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Sonic Theology (Hinduism and Sacred Sound)

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Item Code: IDK047
Author: Guy L. Beck
Edition: 1995
ISBN: 9788120812611
Pages: 290
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.9" X 5.8"
Weight 500 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

Traditionally Hinduism has appealed to Western eyes though its rich tableau of visual artifacts: temple architecture, sculpture, paining, craft, Guy Beck argues, however, that the focus of Western scholars on Hinduism's visual component has often been at the expense of the religion's most important feature- its emphasis on sound. Beck addresses this longstanding imbalance in this path breaking study. He contends that sound possesses a central place in Hindu theory and practice and that Hinduism is essentially a sonic theology.

Unlike religious traditions that emphasize silence, the Hindu world is permeated by sound. Drums, bells, gongs, cymbals, conches, flutes, and an array of vocalizations play a central role in the worship experience. Beck provides a theoretical exposition of the major textual sources of Hindu sacred sound, namely the Vedas, Upanishads, Mimamsa, Grammar, Yoga, Saiva-Agama, Sakta-Tantra, and Vaisnava Pancaratra. From the Vedic Vak as "spoken Word" to the Sabda-Brahman of Yoga, Saivism, Saktism, Vaisnavism, and Indian classical music, Beck argues that sound participates at every level of the Hindu cosmos. He compares the centrality of sound in Hindu theology to its role, or its absence, in other religions. The issues Beck raises about sound and language not only reshape our understanding of Hindu worship but also invite a fresh approach to comparative theology.

About the Author

Guy L. Beck is assistant professor of religion at Louisiana State University. After studying vocal classical music in India from 1976-80 and earning a B.A. in Music from Bangiya Sangit Parishad in Calcutta, Beck received an M.A. in Musicology (1986) and a Ph.D. in Religion (1989) and a Ph.D. in Religion (1989) from Syracuse University. His current projects include translations of Sanskrit and Bengali hymns and research into North Indian temple music.


This is an unusual and important book. It makes available in English for the first time an exposition of the Hindu notion of Nada. Brahman, which Beck translates as "Sonic Theology." Although recent books by others and myself have opened the door to Hindu philosophies of language such as Bhartrhari's Vakyapadiya, in which the divine is described as Sabdabraman (God as "Word-Consciousness"), the closely allied notion of Nada-Brahman (God as "Sound-Con-sciousness") has awaited Guy Beck's presentation. As is the case with Bhartrhari where a "Yoga of the Word" is prescribed as spiritual discipline through word-use (including mantra chanting) until the final goal of moksa is realized, Beck unfolds the esoteric practice of Nada Yoga, "the Yoga of Sacred Sound," as a most effective means of reaching spiritual release (moksa).

The first two chapters set the stage for an understanding of sacred sound through a consideration of sound in the Vedas and in the Indian philosophies of language. Then the concept of Nada-Brahman, God as divine sound, is introduced as well as the various techniques of Nada-Yoga as found in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the Yoga-Upanisads, the Nath-Yogis, Hatha Yoga, Indian Music, Sakta Tantra, Saivism, and Vaisnavism. This is a considerable tour de force, but one that Guy Beck brings off with style and sensitivity. Undoubtedly it is his background in both Western and Indian classical music that provided Beck the necessary sensitivity to hear sound as a yoga or means for knowing the divine-thus the apt title Sonic Theology.

A special quality throughout this, at times, very technical volume is Beck's facility in referencing the Indian experience of Nada-Brahman to Western parallels. This makes the book accessible to readers unfamiliar with Indian specialists to comparative Western phenomena. Beck's writing will evoke in both Eastern and Western reader a sense of the sonic dimension of the sacred - a sense that seems universal.

As an oral tradition, Hinduism has "tuned" itself with great care to the sonic experience of the divine. Contemporary Westerners can benefit from exposure to this Indian experience. It can sensitize us to aspects of reality that in modern secular society we often lose touch with, and to aspects of other religions traditions such as Christianity and Judaism that we have not fully appreciated. But over and above these important side benefits, Guy Beck's signal accomplishment is that he has provided us with a more complete understanding of the Hindu tradition - namely, its soteriological experience of the divine through sound.


This book is the consequence of a long journey that began with childhood piano lessons and study of Western classical music. Having a professional musician for a father, I was surrounded by music history books and recordings of the major composers. Through years of listening and painstaking practice at the piano, I grew to recognize and appreciate certain recurring melodic phrases and intervals- often neatly camouflaged- which gave many of the master works of the great composers a certain "exotic" or "oriental", flavor. These were found especially in some orchestral works of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Saint-Saens and in piano works of Liszt, Satie, Debussy, and Ravel.

My college years during the late 1960s exposed me to the curious yet remarkable music of the Indian sitar and sarod of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. At first these sounds were unfamiliar, a kind of "purple haze" from a distant land. Closer listening, however, allowed me to recognize many of the same exotic phrases and intervals that I had earlier noted in Western music. Not surprisingly, a fascination developed regarding the theory and structure of Indian classical music, one that was to prompt some kind of formal training.

Combined with an interest in Hinduism invoked by undergraduate courses at the University of Denver in religion and Eastern philosophy, the desire for training in Indian music provided the impetus for a trip to India in the early spring of 1976. Having reasonably good singing voice, at least from a Western perspective, I decided to take up Hindustani vocal music in Calcutta. I had also read that vocal music was the foundation for all other Indian music.

Shopping around for music teachers in India is perplexing, indeed, yet fate seemed to bring me to the Tansen Music College in Bhowanipur, a southern suburb of Calcutta. There I met my teacher and guru, Sri Sailen Banerjee, a reputable master, who was steeped in tradition, yet could communicate well in English. He was even a gurubhai of Ali Akbar Khan, having studied with one of his teachers, Ustad Dabir Khan.

Having obtained a one-year visa, I was naively confident that I could "learn the basics" during that period. I came to realize, however, that music training in India moves at an excruciatingly slow pace. Between weekly lessons the practice of vocal exercises, scales, and "ragas" requires concentrated attention until sufficient mastery is achieved to warrant advancement. Thus, the first year went by very quickly, with only the initial training completed. Further visa extensions became necessary on a year-to-year basis. Professor Banerjee very kindly obliged to help in this regard by writing letters to the visa authorities, both affirming my continued progress in Indian singing and requesting my extension to continue the course of study. Being the major organizer of an annual musical conference in Calcutta, the Tansen Sangit Sammelan, he personally groomed me for three public performances. In fact, under his patient care and guidance I was able to remain in India for nearly five years until the late fall of 1980.

During the course of Indian music instruction I would repeatedly come into contact with the concept of sacred cosmic sound known in Indian languages as " Nada Brahman." Though it was something I had not encountered in my introductory studies in Hinduism, my mentor had insisted that Nada-Brahman was the zenith of Hindu religious and aesthetic experience, and the highest stage of musical perfection. The ancient singers and musicians were said to have experienced the universe as sound, and these experiences were recorded in the oldest Hidnu literatures. Thus, Indian music seemed to have a primary religious origin and function, unlike certain segments of Western music. Perhaps it was this "religious" dimension of Indian music which accounted for my attraction to its unique phrasing and nuance, echoes of which seem to be encoded in Western music.

I was suddenly in the midst of a new quandary, namely, the question of the relationship between Hindu religion and Indian music as well as that between religion and music in general. Being puzzled by these issues, and having finally exhausted my visa extensions, I returned to America to enroll in graduate study in religion at the University of South Florida. Under the tutelage of George Artola (retired from the University of Toronto, Department of Indian Languages) I endeavored to consult multitudes of Sanskrit texts in search of hidden connections between Indian music and the Hindu tradition. This was then followed by doctoral study at Syracuse University under the expert guidance of H. Daniel Smith and Swami Agehananda Bharati of the program in South Asian religions. After two years of further preparation in the study of religion, with an additional M.A. in Musicology, I was finally encouraged to undertake a project in "sonic theology" as a doctoral dissertation. As graduate seminars were already being offered in Hindu "visual theology," this enterprise seemed doubly justified. A small travel grant allowed me to spend four months of targeted research in India during 1988, at which time I was able to corroborate my thesis with new evidence. Needless to say, I found several connections between Indian music and Hinduism and was subsequently able to articulate in part the presence and little known significance of sacred sound as Nada-Brahman in Hindu religious thought and practice.

At this time I would like to take the opportunity to express my warmest appreciation to those individuals and institutional channels that made this project possible at its various stages: George Artola (Sanskrit), James F. Strange, William Shea, Daniel Bassuk (Hinduism and mythology), and Pat Waterman (ethnomusicology), all of the University of South Florida; Syracuse University-H. Daniel Smith (South Asian religions), Richard Pilgrim (Comparative religion), Charles H. Long (history of religions), Robert I. Crane (Indian history) as well as James Wiggins, David L. Miller, Patricia C. Miller, Amanda Porterfield, Alan Berger, and Charles Winquist of the Department of Religion; my music teachers at Syracuse University, including Howard Boatwright, Ellen Koskoff, Eric Jensen, Frank Macomber and George Nugent and the Senate Research Grant committee at Syracuse University, which provided funding for additional research in India during 1988. I would also like to thank Harold G. Coward of the University of Calgary for his timely help and kind encouragement.

Next I wish to thank my mentors and teachers in India, namely Sri Sailen Banerjee of the Tansen Music College, Vijay Kichlu and the Sangeet Research Academy, Gaurinath Sastri, Govinda Gopal Mukhopadhyaya, M. R. Gautam, N. Ramanathan, M. Narasimhacari, Smt. Vimala Musalagaonkar, Ritwik Sanyal, and N.N. Bhattacharya. I also want to thank my colleagues in Religious Studies at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, for their help and guidance in seeking a publisher- John H. Whittaker, Robert A. Segal, Stuart Irvine, and John B. Henderson. The persons associated with the University of South Carolina Press- Kenneth Scott, Frederick M. Denny, and David Caffry- are especially thanked for their generous encouragement of the project and their patience during the period of revision. In addition, and along with my parents who were always behind me, the abiding presence of my wife Kajal furnished untold sustenance.

In addition, this book commemorates my respected teacher Swami Agehananda Bharati and my father-in-law Sri S.K. Das, both of whom were called home before publication.

Series Editor's Prefaceix
Approach and Design9
Part I:Basic Source for Sonic Theology in Hinduism
Chapter 1:Vedic Sound23
The Principle of Vak25
Vedic Ritual Language: Mantra30
Sabda-Brahman in the Upanisads42
Chapter 2:Indian Philosophies of Language50
External Sabda-Brahman: Mimamsa and Varnavada55
Internal Sabda-Brahman: Grammar and Sphotavada62
Rejection of the Sphota Doctrine77
Chapter 3:Nada-Yoga: Sacred Sound as Nada-Brahman81
Patanjali and the Yoga-Sutra83
The Yoga-Upanisads92
Gorakhnath and the Nath Yogis97
Three Hatha-Yoga Treatises102
Nada-Yoga and Indian Music107
Current Trends in Nada-Yoga111
Part 2:Theistic Hinduism: Nada-Brahman As Female Energy
Chapter 4:Sakta-Tantra: Sacred sound as the Goddess 121
Goddess Kali144
Chapter 5:Saivism: Sacred Sound as the Energy of Siva148
Kashmiri Saivism160
Chapter 6:Vaisnavism: Sacred Sound as the Energy of Visnu172
Vaisnava-Agama: Pancaratra173
Bhagavata-Purana and the Sectarian Movements183
Conclusion:Sonic Theology, the Study of Religion, and Hermeneutics204

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