It would be easy for anyone with an uncharitable spirit and hostility to Eastern spirituality to build a convincing case against Maharishi Gandharva Veda Music. On the CD Rain Melody the liner notes say Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is leading “a worldwide revival of this eternal music.” This is misleading, and arguably false. Judging from this recording, Maharishi is not reviving anything at all. Amar Nath plays very pure Hindustani music on the bansuri: Raga Megha accompanied by tabla playing in slow ektal and moderate teental. If this is Gandharva music, there is no need to rely on Maharishi’s designer label to be sure you’re getting it. Buy an Ali Akbar CD, or anything else you can find in the Hindustani classical section of your local Indian music store. The fact that it’s stored between the bhangra and the filmi music won’t make it any less spiritual.
Furthermore, the word Gandharva traditionally refers to specific forms of music, which according to scholar N. Ramanathan “are all uniformly extinct.” In a paper read at a seminar on musical forms organized by the Department of Indian Music, University of Madras, October 1979, Professor Ramanathan describes the forms and structures used in the various styles of traditional Gandharva music (available at www.southindia.com/ramanthan.htm). Traditional Gandharva music was probably more like Karnatik music than Hindustani music, for the latter was effected by Persian influences during the Muslim conquest of northern India. But modern Karnatic music has also evolved far from its roots in Gandharva, which was why Ramanathan had to base his analysis on descriptions found in ancient texts. If Maharishi had commissioned musicians to reconstruct this music from these texts, he could legitimately say that he had revived Gandharva music. But it is clear that he hasn’t done this.
There is, however, no reason we should always let the scholars define our words. I prefer a somewhat Clintonesque interpretation of the term “Gandharva,” which would make the Maharishi’s claims perhaps misleading, but still legally accurate. Gandharvas are also angelic beings, the most well known being Sarasvati, goddess of music and learning. These Gandharva beings are believed to manifest themselves when one plays a modern raga with proper awareness, so why not call these ragas Gandharva music? Ramanathan also says that, “Gandharva was especially applied to certain sacred forms … in contrast to which secular forms performed for entertainment were referred to as gana.” Hindustani music is often treated like secular gana music by today’s audiences, who are sometimes more interested in applauding flashy tihais and tricky scales than being spiritually transformed. In one sense Maharishi has restored Indian classical music to its proper status as Gandharva by placing it in a more spiritual context.
There are many different ways in which Maharishi creates this spiritual context. First of all, guru yoga can give spiritual power to those who have faith in the guru. Anyone who feels gratitude to Maharishi for having introduced them to Transcendental Meditation and Ayurveda is going to have a spiritual experience if they follow his instructions, no matter what they are. The gurus who get the most publicity are those who make inappropriate demands of their students, and give little in return.
But Maharishi has always acted skillfully and responsibly to be sure that his actions benefit the many people who have faith in him. Is Transcendental Meditation the best form of meditation? Who knows, but it clearly works, as numerous scientific experiments have shown. And similarly, even if Gandharva music is no different from any other Indian classical music, it is very good Indian classical music. And if one can attain enlightenment by focusing on one’s breath or a nonsense syllable, focusing on this great music should work even better. Those of us who love Indian classical music can feel nothing but joy knowing that, thanks to Maharishi’s efforts, hundreds of Americans in Iowa are studying the ragas and talas of Hindustani music. This would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Whether the net result is something that should be called enlightenment I cannot answer, but I do know it will improve their lives.
But this is not the whole story by any means. Each raga has a three hour time period it is supposed to be performed in, called the Prahara. But now that most musical performances take place in concert halls, most ragas have to be performed at either the wrong times or not at all. Maharishi claims, with considerable support from the Hindustani tradition, that when the ragas are played at the right time they are, “able to infuse coherence into the whole environment.” And so he has commissioned some of the greatest Hindustani performers to create sets of eight recordings. Each recording in a set lasts exactly the length of one Prahara, which means that there will be a CD in each set, which is appropriate for every moment of the twenty-four day. In fact, if one has an automatic CD changer, one could play one of these sets continuously, and be guaranteed to always have the right raga playing at the right time. Maharishi does stress that the maximum benefits come when one is fully focused on the music. But he also says that when this music is synchronized with the flow of the day and night, it can uplift the environment even when no one is there to hear it.
The idea that music can have an impact even when no one is actively listening may seem preposterous. But it is widely accepted by most classical Indian musicians, and fully in line with Maharishi’s scientific research. When he sent meditators to cities embroiled in civil war, the number of violent acts in those cities decreased, even though the meditators never left their hotel rooms. If unseen meditators can have this kind of impact on the spiritual environment, why shouldn’t unheard music?
To see music this way is to see it as a force of nature with objective principles musicians discover, rather than a string of pretty noises they create according to subjective preferences. This blurs the line between scientific discovery and artistic creation, and reveals the possibility that music may be what unlocks the door to higher realities, perhaps even the realm of the Gandharva beings. In the words of John Wubbenhorst, who is both a fine bansurist and a transcendental meditator: “I think Gandharva music is a better name than Indian classical music for two reasons. This music is not really classical, because it is constantly growing and changing. And it is not just Indian, for it speaks to all humanity.”