A Hierarchy of Hindu Identity

In the extremely diverse religio-culture of Hinduism, the type of verbal worship one practices with largely defines that person’s identity in that society. In this way, the sounds of Hinduism serve as a case study for the relationship between sound, identity and belonging. Each invocation belongs to a complex hierarchy of identification. At the top of the pyramid is Hinduism, a broad term referring to the Indian culture assigned to the Western idea of religion. Below that are the two categories of vocal expression, bhajan and mantra. Beneath that the sounds are subject to an elaborate labyrinth of intersecting and intertwined spheres of identification. The most discernible quality at this level is which deity the song, prayer or chant refers to. From there a sound can be traced through traditions and sub-traditions, geographic locations and varying contexts. Though a sound of Hindu worship can rarely be tracked to a precise origin, devotees that belong to the elements that define it can identify with that sound.

This particular bhajan, or prayer song, is in praise of Vishnu, the deity that is responsible for maintaining the balance of dharma and adharma, which roughly translates to good and evil, in the world. Any followers of the Classical Theology of Hinduism or any devotees to Vishnu could identify with this song. Often Vishnu appears in the form of Krishna, so Krishna Bhakti followers would also relate to this particular bhajan.  Many Hindus praise Vishnu in conjunction with his brother deities in the form of the Trimurti, so all of the Hindu’s that identify with any of the gods listed would also find a sense of belonging in this song. However yogi’s and those who practice mantra worship, or devotees of other gods such as Kali-Ma, would not identify with this song.

raas_leela

Belonging Through Sound In Hinduism

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.

Annotated Bibliography

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.

Beloning Through Sound in Hinduism

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.

Annotated Bibliography

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.

An Academic Audiography

I sat down last Sunday to brainstorm ideas for this assignment and found myself distracted by the chatter in the hallway, the endless opening and closing of doors, a bass thumping somewhere beneath me and the remarkably loud busses periodically passing by. Frustrated by my lack of focus on things that required my attention, I plugged in my iPod and proceeded to play my favorite playlist, a queer collection of country, hip hop, rock and show tunes. This worked for a few minutes, until the words flowing from the speakers became more important than the words trickling onto the page. I switched to my most played Pandora Radio station, Classical Piano Radio. As I sat and stared at a half filled page of useless notes and quotes, I noticed the soft, rhythmic click-clack click-clack of the pen in my hand and realized I was involuntarily creating the noise. This was a sound that punctuated every part of my academic life. Anytime there was a pen in my hand, be it in a lecture hall, study room or at my desk, I was clicking it. I wondered what other noises must characterize collegiate education for me; and so began the auditory analysis of Alex’s academic adventures.

In order to find what sounds define my learning experience, I recoded ten separate noises that I hear or produce at least a few times every week, starting with my main motivator, the sweet symphonic sound of my coffee machine, and proceeding with the sounds of classes, coursework and concentration. In order to ensure that my recordings were organic, I captured clips of ten or fifteen minutes and extracted short demos to summarize the entire sound. The demos are in roughly chronological order between two days and the distinguished pen click can be heard in almost all of them.

 

While only captured in a few of my clips*, I often use music or radio to hone in my concentration, especially when working on math homework, or taking my first set of notes on a reading (I copy them in silence later). I decided to further investigate specifically why having background noise helps me focus in certain situations. That practice contrasts Dr. Seth Horowitz analysis of the effect of technology on our ability to listen. Rather than “losing [the skill of listening] in a world of digital distraction,” I’m gaining the ability to stifle unimportant ambient noise through the use of music [1]. In fact, I view my employment of audio technology as a form of concentration and direction of attention rather than a distraction. Michel Chion sheds some light on why I need a distraction like classical music in his differentiation of three modes of listening. The most common is causal listening which “consists of listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause” [2]. Therefore, the laughter in the hall, for example, lets me know something amusing has happened, and makes me want to find out what it was. If I chose to block out those noises with lyrical music I begin to employ semantic listening “which refers to a code or a language to interpret a message” [3]. My brain automatically recognizes the lyrics as something I should listen to, especially since I know the songs well, and I can no longer devote my attention to the task in front of me. Classical music is the best way to solve all of the previously mentioned issues since I am not a student of music and can therefore listen without involuntarily thinking about the noise. It almost allows me to “turn-off” my sense of hearing.

Moving beyond my use of music while doing homework, these two modes are very applicable to the other sounds of my academic life. In a lecture it is important interpret the information being translated by language through semantic listening (especially if your professors have accents), whereas at my work study job, causal listening lets me know if they machines are working properly or if something is at a risk of breaking. Now that I know what aurally characterizes my academic life, I can use it to my benefit.

 

*I had situational constraints when trying to record some of my sounds as I commonly have to use headphones in my room and in the study rooms so I am not bothering others.

Works Cited

[1] Seth Horowitz, The Science and Art of Listening. (New York: The New York Times, 2012), 2.

[2] Chion, Michael, “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. (New York: Routledge, 2012), 48.

[3] Ibid. 50.

 

 

 

Soundtrack of Knowledge

A Synopsis of Chapters VI and VII of The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass

 

The scene opens in a townhouse in Baltimore. The ambient noises of daily life outside are occasionally heard softly. Mrs. Auld is sitting in an armchair reciting the alphabet in a gentle and encouraging voice. Frederick Douglass, as a young black boy, relays each letter back, his voice shakily forming around the shape of the letter. The viewpoint fades to a newspaper on a table. As a delicate white finger points to a four-letter word, his voice is heard sounding out each letter until his mouth and mind recognize the word and repeat it two or three times. Anytime Douglass’ southern drawl causes his tongue to lay too heavily on a vowel, or drop a consonant, Mrs. Auld repeats the word, putting emphasis on the part that was mistaken. This process repeats itself over and over. Peyn was corrected with pen; wuz replaced with was; and brang became bring, and the g never dropped. It cuts to Mrs. Auld once again sitting in her armchair with Frederick Douglass standing opposite of her. She is saying short words and he is spelling them back to her. The three-letter words are quick and easy while the four-letter words, especially those with vowel combinations, are spoken with more hesitation between each sound. Suddenly, while Douglass is halfway through the word work, Mr. Auld bursts into the room.

“Silence, boy!” he shouts, his voice loud and demanding. He turns to his wife, lowering his voice, yet accentuating his words with a furious hiss. His consonants are sharp against the silence. “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master.” The intensity in his voice reveals the truth in what he is saying. Mr. Auld takes a deep breath, calming his voice to appeal to his wife’s delicate side while remaining firm. “As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” Mr. Auld walks out briskly with the soft thump of his boots on the carpet. There is a moment of utter silence as Mrs. Auld stares at the eager, young black boy. Then, with a quick exhale, she hurries out as well with only the whisper of her skirts rubbing together.

As the scene slowly zooms onto young Douglass, his rich older voice is heard as narration. Behind his voice, music characterized mainly by string instruments begins to build. “These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled. I now understand what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty: the white man’s power to enslave the black man. From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” There is a moment of violins held in a suspended note as the power of Douglass’s words sink in. The viewpoint is now close on young Douglass’s face with determination in his eyes and a slight smile. “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”

The scene is black and quiet for a moment, until young Douglass bursts out of the front door and is bombarded with the harmonious cacophony of city life. Children are seen and heard laughing and playing in the streets. Hurried white businessmen brush past, often followed by a slave carrying briefcases and baggage. The shouts of orders to men loading and unloading at the ship yard filled the air with the occasional swear or lash of the whip signifying mistake. Beneath it all, the low hum of mechanized life can be heard. However the music powers through the noise, expressing the hustle and bustle of life in the city.

The music continues with playful interjections of trumpets and percussion, yet above all else the sounds of Douglass acquiring knowledge are heard: the letters, sounds and words spoken from poor boys’ lips as white fingers trace through dirt in the street; the workers in the shipyard yelling “Larboard aft!” while marking a great plank with a giant “L.A.” while Douglass looks on, copying the letters by scratching into drift wood; and the scrape of chalk on brick walls and sidewalks writing and rewriting letter after letter. The music and sounds of street life fade out as the scene changes to Douglass sitting in an empty and dark house writing in young Master Thomas’s copy-book. All that is heard is the sound of a pencil on stolen paper. As the last word on the last page is finished, Douglass smiles, admiring how his smooth and practiced writing compares to that of Master Thomas, and closes the book. The scene goes black and silent.