Music and Morality
By Ram S. Sriram
I hope our past discussions on music, dance, and other arts have been exciting and fascinating to you. This month I want to share two stories from Hindu mythology. Mythology contains interesting and fictional stories about Gods, people, their beliefs, and traditions. The Ramayana and the Mahabharatha, for example, talk about ordinary people and every day events. These stories teach people that knowledge of our mythology and accomplishments in music are important, while illustrating at the same time, that it is even more important to live our lives with decency and honor. While these are stories of the past, we can relate to them even today and find great meaning in them.
The general belief among Indians is that music is divine and life like. Even Gods are pleased by music. Even today, it is common to recite mantras and other hymns in praise of Gods during Hindu religious ceremonies. Often, these mantras and hymns are recited musically because they are very pleasing to those who are present in the congregation. Also, many of our culture’s stories describe some of the Gods and saints as gifted musicians, excellent dancers and learned scholars. For example, Krishna is a flute maestro. Goddess Saraswathi is a Veena player, while Nandi is an accomplished drummer. Shiva and his wife, Parvathi are great dancers. Brahma and Saraswathi are learned, wise scholars. In fact, Saraswathi is also personified as the goddess of wisdom, learning and knowledge. The Gods and saints are not described as musicians or scholars simply to make them appear interesting, however. Through the narrations of reading about the life of these accomplished individuals, we discover the qualities that made them great but also the weaknesses that made them fail.
For example, take the story of Saint Narada. Narada, when translated into English, means knowledge giver — Nara is the word for knowledge and Da means giver. Saint Narada is most known for creating mischief and quarrels between people (although the quarrels always lead to good things and makes everyone happy). Apart from his mischief making, however, Narada is also well known for his supreme musical talents – according to Hindu mythology, he introduced people to the gift of music. Narada always appears with a Veena in his hands and constantly chants the name of Lord Narayana. Even today, In India, when a religious discourse or a Yakshagana (a type of dance-drama or an opera) is held, the programs begin after invoking the name of Narada.
Saint Narada, wasn’t without flaws, however. He was proud of his musical skills, but looked down on others who were less skilled than he was. Once he went to the kingdom of Lord Krishna. Krishna knew of Narada’s arrogance and wanted to teach him a lesson on modesty and respect for others. Krishna asked Narada to play his Veena before an assembled audience in his court. Narada played the Veena brilliantly and delighted the audience with his music. At the end of his performance, Narada turned to Krishna and waited for the God to express his appreciation of Narada’s music. Krishna, instead, turned to Hanuman, the monkey God, who was sitting in the audience, and asked him what he thought of Narada’s music. Narada, unaware of Hanuman’s divine status, was very unhappy that Krishna, instead of expressing his appreciation, sought the opinion of a mere monkey. “What does a monkey know about music?” Narada thought.
Krishna reading the mind of Narada said, “Oh Narada, I understand your concern, but first, let us find out if this monkey really knows anything about music. Give him your Veena and let him play it.” Narada became even angrier because musicians consider their musical instruments sacred. Narada didn’t want to share his Veena with anyone, especially not a monkey. He couldn’t refuse Krishna’s request however and reluctantly handed the Veena to Hanuman. Hanuman began to play the Veena and sang beautiful hymns in praise of Lord Rama. The Monkey God’s singing and playing was so sincere and so devoted that the entire audience was mesmerized. Even the great musical genius Narada was compelled to appreciate Hanuman’s music. Being a person of enormous wisdom, Narada began to realize the lesson that Krishna was teaching him. Narada asked Krishna’s forgiveness for not respecting the greatness of Hanuman and for underestimating Hanuman because he was a monkey.
Like the story of Narada, the myth of Ravana also illustrates the importance of good conduct and morality over mere accomplishments in music or education. Ravana, the mighty demon king of Lanka is one of the principal characters from the Ramayana. Like Narada, Ravana was very talented in music and also very learned and knowledgeable in the Vedas and the scriptures. He was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and enchanted Shiva with his music (Shiva is called “Gana Priya”, one who is pleased by music). One day, delighted by the demon king’s music, Lord Shiva granted him a wish: Ravana desired that his life could only be ended by Shiva and by no other Gods. As the years passed, Ravana acquired enormous powers through his penance and through the wish granted by Shiva. But, instead of using his powers and his knowledge of music and the Vedas to benefit the world, Ravana used them to only benefit himself. He became very proud, conceited, and even immoral.
According to the Ramayana, Ravana kidnapped Sita, Rama’s wife and tried to take her for his own. To rescue his wife from Ravana, Rama, invaded Lanka. But Ravana was unconcerned, confident that he was too powerful to be killed by Rama. Alas, he didn’t realize that Shiva only exempted him from being killed by Gods, but not human beings. Since Rama was a human incarnation of Vishnu, Shiva’s boon could not save Ravana. He died at Rama’s hands.
We can learn a great deal from the stories of Narada and Ravana. The Narada story shows that even great saints and learned scholars occasionally make mistakes or act foolish. Regardless of one’s accomplishments in music, art, or education, one must be modest and simple and never underestimate the talents of others. More importantly, we must learn, like Narada that no one, not even great Saints, can judge people based on their color, appearance, or origin. Finally, even great saints can admit when they are wrong.
Ravana’s story tells us that having musical talents or knowledge of scriptures isn’t adequate. We must also live a life of austerity and simplicity. We must not always pursue our own interests, but must also work toward the welfare of the community and world in which we live. Like Ravana, we must learn that a person does not become powerful because of birth, wealth, or possessions. Even the most powerful will become powerless if they violate ethics and morals.
Hindu mythology is intended to help us see ourselves more clearly by depicting the lives of Gods and Saints in everyday situations. By reading their stories, we can learn from the mistakes made by these characters as well as the lessons that they learn from them. In this way, we can use these stories as a way to examine our own lives and see how we can make our world and ourselves better.
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This is a reprint of the article that appeared under Culture in Chandamama, U.S. and Canada Edition