Faith and music: An ongoing journey

It was twilight, that magical time between day and night, when she arrived at the gates of the Jalakandeshwar temple in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Though it was a summer day in May, the gentle breeze going around made the heat bearable.

Vellore Temple, Vellore Fort Temple, Indian Temple, Vellore, Shiva Temple, Jalakandeshwar Temple

She stood diffidently at the entrance, looking around and wishing she were elsewhere —  maybe exploring the Fort within which the temple was located… She didn’t really believe in God or rituals and found temples to be noisy, dirty places. But she had promised her father that she would visit the temple while in Vellore, so there she was.

She entered the temple complex hesitantly and looked around. To her surprise, the temple wasn’t overly crowded and there was a pleasant buzz in the air. While some devotees were offering prayers at the various shrines, many others were sitting around talking, socialising, relaxing and presumably waiting for the evening aarti to begin.

As she was wondering which way to head, the faint strains of music wafted her way and decided to follow the sound. It led her to an old man sitting on the ground outside a small shrine with a shruti box and singing Rama nannu, a Tyagaraja kriti. The old man had a beautiful voice, full of devotion and passion, and she immediately entranced. She sat down near the old man to listen to him and was soon caught up in the emotions of the song, which was about the all-pervading nature of God (Rama) and His existence in every living being.

When the old man finished singing, she realised that her cheeks were wet. As she wiped her face with her dupatta, she heard a voice whispering to her:

You are such a fake.

I’m not, she whispered back fiercely.

Still in denial? Enjoy it while it lasts, the voice mocked.

She tried to ignore the voice and concentrate on the song the old man was singing instead— another Tyagaraja kriti, Vandanamu Raghunandana. But her mind wandered to the time, earlier that year, when she had first been accused of being a fake.

A music concert had just ended with a rousing bhajan leaving her emotional and moist eyed. Her friend Ayesha, who was attending the concert with her, passed her a handkerchief and remarked rather thoughtfully:

You are such a fake.

She stopped wiping her eyes and said, “Whaaaat?”

You always dissolve into tears at music concerts, and …

Music is an emotional thing for me, and I’ve told you that before !

I know that, genius. And if you had not interrupted me I would have completed what I wanted to say. You get emotional only around sacred music, never secular music. Why does sacred music affect someone who calls herself an atheist?

All music makes me emotional, she replied indignantly. Sacred, secular, anything. And I am not an atheist; I just don’t believe in the idea of God!

Ayesha looked pointedly at her and said: I repeat, you are a fake. Listen to what you are saying and think about it. Reflect on it.

She shut up, but Ayesha’s words had made her uncomfortable. Over the next few days and weeks, she tried to forget what Ayesha had said, but couldn’t. Instead, it brought to fore her struggle with faith and memories associated with it.

Of going to school hungry because her paternal grandparents had not finished their puja.
Of meaningless rituals and the money spent on them.
Of being called impertinent by the said grandparents for asking questions on rituals.
Of frustration with her questions on faith and religion going unanswered.
Of being secretly envious of her mother’s simple and unquestioning faith in God.
Of her mother telling her about the necessity of faith in the divine.
Of her mother telling her to convert or follow any religion she would feel comfortable with
Of confusion, diffidence, anger and ensuing rejection of faith in God.

In ordinary circumstances, this rejection of faith in God would have worked and perhaps grown. But she hadn’t accounted for a very important part of her life — music. It was something she had grown up with, and immersed herself in… it was a part of her. She was passionate about music and though she tried, she couldn’t distance herself or reject music the way she rejected religion. So she continued immersing herself in music, but pushing away the emotions and connections with faith that it inevitably brought about. Rather successfully, she thought.

That is, till Ayesha called me a fake.

Yes, dear reader, the shift from the third to the first person in the previous sentence wasn’t a mistake. It was intentional for, as some of you may have guessed, this is my story, my journey and my struggle with faith.

If Ayesha’s remark forced me to acknowledge how superficial my rejection of faith was, the experience at Vellore with the temple singer was the catalyst to understand, really understand what faith and belief was. This was in 1997 and the years leading up to present day have been ones of, sometimes painful, self-realisation.

That blind rejection is as dangerous as blind acceptance
That answers don’t just come; one has to seek them.
That faith for me is not about puja, rituals and saying prayers mechanically.
That faith for me is about music and I connect with the divine only through music.

It has been almost 20 years since that day at the temple and I still seek, question, reflect, ask, engage, but don’t reject outright. As Swami Vivekananda said:

You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.

 This hold true for anything. But in the context of music is my ‘soul’, my friend, philosopher, mentor. It is music that teaches and guides me in this journey.

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15 thoughts on “Faith and music: An ongoing journey

  1. That was such a beautiful post, Sudha. As a fellow seeker who went through agonies on her spiritual journey before lighting upon the path that worked for her, I could understand the feelings that prompted you to share such a personal experience. And when I saw your like on my FB post, I knew it had moved you deeply in some way, not just the great singer’s demise alone. After finding our own paths, we continue to seek, evolve and progress on our journey. However, I was only put off by the rituals, having unshakeable faith in God. I am sure you have read my post about this journey on my blog. I find it rather disconcerting to find people fling the word ‘atheist’ without comprehending its full portent.

    I would not join the weekly bhajan that my brother and cousin conducted at our home during my teens but I would nevertheless be humming the words sitting at my table, ostensibly studying. They would play a game with me then. There is one Tukaram abhang that sung so beautifully by them would make my legs take me to the puja room, without my volition and I would sit there, goosebumps and all singing along, again without my volition. This happened week after week and I was powerless to resist the pull.

    We both miss Balamuralikrishna, don’t we? 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rituals and belief in God go hand in hand. Or so I thought for a very long time. It took a long time to separate the two and also understand that paths to understand the divine are different for each person.

      Zephyr, thank you so much for commenting and sharing your journey here. While everyone’s path is different, it is nice to no that there co-travellers somewhere out there 🙂

      Balamuralikrishna is only the latest in a long line of musicians that I miss everyday. :-/

      Like

    1. Writing the post was the easiest thing to do, Aarti. I wrote this in a day about three years back. Sharing it was tough for I wasn’t sure if I could post it on this blog or

      It took me a while to gather the courage to post it, for sharing something personal is not always easy.

      Thank you for the appreciation. 🙂

      Like

  2. I echo your thoughts ma’am! As I see, your rejection may be about the superficiality, the inflexibility, the ‘process’ part of the religion and not necessarily the true ‘bhakti’ or ‘love’ that pours out towards the divine! Also my experience has been that generations of that ‘bhakti’ has been ingested in our DNA and we respond to it unknowingly, as a reflex, as it’s a compendium of the emotions of our ancestor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A very warm welcome to “My Favourite Things”, Chandra.

      What you call DNA, I call socialisation at both the familial and societal level. This is done both consciously and unconsciously. So whether one likes it or not, we imbibe a lot of “‘bhakti’ or ‘love’ that pours out towards the divine”.

      Things go well, if you don’t question and accept what worked for your ancestors and even your parents for yourself. The problem begins when you start asking questions, which are taken not as questions for clarifications, but as questions challenging something sacred.

      Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Hope you’ll keep visiting. 🙂

      Like

  3. What a wonderful post, Sudha. Having read it, I can understand how difficult it must have been for you, first to pen this down, and even more importantly, to post it.

    While I don’t have the same connect with music that you have, I do understand the feeling, and have experienced it, not just with music, but also with sacred chants. But above all, there is something about temples, especially some of them, which simply reaches out to me. But that is a story for another day 🙂 My journey to faith has been very different, and though I can easily talk about it, writing about it is a different matter, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anu, I consider sacred chants to be music – be it the Gregorian chants or the Vedas. 🙂

      Certain places of worship do reach out to me more than others, and these include places currently under worship as well as those in ruins. One could call them vibrations or something else.

      Journeys of faith are always different and unique for every single person. Faith and religion would be poorer without the input of these personal experiences.

      Like

  4. I have always hated temples, the fact that they are more places to gossip than seek God has always turned me off. As a result I spend very little time in temples. I’m not a fan of elaborate pujas either because I do not understand any mantra or shloka and not understanding breeds indifference in me. Don’t even get me started on madi aachaaram, it’s beyond me to understand or practice it. It is only in the past year that I have come to the happy realization that I believe in God, I love him/her, I just can’t be bothered to find him/her in temples or by way of pujas. Leave me my simple faith that believe he/she loves and watches over me. Oh, another important thing, my God is a forgiving God, not a punishing one. Since this realization, I’m happier, I talk to God, like I’d talk to a friend and it gives me immense peace and untold contentment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Temples were never meant to only places of worship – they were meant as places for socialising and networking. And that includes gossiping and matchmaking 😛

      I didn’t like temples, but just as music helped me connect with the divine, temple art does the same ‘job’ in helping me connect with temples and sacred places. Now a days, I like temples – the older it is the better it is for me. 🙂

      Thank you for sharing your journey here, MM.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A very touching and heart warming post shared by you. Yes, music, esp the sacred, touches the core of our hearts, at least for most of us. I too have been touched by sacred hymns which have brought me to tears; more so, when they have been sung by devotion and passion. ‘Abide with me’ always makes me emotional – both the hymn when sung and that played by the armed forces during funerals.

    Liked by 1 person

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