The Sāma Veda and its place in the Indian musical tradition
“Among the Vedas, I am the Sāma Veda … among elements of being, I am consciousness”[Bhagavad Gitā 10.22; my translation]
For many of the large-scale Vedic rituals, especially the complex Soma rituals, four main types of priest are required, viz. hotṛ, adhvaryu, udgātṛ and brahman. Of these four, the udgātṛ sings verses from the Sāma Veda, including verses in praise of the Soma. Indeed, the Sāma Veda is particularly connected with the Soma rituals such as Agnistoma and Atiratra. During the Vedic period, these Sāma Veda melodies came to be securely fixed here within this tradition of Vedic ritual, where they remain today. Within this tradition, the śākhās are Kauthuma, Ranayaniya, both rather similar, and the Talavakara or Jaiminīya, quite different and perhaps rather more archaic. These śākhās of course possess their own Brāhmaṇas, Upanishads and Śrauta Sūtras.
This corpus includes the renowned Chandogya and Kena Upanishads, which are two of the oldest and most fascinating of all the Upanishads. These two Upanishads have a distinctly sceptical, questioning tone and a philosophically open-minded approach to their subject matter. They have had a formative effect on modern Hinduism. So it would be interesting to know more about these melodies from a musicological as well as historical perspective.
However, the origins of the Sāma Veda are far more ancient than one might imagine. In fact, Sāma Veda is probably the most ancient compilation of musical melodies in existence in the world. As the melodies bear no relation to the Vedic verses which are fitted to them, it is surmised by scholars that this setting is rather contrived and that the melodies themselves are an independent and perhaps far more ancient part of the Indian heritage. We can imagine that these melodies perhaps originally went together with verses in a wholly different language. The origin of these melodies and the reason for setting Vedic verses to them would then be rather a mystery, and further research is needed. The insertion of meaningless ‘stobha’ syllables that distort the original verses perhaps convey most directly the pure joy and raw emotion of these ancient singers.
Although the Sāma Veda is sometimes said to be the origin of Indian classical music or the seven-note system, in fact it seems rather to represent the culmination of an entirely different musical tradition dating from a time before the concept of musical pitch had been discovered. It includes melodies for communal village worship as well as for solitary forest worship, as well as sets of variations on each of these types. It is possible that this is a compilation from different sources, perhaps of melodies associated with different families or social groups. Most of its verses are fashioned by remoulding verses from the Rig Veda in order to fit these very different melodies, and in many cases requiring quite drastic reconstruction of the original Rig Veda verses.
According to Frits Staal, the sylable OM resulted from the Sāma Veda tradition of chanting Vedic verses. Further, the Sāma Veda seems to be somewhat associated with the God Indra. As Prof. Finnian M. M. Gerety explains –
“The fourth Sāmavedic officiant, the subrahmaṇya .. takes his name from his chief task, which is to proclaim the “call for subrahmaṇyā”… On most other occasions, the call is “expressed” (nirukta) in the name of Indra: immediately after the call, the subrahmaṇya recites a litany describing that god’s exploits and inviting him along with other “gods and Brahmins” to the sacrifice”
Musical melody speaks to and from something deep with human nature and engages with human emotion in a potent and meaningful way. Music can touch a source of joy and wonder within us that is closed to rational thought and verbal articulation. Thus it is significant, but not surprising, that at an early stage of human civilisation, such high priority was given to the development of a sophisticated musical tradition. Indeed, in other early modern civilisations, we find the presence of music, such as was evidenced with the discovery of a flute made from mammoth ivory in early Ice Age Europe. In particular, music and song seems to have been a part of spirituality and religious practice since earliest times. From Tibetan chant to Byzantine chant, sacred music has been an integral part of religion and spirituality, and arguably should not be seen as a mere appendage or paraphernalia to some separate core message of religion.
Interesting thematic continuities with the subsequent Indian musical tradition may be present at the level of emotional response. The 10th century philosopher and polymath Abhinavagupta, explained the sense in which music and other forms of art have an emotional and spiritual dimension to them. Abhinavagupta believed that music and allied forms of artistic expression generate within us a form of emotion in which our ordinary egotistic sense of self is partially dissolved and our lived experience of engaging with the art form takes on a somewhat universal character at an emotional level. For Abhinavagupta, then, music and other art forms constitute the first step towards religious experience. Indeed, our relationship with reality is mediated by emotions at the most fundamental level. Perhaps the reason that religion and spirituality have always channelled the power of music is that music reveals the world in a way that language and conceptual thought cannot.
The verses which were set to these melodies are themselves already quite poetic and joyful in character. The spirit of these Sāma Veda melodies is still more exuberant and intense. Ultimately, perhaps, we may want to join those ancient Vedic poets who searched for joy in Soma with the words –
“Where bliss and pleasure and joy and extreme joy are,
Where desires are met and more desires,
There make me immortal.”[Sāma Veda 126.96.36.199.1.4; also Rig Veda 9.113.11abc; my translation]