Collaboration - Journal of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother

Summer 1995, Vol. 21, No. 1

Book review:
The mysticism of music, sound, and word

by Vishnu Eschner

I carved my vision out of wood and stone;
I caught the echoes of a word supreme
And metred the rhythm-beats of infinity
And listened through music for the eternal Voice.
--Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 405
The Sufi Message, Volume II: The Mysticism of Music, Sound, and Word, by Hazrat Inayat Khan, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 273 pp.

Along with scores of devotees scattered amidst the pillars and archways, a visitor to evening medita tion at Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Delhi branch, will be taken inward by the warm, resonant voice of Sri Karunamayee, which drifts through the twilight like rich smoke curling off some celestial incense. A devotee of Sri Aurobindo and Mother, Sri Karunamayee is also a respected artist, scholar, and highly acclaimed master of the rare Kirana Gharana style of classical Indian music. For the past 27 years, she has resided at the Delhi Ashram and overseen its music department.

It was during my very first music lesson with her that she recommended The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word, Volume II of the definitive, nine-volume text on Sufism, The Sufi Message, by the revered Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan. Since the stated object of the Sufi movement is harmony, and Sufism traditionally uses music as a means of transmitting the essence of mystical insight, it was obviously the ideal resource for gaining a spiritual understanding of music.

Sri Aurobindo recognizes Sufism as one of a number of "Mahomedan Yogas," and it bears similarity to his yoga in that it seeks to transform everyday life into religion, so that every action may bear some spiritual fruit. Sufis say simply that any person who has a knowledge of both outer and inner life is a Sufi.

Hazrat Inayat Khan was an accomplished musician, who ultimately surrendered his beloved music to the Divine and in 1910 brought the Sufi message to the West, telling the newly awakening audiences of Europe and New York in the 20s, "if I do anything, it is to tune souls instead of instruments; to harmonize people instead of notes."

The Mysticism of Music turned out to be one of those required books in my proverbial desert island emergency kit. A brief look at several of the multitudinous facets of this gem reveals it to be the spiritual hiker's encyclopedia-cum-guidebook to the entire river of consciousness.

The book begins with the original activity of consciousness, which is not unexpectedly, vibration. Then we're taken nonstop through its descent over the myriad planes of existence, until by the end we've gained insight into a surprisingly vast range of life experiences, with enough substance to outweigh a few racks in any new age bookstore.

Hundreds of topics (such as: places that sing aloud the legend of the past, the magical influences within all things, the influence of works of art, the musical aspects of memory, will, reason, mind, heart, intuition, inspiration, moods, inclinations) give evidence that nothing is beyond the wise scrutiny of the author, nor outside the scope of his subject. The author indeed looks upon all of life as music.

On family life, he has this to say: "In music the law of harmony is that the nearest note does not make a consonant interval. This explains the prohibition of marriage between close relatives because of their nearness in quality and blood."

Not your typical music textbook.

By the end of Book 1, my impulse to understand music had been deflected into the quest to find harmony between my soul and body. The basic philosophy is given in a wide context which relates both to the seen and the unseen worlds. He speaks simply and profoundly: "The attainment of harmony in life takes a longer time to acquire and a more careful study than does the training of the ear and the cultivation of the voice, although it is acquired in the same manner as the knowledge of music." And he goes on to prove it with simple, yet fascinating discourse.

In one chapter there's an overview of the Indian conception of the science of Raga, the psychological science of music created by Lord Siva, which explains the need to prescribe music psychologically and mystically in order to elevate the soul.

Rigor and scholarship, however, are never given over to simplistic spiritualisms or dogmatic platitudes. His insight springs from every major world religion and from many languages; he draws them together elegantly with fascinating cross-reference and keen insight into the customs, words, and invention of the world's great spiritual books.

What amazes one is the absolute timeliness of the insights. His comments on jazz could easily apply to much of current music. And the Upanishadic conception of the physics of sound from which he draws, seems to be the conventional scientific wisdom of today.

And as for its purported topic, one would be hard pressed to find so diverse a catalog of musical information, especially Indian music, in any other single volume.

With humble depth, the author speaks directly to the heart so that the reader is stimulated to a new understanding of the spiritual life. "The whole of life in all its aspects is one single music; and the real spiritual attainment is to tune one's self to the harmony of this perfect music."

You just may find new depth to the everyday world and begin to understand, with Hazrat Inayat Khan, that life is music which the soul has entered into the body to experience.

Vishnu Eschner, an artist and musician, is a member of Sri Aurobindo Sadhana Peetham in Lodi, California.