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Music: Music and Religion in India


Music has historically given unity to Indian society and civilization, often doing so in contrast to the discord among the dominant religions and multiple sects of South Asia. The symbolic meanings of music provide common musical substance and practice, and they are shared across sacred boundaries of many kinds. The religious and philosophical unity embodied through musical practice, therefore, has deep historical roots, which has meant that music and religion share many aspects of a common ontology. South Asian musical practices, moreover, have often mediated the conflicts between religions, responding to new possibilities for shared dialogue and intensifying worship. It is, therefore, virtually impossible to separate music from religion in India, for religious meaning, concrete and abstract, is present in South Asian music at every level.

Sound in its infinite varieties is of crucial importance to Indian religious thought. The universe itself is constituted of and by sound, and the omnipresence of sound envelops daily life. Hearing and listening to sound, therefore, are required of the individual to negotiate a path through life. Accordingly, the ontology of music depends on the physical perception of sound as a means of contemplation and worship. In Hinduism the primacy of hearing and listening for devotion is clearly evident in the term given to the foundational sacred scriptures, śruti (literally, "something that is heard"), which also refers to the fine divisions of pitch in Indian melodic modes, or rāgas. The aural perception of music also serves as the central ontology of music in Islam, in which the term samaʿ (both "hearing" and "listening") refers to music making and establishes the importance of aural perceptions, rather than sound production.

Just as the universe of sound is omnipresent, it is also dense, often even loud and cacophonous. The music of the Hindu temple, for example, is not limited to the sounds of instruments performing discrete pieces in a ritual performance. The general commotion of worshipers usually joins an instrumentarium consisting of percussion instruments of all kinds, as well as horns and woodwind instruments, fashioned to produce the loudest possible volume. The amplification of this sound universe is extreme throughout India, with loudspeakers broadcasting Hindu temple music into the streets or the Muslim adhān, or call-to-prayer, across the urban landscape. The density of sound is central to an epistemology of sacred experience through music. Sustaining the universe of sound is possible because of the multitude of musical experiences that channel devotion and join human beings together in communal worship. That epistemology of sacred experience through music crosses religious, linguistic, and socioeconomic boundaries, providing some measure of unity, both real and idealized, to the subcontinent of India.

Core Concepts about the Relation of Music to Religion

Organized and articulated as music, sacred sound has the power to represent the order of the universe and by extension symbolically to sustain human existence. The metaphorical unity of music lies in the capacity to sustain a central pitch, the ōm of Hindu metaphysics, the drone of the Indian music. Like the ōm, a drone displays characteristics of centrality and unbrokenness. Both characteristics are evident in the most ancient musical practice of Brahmanic Hinduism, the performance of passages from the gveda, in which chanters sing melodies that surround and return to the symbolically central pitch, which itself is intoned to the syllable, ōm. Virtually every Indian musical practice has adapted the symbolic use of sound to articulate the order of the universe, concentrating it in the drone pitch, which is not only played without break by a drone-producing instrument (e.g., the ambūra in the classical traditions), but provides the pitch to which the percussion instruments are tuned. Around the drone pitch there is a constellation of pitches in the melodic modes, or rāgas, which focus on the drone through their melodic motion. Accordingly, the organization of the universe is symbolically present in virtually every manifestation of sound in Indian music, linking music and religion through shared traits of a common metaphysics.

The temporal organization of Indian music also expresses many fundamental aspects of South Asian religious and philosophical thought. Meter in Indian music relies extensively on cyclical patterns, and rhythm results from additive principles, rather than the division into smaller and smaller units found in Western musical theory. Meter, or tāla, unfolds as a hierarchy of patterns, smaller ones embedded in larger ones, which return again and again to the same point of beginning. Musical structure, therefore, does not result from a unidirectional teleology leading toward conclusionthat is, there is no forward movement, no development in the Western classical sense. The cyclical character of musical time reflects the aspects of life and history that are fundamental to Indian religions. The absence of a strict impulse toward a telos of ending reflects many aspects of soteriology in religious thought; that is, it mirrors beliefs in the continuation of both human and musical life in an afterlife. Many musical forms, as well as individual pieces and performances, can be extended through improvisation that reiterates and embellishes the basic cyclical units. In a more practical sense, the epistemological extension of the life of a musical piece can enhance devotion and contemplation; for example, the standard South Indian compositional form, kriti, revolves around texts which repeatedly enjoin the musician to reflect on the name of a god (and at times on the life-giving acts of the kriti' s composer).

Cyclical concepts of sacred time and the soteriological relation between birth and rebirth also influence the broader patterns of music history in South Asia. Music does not change through radical innovation and growing complexity, but rather retains connections to musical principles that have constituted musical theory and thought since at least the eighth century ce. New traditions and new pieces enter Indian music history, but they do so not by displacing the old, but rather by expanding repertoires and musical ideas that already have a long historical presence. This is particularly evident in the retention of many aspects of Hinduism in the musical styles and practices of Muslim North India and Pakistan. The Hindu narratives that provide a representational template for rāga, for example, remain no less important in Hindustani music in the Muslim North, even when used for devotional purposes in Islam. Similarly, musical influences from the Middle East, especially from Persia, came to serve Indian musical ends in Mughal India, for example, in the shaping of the Hindustani instrumentarium (e.g., with the integration of the plucked-lute [sitār] and pair of drums [tablā] associated by some with the fourteenth-century ūfī, Amīr Khusraw). The epistemological relatedness of musical and religious thought in India historically underlies many of the transformations described by the term Indianization.

Just as music is inseparable from most rituals in Indian religions, so too is ritual meaning densely present in much musical activity. Music has the potential to recalibrate the temporal and social components of ritual, transposing them from the everyday to the sacred world. In tribal societies, music making is highly ritualistic, accompanying virtually all seasonal and life-cycle events. Generally speaking, music is most efficacious during ritual when it enhances participation. Ritual music making, therefore, encourages congregational devotion and often accompanies processions and dance. Because certain types of music making are suspect in Muslim rituals, and because Brahmanic tradition suggests a preference for silence in certain Hindu rituals, such as funerals, the use of music in specific rituals can also dispel polemics against music itself. Musical performance, even in the classical tradition, would be unthinkable without the expressive presence of ritual. The choice of rāga, the order of genres, and the interaction of musicians from different castes and religions influence the performance itself and account for the ways in which musical and religious connections remain intact.

Religious difference in South Asia is represented by music and mediated, even ameliorated, through musical practice. Musical historiographies, both Indian and Western, divide Indian musical practices, including devotional music, between North and South. That division has both musical and religious distinctions. In the South, Hinduism plays the overwhelming role in determining sacred meaning and musical structure. In the North, Islam is critical for the shaping of music. Despite the musical divisions between North and South, the distinction between Muslim and Hindu ontologies can only be partial, for the musical borders between North and South, as well as between the religions and sectarian groups in all parts of India, have been very fluid.

A more accurate distinction, particularly from a musical perspective, might instead be based on the contrast between change that accommodates religious and social difference and that which more conservatively retains the hierarchical structure of older religious traditions, Hindu and non-Hindu. The tension between these two patterns of religio-social difference does not obey a strict division between North and South, Muslim and Hindu. Religious accommodation in northern Indiafor example, Vaiava movements in the Bengali-speaking regionshas led to sweeping changes in music, from the emergence of a new music culture among the mendicant Bauls in Bengal to the crucial presence of musical "houses," or gharānā s, with origins in Bengal, such as the Benares gharānā in which Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan are principal members.

Indian music and religion share a common distribution of specialist roles across a hierarchy. This hierarchy is most apparent in Hinduism, in which the most respected musical specialiststhose who chant the Vedic hymns or play the vīā, the classical instrument with the highest status in Karāak (South Indian) art musichave traditionally been restricted to the Brāhma castes. In contrast, musicians with the lowest status in Karāak music, drummers who touch the skins of animals, or paaiyar s (Tamil for "drum maker"), are literally low caste and figuratively outcasts. The sacred priesthood is in many ways interchangeable with the musical specialists of the classical instrumental tradition. In contrast, the nonspecialist sacred repertoires, such as bhajan s, have the potential to level hierarchical differences, and thus create a common repertoire.

The distinction between musical specialization and everyday music making extends to the nature of the musical repertoires themselves and to their transmission. The religious priesthood and musical specialists perform from written traditions, most often in a "high" sacred language, such as Sanskrit. Nonspecialized traditions, however, are entirely oral, and the texts of songs or hymns constituting ritual and everyday repertoires are regional and vernacular. Though this tension between the classical and the quotidian subsided to some degree in the twentieth century, it remains one of the distinguishing characteristics of the ways in which music reflects the structure of South Asian religions.

Religious narrative inscribes meaning directly and indirectly on the structures of Indian music and musical instruments. Gods and goddesses, real and apocryphal saints, assume many and varied forms throughout the great epic cycles of Hinduism and the genealogies of Muslim shrines. The most frequently appearing musician-god in the Hindu epic Mahābhārata is Ka. Ka represents a constellation of divine attributes, among them divine love and beauty (prema and rupa), but even more important for his symbolic role in musical narrative are the many episodes in his life during which he is associated with gopīs, female cowherds, in a grouping that allegorically symbolizes the relation of the soul to god. That relation appears in countless images of Ka playing the flute to the gopīs, in the myths that associate narratives with specific rāgas, and in iconography used to depict divine love.

The musical representation of Sarasvatī specifies the different mythological and narrative roles she plays as a Hindu goddess. In Hindu writings Sarasvatī represents an ontology of human understanding, vidyā, that allows the human to transcend the cycle of death and rebirth, and it is this ontology that she brings to the most fundamental of all Indian musical instruments, the vīā. So basic is the meaning of the vīā to Hinduism that its very physical shape, with a head and vocal cords that sing and a gourd body that resonates as the human body, is regarded as metaphysically human. To enhance Sarasvatī's ability to effect vidyā, she appears frequently in the iconography appearing on vīās themselves. The vīā of Karāak classical music is, in fact, often referred to as the sarasvatī vīā.

The sacred music of South Asia maps place and identity in complex sacred geographies. Fundamental to the sacred geographies of all South Asian religions is the relation between centers and peripheries. Sacred musical centers coalesce around Hindu temples, Muslim shrines, and Buddhist monasteries. Musical activity at these centers is intensive and usually highly ritualized. Though the musical activity at a temple or shrine may be in the hands of a religious priesthood or musical specialists, it nonetheless depends on the participation of the devout who travel from elsewhere to worship at the center. Musical activity at the centers of the sacred geography is also the densest, and music itself concentrates sensory experiences to heighten the awareness of god and the efficacy of devotion.

The sacred journey from the periphery to the center usually involves pilgrimage, a form of ritual journey and community-formation common to all South Asian religions. The music of pilgrims is communal and congregational, practiced not by specialists but by the devout, who learn and adapt new songs, usually from oral tradition, to their sacred journeys. Folk and regional musical practices characterize peripheries, serving local functions and producing local liturgies and repertoires. Music in particular connects the sacred journey to the shrine at which worship is concentrated, multiplying the ways in which diverse genres of music collectively underlie religious experience. The sacred geographies of India, therefore, create possibilities for unity through the musical practices that reflect their dynamic quality and coalesce through ritual and performance at temples and shrines.


Historically, Hinduism has provided the body of religious thought that has most fundamentally shaped Indian musical practices. Music, either possessing a discrete ontology or embedded in other sacred and performative practices (e.g., devotion and dance), appears in the earliest sacred texts, such as in the Upaniads and the Vedas. The evidence of Hindu influence on musical thought has remained clear, even profound, until the present day, even in those repertoires and styles that now characterize other religions, including Islam. The historiography of Indian musical thought, in certain fundamental ways, runs parallel to the history of Hinduism, with its dynamic relation between central principles and texts, and variant denominations and interpretations. Just as Hinduism itself has not always prescribed a single religious orthodoxy, musical practices that arise from Indian religious thought do not always prescribe canonic classical traditions of music.

Surveying the diverse musics that embody and articulate Hinduism requires an understanding of the ways in which hierarchy and egalitarianism yield two contrasting domains of musical practice. Within the hierarchy there are those, notably Brāhmas, endowed with particular power to practice religious and musical specialties. The resilience of a religious hierarchy is evident in the long history of classical music in India, a tradition based on complex texts and highly developed performance skills. It is not by chance that the classical tradition is full of religious overtones. Until the modern era, for example, some practices of classical music, such as playing the vīā in the South and singing dhrupad in the North, were the restricted domains of high-caste Hindus or high-status Muslims. If the influence of Hinduism on Indian music seems to display a top-down trajectory, it also produces the tension that generates the need for musical egalitarianism. It is for this reason that the most widespread practice of Hindu devotional music, the singing of bhajan s, attracts the broadest participation from Indian society and spreads across religious and sectarian boundaries. Any discussion of music and Hinduism must therefore account for both highly specialized and broadly egalitarian musical practices.

The mythological concepts concerning the creation of the world and the human position in it that are recounted in the foundational texts of Hindu thought and Brahmanic tradition, the Vedas, are profoundly musical. The Vedas are recognized as a body of revealed texts, compiled during the millennium or so of Aryan invasion and ascendancy in South Asia, from around 1500 bce to 500 bce. Although the four basic texts of the Vedagveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda, Atharvaveda differ in function and historical appearance, all Hindus recognize that they embody fundamental aspects of Hindu thought. The formal aspects of the Vedas are musical, and the texts are often referred to as "hymns," compiled into hymnals. Rc glosses most often as "hymn," that is, as a body of songs, employing repetitive patterns, that to some degree rely on collective, even congregational, performance. Other English terms used to describe the Vedas range from "incantation" to "chant," all of them recognizing the performative foundation in song.

Unlike many religions, Hinduism employs musical concepts in the discourse about and practice of its foundational sacred texts. Performance of the Vedic hymns relies on specific pitch structures, with specific pitch patterns and tonal hierarchies, usually a group of two or three pitches surrounding a central pitch, the sustaining of which symbolizes the unbroken order of the universe. Similarly, the metrical performance of Vedic hymns generates a temporal framework that is rendered musical through the repetition of stress patterns. As foundational sacred texts, therefore, the Vedas generate identifiable musical parameters, and many of these remain central to the structure of music in South Asia until the present, especially: (1) The sustained presence and focus provided by a fundamental tone or drone; (2) a hierarchy of pitches, in which some pitches have greater tonal significance than others; and (3) the logogenic, or word-generated, nature of musical rhythm and meter.

The Vedic hymns are inseparable from Brahmanic ritual, which they transformed into the enactment of everyday Hindu practice. Ideally, the performance of the Vedas is ceaseless and seamless, the ultimate realization of everyday devotion through music. The ritual of performing the Vedic hymns, moreover, gave rise to other texts, specifically the Brāhmaas and the Upaniads. Of the two bodies of text, the Upaniads are more speculative and philosophical, whereas the Brāhmaas are more expository, developing principles set forth in the four Vedic canons. The Brāhmaas, thus, have performative functions, realized through the articulation of ritual through prayer and song. A Brāhma literally is "one who prays."

Already in the second millennium bce, the Vedas and Brahmanic tradition succeeded in establishing and maintaining fundamental musical concepts, and they historically represent a first instance of the ontological unity afforded to Indian religion through music. Performance of the Vedas established a direct relation between the religious text and the manner of its performance. By extension, a logogenic relation between text and performance emerges. Music becomes a medium or vehicle for the more complete expression of words. The music that serves as such a medium, furthermore, is immanent in the words of a sacred text. The music embodies some aspect of meaning contained in the words, and therefore music is never separable from words, even when words are absentsuch as in South Indian instrumental music, in which the composed melody, the kriti, is always based on a song with a specific text. The logogenic meaning of music may be direct (e.g., when enforced by specific metrical rules) or indirect (e.g., when reflecting the same sense of cosmological order with which the texts of the Vedic hymns concern themselves). Together, musical performance and religious ritual are wedded as music and text become inseparable.

Early Hindu and Brahmanic tradition generated fundamental ideas about music, such as concepts concerning composition and improvisation, and the identity of discrete forms, genres, and pieces of music. Music in the Brahmanic tradition conveys stories, indeed fundamental narratives from Hindu mythology and cosmology. Though a piece of music, such as one of the kritis of South Indian classical music, may not be literally "about" a particular story, knowing the story in question is critical to understanding the music. The Vedic hymns are the source of music's formal structures, which are developed in performance through improvisation within a system of pitches and patterns functioning in predetermined ways. As with the sacred texts, music contains the ōm, the fundamental pitch that focuses the Vedic text and sustains the order of the universe. The fundamental structure and symbolic meaning of music in sacred practice was present from the beginnings of Hindu practice.

Devotion in Hinduism intensifies unity and is itself intensified through congregational prayer and song. The unity of devotion resides in the possibility of evoking rasa, a constellation of emotional moods, among them yearning and compassion, but also wonder and fear, through performance. The primary genres of Hindu vocal music enhance rasa through their power to facilitate emotional unity and congregational participation. Hindu devotional music is both specific to South Indian regions because of its frequent use of vernacular languages and malleable enough in some genres, notably kīrtana and bhajan s, to extend its egalitarian notion of devotion, or bhakti, to other religions and to regional practices in North India and Pakistan.

Beginning roughly in the fourteenth century ce, poet-saints created repertoires of Hindu devotional songs that combined both musical and poetic properties of rasa. The emergence of the devotional repertoires was significant for the spread of vernacular musical practice across regional, linguistic, and sectarian borders. The great devotional singer-composers of the early era of kīrtana singing came from Kannada (e.g., Narahari Tīrtha, fourteenth century), Bengal (e.g., Caitanya, 14861533), and Telugu-speaking regions (e.g., Tallapakku Annamāchārya, b. 1424). Devotional repertoires spread across India, moreover, because of the activities of haridāsa singers, devotees of Vaiava Hinduism, who visited shrines and festivals, and integrated kīrtana -singing with pilgrimages. Kīrtana were quickly accessible to the diverse communal and linguistic groups who sang them because of their reliance on composed refrains, or pallavi, often with repeated meditations on the names of god, and then the unfolding of a series of strophes, or caraam, that worshipers without previous knowledge could quickly learn.

The most widespread form of Hindu devotional music is bhajan -singing. The concept of bhajan relates both to a specific vocal genre and to the performance practices necessary for communal singing. As genre and repertoire, the bhajan is remarkably accessible, consisting often of a very brief text, in which textual formulae, particularly forms of the names of Hindu deities (e.g., Rāma or Śiva), and even non-Hindu deities (e.g., Allah), will serve as the basis of repeated reflection. The relatively simple texts also ensure mobility, making it possible to move bhajan repertoires across linguistic borders and to gather them in such ways that they could become the primary song form accompanying Hindu pilgrims. Musically, too, formulae, such as antiphonal patterns in which a leader is followed by a chorus singing the same text and melody, invite rather than encumber participation.

The social context of bhajan -singing is communal, both when performed privately and when performed publicly. Homes, temples, and community centers (sometimes called bhajan halls) serve as the gathering place for the intensive performances. Modern technologies, particularly the widespread and inexpensive dissemination of bhajan s on audio cassette, continue to make devotional song one of the most widely practiced of all musical genres in South Asia at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


Buddhist music is important in modern South Asia not so much because of extensive presence, but rather because of the ways it contains fundamental historical-aesthetic concepts about the ontology of music and because its practices provide bridges to the music of East and Southeast Asia. Buddhism survives into the twenty-first century primarily in the north and the northeast, especially Tibet, and in the south, almost entirely in Sri Lanka. The musical practices of the two areas of South Asian Buddhism differ considerably. Monasticism dominates Tibet, and musical practices there represent the ritual practices of monastic life, itself an epistemological realization of the cycles of birth and rebirth. Theravāda Buddhism provides the framework for ritual and musical practice in Sri Lanka, where the interaction of monks and lay practitioners is much more extensive.

Historically, Buddhism has provided a theological impetus for unity and egalitarianism in Indian religion. The rise of Buddhist thought in the centuries following the Buddha's life (c. 485405 bce) provided a theological and philosophical counterpoint to the domination of the Brahmanic tradition and the Upaniads. From the earliest centuries, Buddhism opened up new possibilities for the contemplation of the external world primarily through mental and spiritual processes. Contemplation, moreover, achieved its highest form through various practices that required discipline, in particular that which takes place in monastic settings. Ritualized and inscribed in treatises, such as the Śvaraśāstra (Treatise on melody) and the Vādyaśāstra (Treatise on instrumental music), Buddhist concepts of music rely on the intensity and the unity achieved through contemplation that can be both individual and communal. For Indian musical practices, the fundamental principles of Buddhism have been significant for several reasons. Aesthetically, Buddhist thought opened epistemological possibilities for resolving the tensions between elite and vernacular musical practices.

In Buddhist devotion, contemplating sound itself is the most efficacious form of meditation. The sound universe of Buddhist devotion is encountered through various forms of ritual and worship. Early Buddhist texts, for example, stress that the contemplation of sound allows the individual to transcend the limitations of individual being through srotra vijñāna, or "aural knowledge." The bells and other percussion instruments that accompany monastic ritual, moreover, have direct religious significance, as they recall the ways in which the Buddha entered the world into which he was reborn as Siddhārtha. The contemplation of sound requires both the listening to and the production of music. Chanting is particularly important as a communal experience, in which vocal performance requires an intense awareness of the relation between individual melody lines and the overall texture of the group's chants; in other words, Buddhist chanting entails heterophonic singing, in which individuality and communality are at once distinct and merged.

Theravāda Buddhists in Sri Lanka base their chanting on oral interpretation of the Pali canon of sacred texts. Melodic ideas remain anchored in an understanding of the Buddha's teachings, that is, in a practice known as sarabhanna, in which a sustained choral sound elongates text across slowly moving pitches virtually devoid of ornaments. At the same time, Buddhist musical practice contains many of the structural features of Indian music. Critically important, for example, is that sound be unbroken, which in turn means that chanters employ overlapping phrases. Weighted tones, moreover, anchor chanting, and because of the seeming absence of phrases, the sound of chanting produces a sense of deployment around a drone pitch.

Sustained choral chanting and the maintenance of an unbroken flow of sound characterize Tibetan Buddhist worship. In Tibet, however, percussion instrumentsbells, cymbals, and drumsproduce a much more articulated feeling of pulse and rhythm, in which the temporal qualities of music are not entirely anchored to sacred texts. Tibetan instrumental ensembles may become quite large, and monastic repertoires may become highly stylized and distinct from chanting. Though Buddhist religious and musical thinking so emphatically provides a framework for music in South Asia, musical practice is by no means unchanging. Buddhist repertoires are diverse, as are the ways Buddhists achieve unity and devotion through the contemplation of sound and music.


From the first settlements of Muslim peoples in South Asia in the eighth century ce until the sixteenth century, when the Persian-speaking Mughal Empire established a firm foothold in North India, Islam became an increasing presence in South Asian culture and music. Despite its proscriptions against music in some contexts, Islam offered South Asians an alternative approach to the cultivation and performance of music. As a whole, Muslim music making was more egalitarian than that of Hinduism, and just as Islam attracted converts because of the openness of its religious doctrines, so too did it multiply the possibilities of music making, in both sacred and secular domains of society. In many areas of cultural and musical life, Islam proved to be flexible, encouraging regional diversity in the music of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Bengal, all of which can claim classical music systems of their own in the twenty-first century. The Muslim regions also fostered extensive musical exchange with the Middle East and Central Asia, which enriched the diversity of musical genres and introducing new instruments and instrumental ensembles.

The Indianization of music that has led to unity throughout India has an historical counterpoint in the Muslim areas of the North, namely Islamicization. Roughly speaking, Islamicization results when a musical concept, form, theoretical system, or ensemble structure undergoes a transformation allowing it to express the cultural distinctiveness of North India or Pakistan. One of the earliest forms of Islamicization is evident in the cultivation of Mughal miniature paintings from the sixteenth century onward. Imported with the Mughal settlement from Persia, miniature-painting frequently included musical subject matter revealing the many ways in which music and musicians were crossing religion-based musical boundaries. Miniature-painting even influenced the visual representation of Hindu myth in rāgmālā -painting, which also depicted the rāga classification of North Indian classical music. Islamicization is particularly prominent in the modern erafor example, in the modes of popular music that make room for devotional practice (e.g., qawwālī ) and in pan-Islamic musico-poetic genres (e.g., ghazal ). In this sense, Islamicization is far less a process of restricting musical activity than a means of expanding the religious significance that South Asian musics have worldwide.

The musical genres of Muslim South Asia fall into two general categories: (1) genres common to devotional practices throughout the Islamic world; and (2) genres with musical, linguistic, and historical roots in South Asia itself. In the case of both categories it is critical to understand just how music finds its place in Islam. Scriptural pronouncements about musical practice in Islam are very much open to interpretation, both because of their ambivalence and because of their paucity. Orthodox interpretations found in the commentaries on the Qurʾān, the aādīth, are conclusive only insofar as they show the Prophet to have found some musical practices acceptable and others suspect. South Asian practice, especially in Pakistan, where Islam is also the state religion, suggests a fairly orthodox and literal interpretation of the position of music in Islamic society. On one hand, music in the strictest sense, especially music including instruments, does not have an official place in the institutions of public worship. Though the Qurʾān employs melody and modes, reciting is considered "reading" (qirāʾah) and never "singing." On the other hand, the aural experience of music, samaʿ, or "listening," is fully sanctioned, especially when the music in question is used to accompany recitation of the Qurʾān or takes the form of devotional song. Sacred musics in Muslim South Asia respond to these positions in various ways, and their reception throughout the world thus varies as well.

Devotional music in Muslim South India is very widespread, and it provides aesthetic and cultural continuity across the borders of the three largest nations with Muslim populations, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Many sacred musical genres are common to the three countries, such as qawwālī. The shrines and saintly lineages around which certain repertoires coalesce have local and international aspects, which reveals the extent to which the borders of the northern parts of South Asia have remained contested through history. Whereas repertoires may be similar, individual practices may differ extensively. Differences are particularly evident in the use of various languages in performances of devotional song, not only due to the prevalence of regional languages and folk melodies in kāfī, or "devotional song," but also on account of the mix and hybrid use of languages and musical styles in qawwālī. Instrumental ensembles may also be at once local and global, as seen, for example, in qawwālī with its use of the hand-pumped organ, or harmonium, and in the use of variants of the bowed spiked fiddle, or sāragī, in Rajasthani and Pakistani devotional musics. Muslim devotional musics, therefore, are never static, bounded repertoires, but rather are fluid musical practices that constantly respond to change and the shifting attitudes toward music within Islam.

Local practices of Muslim devotional music are largely encompassed by the term kāfī. Kāfī is not one style or genre of devotional music, but many, whose common characteristics reflect musical influences and change from below. The texts of kāfī appear to come from regional narratives, often featuring heroes and heroines associated with historical events. In the songs themselves, however, the regional stories and characters take on a larger, symbolic meaning, especially with regard to the ways in which the devout achieve spiritual union. Though the roots of kāfī are to be found in the use of folk instruments and strophic structures, they have moved stylistically toward the classical traditions. The string instrument commonly employed with kāfī, the sāragī, has become a classical instrument only in the past century, but has definitively won its position in the classical instrumentarium of North Indian, or Hindustani, classical music. Even the term kāfī has found its way into Hindustani classical music, where it has become the name of a rāga.

The most global Muslim devotional music of South Asia is qawwālī, which since its introduction to the West by the Sabri Brothers in the mid-1970s and its popularization on an international scale in the 1980s and 1990s, principally by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, has become the world music of South Asian Sufism. Like other devotional genres in South Asia, qawwālī is not a single style, but rather embodies a constellation of sacred practices and musical sounds that together give it identity. Qawwālī is, first of all, a poetic genre, lending itself to an expansive musical repertoire. It is played by specialists, who are also often professionals, namely qawwāls ("fluent" or "eloquent" ones), a term that refers to the primacy of the text and is derived from the Arabic word qaul, "to speak or to say."

Qawwālī also has a specific function and venue. Its performances constitute the musical and spiritual life of a shrine dedicated to a specific ūfī saint. Through performance, therefore, qawwālī expresses a specific history and tradition. For Chishtī ūfīs, the spiritual lineage extends back to Amīr Khusraw (12441325), a qawwāl and poet himself, who was a disciple of the ūfī saint and great spiritual founder of Chishtī ūfīs, Nizāmuddīn Auliyā. The tradition of devotional song thus follows a specific path, made possible by the succession of sheikhs who supported shrines in Pakistan and North India.

The compositional nature and musical structure of qawwālī is no less specific, for it is possible to talk about individual pieces transmitted with discrete identities through oral tradition. For example, one of the best-known qawwālī songs, "Man kunto Maulā" (see the recorded examples on tracks 1 and 2 of the CD accompanying Qureshi, 1995), contains the following constellation of musical and symbolic meanings and references:

  1. "Man kunto Maulā" refers to the Chishtī ūfī lineage, and is performed at shrines dedicated to both Amīr Khusraw and Nizāmuddīn Auliyā.
  2. The text is in Persian, which connects the song to Islam in the Middle East.
  3. It contains an example of a subgenre known as basant, which here serves to signify a specific aspect of a saint's life, Amīr Khusraw's reflections on Nizāmuddīn Auliyā's love for his deceased nephew.
  4. The melody consists of two segments, one ascending (asthāyī) and the other descending (antharā), which together provide the structural framework for almost all melodies in Hindustani music.
  5. The rāga is a hybrid form, megh-ushshaq, which has both North Indian (megh) and Middle Eastern (ushshaq) connotations.
  6. The structure of the rāga, which features mixed tetrachords, reflects techniques associated with Amīr Khusraw.

Though technical, this brief analysis of a single qawwālī song reveals the ways in which musical ends can provide a direct link to ūfī religious thought and comment on the genealogy of Muslim South Asia and its historical roots in the Middle East. Symbolic power also moves from religious signification to music in "Man kunto Maula." Amīr Khusraw, for example, in addition to being a spiritual leader in Chishtī Sufism is recognized as the legendary inventor of the sitār and the tablā, canonic melodic and percussion instruments in Hindustani classical music. Such associations further suggest an interchange between music and religion, leading some to claim that Hindustani music itself formed from ūfī practices. If such a claim is in large part untenable, it nonetheless deserves attention for pointing out the religious dimension of musical thought in North India and Pakistan, and for illustrating the ways in which Sufism and its most widely recognized tradition of devotional music, qawwālī, has historically established an appropriate place for music in Islam.

Other South Asian Religions and Religious Practices

The religious diversity of South Asia is far greater than the usual concentration of musicological and theological surveys on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam suggests. An understanding of religion in South Asia requires the survey of tribal and regional religious practices, some of them religions in their own right, others local variants of the larger religions. The musical practices of such religions and sects also fall generally into two categories. In the first of these, music takes place primarily as the expression of ritual, and its structure and style are linked to function and the efficacy of ritual-musical activity. Regarded in this way, the music of ritual is secondary to the ritual itself, thus limiting the extent to which a musical system with its own structures and independent form can evolve.

In the second category, the music of tribal and regional religions possesses the dominant systemic qualities of a larger Indian music cultures, for example rāga and tāla, but the variants of these are simpler than in the classical systems, and local inflection often determines the ways in which the music itself functions. Neither of these categories has historically explained the diversity of tribal music with sufficient thoroughness. The study of tribal, regional, and sectarian music, nonetheless, began attracting considerable ethnographic and ethnomusicological attention in the 1980s and 1990s, so much so that scholarship in the first decade of the twenty-first century holds the promise of reformulating the basic study and understanding of Indian music.

The potentially unifying influence of music on Indian religious thought remains present even across the sacred landscapes of smaller religions. Religions that distinguish themselves primarily from Hinduism frequently have embraced hymns, even bhajan s from the Hindu tradition, as a repertoire for congregational performance. The primary body of songs in Jainism, for example, consists of hymns whose texts and functions owe an historical debt to Hindu devotional music. The ūfī musical tradition of Kashmir (ūfyānā mūsīqī) embodies both Middle Eastern and Indian classical traditions, producing a classical tradition of its own, which is suited to performance in mosques and temples alike, as well as in the special shrines of Kashmiri ūfīs, the tekke. Sikhism and Zoroastrianism, too, make extensive use of styles and repertoires borrowed from Hindustani classical music, adapting them to their own ritual practices rather than radically breaking from them. These specific cases of sectarian religious tradition in South Asia make it clear that Indianization of religious musics requires the transformation of similarities no less then differences.

Historically, musical influences have been introduced into South Asia by smaller religions and religious sectors that have arrived from elsewhere. Jewish communities established themselves in India as early as the first millennium ce, making communities such as the Cochin Jews some of the oldest in the Jewish Diaspora. Jewish musical traditions remained both relatively isolated and intact, but also sometimes integrated with Indian musicfor example, in the theater ensembles in urban centers such as Mumbai.

Christian communities can also claim long and complex histories in South India. Among the oldest Christian sects are those that descend from the Christian Orthodox traditions of the Middle East, especially the Syrian Orthodox church. In some parts of India, especially in Kerala, the Christian population is comparable in size to other religious groups, making it no longer possible to consider them as simply a minority religious community. Christian musical traditions have distinctive qualities, but they also reflect the unifying sound aesthetic of Indian music as a whole. Christian worship is extensively liturgical, lending itself to the congregational performance of hymns. As a result, Indian Christian churches are capable of adapting Christian hymn repertoires from Europe and North America, but are no less disposed to draw upon bhajan repertoires.

South Asia has long attracted intensive missionary activity, some of it at the behest of colonial forces, and some under the auspices of Christian denominations in the West. Anglican and evangelical Protestant traditions are therefore present in the cities and regions of English domination, whereas Catholicism is more common in areas of Portuguese colonialism, particularly in Goa and some parts of Sri Lanka. Evangelical Protestantism also has an especially strong presence in Sri Lanka.

The musical traces and transformations produced by the presence of Christianity in South Asia are considerable. During the twentieth century, the publication of hymnals with regional Indian languages supplanting European texts became so extensive that it is possible to speak of an Indianization of Christian hymnody. The instrumentarium of South Asian music, moreover, also reflects missionary and colonial influences, as can be seen in the widespread use of brass bands, including for rituals of various kinds. Another example of this influence is the Indianization of the harmonium, a portable organ of European origin with hand-pumped bellows that has encroached into South Asian musicfor example, into qawwālī, which would be unthinkable without the harmonium.

Whatever the influences from Christianity and Western religious incursions into India, it is still necessary to recognize the resilience of Indian music itself. Rather than rejecting hymn traditions and Western instruments as foreign, Indian musical traditions have transformed them and integrated them so that they play unifying roles in the interaction between music and religion in India.

Postcolonial and Global Sites for Music and Religion

Religious musical practices in South Asia have embraced rather than rejected modernization, with its changing technologies and diverse media. Even the most basic ontologies of sound and its density in the universe have benefited from technologies, not least among them electronic amplification and recording. In the sound universe of the Indian city, the broadcasting of music from loudspeakers, radios, and cassette recorders produces a texture comprised of competing voices and traditions. Extreme volume itself has become a medium for enhancing the contemplation of devotional music in the public sphere.

Modern technology and mediation have also proved particularly useful for the popularization of South Asian religious music. In the vast industry of Indian film-making, for example, the reconciliation of religious difference has long provided one of the most fundamental themes. Whether focusing on the virtually irreconcilable relationships between the families of Hindu-Muslim lovers or on past and present moments of sectarian violence (e.g., Mani Ratnam's Bombay, which won international acclaim in 1995), Indian filmmakers and composers draw upon music to signify religious unity, even to effect it symbolically on the screen. In the twenty-first century film is perhaps the preeminent site in which religious themes are expressed through the unifying power of Indian music.

The religious musics of South Asia have also achieved global distribution as world music. The globalization of religious music began during the British colonial era, not least because of the successful establishment of a colonial recording industry by British firms. Recordings broadened the audience base both in South Asia and abroad, creating processes of exchange and hybridity. The first vocalists to achieve global status were the dhrupad singers, Faiyazuddin Dagar (19341989) and Zahiruddin Dagar (19321994) Few musicians anywhere have achieved the global stardom of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (19481997), whose performances of qawwālī wove traditional motifs of devotion into a world-music mix.

The globalization of religious music has further benefited from the South Asian Diaspora, with its extensive patterns of settlement and exchange with India itself. The musical styles of the Diaspora integrate religious musics in complex ways, from the merging of folk and ritual musics in bhangra, to the bhajans and other devotional practices that provide the template for the styles known as chutney in Indo-Caribbean popular music. Throughout the history of India, sacred musics have accommodated religious influences from outside the subcontinent, and they have themselves extended across Asia with the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism, and with the colonial dispersion of Indians to South Africa, the Pacific, Europe, and the Americas. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the religious musics of India thrive in the Diaspora. Even as they respond to the pressures of globalization, they retain their vigor and their significance in South Asian society, providing unity to the Diaspora no less than during the millennia of religious diversity in India itself.


Theological and Philosophical Issues

Blackburn, Stuart. Singing of Birth and Death: Texts in Performance. Philadelphia, 1988.

Hamilton, Sue. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2001.

Roche, David. "Music and Trance." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 5, South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent, edited by Alison Arnold. New York, 2000.

Rowell, Lewis. Music and Musical Thought in Early India. Chicago, 1992.

Ritual and Tribal Practices

Babiracki, Carol. "Music and the History of Tribe-Caste Interaction in Chotanagpur." In Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History, edited by Stephen Blum, Philip V. Bohlman, and Daniel Neuman, pp. 207228. Urbana, Ill., 1991.

Gaston, Anne-Marie. Krishna's Musicians: Musicians and Music Making in the Temples of Nathdvara Rajasthan. New Delhi, 1997.

Gold, Ann Grodzins. Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims. Berkeley, Calif., 1988.

Gurung, Kishor. Ghamtu: A Narrative Ritual Music Tradition as Observed by the Gurungs of Nepal. Kathmandu, Nepal, 1996.

Roche, David. "Devi Amba's Drum: Mina Miracle Chant and the Ritual Ostinato of Spirit-Possession Performance in Southern Rajasthan." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1996.

Wolf, Richard K. "Of God and DeathMusic in Ritual and Everyday Life: A Musical Ethnography of the Kotas of South India." Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1997.

Wolf, Richard K. "Music in Seasonal and Life-Cycle Rituals." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 5: South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent, edited by Alison Arnold. New York, 2000.


Hopkins, Steven Paul. Singing the Body of God: The Hymns of Vedantādeśika in Their South Indian Tradition. New York and Oxford, 2002.

Howard, Wayne. Sāmavedic Chant. New Haven, Conn., 1977.

Jackson, William. "Religious and Devotional Music: Southern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 5: South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent, edited by Alison Arnold. New York, 2000.

Morinis, E. Alan. Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal. Delhi, 1984.

Staal, J. Frits. Nambudiri Veda Recitation. The Hague, 1961.


Ellingson, Ter. "The Mandala of Sound: Concepts and Sound Structures in Tibetan Ritual Music." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1979.

Trewin, Mark. "Rhythms of the Gods: The Musical Symbolics of Power and Authority in the Buddhist Kingdom of Ladakh." Ph.D. diss., City University of London, 1996.

Greene, Paul D. "Sounding the Body in Buddhist Nepal: Neku Horns, Himalayan Shamanism, and the Transmigration of the Disembodied Spirit." World of Music 4, no. 2 (2002): 93114.


Beck, Guy. "Religious and Devotional Music: Northern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 5, South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent, edited by Alison Arnold. New York, 2000.

Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt. Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali. Chicago, 1995.

Sakata, Hiromi Lorraine. "Devotional Music." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 5, South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent, edited by Alison Arnold. New York 2000.

Further Religious Traditions

Dimock, Edward D., Jr., and Denise Levertov, eds. and trans. In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali. Garden City, N.Y., 1967.

Henry, Edward O. Chant the Names of God: Musical Culture in Bhojpuri-Speaking India. San Diego, Calif., 1988.

Kelting, M. Whitney. Singing to the Jinas: Jain Laywomen, Maa Singing, and the Negotiations of Jain Devotion. New York and Oxford, 2001.

Maskarinec, Gregory G. The Rulings of the Night: An Ethnography of Nepalese Shaman Oral Texts. Madison, Wis., 1995.

Myers, Helen. Music of Hindu Trinidad: Songs from the India Diaspora. Chicago, 1997.

Tingey, Carol. Auspicious Music in a Changing Society: The Damāi Musicians of Nepal. London, 1994.

Weisethaunet, Hans. The Performance of Everyday Life: The Gaine of Nepal. Oslo, 1998.

Philip V. Bohlman (2005)

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