Volume X - Sufi Mysticism
ART: YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
In all ages, the thoughtful have called music the celestial art. Artists have pictured the angels playing on harps, and this teaches us that the soul comes on earth with a love of music. In Arabia, there is a story that when God commanded the soul to enter the body, the soul refused, saying this body seemed to it a prison. Then God asked the angels to sing and dance; and as the soul heard this music it was moved to ecstasy, and in that ecstasy it entered the physical body. It is an odd story, and yet it gives the key to the secret of music: that it is not after being born on earth that man learns to love music, but that the soul was already enthralled by music before it came to earth. And if one asks why then every soul does not love music, the answer is that there are many souls that are buried. They are alive, yet they are buried in the denseness of the earth; and therefore, they cannot appreciate music. But in that case, they are not able to appreciate anything else, for music is the first and the last thing to appeal to every soul.
The heaven of the Hindus, Indra Loka, is filled with singers. The male singers are called Gandharvas, and the female singers Apsaras. In Hindu symbology, music seemed the best symbol with which to express paradise.
Why does music appeal so much to man? The whole of manifestation has its origin in vibration, in sound; and this sound, which is called nada in the Vedanta, was the first manifestation of the universe. Consequently, the human body was made of tone and rhythm. The most important thing in the physical body is breath, and the breath is audible; it is most audible in the form of voice. This shows that the principal signs of life in the physical body are tone and rhythm, which together make music. Rhythm appeals to man because there is a rhythm going on in his body. The beating of the pulse and the movement of the heart both indicate this rhythm.
The rhythm of the mind has an effect upon this rhythm that is going on continually in the body, and in accordance with its influence, it affects the physical body. The notes appeal to a person because of the breath; breath is sound, and its vibrations reach every part of the body, keeping it alive. Therefore, in having an effect on the vibrations and on the atoms of the body, sound gives us a sensation.
This is only an explanation of the appeal of music to the physical body. Music reaches further than the physical body; it only depends on what kind of music it is. There is a tradition that the first language in the world consisted of music. After that, a language of words came into being. Even now, among primitive races, there is a language of sounds; and the more musical languages of the world are more expressive, whereas the languages which have less music in them are less so. It is not only words that convey a meaning; very often the tone of the voice conveys it much better, and sometimes the same word can have two or more meanings depending on the tone in which it is spoken.
It is said that Shiva, or Mahadeva, was the first inventor of a musical instrument. When he was wandering about in the forest, engrossed in his spiritual attainment, he wanted to have some source of amusement – a change in his meditative life. So he took a piece of bamboo and two gourds, which he attached to the bamboo; and the strings he made out of animal guts. When he had fixed these on the instrument, he had invented the vina. That is why the Hindus call the vina a sacred instrument, and for many years they did not allow any strings except gut-strings to be used. Afterwards, this instrument was improved and made more refined, and now steel strings are mostly used; but the reason why gut-string is appealing to the human soul, is that it comes from a living body. Even after being separated from the body, it still cries out, 'I am alive!' Thus, the violin gives out a more living sound than the piano. The piano may drown the violin, but the life that comes from gut-strings manifests as a voice.
There is a Chinese legend that says that the first music was played on little pieces of reed. The great musician of ancient times who introduced music in China, made holes in a piece of reed at a certain distance from each other, the distance between two fingers; and so the flute of reed came into being. From this came the scale of five notes: one note was the original note produced by the reed, and placing the fingers on the holes made the four other notes. Afterwards many other scales were developed.
Hindu philosophy distinguishes four different cycles of humanity of the human race: Krita Yuga, the Golden Age; Treta Yuga, the Silver Age; Dvapara Yuga, the Copper Age; and Kali Yuga, the Iron Age. This cycle in which we are living now is the Iron Age. In the Golden Age, there was the music of the soul, music that appealed to the soul itself and that raised it to cosmic consciousness, the music of the angels, a music which was healing and soothing. And the music of the Silver Age was the music of the heart. This was the music that appealed to the depths of the heart, creating sympathy and love of nature, inspiring man and helping the heart quality to develop. The music of the Copper Age appealed to the mind, to the intellect, so that one could understand the intricacies of musical science, the difference between many scales, and the quality of the rhythm. Finally, the music that belongs to the Iron Age has an influence on the physical body. It helps the soldiers to march and moves people to dance.
A story told in India helps illustrate this idea. At the court of the last emperor, Muhammad Shah, a singer came who had invented a new way of composing. And when this man sang his new compositions, he won the admiration and praise of everyone at the court. The singers and musicians were simply amazed to think that there could be a new development in music. But one of the old musicians who was present said, 'If your Majesty will pardon me I would like to say a word. There is no doubt that this is most beautiful music, and it has won the admiration of all those present, and also my own. But I must tell you that from this day the music of the country, instead of going upward will go downward, because the music which was handed down to us has weight, it has substance, but now it seems that this has been lost and the music has become lighter. Therefore from now on it will go downward.' And so it happened; step by step after that, the music was brought down.
A well-known writer said, 'There are four types of intoxication: the intoxication of physical strength, the intoxication of wealth, and the intoxication of power; but when it comes to comparing these three with the fourth, the intoxication of music, they are all as nothing.'
One day the Emperor Akbar said to his chief singer, Tansen, 'You are such a great singer and there is such wonderful magic in your voice; I wonder how great your teacher must have been.' 'Please,' said Tansen, 'never compare me to my teacher, there is no comparison.' Akbar said, 'Is your teacher then so great? Is he still alive?' Tansen said, 'Yes, he is living dead.' 'Where can one find him?' asked the emperor. 'I should like to hear him.' Tansen said, 'I will try, but I am afraid that his spirit might revolt if he saw that he had to sing before the emperor.' Then Akbar said, 'I shall come disguised as your servant.' Tansen said, 'In that case, it might be possible.'
Akbar went with Tansen, and after traveling a long way they found this teacher in the mountains, in solitude. Although Akbar was dressed as a servant, the sage recognized him; still, the emperor's humble attitude appealed to him. And then he sang, and both Akbar and Tansen became spellbound; the sphere of the earth was lost from their consciousness.
When they came to their senses they saw that the sage was not there any more. 'Where is he?' asked Akbar. Tansen said, 'He has left this place for ever, fearing that we might come again and trouble him.' Akbar could not say one word in praise of the music he had heard.
After their return to the palace, one day the emperor said, 'Tansen, I feel such a longing to hear him again!' Tansen said, 'We can never find him again now that he has left that place.' 'But,' said Akbar, 'I feel so restless. I long so much to hear that voice again. Do you not know that raga which he sang?' Tansen said that he did know the raga and began to sing it. But when he had finished the emperor said, 'It is not the same. Why is that?' And Tansen felt hurt and said, 'It is because I sing before you, but my teacher sings before God!'
This incident awakened in Tansen's heart such a feeling of independence that he saluted the emperor and bade him goodbye. He saw that the source of his imperfection was the relationship he had with the court, and he could no longer bear it. And so he left, and the rest of his life he wandered through the country and led a meditative life.
The stories about singers who could charm the birds and the animals, and about the miracles that were performed through the power of their music, are not only stories. Music can do even more than that; tone and rhythm are the source of the whole of manifestation.