Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

Research on Indic Influences on World Religious Chant and Music

Research on Indic Influences on World Religious Chant and Music
by Guy Beck, PhD, Tulane University

The Infinity Foundation is interested in bringing to light the numerous Indic contributions to the civilizations of the world, many of which are not commonly recognized. For this reason, we have made the decision to support the following research project, which will highlight Indic contributions in the area of sacred music.

Project Summary Report – The Infinity Foundation; September through December 2001

A research project, “The Indic Influence on World Religious Chant and Music,” was funded by grant to Dr. Guy L. Beck of Tulane University from the Infinity Foundation, and administered through the Provost’s Office of Tulane University, New Orleans. It was designed to take place between September and December, or the Fall semester, of 2001, and involved travel to England and research at Oxford University (U.K.) as well as supplemental library and museum work in London and the United States. The grant also provided for living expenses in England and family maintenance in the United States during this period.

The researcher, Dr. Guy L. Beck, accompanied by his wife Kajal Beck, spent three months, from September 23 through December 21, 2001, in England conducting work on this project. An earlier departure had been planned but, due to the events of September 11, had to be postponed. Prior to departure, Dr. Beck had begun work consulting sources, including both printed books and relevant scholars, in the United States.

The research in England was comprised of three main components: study of works on Indian music and general music history in university and public libraries and in private collections, study and photography of Indian and world musical instruments in university and public museums and in private collections, and the consultation with faculty and musicologists.

The first component largely focused on the books and printed materials collections in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, the Indian Institute Library, Oxford, the Oriental Institute Library, Oxford, and the library at the Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies (OCVHS), Oxford. In London, the collections in the Reading Room of the British Museum, the library at the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, the library at the Royal College of Music, London, and the British Library, were also consulted. Access to any Oxford University library requires a reader’s card, which I obtained from the Bursar with the help of OCVHS. Dr. Gillian Evison, Librarian at the Indian Institute, provided a complete tour of the collections and assistance with my research interests. The music collection associated with the Bodleian Library is housed at Pitt Rivers Museum under the supervision of Dr. Helene La Rue, Curator. The private collections and resources of Dr. La Rue were also kindly made freely available to me over the course of my visit. In addition, the resources of Professor Richard Gombrich, Boden Professor of Sanskrit and Indology, Oxford, Dr. Imre Bangha, Oriental Institute, Oxford, and Dr. Richard Widdess, SOAS, were made accessible for research. With the help of all of these collections, I was able to study and examine most of the important published works on world music history from the 17th Century to the present, and peruse many rare essays, journal articles, and books on Indian music.

Regarding the second component, the study of musical instruments, Dr. Helene La Rue, Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Bate Collection of Historical Instruments, guided me through all of the collections and allowed me to photograph each item that was requested. The Pitt Rivers Museum, founded in 1883 on South Parks Road Oxford, contains the famous collections of General Pitt Rivers, Henry Balfour, E.B. Tyler (founder of Anthropology), Evans Pritchard, and Maharajah Sourindo Mohun Tagore. S. M. Tagore was the most important Indian benefactor of musical instruments, and donated hundreds of rare and precious Indian instruments to many European museums in the 19th Century including the state collections at Brussels and Berlin. Many of the items donated by Tagore to Oxford are presently in storage, but I was able to view and photograph them with the help of Dr. La Rue. Also a part of Pitt Rivers is the Balfour Building’s Music Makers Gallery, built in 1986 on Banbury Road in Oxford, which contains the largest and best collection of world music instruments in the world, housing over 6000 items. Each of the exhibits here as well as at the Bate Collection, founded in 1968 at the Faculty of Music Oxford with 1000 instruments, was photographed and documented.

The third component was fulfilled by consultation with the above-mentioned faculty and research assistants at Oxford and in London. Opportunities for feedback on the research was provided during teaching work that was also performed while at Oxford. As such, in addition to the research sponsored by the Infinity Foundation, the Centre for Vaisnava and Hindu Studies (OCVHS) at Oxford University had invited Dr. Beck to deliver a series of eight weekly lectures on “Hinduism and Music: Past and Present,” for the Fall Michaelmas Term in connection with OCVHS as well for students enrolled in the Faculties of Theology and Music at Oxford University. These lectures were given on consecutive Thursday evenings, from October 11 through November 29, and were very well-attended. More information about this lecture series as well as OCVHS has been posted on their website; www.ocvhs.com. This teaching experience for OCVHS was thoroughly compatible with my research in that the faculty members assisting me in my research also attended my lectures and were able to offer valuable feedback and advice regarding the direction of my interests.

Beside the series of lectures at OCVHS, I was invited by Dr. Helene La Rue of the Faculty of Music, Oxford, to teach her own graduate seminar on Ethnomusicology for the entire Michaelmas Term. This consisted of a series of eight seminars on successive Wednesday evenings from October 10 through November 28 at the Pitt Rivers Research Centre, directed toward graduate students in World Music studies. This was especially valuable in that many of the insights discovered during the course of my research were also tested in this venue on both graduate students and music faculty. Mr. Graham Wells, President of the Galpin Society of Musical Instruments, also attended my lectures and seminars and provided valuable feedback and interaction. There was also an invited lecture given to the Ethnomusicology graduate students at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on November 27, arranged by Dr. Richard Widdess, Chair of Music.

This research project was designed to break new ground in the fields of comparative musicology and religion by increasing the general awareness of the major contribution of Indic traditions toward world religious chant and music. As it happened, I was able to collect a large amount of data supporting the premises of the original research proposal. As this data is placed under the lens of comparative music history, the results become nuanced in terms of migrations of population, hegemonic control of Indic cultures by foreign powers, syncretism arising from the combination of musical genres and techniques, and evolutionary development of musical styles and the structures of musical instruments. Some general summations, however, are possible at this stage.

Religious chant and vocal intonation are convincingly the central core of religious experience worldwide. This fact is not solely the result of independent arising in different regions of the world but owes as much to Indic or Asiatic influences that have been disseminated over thousands of years. The Indic influences are present, for example, in the subtle style of chanting the Qur’an in Islam, which is pre-Islamic and can be traced most directly to Persian or Zoroastrian roots. This Zoroastrian base, which is cognate with Vedic chant traditions, is also seminal in the oldest levels of Hebrew cantillation and Jewish prayer, reaching Christian chant and Psalmody through the overlapping of liturgical traditions. Another example is that of the Theravada Buddhist chanting of the Pali Canon, based on Vedic models, which has spread all over South East Asia and, through its Mahayana counterpart, influenced countless types of religious chant and rituals in Central Asia, China, Korea, and Japan.

The Indic origins, in some form or another, of many of the world’s musical instruments becomes most comprehensible in terms of the major divisions of instruments used in present-day Ethnomusicology: idiophones (bells, chimes, cymbals, rattles), membranophones (drums), chordophones (strings) and aerophones (flutes). While this fourfold structural division itself is traced to the Natya-Sastra of Muni Bharata in India (before 200 BCE), major archetypes and structural innovations within each category can be successfully traced to Indo-Persian or Asiatic origin.

While many ideas and dimensions of Indic influences had been earlier suggested and even discussed at certain junctures in European music historiography (viz., 19th Century), they are almost completely absent from present music history classes or textbooks worldwide. Furthermore, most Music Departments on the college level do not offer courses on World Music, Ethnomusicology, or Comparative Musicology, what to speak of secondary schools. This makes it highly unlikely that the Indic contributions to world music are recognized in higher education. This project at completion seeks to confirm and make visible the contention that the central role of religious chant and music in most world religions can be accurately traced to Indic influences and origins. Consequently, this will more widely disclose one of the most important contributions of Indic traditions to world civilization.


This proposal for a grant from the Infinity Foundation seeks to develop and complete work that I have already begun in the area of the Indic influence on world religious chant and music, both in teaching and research. As there is a large degree of ignorance and misinformation in this regard within the teaching of music and religious studies in Western countries, this project is timely and important. The results of this project will be made accessible to many educational levels, initially through a scholarly book and CD recording, and subsequently via public lectures, demonstrations, and revision of existing
educational curricula.

In terms of qualification for this research project, I have spent over six years studying Indian vocal music and musicological texts in India under leading exponents, leading to academic degrees in both theory and performance of classical and devotional traditions. I have taught courses over the past ten years in Religion and Music and in World Music at Louisiana State University, the College of Charleston, and Tulane University. Beside holding a Ph.D. in Hinduism from Syracuse University, I have a degree in Musicology (M.A.) from Syracuse University and an M.A. in Religious Studies (Western religions) from the University of South Florida. On the graduate level, I have studied Western classical music, ancient Greek music theory, Jewish Psalmody, Islamic chant and music, Buddhist and Shinto chant in addition to Indian musicology and Vedic chant. Along with numerous articles and book chapters on Indian music and Hindu religion, I have published a book on sacred sound in Hinduism, SONIC THEOLOGY: HINDUISM AND SACRED SOUND (University of South Carolina Press, 1993) and recorded a CD of Indian religious and classical vocal music, SACRED RAGA (STR Digital Records, 1999). I have given numerable performances and lectures on Indian music in India (Indian TV) and throughout the United States including Columbia University and Indiana University. This past Spring I was invited by Princeton University to give a featured presentation on Vedic Chant and Hindu Music as part of a Conference on Chant in World Religions.

My intention to make an application at this time arises from the fact that my teaching commitments during the coming year at Tulane University will be flexible enough to allow for research. Due to a growing awareness of my work involving Hinduism and sacred sound, I have been invited by the Center for Vaisnava and Hindu Studies at Oxford University to teach and give a series of lectures on ancient Indian music. Besides being a great opportunity to enhance my career through association with a famous institution of higher learning, there is the additional factor of knowledge enrichment through research and study leading to publication and improved teaching in the area of Indian religion and world music. Oxford University has one of the largest collections of musical instruments from around the world, the Pitt Rivers Museum containing 6,000 musical instruments along with an archive of sound recordings, a splendid research library, and other resources including a distinguished faculty.

The research project that I am planning at Oxford University would break new ground in the fields of comparative musicology and religion and would raise greater awareness of the major contributions of Indic traditions toward religious chant and music. I am especially interested in the influence of Indic traditions, including the culture and religion of ancient Persia and the area surrounding present-day India to the North and East, on religious chant and vocal intonation–what I claim and hope to further verify as the central core of religious experience worldwide. For example, I plan to explore how the subtle style of chanting the Qur’an in Islam is pre-Islamic and can be traced to Indic roots. Also, the Buddhist chanting of the Pali Canon, based on Vedic models, has spread all over Asia and has influenced countless types of rituals in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Extensive periods of listening and analysis have led me to recognize many similarities in vocal technique, melodic style, rhythm, and instrumental structure among a wide variety of world musics, such that I was prompted to illustrate the Indic origins of these as well as other types of religious chant and song through focused research and objective confirmation.

In my teaching and study I have also reached certain observations about the Asiatic and particularly Indic origins, in some form or another, of most of the prominent musical instruments of the world. For example, the Western piano, guitar, violin, oboe, bass drum, etc., can all be traced back to Indic prototypes. The Chinese and Japanese Chin (zither), koto, pipa, biwa, shamisen, and taiko (drum) all have Indic origins, and almost all Middle Eastern instruments are Indic in origin. Beyond this, there are also the Asiatic and Indic roots of music theory, including scale systems and rhythmic patterns.

These dimensions and others are almost completely absent from music history classes and textbooks in the West. Most Music Departments on the college level do not offer courses on World or Ethnic Music, Ethnomusicology, or Comparative Musicology, what to speak of in secondary schools. Likewise, most courses in World Religions and even Hinduism do not include music as an important factor in describing religious practice and experience, of which it actually plays a pivotal role. If the central role of music in most world religions can be traced to Indic influences and origins, I view this as one of the most important contributions of Indic traditions to world civilization.

In order to redress the above issues, and to correct many misconceptions and omissions, as well as raise public awareness, I intend to corroborate a large amount of ideas related to Indic influences on world religious chant and music with more data and testimony from experts during my research time at Oxford University. And as I will be teaching and lecturing, the information arising out of my research will be further strengthened by regular criticism and revision within seminar and lecture venues, and in consultation with faculty. This experience would thus be a great opportunity to make a significant contribution to knowledge.