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Bhajan: Hindu Devotional Music

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Gamelan orchestra
Frans Lemmens/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Music to human ears is heavenly. And if it's purely devotional, it's truly divine. Such a genre of music is the bhajan. Nothing can be more deeply rooted in the Indian tradition than bhajans. Bhajans are simple songs in soulful language expressing the many-splendored emotions of love for God, a complete submission or self-surrender to him through singing.

Download MP3 Bhajans

History and Origin
The groundwork for bhajans was laid in the hymns found in Sama Veda, the fourth Veda in the Hindu scriptures. They are distinguished from the Sanskrit shlokas (hymns that accompany religious rituals) by virtue of their easy lilting flow, the colloquial renderings and the profound appeal to the mass. These are sung in a group comprising devotees, with a lead singer. The fixed tunes, repetition of words and phrases lend a kind of tonal mesmerism. Anecdotes, episodes from the lives of Gods, preaching of saints, description of God's glories have been the subject of bhajans. Another form of the bhajan is the kirtan or songs in the Haridas tradition.

Types of Bhajans
A plunge into the past reveals, that bhajans, as a genre, have come a long way weaving a home for itself into the core of human hearts. Traditions of bhajan — singing have been formed over the ages — Nirguni, Gorakhanathi, Vallabhapanthi, Ashtachhap, Madhura-bhakti are some of them. Each sect has their own sets of bhajans and ways of singing them.

Great Exponents
The medieval age saw devotees like Tulsidas , Surdas, Meera Bai , Kabir and others composing Bhajans. In the modern times, composers like Pt. V. D. Paluskar and Pt. V. N. Bhatkhande have tried to mingle Raga Sangeet or Indian classical music - which had been an exclusive domain of the elite - with bhajans, thereby democratizing the Raga tradition.

Popularity with the Masses
The common mass indulges in bhajan-singing without realizing that such traditional methods of invoking the divine can have a tremendous stress-removing impact. Bhajan mandalis (a gathering to sing bhajans) that have been in existence in the Indian villages since the beginning of the Bhakti era, have proved to be great social leveller where individuals unhesitatingly participate in the singing, relegating their petty differences to the background. This participatory action elicits recreation and consequently a kind of mental relaxation . They close their eyes to ensure that they concentrate and thereby meditate on this near ecstasy. The words, tunes, rhythms and the typical repetitive style of the bhajans give a certain sense of permanency that is known as shashwat (freedom from the state of flux), something each one of us is secretly pining for.

Is Devotional Music Fundamentalist?
It is lamentable that the ruckus created around the issue of fundamentalism has not left even the devotional compositions out of its purview. The fundamentalist hullabaloo in the Indian scenario never misses an opportunity to constrict a gathering, which has come together for simple religious expressions such as singing of bhajans or popular devotional songs of the mass. To suspect that this trend of devotional singing may be in any way related to the spread of fundamentalism is nothing but naïve thinking.

To deem it propagandist in approach is anything but intelligible. Fundamentalism is a vested political interest whereas religion is something personal. It is only when religion breeds the desire to dictate mass feelings and direct it to a preconceived end, that it becomes fundamentalist, bringing communalism and destruction in its wake. Singing a bhajan or a 'quwwali' is a cultural expression, and to equate them with fundamentalist outcries is nothing but erroneous. We must save the divine melody, and allow the benign force of music with its tremendous sustaining and benevolent power to drive out any number of 'isms'. This is only possible if we keep our musical sensibilities intact and expanding.

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