Sonic Liturgy: Ritual and Music in Hindu Tradition, by Guy Beck
As a young booklover frequenting used book stores 50 years ago, I was sometimes mystified to open old books with titles like “History of Religions” or “Faiths of the World” to find only accounts of Western examples—European, “Middle Eastern,” and American. What about Asian traditions? As a scholar of religions and music, Guy Beck had a similar question regarding studies of liturgy. Knowing that India has rich traditions of religious music in rituals going back thousands of years, Beck undertook a project to enrich Western-centric liturgy studies with detailed examples of the theories and practices of music in India’s religious traditions. His first book, Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (1993), was a significant contribution to Western understanding of the importance of sacred sound in Hindu worldviews. But because theory alone does not suffice to fathom fully the role music and sacred sound play in religion Beck next wrote Sonic Liturgy: Ritual Music in Hindu Tradition (2012), in which he argues “that sound and music provide that necessary bond between myth (words) and ritual (action) in religion. And for ritual worship to sustain that necessary element of mystery within religious life, music must be acknowledged as the most important and vital balancing factor between word and action in religious rituals, public and private, preventing their decline into the extremes of either verbal pedagogy or mindless ritualistic actions.” (p. 17) Beck’s compelling focus probes the ways music functions in India as a linchpin connecting faith and practice in countless lives engaged in spiritual traditions throughout the ages.
In Sonic Liturgy, Beck presents a chronological unfolding of creative developments in major aspects of religious music in the subcontinent: In ancient India, he considers the roles of yajna and sama gana. In classical India, he explores puja and gandharva sangit. In medieval India, he delves into temple Hinduism and bhakti sangit with padas, kirtanas, and bhajans. And, delving into recent and current times, he discusses seva and haveli sangit and also seva and samaj gayan.
In his introduction, Beck draws upon many researchers’ scholarship in the field to make a down-to-earth exploration of this sublimely mysterious, yet knowable and measurable topic: the ocean of Hindu music. The traditions he considers open a range of reflections on the whole history of India’s religious rituals, including scholarly debates which are still ongoing, and which Beck handles scrupulously. To present preliminary considerations he cites the work of Otto, Van der Leeuw, Bruno Nettl, Catherine Bell, Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, Joseph Gelineau, Louis Bouyer, Edward Foley, Mary McGann, Roy Rappaport, and others.
Beck notes that the earliest phase of Indian religious music, the period of ancient Vedic rites, employed “a sonic liturgy, a system or order of ritual events that included sound and music and was directed toward divine personifications of the forces of nature.” (p. 40) He argues against Frits Staal’s interpretation of Vedic ritual mantras as meaningless, (p. 43–44) and follows Alec Michael’s interpretation that there are meanings hidden from a superficial view, and he agrees with Brian Smith’s view of Vedic rituals as meaningful, including the significance of their expressions in fabricating and reconstructing the “true cosmos” and attaining human potential. Smith writes that for Vedic ritualists “ritual was the workshop in which all reality was forged.” (p. 56).
Beck keeps the topic of ancient rituals fascinating, calling on many authorities to weigh in on complex issues, such as Vedic soma ritual chants. He cites scholars such as C. Kunhan Raha, Wayne Howard, Tarlekar, Thakur Jaidev Singh, Shahab Sarmadee, S.S. Janaki, V. Raghavan, G.U. Thite, Oldenberg, and Francis X. Clooney. Beck is meticulous with terminology and accuracy in explaining technical details involving both musicology and history of Vedic worship. Naturally, discussing ancient rites requires discussing the practices theoretically—understanding the orthopraxy of performance involves interpreting key ideas.
The classical period in India, from 400 B.C.E. to 300 C.E., is reflected in elaborate collections of laws and rubrics, the Dharma Shastras, and it is humbling for moderns to consider all the kingdoms and empires which preceded Ashoka. The sacred dramas which burgeoned began with rituals of worship—pujas, and so it was the time of the popular emergence of puja music and gandharva sangit. The carry-overs and contrasts between Vedic yajna chants compared with music in puja worship are helpful. (p. 68–69) For example, Vedic rites were performed by brahman priests for an elite group of worshippers, while puja and gandharva worship was popular among many people. As one follows the worship ways of succeeding eras, the stages in India unfold before the reader in an orderly fashion, deepening the reader’s understanding.
Some issues may be debatable. Beck cites Natalia Lidova, who asserts that “The main goal of the Puja was to oust Soma libations, whose practice died away in the post-Vedic era”(p. 84) Other interpreters argue that once the access to the soma plant was lost or otherwise left behind, through Vedic people migrating to other regions, or otherwise, another way to find ecstasy in devotional practices of music and mysteries of beauty naturally evolved out of necessity. To “oust” seems like a political term, while puja images (like flowers, sacred gestures, sounds of music, and heartfelt emotions) seem like outgrowths of devotion in dramatic ritual acting, celebrations of enjoyment with stories, colors, sounds, fragrances, and music. In the classical era of gandharva music, there were plays about deities which inspired great popularity among worshippers. The powerful sacred visions of Vishnu’s avatars, and Shiva’s transcendent otherness in miraculous doings, came to life in stories and songs. The imaginations of creative religious leaders, such as artistic smarta brahmans, who have often been gatekeepers of culture in India, employed strict systems and expansive creativity, elaborating ideas in moving music needing no soma to thrill and inspire.
Beck uses the work of scholar Natalia Lidova extensively, as well as the work of Mukund Lath, in discussing the music related to puja. The Natya Shastra by Bharata (200 B.C.E.), the Dattilam (400–200 B.C.E.), and the Agamas, (a collection of canonical Hindu bhakti texts on mantras, yogas, temple building, worship) provide useful sources on classical practices of music, dance and drama. The Natya Shastra discusses the system of rasas—literally “juices,” liquid flavors, esthetic tastes. These eight thematic essences are derived from mental states or moods—humor, love, compassionate sadness, fury, bravery, disgust, horror, and wonder—in the classical theory.
The Medieval period (fourth to seventeenth century C.E.) brought burgeoning art-forms, and Sarngadeva’s thirteenth century treatise Sangita Ratnakara (“Ocean of Music”) contains many elements regarding Hindu traditional music theory and practice, as well as dance. In this period temple worship and bhakti expanded, with great popular worship of Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess. Beck explores the developments well, but to say Brahma “found disfavor” (p. 105) when he declined in popularity may not be as accurate as to note that his role as creator meant that he had never been as important to worshippers as Vishnu (the protector/sustainer of the creation) or Shiva, who with his Shakti could be Lord of the creatures, the auspicious healer and protector, the ultimate consciousness, as well as the divine dancer who dissolves the cosmos at each cycle’s end.
In medieval India, the great bhakti traditions of sectarian devotion, with much devotional literature in Tamil traditions of piety flourished in the lives and works of groups: the alvars and nayanmars. South Indian ritual centers flourished, such as the great temple on the island of Sri Rangam, in Tiruchiurapalli, Tamil Nadu. Beck explores this period well, but Sonic Liturgy is an admirably concise book, and India’s many faces and the many scholars of India, too, are hard to encompass, so the reader may want to pursue specific examples of the literature further in the works of lyric translators/guides such as A.K. Ramanujan, R.D. Ranade, V. Raghavan, Indira Peterson, and Vasudha Narayana, and collaborators David Shulman and Narayana Rao.
Beck cites Selina Thielemann: “Music and singing have been of central importance in the Vaishnava Bhakti movement since its very beginnings... A person endowed with devotion makes the musical offering out of love for God, and it is his devotion that enables man to partake of divine blessing in the form of music.” (p. 146.) Channeled feelings of devotion would seem to be an energy capable of refining life and elevating consciousness. The lives of great poets and composers and spiritual leaders exemplify this. Some of the most fascinating parts of Beck’s book showcase stories that capture our imagination. Examples include: the conversion of Alvar, the yogi who heard Vishnu being sung and was won over; the story of singers’ cymbals which were melted by Tippu Sultan, who ordered them recast into a large bell; the story of Krishna as told in the Harivamsa text; and the story of Vallabhacharya and the forming of his sampradaya.
In the final parts of Sonic Liturgy, Beck portrays well the musical practices of great sampradayas, especially with examples centered in Braj, the legendary region associated with Krishna’s youth, in north India. (Sampradaya means an ongoing succession of masters and disciples, a tradition-community which spans generations with the learning and practicing of disciplines, giving stability to religious identities.) The Nimbarka sampradaya provides an important and fascinating example, but space limits do not allow a discussion of it here.
Beck’s portrayal of the Radhavallabha seva and samaj gayan forms a vivid presentation of a great example of bhakti music in Braj. In this tradition, Radha is supreme, and her form is not depicted but suggested in her representation by a leaf or a tablet with her name on it. (In a separate publication, Beck has gathered and published original texts of the songs of the Radhavallabha sampradaya, the most complete set of recordings with translations and comments of this liturgy ever produced. It is entitled Vaishnava Temple Music in Vrindaban: The Radhavallabha Songbook, published by Blazing Sapphire Press, 2011. It is a fine collection of the literature, with translations by Beck and six other scholars.) The cyclical annual calendrical program of worship and festivals in Indian bhakti paths, such as the Radhavallabha sampradaya, is so encompassing, exacting and full of dedication that many modern secular people used to a more casual lifestyle might find it hard to imagine.
Sampradayas, organized and passed down for generations, have constructed systems with ritual specificity in regular music performances so that experiences of the sacred could endure. The bhakti programs, followed year after year, form a marvelous construct which allows forms of worship to endure in an ever-changing world. Exacting systems requiring care and dedicated service in the traditions of music might be a metaphor for humanity organizing the viable cumulative wisdom of living together on our fragile planet. If people can work out such complex systems of artful activity and keep them going for centuries, it proves what can be done. The ideals of wise moderation, careful waste disposal, outreach to help others, gives hope, showing what can be done if people made a concerted effort to show their fealty to Gaia, our earth.
Sonic Liturgy reminds us of the tremendous accomplishments of musical culture in India.
It helps us understand the rich order and rationale of Hindu traditions, so it is useful to specialists and to beginners seeking to grasp the evolution and inner workings of the great variety found in the long history of India. This is a challenging task: to do justice to an ocean of music in practice—the subtleties and nuances, the massiveness of the whole—but Beck’s orderly overview succeeds with accuracy and grace. His book helps us to recognize what is possible when fine energies are marshaled by consciousness to achieve almost superhuman goals.
Recommended for libraries, scholars of Indology, religious culture, history, performance arts, musicology, liturgy studies.