December is music season in Chennai, India. Classical musicians and music enthusiasts gather there at this time every year to immerse themselves in an ocean of rhythm and melody, and to celebrate the music of India that has none other than the Supreme Being Itself as its source.
Everyone has an attraction to music of some kind. Right from the youngest baby who is calmed by the melodious (or even not-so-melodious) voice of its mother to the venomous snake that dances to the tunes of its charmer, all living creatures have an innate attraction to music. But where does this built-in attraction come from? The answer lies in the question. If it is “built-in” it’s obvious that it has been put in by the builder—none other than the mighty Lord Himself.
Is it any surprise then that we owe our entire genre of classical music (which is the basis of every single form of music in India) to that lofty yet subtle emotion that always manifests itself in song—bhakti or devotion to God.
All the outpourings of devotion in great bhaktas (and jnanis too) emerged in the form of songs. The gopis, when Lord Krishna disappeared from amidst them during His rasa leela, cried out to Him not in wails but in song as the Gopika Gitam.
The forerunners of all bhaktas in the Kali Yuga—the Azhwars—have sung 4000 songs in praise of the Lord. Not just that, they encouraged everyone to “sing” the Names and praise of the Lord. Andal uses the word “pAdi” (meaning “to sing” in Tamil) time and again in her timeless Tiruppavai: “pArkadaLul payyathuyinra paramanadi pAdi”, “Ongi ulagaLanda utthaman pEr pAdi”, “kEsavanai pAdavum nI kEttE kidathIyO”, “manathukku iniyAnai pAdavum nI vAi thiravAi”, “pangaya kaNNAnai pAdElOr empAvAi”.
The Nayanmars all sang in praise of their Lord Shiva. In fact, Lord Shiva himself commanded Sundaramurthy Nayanar (Sundarar) to sing songs on Him.
Whether it was joy, sorrow, confusion or even berating their Lord, the feelings of great mahans down the ages emerge as songs. Language was never a barrier for them as it was only an outpouring of the heart, so it just came out in each of their native tongues. In fact, we invariably learn about the life histories of many mahans only because they took refuge in their Lord in times of strife and uncertainty, and sang about their own lives to Him. Sri Thyagaraja, Sri Purandara Dasa, Sri Kanaka Dasa and the other Dasas, Sri Bhadrachala Ramdas, Sant Meera Bai, Sri Jayadeva, Sant Soordas, the innumerable Panduranga bhaktas and so many other mahatmas even to this day simply speak to their Lord in song, which is what has given us (and continues to give us) the beloved songs that we enjoy so much today.
Even great jnanis who (for all outer purposes) were realized souls who were one with the Supreme Self, have sung praises of Him that are often filled with devotional fervor. This indicates that the musical vein in great souls is triggered not by their ability to do dhyana or tapas but by their intense love for God. Sri Sadashiva Brahmendra, a jnani, has composed several songs that bring out the unadulterated love that his state induced for the one God. Sri Ramana Maharshi, who advocated the advaitic path of Self-Enquiry, has composed the Aksharamanamalai (Marital Garland of Letters) that oozes with devotion to Lord Arunachala. Sri Ramalinga Adigalar (Vallalar) who saw everything as the one Light, has compositions to his credit that speak of himself as the bride and the Lord as his groom.
Little did these mahatmas know, plan or even imagine that their simple heartfelt offerings to the Lord will be so widely celebrated and bring such joy to millions of people across the world. When we sing these mahans’ kirtans (instead of singing our own compositions), it also creates in us the same longing for the Lord that those great souls had or have.
Devotion and music can never be separated, at least in India. Isn’t it only fair that this music season, as we enjoy the soulful music brought out by these great mahans, we should contemplate their matchless devotion to the Lord and shed a few thankful tears for bringing us untold happiness with their music?
Nisha Giri, Houston, TX
Adapted from the discourses of HH Sri Sri Muralidhara Swamiji