The Medicine in Music

Everyday Ayurveda by Bhaswati Bhattacharya

Music is known by biologists as a unique language, with coded meanings in each frequency of sound. Sound travels in waves, and waves that oscillate through the air in coordinated patterns create harmonic sound. Ancient shastras, texts of knowledge conceived by man, had three sciences related to the therapeutic use of sound. The deepest meanings of Sanskrit and the etiology of its terms requires entry into the esoteric realms of its connection with the science of sound and sound energy, which arose from Vedic understandings of vibrations, energy–matter relationships and the yoga of the mind. The ancient Indian system of Nāda yoga studied the effects of sound intonations on the human body, prescribing specific sounds to manifest particular effects in the mind. It is said that the Sanskrit phonemes/shabda themselves reveal the nature of reality.

Gandharva Veda has been popularized in the past century, referring to an appendix of the Sama Veda containing 36,000 slokas, which outlined the basis for the Bharata Natya Shastra, one of the oldest texts of music science. Some suggest that Bharata is an acronym for the three syllables: bha for bhāva (mood),  for rāga (melodic framework) and ta for tāla (rhythm), emphasizing the importance of sound and music in the subcontinent. Gandharva Veda correlates it with the vibrations that integrate consciousness with the cycles and rhythms in our physiology, including the heart rhythms, our daily waking–sleeping circadian rhythm and our cyclic hormonal rhythms of our adrenalin, cortisol and melatonin.

Nāda yoga is the use of sound waves to affect the yoking of the conscious mind to the soul and deep meditation. Nāda means sound vibration. This philosophical approach to healing sees all physical matter and particles as energy in very slow motion. If sound energy actually forms the building blocks of the cosmos, then each physical entity is linked to a denser manifestation of a sound. Nāda yoga uses sound vibrations and resonances that correlate to the body to work on balancing the mind. It emphasizes the power of internal music, called anahata, to flow through subtle energy levels. Yogis practice deep inner vigilance to access the silence from which subtle vibrations give out messages.

Rāga chikitsa is the therapeutic use of patterns of music in structured melodies to affect the body’s physiology. The rāgas of Indian classical music are used at prescribed prahāras to send medicinal vibrations through musical tones into the body and the nervous system. The elders of Indian classical music—such as Tansen—and descendants of musical geniuses—such as Baba Allaudin Khan—learned rāgas for their effects on the human condition and reflexively played certain rāgas for certain moods or for particular health. For example, his son Ali Akbar Khan played Rāga Marwa to alleviate the distress of grieving and Rāga Sohni for headaches. Rāga Bageshri was played for insomnia, Rāga Deepak for gastric hyperacidity and Rāga Bhairavi in the early morning hours for high blood pressure. As a child, my father would play Ustad Bismillah Khan and his shehnai in the late evening, broadcasting Rāga Shivaranjani through the house as we finished our homework. It was used to improve intelligence.

Physicians will scoff at the unscientific nature of these Vedic applications of music claiming to heal the body. A regular use of classical Indian music however, will not cause side effects, gouge the wallet or create drug–drug interactions. And, if one day, the physics of sound catches up to the Vedic understanding of music and consciousness, scientists may find in their language that these sounds do create changes in the brain or hormone levels or neurotransmitters linking them with health conditions.

The South Asia Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 2018‐2023 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House.   [email protected]  | 

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