyzes some important Vedic hymns, identifying the poets intent and the importance of the hymns in Vedic practices.
Bhaktivedanta Swami. On the Way to Krsna. London: Bhaktivedanta, 1973. 5-79.
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was a Vaishnava teacher and the founder of Interntionational Society for Krishna Consciousness, known as the “Hare Krishna Movement.” He translated over sixty volumes of classic Vedic scriptures and dedicated the last twenty years of his life to publishing his works of religious teachings. This short book of teachings lays out ways to act in order to live a life of devotion to Krsna. One of the most important ways to know Krsna is through chanting. Bhaktivedanta Swami translates the Hare Krsna mantra and explains how to utilize it to see, feel, and relate to Krsna everywhere and always.