They say India is a land of diverse cultures, a melting pot of distinctive traditions, a honeycomb of ethics and spiritual science; a potpourri of sorts, this country somehow always had something more to offer. A land of epic tales and mystic legends, it is this very soil that gave birth to a highly sophisticated branch of learning to benefit one’s body, mind and the inner spirit. Arguably, the oldest discipline in the world, this system has introduced a new way of life in today’s time: Yoga.
Amongst its many forms like Hatha yoga, Bhakti yoga, Kundalini yoga, practise of music (Nada Upasana) too is considered as a form of yoga and is thus aptly known as Nada yoga. A literal translation meaning ‘union through sound’ Nada yoga is seen as a combination of spiritual art and science of inner transformation through sound. The system’s theory suggests that the entire cosmos and all that exists within the cosmos (including human beings) consists of sound vibrations called Nada. It maintains that the movement of sound energy is the essential element in the creation of cosmos.
Ancient texts reveal that our body and its functions are governed by 72,000 Nadis (nerves that carry pranic energy). These 72,000 Nadis are spread throughout our body and through the right practice of music; we can influence them to bring about a state of consciousness that purifies our body and its energy fields, restoring its natural vibrations; thereby improving our physical, mental and spiritual health. Music is in this context is of course much more than just a source of entertainment; on the contrary it is expected to play a vital role to achieve a deep unison between the outer and the inner cosmos. If we look back into history, we come across many Indian saints like Kabir, Mira Bai, Tukaram, Thyagaraja who used music as a foremost tool in their quest to achieve nirvana but let’s leave the salvation bit of discussion for another time.
Getting back to Nada yoga, this discipline divides music into two categories: ahata (external music) and anahata (internal music). While the former one is what all of us are well acquainted with, it is anahata that leads one to a higher state of harmony and relaxation. According to Nada yoga, anahata is a process of gaining inner awareness using one's own personal sound vibrations.
Practice and concentration complemented with carefully selected music will enable our mind to be relaxed and composed. And at this precise point we become aware of our inner sound. This inner sound could be perceived as that of a bell or a flute or even a hum but in reality, these sounds are actually just the sounds of our own body: breathing or heartbeats or flowing of the blood etc. Exponents of Nada yoga connect this inner sound with kundalini itself and further maintain that while one listens to his own inner music, the person cannot share its anahata with another human being.
In simpler words, one of the secrets of achieving a higher state of being lies in the human voice itself. It is the applied knowledge that sets it apart from the daily chores of our lives. If looked upon closely, techniques of Nada yoga forms a vital part of Hindustani Classical Music system as well. And it is this form of music that India has lent its ears to over centuries. Thus Nada yoga could easily be stated as a highly enjoyable form of meditation and moreover a relatively effortless one. Because as you close your eyes and absorb the external as well as the internal sounds, you meditate and your entire body gets purified and balanced by the music.
Musicologists believe that the fundamental distinguishing feature of the Dhrupad style of singing is its emphasis on Nada yoga. Although Dhrupad has come a long way from its origins in the chanting of hymns and mantras, before being developed into a classical performing art with elaborate emphasis on aesthetics; it still retains its link to its origin through the practice of Nada yoga. This explains the reason why classical music is considered as a spiritual pursuit for its exponents even today.
Proficiency over Nada yoga assists the singer to produce vast combinations of notes and tones making the sound flow freely along the navel-head axis (the navel, heart, throat, lips, tongue, teeth and the head). This sound can be produced with the help of aadhar (sound of vocal chords) and niradhaar nada (inner sound of the body developed by breathing). Both of these nadas are exercised in union but the elaborate cultivation of the niradhar sets apart the Dhrupad style of singing from other forms.
Drawing parallels to Dhrupad style of singing, today’s more popular Khayal style too borrows some of its techniques from Nada yoga. Thus one of the major discoveries in Khayal singing was the special use of ‘pause’ or the silent phrase, symbolic of the anahata nada. And in what seems to be Hindustani Classical Music’s best kept secrets, there is an entire system of Khayal singing based on Nada yoga and its techniques called the Merukhand gayaki or singing that opens up to the cosmos.
Also known as Sumerkhand or Meerkhand gayaki, Merukhand is a composite word: meru + khand, which has a string of meanings in the dictionary open to numerous connotations. In the context of Hindustani Classical Music, ‘meru’ means the spine or fixed swars (notes) and ‘khand’ suggests chambers or in a given raga (composition). Merukhand gayaki refers to the spine of music as the seven notes arranged in many different ways using the theory of permutations and combinations. This technique though it seems mathematical is primarily used for improvisation of a particular raga in the scope of enhancing the beauty and exploring the maximum of the composition.
This theory was first put forth in 13th century by Sharangdeva in discourse, Sangeeta Ratnakara. It later paved the way for many musicians to generate a number of patterns within a fixed set of notes. These notes can be arranged in different ways using this theory. For example, if there are only two swars, Sa and Re in a given raga, then only two combinations (S-R, R-S) would be possible. But if there are three swars, then six different combinations (S-R-G, R-S-G, S-G-R, G-S-R, R-G-S, G-R-S) can be achieved. Similarly, for the seven notes in raga bhairvi, a total of 5024 combinations can be attained without repetition through this gayaki. These combinations are factorial and can be written down mathematically.
Merukhand Gayaki trains its patrons to remember all these combinations by heart and study the structures deeply. They’re to select a few combinations during their performance and put together a beautiful design within the framework of the chosen raga. Each Merukhand based musical rendition maximises the composition’s introduction, elaboration and conclusion sections. The conclusion is the symbolic return of the self, of an end which is also the beginning of the next musical idea; thereby making it a cyclic process; a spiritual analogy for life. This type of gayaki is highly intricate and academic when applied to a raga, for it offers a whole lot of permissible and non-permissible movements. Probably that’s why Merukhand gayaki has not been well received in the recent past. But when the permissible movements are rendered together with the right patterns of swars and the pauses (anahat); the musical experience for the performer as well as the listener is nothing less than a spiritual pursuit. It opens our mind to the cosmos, allows it to grip us; and makes us feel one with the universe.
Musical genius Ustad Amir Khan was the foremost exponent of Merukhand Gayaki of the last generation but he had always kept this bit of his music a tad secret. He was initiated into this style by his father but after his father’s death Ustadji assimilated it with the Indore Gharana style of singing. He never spoke of Merukhand gayaki openly and the reasons for this could have been many. Some scholars believe that Ustad Amir Khan's gayaki was a fusion gayaki and the reason why it was accepted and appreciated by music lovers across the globe is because it gave a bouquet of musical rendition consisting of Jaipur, Kirana and Bhendi Bazzar gharana under the blanket of Merukhand gayaki. During the concerts, lovers of different gharanas would get something that they loved the most and hence this new experiment got quite successful. This later emerged as the new Indore gharana. This is also probably one of the major reasons why music aficionados have been unaware of Merukhand gayaki throughout.
If we keep aside the technical details, what remains is the fact that the sound vibrations created with the use of Nada yoga help an individual overcome various psychological problems, enhancing one’s positive energy and spiritual well-being. And it is here where Hindustani Classical music plays a vital role in achieving the same as it holds a unique persona of its own that distinguishes itself from other genres of music in its structure, temperament and improvisation. Moreover, it is the only system of music that quite precisely bridges the gap between philosophy, psychology, spirituality and entertainment.
Thus the above can also be referred to as musical healing, the new emerging discipline in India and across the globe. Lastly, I would like to add that various meditation practices on sound lead us to one universal path to self realization, accessible to anyone, and appropriate for people of any religion or spiritual aspiration. It’s your own highway to the cosmos!