Rhythm within National Religions:
Example Hinduism

This handout was prepared for my booth about World Religions for Goshen’s Diversity Day that focused Rhythm as the theme.

Rhythms exist not only in Sound—
like rain falling on a tin roof, large rocks being pounded into smaller stones, three typists creating manuscripts. They also mark Diversity (subdivisions of types) in Repetition, in Color, in Forms, in Religious rituals and much more. Focus here is on Rhythm within one Religion—Hinduism (primarily from India). On your own, discover how Rhythm shapes other Living Faiths.

Sound = force, energy
All music is based on relationships between sounds. Sounds in turn act upon internal personality.
Relationships are worked out in different ways; one way, the modal, characterizes Indian music.
Sounds are of two kinds: vibration of ether/space (unstruck) and vibrations of air/gas (struck).
Musical sounds divide into five classes (depending on what agent produces them, like a nail or wind).
Nada (sound) Brahma – the World (or God) is Sound; Sound is God; nadopasa (the worship of sound).

These ancient scriptures are the origin of Indian music. They were written to be sung.
The Rig Veda and Sama Veda were the earliest words set to music.
Each section of the Vedas has a distinct rhythm.
The Chant (or Mantra) OM is an essential element of Vedic ritual; it is sacred sound.
OM (Aum) is the greatest of all mantras, a tool for becoming one with the Ultimate.

Tala – (Rhythm)
Rhythm is the beating of time-scale.
The concept of time varies; one piece of Indian music can last an entire evening.
Whereas western meters have few with more than 5 or 7 beats, many Indian talas are of 15-19 beats.
A Tala can be as long as 108 beats.
Tala develops through a combination of diverse, unmetered, subdivisions of beats.
Tala is complex, like mathematics, sometimes known as “pattern recognition”; it has subtle intricacies.
Microtones, played very fast, register in the brain with the effect of being subjective or emotional.

Indian Music–
has existed for thirty plus centuries;
developed in the temple and on stage;
is based on a system of ragas;
is based on melody, not harmony;
is classical, not folklore. (Cinema music also exists but is not the focus here.)


A mode or melodic structure of time; the most highly developed, complete form of modal music.

With the melody being one line, or one dimensional/horizontal, the raga lends itself to meditation.
The raga is built upon a scale, contains a tune, but encompasses much more.
The basic suddha scale has seven main notes of three octaves – Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni
(Each note is under the protection of a specific God form.)
Hindus divide the octave into 22 intervals (tones) called Sruti (microtones).
Composed, improvised or embellished when performed, the goal is for grace, not harmony.
To connect musical ideas into a continuous whole based on an emotional impact is to create a feeling.
While there are 6 principal ragas, 72 are recognized by many performers (half are fundamental and half are secondary.) Nearly 6,000 have been known/named by individuals; the number is unlimited.
A raga is associated with a specific time of day or season.

Two key instruments
DrumsMridanga (oldest, barrel shaped) Tabla (two heads)
One most important instrument, the drum provides the tonic, to which other instruments are tuned.
Drums are played in bars of 10, 13, 16, or 20 beats, often with divisions within each bar.
Thought to be invented by Brahma (Creator God form), the drum accompanied Shiva’s (God form of Preserver/Destroyer) dance. That dance symbolizes the rhythmic motion of the universe.
Vina (Veenaa) – Different shapes have existed through the centuries.
Neither a lute nor a harp, the vina is usually played in a horizontal position; players sit on the floor.
The number of strings varies (up to a thousand in rare cases).
Saraswati, the goddess of music/learning, sits on a white lotus, playing the vina.

Religious significance of Sound/Rhythm
Hindus do not divorce the physical and spiritual; spirituality is religiousness.
Music is India’s spiritual vibration; there is always potential for ecstatic spiritual experience.
Those who execute Indian music, create. Those who execute European/western music, interpret.
The goal or meditative nature of a one-line melody enables one to attain a sense of oneness with God through music. Since music is of divine origin, through music one can reach God.
Indian music requires of hearers a mood of discontent, of yearning for the infinite, toward complete identity between the imperfect human and the perfect soul of divine nature.
The concept of God is valid/useful only if it increases our freedom and capacity to love.
“For us Hindus, music always has a transcendent meaning . . ..”—poet Rabindranath Tagore