Annette Wilke – The Nada-Brahman – Language, Music, and Sonic World-View in Hindu India

Annette Wilke


My approach to the conference theme is less deductive, but inductive, and I am not a scholar of musicology, but of religious studies and cultural anthropology. I want to start with an audio on a musical interpretation of the Nada-Brahman, the Indian idea of a “Sonic Absolute” pervading all existence which is experienced in music:

Interpretation/musical representation of the Nada Brahman (notation: Oliver Moebus) Translation:

In the form of sound (nada) I recall the [god] Brahma, in the form of sound I recall the [god] Visnu [here: Janardana], in the form of sound I recall the supreme transcendental power (para sakti) [of the great god Siva] – therefore this [whole] world is by its nature sound. (quote of Matanga’s Brhaddesi, 1.18-19)

The song in Sankar Rag evokes a mood of inner quietness, “divine peace” and as though world-transcending sonic connectedness. This specific sound impression is above all a product of the Raga selected, Sankar, which is one of the early morning Ragas sung shortly before sunrise – the time of individual prayer. The singer’s improvised interpretation underlines the mood of peaceful serenity and devotion associated with the early morning, and at the same time invokes the “mood of the Nada-Brahman” of which the words to which the music is set speak – Matanga’s suggestive verse on the sonic nature of the deities and the world pervaded by vibrating sound, and Sarngadeva’s postulate that singing and listening to music is a kind of yoga that generates a mood of divine bliss. Sankar Rag is particularly rich in fundamental overtones which account for the extreme serenity of the melody, and the slight deviation of the F sharp adds to leaving an impression of eternal echo. The musical communication alludes to the interconnectedness and oneness of all single elements (tones, worldly phenomena) in sound and in the godhead, and thus converts a major idea of the Nada-Brahman concept (outlined in particular by Sarngadeva’s commentator Kallinatha) into a sensory reality.
The singer of the morning Raga turns a verse of Matanga’s Brhaddesi (1.18-19) into a prayer. The Brhaddesi is one of the earliest major texts on Indian music theory, probably composed in the 7th century AD.  Matanga’s verse on the sound forms of the great Hindu deities and the world as being based on sound was taken up and further developed by Sarngadeva’s music classic Sangita-Ratnakara (13th cent. AD). Sarngadeva introduced the term Nada-Brahman, “Sound-Brahman” or “Sonic Absolute,” by means of which he gave music a metaphysical base and provided a theoretical foundation to see music as a direct way to God and the essence of the universe. Both music manuals were first of all technical treatises, which attracted early Western scholars for their musicological content. The Brhaddesi was for the first time edited in 1928. It is regarded as the source of musical structure and composition for both classical North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic) music (which fully developed, however, only in the 16th century). The Sangita-Ratnakara was both a more refined work on music theory and a compilation of earlier treatises, as well as a fine collection of old and new pieces of music. Its translation in the 1940s roused great interest among European musicians and inspired the “Hindu rhythms” of Olivier Messiaen.
My interest lies in the cultural framework that gave rise to the Nada-Brahman and made it immensely successful in India’s religious and non-religious life.

1. A sonic culture

The cultural matrix in which the Nada-Brahman arose is itself a highly sonic one. Hindu India is a very pronounced performance culture with an exceptional value given to sound. In our book Sound and Communication. An aesthetic cultural history of Sanskrit Hinduism (Wilke&Moebus 2011) our major focus was not music, but the textual tradition, when calling Hindu India a highly sound-based culture, and presenting sound as a key medium of cultural re-production. However, what is said about linguistic sound is also basic for the native understanding of music, as linguistic sound reaches into the pre-terminological and non-semantic, and language and sound were always seen in unison in this cultural area. This had not only profound impact in the use of texts and in viewing language, but also influence in conceptualizing music. The Nada-Brahman discussion will show how little language and music are set apart.
Cultural framework: Sound instead of scripture
We deal with a cultural matrix where sound not scripture kept having priority through the ages. The preference of the spoken and sounding word is found from Vedic times to classical Sanskrit and vernacular literature and persists even today. The amazing continuity of this social practice is a unifying bond among the highly pluralistic Hindu religions. It cuts across traditions, historical changes, and even media transformations. Writing culture and book printing (introduced by the British) did not have the same sweeping effects as in Europe. Primary attention is given not to letter, but to voice.
The exceptional value of orality, memorizing systems and oral transmission from teacher to student has often been noticed, but it is necessary to be aware that sonality is equally important and has its own range and impact on perception. Through the ages, there was not only exceptional focus on the spoken word as major medium of communication, but also on the sounding word and its own range of expressivity, meaning and value – in performance, in poetic production and aesthetic reception, in philosophical and theological reflection and in the formation of symbols and world interpretation.
Texts in Hindu India are not meant for silent reading, but for hearing, even when they are written down. They are recited, memorized, sung, ritualized, preached, danced, and staged. They are performed in a semi-musical or musically pleasing way, and also composed to be heard – often the authors were very sensitive about sonic patterns and also about emotive contents and the communication of moods.
Sensory-emotive text reception
Texts in this cultural area are aesthetic events, embodied in the voice, and also received in a sensory-emotive way. As readings are performances and texts sound events, they are not restricted to semantic information, but speak as well strongly to the senses, the body, and the emotions. Sacredness in religious literature is not only found in words and phrases, but also in the auditory dimension. The semantic meaning can fade completely to the background or be not there at all in a lexical sense. This is particularly true for the mantras (sacred formulas) and devotional music – two major forms of religious practice.
Habitus forms
The performative approach in which text, sound and ritual form a unity, created specific habitus forms, based on the inherent validity of sound as a medium of communication of its own. Acoustic piety plays a very dominant role in daily religious life and this goes along with specific forms of cultural knowledge, such as the belief that mantras have intrinsic power independent of the intention of the speaker, or that music can communicate devotion better than any words and tune directly into divine, or that merely hearing a religious text is auspicious and purifying.
Everyday life and scholarly traditions
This cultural framework is only partly explainable with the fact that Sanskrit was not known to everybody even in the past and had as liturgical language acquainted itself an aura of sacredness. Not only in everyday religious life, but also in scholarly traditions we find great focus on the sonic dimension. The spoken word pervades all traditional scholarship, religious or profane, and even the most complex symbolic representations in arts and abstract sciences like grammar, astronomy, and mathematics. We are dealing with a cultural framework were mathematicians communicated their astronomic numbers in sonic codes and poetic diction, and where a word (sabda) was defined by meaning and by sound: a word is an acoustic reality to which meaning is attached. Probably no other culture has given sound and language so much reflexive thought as Sanskrit Hinduism.
Symbolic forms
The importance of sound and its perception has led to rites, models of cosmic order, and abstract formulas, and issued quite unique symbolic forms and visions of reality, such as images of sacred power and cosmic wholeness based on voice and sound, which go back as far as early Vedic times, being continually re-modelled and recoded over the centuries. Sound and language were reflected upon in linguistics, poetics, philosophy and theology, and objectified in powerful religious symbols, such as the goddess Speech in the late Rgveda or the lord god Siva in the Saiva Agamas of classical Hinduism, who created the world by the sounds of his hand drum. Naturally, sensing the world through sounds in daily life also left traces on the perceiving the world as a whole and the divine sphere transcending the world. The deities of the Tantra are purely sonic, i.e. mantra deities, and in Saiva Tantric cosmologies cosmic sound is pervading the world. This was Matanga’s immediate background and vital also for Sarngadeva. The daily experience filled with sound was a good ‘biotope’ for holistic world-view constructions that range so prominently in Hindu India. Sound itself became a symbol of non-dual reality. The Nada-Brahman is a good illustration.
In various ways sound and its subtle yet very physical quality have been a powerful medium of communication chosen to invoke ordered relationships, furnish ritual effectiveness and generate sources of power and value, and not least construct “the sacred,” embody assumptions about people’s place in a larger order of things and bring about emotional absorption.
It is important to be aware that fusion and immersion, or the magical efficacy attributed to sacred formulas, were not the only effects of a life-world based on sounds. Sonic awareness was as well akin to thinking in structures and train formal thought. This is obvious already in the grammarian Panini – 5th cent. BC, the trendsetter of science in India.  At the core of his grammar lie certain sound codes which re-arrange the Sanskrit alphabet. Panini’s grammar was dedicated to the formal analysis of the natural structures of language and developed concepts that today one would call symbolic logic and linguistics. He did so by means of audible abstractions.
The phonocentricism thus produced a very large range of symbolic forms – metonymic-mythical ones, up to cosmologically hypostasized sound, and highly abstract and scientific ones. Both mythical embedding and abstract rationality, fusion and formal structure combine in music. Typically, the Sangita-Ratnakara was a thoroughly technical work, but contained in the initial chapters passages on sonic metaphysics. Music was a particularly powerful means of aesthetic immersion – and a particularly interesting one, as it was able to unite inner and outer worlds, and profane and sacred spaces without any break. Musical theory associates music with feeling and expressivity. Music is thought to “colour” naturally the mind in a certain way, as it inherently contains emotional flavours in a transpersonal way, which must me only “awakened” by the musician. At the same time music is related to mathematics and systematic spirit. In the Carnatic music of South India we find extreme devotionalization and internalization of music as “Nada-contemplation” (sound-contemplation) and also the most complex calculations and permutations.
Third space habitus, world view, and the new “universal myth” Nada Brahman
The sonic paradigm created a third space habitus that promoted a participative acquisition of the subject, in which the sensory, affective, performative and poeitological aspects of text-based activities were never lost from sight. Typically, the borders between language and music became fluid in the cultural memory, as demonstrated by Sarasvati, the popular goddess of language, music, and wisdom, who is depicted as playing the ancient string-instrument Vina and holding a rosary and book in her other two hands. We find connectivity in many areas, which in the European history were set apart – not only regarding orality and literacy, text and ritual, language and music, but also regarding mythos and logos, intellect and emotion, interiority and embodiment, abstraction and materialization. In India’s intellectual history, mythical embedding and abstract rationality, i.e. participation and emancipatory distance, were never set apart in equal measure as in Europe. Instead we find them (re-)united in ever new ways by India’s most influential thinkers. In our book Sound and Communication we have called such holistic syntheses “universal myth.” We use this term for unitary visions of the world-whole, which are given a rational and analytical foundation (Wilke/Moebus 2011: 267-330). This cultural pattern of holistic (often non-dualistic) world-view formation posits rationality within a mythical framework and explains mythical embedding in an analytical fashion. A very powerful universal myth has been the Nada-Brahman. It is by no means the only one, but a particularly striking and complex example of this cultural pattern. It recombines several former universal myths to form a new one, transforming the Brahman – which had been since pre-Christian times a core-concept of Absolute Being pervading all existence and the inner self of men – into a sensory substance audible in music.
To understand Sarngadeva’s “Sound-Brahman” presupposes a great deal of cultural knowledge, as the musical expert of the 13th century made use of all relevant discourses of sound and language of his time when he fused the Saiva-Tantric primordial Sound that pervades the universe (Nada) and the Vedantic non-dual absolute Being-Consciousness-Bliss (Brahman).

2. Sarngadeva’s Nada-Brahman and the unison of sound, language, and consciousness

Music and language cannot be strictly separated in Hindu India, as both coincide in sound. While language is never completely separated from sound, speech and voice, music is pure sound and its primary model is voice again, namely song. According to Sarngadeva, the entire world and one’s own self contain Nada and Brahman – and song especially makes this manifest. Song is an “embodiment of the Nada” (nada-tanum) (SaRa 1.1.1) and “intrinsically Nada” (gitam nadatmakam) (SaRa 1.2.1), while instrumental music makes the Nada manifest (vyaktya) and dance “follows” these two, which is why all three depend on the Nada – just like the alphabet, language, and the whole world depend on sound:

Sound (Nada) manifests the phonemes (of the alphabet), the letters constitute the word, and words make up a sentence. Thus, the entire worldly life (vyvahara) is carried on, through language. Therefore the entire world (jagat) is based on Nada (vibrating sound). (SaRa 1.2.2)

This quote illustrates how much language and music are seen in unison by the musicologist. In the world of the musicians, language becomes a subform of expressive sound. Indian musical theory starts with the immediate expressivity of sounds: the sounds’ own caitanyam, a term referring to “consciousness,” but also to “liveliness” and “sensitivity.” It is not an individual consciousness that is meant, but identical with cosmic consciousness, in which all thoughts, feelings, and ideas of all beings of the universe are melted into oneness. Non less than such a quality of sound led to the idea of the Nada-Brahman, the “Sound-Brahman.”
The actual Nada-Brahman verses of Sarngadeva were able to follow on from an idea that at his time was already very widespread. The Nada (vibrating sound) as a religious category and cosmically powerful force was well known in Yogic-Tantric circles, classical Saivite theology, and even popular culture. Consciousness and sound-energy belong intrinsically to the godhead – the supreme Siva and his creative power (Sakti), the source of the universe. The ancient Sivaitic Agamas had seen the first evolute of creation in the context of their cosmogonic mantra speculations in vibrating sound (nada) – note that even here language (mantras, holy formulas) is the basic material from which a sonic cosmology emerged. According to the Agamas, sound is more basic than either mind or matter and in fact existed prior (“primeval”) to them. This was already Matanga’s immediate context and also Sarngadeva weaves it into his sonic metaphysics. The two verses introducing the new term Nada-Brahman contain at once several implicit relations to traditional elements:

The (collective) consciousness (caitanyam) of all living beings, which turns itself by itself into the world (vivrta), is the ‘Sound-Brahman’ (nada-brahman). In it we invoke (Öupa-as) bliss, the ‘One without a Second.’
If we invoke sound, we also invoke without doubt [the great cosmic gods] Brahma, Visnu and Siva, because they are nothing other than [sound]. (SaRa 1.3.1–2).

Sarngadeva’s Nada-Brahman verses consist of relevant paraphrases of Indian language and sound discourses blended into one:
1)  The first verse (SaRa 1.3.1) alludes not only to the Advaita-Vedantic Brahman (the Absolute Being who is the material and causal basis of the world and whose innate nature is pure consciousness-bliss and one’s own self), but also to the Brahman conception of the linguist philosopher Bhartrhari (5th cent.). Bhartrhari holds our whole perception is based on language and ultimately founded in a universal linguistic principle (sabda-tattva) or “Word-Consciousness” – called “Word-Brahman” (sabda-brahman) – that constitutes a global form of sense going beyond single words and things. According to Bhartrhari the whole world is a metamorphosis of this single language principle or Word-Brahman which is the common conscious ground of all human beings. Sarngadeva’s introduction of the Nada-Brahman is directly imported from the Bhartrhari school – even in its terminology: the consciousness of all beings transforming itself into the world (caitanyam sarvabhutanam vivrtam jagadatmana), but with one decisive difference: instead of Bhartrhari’s Sabda-Brahman (“Word-Brahman”) there appears here the Nada-Brahman (“Sound-Brahman”). We find a move from the mental plane of an abstract language principle and pure consciousness to a more physical and sense-related substance – acoustic sound (inhering in language and music). This sonic Absolute is more narrowly defined by the Upanisadic-Vedantic expression “One without a Second.” The Nada-Brahman is world consciousness, in which God, the world and the individuals cannot be differentiated and separated.
2)  The second verse (SaRa 1.3.2) paraphrases the early musicologist Matanga and thus follows on from the Tantric interpretation of sound. Already Matanga’s Brhaddesi contained a verse that postulated “the world is sound” and anticipated the Nada-Brahman without using this term:

Without sound there is no song, without sound no tones, without sound no dance. Therefore this [whole] world (jagat) is in its nature sound. The [God] Brahma is a form of sound, the [God] Visnu (here: Janardana) is a form of sound, the supreme transcendental power (Para-Sakti) is a form of sound and the great God [Mahesvara, i.e. Siva] is a form of sound” (Brhaddesi 1.18–19).

Sarngadeva thus immediately follows on Matanga. That the great gods are sound means nothing other than that all deities have their own mantras and in the Tantric view are actually identical to the mantras. The panentheistic view of the Saivas automatically gives rise to the statement “the world is sound,” because if the great cosmic deities are sound and there is no world outside of God, all beings and things are already included.
Musical redemption
Sarngadeva’s sacrilization of music was far-reaching: Music (the epitome of sound) is a physical expression of the Brahman, and performing and hearing song and Raga music leads directly to sensing and experiencing the soul of the world. This soul is not an abstract ultimate being (as in the Vedanta or Bhartrhari), but full of emotional colors and aesthetic moods (as the different Ragas of Indian music are supposed to express and evoke feelings in a transpersonal way).
Introducing the Nada-Brahman Sarngadeva sought not only to give music a metaphysical base, but also proposed a practical, soteriological function. Important to him was the expressive and experiential quality of music. He declared listening to music as a pleasant yoga for everybody, as music leads easily to absorption and “colours” the emotions unlike the hardship of ascetic yogic practice (SaRa 1.2.164-167). The word “rakti” (meaning “triggering feelings”) used by Sarngadeva in this statement hints to the key term “Raga” in musicology (meaning “melody model” or melodic “mode”), which according to the classical definition denotes a tone structure that “colours the mind,” i.e. creates feelings (ranjanam). For Sarngadeva it is agreed that classical (“traditional”) Indian music (marga) simply delights all beings, even little children and animals. He goes on to state that music liberates from all evil and guarantees the fulfilment of all objectives in life (dharma, artha, kama, moksa) (SaRa 1.1.13–14, 22–30; 3.1). A joyful leasure-time occupation was sufficient to reach the highest attainment.
Sarngadeva’s introduction of the Nada-Brahman allowed music to gain a pronouncedly cosmic dimension and be viewed as a divine service, and as best means to merge with the divine and attain release from worldly bondage, particularly if combined with personal devotion. Tyagaraja (1767-1847), the most famous of the Carnatic musician-composers, states: “Devotion associated with the nectar of svara [notes] and Raga [melodies] is verily paradise and final liberation”; “The joy of music is itself the bliss of Brahman that Vedanta speaks of” (quoted in Jackson 1994: 224).
Sonic view of the cosmic whole – Final Remarks
Music leads to experiencing bliss and reveals cosmic unity, the non-dual nature of the universe in which no separated entities exist like in music – this world-view expressed by the Nada-Brahman concept is perhaps the most straightforward answer to the question: What kind of world-view is created if the basis of daily experience is so much pervaded by the spoken word and sound perception? Sarngadeva’s commentator Kallinatha (ca. 1430) offers the most complete account on this sonic world-view. Although Kallinatha apparently adhered more to Advaita-Vedanta than to Tantra and had consequently a less substantial understanding of the Nada-Brahman than Sarngadeva (still dominant today), their sonic vision of the cosmic whole is much alike. Kallinatha sees sound as the most perfect metaphor for Brahman. Contemplating sound leads to Brahman, but sound is not Brahman. Yet, music’s outstanding features are so much like those of Brahman that it becomes a direct gateway to the Brahman:

Sound is “one without a second,” as it is the sole material ground of its own products, the notes [scales and rhythms]. … This is why sound – according to its own laws – resembles the highest Brahman in most perfect way. If it is said that they are identical, one does not deny that sound is only projected on the absolute Oneness (of Brahman). However, it is a real (and most perfect) metaphor, as all elements of sound – its own liveliness, etc. – are also elements of Brahman. … So in the near-identification of Nada and Brahman we find a symbol that goes right into detail, inasmuch as the one, like the other, is equipped with analogous components: they are consciousness, the foundation of its own cosmos and the origin of all material. Here, however, it should not be denied that the Nada is only a symbol [and not a real statement of identity] … The Nada, or the Para Vac (= the “transcendental language”), is indeed only a power of the Brahman, but it is so infinitely close to the Brahman that the Brahman itself can be achieved if one contemplates it – like someone searching for precious stones finding the gem if he only follows the sound. (Kallinatha’s commentary on Sangita-Ratnakara 1.3.1–2, ed. Sastri, 63)

Kallinatha sees music as a most complete simile (savayavarupaka) of the Brahman. A major correlation is that Brahman is bliss, and music brings bliss while being heard, and therefore leads directly into the divine sphere. The formula “one without a second” is taken from the Upanisads (ChandUp. 2.1). According to the Advaita-Vedanta it indicates absolute, non-dual Being, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, in which human and divine coincide, and which is seen as the “material cause” of the world, underlying all phenomena, just like clay is the material of all clay pots. A similar intrinsic connection of cause and effects exists in sound and its perceptible products.
For Kallinatha as well as Sarngadeva music, and more generally acoustics, reveal something about the non-dual nature of reality. The Nada-Brahman seems to be associated to what modern acoustics would call “harmonic sound” or “harmonic spectrum.” Even though we think to hear one single tone, we are really speaking also hearing many different tones, as each “individual tone” contains within itself all other “individual tones” as co-vibrating sound-scape. Sarngadeva alludes to a vibrating string as illustration of this unique nature of sound.
Probably not by chance Indian modal music, being so rich in microtonal ornamentation, became a sensory symbol for the Brahman pervading and containing everything “without a second.” The very structure was akin to each other. The success of the Nada-Brahman in India’s religious life – even beyond the Hindu fold – was likely due to being a very holistic symbol. The Nada-Brahman was something concrete and abstract at the same time. It communicated a non-dual world-view and a genuine way of deliverance by music, as music’s structure was seen to allow immediate participation in the essence of the universe. Music made the abstract Brahman more tangible and more easily experienced. Via music it became a sensory substance, the audible Nada-Brahman. Music brought immediate delight and was full of expression, in contrast to the Brahman removed from the senses or the inaudible primordial sound. Listening to it provided access to the unity of reality, the world-immanent and world-transcending nature of the divine via feelings and the senses. Music could be experienced as something spiritual and as divine service while at the same time it was simply fun and enjoyable past-time activity.
It is beyond the scope of this paper, to look at the Nada-Brahman’s reception history which extended far beyond the elite (courtly) musical circles. At least it should be mentioned that this very cultural symbol had also an interesting transcultural history. It was popularized in Europe in the late 20th century by the Jazz historian and New-Age proponent Joachim Berendt who claimed that Indian modal music changed the world-view of a whole generation of young musicians in the West.


Brhaddesi of Sri Matanga Muni. 3 Vols. Ed. and trans. Prem Lata Sharma. New Delhi: IGNA and Motilal Banarsidass 1992, 1994.
Jackson, William J. (ed.): The Power of the Sacred Name. V. Raghavan’s Studies in Nama-Siddhanta and Indian Culture. Delhi: Satguru Publications 1994.
Sangita Ratnakara of Sarngadeva: With Kalanidhi of Kallinatha and Sudhakara of Simhabhupala. 4 Vols. [7 chapters]. Ed. S. Subrahmanya Sastri. Madras: Adyar Library, 1943, 1944, 1951, 1953.
Wilke, Annette & Oliver Moebus: Sound and Communication. An Aesthetic Cultural History of Sanskrit Hinduism. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter 2011.