In Indian classical music a raga (Sanskrit = color, tone) is the totality of a pattern or patterns of five to nine notes that provides a structure for improvisation. When improvising on a raga, the performer is free to change the pitch, volume, tone, timbre, tempo and number of notes but usually begins and ends on the same note, as indicated by the particular raga.¹
Ragas are often regarded as vehicles for spiritual meditation but they also recall, in an abstract and condensed form, epic stories and actual events from Indian history—e.g. the archetypal motif of arriving home after a lengthy war and finding out that one’s lover has died.
Accordingly, many see the raga as a tool for transcendence. For others it is also sublimely emotional.
While studying in India I had the opportunity to hear some masters like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan play the raga. At one gathering, some Western ‘foreign’ students (as they were indelicately called) played first. I thought they were quite talented. But when the Indian master – in this case Ali Akbar Khan – played afterward, I was amazed at the difference. Khan captivated the audience with a true authority that the international students just couldn’t muster up.
These days, I don’t listen to that type of music as it takes me into a zone that I am no longer comfortable with. Let’s call it expansive transcendence. That was okay in India during the latter 1980s when time was slow and many local people seemed halfway in another world. But in the fast, focused Western world listening to Indian classical music affects me like taking mind altering substances that I don’t enjoy nor want. Sort of like a spiritual alcohol.²
Along these lines the Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung warned against Westerners embracing Eastern forms of spirituality. He felt that the Western psyche could face serious dangers if overwhelmed by what he saw as uniquely Asian archetypal forms. Many today would laugh at this, of course. But we must remember that Jung wrote well before yoga was trendy and international travel, common. And in Jung’s defense, I should add that he was rarely a black and white thinker. Jung also wrote that Asia possibly was “at bottom” of the paradigm shift that the West was just beginning to grasp.³
¹ Wikipedia adds some interesting details:
Although notes are an important part of rāga practice, they alone do not make the rāga. A rāga is more than a scale, and many rāgas share the same scale. The underlying scale may have four, five, six or seven tones, called swaras. Rāgas that have four swaras are called surtara (सुरतर) rāgas; those with five swaras are called audava (औडव) rāgas; those with six, shaadava (षाडव); and with seven, sampurna (संपूर्ण, Sanskrit for ‘complete’). The number of swaras may differ in the ascending and descending like rāga Bhimpalasi which has five notes in the ascending and seven notes in descending or Khamaj with six notes in the ascending and seven in the descending. Rāgas differ in their way how to ascend or descend. Those that do not follow the strict ascending or descending order of swaras are called vakra (वक्र) (‘crooked’) rāgas…
It is important to note that in Indian classical music there are seven natural notes (Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni) and five half-notes. The four komal (flat) swaras are Re, Ga, Dha and Ni. The only one which can be sharp (tivre) is Ma. That means that any instrument tuned in a tempered way should actually not be used for this music since it is to be considered “out of tune”. In rāga Mārva, for instance, the komal Re is a little higher than it is in other rāgas (emhpasis added)
² Even though I don’t listen to them, I’ve kept all my old Indian classical tapes, stowed away in a bag in the basement. Come to think of it, I’ve kept practically all of my old music.
³ That last line is a bit confusing to me. I have a tendency to try to straighten out Jung’s thinking. But when I do it usually ends up like my thinking, not Jung’s. So I think I’ll just leave it as is.