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The Raga – Mind altering sounds from India

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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.

Akira Asakura Raga in the Evening @Hindi concert ③ via Flickr

Akira Asakura Raga in the Evening @Hindi concert ③ via Flickr

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

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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.

Related » Mantra, Orpheus


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Sanskrit – Does God have a special language?

Sanskrit blogging on the rise by Debashish Chakrabarty

Sanskrit (samskrta = cultured, perfected, in contrast to prakrta = uncultured, popular) is the sacred, ancient language of Hinduism.

One school of thought believes that an early form of Sanskrit originated with Aryan invaders and their Vedic hymns around 2,000 BCE.

Another view suggests that an early form of Sanskrit existed within the Indus valley. And the entire Aryan invader thesis has been questioned.

Regardless of its disputed origins, the speakers of Sanskrit believed, as do many Hindus today, that the correct pronunciation of this language may elevate individuals to higher planes of consciousness, leading to greater spiritual awareness.¹

In Hinduism the Vedas, Shastras, Puranas and Kavyas were composed in Sanskrit.

Although Pali is the primary language of Buddhist scripture, some Mahayana texts were composed in a hybrid Sanskrit.

Sanskrit has also found its way into Jain scripture.

The earliest surviving character of its unique Devanagari (language of the gods) script is dated at 150 CE.

Not unlike Latin in the Catholic Church, Sanskrit remains sacred and prestigious among teachers and students throughout India and beyond.²

¹ This kind of claim is not unique to Hinduism. Not a few adherents of different religions believe that their own special language is the key to higher consciousness, awareness or God. I personally think it’s a joke to assume that God would prefer one “special” language over another. In Catholicism, some speak of the Latin Mass as if it has some kind of special sanctity. But what these people forget is that Jesus and his message is for anyone who wants to hear it. That’s why I applaud Catholic Bibles translated in any language and see them as equally valid as ancient Greek (original language of the New Testament) or Hebrew (original language of the Jewish scriptures and the Christian Old Testament) manuscripts. Some contemporary religious scholars use the language-game-power-trip to try to raise themselves above and literally intimidate others. But again, that is contrary to the Christian message.

² See

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Wendy Doniger – epitome of the “Western” scholar

Wendy Doniger 2012 – Image via Wikipedia

Wendy Doniger (1940 – ) is a leading American scholar of Hinduism. Her study of the seemingly endless variations of Hindu myth illustrates some of the intricacies of the Hindu imagination.

O’Flaherty’s translation of the Rig Veda compares well in clarity and readability to the once unrivaled S. Radhakrishnan version. However, not everyone agrees with her structuralist-influenced interpretations of Hinduism.

At times it seems that Doniger makes the same old mistake that many “smart” scholars make. They read and read and read just about everything they can in order to understand. But they get caught up in a web of the intellect. That may be alright for computer programmers and coders. But when the topic is religion, one can get the feeling that, ironically, they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Too much locked up in the conceptual and not able to transcend that arid desert.

Beginning in the early 2000s, a disagreement arose within the Hindu community over whether Doniger accurately described Hindu traditions. Together with many of her colleagues, she was the subject of a critique by Rajiv Malhotra for using psychoanalytic concepts to interpret non-Western subjects.¹

As we see in the photo (top right), she’s a great fit with academia as it currently stands. Western academia, at any rate. Things were set up quite differently where I did my M.A. (Visva Bharati, India).


Related » Homeopathy, Karma, Karma Transfer, Language, Otto, Sin, Structuralism

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Pali – Language of the ancient Buddhists

The President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, presenting the Presidential Award to the Scholars of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian & Pali/Prakrit & Mahrshi Badrayan Vyas Samman for the year 2014 at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Pali is an ancient language derived from Sanskrit, used in the scripture and liturgy of Theravada Buddhism. Its use virtually died out in the 14th century in India, dwindling on until the 18th century.

Some religious studies scholars believed that Pali is related to Magadhi, the language that the Buddha allegedly spoke. This theory is still taken seriously in S. G. F. Brandon’s Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970).¹

However, a more recent Wikipedia entry questions whether or not the Buddha spoke Magadhi, suggesting this claim could be more an opportunistic strategy (i.e. politically motivated) instead of an actual fact. Old Magadhi was a high-class language, the lingua franca of the nobility. And its use was one way the ancient elites could separate themselves from, as they likely would have seen it, the riffraff.

Stefan Rüdiger – Buddha via Flickr

This doesn’t meant that the Buddha did not speak Magadhi. But it does mean that we do not know.²

¹ In fairness, the entry in this outstanding dictionary (for 1970) does offer a footnote suggesting further scholarly study, which I haven’t yet followed up on.

² See Similar questions arise with regard to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. That is, did things always happen as the text says or are we often reading, for example, ancient invective, hyperbole or theologically infused storytelling. However, fundamentalists who refuse, or who find it too psychologically painful to examine their literal beliefs, will usually turn a blind eye to (or demonize) earnest attempts to get at the truth with the cognitive and scholarly tools available to us today. Many of these folks believe they have a pipeline to God, so for them, whatever idea pops into their head is a “revelation” from the Holy Spirit. In most cases this probably doesn’t involve too much high spirituality but, rather, a significant lack of self-knowledge and intellectual formation in this particular area.

Related » Akashic Records, Anatman, Deva, Dhammapada, Dukkha, Nirvana



Sikhism is a religious and cultural movement based on the teachings of the Indian Guru Nanak (1469-1539 CE).

The teachings of the Muslim Kabir and the spread of mystical Sufism in Northern India laid the groundwork for this new religion, which originally hoped to synthesize Islam and Hinduism.

Sikhism currently emphasizes the oneness of God and unity of all faiths. For some, this is a self-evident stance. For others, it’s a kind of flawed homogenization of many different types of religion.

It is believed that a succession of 10 gurus (Nanak and his nine successors) has spread the word of the true guru–namely, God. Thus the religion is described as monotheistic.¹

The last Sikh guru died in 1708.

The sacred scripture of the Sikhs is called The Adi Granth, itself often referred to as a “guru.”

Sikh culture is highly distinctive; most choose to wear a turban within and beyond the borders of their Punjab homeland.

As with other world religions, the noble ideals of Sikhism are at times undermined by extremists, as evidenced by clashes at the holiest site of sacred pilgrimage, the Golden Temple.

English: The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) a...

English: The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) at night. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Toronto Catholic Archbishop Michael Collins once said, talking with a Sikh leader (with others present) on a televised interfaith dialogue, that Catholicism is not about a “glow” but rather, about serving God. This critique seems somewhat misguided as Sikhs are all about following God, setting up charities, etc. However, what I think the Archbishop might have been alluding to is the idea that, for some, the Holy Spirit differs in numinous quality from that of other numinosities. This point is almost impossible to demonstrate to those who don’t really have an eye for numinosity. To others, the difference is as plain as day.

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Rabindranath Tagore

English: Rabindranath Tagore with Mahatma Gand...

Rabindranath Tagore with Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi at Santiniketan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was an Indian renaissance man born in Calcutta, W. Bengal. Tagore is known throughout India and the world for his paintings, folk songs, verse, short stories, plays and novels.

In 1901 Tagore founded an open-air school at Santiniketan, West Bengal. Sometimes referred to as the ‘asram’ at Santiniketan, Tagore’s school integrates Eastern and Western approaches to education and has flowered into Visva-Bharati university, which offers a diverse curriculum in the arts, sciences and humanities while hosting students from abroad. The school is recognized by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, which funds qualified international students, particularly for graduate studies at the M.A. and Ph.D. levels.¹

In 1913 Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In his Presentation Speech Harald Hjärne, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, said

Amra Kunja by Paul Ancheta (Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan. Bolpur, Birbhum, West Bengal, India)

Amra Kunja by Paul Ancheta (Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan. Bolpur, Birbhum, West Bengal, India) via Flickr

Tagore’s Gitanjali: Song Offerings (1912), a collection of religious poems, was the one of his works that especially arrested the attention of the selecting critics.²

Tagore’s worldly acclaim and social impact didn’t stop there. Knighted in 1915, he shocked India and the British Empire by resigning his knighthood in 1919 in protest over the British colonial presence in India. And he continues to inspire creative people of all ages.³

¹ As a Canadian, I was eligible. It was great to not have to worry about money for two years, and just study in such a unique environment (MC) .

² See

³ See, for example, this great video made for a school project:



Untouchable village III by Mira John

Untouchable village III by Mira John via Flickr

Traditionally, the so-called “untouchables” are the social outcasts in Hindu India.

Untouchables have been marginalized to the extent of not belonging even to the lowest (Sudras) of the four recognized castes.

Still loathed by many as ritually impure, untouchables are considered outsiders and physical contact is often avoided by members of higher castes.

Mohatma Gandhi decried this state of affairs, calling the untouchables harijans (“the children of God”). Likewise many bhakti (devotional) saints, like the Bauls of West Bengal, protest through song and openly affiliate with and embrace the so-called untouchables within their inner circle.

English: A school of untouchables near Bangalo...

A school of untouchables near Bangalore, by Lady Ottoline Morrell (died 1938). See source website for additional information. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contemporary India attitudes are evolving toward a more enlightened, inclusive view but caste-based discrimination persists, just as class-based discrimination is alive and unwell in most corners of the word.

The practice of untouchability was made illegal by the Constitution of India in 1950 and the former untouchables, being a mixed population, now call themselves Dalit.

Related Posts » Brahmin, Caste System, Kshatriya, Sudra, Vaisna