The Sound of Bhakti

When I first heard Indian music, it all sounded the same to me. My ear had been so accustomed to listen for harmony, especially harmony from ‘Middle C’, as in so much Western music, that I did not make out any of the subtly of Indian music’s melodic and rhythmic treasure.

It sounded exotic, indecipherable, a blur of indistinguishable high-pitch sound. Yet even if I couldn’t make any sense of it, there was something simple, something raw in its complex and refined sound that really grabbed me. The more I listened, the more I learned, and the more I loved it.

Maybe that’s why I am so bonkers about Hindustani classical – because of the chain reaction of feeling it and understanding it. And also because it takes me to India itself, at least the part of India that lives in me.

It was actually yoga that first brought me to India, where I discovered my love for Indian music. As a student of the life encompassing Ashtanga Yoga, I wanted to understand the Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion) that I read about in the Bhagavad Gita (my all-time favorite yoga book). So I began to incorporate some traditional Sanskrit chanting of Yoga Sutras and Vedic verses into my rituals. Tuesday evenings were dedicated to the kirtan (call-and-response devotional chanting) at our local yoga studio, and my iPod was always playing some kind of bhajans (devotional hymns and songs).

On my second trip to India, I was introduced to an elderly Bengali woman in our neighborhood, and started going to her for what I thought would be just lessons in basic singing and harmonium. Actually, I learned a whole lot more.

Mornings at our Auntyji’s house during the 3 years I knew her were memorable lessons in Indian culture (custom, religion, family, language, food, devotion, and oh yeah … music). I was surprised to find her emphasis on practice, dharma, spiritual knowledge, prayer, family, and so many other salient points of our yoga education. She made sure I learned to lead group chanting, no matter how ridiculous I thought that was because I sang so badly. “If devotion is there, you just sing” she would say.

At some point, my yoga and music merged into each other through sravana (listening), sadhana (spiritual practice), dharana (conentration), dhyana (meditation), bhakti (devotion), and so much more.  My adventure into Indian music took off along with my yoga practice. I found myself going to India just to be there – immersed in the music and vibration, as well as to deepen my yoga and music studies.

Without Auntyji looking my way with her stern look and compassionate eyes, (she passed away just about the same time as our Guruji in 2009), it has been difficult to get back into group chanting.  But I am still very much feeling her presence in my life and sadhana.

I am also still trying to make sense of Hindustani music, and actually still just beginning to understand it. All the music that I am studying, sharing on this blog, and generally enthralled by, is an intimate expression of devotion to god, although each artist/devotee may call god by a different name. That’s probably what drew me to Auntyji and Indian music initially.

That’s definitely what she taught me. The beauty of Indian classical music goes beyond the mind and into the heart. You’ve got to feel it, to love it. Then the feeling of the music leaves behind a bit of peace and quiet.

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