Music is the exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal, bursting forth in sound. Thomas Aquinas
Orsino: If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken and so die. Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act I, sc. i
"The Power of Music"
from a 1993 lecture in West Virginia
What is it about the power of music that touches our very soul, that shapes and molds our living and breathing perceptions of the world, and which creates the very fabric of our being. The Vedic scriptures describe that our reality is created from sound: the omkara, the first primeval vibration of the universe, the voice of God in which everything else flowed out of in all its dynamic varigatedness.
In describing the life of the great sage Narada Muni, Radhanath Swami gives us his understanding, rooted in the great teachings of the Vedic tradition, of music's utmost importance in our acts of spirit and faith. As Radhanath Swami tells us, Narada Muni is a personality with great vibes: spiritual vibes, or vibrations, which he shares with great and equal aplomb with all the souls within our universe.
When our Vaisnava tradition was in its early days of being transplanted here in the Western world, the figure of Narada Muni was very attractive to the heady young devotees of the sixties and seventies. He is the "transcendental spaceman", flying through the cosmos, his stringed vina pulsing with the hymns of the Supreme designed to liberate the heart and soul from the chains of the body and the mind.
The attractive nature of Narada Muni is a combination of his free-spirited mode of life and his real devotion to sound. Any one of us who has either played music or listened to music with a whole-hearted fervor can understand that the sounds that thrill us, move us, inspire us, and give us shelter are treasures in our lives that we hold dearer than most anything else we can think of.
As Radhanath Swami relates, music is the most attractive and influential process of communication that we have ever known, and it is also, when used in the service of the Divine, of God, the purest and most powerful gateway to direct realization of our true, essential nature and of our relationship with the Divine.
This is Narada Muni's mission: In the vibrations of the Holy Names of the Lord that he resounds with constant enthusiasm and nectarine vigor, he provides for us the example of how best to hear and to express ourselves in this most potent medium. To chant the Holy Names, in whatever tradition one may follow, is a sublime service, a devotional offering of love from the core of our hearts that allows us to glorify God and to help others to come closer to Him.
Indeed, the essential spiritual use sound, of music, is to glorify the Divine. Indeed, it is the highest qualitative representation of sound, a quality that allows the hearer/chanter to transcend one's temporary limitations and come to his/her eternal state: as spirit soul living in a blissful, all-knowing loving relationship with the Divine.
This devotional use of music is present in all traditional spiritual cultures. Radhanath Swami shares the examples of the baroque stylings of Bach, in which his complex and beautifully surcharged compositions invoked the presence and pastimes of Christ, and which have thrived and survived through numerous centuries, as well as the traditional ragas of India, in which the scales and notes used are said in scripture to have come from the lips of God Himself.
Beyond the varied sense perceptions we experience from music, the Vedic scriptures also tell us that music, or sound itself, is responsible for creating the atmosphere around us that we live in. The sounds that we hear, and the sources of those sounds we hear from, create the favorable and unfavorable situations and experiences that we deal with in our lives.
If we want to live in a hedonistic, materialistic way, there is plenty of music we can hear to create and motivate us to line in this kind of environment, and in contrast, if we want to live in a selfless, spiritual way, there is also a whole tradition of chants, hymns, and simple, beautiful songs which can bring our soul to the surface.
A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Radhanath Swami's teacher, and the main acarya of the contemporary Vaisnava tradition, reveals the truth from his translation of the Bhagavat-Purana, or Srimad-Bhagavatam. There he writes:
"It is stated also in the Vedānta-sūtra that sound is the origin of all objects of material possession and that by sound one can also dissolve this material existence. Anāvṛttiḥ śabdāt means "liberation by sound." The entire material manifestation began from sound, and sound can also end material entanglement, if it has a particular potency. The particular sound capable of doing this is the transcendental vibration Hare Kṛṣṇa. Our entanglement in material affairs has begun from material sound. Now we must purify that sound in spiritual understanding. There is sound in the spiritual world also. If we approach that sound, then our spiritual life begins, and the other requirements for spiritual advancement can be supplied. We have to understand very clearly that sound is the beginning of the creation of all material objects for our sense gratification. Similarly, if sound is purified, our spiritual necessities also are produced from sound."
This power of music brings with it also a great responsibility. To attain a musical communion with the Divine, we must get out of the way, or in essence, we must remove any selfish or overtly egoistic motives we have for chanting or hearing the Holy Names.
In his lecture this evening, Radhanath Swami instructs that must not become distracted by the instruments or by the sounds of the instrument themselves, forgetting the sound of the Holy Name. The Holy Name must remain in the forefront, or our musical expression may fall into the mere gratification of our senses and material selfishness.
Our material musical qualifications also may become a distraction if not used properly in the service of the Holy Name; they may make us proud. We must remember that any qualifications that we have are simply gifts from God. We must simply glorify and be proud of God, chanting with great humility, in order to properly perform kirtana, or the congregational glorification of God through music.
In the bhakti-yoga tradition that Radhanath Swami is an integral part of, the chanting of the Holy Names of Krsna (Hare Krsna/Hare Krsna/Krsna Krsna/Hare Hare/Hare Rama/Hare Rama/Rama Rama/Hare Hare) is offered to us as an easy, sublime, and direct way to get in touch the with spiritual energy of the Divine.
These Holy Names of Krsna are non-different from Krsna Himself, from the Personality of the Divine. As Radhanath Swami relates to us, the Holy Name enters into our heart as a passenger on the vehicle of spiritual sound, and clears our heart of all the dust of illusion, misconception, greed, and selfishness that we desire to be free from, the shackles of material bondage, so that we can remember who we actually are, a dynamic, free, loving spirit soul.
Spiritual music is the very life force of our soul. It is said that in our original spiritual state, as we exist eternally in bliss in the spiritual world, every step is a dance and every word is a song. How we long to return to this state of being! Even if we don't know this, it is the deepest desire of our heart, always beating even under so many clouds of unnecessary material desires.
If we absorb ourselves in spiritual sound, we create the spiritual world around us, immediately, in the here and now. Let us dive deep into whatever tradition we follow, following in the example of Radhanath Swami, to find the essence of sound, the ecstasy of music, that is there for our heart's content.
Radhanath Swami is a spiritual leader, author, and public speaker. A practitioner of bhakti-yoga for almost 40 years, he helps individuals find greater inner fulfillment through devotional service. “He sees life as a continuous blessing of God’s grace,” one follower says, “and yet he never loses his humanness. His accessibility leaves people feeling that, with a little sincere effort, they too will find the path to inner peace and God realization.”
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