Sonic Liturgy (Ritual and Music in Hindu Tradition)

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Item Code: NAF804
Publisher: Dev Publishers And Distributors
Author: Guy L. Beck
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9789381406298
Pages: 265
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.0 inch x 6.0 inch
Weight 300 gm
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“An informative, thorough, and insightful successor and companion to Beck’s earlier book, Sonic Theology, on the theory of sound and music and its relationship to religious ideas, his current study turns to the sacred function of sound and music in Vedic and sectarian Hindu ritual and devotional praxis. With this book on sonic liturgy, scholars of religion will learn much about the history and function of scared music in India; scholars of music will learn much about Vedic and Hindu religious ideas, perspectives, and practice; and scholars in lituragical studies have an excellent resource for their understanding of this important relationship between religion and music in India.”


About The Book

Sonic Liturgy: Ritual and Music in Hindu Tradition builds on the foundation of Guy L. Beck’s earlier work, Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound, which describes the theoretical role of sound in Hindu thought. Sonic Liturgy continues the discussion of sound into the realm of Hindu ritual and musical traditions of worship.

Beginning with the chanting of the Samaveda alongside the fire sacrifices of the ancient Indo-Aryans and with the classical Gandharva music as outlined in the musicological texts of Bharata and Dattila, Beck establishers a historical foundation for an in-depth understanding of the role of music in the early Puja rituals and Indian theater, in the vernacular poetry of the Bhakti movements, in medival temple worship of Siva and Vishnu in southern India, and later in the worship of Krishna in the northern Braj region. By surveying a multitude of worship traditions and drawing on diverse sources in both Sanskrit and vernacular languages, Beck reveals a continuous template of interwoven ritual and music in Hindu tradition that he terms “sonic liturgy.” A structure of religious worship and experience that incorporates sound and music on many levels.

In developing the concept and methods for understanding the phenomenon of sonic liturgy, Beck draws from liturgical studies and ritual studies-broadening the dimensions of each-as well as from recent work in the fields of Indian religion and music. As he maps the evolution of sonic liturgy in Hindu culture.


About The Author

Beck shows how, parallel to the development of religious ritual from ancient times to the present, there is a less understood progression of musical form, beginning with Vedic chants of two to three notes to complicated genres of devotional temple music employing ragas with up to a dozen notes. Sonic liturgy in its maturity is manifest as a complex interactive worship experience of the Vaishnava sects, presented here in Beck’s final chapters.

GUY L. BECK is the author of Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound and editor of Sacred sound: Experiencing Music in World Religions. A U.S. Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellow, Beck has spent more than six years in India studying Hinduism and music, and he has written extensively on the role of sound and music in Indian traditions. He has also learned the art of classical Hindustani vocal music from distinguished exponents in India and has recorded two audio CDs, as well as given numerous lectures and concerts in both India and the West. Beck teaches religion and music at Tulane University and the University of New Orleans.



This book is dedicated to all the musicians and ritual specialists of Hindu India who have diligently maintained their traditions with unswerving devotion over the centuries. Sonic Liturgy: Ritual and Music in Hindu Tradition may be viewed as a sequel to the previous Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (1993), also published by the University of South Carolina Press. While the former deals with theories of sacred sound in Hinduism, the present work covers some of the practical aspects of sound and music. Financial support for the research conducted in 1992 and 1993 was provided by the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars (CIES) in the form of a Fulbright Research Grant and by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) in the form of a Senior Research Fellowship. During the periods covered by these grants, I greatly appreciate the assistance provided by the Vrindaban Research Institute for fieldwork in the Braj area and the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta for instruction on Indian music theory and history.

For the present work, thanks go to Professor Ed Johnson, chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of New Orleans, for providing me with a wonderful office while I taught courses at UNO from fall 2008 through fall 2009. During this time most of the actual writing book place in the peaceful solitude of the third floor of the Liberal Arts Building. In addition, the fact that the Tulane University School of Continuing Studies kept me on board during the difficult post-Katrina years will never be forgotten. Without the employment support of these two institutions, the completion of this book would not have been possible.

I sincerely extend a vote of thanks to Professor Fred Denny for graciously accommodating this text in his USC Press series, Studies in Comparative Religion. I also thank James Denton and the editors of the University of South Carolina Press for taking an interest in a work on Hindu ritual and music and for their help through the acquisitions and editorial processes.

Last, Kajal Beck, my wife, deserves much credit for her patient assistance and encouragement through all phases of the project, including in Vrindaban and Rajasthan in northern India when I was the recipient of the Fulbright and AIIS grants.



The ONLINE DESCRIPTION OF THE GRADUATE program in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, contained the following statement in August 2010: “The goal of this program is to promote the study and understanding of Christian worship as it is lived and expressed through the churches’ various traditions and cultures. It assumes that worship is at the heart of the theological enterprise, since it is both the primary context of the churches’ encounter with the mystery of the Triune God and a primary actualization of the ecclesial body. Study in this area requires an interdisciplinary approach to liturgical studies that integrates the historical, theological, and social-scientific study of Christian ritual practice”

At first glance this statement suggests that “liturgical studies” is essentially a Christian concern. In fact this notion is found throughout the curricula of many theological schools and seminaries. But despite this seemingly closed perspective, there are multiple indications of the widening of the liturgical lens within Christianity, as is evident in the number of non-Christian entries found in the New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (2002), edited by Paul Bradshaw. There are entries regarding Jewish worship, Islamic worship, Hindu worship, Buddhist worship, Sikh worship, and Shinto worship. In each case the presence of music and chant is briefly woven into the description of the ritual and liturgical dimensions of each tradition. Outside the Christian fold scholars in the phenomenology of religion and music have also been struggling to break the ironclad hold of sectarianism on otherwise neutral terms and categories such as liturgy, rituals, and sacred music. These expressions, and others, are now increasingly employed by Christian as well as religious studies scholars as comparative categories, understood not to be the “possession” of certain religious groups. Hence despite some programmatic setbacks, the field of liturgical studies, along with ritual studies, has the potential of developing into a rewarding comparative discipline and one that also provides new elements of method and theory with regard to Hindu tradition.

Recent scholarship in musicology has broadened the scope of music and religious worship by explaining the various ways in which music and song play central roles in all known religions: “In some religions sound itself is a cosmological starting point. As such, it represents the essence of the universe and to be in harmony with the universe means to hear accurately its sound… Further, sound may be the medium of revelation by which the gods have chosen to make themselves known. Further still, sound may be the believer’s means of communication to the gods and/or preparing oneself for such communication. The content of this preparation and communication is combined with the music to become songs, that is, music with an articulated goal. Music has been used cosmologically, liturgically, and devotionally in all the world’s religions.”

One of the tasks in the study of religion and music is to recognize and document common denominators among varying forms of religions music. For example, a parallel feature shared by religious practitioners is the conservative attitude with which they approach their music as it relates to ritual and liturgy. In most religious throughout the world, there are strict rules regarding the performance of music and chant in ritual contexts. Traditional psalms, chants, hymns, and liturgical songs are generally predetermined and contain little scope for alteration beyond fixed parameters: Latin Gregorian chants, Calvinist psalmody, Lutheran chorales, gospel hymns, church litanies, and prayers in the Christian tradition; Qur’an recitation and Majlis in Islam; Chinese ceremonial songs and chants in Confucian or Taoist contexts; Buddhist chants throughout Asia; musical forms of ancient Egypt as described by Plato; Vedic invocations and hymns, Gandharva music, Sanskrit mantras and Stotras, scriptural recitations, Kirtana and Kriti in South India, Bhajans, Bhakti Sangit, Haveli Sangit, Samaj Gayan, and Padavali Kirtan in North India, and Shabad Kirtan in Sikhism. A widely held assumption is that these traditional musical forms are performed in connection with one God, specific deities, sacred ancestors, or spirits. They are handed down from the hoary past and effectively produce expected results only if performed precisely according to canonical standards.

Among the various forms of “conservative” music used in religious worship around the world, this book focuses on the exploration of ritual and music in the Hindu tradition. For this purpose the author has advanced the category of sonic liturgy as a flexible template with which to examine the co-appearance of ritual and music as they have evolved within the Hindu tradition. While sound and music are certainly present in most if not all religious rituals, the Hindu tradition provides perhaps the most consistent and enduring exemplification of the notion of sonic liturgy-the ritual order or pattern of specific events that include sound and music on a variety of levels. Moving beyond the mere description of ritual or musical practices, this book seeks formally to engage the issue of why music is so profoundly significant in Hindu ritual. This quest for the deeper meaning of ritual and music in Hindu tradition touches upon the Western field of liturgical studies in several ways. Liturgist Edward Foley had already raised the central question-why is music so widely used in ritual?-that has partly led to the formulation of this study. Additional aspects of method and terminology are adopted from liturgical studies and ritual studies that articulate the subtleties and nuances of the Hindu ritual and musical experience.

In terms of format this book follows a chronological scheme that reveals the historical roots of the consistently close connection between ritual and music in Hindu tradition, from the ancient Vedic religion to modern times. Selected traditions of Hindu sonic liturgy throughout India's long legacy of ritual sacrifice, temple music, and devotional traditions are presented in sequence, with references from the appropriate Sanskrit and vernacular sources. After discussing the Vedic religion associated with Yajnas (fire sacrifices) and Sarna-Cana, this book outlines the emergence of Gandharva Sangita as the principal music designed for Puja, a new form of worship that abandoned the use of fire in favor of offerings placed on an altar. Following this, it covers the medieval tradition of Hindu temple worship that became standardized in the Agama literatures and began to include vernacu-lar poetical expressions of devotion set to regional music in the shape of Bhakti Sangit, variously known as Kirtan and Bhajan. As these traditions flourished, sonic liturgies became associated with sectarian branches of Hindu traditions, primarily those of Siva and Vishnu and, especially, Krishna. The book consequently examines selected cases of Vaishnava temple worship that have adopted the classical music styles of Dhrupad and Dhamar in the form of Haveli Sangit and Samaj Gayan. The purpose is to elaborate upon these genres of Hindu music and to rein- force the growing comparative nature of the field of liturgical studies by applying some of its approaches to the Hindu religious realm.


Despite their obvious significance, sound and music as categories of special inquiry have been neglected in the academic field of religious studies since the pioneer work of Rudolf Otto (1920s) and Gerardus Van der Leeuw (1950s). Systematic studies of texts, communities, social issues, artifacts, tools, architecture, verbal testimony, clothing, utensils and other objects associated with a religion are routinely carried out, often at a distance from the actual practice of living religions, which is rarely silent and almost always sound-full, musical, and frequently noisy. The visual dimension of religion has received plentiful attention from art historians, iconographers, mythographers, and anthropologists. However, com- plementary studies in the audible or sonic realm of religion have not been forthcoming, leaving a lacuna. For instance, two recent examples of important authoritative works in the field do not contain references to music: Mark C. Tay- lor, ed., Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), and Will i Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, eds. Guide to the Study of Religion (London: Cassell, 2000). Moreover, many standard textbooks and dictionaries on religion are mute with regard to sound and music, as discussed in the introduction to my 2006 volume Sacred Sound: Experiencing Music in World Religion» (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press). This book issued a clarion call for more serious attention to the roles of music and chant in comparative religious thought and practice and for increased emphasis on the actual experiences of believers in the embodied context of worship, experiences that invariably involve sonic or musical activity.

In the twentieth century two of the principal founders of the academic field of religious studies, Rudolf Otto and Gerardus Van der Leeuw, highlighted sacred music and sacred sound in their writings. While both were Protestant theologians, they were among the first to inaugurate a nonsectarian approach to the presence of music in religious experience across religious borders. Otto (1869-1937), a Lutheran theologian, in The Idea of the Holy (published in German in 1917 and in English in 1923), set the parameters for the phenomenological study of religion and music with a few well-chosen remarks on the feelings associated with music, which in his view were very similar to feelings associated with the holy itself, the numinous, the "wholly other": "Music, in short, arouses in us an experience and vibrations of mood that are quite specific in kind .... The resultant complex mood is, as it were, a fabric, in which the general human feelings and emotional states constitute the warp, and the non-rational music-feelings the woof. ... The real content of music is not drawn from the ordinary human emotions at all, and ... is in no way merely a second language, alongside the usual one, by which these emotions find expression. Musical feeling is rather (like numinous feeling) some- thing 'wholly other.'" 2 Accordingly, the human response to music is composed of feelings and experiences similar to those evoked by the numinous, such as mysterium tremendum (mystery and awe) and fascinans (attraction).

Building upon the work of Otto, Van der Leeuw (1890-1950), in his now classic Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1938), broadened the scope by stating that "musical expression of the holy occupies an extensive domain in worship. There is hardly any worship without music." In a subsequent work, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art (1963), an entire section entitled "Music and Religion" includes the subsections "Holy Sound," and "Theological Aesthetics of Music." In sum, he affirmed that "almost all worship uses music; ... religion can no more do without singing than it can without the word .... Music represents the great struggle of reaching the wholly other, which it can never express."

However, the fruits of the work of Otto and Van der Leeuw in this respect seem to have disappeared from mainstream trends in religious studies and the history of religions. Serious concern about this lack was voiced as early as 1970 by S. G. F. Brandon in his A Dictionary of Comparative Religion: "The connection between music and religion is so generally recognized that it is surprising to find how little work has been done, particularly from the side of comparative religion, in relating the phenomenology of the two." Equally disconcerting was the work of anthropologists and musicologists: "musicologists, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists have assembled details of instruments, scales, rhythm, harmony (if any) and performance from many ethnic and religious areas. But, although so much is known about the practical function of music in various contexts, little attention has been paid to its significance as an aspect of religious action."

Reasons for the gradual disappearance of sacred music and sacred sound as recurrent academic categories post-Otto lie partly in a misguided understanding in the West of religion as merely a set of beliefs and doctrines incorporated in scripture or sacred texts. Ritual studies scholar Catherine Bell, in her article "Performance," traces the neglect of the oral and performative aspects of religion much earlier, to the Enlightenment period: "Most theories of religion since the Enlightenment have tended to emphasize the more cognitive aspects of religion no matter how rooted these were thought to be in emotional, doctrinal, or communal experience."

The emphasis on "silent textual study" and cognitive aspects in modern religious studies may also expose certain Protestant notions of scripture as primarily a written document to be read quietly in private. After the invention of the printing press, the radical shift from hearing scripture chanted or sung aloud by priests in churches to the reading of the printed word in churches and homes led the way to the modern academic attachment to written language as the primary carrier of religious meaning. The arena of a "silent religion" also does not faithfully represent other religious worldviews, least of all the traditions of Hindu devotional poetry that are the subject of this book. In fact, sacred texts in virtually all religious traditions are chanted or sung in a living context. For example, oral recitation of ritual texts is upheld as statutory in Judaism. The Qur'an in Islam is not considered authentic when it is studied in translation or read silently. Buddhist Sutras are almost always chanted, as are Sikh prayers and songs. For thousands of years Hindu dharma (law) forbade the writing down of scriptures, and the chanting and hearing of sacred verses and mantras, even without full comprehension, still constitutes the most common form of access to the sacred for the pious multitude of Hindus. Since music and chant are located at the core of religious life for most cultures, including ritual and liturgical action, it is just as improbable to under- stand a religious liturgy without the oral dimension as it is to penetrate a religious tradition without examining its musical dimension.

Historians of pagan and pre-Christian cultures have affirmed the important role of music in ancient religious ritual and ceremony. Johannes Quasten, in Music Worship in Pagan Christian Antiquity (1983), writes: “The legends and myths of nearly all pagan peoples have sought to explain the elaborate use of music in their worship by indicating that the art of music was a gift of the gods to men.” He cites Censorius who explained how music was pleasing to the gods in the ancient world, and Horace, who stated that sacred music was a means of appeasement which, like the fragrance of incense and the blood of animals, disposed the gods to act favourably toward men. As such, music held an extremely importance place in all sacrificial ceremonies, such that flutes, cymbals, lyre, and tambourine were required in Greek sacrifices. Instruments and songs were also required in the mystery cults of Cybele and lsis. At a more profound level music as cultic action was understood to exercise a magical influence over the gods, so that it became a means by which men controlled the deities. For example, the worshippers of lsis made a din with their bells during the liturgy so as to keep the wicked Set away from the sacred action. This kind of action has strong parallels with ancient Indian music and its control over the Devas.

Quasten summarizes the role of music in the ancient world by applying the classical terms epiclesis and apotropaia: “Inasmuch as all of antiquity was convinced that music had the power of epiclesis [calling down the gods], the step to its use as sacrifice was a short one, for both apotropaism [removing unwanted spirits] and epiclesis played a major role in sacrifice.” The term epiclesis was subsequently borrowed by the Christian tradition to refer to the drawing down of the Holy Spirit during the Eucharist, and is a useful category for understanding the general role of music as invitation to the deities as found, for example, in the Hindu tradition.

Celtic historian Karen Ralls-MacLeod, in her book Music and the Celtic Otherworld: From Ireland to Iona (2000), has affirmed the central role of music in all ancient Celtic traditions: “From the beautiful, enchanting music of the fairy harp to the sacred singing of the choirs of angels, Celtic literature has many references to a spiritual or supernatural dimension of music. This sacred dimension is called the Celtic Otherworld, in which music is often prominently featured.” Examples included fairy harpers, songs of mermaids, the power of the saint’s bell, the singing of angels in heaven, musical trees, and so on. In Celtic literature “music is portrayed as one of the most potent forces of the Celtic imagination.” In earlier times music was an integral part of culture that provided access to unseen realms: “The mysterious, sacred dimension of a people’s culture and experience is most often described in terms of their religious beliefs and rituals, but various art forms can also be used to show this, including music. It seems as though many of these experiences are of a non-verbal nature, and that music can serve as an important communicative or expressive medium….By a careful examination of the sources, it appears that the early Celts believed that music can give access to reality in both every day, mundane and otherworldly contexts."11 Music for the Celts was the definitive link from this world to the next: "Music is seen as a universal 'connector' to the Otherworld, and as an especially effective link between this world and the Otherworld."

Musicologists and ethnomusicologists agree that music is a universal aspect of culture that is also central to religion in various ways. From the side of ethnomusicology, Bruno Nettl has strongly affirmed the ubiquitous connection between religion and music in his textbook Excursions in World Music (2001): "In all societies, music is found in religious ritual- it is almost everywhere a mainstay of sacred ceremonies-leading some scholars to suggest that perhaps music was actually invented for humans to have a special way of communicating with the supernatural."

The complex interlacing of music and religion is articulated further by musicologist Robin Sylvan in Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music (2002): "Music is capable of functioning simultaneously at many different levels (physiological, psychological, socio-cultural, semiological, virtual, ritual, and spiritual) and integrating them into a coherent whole. So for a complex multi- dimensional phenomenon like religion, which also functions simultaneously at multiple levels, the fact that music is capable of conveying all these levels of complexity in a compelling and integrated package makes it a vehicle par excellence to carry the religious impulse."

The quest to understand the seemingly intrinsic connection between religious ritual and music takes us to the discipline of ritual studies, where the arguments for the special significance of ritual are the most pronounced and a basis is provided for a broad definition of ritual that fills our expectations with regard to the presence of music. Ritual studies serves to underscore the central importance of ritual for religion and, in many cases, for all human existence. Anthropologist Mary Douglas has stated it succinctly: "As a social animal, man is a ritual animal. If ritual is suppressed in one form it crops up in others, more strongly and more intense the social interaction.” Anthropologist Victor Turner explains that ritual "holds the generating source of culture and structure."!" Taking this notion further by tying ritual directly to religion, Nathan D. Mitchell, in his book Liturgy and the Social Sciences (1999), holds that "what is at stake in ritual behavior-as it develops in individuals and is ritually enacted by groups- is nothing less than the survival of the social order; ... culture cannot be defined apart from cult."17 In some areas of ritual studies the lens has become so wide that today in this field a scholar may use just about any term he or she likes for any concept.




  Series Editor's Preface vii
  Preface ix
  Note On Transliteration x
  Introduction 1
1 Ancient India: Yajna and Sama-Gana 35
2 Classical India: Puja and Gandharva Sangita 64
3 Medieval India: Temple Hinduism and Bhakti Sangit 103
4 Seva and Haveli Sangit 146
5 Seva and Samaj Gayan 173
  Conclusion 200
  Notes 207
  Glossary 223
  Bibliography 231
  Index 241
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