The Autobiography of a Yogi
by Paramahansa Yogananda
(1946) is interesting for the student of Hinduism. The author’s transcendental zeal from a young age (albeit karmically destined and foretold) is impressive. Yogananda’s accounts of mind-over-matter spectacles he encounters in his youth (e.g., in the Tiger-taming Yogi, the Levitating Yogi, and various mind-reading Yogi, etc.) can only be called incredible to the un-enlightened mind.
But his discussion on the technology of music—as a bridge to a greater, more comprehensive order of things–strikes me as noteworthy. For the Hindu, music calls on the most ancient parts of humans–their very creation–and so it reaches listeners on a basic spiritual level:
Because man is himself an expression of the creative word, sound exercises on him a potent and immediate effect. [Music ] bestows joy on man because it causes a temporary vibratory awakening of one of his occult spinal centers. In those blissful moments, a dim memory comes to him, of his divine origin.
Such order is in
visible to an unenlightened mind, says Yogananda
, but present, nonetheless. And through yogic practices, perceiving these preternatural structures is attainable. Nonetheless, there is something intuitive and universally-felt in music. The seasonal festivals Yogananda celebrates—on the Equinoxes and the Solstices–use music
to manifest the way things ultimately are. By meditating on it, playing it, or just listening to it, one apprehends something of one’s ultimate nature, according to Yogananda
. Thus, music acts as a vehicle of spiritual discovery.
According to his Autobiography of a Yogi
, music in India is a “divine art,” and was played originally by the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, “the first musicians,” according to Yogananda. Rhythm, melody, and harmony are there to represent the essential sound of the universe
, which ultimately sounds like (spoiler alert!) “Om.”Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom,
plays the mother of all stringed instruments. Krishna plays the flute, specifically “the enrapturing song that recalls to their true home the human souls wandering in Maya delusion.”
The original ragas
form the basic templates of songs, and are correlated to seasons and hours of the day. Traditional Indian music is all about arousing specific emotions during certain times of the year and day, from courage, to valor, to love. Thus, music works as a technology
designed to attune the emotions within to the world outside one.
These laws of sound allow Nature and man to interact, Yogananda writes,
Because Nature is an objectification of Om, the primal sound or vibratory word, man can obtain control over all natural manifestations through the use of certain mantras, or chants.”
Each of the notes corresponds with specific colors and animals. The many scales and traditional melodies allow improvisation around certain givens. Indian music is thus natural, taking its melodic cue from bird songs, confining itself to a range of three octaves (key ranges easy for most human voices,) and using “Tala” (or rhythm) in ways that echo human movement: “the double time of walking, and the triple time of respiration and of sleep—one inhalation is twice the length of each exhalation” are the ordering time signatures of Indian songs.
He says that among western composers, Bach comes closest to expressing the magnitude of universal Om vibration through his music. According to Yogananda, Bach does something similar to the Indian musician, who “does not read set notes. At each playing, he clothes anew the bare skeleton of the raga, often confining himself to a single melodic sequence, stressing by repetition all its subtle, microtonal and rhythmic variation.”
My heart and history agree. Double Violin Concerto in D Minor is thus not very far from Indian Ragas!
My edu-preneurial mind has intuitively been using music to attune my students to various elements of the curriculum. How can we “scale” this technology? Perhaps the Finnish school system is on to something when it requires all aspiring teachers to know how to do music with their kids!
[BTW, this graphic scoring of music, a project of Stephen Malinowski, is a exciting new way of “seeing” how music works, isn’t it?]
For Yogananda, Hindu music “is a subjective, spiritual, and individualistic art, aiming not at symphonic brilliance, but at personal harmony with the Over-soul.” One derives benefits from experiencing music passively, as an auditor, or actively, as a music-maker. Jamming musicians engage in a musical yoga; their special concentration is something all members of orchestras, bands, or choirs understand. Their “absorption in a seed-thought in sound” flowers in wondrous musical manifestations, and blesses the listener and the players alike.
Finally, according to Yogananda, music has powers to organize the chaos like the weather—make a hot day cool, etc. I know it calms the chaos of a worried mind wonderfully. For me, the technology of the blues helps organize the chaos of anxious thinking.While it may be raining outside, music can make the sun shine inside!