Origins of Indian Music and Nada Yoga

Origins of Indian Music and Nada Yoga

“With total attention , listen to the sound of a stringed instrument, or any other musical instrument. Be absorbed in the all pervading stillness.”

Vijnana Bhairava Tantra 41




Origin of Indian music 



The origins of Indian music can be traced back to the Vedas.

The Vedas are a collection of hymns in the Sanskrit language.

The Veda is divided into 4 parts:

  1. ▪                Rig Veda
  2. ▪                Yajur Veda
  3. ▪                Sama Veda
  4. ▪                Arthava Veda

The Rig Veda is the most ancient, the recitation of the Rig Veda at the beginning was done monotone, and later developed to include up to three tones: a principal tone and two accents, one higher (uddatta) and one lower (anudatta).

The Yajur Veda, mentions the Vina (a traditional Indian instrument, the one that Saraswati plays in the picture below), as musical support during the vocal recitation of the ceremonies.



In the Yajur Veda the way to sing the hymns is modified and it’s possible to see two principal notes and two accents in that way the concept of tetrachord was formed.



In the Sama Veda, we can trace the real origins of Indian music. To the original tetrachord, three more notes were added, giving us the first scale of seven notes.

sama veda raga


Those seven notes used to chant the Sama Veda become the first Raga, and according to Sakuntala Narasimahan (invitation to Indian music), this raga corresponds to Kharaharapriya Raga of the Carnatic musical system.

The ‘Raga’ is a particular arrangement of a sequence of notes in a particular descending and ascending order; each raga has a “performing rule and is associated to a particular “mood” and time of day.

Over course of the next few centuries, thanks to the contribution of different musicians like Bharata, Matanga, Sarangadeva, etc. Indian music developed more and more creating different raga, bhajan, kirtan, musical exercises etc.

During the XII and XIII century A.D., there was a division in the two different musical systems: the southern one (Carnatic) and the northern one (Hindustan).

This was because the north of India started to get frequent Muslim invasions from the west.

Those invasions created socio-cultural changes that influenced the music as such it was contaminated by Arabic and Persian styles (Hindustani music).

In the south, the music style continued to develop along the same lines, without external influences. (Carnatic music- Carnatic in Tamil means “Traditional”).

Now it’s important to understand that Indian music (like all the arts and sciences originated from the Vedic system) has its root in the concept that creation and reality is a manifestation of Consciousness at different levels of vibrations.

In Tantra this Consciousness is called Shiva and the Manifestation in the form of vibration is called Shakti.






The concept of Nada 

raga flow

“The subtle primordial vibration is like the constant flow of a river, listen carefully to it and merge in the Consciusness” Vijnana Bhairava Tantra 38


In Sanskrit, there are many terms related to the word “Sound”.

Those three terms are very important when we talk about music:

Sruti, Swara and Nada

Sruti literary means something like “that has been heard”. Sruti in music refer to the smallest interval of pitch that human ears can detect.

To clarify the concept (for those who don’t know about music and acoustics), every sound has a Pitch (the pitch indicate the frequency/vibration of the sound and is measured in Hz).

When the frequency of the sound changes the pitch changes, if there are minor sound frequency changes of a few Hz we are not able to detect the change in the tonality of the sound. If the sound change in Hz is higher our ear is able to detect the change of the tonality of the sound.

So Sruti refer to the this small interval /range of frequencies.

In music theory there is the concept of Octave, that is the interval between one pitch (let’s say with the frequency =xHz) and another pitch having double frequency (2xHz).

In Octaves there are 22 Sruti. So in the 7 note scale, there are 22 different “sub-note”, having different tonality from each other.

Swara refers to the sound that manifests itself, in Sanskrit grammar Swara refer to the vowels (that are the first manifestation of sounds from the language point of view), in music Swara refer to the musical notes, the “steps” of the musical scale in the Octave, each swara is separated from each other by an interval of 2,3 or 4 Sruti.

Generally in one octave are recognized 7 Swara:


sa re ga ma


Nada is the “causal sound”, the “Sound”.

With the term Nada we can refer to:

  1. The Primordial Sound vibration, the omnipresent vibration that animates the universe.
  2.  General Sound-Frequency used in music

In the Brihaddesi of Matanga, maybe the earliest Indian musical treatise there is the following definition of Raga:

“There is no song or music without Nada, there are no musical notes without Nada, there is no dance without Nada and the world is filled with the essence of Nada”.

So we can say that:

Nada is the “Primordial sound” and is present in the entire range of frequency, audible and not audible.

The audible range of frequencies (from 20Hz to 16-20 KHz) is divided in Sruti (22 in each octave-from xHz to 2xHz).

Among the 22 Sruti, 7 Swara manifests themselves.



The combination/arrangement of the 7 Swara in a particular ascending and descending order create the Raga.

Raga is a particular scale but it’s more than that. In the Sangitaratnakara (a work about the musical science) the raga is described as “what gives pleasure to the mind of the listener “.

Raga in Sanskrit means “attraction”, so the Raga is a particular scale that attracts and gives pleasure to the listener.




From Transcendental to Manifest (Creation)




 “Sprouting in Para, Vak (power of speech) gives forth two leaves in Pasyanti, buds forth in Madhyama and blossoms in Vaikhari—that Vak, earlier described, reaches the stage of the absorption of sound, reversing the above order.”

Yoga Kundalini Upanishad.


From the Nada (Primordial/Causal sound) the sound manifests, becoming audible, following a process that move from “subtle” to “gross”.


The subtlest form of sound is called Para. Para is the Anahata-nada, the eternal-uninterrupted sound that goes behind any concept and description. In the Upanishad, Para sound is “described” as OM.




Para can be associated with Turya ( Transcendental ) state of consciousness.




When Para starts to manifest it becomes Pashyanti. Pashyanti is the “idea”, an “internal image” that gives “colour” to the sound.

Pashyanti can be associated with Sushupti (the Deep sleep) state of consciousness.


When Pashyanti starts to get a shape, it becomes Madhyama. Madhyama means “in the middle”, between the subtle and the gross. The “idea/image” of Pashyanti stage here is now in the form of a sound, but this sound is not yet audible, it’s a “mental sound”.

Madhyama is associated with Svapna (dream) state of consciousness.

Once the mental sound expresses in the form of audible sound it becomes Vaikhari. Vaikhari is the sound fully manifested in its complete form. The sound that we can hear.

Vaikhari is associated with Jagrat (wakeful) state of consciousness.

This process of sound manifestation is valid for both language and music.

According to this, we could say that a musician and poet are able to extend the conscious awareness to Pashyanti “stage” and bring the “experience” back in a Vaikhari form, in the form of music or poetry.





From Manifest to Transcendental (Dissolution-Nada Yoga)


“The mind exists so long as there is sound, but with its (sound’s cessation) there is the state called Unmani of Manas (viz., the state of being above the mind).”

Nada Bindu Upanishad

If there is a process that moves from the transcendental aspect of sound “Para” to the fully manifested aspect of Vaikhari, probably there is an inverse process that goes from Vaikhari to Para.

That “inverse” process is the path of Nada Yoga.

In Nada Yoga the Vaikhari aspect of Nada is used to access the Para-Transcendental aspect of the same sound.

The idea is to move the awareness from the gross audible sound to the more subtle sounds with the aim to “merge” with Para “sound” of Anahata-nada.

We can find references to the Nada Yoga in many ancient texts like “Hatha Yoga Pradipika”, “Vijnana Bhairava Tantra” and “Nada-Bindu Upanishad”.

“By the sharp goad of nada, the mind, which is like a furious elephant roaming in the garden of the senses, is controlled” HYP 4-94


“One who desires complete dominion of yoga should thus explore the nada with an attentive mind and abandon all thoughts.”HYP 4-94


“meditate on the non-vibrational inner sound which has no vowels or consonants. In this way, we enter the eternal Consciousness” VBT 114


“without uttering a mantra aloud, contemplate on the stillness of the mantra before, during and after its subtle vibration. In this way, identify with the underlying stillness” VBT40


“O Bhairavi, chant the mantra Om, or any other mantra. Contemplate on the stillness and spaciousness at the end. Through this underlying stillness, merge with plenitude.”VBT 39

So we can say that the actual practice of Nada Yoga can be “external” and/or “internal”

The “external” practice can involve the actual concentration (Dharana) on external sounds like music and mantras

The “internal” practice is the concentration (Dharana) on the internal sounds. It’s a process that requires introversion (Prathyahara) to bring awareness towards the inner “Reality” manifested as Anahata-Nada.

By Andrea Barra