The Hindu Predicament and Indian Music
by Raghava R. Menon
In the Indian context the man was in mankind, and did not care what any one believes.
Similarly Indian Music is not just an art but a process of inner transformation which goes
beyond religious belief.
During his visit to India, President Bill Clinton said to an audience of Information technology professionals at Hyderabad, ‘If it were
not for India’s contributions in math and science you could argue that computers, satellites, and Silicon chips would never have been possible in the first place.’ Nothing could have been said more truly on the true nature and quality of Indian inheritance. This is also why President Clinton was careful to include the key phrase, ‘you could argue’ in his statement. Computers, satellites and Silicon chips were not invented by Indians. The inheritance of mechanically conceived inventions does not belong to the Indian culture. So President Clinton used the phrase, ‘it can be argued’. Yes, it was an argument that the point of Indian computers, satellites and Silicon chips was made. We are required to make this shift of meaning as a matter of course every time, particularly whenever references are made to the Indian zero or the implications of the structure of the Sanskrit language or to the world of computers and so on; we are required to argue.
The arts, science and culture in the Indian tradition seem to have been built largely upon the accumulated knowledge of the life of the spirit alone. In actual fact, its seeming disdain of the mechanical physical universe could be considered as almost paranoid. For a culture of comparable insight and perception it would seem that the Indian inheritance seems to have considered the vast and boundless universe of mechanical intelligence or even the possibility of original creativity on the material and mechanical level of life, as either unnecessary or irrelevant. Even when descriptions exist of the many varieties of magical weaponry of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata or the Puranas; or in the Ramayana of’ descriptions of the Pushpaka Vimana as a species of airborne craft that seems to have flown Rama, Lakshmana and Sita at the end of their 14-year exile from Lanka to Ayodhya; or the many Astras, for example, the Brahma, the Agni, the Jala or the Sudarshana; or the references to a concluding bomb that would destroy all life on earth – none of these references seem to appear like descriptions of material or mechanical inventions, such as rifle, tank or bomb or technical discoveries of the time. Indeed, references to these seemingly technological discoveries of the Puranas seem to have been developed through Dhyana Yoga or other species of mental and psychological exercises rather than technical means. Indeed, even the minutest domestic conveniences, such as a matchbox developed through chemical or mechanical skill seems to have been ignored by this tradition.
Need for Critical Examination
The Hindus have been characterised from the most ancient times with a certain kind of seeming magnified naivete. The tradition has never bothered to look upon itself critically: update and regenerate itself from the experience of lived lives at least once in a millennium out of the essential ingredients of its inheritance in order to deal with its future. And now it would seem we are reaching the end of yet another millennium, once again, as much in shambles as at any other epoch in our celebrated timeless history.
Every inheritance, however irrefutable, decays if it is not examined critically and assimilated afresh by each generation and put to work in its life. In fact, the greater the power and penetration into truth of any given inheritance, the faster and deeper is its descent into decay. From carefully watching our own life time which is perhaps about the limit of what we could call our experience, within each of which is the single mortal span of life, it would seem that we merely lived believing in our past: the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and the many hundred samhitas that have filled our past and enriched our lives. We have a great deal of evidence that we have believed in this inheritance completely although there is very little evidence that we have ever bothered to understand it. It is this circumstance of rapt belief that makes some of us traditionally quote from the mostly unexamined wisdom of Sanskrit originals every time we are ambushed by our own life’s contrary experience. These truths seem to have remained beyond our true understanding, so as a people we have never tried to live by them except through belief; thus, they have remained where they were first found, buried in Sanskrit amber.
This circumstance is, however, not the fault of those whom we call Hindus in our times. Consider the true significance of the Hindu inheritance. The first problem with which we are faced is that the whole body of thought has not been prescribed specifically for the Hindus as is the case in Islam, Judaism or Christianity. There is no ownership of these ideas and knowledge. These prescriptions have been concerned with man as in mankind, not with any specific people of any place or region. Unimpeded by a prophet or messiah the Hindus have never been required to divide mankind into believers and non?believers, rewarding the one and punishing the other, in what can be called the sheep and goats syndrome of religions.
This curious fact was brought sharply to the author’s notice when the late Maharaja of Cochin at the time, nearly a hundred years old, replied to a casual remark from someone in the room that Hinduism was the most tolerant religion in the world. The Maharaja retorted, ‘Not so much tolerant as indifferent.’ He waved his hands towards the Kerala landscape, sleeping in the brilliant sunshine of a day in May, jostling with synagogues, temples, mosques and churches. It merely did not matter what any one believes. If one does not know, one’s beliefs make no difference. In essence, rinsed of all its functional, cultural and religious characteristics, the core of Hindu inheritance can be summarised in five minimal statements. These were merely stated as truths, like Newton’s laws blandly without compliance, left its followers to their fate, never getting in their way with advice and assistance.
First, there is rebirth. Any proof of rebirth is false and that its proof is not its truth. In fact a mind?set that makes it necessary to look for proofs would know that it is the knowing without proof that makes it true. This ability is rarely ever merely endowed and needs years of training. Second, it said that what is, is and what is not, is not. This is the concept of karma. Third, it said that all beliefs are false until they become an experience after which they are no longer beliefs but truth. Fourth, it said that life is a crucible into which creatures are born again and again in an endless cycle of births until they reach a stage, through timeless durations of suffering and eventual knowing, that both good and evil mean nothing to them and leaves the creature unaffected by good or evil. When this occurs there is little sense to the massive exercise of rebirth any more. This stops the need to be reborn. This is called moksha, nirvana, or liberation. Fifth, it said that this whole cosmic order and all there is in it is programmed to self-destruct in four massive yugas of cosmic time, named satya, threta, dwapara and kali. There is no place in it for a final saving or a day of judgement or even an effort to apportion blame in it. Everyone has to find it alone one by one. There was no companionship in it, or a finding in it with others in a group of believers. It can only be one at a time and alone. This is one of the reasons why none of these formulations have anything to do with belief. It is concerned with the making of a transformed man and not with his beliefs. This is also why these principles are not laid out serially like The Ten Commandments but veiled in poetry, myth and fable, in music, dance or in handicrafts – always straddled with paradox and vision. This is why the Hindu inheritance, as the Maharaja described the Indian ethos, seems unconcerned and indifferent.
A Secure Inheritance
Throughout its timeless history, the way of life we call Hindu has been one of the most secure inheritances in the world. There were very few individual failures in it. It coped perfectly with life and the world in which it lived. Its gods had wide spaces to live in. Any tree or a piece of rock would do or a mountain top was good enough as long as there was a strong wind on it and a smell of wild herbs where it blew. This is among the reasons why Hinduism did not have to go on a rampage. It did not have to fight any Saracenes or mount crusades, or jehads against real or imagined enemies. Or pull down anything to prove to itself that it exists. It seemed so sure of itself that it did not even ask anyone to join it to swell its numbers. Being a Hindu added nothing to Hinduism nor took away anything from it. The reason for this approach to life was perhaps because its existence was not based on any reasons outside it or because of historical circumstances. There were some truths that the inheritance had found within which it was contained and nobody had to believe in it and no Hindu cared whether others believed in Hinduism or not. One reason Hinduism is reputed to be so tolerant is, as the Maharaja pointed out, it did not care who liked it. This curious security was like a woman’s in her womanhood. It made men envious; this assurance that man rarely possesses. There was no way you could deal with Hinduism except by humiliating it the same way you would a woman who cared nothing for you.
For some of us Hindus, it is not difficult to recognise that fundamentalism has nothing to do with a threatened God. It has to do with communities that have failed to cope with life and failed dismally as individual men and women within themselves in their own little spheres. It is this loss of sufficiency within them that makes fundamentalists what they are. It has nothing to do with a church, mosque or temple. This is one of the reasons why a fundamentalist is so visible through colour or spectacles, beard or clothes, or at least by wearing a perpetual scowl.
This is why every large aggregate of people try harder to hurt the Hindu approach to life than most other comparable inheritances to hurt Hinduism, a little. Not obliterate it. Obliterating it was of no use. As Richard Alpert said, the awareness of karma and rebirth is no more Hindu than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is Jewish. All those who fear this inner security of Hinduism merely want to make it feel small and weak and threaten it by making faces at it and snarl at it. This was ordinarily enough to fulfil the macho spirit of many religious communities, like the town bully who only knows how to flex his muscles to get what he wants. Hinduism has never had any competition. It was merely an awareness of a large design, and an inclusive purpose in man’s existence on earth. It is difficult to fight such an appeal. Hinduism’s long persistence is because of this.
In order to “save Hinduism” in the most recent fashion, we have first to lower its limitless boundaries, demean it to the level of specific revelation, build walls around it to protect something whose physical and psychological dimensions go beyond every wall that one may build. So even while the Hindu tries to mimic others by trying to build some walls, he has the debilitating feeling that the thing he is trying to protect lies mostly outside the walls he is building to protect it.
This is the genesis of the angry Hindu. He has recently begun to realise that he may protect his kind of inheritance only by living what it knows. Introducing fundamentalism is like putting a bhurkha on a woman. A man does it despite his full knowledge that it is finally a self-defeating exercise and that, if he has not first laid claim to her heart, no chaddor will give it to him. He has finally to lock her up, beat her to feel he truly possesses her, or burn her in a rage.
When India went secular, it was not done only as though it were a policy. Hinduism was not setting limits to itself or sacrificing anything by going secular. Hindus had never needed protection as other communities have, born through a saint, prophet or even God’s own son. Hindus never believed that any one could kill an awareness or a quality of knowledge that was never born, no matter who attacked it. It seemed to Hindus that Hinduism would even survive the Hindus. Today it can only be bad-mouthed, for everything dissolves in it and after the worst turmoils it looks as innocent as the sea after a typhoon. Hence, most Hindus merely yawn when someone comes along trying to save “Hinduism” from being attacked.
Religions protect themselves through an inheritance of beliefs, each differently formulated one from another and become the foundation of discord, violence and war. Hinduism has never needed to do this too literally because of the Hindu awareness that finally all beliefs are false until they become an experience after which they are no longer beliefs but truth. Once in a while when the Hindu turns berserk and warlike or smashes an ancient monument or something equally juvenile, he does it without sufficient ferocity and mindlessness like the ordinary jehadi or Islamic terrorist who has to do it all through beliefs and guns!
The Hindu awareness of man comes from the knowledge that the whole cosmic order was spiritual in nature and not religious; and that the only way to make a difference was through a process of subverting a human being towards compassion and love and not by advice and instruction.
The Music of the Raga
There are techniques that are rampant in the Indian cultural inheritance through every kind of art and craft and subtle social trap doors that are directed towards the kind of response that catches people unawares into a state of magnified clarity, subverting human beings towards decency and awareness The most powerful tool of subversion in Indian culture has been the subcontinent’s inheritance of the music of the raga. The music of the raga subverts the value system of the ordinary unregenerate human being, not by a process of instruction, learning and training, but by a process of transformation that lies in the direction not of adding a student to the art but by changing his nature.
This is exactly why Hindustani classical music was banished from middle class families for several centuries. For those who wished to study the art it became necessary to run away from home in order to learn it. Almost all the famous names in the field of music had run away. Starting from K L Saigal, the names are legion. These included: Ustads Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Bismillah Khan, Ustad Alauddin Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and even the Agra gharana legend Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. Even the technique of being fatally ill often was used as a ploy to opt out of life, not to mention subtler psychological techniques like doing the chilla in order to reach the haven of music. This is why music got a bad name. The problem of a student of music who runs away looking .for answers to his life and then returns to become a highly-developed musician seems sometimes to possess a quality of a lack of grasp about money. This indifference is not against money as being something evil, or having moral problems with money, but because of sheer indifference towards its value or an understanding of the need to possess it. Not caring for money is much worse than not having it and this predicament is much more galling than if you were merely being pernickety about God or non-possession. This explains why the Indian middle class gave music a wide berth. The Carnatic inheritance, on the other hand, took its cue early enough and made music religious and the kritis were always about God and his worship of Him. Whether Rama or Krishna, Tyagaraja, Dikshitar or Swati Tirunal, it was always God. The Hindustani musician rarely went to God for an easy answer. Music that took His name literally became a bhajan in the Hindustani grammar and there was a separate aesthetic technique that made it possible to take his name literally. All other forms of Hindustani classical music takes God by implication and innuendo by the power of voice and bhava. This was achieved by the most subtle and intimidating musical instrument ever made by man called the tanpura that contains four strings on a sounding gourd with a stem. Merely deft tuning of the instrument is not enough for the tanpura. It is almost a psychological exercise as much as it is a physical technique. It was Kumar Gandharva who while describing the tanpura said: ‘If your tanpura is not out of tune does it mean that your tanpura is in tune?’
It was in the nature of the music that it was possible to keep out all religious differences and make a spiritual life possible. It was by this circumstance that some of the finest musicians who think that the art is Hindu have produced some of the greatest musicians who are Muslims. Indeed, the founders of the principal gharanas of Hindustani music have always been Muslims. Thus the great Bade Gulam Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana once said that: ‘If in every home one child was taught Hindustani classical music this country would never have been partitioned.’ Understanding this profound truth about the land and its true implications needs much more than the samhitas and the vedas. It needs work, search and finding out and not mere belief.
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